Like Breath on Glass Opening Lecture June 22 at the Clark

For Immediate Release

June 06, 2008

James McNeill Whistler said, “Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.” Many of America’s greatest painters active around 1900 heeded his advice, producing evocative paintings that, like breath’s condensation on glass, appear to have been made without traces of the artist’s hand, and invite contemplative appreciation. The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s summer exhibition Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly explores this sensibility. Marc Simpson and Cody Hartley, the Clark curators responsible for organizing the exhibition, will discuss what is meant by “painting softly” on Sunday, June 22, at 3 pm, during the opening lecture “Like Breath on Glass: The Hard Work of Painting Softly.” Admission is free on June 22, a community open house with events marking the opening of Stone Hill Center and two exhibitions.

“Painting softly” does not at first seem to fit with the idea of modern painting around 1900. Most studies of this period stress the importance of paint and its expressive, virtuosic handling. Yet Whistler and George Inness sought to move beyond paint’s materiality. “If only I could paint it without paint,” Inness lamented. They established for American art the sensibility that prized thin-seeming paint application, soft-edged depiction, and an undefined subject. To experience these works fully, viewers had to complete mentally—through memory or desire—the suggested image. In exchange for a viewer’s time and sympathetic imagination, the paintings yield deeply felt truths and a beauty that could change the viewer’s experience of the world. Initially seen as eccentric, over the decades these artists’ notions became fashionable and found echoes in the aesthetic, cultural, and scientific ideas in circulation during that period.

Addressing how these paintings invited such contemplative responses, the lecture will conclude with a consideration of the relationship between art and the developing disciplines of philosophy, physiology, and psychology, as exemplified by the work of American thinker William James. James’s writing about sight and sensation, memory, imagination, and illusion provides a useful guide to how artists and audiences of the period understood perception and experience.

Like Breath on Glass was organized by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute and is supported in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and by a contribution from Mr. and Mrs. Frank Martucci. The exhibition is on view June 22 through October 19.

The Clark is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown. The galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm (daily in July and August). Admission June 1 through October 31 is $12.50 for adults, free for children 18 and younger, members, and students with valid ID. Admission is free November 1 through May 31. For more information, call 413-458-2303 or visit www.clarkart.edu.

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