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PITTSBURGH — Nowadays we love landscape painting, which provides urban dwellers with pleasurable images of escape into nature. And we often enjoy still life pictures, which show, sometimes, simple foodstuffs, but also, on other occasions, luxurious seafood, lobsters and oysters for example, displayed in precious vessels.
But it’s fair to say that generally images of sporting have a relatively marginal place in our art world. And so since serious contemporary sporting images are rarities, A Sporting Vision at The Frick Pittsburgh, a selection of artworks collected by Paul Mellon deserves a warm welcome. However, this show’s title is a bit of a misnomer: it is really about country life, its pleasures, its economy, and its peculiarities.
George Stubbs’s horse portrait “Hyena (or Hyaena) at Newmarket with One of Jennison Shafto’s Stable Lads” (1765-67) is a masterpiece, the best of the six Stubbs paintings, all of them good, in this show. It accords its subject with all of the imposing presence of a country gentleman. Good horses, after all, were expensive. And James Seymour’s “Three Riders Following Hounds towards a Five-Barred Gate” (1753-40), a long, narrow narrative, is as haunting, almost, as an Uccello panel of a battle scene.
Thomas Weaver’s “Two Durham Oxen” (1827) shows that these enormous creatures can have the commanding reality of Stubbs’s thoroughbred horses. And Alfred J. Munnings’s “The Belvoir Point-to-Point Meeting on Barrowby Hill, Painted on Woolsthrope” (1920-21) demonstrates that modernist sporting art deserves a place in the museum.
But all of the paintings displayed here are not that good. James Pollard’s two coaching incidents, painted in 1843, are charming anecdotal pictures. And John Collet’s “The Joys of the Chase,” or “The Rising Woman and the Falling Man,” (1780), by an artist who was often called the second William Hogarth, would work better as a print; indeed many of his works were turned into prints.
Paul Mellon, Pittsburgh-born in 1907 into a grand banking family, was inspired by his schooling at Cambridge University to take up fox hunting, like many such would-be aristocrats. Indeed, he commissioned a portrait of himself on his hunter by Sir Alfred Munnings as an undergraduate aping an English tradition.
This painting (and the prints that were made after it) were really one-offs at a moment in time (like a billionaires’s snapshot). His great art world legacy is philanthropy, on a scale that it is almost impossible to chart. The Yale Center for British Art is one product, and his collecting of sporting paintings, permanently housed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond but traveling in this exhibition to England, France, and now to Pittsburgh, is another.
With more than 80 paintings, densely hung in the Frick’s three relatively small temporary exhibition galleries this show gives the viewer a sense of Paul Mellon’s personal taste, which was traditional and modest (though six George Stubbs works may not sound modest; call it a billionaire’s modesty). He bought paintings he liked and could relate to.
An aberration to the selection is Philip Reinagle’s “Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog” (1805), a silly curatorial crowd pleaser that would make a good Instagram shot. But Thomas Weaver’s “Two Durham Oxen” and George Morland’s “Pigs and Piglets in a Sty” (c.1800) are important documents of the rural economy.
There is thus an interesting tension here between those works that are extremely fine and those by weaker or lesser-known artists, many to be sure, that of are genuine sociological if not aesthetic interest. One gets the sense that, while Mellon may have taken the best advice about which artists to buy for the majority of his collection, his main goal was to please himself.
In some ways, we think, this exhibition is a missed opportunity, for neither the wall labels nor the fully illustrated catalogue provide any perspective on the extensive controversies currently surrounding fox hunting in the United Kingdom, one of the more blatant example of animal exploitation in sports, which also includes dog and horse racing in the United States. (There is useful information, however, about the care of horses and the practical details of hunting.)
Recently, discussion of English landscape painting has been much enlivened by inclusion of the political background; you really cannot fully evaluate John Constable’s landscapes, it has been argued, without knowing something about this history.
Most viewers presumably have never gone on a fox hunt or even ridden a horse, and would have benefited from the provision of more context. We understand, obviously, that the museum founded by Helen Clay Frick (1888-1984), the daughter of the late-19th century Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick, is unlikely to sponsor a socially critical tract.
But what is missing is any perspective, radical, liberal, or conservative on these scenes. A show of a marginal genre like sporting art is in special need of such an interpretative guide. We also are concerned with the absence of any real connoisseurship. But, then again, you can’t have everything, even if you are a Mellon. And there is at least some great art to be seen.
A Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts continues at The Frick Pittsburgh (7227 Reynolds Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) through September 8. The exhibition is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.