Sona Johnston

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In a Subtle Light;

With great care and little fuss, BMA curator Sona Johnston helps bring out the detail and harmony in works by Monet contemporary Theodore Robinson.
The Baltimore Sun
November 3, 2004 Wednesday FINAL Edition

by: Mary Carole McCauley

There seems to be a psychic connection between them, the asthmatic, awkward young painter and the genteel woman who has worked as a museum curator for four decades.

No matter that the painter, Theodore Robinson, has been dead for more than 100 years.

Look closely at Robinson's paintings and you learn something about him, about painting, about 19th-century France and about Impressionism. But also, perhaps, you learn something about curator Sona Johnston as well.

That connection is implicit in the quietness, the simplicity, the reticence of painting after painting. It's implicit in the way the moonlight strikes the walls of a farmhouse, drawing attention to their everyday beauty without making a big fuss about it.

In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny is the culmination of Johnston's career, the past 35 years of which have been spent at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The show, which brings together 59 of Robinson's works and five by his friend, Claude Monet, runs through Jan. 9 at the BMA.

During a press screening of the exhibit, Johnston stood before an 1892 painting, Moonlight at Giverny, in which the blue of the nighttime sky and the white walls of a mysterious old building are beckoning, soft and cool.

"What I love so much is the light," she said, "the nature of the shadows in the foreground, the way the roof blends into the hill. You can sense the atmosphere very distinctly."

It's because of qualities like these that Robinson is considered the leading American Impressionist after Mary Cassatt. In the mid-1970s, shortly after she curated her first show on Robinson for the BMA, Johnston began delving into the artist's unpublished diaries. Her edited version will be published in a few years.

The diaries depict a man who, though shy and lacking in self-confidence, was fiercely independent and pursued his art valiantly until he died prematurely, at age 43, from the asthma that had burdened him since childhood.

They make it clear, Johnston said, that the bond between Robinson and Monet, as well as their long conversations on artistic issues, benefited both men. "The diaries give us glimpses into both of their lives," she said. "What wasn't known before now was the extent of their friendship."

In the three decades that she has been perusing the diaries, Johnston has become the world's leading expert on Robinson.

"Sona is a remarkable treasure for us," said Jay Fisher, the BMA's chief curator. "She's an object-centered person, a very visual person. She has an artist's sensitivity to materials and the experience of making art."

The adjective used most frequently in describing the 65-year-old Johnston is "lovely." She's tall and slender, and her gray hair swoops up and over her forehead like frozen waves in a frozen sea. It's not difficult to imagine her wearing high-buttoned boots or carrying a parasol.

As a curator, Johnston's hallmark is a passion for the artwork. She even treasures the "imperfections" in the paintings - an indistinct hand in Gathering Plums (1891), the way the corner of The Duck Pond (1891) deliberately fades away.

"I love the fact that he doesn't feel the need to go to the edge of the canvas and finish the painting," Johnston said.

It is the kind of refined and cultivated - but unexpected - touch that typifies Johnston's approach, her colleagues say, the kind of detail that rewards the attentive observer.

"She's much more visually oriented than most curators are," said her husband, William Johnston, a curator at the Walters Art Museum. "She likes works that require looking at, studying and thinking about."

In a Sona Johnston show, you will not find an artwork selected merely because it fits into a social, cultural or academic hypothesis. Every piece can justify its place on aesthetic grounds.

"Sona's not comfortable with a lot of drama," Fisher said. "Her choices are more refined and well-orchestrated. She's not the kind of curator who will want a wild flurry of wall color in the galleries."

Colleagues praise Johnston's meticulous research. It was she who discovered that Robinson paired compositions that suggest changes in the time of day, season or weather - just like Monet's lilac bushes and his views of the Seine River at Argenteuil.

No one had realized that Robinson's two canvases of rooftops and orchards and his two grain-stacks are variations on a theme, because the artworks in each series had been split up and were hanging in different museums and private collections.

"It was a major insight," Johnston said. "These things that I had thought were copies were different."

Now reunited, the paintings are shown side by side in the current show to great effect. Johnston also uncovered archival photographs that are displayed in the show for the first time, and her captions include previously unpublished excerpts from the diaries.

After leaving Baltimore, the exhibit will travel to the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, and then the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. "It's a wonderful show," said Elizabeth Kornhauser, the Wadsworth's curator of American paintings and sculpture.

"We're really excited about bringing it here for our audiences. It's visually dazzling, and very bold. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first occasion that an American curator has had the daring to showcase an American Impressionist alongside a French Impressionist. And not just any French Impressionist, but Monet."

Kornhauser was impressed with the exhibit's sharp focus on the six years that Robinson spent in Giverny. "Instead of doing this big, blockbuster show, this has a quieter, more intellectual focus," she said. "The minute you see this show, you know that the curator has had years of research and study under her belt. When you come away you've learned something, and that isn't always the case when museums do Impressionist shows."

Johnston's exacting and impassioned scholarship also helped the BMA acquire rarely lent pieces for the show. Museums are loath to ship works by such in-demand painters as Monet across the country - particularly in the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere of heightened security.

"Sona usually gets what she wants, but she doesn't do it by aggressiveness," Fisher said. "She does it by persistence and solid arguments. There are pictures in this exhibition that the institutions that own them didn't want to lend.

"Sona only wanted to include Monets that Robinson actually saw or could have seen in Giverny. A generic Monet wouldn't do. And when you have the greatest expert in the world on Theodore Robinson telling the other museum that we need these two pictures together to make this particular point, that there's not another painting owned by another institution anywhere in the world that would make that point as well, it's much more difficult for them to say no."

Johnston may be ladylike, but she's no pushover. Just ask her courtly, bow-tied husband. Not only is William Johnston the Walters' associate director, he's also the curator of 18th- and 19th-century art. In addition to mounting shows, both curators also acquire artworks for their museums, either by buying them outright or through a donation.

Given the similarity of the couple's jobs, and given the two art museum's geographical proximity - not to mention rivalry - there are times when the Johnstons must have very interesting dinner conversations. Or, perhaps, very interesting silences.

"There are things we won't talk about to one another," Sona Johnston says. "We'll never tell the other anything that would affect our institution in an adverse way."

After all, art is the earliest love of her life.

Johnston was born in January 1939, the daughter of Armenian immigrants. One of young Sona's favorite activities was paging through the art books belonging to her uncle, a gifted painter and watercolorist who lived next door. (He later became a dean of the Rhode Island School of Design.)

While attending Sarah Lawrence College in New York in the late 1950s, she decided to give painting a whirl, but found that she wasn't cut out for the occasionally truculent art then in vogue at the tail end of the abstract expressionist movement.

"One day, in frustration, one of my teachers came up to me and said, 'I want you to paint something ugly,'" she recalled. "I did a really brutal painting, but then I covered it up with pretty colors."

After graduating, she began studying art history at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. It was there, during a Friday afternoon tea, that she noticed a young man wearing a European-cut suit of dark blue pinstripes. She appreciated the taste necessary to acquire and value such a suit despite the more casual prevailing fashion.

William Johnston, in turn, had noticed the tall, striking woman with the shimmering black hair and deep brown eyes.

For a time, they carried on a long-distance romance. Sona left graduate school to take a job at Boston's Fine Arts Museum, and William Johnston went to work in Baltimore for the Walters in 1966. When the couple married in 1967, Sona moved to Charm City.

She joined the now-defunct Peale Museum, and was recruited by the BMA in 1970. She has worked there since.

During her tenure, Johnston acquired a pair of Tiffany columns for the museum "at a rock-bottom price," Fisher said, and helped open the BMA's Jacobs wing, with its collection of Old Masters. She has curated exhibits and written catalogs on Benjamin West, an American who was court painter to England's George III at the time of the Revolutionary War; on 18th- and 19th-century American painters and on 19th-century French art. She has worked on shows featuring mosaics dating from A.D. 400 to classic Renaissance sculptures.

"In an increasingly narrow and specialized age, there aren't many curators today who have Sona's breadth and depth," said the BMA's director, Doreen Bolger. "In her elegant and gentle way, she covers a huge, huge waterfront. She's as comfortable speaking with the Queen's Keeper of Pictures as with a curator in Iowa. She's pretty exceptional."

Even Johnston's most ardent admirers, however, admit she isn't suited for everything.

"Sona could never be a curator of contemporary art," Fisher said. "She thinks that art should be beautiful, and you can talk to her up one side and down the other, and you'll never convince her otherwise. She holds her values very strongly, and that's something to celebrate."

As beautiful as Robinson's paintings are, Johnston is the first to acknowledge that he was less gifted than his groundbreaking friend.

"Monet was a genius," she said. "Robinson's paintings are more intimate than Monet's. His palette is more muted and he has a less robust way of painting."

The exhibit makes a persuasive case for the unique charms of restraint, the extraordinary gifts it has to confer - whether in a work of art or in a human being.

Sona Johnston Age: 65 Birthplace: Cambridge, Mass. Job: Senior curator of painting and sculpture, Baltimore Museum of Art Previous posts: Worked in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and at the former Peale Museum in Baltimore Education: Bachelor's degree in art history, Sarah Lawrence College; graduate studies at New York University's Institute of Fine Art Personal: Her husband, William Johnston, is associate director of the Walters Art Museum. Their son, Fredric, works for the foreign agriculture service of the USDA. Greatest non-work passion: Her three cats: Fiona, Fauna and Domino Exhibit What: In Monet's Light: Theodore Robinson at Giverny Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive When: through Jan. 9. The museum is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. the first Thursday of every month Admission: $12; $10 for senior citizens, college students and groups of 12 or more; $6 for children 6-18; free for children 5 and younger. Includes museum admission and audio tour. Tickets sold: At the BMA box office or through Ticketmaster at 410-547-7328 and at www.ticketmaster.com. Information: 410-396-7100 or visit www.artbma.org