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Paul G. Allen Family Collection Shows Impressionism and More: Landscape Masterpieces at SAM

In an extraordinary act of generosity, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen is lending to the Seattle Art Museum 39 paintings spanning the 17th through 21st centuries. Filling enormous gaps in SAM's permanent collection temporarily, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection makes up for SAM's weakest collecting area: European Old Masters and Impressionists. For a limited period (February 16 - May 23), SAM members and visitors can pretend they are in a traditional East Coast or classic European art museum. Different art movements, such as Impressionism, Pointillism, and Surrealism, are represented, but by a few examples, not in depth.

In a fascinating interview in the sumptuous catalogue, Allen mentions London and Venice as his favorite cities, as well as the French Riviera (where he moors his giant yacht). Growing up in Seattle with two modest art collector parents, Allen said his father liked Asian ceramics and his mother favored University of Washington School of Art professors such as the Paris-trained Ambrose Patterson and Walter F. Isaacs.

By the time Allen began collecting the French, Flemish, American and Italian artists in Seeing Nature, prices had become stratospheric, out of reach for many, but not for a freshly minted young billionaire from the Pacific Northwest. Following through on his interests in nature, earth, weather, and the topographical wonders of the planet, Allen's first major acquisition, Claude Monet's The Water-Lily Pond (1919), at four-by-five feet, is comparable to the bigger, contemporaneous Nymphéas murals in the Musée de L'Orangerie in Paris. Stunningly, Allen continued with four more Monets, scenes of London, Venice and Provence.

Walking through the Simonyi Special Exhibition Galleries (named after another Microsoft millionaire) in roughly chronological order before reaching the Impressionist and Pointillist core, viewers are treated to Old Masters one never expected to see in Seattle. Jan Brueghel the Younger's quintet of allegories, The Five Senses (c. 1625), depicts seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting. Human figures are surrounded by various related symbols.

Canaletto The Grand Canal

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking South-East from San Stae to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto, c. 1738, oil on canvas, 18.5 × 30.625 inches. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Manet View in Venice

Edouard Manet, View in Venice--The Grand Canal, 1874, oil on canvas, 22.5 × 18.75 inches. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Moran Grand Canyon

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Hockney The Grand Canyon

David Hockney, The Grand Canyon, 1998, oil on canvas, 48.5 x 169.5 inches. Courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Leaving SAM's own 1710 Luca Carlevaris scene of Venice in the dust is Canaletto's Rialto Bridge (c. 1740) by the most famous of all the Venice scene painters. The buildings look new, so clear is the celebrated Venetian sunlight. It is a companion to several other scenes of what Allen called "Europe's most beautiful city." Monet's 1908 Palazzo da Mula is a radical shift in perspective, color and subject. Henri Edmond Cross's Rio San Trovaso (1903) shows a backwater canal that happens to be the address of my favorite restaurant in Venice, Trattoria San Trovaso, across from a centuries-old gondola factory still in operation today. Ultra-post-impressionist, the Cross pushes toward Pointillism, with its masses of colored dots. Nearby, Henri Le Sidaner's The Serenade (1907) is a gorgeous nighttime view of the Doge's Palace. Most intimate of all, at 22 by 28 inches, View in Venice -- The Grand Canal (1874) by Édouard Manet, the godfather of Impressionism, is as tightly cropped as a photograph. Manet's scene combines sky, water, buildings and gondolier into a ravishing mix of blue and white diagonal stripes and spontaneous brushwork. Two other contrasting works by English artist J. M. W. Turner (considered a forerunner of Impressionism) and English-born American Thomas Moran round out Allen's pricey souvenirs of La Serenissima.

Moran anchors a spectacular group of 19th- and 20th-century landscapes, emphasizing the geographical grandeur of the US compared to the cozy European vistas. Moran's predecessor, Thomas Cole (also born in England) created a scene of the Roman countryside, or campagna, in 1842 while on a painting trip with the American consul from Rome. Its glinting sunrise expresses hope while the solitary shepherd begins another day before a large antique ruin. Moran's Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset (1909) is a pendant to Cole's sunrise, presenting the 300-mile-long geological phenomenon at a darkening, mysterious moment. Paid for by the new Santa Fe Railway, it could be seen as a forerunner of today's splashy, enticing travel posters. Similarly, although better known as a color-woodcut artist, Arthur Wesley Dow's Cosmic Cities -- Grand Canyon of Arizona (1912) reminds us of Allen's visit to the southwest site in 2006 while its title chimes with the collector's growing enthusiasm for science-fiction art. To Allen, "science-fiction art . . . may be somewhat undervalued." The eerie, blunted buttes, along with deep shadows and bulging cliffs, could be on another planet. Moving forward a decade, A Large Picture that Represents a Landscape (1927) by French Surrealist Yves Tanguy confirms Allen's taste for plausible yet unearthly landscapes. Trapped in a thick, viscous atmosphere, a single cat is surrounded by humanoid effigies perched above. Seen another way, the entire scene could be underwater, with rippling sand dunes immersed in a dank fog. David Hockney's 14-foot-wide Grand Canyon (1998) completes the cycle.

Largely ignored in mid-20th-century America with its predilection for Abstract Expressionism, Edward Hopper has subsequently obtained iconic status with the public and never fallen out of favor. Appropriate for the Pacific, as well as Atlantic, coast, Clamdigger (1935) sets man and dog (with clam shovel) at the corner of a house looking toward field and forest. Hopper's classic American solitude is perfectly captured. Another artist who became popular, but who is still widely denigrated by art critics, Maxfield Parrish may have attracted disdain because of the reproductions on numerous posters, calendars and jigsaw puzzles, but, according to Allen, is still underappreciated. River Bank Autumn (1938) is an imaginary scene though painted in New Hampshire near the Connecticut River.

Mont Sainte-Victoire (1888 - 90) by Paul Cézanne is the exhibition's intellectual center-point, looking back to French masters such as Poussin and forward to Pointillism and Cubism. It is matched by a Pointillist work by Paul Signac and demonstrates how Cézanne broke up traditional composition and brushwork into discrete, almost modular, horizontal strokes, which coalesce into a pulsing, but blurry, countryside vista. Other works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Gustav Klimt, Max Ernst and Milton Avery round out one man's passion and purpose: to assemble artworks that give pleasure and enrich our lives.

MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor at ArtGuide Northwest, writes for Art in America, Art Ltd., Sculpture, and numerous other publications. His latest book is Paul Havas (University of Washington Press, 2017). He lives in Seattle. Copyright © Matthew Kangas 2017

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