French masterpieces make quite an impression at MFAH
Right now, several rooms in Houston are packed with shockingly beautiful paintings by artists whose names we know by heart. Monet, Manet, Courbet, Cezanne, Renoir, Gauguin, Picasso, Seurat, van Gogh. The list goes on. Most of the paintings are from the previous century, 1800 through 1920. And they’re from France, or at least their creators were.
For many years, they’ve hung in the stately halls of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, acknowledged as the finest collection of French impressionist and post-impressionist art outside Europe.
Now they’re here, to be admired through May 6 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston while their New York home is being renovated. The only other place they’ll travel to before returning to the Met—quite possibly forever—is Berlin.
While these delicate French masterpieces may seem out of place in our sprawling state of commerce and cows, the man largely responsible for bringing them to Houston feels right at home.
Gary Tinterow, who has taken care of these paintings for 24 years as a curator at the Met and is largely responsible for their visit to the MFAH, is Houston down to his roots.
He grew up off Braeswood, went to Shearn Elementary, Pershing Middle School, and graduated from Bellaire High School in 1972.
These days, the dapper curator is an author and lecturer in refined circles. Even the finicky French like him—they awarded him the French Legion of Honor for his contributions to art.
Some of Gary’s East Coast-and-beyond buddies raise their eyebrows upon discovering that he’s from Houston and, heaven help them, Texas. At the same time, he admits, they’re a little disappointed at his un-Southern accent.
“Most people don’t know,” Gary said. “They just think it is a traffic jam down in the South.”
He explains that his upbringing was hardly provincial. His dad, a violinist, and his mom, an amateur artist, went to the symphony, opera, Alley, Jones Hall, Rothko Chapel, and the Museum of Fine Arts, where he recalls feeling “a sense of wonder.” During Gary’s college years elsewhere, he spent two summers working at the MFAH.
He thinks Houston has only improved over the years, especially on the outside. “I used to drive down Westheimer, and you’d see just weeds in the median, and now you see daylilies.”
Fortunately, his compatriots in the art world do appreciate his hometown and, like him, value its cosmopolitan flavors.
“People in the arts?” he says. “They know Houston.”
Houston’s solid arts reputation got another shot in the arm when it landed this show, says Helga Aurisch, MFAH assistant curator of European art.
“This is monumental,” she said. “This is one of those exhibitions that the city is not going to forget. It would be huge in any city.”
Her glee was palpable as she wandered through the exhibit, which is arranged in chronological order. In the first room, she pointed out an oil by Ingres that shows a nude woman with an impossibly long and graceful back in what appears to be a harem. The painting, all in grays, has the feel of a photo, though photography hadn’t yet been invented. Western men weren’t allowed to lay eyes on such women, she said, but that didn’t cut down on the subject’s popularity among artists.
In the next gallery, she celebrated Courbet, whose work was considered scandalous in the mid-1800s because he painted women not as idealized versions of Venus but as real women, sensual in their imperfections.
In another gallery, she noted Degas’ famous images of ballet dancers and said, “You never get the feeling he wanted to look up their skirts. He’s not voyeuristic.”
With regard to Gary Tinterow, who brought these paintings to her museum, Aurisch said, “Gary is fantastic. He’s had such a long and intimate relationship with these paintings. Gary has a wealth of knowledge about the history of each painting and its owners.”
But just like any proud parent, don’t expect Gary to pick a favorite painting, or painter, or even a style. All he’ll say on the matter is “Looking at a work of art is like looking in a mirror.”
He will admit to anxiety when it came to moving the 132 masterpieces. But he won’t give a hint about how or when it was done. “We don’t talk about it,” he said. “Do you tell people when you’re making a deposit at the bank?”
And while he’s happy his treasures have come to Houston, having them on the road is a bit nervewracking.
“When you’re a curator, responsible for a collection, that gives you a sense of proprietorship, a caretaker’s responsibility,” he said. “The last thing I would want is a disaster on my watch.”
And certainly not in his hometown.