There is no doubt the work of French-trained American artist Charles Courtney Curran (1861-1942) reflects the aesthetic movements that influenced American art at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
Elements of Naturalism, Symbolism, Tonalism and, yes, even Impressionism, are all evident in an artistic oeuvre that spans five decades of output, as summed up in the exhibit “Charles Courtney Curran: Seeking the Ideal,” which opened Oct. 30 at the Frick Art Museum in Point Breeze.
A traveling exhibition that originated at Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis, it features nearly 60 works by a painter who truly was obsessed with getting it right. He imbued his canvasses with an overwhelming sense of natural light, as fresh and palpable as a summer’s day.
As visitors will see, the exhibit is aptly titled, as Curran’s pursuit of an ideal beauty was not only achieved by this elegant handling of light, but also by choosing to paint elegant subjects, such as his wife, Grace, daughter Emily, and the women and girls who surrounded their summer home at Cragsmoor Colony, an artists residence in Ulster County, N.Y.
From 1911 to 1913, Curran published art lessons in print for the magazine Palette and Bench. As he wrote in the December 1908 issue: “Given a beam of sunlight, a bunch of double peonies and a pretty girl for subject matter, it would seem at first glance an easy matter to paint a picture, to combine the beauty of the flowers and the beauty of the woman and copy them directly on the canvas. But there is much more to be taken into consideration.”
Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum, says the exhibit is installed “in a loose chronology,” and viewers will get all the different themes he investigated over time.
“We have about 50 years of his career here,” Hall says. “There are a couple of very powerful images in this show that people will likely recognize.”
Post-Civil War American genre paintings fill much of the early part of the exhibit, with paintings such as “Mumblety-Peg” (1885) showing children at play and “Shadow Decoration” (1887).
Curran rarely depicted people at work; however, in 1887 he completed a small series of paintings of women doing that dreaded 19th-century chore — laundry — seen in “Hanging Out the Clothes” (1887).
The French Barbizon artist of a few decades prior, Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75), may have popularized such working-class women, but in Curran’s adept hands, his laundresses show none of the arduous, unpleasant nature of the task.
Instead, he was attracted by the sun-dappled and billowing sheets and by the opportunity to portray a female figure outdoors.
“That’s really a successful early series for him,” Hall says. “The sales of these paintings allow him to save enough money to marry Grace and go to Paris to study at the Academie Julian.”
Born into a middle class family from Kentucky, Curran spent most of his childhood in Sandusky, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie.
He first began studying art in Cincinnati, and, by 1882, he had moved to New York to study at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students’ League. He was part of a generation of artists who came of age after 1870 and flocked to Paris as the center of the art world, like his friend John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
“Once he moves to Paris and understands the power of the world’s fairs, he became very good at getting his work out in front of people and never really did have a dealer,” Hall says.
The earliest piece to garner him international attention was “Lotus Lilies” painted in 1888. It remains one of the artist’s most iconic images to this day.
“Curran took this early painting with him to Paris, where it won a medal at the Paris Salon of 1890,” Hall says.
“Lotus Lilies” pays tribute to his young bride, Grace, the summer they were married. Curran portrays his wife and her cousin, Charlotte Adams Taylor, in a rowboat surrounded by the full yellow blooms of lotus lilies — a symbol of physical and spiritual purity. The painting’s idyllic setting is Old Woman Creek, part of the Lake Erie estuary where lotus lilies can still be found today.
Another signature work, “On the Heights” from 1909, commands attention, if not for the remarkable sense of light contained within, then the sumptuous art-nouveau frame that surrounds it.
Painted at Cragsmoor, it features three young girls, dressed in summer whites, who regularly spent the summer at the arts colony, posed on Bear Hill, a favorite cliff of Curran’s.
Looking every bit the essence of youth and beauty, with their loose dresses, rolled-up sleeves and simple upswept hair, they are reflective of the popular “Gibson girl” style of the time.
“They have a look of determination that tells the story of women at the cusp of the new century,” Hall says.
There are many more such powerful paintings on display, all with that amazing sense of light and freshness that Curran captured so well.
It’s worth noting that among the many collectors and institutions that loaned work for this exhibit, the Frick Art & Historical Center has loaned “Woman With a Horse and Carriage” (1890), which typically hangs in the library of Clayton, the Frick family home on the grounds of the center.
It will join the other works as “Seeking the Ideal” travels to the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina, after the show closes here on Feb. 1.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.