Arts / Museums

The Art of Infatuation Takes Centerstage at MFAH — Rare Impressionist Masterpieces Show the Power They Hold Over People

Rescued Paintings Add to the Allure Of This Powerful Pearlman Foundation Show With a Parisian Heartbeat

BY // 06.07.23

What sparks an infatuation? What prompts that bolt of lightning – that coup de foudre that suddenly makes you view someone or something as utterly and uniquely magnificent, like a brilliant work of art you’ve never seen before?

You can explore that question, and maybe even become a willing victim of the syndrome yourself, by checking out “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Pearlman Foundation,” a beautiful new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The MFAH exhibition is organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, where the Pearlman paintings normally reside, in collaboration with the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation.

Climb the stairs to the top floor of the Law Building and stargaze at a constellation of 38 paintings and sculptures from such luminaries as Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Van Gogh, Modigliani and Lipchitz from the collection of the Pearlman Foundation. The exhibition presents the artists’ works within the context of their experience of transience and explores the friendships they made in Paris, as well as the various locations that shaped their work in the late 19th and early 2oth centuries.

This distinguished collection of artworks was assembled over time by a man who was admittedly smitten by a painting he happened to see in a New York auction house window on his way to work in early 1945. It turned out to be quite a pivotal moment in his lifetime.

The son of Russian immigrant parents, Henry Pearlman (1895 to 1974) credited that head-turning painting — a bold abstract landscape called “View of Ceret” (approximately 1921-22) by Lithuanian artist Chaim Soutine — with inspiring his passion for collecting modern art.

We’re privileged to learn the intriguing backstory to this and other works in the Pearlman collection from a series of expert sources, including his own grandson, via MFAH website links to not only an exhibition audio guide but an extraordinary free illustrated digital catalogue. Both these sources warrant special attention as they offer a wealth of well articulated and thoroughly researched information and anecdotes that not only edify, but entertain.

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MFAH director and Margaret Alkek Williams chair Gary Tinterow opens the audio guide with an introduction noting that the Pearlman collection masterworks are “in dialogue” with works from the MFAH. He helps us picture how “Paris was a magnet for artists from all over Europe” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the development of a diverse array of artistic styles highlighted in this exhibition.

Visitors will appreciate how the exhibition cleverly blends Pearlman works with selected paintings during the same period from the MFAH museum’s Beck collection for context.

Later in the audio guide, we hear Pearlman Foundation president Daniel Edelman remark that the vivid imagery of the Ceret work so moved his grandfather Henry that it actually changed his life. It brought “light and energy” into his life every time he walked into his home’s living room, where he gave the painting pride of place over the mantel. As his background lacked an art education, Henry Pearlman began going to the library to research Soutine and other painters of his time, which “introduced him to the entire world of artists living in Paris.”

MFAH European art curator Helga Aurisch observes that the small town of Ceret is hard to make out in the painting since the objects are abstracted and the perspective skewed. Soutine’s compositions, she notes, are often called “eruptive.”

Eruptive is a word well suited to this whirling vortex of a work, which to my eyes suggested a vertical perspective of a stack of buildings, marked by thick molten-gold slashes, being violently uplifted to the blue sky.  In the digital catalog, consulting curator Allison Unruh describes this painting as “a conglomeration of peaked-roof buildings flanked by greenery and what might be an open space at the bottom, as suggested by the painting’s previous title of ‘Village Square.’ ”

Contrast the electric energy of Soutine’s “Ceret” with the gentle pastels of Paul Cezanne’s softly alluring “Mont Saint-Victoire” (approximately 1904 to 1906), one of 32 works by Cezanne which were acquired by Henry Pearlman for his collection.

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c. 1904-06
Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, c. 1904-06, oil on canvas, the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum. Photograph: Bruce M. White

In the audio guide, you can listen as Ann Dumas, curator of the Pearlman exhibition at the MFAH and the museum’s consulting curator of European art, describes this lovely painting as one of Cezanne’s greatest. It depicts a mountain in the south of France in Provence, a few miles outside Aix-en-Provence, where Cezanne was born and grew up.

Dumas offers a key insight. Cezanne was so fascinated by this mountain that he painted it more 30 times. From different angles. In different lights. At different times of day.

We can see how, in this perspective, Cezanne saw the mountain as pale blue, the same as the sky, and the rocky landscape a patchwork of sandy yellow, green, blue and orange. The colors are soft, the painter’s touch deft and delicate.

Amedeo Modigliani’s vividly colored 1916 portrait of French intellectual “Jean Cocteau” mesmerizes viewers with the artist’s representation of this highly influential figure. Here, he is dressed in an all-blue suit and formally seated in a dark red plush chair, “looking down his nose as us,” Aurisch aptly notes.

She further shares that although Cocteau paid for the painting, he so disliked it that he left it with Modigliani with the excuse that it was too big to fit in a taxi. We infer that Cocteau likely didn’t care for the imperfection of a pronounced bump that inexplicably appears on the sitter’s patrician nose.

Modigliani, Jean Cocteau, 1916
Amedeo Modigliani, Jean Cocteau, 1916, oil on canvas, the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum. Photograph: Bruce M. White

For comparison as well as context, on the wall next to this Modigliani portrait from the Pearlman collection, viewers will appreciate the placement of a familiar portrait from the Beck collection: Modigliani’s depiction of his patron and art dealer, Leopold Zborowski (also approximately 1916).

Notably, Zborowski also assisted Modigliani’s friend Soutine by contributing toward the latter’s three-year stay in Ceret. There, Soutine painted prolifically in the peace and quiet of that village, in contrast to the bustling “Beehive” where Soutine and Modigliani worked among many other struggling artists trying to scrape together a living in Montparnasse.

A Mystery Woman

Edouard Manet’s “Young Woman in a Round Hat” (approximately 1877 to 79) from the Pearlman collection portrays a fashionable Parisian woman in profile, wearing a fitted blue jacket and black hat with veil. Aurisch wittily describes Manet as “the enfant terrible of the time,” as he “challenged society’s preconceived notions on many fronts.” He was also “the quintessential boulevardier,” observing everyday life, which was “the subject of all his works,” she explains, conjecturing that he may have encountered the woman while both were taking a stroll.

Much more about Soutine, Modigliani, Cezanne and other artists and sculptors represented in the Pearlman collection can be found in the digital catalog: “Artists in Motion: Modern Masterpieces from the Pearlman Collection.” This exhaustive online catalog comprises nearly 200 pages including pictures, essays, poems and maps.

Admirably setting the stage, Daniel Edelman provides a compelling personal introduction. He describes in gratifying detail how his grandfather Henry came upon and bought the Soutine landscape in early 1945, initiating a collection that within the next quarter-century would comprise more than 70 works of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and modern art. This well-told story is accompanied by black-and-white photos of the Pearlmans (including a great shot from the 1930s and early 1940s of Henry Pearman looking dapper in a Sinatra-style fedora), as well as many full-color pictures of works in their collection.

An Infatuation Rekindled at MFAH

I was happy to access consulting curator Allison Unruh’s seven essays for information on selected artists in the exhibition, particularly Soutine, since I too became infatuated with one of his paintings years ago. It was not an abstract like the landscape that so transfixed Henry Pearlman, but a portrait of “Le Petit Patissier,” the little pastry chef (1922 to 23) that suddenly appeared on an upstairs wall of the Beck Building years ago, on a brief loan from another collection. Like no other, the picture of the little pastry chef evoked a strong sense of Paris for me. I was sorry when it left, and wanted to know more.

Soutine, Self-Portrait, C. 1918
Chaim Soutine, Self-Portrait, c. 1918, oil on canvas, the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum. Photograph: Bruce M. White

On an ensuing trip to Paris, I found another version of the little pastry chief in the Musee de l’Orangerie among a sizable collection of 22 paintings by Soutine brought together by art dealer Paul Guillaume. There, I was surprised to learn in a museum booklet (“Soutine,” by curator Marie-Madeleine Masse) that this portrait was pivotal in bringing Soutine fame and a sudden upturn in his fortunes after an American collector named Albert Barnes spotted it at Guillaume’s place, became similarly captivated and proclaimed it “a peach” — high praise in the popular parlance of the time.

The confluence of these serendipitous experiences and unexpected connections over time conjured up the question Daniel Edelman raised at the beginning of his introduction: “What is it about art that resonates with us and even moves us to action?”

Look for your own answers in the “Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces” exghbition, which is on view now at MFAH and runs through September 17. You may even find yourself becoming infatuated.

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