Sometimes a fresh perspective helps you appreciate what you’ve taken for granted.
The Portland Museum of Art provides a reason to look anew with its exhibition “The Mistress and the Muse.” The exhibition uses a collection of paintings, sculpture and works on paper that are long familiar to regular museum visitors to explore differences between portraiture and figure studies in the late 19th century. It’s on view in what the museum calls its Palladian Gallery, which was a showcase room of the L.D.M. Sweat Memorial Galleries when they and the McLellan House reopened to the public in 2002 after an extensive restoration.
In the 15 years since, they’ve both grown a little dusty, in a manner of speaking. The paintings and decorative arts that were on view back there didn’t change often, so regular visitors to the museum had little incentive to explore.
As part of its “Your Museum, Reimagined” project, the PMA curatorial team has turned the Palladian into an exhibition space for rotating shows, taking advantage of the room’s relative intimacy for spotlight looks at specific subjects.
“The Mistress and the Muse,” on view until June 24, provides viewers with an opportunity to reconsider both the space and the Isabelle and Scott Black collection, which comprises much of the exhibition. Regular visitors have seen much of this work in the Black collection for years. Scott Black, who grew up in Portland, serves on the museum board. He and his wife live in Boston and share their collection with the PMA and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
This show, curated by European specialist Andrew Eschelbacher, uses a handful of key pieces from the collection for a close look at a small slice to explore figurative art in the late 19th century.
It explores the use of the figure in inspiring artists – in this instance, European artists, such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Paul Gaugin and others. There’s also a small version of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” which presents a man with a knotted brow, deep in thought.
The centerpiece is “The Greeting” by Paul Delvaux. The artist creates a surrealist dreamscape in which he places himself in a Renaissance-style setting that also includes a modern train. A mostly nude woman, who happens to be the artist’s wife, greets him in the square, as he doffs his hat in greeting.
The painting blurs time and space, dreams and reality and the relationship between the artist, his muse and his wife. The suggestion of sexual activity in the windows of the buildings in the square suggest the presence of a mistress, as well.
The exhibition presents the portrait as a formal piece of art, where a subject’s appearance and characteristics are essential to the outcome of the painting, and as a figure study, where the personal traits of the subject are less important than the artist’s narrative. It also highlights the evolution of the human figure as a muse during the modern period, when artists began to use fragmentation, distortion and abstraction to tell personal stories.
The Palladian Gallery gets its name because of a palladian window, which is screened to shield the sun’s ray but still allows a glow of light from outside.
WHEN: On view through June 4
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art
ADMISSION: $15, $13 seniors, $10 students, 14 and younger free; free for everybody after 4 p.m. Friday
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday