For the first time, American audiences can feast their eyes on the extravagant, richly ornamented paintings of Carlo Crivelli, an elusive Early Renaissance master.
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Paris, 1927. Joe Duveen was in a jam. Edward Fowles, the director the Paris branch of Duveen Brothers, had just sold a small, perfectly preserved panel by the 15th-century Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli to New York financier Jules Bache for a record $260,000 ($3.56 million in 2015 dollars). Unfortunately, Mrs. John D. Rockefeller had seen the picture a few days before and wanted it very much. What to do? “The Rockefellers are difficult people, Eddie.” he told Fowles. ”If they really want that picture it may spoil a large deal for over $1 million which they are contemplating. You get on well with Bache. Please go over to see him. He is over at the Ritz.”
According to Fowles, “I called on Julie (as we used to call him). I found him seated at his desk. He was examining the Crivelli through a magnifying glass. On the parapet behind which the Madonna is seated in the painting, the artist has depicted a fly. ‘Just look at that fly, Edward!’ said Julie. “It looks as alive as a real one,” an observation to which I nodded assent while he continued to discuss the picture’s other charms. Finally, I broached the object of my visit. Mrs. Rockefeller had asked for the picture but Joe was willing to give him $100,000 profit on the painting if he would agree to sell it back. ‘No, Edward. I will never part with it for any sum’, he replied. ‘What does $100,000 mean to me today when I have made $500,000 on my Chrysler stock alone?’” Fowles left empty handed, and the fate of Duveen’s million-dollar Rockefeller deal is unrecorded. Today Bache’s Crivelli is one of the treasures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who was this artist responsible for giving Joe Duveen a migraine? Since his re-discovery in the early nineteenth century till the middle of the twentieth, Carlo Crivelli (circa 1430–95) was one of the most celebrated (and expensive) painters of the Italian Renaissance, his works hoarded by generations of British and American collectors and museums. Despite his popularity, he has never had an American retrospective until now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: “Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice” (through January 25) featuring over 20 pictures from European and American collections.
Going through the exhibition, it’s easy to see why Crivelli was popular. His pictures could not be confused with anyone else’s. In contrast with the works of his contemporaries and their successors who strove to attain an increasingly pure and idealized realism and majesty, Crivelli wanted to dazzle and enchant. His output was exclusively religious pictures, chiefly Madonnas for private devotion or multi-paneled altarpieces which glittered like Christmas trees with exquisitely worked gold backgrounds and frames, the painted surfaces heightened by applied gilded paste decorations and colored glass jewels. The saints populating his works were likewise unmistakable. Male or female, young or old, they are lean and willowy with faces of almost cartoonish expressiveness, scrunching into scowls or stifling a giggle. Their opulent attire is exquisitely described to the tied ribbons and stitchings. But perhaps the most remarkable features of a Crivelli figure are the busy hands with long fingers curled or cocked, which seem to be modeled from the choreography of Balinese dancers.
Crivelli the man remains an elusive figure. It is believed he was born in Venice and initially learned his craft from his painter father. He may then have undergone an apprenticeship in the studio of Francesco Squarcione in Padua, known both for his extensive knowledge of classical antiquity and the tough workhouse environment of his studio, which caused his most celebrated student Andrea Mantegna to file a lawsuit against him. Back in Venice by 1459, Crivelli himself found himself in another kind of legal trouble when he was arrested and convicted for an adulterous affair with the wife of a sailor, spending six months in prison. After his release, he left Venice never to return, yet he always signed his pictures proudly “OPVS*CAROLI*CRIVELLI*VENETI.”
Eschewing Florence and Rome, Crivelli had a perambulatory career, heading for the Marches. After brief careers in in Zara (in Dalmatia) and Fermo, he eventually settled in the prosperous city of Ascoli Piceno. From here on, Crivelli’s life is documented in a series on dry records of commissions for altarpieces of ever-increasing importance, of which the most astonishing is The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486), patron saint of the city, painted to celebrate the town’s liberation from the rule of Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan. Universally regarded as the artist’s masterpiece, it has been a treasure of the National Gallery, London, since 1864, and its exhibition at the Gardner is its first in America.
Abandoning his usual format of gold-ground multi-paneled tiered altarpieces, Crivelli sets the scene in a side-street next to the Virgin’s luxuriously furnished palazzo. The open-air porticoed gallery above her room features potted plants perilously positioned on the Turkish-carpet draped railing, accompanied by a pet peacock and a goldfinch in a wooden cage. The on the wall of the Virgin’s bedroom study hangs a shell laden with books and covered vessels. The Holy Spirit descends on a ray of gold conveniently entering though a peephole built on the side of the wall. Out in the street, the Angel Gabriel is accompanied by St. Emidius holding a model of the city. The men and women in the background are busy reading or chatting, and nobody notices anything save a puzzled little girl who takes a peek around a parapet. The most conspicuous item in the foreground is a large gherkin (or cucumber), which surprisingly is a symbol of the Virgin, referring to a Biblical quote from Isaiah: “And the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city.”
Highly regarded by his contemporaries (and knighted by Prince Ferdinand II of Naples in 1490) Crivelli’s fame did not survive his death in 1494–95. His obscurity was hastened by his omission from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550, 1568). While Crivelli was first discovered by local historians in the 18th century, it was not until the Napoleonic suppression of the monasteries and churches in the early 19th century that he attracted serious notice. Many of his altarpieces (including the Annunciation) were warehoused at the Brera in Milan, and they caused a sensation, dazzling historians and collectors with their suave elegance and rich decoration. Italian dealers sought Crivellis out all over the Marches, buying whole altarpieces and sawing them apart to sell the pieces separately. By mid-century, the British in particular developed something of a mania for the Crivelli—there are 27 paintings by him in the National Gallery, London—and his pictures were an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites and other contemporary painters and very popular with the public.
There were dissenting voices. John Ruskin sneered, “That embossed execution of Rembrandt is just as much ignorant work as the embossed projecting jewels of Carlo Crivelli; a real painter never loads.” The early 20th-century critic Raymond van Marle offered the psychological analysis, “That Crivelli’s mind was normal does not seem to be likely; nor does his art reveal the mentality of a calm and happy person.” His figures look harassed and angry…” While critic Richard Muther luridly described Crivelli’s paintings as “so much golden perfumed tinsel…uniting childishness with moldy decay and archaic severity with putrid decadence. This perversity also explains why our own time has made a favorite of Crivelli…we love him as we love Gustave Moreau.” Even as late as 1964, Susan Sontag negatively referenced Crivelli in her seminal Notes on Camp: “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers. Camp is the paintings of Carlo Crivelli, with their real jewels and trompe-l’oeil insects and cracks in the masonry.”
More typical was the 1885 assessment by the popular British magazine writer Fannie Amar Matthews, describing one of her favorite “corners” of the National Gallery, featuring “Crivelli’s magnificent old Byzantine altarpiece…a lovely Mary and the sweetest, godliest child, both mother and babe full of that intense innocence and purity that Crivelli always seems to achieve….the colors of the garments are rich in the extreme—of that fabled glow and softness that no painter of our time can hope to match or even emulate: and all the ornaments and insignia used in this composition…are apparently carved of wood, richly gilded and stuck with gems, and then put in place in high relief. The effect is curiously pleasing and quaint.”
But it was Bernard Berenson (who engineered the sale of Crivelli’s St. George and the Dragon to Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1897—the first painting by the artist in America) who offered the artist the greatest tribute, likening his aesthetic to the “freedom and spirit of Japanese design,” possessing both the “sweetness of emotion as sincere and dainty” as of a 14th-century French ivory Madonna and a “strength of line and metallic luster of old Satsuma or lacquer and which are no less tempting to the touch.”
For Berenson, Crivelli was one of “the most genuine artists of all times and
countries, and does not weary even when ‘great masters grow tedious.’” Coming away from the Gardner’s celebration and vindication of the artist, it is impossible not to feel similarly.
By Paul Jeromack