Historians like to describe the last two centuries of painting as less of an act and more of a reaction. Impressionism, modernism, surrealism, the whole of abstraction — they’re all a rejection and reinterpretation of the art that came before them; art that embraced formalism and natural beauty, that ennobled the upper classes and exalted sacred icons, that valued composition above all else.
In that way, the 60 objects in “Treasures of British Art” are important not just for what they are, but also for what they wrought. They stand as confident “before” shots of Eurocentric art prior to its takeover by folks like Monet, Renoir, Cassatt and, later, Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, as well as an evolving — and more diverse — list of trailblazers who morphed traditional painting and sculpture into the democratic, anything-goes styles of art that pack museums today.
To be sure, the “Treasures” here are not monolithic in nature. They date from the 1400s to the 1800s, and so range from medieval crucifixion scenes to lush, romantic landscapes. But they’re bound together by a number of traits, notably a love of royalty, dogs, horses, God and the sea.
They also tell the story of the country where they were created. Follow the paintings chronologically and five centuries of British history unfolds: wars, fashion, commerce, agriculture, architecture, religion and, of course, painting itself. The exhibition serves up a fascinating tale without being a boring textbook.
And it’s shaped by the superstars of old British art, like Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, George Stubbs and Thomas Lawrence, as well as a few early American artists like Benjamin West and John Singer Sargent, who spent considerable time in what was still then the motherland.
That all of this work ended up in Denver — of all places — is due to a sizable 2018 donation from the Berger Collection Educational Trust, which manages the holdings of the late, art-collecting couple, William Merriam Bart Berger, and his wife, Bernadette Joan Johnson Berger, who, in addition to going by four names, had a bundle of money due to Mr. Berger’s knack for investment.
As his numbers-heavy, 1999 New York Times obituary declares, he “helped establish Denver as one of the largest mutual fund centers outside of New York and Boston” over the course of his 40-year career.
Berger was as blue blood as white Westerners get. He was a fourth=generation Coloradan, and that, no doubt, gave him a leg up. His great-grandfather was a founder of Colorado National Bank.
As the story goes, the Bergers leapt from brokering to art collecting in earnest only in 1994 when the family business was sold to an out-of-town buyer for $47 million. But they jumped high and fast, spending maybe half of that amount in just a few years, indulging their shared like for British culture by purchasing art.
The Berger Collection Educational Trust has controlled the work since 1999, though the Denver Art Museum has long “administered” it, as the museum’s website puts it, and shown many of the works. The relationship between BCET and DAM is cozy — DAM’s top curator, Timothy J. Standring, is listed as an official BCET trustee — so the actual gift of 65 paintings that fuel the current exhibit was a natural.
“Treasures of British Art” is a chance for local audiences to see the depth and breadth of the paintings as a whole. The exhibition, installed on walls painted in shades of eggplant and cranberry, is curated by Kathleen Stuart.
For visitors, the standouts will likely be works from the bigger names, though many of the best contributions come from lesser-known painters.
Portraits lead the way, capturing the faces and manners of the English elite. Among the earliest pieces in the show is a still-unattributed 1513 portrait of a young Henry VIII, the earliest painting of the king known to exist. It hangs near a 1538 portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales, still a bright-eyed boy but carrying a gold rattle that resembles a scepter, a foreshadowing of the fact that history would, in short order, crown him Edward VI.
While portraits of the ruling gentry — Queen Elizabeth I, General George Monck, the 1st Duke of Albemarle — convey resolute strength by presenting their subjects as stodgy and stoic leaders, artists allowed themselves to loosen up when creating pictures of their wives and children, making for some of the exhibit’s more memorable moments.
There’s Sir William Beechey’s 1782 portrait of Mary Constance, the wife of a political dignitary, captured in high detail while wearing a flowing frock and an oversized hat topped by white feathers. Ann Gardiner, the daughter of an Irish parliamentarian, lovingly holds her toddler son on her lap in a 1776 work by Nathaniel Hone.
As the show moves through time, painterly styles evolve, as do the influences of current events and social trends. Artists capture British naval victories, like Adriaen van Diest’s 1690 “The Battle of Lowestoft,” but also pastoral scenes of the English countryside, like Gainsborough’s 1782 “A Coastal Landscape.”
Other works freeze the Brit’s 19th-century fascination with old-world art and design, such as David Roberts’ 1859 “Interior of the Cathedral, Pisa,” or his 1862 “Egyptian Landscape with a Distant View of the Pyramids.”
And, of course, there’s a lasting fascinating with cows and sheep and, in particular, well-bred horses rendered with the same sort of majesty awarded to royals. George Stubbs’ 1786 “A Saddled Bay Hunter” is a good example.
Among the more interesting things to note: There’s only one female painter in the entire lot, Angelica Kauffman, though her contribution stands out for both its technique and its dramatic subject matter. The title explains it all: “Papirius Praetextatus Entreated by his Mother to Disclose the Secrets of the Deliberations of the Roman Senate.”
Under the care of both DAM and the dedicated Berger trust, the Berger Collection is tightly managed and continues to be extensively researched. In several cases, the exact dates of the pieces are approximate and even the painters themselves remain unknown, though historians are working hard to fill in the blanks.
But the fact that some mysteries are hard to solve only shows how rare much of this work is and how important individual pieces are to connecting the dots of art history.
And it makes for a solid journey through this exhibition. It’s interesting to watch the paintings morph from rigid portraits and glorified religious scenes to something more earthy and human, to see softness emerge and landscape go from background to foreground.
As an exhibit, it’s a little out of time. “Treasures of British Art” stands in sharp contrast, for example, to DAM’s concurrent exhibit of 21st-century portraits by contemporary painter Jordan Casteel, who finds her subjects on the streets of present-day Harlem. The British art feels important, while Casteel’s work feels relevant. There’s a big difference.
But an encyclopedic museum like DAM is about both the “befores” and the “afters,” and it’s impossible to truly appreciate either unless they both have their moment on the walls. This is a swell time to go to the Denver Art Museum, a chance to see it all.
“Treasures of British Art: The Berger Collection” continues through Jan. 5, 2020, at the Denver Art Museum, 13th Avenue between Broadway and Bannock streets. Info at 720-865-5000 or denverartmuseum.org.