Dilettante: Last chance to see 'Mildred Burrage' at the PMA

Posted Wednesday, June 27, 2012 in Culture

Dilettante: Last chance to see 'Mildred Burrage' at the PMA

"Giverny Landscape," 1909, oil on artist's board.

by Jan Brennan

I have very few bad habits — just ask my husband, I’m sure he’d agree — but one thing I am guilty of is wanting to see an art exhibit and yet putting it off … and putting it off … and putting it off … until finally the show is about to close and I have to make a mad dash to the museum in the show’s final week.

I almost did it again with “From Portland to Paris: Mildred Burrage’s Years in France,” which opened in April at the Portland Museum of Art. I finally saw it last week, and oh boy, am I glad I did. It’s running just through July 15, and already its star is fading, eclipsed by the big, impressive “Normandy” show that just opened in the PMA’s main gallery. But “Mildred Burrage” by itself is worth a trip to Portland; the paintings by this lesser-known but fascinating Impressionist are a delight, and their presentation is unpretentious and charming.

"The Flower Garden," circa 1909-1910, oil on canvas.

The show takes up two rooms and two hallways on the second floor of the museum. In contrast to the low lights and dark walls of the Normandy show directly beneath it, the Burrage rooms are painted a sunny yellow and are brightly lit — perfectly setting the stage for the plein-air artworks that mostly depict colorful summertime gardens and landscapes in France, plus a few scenes of Venetian canals and Maine mountains. Also contributing to the casual, outdoorsy mood are camp chairs for visitors to sit on, with attached antique-looking backpacks that contain old-fashioned postcards. Try your hand at copying one of Mildred’s works onto a postcard, then go into the second room and sit at one of two desks to write your thoughts on the card, and “mail” it in the post box there for inclusion on the museum’s website. Kudos to the show’s co-curators, the PMA’s Margaret E. Burgess and Maine State Historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., for setting a friendly tone that matches the show’s subject matter and the artist herself.

"Reflecting Pool in Front of a Villa," Dec. 19, 1913, oil on panel.

Shettleworth was, in fact, a friend of Mildred Burrage, who died in 1983. She was a Portland native, born in 1890 to artist Ernestine Giddings Burrage and Henry Sweetser Burrage, a Baptist minister who in 1907 became Maine’s first State Historian (the position Shettleworth now holds). Mildred learned art from her mother and, still at a very young age, from various art teachers in Portland’s West End and later at Togus, where the family lived while Henry Burrage served as chaplain of the Disabled Veterans home. After graduating from Cony High School, Mildred spent two years at Miss Wheeler’s School in Providence, R.I., where her studies focused on drawing, painting and art history. After her first year at Miss Wheeler’s, in the summer of 1909, she was invited to join Mary Colman Wheeler’s “study abroad” program at her summer home in Giverny, France — just next door to Claude Monet’s house with its already-famous water garden.

"Le Jardin (The Garden)," circa 1909-1910, oil on canvas.

This exhibit covers the years 1909 to 1914, when Burrage studied and painted in France, Italy and Maine. During those years she was a very busy young lady, indeed. She met Monet, became friends with his family, attended Gertrude Stein’s salon, watched Isadora Duncan dance, and had tea with British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. She co-authored a play, and had her articles on art published in newspapers in Chicago, Boston, Portland and Augusta. She exhibited her paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the Art Institute of Chicago, various salons and shows in Paris, and at the PMA. One of her paintings won second place among 150 competitors at the International Art Union in Paris, earning her a prize of 1,000 francs. She taught art for one year at Miss Wheeler’s School.

And all of this was accomplished before she turned 25 years old.

It’s fun to see about 70 artworks done at the dawn of an artist’s career. Her style had not yet crystallized: Sometimes she applied a heavy impasto, sometimes not; some works are quite realistic, others veer into pointillism. And if you want to be picky, you can find shadows that don’t fall in exactly the right places (Can a round orange create a pointed shadow?), and the mooring poles on Venice’s Grand Canal are inexplicably just as wavery above the water line as below it. But the raw talent is always there, even in works done when she was little more than a teenager. You can almost smell the skin of that orange with the rectangular shadow, and feel the cool smoothness of its accompanying ceramic pitcher and bowl. “Chicken and Figure under Archway,” done when she was 20 or younger, reminds me of Vermeer’s "The Little Street." And if the “unfinished” quality of some of her Impressionist paintings makes you question her skill, just look at the intricate, detailed architectural sketches of churches and chateaux in her notebooks. This kid could draw!

Any of her several paintings titled “French Landscape” can hold their own against similar works done by her elders. And those lovely, light-filled garden scenes — all lime-green leaves and purple shadows — are pure perfection.

You can make the comparisons for yourself, as the show contains some works by others in her Giverny circle. As for me, I’m fascinated by this prodigy, and can’t wait to see what she did as she matured. Those works will be shown, eventually; the museum was given her art collection, and it is so big and complex that it will be shown in phases. This show represents Phase 1, the five years that began with her first summer in France and ended with her fleeing the country as World War I combat broke out. As for the rest of her long and prolific career — stay tuned!

“From Portland to Paris: Mildred Burrage’s Years in France” is on view through July 15 at The Portland Museum of Art, located at 7 Congress Square. For hours, directions and ticket prices, see www.portlandmuseum.org or phone 775-6148.

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