CEDAR RAPIDS — Today, tourists can take a grand tour of Europe in two or three weeks. From the late 17th- to 19th centuries, however, this traditional trip for men of means and artists with sponsors could take four years, and was an educational rite of passage.
If a hop across the Atlantic isn’t in your summer budget, you can see the great sights from London to Paris and Italy for free, strolling through three main-floor galleries at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
“The Grand Tour: Europe Through Artists’ Eyes” features 45 paintings and etchings from the museum’s collection, on view through Sept. 16. It includes several works by Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, who went abroad in the early 20th century in a sort of modified version of the Grand Tour. They concentrated on Paris, which was still the center of the art world at that time, said Kate Kunau, the museum’s associate curator.
“Even in the early 20th century, as an artist, it was so important for you go to Europe to be finished. You needed this end to your cultural education, and that’s what Marvin Cone and Grant Wood were doing,” she said. “There was still that pressure of ‘You need to go to Europe, you need to see these things, you need to paint these things, or else you’re not really an artist.’
“And that, of course, is (when) Grant Wood comes back to the Midwest and realizes that this scenery is just as worthy of artistic attention as anything that he painted in Europe.”
The traditional tour had a set itinerary. For Americans, they would cross the Atlantic via boat, then travel from London to Paris, and cross the Alps to explore Italy’s hot spots of Rome, Venice and Florence — by horse-drawn carriages. Some would take side trips to Greece. The return trip north would again cross the Alps, and continue to Vienna, then travel by boat up the Rhine River in Germany to see the castles. They might also visit the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
If the travelers didn’t leave before snow closed the Alpine passes, they might winter in Geneva. The idea was to spend the winter in Italy, however, where the weather would be warmer than in northern Europe. That was especially enticing for Catholics, who might stay in Italy for Christmas, Easter and the Ascensiontide, Kunau said.
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“It could take anywhere from six months to four years, depending on how much money you had to spend on it and what exactly you wanted to see,” she said of the tour.
The point was to be immersed in the culture, art, architecture and sweeping vistas of Europe.
Kunau organized the summer exhibition by countries, so the first gallery focuses on France, the second on Italy and the third on the Low Countries, along with the Czech Republic and England.
In addition to works by Wood, Cone and various other artists, the collection includes finely detailed etchings of sites in Rome, Venice, Dutch windmills and England by pioneering printmaker Bertha Jaques. She lived in Cedar Rapids in the late 1880s and founded the internationally important Chicago Society of Etchers.
One of the most eye-catching pieces is by current Cedar Rapids resident Sharon Burns-Knutson. Known for capturing scenes of her life through vibrant oils with touches of cubism, she has woven lots of animals through the architecture of “Thinking of Prague and My Sisters and I Settling My Mom’s Estate,” created in 2014. “It’s a really fun piece,” Kunau said.
The appeal of the Grand Tour is timeless, she said, depicting not only the architecture, but also gatherings in town squares and people milling about the cities, as in Cone’s “From a Paris Window,” oil on canvas board, 1929.
“Humans haven’t changed in the last hundred years,” Kunau said. “You want to see the sights — you want to see the ancient ruins, you want to see the great art. You want to see the same things and go to big parties and want to have a good time.”
Summer is the busy season for the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, bringing in 9,500 visitors from 47 states and 15 foreign countries during July and August 2017. Executive Director Sean Ulmer is hoping to top 10,000 this summer.
Free admission helps boost those numbers. Running from July 1 to Sept. 2, it’s the ninth year for the summer outreach program, funded this year by Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust, Transamerica, TrueNorth and UFG.
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Admission is free at the nearby Grant Wood Studio, too, thanks to the Esther and Robert Armstrong Charitable Trust. Iowa’s most famous artist lived there from 1924 through 1935, and it’s where he painted his iconic “American Gothic” in 1930.
“Free Summer is enormously popular here,” Ulmer said. “We will have anywhere from double to triple our regular attendance for July and August, and we see all kinds of people who don’t normally come to the museum. We’re thrilled that they’re coming into the museum and seeing what we have to offer. Of course, we hope that they come back during the rest of the year, because things are always changing in the galleries. What you see over the summer is not what you’re going to see in a couple of months.”
The program not only breaks barriers, but allows local visitors to pop in over lunch or for a series of quick visits, as their busy schedules allow.
“We do all of this to share with the public the treasures that we have.”
WHAT: “The Grand Tour: Europe Through Artists’ Eyes”
WHERE: Main-floor galleries, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE
WHEN: To Sept. 16
HOURS: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
ADMISSION: Free to Sept. 2, then $3 to $7
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