The weather in Milwaukee was (briefly) exquisite this week. Temperatures soared into the low 60’s, the breezes indicated Spring was finally here with their combination of warmth and lakeside coolness, and the sun was brightly shining. Perfection. The daffodils and tulips are in full bloom on, what feels like, every city block. In front of the Pfister’s Wisconsin Avenue entrance, tall, brightly colored pink and yellow tulips are ringed in the low, black, decorative iron that mark the corners of the sidewalk garden boxes. All of this belied the clouds that were moving in, ever so slowly, threatening rain.
It is 4pm inside the hotel and the Pfister’s current artist-in-residence, Shelby Keefe, is about to give a tour* of the Victorian art collection that adorns the public spaces. Starting from her studio, located just off the lobby, between the Pfister Cafe and Mason Street Grill, Shelby grabs the two tools of her tour: a slim paperback guide featuring a gilded frame on the cover and the words ‘The Pfister Art Collection,’ and a heavy-duty silver flashlight.
She starts off, right away, talking about how she dug out an old art history textbook from college in order to gain a refreshed perspective on the various styles and artists on display. One of the first things Shelby shares is her realization that while the majority of the art collected by Charles Pfister comes from the 19th century and is mostly from the classical romanticists, the realists and a fair number from the Barbizon, Millet schools – the impressionists were very active in those same years. By her own description, she is a “contemporary impressionistic painter,” and also a fan of much of the art being produced today that is very different from her own. “A reminder,” she says, “that it’s always been true that artists are not all doing the same thing at the same time.”
Popping from one painting to another, Shelby wields her flashlight like an enormous lecturer’s pointer, illuminating specific parts of paintings which beg her emphasis: the shell being held up to a beautiful woman’s ear in Lenoir’s The Shell (about which a young girl once inquired “Is she holding a cell phone?”); the flirtatious gentleman in L’Eternelle Pomme d’Eve, which hangs over the check-in desk, by Georges Achille-Fould; the gauzy lace dripping from the dress sleeves of Adolphe Piot’s The Rose; how the dress on Clairin’s Dancer practically undulates (“I love how he lets the paint do the work”); or, the ‘Roma’ notation beneath a painter’s signature indicating he had studied in Italy (something which 19th-century painters would tout as a sign of their artistic respectability).
It’s remarkable what else is illuminated in this adjustable circle of light. A painting by Eugene Fromentin, a Frenchman who painted in the “spirit and manner” of the Dutch, simply titled The Cows, instantly springs to the beautiful russet, deep green, and yellow shades of a field and stream on a perfect fall day. The colors are muted in the mood-lighting, but they appear like magic when lit up directly. The same thing happens with Louis Aston Knight’s gorgeous The Poppy Field, Daniel Ridgway Knight’s (no relation) The Rose Garden, and most spectacularly, Chianti by E. Giachi. This last one, features a serving woman being charmed by, or perhaps doing the charming of, a young gentleman with splendid white, floppy hat while two portly men doze drunkenly in the background. A large cask is set off to the right, a stone wall straw litters the ground where thatch-bottomed jugs are spread. It may not sound like a particularly colorful tableau, but the detail is astoundingly vibrant: golden threads, teal tights, pale green sheen on a wooden bench – each detail simply glows.
The tour wound its way to the seventh floor, where the ballrooms are located. A wedding and a school’s anniversary gala were both set and the halls were beginning to swell with guests. A young lady in layers of elegant, chiffon powder blue ruffles eased by, followed soon after by a suited man carrying a little blond girl wearing a sateen dress in bright fuchsia while groomsmen swam together, upstream, in their rose-red ties. Between the art and the events, every shade of every color of the rainbow was painted on the air tonight.
Later, a wander up to the aptly-colorfully-named Blu for a listen to Dr. Hollander’s delightful and charming piano playing results in a glass of the evening’s featured red wine: a velvety soft Domaine du Sac from nearby Wollersheim Winery. Two ladies sit at one of the window-side tables, admiring the view, pointing out landmarks, and sipping from aquamarine cocktails. Suddenly, they pull out cameras and wildly gesture from one side of the vista to the other. The rain had cleared some time ago, though the clouds had rendered the horizon a steel-grey, and a rainbow had appeared, stretching across the sky.
*Tours of the Pfister’s Victorian art collection are given by Shelby Keefe on Fridays and Saturdays, from 4 to 5pm.