Like many people, Paul G. Allen loved art as a kid. He drew rockets and robots and messed around with watercolors and oil paint. His mom kept every scrap of his drawings, bundled him off to museums, and filled their Seattle home with paintings by local artists.
So it’s not surprising that once he could afford it Allen started buying art himself. It’s just that as the co-founder of Microsoft, with an estimated $18 billion fortune, he can afford the kind of pictures most people only dream of — or encounter in museums.
Allen’s first big purchase was an almost abstract Claude Monet image of waterlilies adrift in the mirror-like pond of his garden at Giverny west of Paris. It was painted in 1919 when the artist was already at work on a magnificent suite of waterlilies that he gave to France to celebrate peace at the end of World War I.
More than 6 feet wide, that Monet is a centerpiece of “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection,” opening Sunday at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The show will travel to New Orleans and Seattle after its Minnesota run ends Sept. 18.
Organized by the Portland and Seattle art museums, the exhibit features 39 pictures by a galaxy of Euro-American art stars spanning 400 years, from Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-78) to April Gornik (born 1953). Featured talents range from Canaletto to J.M.W. Turner, Cézanne, Signac, Klimt, Magritte, Hockney and Gerhard Richter. Among the Americans are significant paintings by Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, Maxfield Parrish, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ed Ruscha and that uber-cosmopolitan, John Singer Sargent.
Life and art
Art is just one of many enthusiasms for a guy who owns a 414-foot-long yacht, two pro sports teams — the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers — and a bouquet of namesake institutes for scientific studies of the brain, artificial intelligence, “cell science” and a new “Frontiers Group” to which he lobbed $100 million in March for bioscience research. On the culture front, Allen founded Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum, launched the Seattle Art Fair and collects (and plays) electric guitars — including the legendary Fender Stratocaster that Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock. Busy guy.
But it’s the range and variety of his art collection that dazzled Rachel McGarry, the Art Institute’s associate curator who oversaw installation of “Seeing Nature” in Minneapolis. While the institute proudly boasts of four Monet paintings in its collection, McGarry marveled that Allen is lending five from his.
Arrayed by the waterlily picture, they span 38 years in the artist’s career, from a sun-drenched meadow dotted with wildflowers painted in 1881, to a beclouded fisherman’s cottage overlooking the sea at Normandy the following year, an atmospheric violet-and-gold vista of London’s Waterloo Bridge from 1904, and a Venetian palazzo dissolving into aqueous twilight in 1908.
“This show really is a feast for the senses,” said McGarry. To enhance the lush beauty and visual drama of the paintings, the museum is offering “scent tours,” and several “soundscapes” available via smartphones or equipment on loan from the institution. Insect chirping, grass rustling and sounds from Monet’s Giverny garden will accompany the wildflower meadow, for example, and lapping water and accordion tunes can be heard by “The Serenade, Venice,” a 1907 nocturne by Henri Le Sidaner of gondolas drifting past the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
“We’re adding plenty of seating to encourage people to relax and soak in these sensory experiences,” McGarry said. “We’ll have sight, sound and scent but not taste; there won’t be anything to eat in the galleries!”
Five paintings by Jan Brueghel introduce the theme. A lavishly detailed suite that once belonged to Austrian royalty, the paintings illustrate the pleasures of looking (art, nature), listening (birds, musical instruments), smelling (gardens), touching (armor, fabrics, flesh) and eating (extraordinary heaps of venison, birds and fish surround a banquet table).
Following a loose chronology, a half-dozen pictures of Venice come next, including scenes by Canaletto, turbulent visions by Moran and Turner, and a crisp blue-and-white Manet of reflections in the Grand Canal.
An American smackdown
Gallery two opens with a blast of flame and smoke as Mount Vesuvius erupts and people flee by boat, carriage and foot in a 1770 painting by the Chevalier Volaire. At more than 6 feet wide, “Vesuvius” is a show stopper whose drama is ably matched by David Hockney’s 1998 vista of “The Grand Canyon” on the opposite wall. At 14 feet wide, Hockney’s painting is a 20th-century, New World riposte to the brooding historicism of the volcanic eruption that Volaire painted about the time Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered. A fiery Grand Canyon by Thomas Moran and a moody blue one by Arthur W. Dow complete the American smackdown.
The third and final gallery sounds a more contemplative note with Gustav Klimt’s mysterious “Birch Forest,” a 1903 gathering of mossy sentinels rising from a dappled bed of fallen leaves. Nature is a brooding presence here in Maxfield Parrish’s majestic oak looming over an autumnal riverbank, a surrealistic moonscape of ghostly rocks by Max Ernst, a sexualized “Black Iris” by O’Keeffe, and a sooty gas station cutting into Ed Ruscha’s velvety night sky.
Kudos to McGarry and exhibition designer Michael Lapthorn for so deftly arranging four centuries of art in wildly different styles and subjects ranging from tempest-tossed seas to sunny meadows, turbulent skies and quiet forests.
There’s much more, of course, but for an in-town vacation on a summer day, “Seeing Nature” is transporting.