Frick Art & Historical Center
Through February 1
10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Need a burst of Spring in Winter? Pittsburghers have one more month to enjoy the first critical retrospective of acclaimed American Impressionist painter Charles Courtney Curran, when a major new exhibition opens this week at The Frick Art Museum. Running at the Point Breeze-based venue through February 1st, Charles Courtney Curran: Seeking the Ideal features 60 paintings from several world renowned institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Terra Foundation for American Art, Brooklyn Museum and Frick Art & Historical Center.
While his name may be unknown to the public, Curran’s most famous work–such as Lotus Lilies (1888), and On the Heights (1909) are most likely familiar to countless viewers. This first-of-its-kind exhibition spans nearly five decades of Curran’s productive career—from early genre scenes dating to the 1880s which depict children at play and women completing household chores, to later works that embody the artist’s passion for depicting the figure outdoors.
Celebrated for his iconic sparkling canvases of women—many depicted in natural settings—Curran applied the signature broken brushstrokes and sun-drenched palette of Impressionist painting to a distinctly American landscape. Capturing the textured sunlight, rich shadows and swift-moving clouds of idyllic locations on Lake Erie and in the mountain hamlets of Upstate New York, Curran became popular with American collectors at the turn of the 20th century. Around 1891, Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick purchased Curran’s Parisian canvas entitled Going for a Drive, which depicts his wife Grace putting on her riding gloves near a waiting horse and carriage.
Born in Hartford, Kentucky in 1861, Curran spent most of his childhood on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, a locale that would later be featured prominently in his paintings. In 1882, Curran moved to NYC to study at two legendary institutions, the established National Academy of Design, and the more progressive Art Students League. By 1888, Curran was successful enough to be able to marry his childhood sweetheart, Grace Wickham, and head to Paris to experience the art world mecca. In 1890, his iconic vibrant canvas, Paris, Lotus Lilies, which depicts Grace and her cousin seated in a rowboat surrounded by a bounty of lilies, was accepted into the Salon and received a medal.
In Paris amidst the Impressionists, Curran embraced plein air painting and modern life, creating canvases of women enjoying the city’s vivid public parks and gardens. While there, Curran studied at the Académie Julian with masters such as Jules Lefebvre and Henri Doucet, and learned to hone his craft documenting fashionable scenes of Parisian life, rendering the intense light and brilliant atmosphere of summer days in France, and mastering the rich complex colors of semi-exotic summer plants and trees found in and around the city.
Curran returned to NYC in 1891, where he was never affiliated with an art dealer or gallery, and instead, managed the sale of his paintings himself. He went on to exhibit 11 canvases at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, became active in many art organizations and clubs and developed an interest in symbolism, art nouveau and tonalism.
In 1903, the Currans began spending summers at the well-known arts colony Cragsmoor, located 100 miles north of NYC in the Hudson River Valley, a region known for its spectacular mountain vistas and convivial artistic fellowship. They built their own home at Cragsmoor, where the artist painted one of his most famous works, On the Heights. Portraying three young women silhouetted against a blue summer sky dotted with puffy clouds, and poised as though peering into an unknown expanse, On the Heights embodies Curran’s skill at capturing both brilliant light and the heroic grace of the female form—while at the same time evoking a pivotal period when American women faced a new century.
When Curran died in 1942, WWII was gripping the nation, and bucolic images were perhaps at odds with societal concerns of the day. Thus, there were no retrospective or memorial exhibitions held to honor his work. For the first time, museum-goers will have the opportunity to view a wide selection of Curran’s paintings. Installed in a loose chronology that examines themes and subjects of particular interest to the artist, Seeking the Ideal feature works from all phases of Curran’s career, including both large- and small-scale paintings.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalog, which is available in the new Frick Museum Store.
Explore the creative process and context of Charles Courtney Curran in more detail at one of the museum’s many public programs and events, including docent-led tours, gallery talks, lectures, workshops, discussions and bus trips.