Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Pissarro, Degas, Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec. All have made indelible impressions in the world of art and the art of the world.
Normally you’d have to travel to Chicago, St. Louis or even farther afield to see their works side by side.
But from Saturday (12/21) to April 12, their legacy will be at home in the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
What’s even more remarkable is that works by all of these world-class artists — and others — come from a private collection housed in rural Marion.
Titled “Ooh La La: French Works from the Riley Collection,” the exhibition traces the evolution of art created in France from 1877 to 1968. All 26 pieces have been acquired by Nan Riley and her late husband, attorney Tom Riley, typically purchased from galleries and auctions.
“It’s kind of amazing to think that there is a local private collection that has work of this caliber that (the owners are) willing to share with a larger public. We’re just thrilled,” said Sean Ulmer, the museum’s executive director.
The pieces will hang in chronological order in the second-floor gallery adjacent to the “Art in Roman Life” gallery, which showcases more than 50 antiquities, including 21 portrait busts of emperors and commoners, which the Rileys donated to the museum in 1996.
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“It’s still the only Roman collection of its kind in the state of Iowa,” Ulmer said. “If you want to see original works of art made 2,000 years ago (on display) in the state of Iowa, you have to come to us.”
The French works are on loan to the museum, and are designed to complement a five-gallery Impressionism exhibition opening Feb. 1 to launch a yearlong celebration of the museum’s 125th anniversary.
“Across the Atlantic: American Impressionism through the French Lens,” a massive touring exhibit from the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pa., will be on view through April 26 on the museum’s first floor. It will feature more than 75 works highlighting the relationship between French Impressionism from the late 1800s and the American embrace of this popular art movement in the ensuing decades.
Considered radical at the time, Impressionism broke from academic traditions to explore using free, broken brush strokes, vivid colors and the changing play of light. It’s the style en vogue during the Cedar Rapids museum’s founding as an art club in 1895, and the style that captured the imagination of Grant Wood and Marvin Cone early in their careers, as depicted in paintings currently on view in their first-floor galleries.
“Impressionism still speaks to people today,” Ulmer said, “There’s something about it that still captivates people, more than any other movement probably. The artists are more well-known. There’s something about them that still resonates with people today.
“You can have beautiful colors in another work, and it just doesn’t come together like it does in an Impressionist work,” he said. “You can take the same set of colors, and in somebody else’s hands from a different time period, and it’s not going to result in a beautiful Impressionist work.”
The Riley exhibition will show the changing path of French-driven art before, during and after the Impressionist zenith. All of the pieces have a French connection, even though not all of the artists were French. Some were non-French artists who worked primarily in Paris or were in Paris during the majority of their career, said Kate Kunau, the museum’s associate curator. Picasso was Spanish, Marc Chagall was born in the Russian Empire and Mary Cassatt was American, Kunau noted, but their pieces in the exhibition were created in France.
Kunau became acquainted with the Riley collection during her student internship at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in 2010. Tom Riley, who died in 2011, and his wife, Nan, approached museum officials in the wake of the Floods of 2008, wanting to help get the museum back on track with a large exhibition from their collection. They loaned 46 pieces by Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Miro, Dali, Matisse, Seurat, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as Americans Marvin Cone, Grant Wood and Cassatt, for an exhibition that ran from May 22 to Sept. 19, 2010.
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“I had no idea that a local family had things like that in their collection,” Kunau said of her internship days. She was delighted to discover that the couple “had a really good eye for somewhat unusual pieces by big-name artists.”
“They have an academic nude drawing by Georges Seurat, who of course is known for pointillism,” she noted. “And they have a landscape by Edgar Degas, who very rarely did landscapes, because he didn’t like working outside. He really was the only Impressionist who didn’t do en plein-air (painting outdoors), because it hurt his eyes. They were really sensitive to the sun and the winds, so he really didn’t work outside. This is a rare landscape from him.
“(The Rileys) just have a great eye for collecting really cool things from these major artists,” Kunau said. “So it’s always been a really fun collection to work with, and some of them are exactly what you would want — the beautiful Mary Cassatt watercolor of a mother holding her child or a great Toulouse-Lautrec (drawing) of a Parisian dancing girl.
“It’s a lot of fun to work with. They’re really amazing pieces,” she said.
With the 2010 exhibit, Kunau jumped right into the research aspect for each artwork, and created the text for their labels. But she didn’t get to meet benefactor Tom Riley back then. Now that she’s been part of the museum staff the past five years, she has had the chance to work with his wife. “Nan is wonderful,” Kunau said. “Nan is incredibly supportive and always wants to give and be a part of things, and is incredibly generous with us. We’re really, really lucky to have her and her family in the community, because her family is in various ways involved in the museum, as well. They’re all really lovely people who support the arts and the community.”
That kind of dedication and generosity show the difference local collectors can make on the depth and breadth of a museum’s offerings.
“‘Across the Atlantic’ and the Riley collection are the kinds of exhibitions we cannot do from our own collection,” Ulmer said. “We’re not strong in Impressionism. Other than Grant Wood and Marvin Cone (pieces), it’s not something that was heavily collected by local collectors, and our (museum holdings) reflect what people were acquiring and eventually donating.
“And while it’s a wonderful example what this community cumulatively can create by donating works of art, it just wasn’t something that was as heavily collected as it was on the East Coast ... ” he said.
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“By borrowing a traveling show or borrowing from a private collection, we can share with the greater public in way we can’t do, ourselves.”
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• What: “Ooh La La: French Works from the Riley Collection”
• Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
• When: Saturday (12/21) to April 12; noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
• Admission: $7 adults; $6 ages 62 and over and college students; $3 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under and museum members
• Extras: Art Bites: Ooh La La: French Works from the Riley Collection, 12:15 p.m. Jan. 8: Associate Curator Kate Kunau will discuss the local Riley family’s world-class art collection