Rainy Day Museum

Alfred George Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

Alfred Stevens’s “Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt” (1885)

We typically scoff when the weather forecasters tell us that rain is on the way. Well, today it finally happened. Not that the heavens opened up, but my windshield did get a bit dirty. So Martine and I decided to visit the Hammer Museum in Westwood, which is located only a few hundred paces from where I work. I knew from passing it many times that the focus was on modern art, but there are two galleries with European art from the 19th century and earlier.

The painting which most caught my eye was by the Belgian painter Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1823-1906). It was an 1885 portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). I was particularly impressed with the theatrical-style lighting from the left, including a striking glint around the model’s right eye. At the height of her career, Bernhardt looks like a commanding figure, even with the frilly ribbon around her neck. Her lips are pursed as if determined to get her way, yet she is delightfully feminine at the same time.

Also impressive was a Titian entitled “Portrait of a Man in Armor” and Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Wearing a Black Hat” (both below).

Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat”

Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat”

Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor”

Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in Armor”

It’s not that the museum’s holdings were all portraits: It’s just that it was the portraits that most held my attention.

What did not hold my attention was the museum’s substantial holdings of contemporary art. Call me a Philistine if you will, or even a Visigoth, but I prefer art that holds my attention. Stevens’s portrait of Bernhardt had me coming back several times. I did not even feel like entering the contemporary galleries after even the most cursory glances of their contents.