When you see a movie, book, play, or art exhibition described as "crowd-pleasing," it may seem to imply that, while the masses love the book, play, or artworks, the critics do not. Reading such reviews, you sometimes hear the sound of critical nose sniffing, as in critiques of the sculptural glasswork by the very popular Dale Chihuly, say. People who enjoy viewing his colorful pieces don't care if the critics ask, "But is it art?" Some art critics aren't all that excited about attending their 100th exhibition of French Impressionist work, either.
So it's doubly nice when you feel an art exhibition will please both casual museum goers and sniffy critics. That's certainly the case for the latest big show at San Francisco's de Young museum, Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland. There's not a dud in the bunch of these 55 paintings from the Scottish National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, and National Gallery of Modern Art. Not only is the work of many, many famous European artists here, each painting is in spectacular condition and shown under beautiful lighting.
Take the Botticelli, for instance, The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (circa 1490), painted in tempura and gold on canvas. The blue of the virgin's cape and the pink of her dress, as she kneels above the baby in a flowering garden, are extraordinarily vivid, as are the shadows on the blocky stone wall behind her. Lacking the assortment of angels and other beings that often crowd such Renaissance scenes, it is a simple, more naturalistic image: only the loving mother, the sweet-faced baby, the bushes abloom in pink roses surrounding them, and a portion of that surprisingly dramatic wall. It is the first painting you come to in the exhibition (your first opportunity ever to view it in this country), and it is dazzling.
Then you move on to a Titian, a Veronese, a shockingly good painting by a teenage Velázquez, an early Vermeer...a soulful Rembrandt and a gorgeous portrait by John Singer Sargent...Gauguin, Degas, a wonderful Cézanne and a surprising Matissse...Monet, Picasso, and Max Ernst...plus paintings by others who may not be household names but could be, such as Alexei von Jawlensky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and the great Fauvist André Derain. On display is probably some of the very best work by these artists that you are ever going to see. (Click on the artist's name to see and read more about his--yep, they're all by men--painting.)
And then there's some fine work from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. My favorite is an 1804 self-portrait by Sir David Wilkie, though I doubt he was a "sir" then, since he painted the portrait when he was just 20. His tousled red hair and the thoughtful, even brooding look he gives the viewer make him appear astonishingly young and modern. (He reminds me of my friend the artist and writer Jonathon Keats.)
And I wouldn't want you to miss Allan Ramsay's beautiful portrait of The Artist's Wife: Margaret Lindsay of Evelick, painted in 1758, six years after they eloped (and her father never forgave her for marrying a bum of an artist). With a gorgeous, intricately designed lace shawl over a mauve dress, a blue ribbon tying up her braided hair, Margaret, who has been arranging flowers, has turned to her husband with a blossom in her hand, as if she were saying just then, "Oh, there you are."
I could go on and on about almost every one of these paintings, but you get the...picture. Highly recommended, especially if you're not going to make it to Edinburgh anytime soon.
Through May 31, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, S.F., 415.750.3600; deyoungmuseum.org.