Picks and Pans Main: Etc.

updated 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE ANNENBERG COLLECTION

It is one of the last great private collections of art and, like rare jewels, it has long been hidden away, but in May, Walter and Lee Annenberg's entire collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces, which usually hangs in their California mansion, Sunnylands, appeared in public for the first time—at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the first of three U.S. showings.

Annenberg, 81, founder of TV Guide, began collecting art with his wife, Lee, 71, in the '50s. While the couple has long been courted by museums around the world, they have refused to designate the one that will house their treasures. Advancing age has apparently increased the pressure on them to decide, and since the Annenbergs have ruled out creating a private museum, this tour seems to be a way of sizing up potential sites for the collection.

For now the touring exhibition offers the first public chance to look at a beautiful group of oils, watercolors and drawings, most of them unfamiliar works by familiar masters. By today's mega-exhibition standards, the Annenbergs' is not a vast holding: There are 50 works. But the collection includes eight Cézannes, six Renoirs, six Monets and five Van Goghs, along with such rarities as pages from two of Cézanne's sketchbooks. One of the most striking oils is Vincent van Gogh's Woman Rocking a Cradle (1889). The artist painted five versions of this image, perhaps the show's best-known work. His model was Mme. Roulin, wife of the postmaster in Aries, France, where Van Gogh was living. A commanding figure, Mme. Roulin holds a slack cord of her newborn daughter's cradle, which rests beyond the picture frame. Her billowing, malachite-green skirt is barely contained by the curves of a wooden chair. A fantastic floral wallpaper of pink dahlias springs up behind her.

Equally powerful is Monet's moody Camille Monet on a Garden Bench (1873). One of Monet's few uses of psychological insight in his art, the work depicts a couple whose relationship is enigmatic, in an idyllic outdoor setting of sunshine and shadow. A mysterious man leans over a garden bench toward Camille, Monet's wife. She uneasily faces away from him; he smiles faintly. Also affecting are a Cèzanne oil, its surface laid on by palette knife; an oddly disturbing Degas pastel of two women at a milliner's shop; and a Boudin seascape showing Princess Metternich, who called herself "the best-dressed monkey in Paris."

The Annenberg works will be in Philadelphia until Sept. 17. They (minus Cèzanne's notebooks) are slated to be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from May to August 1990. Then they go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There's a fine catalog, by exhibit curators Colin B. Bailey and Joseph J. Rishel and associate Mark Rosenthal.

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