Going Fourth

I t’s hard to overstate Paul Mellon’s contributions to the Yale Center for British Art. A 1929 Yale alumnus and an heir to the famous Mellon family fortune, he funded the YCBA’s building and endowment and also donated much of his vast collection of art.

Now a “freshly reimagined installation” of the Paul Mellon Collection, displayed in the exhibit Britain in the World, is on view. It expanded Wednesday with the opening of the second floor, which joins the fourth to create an extended walk through British art and history. A visit to the fourth floor alone—the only floor open during the holidays—was a repast worth savoring over the course of an afternoon.

To view the exhibition in its intended chronological order, follow Father Time to the right of the elevator bank, then go counterclockwise around the floor. Works are grouped into six periods stretching from 1530 to 1860, each of them introduced by a mini-lesson in British history and organized by themes including commercialism, empire and revolution. A quick initial walkthrough revealed an abundance of portraits of the rich and famous and landscapes featuring the British countryside, racehorses and sailing ships. Upon circling back to 1530, it seemed the best way to process it might be to focus simply on what grabbed my attention the most.

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The Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, a 15th-century alabaster panel by an unknown artist, was the first piece to demand a closer look. It’s an extraordinary survivor of the Reformation, when “religious images such as this were ruthlessly destroyed,” according to the object label. The panel has lost much of its original paint, exposing the gorgeous, warm mineral tones beneath. Mary’s slender, elongated hands form the lower point of a frame around her face, completed by the graceful hands of angels holding the edge of a shield behind her that seems designed to reflect her glory.

Farther along, an early 18th-century painting by Jacob Bogdani presents a strange menagerie of birds. A so-called “fowl piece,” this is no peaceable kingdom. The foreground is dominated by an unlikely pair: a colorfully plumed South American macaw and a Muscovy duck who seem to be arguing while a veritable field guide of other birds squawk and snipe or simply ignore them. In the lower left corner of the painting, a dark mallard bends his preening neck away as if to avoid the confrontation.

The focus from here shifts to commerce and society, including the repeated theme of parties, the opera and the city of London. The artists are not only British by birth; the collection also includes “major artists from Europe and America who lived and worked in Britain,” according to the museum’s website. The American Benjamin West’s painting The Artist and His Family (circa 1772) plays with light: the figures of West and his wife and young sons are highlighted as if with threads of silver while, in contrast, his sober Quaker father and half-brother are clothed in flat shades of brown. West’s father is permitted just a touch of sheen in his hair. The painting, its label suggests, is “a profound meditation on West’s own cosmopolitan identity… the famous head of an affluent and fashionable family having progressed from colonial innkeeper’s son to confidant of the king.”

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At this point, the exhibition itself becomes more cosmopolitan, as British artists begin to expose their viewers to “previously unknown regions and peoples.” Italy, India, Tahiti and the Caribbean are all represented. The subject matter notably shifts as well, becoming both more informal—as in the playful portrait Emily and George Mason (between 1794 and 1795) by Arthur William Devis—and more provocative. In James Ward’s study Man Struggling with a Boa Constrictor (circa 1803), a giant serpent—for this study, only roughly sketched—wrings the waist of a black man, whose terrified face is rendered in exacting detail. An abolitionist, Ward is thought to have expressed “a nineteenth-century idea that the avariciousness of slave owners could be equated with the appetite of a serpent,” the painting’s label explains.

As viewers enter the 19th century, the introductory panel states that in this period, “landscape art began to emerge…as the most vital genre in Britain.” Here, a series of cloud studies by John Constable seems strikingly original as it shifts our perspective from land to sky. Constable’s clouds are all shadowed and roiling, yet the 11 studies offer an emotional range, from a horizontal swath of dark clouds hovering over a pink sunset in one painting to a broad, dark shelf of clouds portending a storm in another.

But the real landscape knockout comes from J.M.W. Turner. His earlier pieces appear stylistically similar to those of his contemporaries, except that Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort packet-boat from Rotterdam becalmed (1818) is lit up as if from within. Hung at just the right height, it gives the viewer who sits before it the impression of floating in a dinghy on the river Meuse, observing the action. The radiance of this painting appears in Turner’s later work on view. But there it’s compounded by an exciting new boldness in the sweeping brush strokes, the impressionistic vision, the warm palette. The unfinished Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning (circa 1845) draws back the curtain on Turner’s work in progress with its golden, misty colors over a cool blue background, its visible drips and goops, its gash of paint like a bleeding wound in the lower left quadrant.

There’s much more to recommend this show. Among the most unexpected delights: the poet William Blake’s 1825 Virgin and Child, apparently his own odd imitation of “early Christian mosaics and Byzantine icons,” the label explains. Also striking was a sudden shift in the palette, like stepping into Technicolor, with the mid-19th-century works of Sir John Everett Millais, his brother William Henry Millais, Frederick Sandys and William Bell Scott. The fourth floor’s journey ends with Edward Lear’s 1879 painting Kangchenjunga from Darjeeling, a grand Indian landscape of snow-peaked mountains and lush vegetation that leads the viewer’s gaze deep into a mysterious valley and back to the start of the exhibition.

From there, you can take the stairs or elevator to the second floor, where the exhibit continues into the present, including works by James McNeill Whistler, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Henry Moore, as well as a portrait of Paul Mellon himself on his horse, named Dublin. Mellon’s gift of art was meant, Yale says, to “privilege others as he had been privileged.” That’s a tall order, but it’s one Britain in the World works hard to fulfill.

Britain in the World
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm
(203) 432-2800

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 (on the fourth floor) and 2 (in the lobby) photographed by Dan Mims. Images 3 (on the fourth floor) and 4 (on the second floor) photographed by Richard Caspole for the Yale Center for British Art.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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