CLEVELAND, Ohio — Reading donor credits on wall labels at the Cleveland Museum of Art may sound like a dull way to spend time. But consider this: it’s a great way to find out whom we have to thank for placing one of America’s greatest art museums at our doorstep, with free general admission, no less.
The list of storied Cleveland names that appear on the museum’s labels includes those of Jeptha H. Wade II, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., John Long Severance, Elisabeth Severance Prentiss, Graham Gund II, and Agnes Gund, George Bickford, Emery May Norweb, Greta Millikin, Katherine White. Increasingly, there’s also Scott Mueller, the CEO of Dealer Tire and current chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.
Now, however, it’s time to pay special attention to Clevelanders Joseph and Nancy Keithley, the latest big-league donors to join the aforementioned list.
Today, the museum is opening its big new fall exhibition, “Impressionism to Modernism: The Keithley Collection,’’ devoted to the Keithley’s stunning gift in 2020 of more than 100 works of art worth “more than’’ $100 million, as the institution said in what was likely an understatement.
Built over the preceding 20 years, the Keithley Collection represents the biggest single gift in monetary value received by the museum since the pathbreaking 1958 bequest of $34 million left by Hanna, worth $352 million today.
Trained as an engineer, Joe Keithley is the former chairman, president and CEO of Solon-based Keithley Instruments, Inc., which he led for 17 years before realizing a windfall in the late 1990s when he sold his shares.
He and Nancy, a trustee of the museum since 2001, and a trustee of the Musical Arts Association, which oversees the Cleveland Orchestra, tapped advice from several Cleveland museum directors and numerous curators. As the Keithleys said in a 2020 interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, the museum officials never asked whether the institutions would ultimately benefit.
The Keithleys also said at the time that they were making the donation in part because they have no children and because they are enthusiastic philanthropists.
Beyond the impressive monetary value of their gift, what matters most is its artistic quality and impact, which is considerable.
The big picture
Starting Sunday, Clevelanders can judge for themselves how the Keithley donation is changing the museum by nudging it firmly in several delightful directions at once.
We’re not talking chopped liver here. The gift includes five paintings by Pierre Bonnard; four each by Maurice Denis and Édouard Vuillard; two each by Milton Avery, Georges Braque, Gustave Caillebotte, Joan Mitchell, and Félix Vallotton; and individual works by Henri-Edmond Cross, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Nicolas de Stael, and Andrew Wyeth.
The gift also encompasses scores of works on paper, including six watercolors by the American modernist John Marin; seven prints by Mitchell; some knockout drawings by Matisse and Bonnard; a spectacular Eugene Delacroix pen-and-ink sketch of a horse; and a sheaf of Dutch Old Master drawings.
On top of all that, there are traditional, Chinese ceramics, modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics, 20th-century Chinese ink paintings, and European decorative objects.
It’s quite a hoard. The museum has already given Clevelanders a taste of the Keithley Collection by sprinkling 15 works throughout the permanent collection galleries starting in the summer of 2020. But with all of the works on view now, it’s possible finally to get a comprehensive view. The show includes 112 donated works, plus nine promised gifts and another 13 on loan.
In addition, the museum has included some 26 works from its pre-existing collection to provide context by illustrating how the Keithley gifts resonate with and expand the museum’s holdings.
Arrayed across nine principal rooms, the show is organized not by chronology or geography, but according to comfortably loose themes evoking the ways in which the Keithleys lived with their collection at home, mixing and matching artworks from different periods and continents.
For example, a gallery devoted to “The Natural World Transformed,’’ juxtaposes a 1914 Matisse painting of tulips in a vase with a half-dozen delicate and painstaking studies of tulips by the 17th-century Dutch painter Pieter Holsteyn II that detail minute gradations of delicate red stripes on white blossoms.
Also on display in the room is a pair of 16th-century Ming Dynasty ceramics, including a yellow glazed bowl with exquisitely curved contours that taper gracefully to a slender lip.
Rounding out the room is the 17th-century “Still Life with Plums,’’ by French painter Pierre Dupuis; a series of eight early 19th-century lithographs of fruits by British artist George Brookshaw; and five paintings by the French late 19th-century painter Maurice Denis, and his contemporary, Dutch artist Jan Verkade.
The collectors’ spirit
Beyond the obvious delight in artistic diversity displayed by the gallery, the installation reveals a few things about the Keithleys and the sub currents that flow through their collection.
They obviously admire the intimacy, patience, and close observation embodied by the Brookshaw lithographs, the Holsteyn watercolors, and the Dupuis still life, in which fresh plums glisten with dewdrops. The paintings also embody a delicate strength that’s evident in the Chinese ceramics.
The Matisse still life, like so many of his works, radiates a life-affirming freshness, along with a desire to reinvent painting and to see the world anew, while also building on tradition.
Those qualities are also embodied in the adjacent paintings by Denis and Verkade, members of the Nabis, a late 19th-century movement in French painting that took its name from the Hebrew word for “prophets.” The museum explored the movement in a major recent exhibition that included several works from the Keithley Collection.
Members of the Nabis, including Bonnard and Vuillard, considered themselves leaders of the next generation following the Impressionists Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
The younger painters focused on cozy images of everyday life depicted in a style that emphasized flat, interlocking areas of color and pattern — a radical approach at the time. The Nabis represent the single biggest enthusiasm of the Keithleys, while also underscoring their passion for color, perhaps the show’s biggest unifying theme.
Key works that crystallize the Keithleys’ interest in color include a mighty but modestly scaled 1906 Braque painting, “The Port of l’Estaque,’’ in which the artist used brilliant, stained glass hues to sculpt a landscape by exploiting the spatial and optical push-and-pull effect of carefully juxtaposed warm and cool colors.
The “Pink Cloud,’’ an 1896 painting of a sunset near the sea by the Pointillist painter Henri Edmond-Cross, is painted in tones of sapphire, emerald, coral, and cobalt violet that soothe the eye and the mind.
The painting buttresses the museum’s wonderful recent purchase of “Banks of the Oise at Dawn,’’ 1888, by the French painter Louis Hayet, the first Pointillist work to enter the collection, which is displayed in the show next to the Edmond-Cross.
The show’s final room, devoted almost entirely to paintings and prints by Joan Mitchell, doubles down on color as a guiding enthusiasm of the Keithleys.
Inspired by natural landscapes in rural France and suburban Westchester County, New York, the paintings and prints evoke the sensation of being immersed in nature and light through Mitchell’s use of layered, flowing, and brilliantly colorful calligraphic brushstrokes.
The Mitchell paintings cap a sequence of American paintings that include superb watercolors of forest and coastal scenes in Maine by Marin, several buoyantly colorful backyard landscapes by Kent, Ohio painter Joseph O’Sickey; and the austere and witty Milton Avery paintings, depicting chickens in a farmyard and a view of the sea called “Blue Bay.”
Despite the Keithleys’ enthusiasm for luminous color, one of the most sensational paintings in their collection is a virtually monochromatic work by Vilhelm Hammershøi, a Danish realist known for his evocations of light, silence, and stillness.
Painted around 1906, the same year as Braque’s explosive view of the harbor at l’Estaque, the Hammershøi, a promised Keithley gift, depicts a woman in a black dress with a lace collar standing in an austere interior illuminated with pale sunlight pouring through double-hung sash windows.
Light bouncing up from the bare floor in the foreground casts an eerie, bottom-up glow on a door on the right side of the room. The woman appears to be waiting for someone to enter through the door, but the scene is fundamentally ambiguous. More than anything it’s a study in light and mood.
What makes it a Keithley painting is the delicacy and finesse of its fine-grained observation, and its insistence that miraculous beauty that can be found even among the most humdrum settings. It’s a painting that takes zero for granted.
Another important point about the Hammershøi, and many other works in the Keithley show, is the depth and breadth that it adds to the museum’s permanent collection. Early Danish modernism has not been one of the museum’s strengths, at least not until now.
Before the Keithley gift, the museum had perhaps a half-dozen fine paintings by Bonnard. Now it has enough to be able to trace the artist’s long-term relationship with his wife and muse, Marthe de Méligny.
One of the paintings also promised as a future gift from the Keithleys is “Nude Rising from a Bed,” a smoldering 1912 painting portraying Marthe in a simply furnished bedroom. The entire painting — not just Marthe’s slender body — is suffused with a subtle erotic delight. There’s nothing like it in the museum’s collection.
A picky complaint about the show: A room devoted to works by the important and under-recognized French Impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte, feels more like a passageway than a destination in itself.
It’s an architectural problem that’s not unique to the Keithley exhibition, but it has the unfortunate effect of downplaying the importance of a powerhouse 1882 Caillebotte, another promised Keithley gift, that depicts chickens, game birds, and hare in a shop window.
The painting, which portrays the clammy textures of freshly butchered meat as it would be seen by shoppers on a Paris street, speaks volumes about transformations in city life in the late 19th century, with supply chains capable of delivering fresh food to a vast, rising middle class. It’s also a relatively atypical Impressionist subject, and all the more valuable for that reason. It deserved a more prominent spot in the show.
Leading by example
Despite the glitch, the Keithley exhibition is a watershed event for the museum because of the example set by the donors.
The Cleveland museum is a wealthy institution, with an endowment now worth roughly $1 billion, which sounds staggering enough. But because of some very smart restrictions placed on that money, income from only half of the endowment may be used to purchase art.
In an age of rising inequality, in which the wealthy and the superrich are bidding art prices into the stratosphere, the museum must rely increasingly on gifts if it is to fill gaps and add works to its collection that match its historic levels of extremely high quality.
In recent decades, Cleveland-based collectors have sold or auctioned important works that could have added enormously to the museum’s collection. Other collectors have tapped the expertise of the museum’s curators without making any gifts, at least not yet.
The Keithleys chose a different path. And for that, we can all be grateful. The show devoted to their collection exemplifies the generosity that has made Cleveland an amazingly rich city of the arts.
Note: The Keithley Collection exhibition is on view through Sunday, Jan. 8. Timed tickets start at $15 for adult non-members. Details here.