It’s always disappointing when you’re expecting to see famous artwork but it’s on loan; during my trip to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Spirit of the Dead Watching, one of Gauguin’s most famous paintings, was at the Tate.

But there were compensating surprises, one of which was Study for Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).

Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur, Study for Horse Fair.  Oil on canvas, ca. 1862.  10 1/2″ by 25″.

This miniscule work (above) is the only known study for Bonheur’s monumental masterpiece, The Horse Fair, measuring nearly 8 feet by 17 feet (below). How remarkable that Bonheur extrapolated this commanding, famous artwork from such a diminutive start!

Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur, The Horse Fair.  Oil on canvas, 1853-1855.  8′ 1/4″ by 16′ 7 1/2″.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

It was only in the final Horse Fair that she inserted what is believed to be her self-portrait, the center rider wearing a worker’s smock and cap.  Unlike many female artists in her era, Bonheur was acclaimed during her lifetime, becoming the first woman to win the Cross of the French Legion of Honor.  In presenting this award, Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, announced, “Genius has no sex.”

Like many art history fans, I silently play “name that painter” in any roomful of paintings.  I was clueless with Portrait of a Woman (left) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.  Portrait of a Woman, 1911.  Oil on canvas, 46 3/8″ by 34 5/8″.

As one of the founders of Die Brucke (The Bridge), a group of painters who laid the foundation for German Expressionism, Kircher was enamored with van Gogh, Matisse, and Edvard Munch – and thus his use of Fauvist color.

The last surprise was Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34, one of more than 100 Motherwell paintings about the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) that left Franco in power. Although Motherwell claimed the Elegy series wasn’t political, he described these well known paintings as “private insistence that a terrible death happened should not be forgot.”

The black ovoids and verticals nearly obliterate the white lines and background colors, those of the Spanish flag.  Although dark colors generally recede, Motherwell’s black doesn’t – it seemingly protrudes from the canvas and overpowers the white. Motherwell’s insistence aside, I’m certain that the Elegy paintings were his personal commentary about Franco’s control of Spain.

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34.  Oil on canvas, 1953-54.  80″ by 100″.

That’s it for visits to art museums! The Albright Knox Art Gallery is one hour from Rochester, and is well worth a drive.