In the past few years we've brought several singular masterpieces to the DIA: Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance in 2012, Van Gogh's Artist's Room at Arles and Caravaggio's Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, both in 2013, and most recently Monet's Waterlily Pond, Green Harmony from the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. In each case, the special loan cast a spotlight on different aspects of our own collection. We certainly have one of the finest collections of Dutch art in the Western Hemisphere but it lacks--and, I fear, always will--a work by Vermeer. Where William Valentiner, the ubiquitous DIA director, was when Vermeer's The Art of Painting was briefly in this country, I don't know, but there seems to be no evidence suggesting that he knew about it. And, as he agonizes at length in his personal diary about not being able to secure a mature Velasquez, it's hard to believe he wouldn't have mentioned a Vermeer. I have to admit to a distinct feeling of schadenfreude that the New York art museum to which it was offered turned it down, and it can now be seen in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. The National Gallery of Art generously lent Woman Holding a Balance for a month, which we were able to exhibit within the suite of galleries dedicated to Dutch art. The two 2013 loans came about as exchanges to compensate for the loan of two much-requested works: our own Caravaggio painting, Martha and Mary Magdalene, and Picasso's Melancholy Woman.
The recently departed Monet complemented our lone Monet painting, Gladioli, of 1876, which shows his wife, Camille, walking through their garden. Monet was a great gardener, and even when he was struggling financially (as was the case in the mid-1870s), he managed to maintain a garden. If you have to have just one Monet, Gladioli, is a great one to have, sparkling with the genius that overturned four hundred years of artistic verities. But it's a little lonely in our early modern galleries dominated, as they are, by such non-impressionists and post-impressionists as Degas, Cézanne, and van Gogh. As I never tire of pointing out, led by patrons such as Ralph Harmon Booth and Dexter Ferry, as well as soon-to-be director, William Valentiner, in 1922 the DIA was the first public museum in the United States to acquire a van Gogh, followed by the first Matisse in the same year. These were astonishingly forward-looking acquisitions that speak volumes about the confidence and sophistication of 1920s Detroit. In justifying the Matisse, Valentiner wrote to the City of Detroit Arts Commission that, although the painting would strike many as odd, Detroit needed to know what was going on at the center of the art world. In the same spirit, in 1930, the first DIA auxiliary support group, the Friends of Modern Art, was established, fostering an environment in which a 1952 Francis Bacon painting, "hot off the easel," was eagerly accepted as a gift from William Valentiner after the museum he was then running in Los Angeles (City of Detroit mandatory retirement had forced him out of the DIA in 1945) rejected it.
Why, then, the paucity of high impressionist paintings in the DIA's collection? I've come across no direct comments by Valentiner on the subject, but there was a feeling in the art world at the time that, for all its energetic brushwork and visual acuity, impressionism was somehow superficial. Cézanne said of Monet: "He was only an eye, but my God, what an eye!" and younger artists sought to take the breakthrough offered by impressionist technique and use it for notionally more profound purposes--the pseudo-scientific pointillism of Seurat, the visceral expressionism of van Gogh, the symbolism of Gauguin--to express aspects of the human condition. Judged by such standards, Monet's landscapes seemed passé. But Monet himself did not stand still. As is usually the case with the greatest artists, he sought to reinvigorate his quest and set off on a path that would ultimately lead to the exquisite, nearly abstract, essays in color and light that are the late water lily paintings.