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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sir Alfred J. Munnings

I had always thought of Sir Alfred J. Munnings (1878-1959) exclusively as the portraitist of the upper class on horseback. His Mrs. Ronald Tree on Blue Ridge (1925) was what stuck in my mind. It’s a real period piece. A chic, but rather staid portrait of Mrs. Tree (Nancy Lancaster, née Langhorne) accompanied by her son on a pony and a lurcher riding through the elegant grounds of Ditchley Park. So I was quite blown away by the exhibition of Munnings’s work at The National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

Certainly there are the equine pictures, but there are also early pastoral scenes of the English countryside whose light and liveliness recalls the work of Winslow Homer. I was struck by Munnings’s deft use of pigment and the extraordinary animation of his brushwork—such confidence and skill.

Among the paintings of riders and horses are two of Florence Munnings, the artist’s first wife. The earlier one, a gorgeous, lushly painted work, shows her riding in the woods, she’s wearing a scarlet redingote and stylish panama. The light is dappled the sun is bright, but there is also shade. The horse lifts its head to the side, alert as if it has heard something in the underbrush. Munnings achieves a real sense of the experience: the movement of rider and horse, the coolness of the wooded setting, the sparkling spring day. The brushwork used to compose the background and the hind leg of the horse is dazzling.

Across from this painting is another portrait of Florence completed the following year (1914). A much more restrained portrait in terms of style, this time Florence is dressed in a formal black riding habit and appears more serious. She’s riding in open country next to a stone wall. Munnings uses touches of color to describe features in the landscape, daubs of yellow signifying the blooming gorse by the wall or glint of sun in the distance. The subdued quality of the painting becomes more pronounced after one reads that Florence killed herself just months after it was completed. Two years before, on her wedding night she had taken cyanide in a first suicide attempt but was revived. Significantly, according to the wall panel, Munnings who was a prolific diarist never once mentioned her in his journals.

Upstairs is a glamorous portrait of Munnings’s second wife, Violet, standing by her horse. It’s a striking composition with the figure in black against the gray horse with dramatic light raking across them. For all it’s stylish allure, it’s also a tender portrait. The horse bends his head in attentive acquiescence to its mistress who might be nickering at him. The close relationship is reflected in the title, My Horse is My Friend: the Artist’s Wife and Isaac (1922). In addition to being an accomplished horsewoman and easy on the eyes, Violet was also astute, observing of her husband: “He was never such a good artist after he married me. He had establishments to keep up, more expenses to meet. It meant painting for money.”

Paul Mellon is also here astride Dublin, a horse that according to Mellon was as strong as a locomotive and: “could have jumped the Eiffel Tower. I think it is Dublin more than anything else who assured my lifelong addiction to hunting.” From 1933, the painting, though no doubt a valued keepsake for Mr. Mellon, is somewhat lackluster bearing up Violet Munnings’s observation.

Other paintings of note in the show are the striking Above the Wood (1915), which recalls not only Homer but also Hopper in its dramatic light (a quality also present in Violet's portrait), and Tagg’s Island (1919). I was surprised to see the latter was completed hard-on-the-heels of World War I. The carefree gaiety depicted suggested it was pre-war. This painting has a strong George Bellows feel. Munnings captures the individual expressions of the bright young things depicted with great flair. The shimmering Near Langham Pool (1930) records an Arcadian spot revered by Munnings. “From 1919 to 1935 I used to paint there, bathe there, row there, walk there, ride there. To know it was three miles away gave me distinct happiness.” The area was destroyed when it was turned into a pumping station. “No pen could describe what happened to that Arcadia…On still summer nights the sound of it pumping millions of gallons from the river to London can be heard miles away."

Seeing these lively paintings was a revelation. I thought of Violet Munnings words. Too bad her husband was weighed down with financial responsibilities and devoted his time to commissions that blunted his talent. In his early works we see real genius. By contrast, his later works are anemic and bland.   

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