Here she is caught in mid-step, dressed in summer whites and holding a hand to her hat to fight a sudden breeze from snatching it off her head. This is a quick and emphatic capture of a summer moment by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) of his friend Judith Gautier (1845-1917) near her home in Saint-Enogat, France. Gautier was an author, Asian scholar and playwright. Her 1893 novel, The Old Man of the Mountain, is set at the time of the Crusades and tells of an Islamic sect of fundamentalist terrorists called The Assassins.
She established intimate friendships with composer Richard Wagner and novelist Victor Hugo. She was quite the individual.
These were the kinds of people Sargent’s career had allowed him to hang out with. You don’t need to know all of this background, but, acknowledging the relation of painter and subject and why he chose to render her for posterity is certainly interesting. Sargent titled the painting, done between 1883 and 1885, A Gust of Wind (Judith Gautier). Which I appreciated –because on Monday when I ambled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see her, I encountered similar chance zephyrs that gave me cause to hold on to my brim.
The 74 paintings and works on paper placed this week on permanent exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts all possess intriguing backstories, which is one significant reason that James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin chose to give them to the VMFA while they're living. These pieces are from their personal collection that they brought together and lived with for the past 24 years. They have an established relationship with the VMFA.
In a small adjacent lounge that features photographs of the McGlothlins, the VMFA makes a gesture toward giving an impression of how these paintings might look in a stylish home with couches and chairs. James McGlothlin, from Grundy in Southwest Virginia, graduated from the College of William & Mary and from law started his professional business career in coal. His commercial interests branched out and he made millions. He’s since become one of the state’s largest philanthropists, and that’s his and his wife’s name in the VMFA’s most recent addition.
Here, too, is a fantastic portrait by Robert Henri (1865-1909), who took special interest in making images of recent arrivals to these shores and others who were lost from view in the so-called Gilded Age. Henri led the “Ashcan” art movement that concerned itself with life in the city streets and tenements. His subject here, however, is Bertha Adeline Waki Kaji (1887-1959), who is far more than she appears as Miss Kaji Waki.
While well-dressed as a socialite and depicted in a full-length painting, she’s not gazing off into the distance but looking at you as though a social crowd has parted and you stand, perhaps surprised, at the sight of her. Someone must make an introduction. She is, in fact, the paternal granddaughter of Count Katsu – Japan’s “Last Samurai.” His son was Kaji Umetaro, who married his English tutor and Christian missionary Clara Whitney (1861-1936) when she was six months pregnant.
After relinquishing her adolescent disgust toward interracial unions, and after 25 years in Japan, 14 years of marriage and six children, Clara Whitney Kaji up and left for Pennsylvania. Her diary makes no mention of why.
Bertha's aristocratic family line differentiated her from many of Henri’s street subjects, yet she was both an immigrant and, in the sense of that time, exotic.
And here is how she looked at the McGlothlins' house.
"Miss Kaji Waki" in the McGlothlins' home (photo by Harry Kollatz Jr.)
One image that struck me doesn't show any faces and portrays an audience of working- and middle-class people attending an entertainment. Everett Shinn (1876-1953) captured in pastel on paper the Back Row, Follies Bergére, 1900. While Shinn isn't showing us the performers on the stage, he's putting these ordinary theatergoers in the spotlight.
You can meditate before many of these pieces that range from portraits such as these to landscapes and urban scenes, from yachters to Broadway coach riders in a blinding winter storm.
Give yourself some time. Between the McGlothlin collection and the Rodin show downstairs, you can make a full day at the museum. Or if you live nearby, you can wander in and appreciate that you can experience this variety in one place.
Everett Shinn's "Back Row, Follies Bergére, 1900"