Color, Sensation, and Memory

Nancy and Joseph Keithley’s gift and promised gift to the Cleveland Museum of Art includes more than 100 works of art. Their collection, amassed over more than two decades, focuses on Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and modern European and American paintings but also contains variety and depth beyond this area. Their gift features Dutch drawings from the 1600s, Austrian and French decorative arts from the early 1800s through the 1960s, Chinese ceramics from the Western Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 9) through the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), and Japanese ceramics from the Muromachi period (1392–1573) through the 2010s. I met the Keithleys in 2002 and had the privilege of seeing their collection grow and evolve. As we worked on the exhibition, Impressionism to Modernism: The Keithley Collection, which shares the Cleveland couple’s generous gift and promised gift in its entirety, I have reflected on unifying themes throughout the collection extending beyond mediums, geography, and time periods. 

The Port of l’Estaque, the Pier 1906. Georges Braque

As Joe notes in a conversation he and Nancy had with CMA director William Griswold—published in the book that accompanies the exhibition—throughout the collection, “color is the constant.” Indeed, visitors to the exhibition will be dazzled by color in the first artwork they encounter in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall: Georges Braque’s The Port of l’Estaque, the Pier (1906). Painted when Braque was only 24 years old, the view depicts a harbor at L’Estaque, a fishing village surrounded by rocky cliffs and pine trees in the South of France. The sun-drenched colors of the Mediterranean coast enchanted the young artist, who later recalled: “It was in the South of France that I first felt truly elated. Just think, I had only recently left the dark, dismal Paris studios where they still painted with pitch!” The artist’s enthusiasm and vigor were reflected in the powerful strokes of orange, pink, blue, and violet oil paint that pulsate throughout the marine view, expressing his emotional response to his subject. In 1906, Braque was a member of a group of modern artists that critics dubbed Fauves (French for “wild beasts”) for their bold brushwork, strident colors, and high degree of simplification that at times verged on abstraction. The Fauve movement was fleeting, lasting only a few years in the first decade of the 20th century, so paintings by Braque in this style are rare, but glorious in their sonorous colors. 

Tulips 1914. Henri Matisse

Also in the exhibition, Henri Matisse’s Tulips (1914) was one of the first major modernist paintings the couple acquired. The leader of the Fauvist movement, Matisse employed an intense palette, which won him notoriety by 1910. He went on to develop a rigorous style of flattened forms, decorative line, and brilliant color, as seen in this deceptively simple painting of a vase of flowers, where passages of turquoise are punctuated by red, yellow, and white blossoms. Even before Matisse and Braque were inspired by the light of the South of France, Henri-Edmond Cross had moved to the Côte d’Azur in 1891. His 1890s views of the French Riviera, painted with daubs of color in a pointillist or Neo-Impressionist style, inspired the Fauves who visited Cross in the seaside village of Saint-Clair. The Pink Cloud (c. 1896) exemplifies Cross’s mature style. The painting depicts a sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. The titular cloud hovers over tranquil waters, and the glow of fading daylight is reflected throughout sea and sky. A pair of tall cypress trees link a shadowy garden in the foreground with the rose-colored sky above. Standing before this painting, I am overwhelmed with color, entranced by the dots of pigment that seem to include every possible variation of blue, green, pink, and violet. 

The Pink Cloud c. 1896. Henri-Edmond Cross

Later in the exhibition, visitors will encounter two paintings by American modernist Milton Avery that reflect the artist’s use of glowing color and simplified forms. Throughout his career, Avery sought inspiration from everyday life, which he distilled into abstractions that would capture, as he described, “the purity and essence of the idea expressed in its simplest form.” Farm Yard (1948) depicts three chickens—pale pink, bright pink, and blue—scratching and pecking at the ground. Avery’s subject reflected his fondness for folk art; the fowls’ silhouettes resemble early American weather vanes. One is uncertain, with his playful imagination, whether the artist animated weather vanes or abstracted birds in a coop. Painted more than a decade later, Blue Bay (1960) was inspired by the artist’s fourth and final summer visit to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Throughout his career, Avery’s work became increasingly abstract; this composition depicts three boats and a wedge-shaped land mass amid a backdrop of water and sky. Much of the canvas is covered with long strokes of blue paint over a lighter blue ground. The land mass is so pale it seems bleached by the sun. 

Farm Yard 1948. Milton Avery

Much as paintings from the Keithleys’ collection exemplify the couple’s love of color, hues dazzling and delicate are also found in their Asian ceramics. A Ming dynasty porcelain bowl with a monochrome yellow glaze, made in the Jingdezhen kilns in Jiangxi province in the early 16th century, is unforgettable. The shade of yellow is difficult to describe; it’s not quite the color of a lemon, a daffodil, or a canary, but it sings brightly. The base of the bowl has a cobalt blue mark of the Zhengde reign (1505–21), renowned for its production of high-quality porcelain. Imperial marks were only utilized at workshops affiliated with the court in Jingdezhen, and most scholars believe yellow monochrome ware was reserved for the imperial household or for diplomatic gifts. The color therefore is often called “imperial yellow.” Another Chinese porcelain of astonishing color is the lobed vase with underglaze cobalt blue decoration from the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Like the yellow bowl, this vase was made at the Jingdezhen kilns. So too does this vase have a mark in the center of its base of a cobalt blue leaf. Underglaze blue-and-white designs reached their highest painterly quality during the Kangxi reign. The skills of porcelain painters then rivaled those of professional painters.

The cobalt blue decoration in the Chinese lobed porcelain vase is echoed in Pierre Bonnard’s Fruit and Fruit Dishes (c. 1930), where a dining table is laid with blue-and-white ceramics filled with cherries, plums, oranges, and a round of cheese. The canvas reverberates with color and light. Even the white tones—perhaps those most of all—dance with highlights and shadows of green, blue, pink, purple, and violet. This still life by Bonnard—one of the artists most robustly represented in the Keithleys’ collection—exemplifies the couple’s penchant for color. Yet this painting also prompted me to identify another theme that appears throughout the collection: artists who were concerned with evoking sensation and memory. Bonnard painted the world less as he saw it and more as a description of the feelings his subjects effectuated. At first glance, Fruit and Fruit Dishes depicts a summer meal, but more essentially, the painting conjures the pleasures suggested by fruit attractively arranged on a table. Such a scene might inspire memories of companionship—as implied by the cat and the dog—or of long, warm summer days when such fruit would have been harvested. It suggests that these joys are evanescent, fleeting as life itself. Bonnard studied his subjects from life but painted from memory. For me, without being sentimental, Fruit and Fruit Dishes expresses nostalgia for the joys of summer while acknowledging that bliss, by its very nature, is ephemeral. 

The exhibition concludes with a room of paintings and color lithographs by Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell. Viewers will find Mitchell’s painting Gouise (1966), in which drips and strokes of green, ochre, and blue cascade down the canvas. This painting, like many of Mitchell’s works, is linked to the French countryside where she lived. However, Gouise does not depict the French village after which it is titled or any specific garden or vista. Mitchell said of her approach to painting: “That particular thing I want can’t be verbalized. . . . I’m trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: to define a feeling.” Essentially, Gouise, like nearly all of Mitchell’s paintings, is a distillation of memory or sensation, not unlike Bonnard’s paintings. While the natural world of gardens, rivers, and sunflowers inspired much of Mitchell’s work, she painted in the studio from memory, as did Bonnard. Color sings throughout Mitchell’s paintings such as Gouise and her yellow triptych Some More (1980), but it is the artist’s inner voice we hear rather than the world’s sounds. 

Listening to the Waves 2007. Sakiyama Takayuki

Also in the exhibition’s final gallery is one of the most monumental of the Keithleys’ contemporary Japanese ceramics, Sakiyama Takayuki’s glazed stoneware vessel Listening to the Waves (2007). Sakiyama’s studio is on the western Izu Peninsula, or the Gold Coast of Japan, known for its sandy brown shores and pristine beauty. In 2005, he explained to The Japan Times, “All my work is inspired by the sea, especially the natural curve created by the waves.” Listening to the Waves, whose form fans from its base in rippling currents of sparkling sand that rise upward, is a love song to the sea. Like Bonnard’s paintings evoking the evanescence of life’s delights, or Mitchell’s inner meditations on the natural world, Sakiyama’s vessel conjures his deeply personal connection to the sea and invites the viewer to reflect on their own memories and sensations of bodies of water they have loved.