The Cornell Fine Arts Museum – an arts oasis in Orlando

I don’t like Orlando.

I think I-4 is Dante’s 10th circle of Hell. I am staunchly anti-Disney. The climate is too hot and humid even for me. None of what I travel for – wide open spaces, outdoor recreation, wildlife, good weather, great museums, art – can be found in the 407.

Until now.

Kristi and I visited the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park, just east of Orlando, for its “Towards Impressionism” exhibition and were glad we did.

I’d never head of the museum before, only coming across the exhibition through a Facebook ad. Rollins College has an enrollment slightly over 3,000, and the Cornell is appropriately scaled for that size. The “Towards Impressionism” exhibit featured 45 works of art and any more would have stretched the limits of its capacity to hold.

The exhibit featured works of 19th Century French landscapes on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Reims in Reims, France; these pictures and their painters – Théodore Rousseau, Camille Corot, Charles-François Daubigny, Henri-Jospeh Harpignies – were the precursor to the Impressionists. The exhibit will move to Seattle following its run in Central Florida, the only other U.S. stop it’s making.

Let’s have a look!

The second picture on view in the exhibition after entering left a lasting impression with us both. This smallish oil painting – no larger than the dimensions of a shoe box top – by Francois-Auguste Ravier sent a chill down our spines.

Francois-Auguste Ravier, "Old Tree on the Plain" at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
Francois-Auguste Ravier, “Old Tree on the Plain” at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

The picture could be the opening shot of a Dracula movie. It has a foreboding quality bordering on creepy. The dead tree. The half-light. The desolate plain.

Ravier was not an artist we were familiar with and are in the process of researching.

The playing-card-sized Renior to the right of this Pissarro told an incredible story in a small amount of space. The woman’s face and blue blouse burst out of the painting. A man is reading to her in the foreground – she looks terribly bored – while another watches from the background looking for an opening to gain her attention.

I’m obviously not the first to make this comment, but it may take on extra impact coming from a rank amateur observer of art as I am, and that is this: nobody paints people like Renoir. The life he gives them; the light – externally and internally. Renoir’s most well-known paintings are of people and this gem provides a taste of why that is.

A small portrait by Renoir next to a Pissarro cityscape at Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
A small portrait by Renoir next to a Pissarro cityscape at Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

The most beguiling painting in the exhibit also belonged to Renoir. There’s a reason I’m not using his first name. The painting to the left of the large Monet in the middle of this picture is titled (in English) “Seascape” or “Normandy Seascape.”

Up close – six or 12 inches away, maybe all the way back to a few feet – it doesn’t look like much. Neither the color nor the composition did a thing for me. Schmears of color on a canvas, muddled, it made me a little queasy, and not in the good way art can make you queasy.

A Renoir landscape – brilliant artist working on my favorite subject matter which he didn’t deal with as much as his aforementioned portraits and paintings of people – and it was a dud! What a letdown.

I stepped to the right. I stepped to the left. I leaned in. I leaned out. I walked away and came back. I glared at the picture, trying to visually wrestle out its beauty. I sneered at it. I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler was sore.

Then I walked away.

It was only after turning back around to view it at a distance of over 10 feet that the picture came to me.

The composition came together like gears in a watch. Everything fell into place.

Left to right, Renoir - the showstopper - Monet and Pissarro at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
Left to right, Renoir – the showstopper – Monet and Pissarro at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum.

I was stunned. This muddled mess – sorry – at 12 inches became a masterpiece before my eyes at 12 feet. It’s not a large painting, it’s colors aren’t bright, it’s motif not action-packed, but it stole the show in this room of masterworks.

I walked in an arc around the painting. First at 10 feet. Backing up all the way to 20, at which point the painting shrunk down to postage stamp size. Still, the picture held its vibrancy, operating on an unusual frequency which lost static and gained clarity the further you moved away from the source. Once you “saw” it this way, from far away, it dominated the room – with subtlety, not speaking up, simply waiting to be recognized.

Imagine a room full of beautiful women. This Renoir was not the tallest of the women, nor the curviest, or most outwardly sexual or provocatively dressed or even possessing the best figure, but she’s the woman you can’t take your eyes off once you notice her – and why that is you can’t quite explain. She has… a quality. This painting has… a quality.

Hush puppies and salad at the Ravenous Pig. (Photo Credit Chadd Scott / TRAVELING WITHOUT KIDS)

And that’s why it’s traveled half-way around the world for people to admire. And that’s why Renoir doesn’t get a first name.

If all this art builds up a powerful hunger – literally – you’re in luck. About a mile from campus you’ll find the Ravenous Pig. Strong bourbon selection, craft cocktails, craft beer, cool bar area, outside seating – and great food.

Pro tip: we arrived right as happy hour (3:00-5:00) was ending. We took advantage of half-price drinks from the happy hour menu while also being able to order apps off the dinner menu. The bread sampler – how can that not be great? – local burrata salad and oyster hush puppies (damn) were divine and plenty to satisfy for dinner.

Their “Cuban” mac-and-cheese is on our list for a return visit.

What do you think?

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1 Comment
  • Jane Everts
    February 19, 2019

    An AWESOME critique!