When you visit Monet to Matisse: Impressionism to Modernism from the Bemberg Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (and you really should), save some time to cross the hallway to see the museum’s John A. and Audrey Jones Beck Collection.
The two collections, one a visiting exhibit, the other a permanent feature, play off each other beautifully. In a way, Monet to Matisse, a special group of works assembled by late Argentinian philanthropist Georges Bemberg that highlights the great French painting movements from the late-19th- and early-20th-centuries, provides context to the Beck Collection.
Works by many of the same great artists are in both exhibits, from Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne to Paul Signac and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
The Beck Collection, bequeathed to the museum by Audrey Jones Beck, granddaughter of legendary Houston entrepreneur and politician Jesse H. Jones, features masterpieces, many of them large. Few of the Bemberg collection are masterpieces; they are instead masterful.
With limited large works, the Bemberg Collection instead includes several tiny treasures, like Henri-Edmond Cross’s A Man with a Boat, which shows a combination of techniques. In the foreground is the man and the boat, painted in long strokes, while the ocean and the sky fill the background in dashes—what will become Cross’s pioneering pointillist style—a testament to the artist’s movement and growth. Paul Gauguin's Tahitian Girl and Portrait of a Young Boy also fall in the tiny-treasures category.
While physical size is on a smaller scale, there are a large number of children’s portraits in the exhibit, most notably, Portrait of the Artist’s Son Jean by Claude Monet. The young boy, in his dark jacket, a large white collar, and an unexpected pink bow at his neck, is somber, staring straight at the viewer with a gaze that is both innocent and worldly.
The last gallery, meanwhile, is mostly dedicated to Pierre Bonnard. And rightfully so, as Bonnard was a favorite of Bemberg. The grand finale of Monet to Matisse is Bonnard's self-portrait. Completed in the months before his death in 1945, the painting shows the artist with black, hollowed-out eyes. By then, Bonnard had seen the horrors of World War II while living in German-occupied France. The black eyes are not empty. Rather, they're filled with darkness.
Unlike the Beck Collection, most of the works in Monet to Matisse have never been seen in the United States. Collected over Bemberg’s lifetime, the works are now housed in the Hôtel d’Assézat in Toulouse, France. The MFAH is the only U.S. stop for the Bemberg exhibition (another coup for Director Gary Tinterow). So, unless you plan on traveling to Europe sometime soon, see Monet to Matisse before it departs.
Thru Sept 19. From $18 (tickets include general admission). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main. 713-639-7300. More info and tickets at mfah.org.