In a not-often-exercised display of international bartering, Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum, nestled on a tree-lined boulevard in the Southern California enclave, and Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, housed in what was a major railway station during the early 20th Century, have exchanged six masterworks (three each) with one another. The temporary painting swap provides residents of Southern California (and beyond, allowing for travel) with an opportunity to see three rarely seen paintings that will be in the region, two for the first time and one for the first time in nearly a century, in the spring of 2015.
Though Whistler’s mother, officially titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, by James McNeill Whistler, 1871, will likely headline, the Los Angeles adjacent museum will also receive Édouard Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868, and Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players, c. 1892-96.
Born in Massachusetts, Whistler spent most of his career in Great Britain. Though America holds some claim to him as ‘their’ artist, pieces such as that depicting his mother somberly sitting in a simply appointed room, have never lived in the United States. The portrait’s visit to the States and the West Coast in particular is much anticipated due to how infrequently his pieces make it to this side of the pond, let alone this side of North America. Whistler’s career was marked by social controversy and artistic genius. He had a penchant for depicting pallid redheads, experimented with musical titles, and had no esteem for art critics. At first glance, Whistler’s mother seems fairly pedestrian, but is imbued with his meticulous regard for color palette, harmony, and composition.
As a part of the reciprocal exchange, The Norton Simon Museum parted with Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Pont des Arts, Paris, 1867-68, Vincent Van Gogh’s Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier), 1888, and Édouard Vuillard’s First Fruits, 1899. The two museums will have simultaneous exhibitions featuring the borrowed artwork. Though France has no shortage of post-impressionist paintings, the intercontinental journey of these three works has added some cache to what is developing into a media blitz. While the line of guests outside of the Musée d’Orsay rarely dissipates, the institution reportedly looks forward to even more visitors excited for the brief return of these three pieces - belonging to the Norton Simon Museum’s collection since the late-1960s through mid-1970s.
In increasingly challenging times for museums and other arts institutions, collaborative initiatives have increased publicity and attendance for organizations willing to share. The public are but one of many constituent groups to benefit. In this specific instance, museumgoers are given the chance to see these rarely seen paintings by 19th Century masters in their very own backyard. One day, perhaps, exhibition openings such as this will be met with the same fanfare as the unveiling of newly-minted gadgets. Until then, it is up to museum staff to continue thinking outside of the frame to keep the public engaged.
“Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay” will be on view at the Norton Simon Museum through June 22, 2015. Tickets can be purchased at nortonsimon.org.