Yale University Art Gallery

On a recent trip to New York City, I made a detour to see a friend in New Haven, Connecticut. Yes it was fantastic to see my friend, and yes it was delicious to sample some famous New Haven clam apizza from Sally’s, but what’s stuck with me most was my visit to the Yale University Art Gallery.

For the uninitiated, this isn’t just any college art gallery, it’s one of the great fine art collections in the whole of the United States. Seriously, name an artist of any repute, they likely have at least one piece by them. Established in 1832 by artist John Trumbull when he donated 100 of his works depicting the Revolutionary War to begin the collection, his comprehensive depiction of this major historical event is worth the visit all on its own. Fast forward to 2024, and the gallery wields its yearly allowance from Yale’s considerable endowment (listed at $40.7 billion in 2023) to grow its collection in every which way, including form, style and subject.

Unfortunately, what keeps this incredible space under the radar is its location being hours away from the major cities in the area, which is a shame because this world class collection deserves to be seen and appreciated. If I can nudge anyone to make the trip to New Haven, I would say that despite my lofty expectations beforehand, I was still astounded by the sheer quantity of greatness on the walls.

For a double nudge, I wanted to share some artwork that I saw and loved. While this collection of photos is far from extensive (as I didn’t realize til after the fact that I was so enthralled that I left my phone in my pocket almost the whole time), ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, that gives you, the reader, an opportunity to be surprised by what you see on your visit. To that end, think of my photos as a delicious appetizer.

Note: With so much to see and so little time to see it, the photos below were taken with haste. But while the pictures might be slightly askew, and my reviews might be a hair light, my passion runs deep, and that’s really what I’m here to communicate.

It’s not exactly an obscure opinion to say I love van Gogh’s textured painting style; there’s just something about it that’s packed with life. Unfortunately I didn’t capture the detail very well in this photo, but I was more consumed with my experience with the picture as a whole, as I’d never seen The Night Café before. The angles van Gogh captured, the color palette he chose, the lines he dug inside the paint … all of it, perfection.

I gave this picture a passing glance the first time I walked by it, but as I was leaving the room I saw it again and stopped to really look at it. The more I stared the more I adored. It was painted in 1860, but everything about it feels contemporary, and I mean that as a compliment. Her expression is so mischievous and vibrant and it gives me goosebumps. Also, the frame it’s set in is gorgeous.

A simple picture of flowers in a vase. Over the last year I’ve become enraptured by the beauty of simple pictures, and as I gazed at this one from multiple angles, I caught the detail that really makes it stand out …
… from a lower angle, we see that Henri Fantin-Latour painted and re-painted the flower buds, giving them added texture while leaving the rest of the picture painted in a usual smoothness. The more simple the subject of a picture, the more space there is to concentrate on amazing detail.

There’s something very comforting about knowing the countryside has always looked how it does today. It’s easy to be disconnected from what came before us, but looking at this picture from 1889 resets me back to the mindset that no matter when we lived, we’re all part of one contiguous wave of energy; it’s a relay race, and each generation hands the baton off to the next when they reach their end. We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Richard Parkes Bonington died at 26 years old, but his reputation as a painter has become immortal. This picture is striking, with how much detail he managed to fit into such a small canvas. It’s a legitimate masterpiece, with the perspective it’s painted from making us feel like we’re part of the gathered crowd. Oh, how much greatness we missed out from him.

N.C. Wyeth was the first in a three generation line of great American painters, and this is the first time I’d seen his work in-person. The angle at which he painted the stagecoach gives me chills, which turns into full on shivering with the way he manages to convey the cold of the winter mountains. It’s clear Wyeth was ahead of his time, and I’m headed to the library to check out a book on his work ASAP.

There is so much style in this painting, as Florine Stettheimer includes so much detail of who Carl Van Vechten was without making it feel cluttered. Florine had a sharp eye, and knew how to exaggerate in a way that elevated a picture while keeping it comprehensible. I could stare at this for hours and keep noticing new things.

If Wassily Kandinsky is an acquired taste, I assert that it doesn’t take many servings of his work before natural salivation begins to occur. The flowing angles and restricted heaps of color that he uses are so distinctly his, and the more we stare the more we want to keep staring. He makes movement within a still image look spontaneous, when it’s anything but.

Piet Mondrian started his painting career like anyone else: by looking out a window and translating what he saw onto canvas …
… but like many who stick with the practice, Mondrian progressed by rebelling against what he was taught, and taking more pleasure in asking questions instead of trying to answer them. These famous compositions he pivoted to creating later in his life were him going back to the pure basics of form and color, when he openly wondered whether the art of painting was nearing its natural end point. I love angles and minimalism, and while these aspects aren’t necessarily what Mondrian was trying to celebrate within these paintings, art is in the eye of the beholder.

Franz Kline’s chaotic brush strokes may look like the classic “I could’ve done that”, but the response to that is the equally cliché “yeah, but he did.” Kline brought a sense of life to the canvas through his energetic brushstrokes, and arguably no one has been able to replicate his distinct outputs, though many have tried. I’m particularly attracted to his large canvas work, which draws the eye in and forces the vigor onto you.

On the top floor of the gallery was a special exhibit called Munch and Kirchner: Anxiety and Expression, comparing and contrasting the works and lives of Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The part that struck me most about this exhibit was that Kirchner, the younger of the pair by 17 years, viewed their connection as, “He is the end, I am the beginning.” Both were dead before WWII ended, which is an event so long ago that it’s not even forgotten by people living today, rather it’s just a story we’re told. What’s new today, is old tomorrow, is gone the next. Live freely, live for yourself, live más … because soon enough, you won’t live at all.

This exhibit was as much about the two men as it was their work, so I was drawn to their pair of self-portraits hanging side-by-side. I like context when looking at artwork, and an artist’s self-portrait not only conveys their artistic style in a tidy package, it shows us how the artist viewed themselves. You can see Edvard Munch’s classic wavy style in the smoke enveloping him, and if I think this is a great presentation of his image.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s self-portrait is one we can almost feel disappearing as we look at it, which makes us want to look at it even longer, for fear it’s the last time we’ll ever see it. One of my favorite things about Kirchner’s work is how he employed color, even when choosing paper to draw on. It’s a signature part of his style, and it only takes one glance to know it’s him.

The Yale University Art Gallery is one of the great art collections in the United States, and what I’ve presented here isn’t even 1% of the collection on display right now. The Gallery is so full of amazing work, to properly appreciate it would require spending at least one day taking in each floor. Short of having that kind of time though, don’t let the enemy of great be good; just get in there and let your taste guide you to a wonderful experience.

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