‘Portrait, Patron, Muse: Women in the Dixon Collection’
At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through Jan. 6. Call 901-761-5250 or visit Dixon.org for more information.
Occasionally, a recent acquisition by a museum sparks an idea that leads to an in-house exhibition of surpassing interest for the public.
Such a show is "Portrait, Patron, Muse: Women in the Dixon Collection," on display at Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
The impetus for the exhibition was the Dixon's purchase, early this year, of a full-scale work by Jacques-Emile Blanche, "Portrait of Eugenia Huici Arguedas de Errázuriz," from 1890. The piece, a virtuoso exercise in pastel, was acquired in memory of John Buchanan, director of the Dixon from 1986 to 1994. Buchanan died on Dec. 31, 2011. He was 58 and had served as director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco since 2006.
While under subsequent directors, particularly present director Kevin Sharpe, the Dixon has widened its purview from its original charter to collect and exhibit works by or related to the artists of French Impressionism, this purchase fits firmly in the niche of its founders' intent. Blanche (1861-1942), a close friend of Marcel Proust, wasn't an Impressionist; his manner was more influenced by 18th century English portraitist Thomas Gainsborough, as well as Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent.
The subject of Blanche's tour-de-force, depicted, rather daringly for the time, not in fancy ball dress but in her dressing gown, was a Bolivian born in 1860 in Chile who married into the winemaking Errázuriz family. She persuaded her husband to move to Paris, where she promptly became a great patron of the arts — Sargent also painted her — supporting and befriending the leading artists, writers, choreographers and impresarios of Europe and becoming known as "Picasso's Other Mother."
Her simple style of interior décor, indulged of course at her mansion in Biarritz, had a great influence on modernist design. When Errázuriz became a lay nun late in life, her severe black habit was designed by Coco Chanel. She died in 1951, after being struck by an automobile.
To honor the acquisition of the work and to place it in perspective, the Dixon organized an exhibition that pulls together all the portraits of women in its collection, for a total of 33 pieces in a wide variety of styles, mediums and genres. The emphasis, considering the museum's collecting penchant, is on the second half of the 19th century, mainly French, with a couple of American artists who contemporaneously studied or lived in France, and two of the great British portraitists, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823).
In short, except for the new portrait, there's nothing in "Portrait, Patron, Muse" that regular attendees at the Dixon have not seen before, especially if they went to "Monet to Matisse," a re-evaluation of the museum's collection displayed in late winter and early spring of 2010. And yet this is a show not to be missed, for its charm, for its educational value and for its sheer wattage.
How often in Memphis do we see in two rooms — the Wilmot Gallery and the adjacent room in the Dixon Residence — works by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot and Fantin-Latour, Reynolds and Raeburn, as well as a roster of adept or at least interesting second-tier or minor figures? It's those second-tier artists who often maintain the spirit and style of a movement or who strike out for themselves in illuminating ways.
As patron and muse and certainly in the size of her portrait — 64-by-34.25 inches — Madame Errázuriz is the indisputable star of the exhibition centered on her, and visitors will not fail to observe how her influence here, as in life, widens to encompass an entire show.