Remember those art history classes, the endless slides, the sizable textbooks that built your deltoids into NFL-ready mounds of muscle? Well, now you can watch it materialize before you in the hushed halls of west Mobile’s nicest lakeside showplace.

The exact locale is the Mobile Museum of Art and the occasion is the temporary residence of the exhibit “Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery,” on display through April 27, 2014. The panoply of paintings and drawings covers a sizable portion of Western Civilization’s most treasured artists and is both daunting and awe-inspiring.

‘Equestrian Fantasy: Lady Dunn’ by Salvador Dali, 1954.

From left: ‘Equestrian Fantasy: Lady Dunn’ by Salvador Dali, 1954.

As Artifice wandered the museum during the Nov. 14 opening reception, we were immediately met by one attendee who confessed his wonder at standing before a pair of 500-year-old paintings. Those pieces – from Renaissance masters Barthel Bruyn and Lucas Cranach – certainly bear seniority over the included works, but aren’t necessarily the most striking or famous. It would be difficult to narrow down either category.

The Canadian collection is a fine representation of its namesake’s tastes. Lord Beaverbrook, or William Maxwell Aitken, was akin to the Rupert Murdoch of his day, a media tycoon with an intense interest in politics. He also loved art and splurged greatly on amassing works that struck his fancy.

Toward that end, the 73 examples in town show us a collector most enamored of the classics. Artifice confession: while my predilections run a bit more toward contemporary styles, it’s hard not to be impressed when standing before the perfection of a Gainsborough, Delacroix or Boudin.

‘Study of William Churchill - Head’ by Graham Vivian Sutherland, 1954.

‘Study of William Churchill - Head’ by Graham Vivian Sutherland, 1954.

Not that more modern flavors are altogether absent; Matisse is there along with a trio of Dali paintings, a David Brown Milne and Percy Wyndham Lewis. Hardcore fans of Dali might be disappointed that the Spaniard’s signature surrealism has been toned down — Lord Beaverbrook notably eschewed the new movements of the 20th century, despite the collection’s presence of the aforementioned Cubist-influenced Vorticist Lewis – but hints of Salvador’s unique vision are undeniably present.

The emphasis on historic works and traditional styles seems tailor-made for Mobile tastes and my bet is the mixed remarks found in the visitors’ books for some of the contemporary exhibits of the last decade will be absent for this. It’s obvious in early response.

Don Bowdon, the architect who helped design interior spaces for these new exhibitions and reinstallations of collections at the museum told Mobile Museum of Art Executive Director Deborah Velders, “All the comments last night (at the reception) were about the pride of having a museum that now looked like a big city museum.”

Docent Martha Lo Cicero relayed a tale of visiting fifth graders from Monroe County. “Many of the children really enjoyed the John Singer Sargent, San Virgilio, Lake Garda, and said they loved the texture of the water… Teachers were just speechless.”

Those impressions are not happenstance. Velders said a meticulous process resulted in precise placement of the works, curated by Beaverbrook Art Gallery Director Terry Graff and transported in a pair of climate-controlled trucks.

‘Leda’ by Henri Matisse, 1945.

‘Leda’ by Henri Matisse, 1945.

“How we installed it is another matter,” Velders said in email. “We basically laid out the exhibition in a scale model of the gallery (1’ = 1”) in chronological order first, and then organized individual works within that chronology into roughly ‘thematic’ sections: landscapes; interior/exterior scenes of leisure; images of women; surreal/psychological, etc.”

The decision to bring the exhibit was timed to coincide with Mobile’s Year of Great Britain. For all of 2014, the city will celebrate 200 years of alliance and peace with Britain after the end of the War of 1812.

“This exhibition has been a three-year project, initiated under my predecessor (Tommy McPherson) and the Board of Directors of that period,” Velders wrote. “The idea was to bring ‘great’ works of art here in order to begin the celebration of this mueum.’

The director is impressed with what they’ve accomplished and hopes it brings attention to an oft-underappreciated facility. The exalted list of artists is certain to gather attention.

“It includes many canonical figures: Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hogarth, Sargent, Turner, Copley, Freud, Dali, Matisse, Spencer—all of these, and many more, are part of the history of Western art spanning several centuries,” Velders said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for learning and for Mobilians to see some great European artists.”

Since her arrival in Mobile a year ago, Velders has brought changes great and small, attempting to make the museum a greater player and resource in Mobile’s cultural scene. While she is readily gracious in pointing out the hard work she merely inherited for this latest show, we can still hope this is a harbinger of even greater things to come during her tenure here.