Old Masters – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com For Collectors of the Fine and Decorative Arts Thu, 15 Mar 2018 20:47:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/cropped-artandantiques_red_icon-32x32.png Old Masters – Art & Antiques Magazine http://www.artandantiquesmag.com 32 32 Masters Old and New http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/10/johnson-collection/ Wed, 25 Oct 2017 22:42:11 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5629 Continue reading ]]> The Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibits and reassesses the collection of a great patron.

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874

Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874, oil on canvas, 21.375 x 28.875 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Conrad F. Haeseler, Portrait of John G. Johnson, 1917 Joos van Cleve, The Descent from the Cross Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck Mary Stevenson Cassatt, On the Balcony, 1873 Claude Monet, Railroad Bridge, Argenteuil, 1874

The first use of the term “Old Masters” in reference to a European painter who was working before 1800 can be found in John Evelyn’s diary. This multi-volume work, which was published early in the 19th century under the title Memoirs Illustrative of the Life and Writings of John Evelyn, comprises the diaries of a 17th-century English writer, gardener and, you guessed it, diarist. The book, although not 100 percent verifiably true, gives a contemporary view of art, culture, and major political events of the time. Evelyn was a gentleman and traveled through Europe both for study and leisure, and as was the fashion among the gentry, he spent time with other gentleman, enjoying their hospitality and exploring their gardens, stately homes, and their collections of fine art. On one such visit was to Thomas Herbert, the 8th Earl of Pembroke, a statesman and the dedicatee of John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, who had inherited his title in 1683 from his brother, “The Infamous Lord of Pembroke,” so called for his notorious bouts of homicidal mania. Evelyn made the following entry: “11th. Dined at Lord Pembroke’s, Lord Privy Seal, a very worthy gentleman. He shewed me divers rare pictures of very many of the old and best masters, especially one of M. Angelo of a man gathering fruit to give to a woman and a large book of the best drawings of the old masters.” Strange to think that even before the Old Master period had come to a close, the term was already in use. This seems to evince that it the usage has to do with more than simply time.

At one point the term “Old Master” was used to identify works by European painters from 1450 onward, appearing to coincide roughly with the use of oil paint by Netherlandish painters such as Jan Van Eyck, whose handling of the material would open up a new chapter in European painting made possible by the medium’s color, luminosity and versatility, and which eventually led to oil paint’s adoption as major medium throughout the continent. This original distinction, however, closed the door on the likes of Cimabue and Giotto, medieval through Early Renaissance painters whose work not only led the way for later artists but warranted its own appreciation for its considerable beauty and stylistic idiosyncrasies. Now the term Old Master commonly refers to any European work before 1800. In a sense the phrase seems to be the direct result of, more or less, too much of a good thing—so many masterly works, so little time. The implication is that a 500-year time span was so rich in visual invention, beauty, and perfection that one could believe it is united by unparalleled quality alone.

However, the works, artists, and schools that fall under the umbrella of this far-reaching term do share pedagogical and cultural affinities. Painters employed apprentices in the fashion of other artisans, and painting was a skill which was equal parts natural ability and technique and style passed down from master to student. In this sense, “old master” implies a standard of quality, an ideal that could be sought and achieved through education and practice. Inspiration and vision had their place as well, but with the emergence of modern art’s abstraction and heavy conceptual concerns, the perfection of perspective, physiognomy, anatomy, and narrative which typified pre-modern works became only one path among many that an artist could follow.

Visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition “Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection” will now have the opportunity to follow a wondrous path through the collection of John G. Johnson, a prominent corporate lawyer and art collector. The Johnson Collection was donated to the Museum in 1917 and comprises the core of the institution’s collection of early European paintings. Now, 100 years later, the collection is getting another look as the public is invited to view works from some of the most important moments in European painting through the lens of ever-evolving scholarship and continual conservation.

The conservation, restoration, and study being done on the Johnson Collection has yielded many new discoveries about its impressive works. Mysteries have been solved in regard to paintings such as Rogier van der Weyden’s The Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, which historians have recently determined to be shutters from possibly one of the largest altarpieces of the Northern Renaissance rather than an independent work, as it was previously thought to be. New discoveries about the works in the Johnson Collection include not only technical and historical discoveries but new insights into the meanings of certain works, such as Dutch artist Judith Leyster’s 1629 painting The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), which portrays two drunken men carousing while a skeleton (presumably Death) looks on. The skeleton, whose fleshless visage seems to smile knowingly while holding a candle and an hourglass, was only discovered after the painting was compared to another, earlier, version by Leyster. After cleaning and restoration, the skeleton reemerged in the Johnson collection’s version. The grim humor of the painting seems to invite such a discovery, somehow allowing the informed viewer to have a similar experience to the two revelers—the realization that death has been there all along. Technically the painting is a stunning exercise in rendering light realistically. The sands run and the wax melts as the two men cavort. The candle the skeleton holds illuminates the drunken men’s bodies and faces from slightly below, giving them a ghastly appearance, the rest of the small room falling into darkness. The overall effect is both blackly comedic and moralizing.

The Last Drop is only one of many Dutch masterworks in the Johnson Collection. The Dutch Golden Age represents one of the European tradition’s greatest reckonings with naturalism and genre painting, which included innovations in still life and landscape, and renderings of light. It produced one of the greatest Old Masters of all, Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt’s oil on oak panel painting Head of Christ, which is dated between 1648 and 1656, is a gently realistic depiction. The play of light on the face of Christ is highly detailed, illuminating individual hairs on the savior’s head and in his wiry beard. The background seems to fall away into a shade of brown just distinct enough to differentiate it from the figure’s clothing, a nondescript robe which symbolizes Christ’s poverty and humility.

The Johnson collection boasts enough Dutch paintings to rank among one of the world’s largest caches of Flemish masterworks, including a number of paintings by genre painter Jan Steen and Jacob van Ruisdael, widely considered the preeminent landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age. Johnson was also one of the first Americans to collect the work of Hieronymus Bosch, whose oil on panel Adoration of the Magi is included in the exhibition. Bosch’s depiction of the theme is filled with the type of detail and figures one has come to expect from his work—the donkey and the cow in the stable behind the main action seem to invite as much consideration as the Christ child himself.

Another Dutch masterwork depicting a common theme from the Catholic lexicon is Jan Van Eyck’s oil on vellum on canvas painting St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, dated 1430 and 1432. The painting represents a sumptuous use of oil, achieving with the versatile medium an extraordinary range of shades and level of detail. The square format of the work has a focusing effect, and Van Eyck’s composition works with the shape, mostly filling it with his figures but leaving enough space for a background filled with dazzling renderings of rock with highly realistic depth and color.

The exhibition also includes some of the most recognizable names among Italian Old Masters, including Titian, Botticelli, and Fra Angelico, whose St. Francis of Assisi provides visitors with an Italian vision of the animal-friendly icon to compare with Van Eyck’s depiction. The works of the Italian Old Masters have also benefited from contemporary conservation and scholarship. Titian’s 1558 oil on canvas Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto is one such work, its colors, faded over time, having been discovered and interpreted in terms of their original significance in the artist’s time. The painting depicts the Archbishop sitting behind a semi-transparent curtain. The image is unusual and highly symbolic; the curtain represents the Archbishop’s political troubles, which prevented him from accepting the archbishopric of Milan. The figure seems almost like a gleefully self-imposed obstacle course for Titian. Half of it is rendered with the detail and clarity one would expect from a direct view, and the other half, obscured by the curtain, is blurred. The optical reality of seeing is masterfully handled, and the play between the surface of the curtain and the figure visible behind it causes the eyes to run back and forth along with the viewer’s mind. In this portrait Titian seems to prefigure both the Impressionists and Gerhard Richter’s optical explorations of soft focus over 400 years later.

The Johnson Collection also includes works made during John G. Johnson’s life including paintings by Manet, Monet, and Courbet, some of the most significant emerging—for lack of a better term—new masters. Courbet’s 1866 oil on canvas on gypsum board painting Marine is a moody seascape in which menacing dark clouds fill the canvas. The clouds are economically rendered with long unbroken brushstrokes that herald the painterliness that would come to further prominence in later modern works and achieve ultimate freedom in pure abstraction. Claude Monet’s 1874 oil on canvas Railroad Bridge also includes a waterscape, as well as a bridge over which a train is passing. Smoke billows from the train, filling the the flat gray sky with man-made clouds. Johnson’s apparent taste for the nautical and the gray are present in both the Courbet and Monet paintings. Something else is present as well—originality. The contemporary works Johnson collected display innovation which both extends from and breaks with the works of the Old Masters. Seeing both together allows these similarities and differences to shine through and gives visitors to the exhibition a more complete story of European painting’s evolution from the old to the new.

The more Johnson’s collecting is considered, the more his spiritual fraternity with the likes of John Evelyn and other art-appreciating gentleman of the past becomes clear. He traveled, practiced law, and collected beautiful works of art, and the exhibition includes a gallery dedicated to the man himself, documenting his life and career. It serves as a nice addition to an impressive collection of masterworks. In the end, however, seeing the art Johnson collected during his life allows the viewer another way of seeing the man through the precious gift he left.

By Chris Shields

Botticelli: The Cult of Beauty http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/03/botticelli-paintings/ Tue, 28 Mar 2017 20:46:07 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5230 Continue reading ]]> An unprecedented group of Botticelli paintings comes to the U.S., giving occasion to reflect on the Florentine quest to unite the carnal with the spiritual.

Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist

Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, about 1500, tempera on panel.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Sandro Botticelli, Venus Sandro Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur Sandro Botticelli, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Youth Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book

How can wealth and education find expression in a public space dominated by an obsession with good and evil? It’s a question to which the Florentine Renaissance of the 15th century might be seen as a comprehensive answer. At the heart of that Renaissance was the Medici family; bankers of no special prominence at the beginning of the century; magnates, dictators, and cardinals toward the end. It was their money and to some extent intuition that guided and provided for the many artists, writers, and architects they gathered around themselves to transform not just the look but the whole ethos of the town they lived in.

Born in 1445, Botticelli outlived that first period of Medici dominance—which ended in 1494 with the expulsion of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s son, Piero—and died in 1510, just two years before the illustrious family would be reinstated as dukes on the back of Papal and Spanish power. Whether the artist ever really got over the collapse of the dynasty that had so often employed him is one of the questions visitors to “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” will be bound to ask. Scheduled for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston from April 15–July 9, the show (organized by the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Virginia in partnership with Italy’s Metamorfosi Associazione Culturale) will be the largest-ever exhibition of Botticelli’s works in the U.S., featuring 24 paintings from museums and churches in Italy, important loans from Harvard and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and one painting, Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist, from the MFA’s own collection The show also includes paintings by Botticelli’s teacher Filippo Lippi, his student Filippino Lippi, and other contemporaries.

Certainly, some sense of the ideas and politics of the period will be useful if you are to understand what you are looking at. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church had insisted on a metaphysics whose supreme expression was to be found in depictions of the Last Judgment. Humanity was divided into the blessed and the damned; your overriding concern must be the salvation of your soul, to which wealth was a serious obstacle. As Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The Florence baptistery, the religious heart of Florence, was emblematic; a Last Judgment in rigidly Byzantine style looked down from the ceiling, while the bare walls were divided into an austere pattern of black and white. Everything was vice or virtue. Nothing else mattered. It must have been disquieting for the city’s bankers, since lending at interest was a mortal sin, and hardly encouraging for the manufacturers and merchants of a town renowned above all for its luxury textiles. You could think of the Renaissance, if you like, as a process of making that austere sacred space rather more comfortable for the rising mercantile class.

A crucial turning point was the funeral monument to Baldassarre Cossa, a Pope who was later judged a heretic, sodomite, and fornicator and declared never to have been pope at all. But he had been a close ally of the Medici family, and on his death in 1419 a young Cosimo de’ Medici managed to arrange for his burial in the Baptistery. Other tombs in the church were plain stone sarcophagi lined against the wall. Strict rules forbade any ostentatious projection into the congregation. Observing the letter of the law, but ignoring its spirit, Cosimo had the architects Michelozzo and Donatello build upward, placing a reclining Baldassarre in gleaming bronze above sinuous female representations of faith, hope, and charity and beneath a lavish bedroom canopy carved in marble. For the first time, worshippers found themselves confronted not by a symbol or emblem, but by a beautifully depicted individual who represented nothing but himself, a man of evident character and intellect, neither in heaven nor hell, but simply asleep. It was as dangerous a moment for medieval Christianity as the day a certain poet had ventured down into the Inferno and begun to find some of its inhabitants worthy of compassion.

In 1434, Cosimo de’ Medici asked Pope Eugenius how he might be assured of God’s mercy for any wrong he had done. A sum of 10,000 florins to restore the Monastery of San Marco might do it, the Pope thought. Cosimo had the crumbling pile splendidly restored with a dazzlingly airy library designed by Michelozzo, lush paintings from Fra Angelico, and, in a cell reserved especially for the banker himself, an Adoration of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli—the Adoration being one of the few occasions when the Bible gives rich men a positive role. Cosimo also insisted that the monastery be turned over to the most austere religious order of all, the Dominicans. So the bourgeois bankers and ascetic monks would mingle together and cease to be enemies. But someone wasn’t pleased with the arrangement. In a dormitory corridor, on a scroll in a painting only the monks would see, an unknown hand had written: “I invoke God’s curse and mine on whoever introduces wealth into this order.” It was a warning of things to come.

Botticelli, the nickname for Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, started work in the mid-1460s in the workshop of Fra Filippo (Lippo) Lippi, a monk turned artist who had recently run off with a novice nun. By this time, bankers’ money had not only revolutionized church interiors, with the multiplication of family chapels featuring frescoes where patrons and their families mixed freely with figures of scripture, but transformed votive images in the home into luxury items. So Botticelli’s Madonna della Loggia (circa 1467), the earliest of the paintings in the Boston exhibition, seems to validate the thesis Richard A. Goldthwaite puts forward in his 1995 book Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300–1600, that artists’ workshops were deliberately stimulating demand for devotional paintings by making changes in iconography and painting style.

Here the Madonna is dressed up in the best fabrics Florence could offer, while Baby Jesus is unusually affectionate as he balances on a parapet to throw his arms around Mom in the shelter of an elegant portico. Virtue no longer lies in a mystical virginity but seems to emanate from a deep melancholy, or simply thoughtfulness, an absorption both mental and physical that would become the hallmark of Botticelli’s mature work. As your eye moves from this to the more or less contemporary Madonna of Botticelli’s master, Lippi, and then the later Madonna of the Book (circa 1479), one can perfectly well understand how a sophisticated public was being enticed to desire new versions of the same product. It was an early form of fashion-driven consumerism, certainly a long way from the simple icon one contemplated as an aid to worship and prayer.

Books are important, and indeed learning in general. Three of the Botticelli paintings in the exhibition show books, while others—Pallas and the Centaur (circa 1480), for example—required the viewer to draw on a certain erudition. Clearly these paintings appeal to an elite rather than to the general public. After all, how could new money, without nobility, distinguish itself if not by buying education, developing refined taste, and putting it on display? “Money alone could not compete with what has been done here,” marveled the Duke of Milan’s son, Galeazzo Sforza, when shown around the treasures of the Medici household in 1459.

At the end of the previous century, Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, who founded the Medici bank, had had no education beyond accounting. But his son Cosimo, who vastly expanded the family’s wealth, was educated by humanists, and just as the works of art he commissioned shied away from a strict opposition of vice and virtue, so, without ever being anything other than a devout Christian, Cosimo oriented his reading away from the scriptures toward an exploration of the ancient world and classical philosophy. In the early 1460s, as Botticelli was beginning his apprenticeship with Fra Lippo, Cosimo commissioned the scholar Marsilio Ficino to translate the entire works of Plato into Latin for the first time.

Plato’s notion of a universe divided into brute material on the one hand and refined ideas on the other was old hat of course, long appropriated and Christianized by the medieval church. But in his commentaries Ficino added his own Neoplatonist twist: man was at the mid-point between material and spiritual, pulled downward to the one and aspiring upward to the other. And his aspiration was reflected in learning, in art, in love, which perhaps began with erotic love but tended to the divine. So Venus wasn’t a whore; she was the seduction of the beautiful and the good. All at once, simply by virtue of being beautiful, art could think of itself as necessarily pious; it no longer needed to depict religious scenes to assume the aura of the sacred. No artist in all history has more determinedly cultivated beauty—a thoughtful, absorbed, at once vaporous and human beauty—than Botticelli. No one more than him succeeded in reconciling, at least in the framed space of the painting or fresco, the luxuriously carnal and the innocently spiritual.

All the canvases from the mid-1470s to the late ’80s, whether it be the naked Venus herself, or Pallas Athena taming the centaur, Saint Augustine in his study or the Madonna with a book, or simply a beautiful young man in scarlet cloak and black hat, fall under this Neoplatonist spell. The figures are absolutely human, believable, but drawn away into some place of contemplation that is as pure as the decorative background against which they move. Venus is an object of physical yearning (Botticelli painted “very naked” women, remarked Vasari) but simultaneously an ideal. Saint Augustine is surrounded by the instruments of earthly science, but his gaze is toward another dimension.

And there were hidden messages that only educated initiates could grasp. Was Athena’s taming of the centaur to be understood as Reason subduing Carnal Desire? Or is she, as some supposed, Lorenzo the Magnificent calming Florence’s violent enemies? It’s worth noting that two of the paintings in the exhibition show Baby Jesus way ahead with his reading skills. The virtuous are learned, the learned virtuous, and both of them beautiful. Augustine is a saint, but virile and handsome. This is a world of immense optimism, wonderful drapery and conveniently long blonde hair, all drawn upward, to heaven.

There is a certain comedy, then, in seeing, in the death mask of Lorenzo il Magnifico, just how ugly the artist’s great patron was. It is the only thing on show in this exhibition that is not enchanting. Great poet and Neoplatonist as he was, Lorenzo was also extremely divisive. Unlike his grandfather Cosimo, he boasted of knowing nothing of banking, took his wealth for granted, and when the money ran out, largely due to his own mismanagement, robbed the state he had usurped to prop up the family’s declining fortunes. For those who yearned for the monkish austerity of the past, Il Magnifico was emblematic of sinful decadence.

Girolamo Savonarola became the spokesman for this groundswell of resistance to wealth, luxury, and secular beauty. Invited to Florence by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself for the quality of his fiery preaching, Savonarola in 1491 became prior of San Marco, the very monastery Cosimo had paid so much to restore and adorn. But if Lorenzo thought he could collect the friar as his family had collected so many priests and artists in the past, he was disappointed. Savonarola was an early manifestation of what we now call Christian fundamentalism. In a society buzzing with too many ideas, a Church cluttered with pricey bric-a-brac, he stripped his Christianity down to the naked crucifix.

Without repentance, catastrophe was imminent, he declared. “Oh priests, oh prelates of the Church of Christ, leave your pomp, your splendid feasts and banquets.” Spiritual renewal could only come through poverty. And the only good art was the old medieval art that concentrated the viewer’s mind on God, not human beauty or painterly genius. When Lorenzo de’ Medici died relatively young, and two years later the French invaded Florence, it seemed his prophecies had come true. Appointed Gonfalonier, a kind of prime minister, Savonarola ordered all luxury goods and profane images to be burned in the so-called Bonfire of the Vanities in the Piazza della Signoria, where in 1498 he would himself be burned, at the stake, for heresy.

What was Botticelli’s response to all this? There are two post-Savonarola paintings in the exhibition, Mystic Crucifixion and Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (both circa 1500). The crucifixion suggests a regression to pre-Renaissance styles, the flattened figures of Christ, a prostrate Magadalena, and an angel beating a wild beast seem detached from any realistic background, while above the city of Florence, in the distant background, an aerial battle of angels and demons suggests a metaphysical showdown. In the other picture, all perspective is annulled as a strangely elongated Virgin stoops to stay inside the frame and hand the young Christ into the arms of an infant John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence. The sense of suffering and contraction is extremely powerful as the whole threesome seem in danger of toppling over to the right.

These regressive elements and the evident stress on spirituality and pathos have led critics to suppose that Botticelli underwent a personal crisis and became a supporter of Savonarola and his apocalyptic vision. But there is no documentary evidence for this, beyond a reported comment that the artist felt it had been a mistake to execute Savonarola. And despite their gestures to an older vision, these paintings remain very much luxury items offering a decidedly sumptuous piety, where every figure is breathtakingly beautiful. It is more as if, in his constant search to reconcile the bourgeois and the spiritual, Botticelli had been forced to shift the point of equilibrium away from optimism toward suffering and sadness. Certainly, having lost his patron and seen his own financial security evaporate in the upheavals of the ’90s, there was plenty to be sad about. His work no longer in fashion, the artist was largely ignored in later years and died in poverty, aged 65, leaving considerable debts.

By Tim Parks

On a Grecian Urn http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2017/03/the-berlin-painter/ Wed, 01 Mar 2017 21:51:56 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=5125 Continue reading ]]> The Berlin Painter, one of the oldest masters of all, gets his first solo show, an occasion to reflect on the meaning of personal style in ancient art.

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape

Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape: A: Peleus and Thetis, fleeing Nereids; B: Chiron, Nereus, and fleeing Nereids, ca. 480–470 B.C. Ceramic.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure stamnos of special shape Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure neck-amphora with twisted handles Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure bell-krater Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Black- figure Panathenaic prize amphora Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red-figure amphora Greek, Attic, attributed to the Berlin Painter, Red- figure hydria of black- figure shape

The Berlin Painter wasn’t from Berlin, and he wasn’t a painter. What he was, though, was one of the greatest artists of the ancient world. An Athenian of the 5th century B.C., he (or possibly she, since the Berlin Painter’s anonymity includes gender) was a specialist in the decoration (with liquefied clay rather than paint) of ceramic vases, which happened to be the main vehicle for graphic expression in ancient Greece. On various forms of pottery, Greek artists depicted, with tremendous grace and precision, events such as athletic contests, musical and dramatic performances, drinking parties, and religious rituals, as well as the stories of mythology, of which the vases constitute a massive, though fragmentary, visual corpus.

Some of the painters and potters (always two different people in ancient Greece) signed their work, but usually the vases were unsigned; therefore most of those that survive are by anonymous hands. But that doesn’t mean that they were anonymous in their own time. Athens, where the best vases were made, was a small community, and in the circle of elite patrons, everyone was well aware of the artists and their various styles, so vases did not really need signatures. We should not infer from the fact that most vases come down to us without names attached that that the art form itself was the product of some sort of group mind that eschewed personal style and individual expression. Far from it. In fact, the distinct touch and vision of many of the vase artists has enabled scholars to identify them as individuals and attribute works to them. Absent a name, they are generally identified by one of their most famous works (known as the name-vase), and that work, in turn, is usually named after some pictorial element in it or after the museum or collection that owns it. The Berlin Painter was named by the English scholar Sir John Beazley in 1911 for a stunning amphora in the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, depicting a satyr and the god Hermes, that had been found in an Etruscan tomb near the central Italian town of Vulci in 1834.

Though one doesn’t usually think of ancient artists as having one-man shows, our knowledge of Attic vase painting and the herculean attribution efforts of scholars like Beazley make it possible. This month, the Princeton University Art Museum in Princeton, N.J., is opening “The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.” (March 4–June 11), which brings together 84 objects—54 vessels and fragments by the Berlin Painter plus 22 other vessels and fragments and 8 statuettes by other Attic artists, for purposes of comparison and context. Pieces from the Princeton Museum’s collection are joined by loans from museums and private collections around the world, including the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Vatican. The exhibition, curated by J. Michael Padgett, curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works together by a great master of antiquity and to get a sense of what qualities make a visual artist shine as an individual through the intervening haze of 25 centuries.

Before discussing the special traits of the Berlin Painter, we need to understand something of what Greek vase art was. First of all, though he and his fellow artists are called vase painters, their rich imagery was not created by any process of painting as we know it. Instead, the artist would incise or draw the lines of his composition on unfired wet clay that had begun to harden, so that it had a leathery finish, and then use something like a pastry bag to apply slip, a mixture of clay and water, to the appropriate areas. Once the vase was fired, with air and smoke being allowed into the kiln in several stages, the areas coated with slip would turn black, while the rest of the vase would retain the original reddish color of the clay. There are two main kinds of vase painting technique, called black-figure and red-figure. On black-figure vases, the background is red and the figures are black, while on red-figure vases, the scheme is reversed. These two styles were not reversed approaches existing side by side as choices for an artist to make; the black figure was a cruder style that predated the red, which offered more expressive possibilities, and the Berlin Painter flourished at a time when red-figure painting was rapidly overtaking black-figure.

With black-figure, there was very limited ability to depict detail within a figure (and bear in mind that Greek vase art is overwhelmingly an art of the human figure). All the artist could do was to incise a few lines that would show up light within the blackness, and the effect ended up being rather schematic. So while black-figure was undeniably bold, it conveyed a mechanical, almost robotic effect. In red-figure, on the other hand, the slip makes the background back while the red clay ground becomes the figures’ flesh tones. Because of the resulting lightness, the artist can use additional slip in small quantities to fill in very fine detail within the figures, for facial expressions, musculature, hairstyles, and so on. This technique was very difficult, in that the artist had to work—very quickly—with a nearly transparent medium, the slip, and often could not be sure of exactly what he had drawn until the vase was fired. And many times the vase would not survive the firing, emerging from the kiln cracked or shattered. Nonetheless, it was worth it; in red-figure pottery, the figures truly come to life, and in them we can see the birth of a naturalistic, emotionally expressive graphic art, the likes of which would not appear again until the European Renaissance.

The Berlin Painter did make some black-figure works, such as an amphora (two-handled jug for olive oil), shown in the exhibition, that was intended to be given as a prize to victors in the Panathenaia, the great quadrennial athletic festival held in Athens. Out of reverence for tradition, Panathenaic amphorae continued to be painted in black-figure well into the 4th century B.C., long after red-figure had won the day. On one side of the vessel, which stands two feet tall, the goddess Athena, patroness of the city, is depicted, flanked by columns topped by cocks. On the other side, two wrestlers struggle with each other while a judge looks on, holding a long staff that indicates his authority. The wrestler on the left assumes a posture typical of the Berlin Painter—moving in one direction while twisting his head to look in the opposite direction, which gives it a dynamic effect.

But red-figure was his forte, and that was in keeping with the times. The Berlin Painter belongs the Late Archaic phase of Greek vase art, when a new, naturalistic style had overcome the rigidity and formulaic nature of the Archaic style, but the supremely balanced, serene quality of the Classical style had not yet taken over. There is a dramatic tension, an intensity to Late Archaic painting that is unmistakable. The first Late Archaic vase painters who worked in red-figure are known as the Pioneer Group, which the art historian John Boardman has described as the first self-conscious artistic movement in Western art. (One member of the Pioneer Group is Euphronios, famous today for the exquisite circa-515 B.C. calyx krater—or vessel for mixing wine and water)—painted with a scene of the death of the Homeric hero Sarpedon, which was looted from an Etruscan tomb at Cerveteri, Italy, in 1971, bought by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and in 2008 repatriated to Italy after criminal trials and extensive negotiations.) The Berlin Painter belongs to the generation immediately after the Pioneer Group.

His achievements are on full display in a red-figure neck amphora with ridged handles, Amazonomachy with Herakles (circa 485–480 B.C.), on view at Princeton. Departing from the convention that a vase have two separate illustrations 180 degrees apart, this fantastic composition wraps entirely around. It depicts the battle between Herakles (Hercules) and his companion Telamon and 10 Amazons (female warriors)—three archers and seven hoplites or foot-soldiers. Herakles, with a bow in one hand, waves a club with the other hand to menace an Amazon who has fallen, injured, at his feet and lifts up a supplicating hand for mercy. All around the vase, between two rows of floral decoration, the crowd of combatants runs, bristling with spears and circular shields, figures and weapons alike curving gently with the contour of the vase—a reminder that Greek vases are always flat art on a curved surface, a requirement that places additional challenges on the spatial capabilities of the artist. The details of the garb of the warriors, their tendrils of hair, and their strangely cheerful, peaceful-looking eyes are exquisitely rendered by the painter. This composition, the Berlin Painter’s most complex, is most likely modeled on one made by Euphronios about 20 years earlier, and Euphronios himself may have been the potter for this one.

Most of the Berlin Painter’s vase designs are less busy than the Amazonomachy. Usually he favored simple compositions with one figure or small figural group on each side, obverse and reverse. His name-vase itself (in the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin) shows on the obverse two figures intertwined, facing opposite directions, with a spotted fawn rubbing between their legs like a cat. The black-bearded figure on the left is a satyr, whose name is spelled out as Oreimachos, or “mountain-fighter.” The muscular, animal-eared creature holds a lyre in one hand and its plectrum in the other. The other figure, whose face has a more-than-human dignity and refinement, contrasting with the beastly satyr, is none other than the god Hermes. He holds his herald’s wand and a kantharos, a type of wine cup. Beazley speculated that this vase depicts a scene from the myth in which Hermes and Dionysos bring the blacksmith god Hephaistos back to Mount Olympus after his expulsion by Zeus—a favorite subject for vases. In the story, Hephaistos refused to return, so Dionysos got him drunk, and then he and the satyrs and Hermes brought the recalcitrant god back on a mule. The presence of the satyrs and the wine cup on this amphora suggests the myth, but the figure of Dionysos is conspicuously absent. The Berlin Painter worked with many vessel shapes, but he apparently avoided doing wine cups and rarely depicted drinking parties (symposiums), a subject popular with patrons. Perhaps his choice to allude to Dionysos rather than showing him was an expression of his distaste for bacchanalian topics. Whatever the reason, the painting is an example of a salient fact about Greek mythological vase painting: A given vase only presents a fragment of the full myth, which was no problem to the original audience, which would have known all the plots and characters inside out. For us, much is opaque, and between the glancing allusions of the vase painters many details have to be filled in, which even the experts are often uncertain about.

The Princeton show is a celebration of a different kind of modern expertise, connoisseurship. The term—which originally referred to a method of identifying Old Master paintings pioneered by the 19th-century Italian scholar Giovanni Morelli and taken up by the American Bernard Berenson—refers to the attribution of works to artists based on subtle, often tiny, bits of visual evidence. Beazley, whose career began before World War I and extended into the ’60s, is the great figure to be contended with in Greek vase connoisseurship. He catalogued thousands of vases and fragments and named many artists, including of course the Berlin Painter, to whom he attributed some 200 vessels and fragments. As Princeton archaeologist Nathan Arrington explains in an essay in the catalogue that accompanies this show, there is something slightly conservative or perhaps even contrarian about doing an exhibition on a single vase painter, because the trend in Classical art studies has turned against the Beazley approach and toward methodologies that focus on factors other than the personality and identity of the artist. Those factors include how the objects were consumed rather than how they were produced, how and why and where they were traded, and what they can tell us about the socioeconomic forces at work during the time and place of their creation. Traditional connoisseurship relied on analysis of stylistic points that can seem incredibly picayune: In search of the little unconscious giveaways of an artist’s hand, more like fingerprints than like anything an artist would be proud of or even aware of, Beazley and his students scoured the vases for idiosyncratic renderings of tiny details like an eyebrow, an ankle bone, or a nipple. These little hints, combined with other pieces of information, would enable them to achieve a level of confidence in attributing a given vase to an artist known from other vases. When enough of these could be put together, an artist was born—or rather, reborn, resurrected from oblivion.

But these vanishingly small though telling stylistic points are not what make us feel the personality, the vision, and the skill of the Berlin Painter or any of his Attic peers. The mixture of grace, subtlety, and delicacy on the one hand and Late Archaic boldness on the other are what make the Berlin Painter stand out and speak to us down the millennia; they, as well as his choices of subject matter and the way he poses his figures, are what make him seem like a real person with an artistic vision to impart. His name and life story will likely never be revealed to us, but through this exhibition and its catalogue, the most essential part of him is vividly present, his designs as fresh and alive as if they were made yesterday.

By John Dorfman

Taken at the Flood http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/11/1966-florence-flood/ Tue, 29 Nov 2016 01:43:00 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4936 Continue reading ]]> Fifty years after a catastrophic flood, the last of Florence’s damaged artworks have been restored and returned to their rightful places.

Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence

Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence at work on the painting.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Conservators at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper (1546) Conservators at the Opificia delle Pietre Dure in Florence Piazza del Duomo, 1966

Rainfall in the Appenine Mountains of Italy was torrential in the autumn of 1966. On November 3, the waters cascaded into the usually serene Arno River, which divides Florence, and exploded above its banks. Water roared through the medieval city’s narrow streets and broad squares, rising 20 feet above the ground. Over 100 people drowned or were battered to death. Fiats and Vespas floated away. Mud and sewage seeped into every building. Thousands of paintings and sculptures—any artworks on the ground floors of museums and churches—were damaged or destroyed by the worst flood suffered by Florence in four centuries.

I was a college student in New York and vividly remember the black-and-gray scenes from the disaster on the grainy television screen in our dormitory’s lobby. And in subsequent days, I was riveted by the frantic efforts of a battalion of volunteers—dubbed “mud angels” by the media—to pull masterpieces out of the floodwaters.

This year marks 50 years since the catastrophe. The last of the damaged masterpieces have been restored in time for a commemoration, held in November, of the flood and the city’s heroic response. Some months before the festivities, I visited Florence to get a closer look at the repairs being done to the remaining masterworks and to figure out why in some cases it has taken so long.

First stop is the laboratory of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure (Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones), or the OPD, a public institute of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage, that has been in charge of the restoration work. The OPD dates back to the 1500s when, under the patronage of the Medicis, it was famed for fine mosaics and inlaid stonework. Over the last century, the OPD has focused on the conservation and restoration of artworks. So it was natural that it would be asked by the Italian government to assume the leading rescue role after the flood. Besides public subsidies, the OPD has been able to draw on generous contributions from foreign philanthropies, such as the Getty Foundation and the Friends of Florence, among others.

The OPD laboratory is located at the Fortezza da Basso, a squat 14th-century fort with daunting gray walls and ramparts. I’m greeted at the entrance by the longtime OPD director, Marco Ciatti, who invites me into a cavernous former storage room. At center stage is Giorgio Vasari’s monumental The Last Supper (1546). The most important remaining artwork still under repair from flood damage, it hung on the ground floor of the Basilica of Santa Croce.

During the catastrophe, Vasari’s masterpiece was under water and muck for more than 36 hours. The five panels—altogether over 8 feet high and 21 feet long—sustained two types of damage: the first was to the wood, and the second to the painting, particularly the layer of gesso and animal glue between the artwork and the wood.

The water made the panels expand. But it could not be allowed to evaporate too quickly because it would destroy the layers of paint and gesso, and shrink and crack the wood. A decision was made to store the waterlogged masterpiece in a room in which humidity levels were carefully reduced from 90 percent down to nearly zero over the course of two years.

Staunching the damage to the painting itself was more complex. Over 20 percent of paint was lost. To hold the remaining colors in place, the painting was covered with a thin layer of adhesive resin. Paper was then placed over the resin.

After the two-year, humidity-controlled storage, two further problems arose. Each wood panel had shrunk by almost an inch, which meant that the surface area of the painting was slightly larger than the surface area of the panels. And the resin holding the colors in place had hardened to a glass-like consistency. “It took decades to come up with new techniques to restore the paintings over the shrunken panels and to safely remove the resin,” says Ciatti.

With funding mainly from the Getty Foundation, graduate students in art, chemistry, and physics were asked to devote their doctoral theses to explore possible solutions. Their research eventually created techniques to stretch the wood back to its original proportions while preserving the paints on its surface. A gel was concocted to dissolve and absorb the resin through the paper overlay without damaging the original colors and gesso.

Even after these techniques proved viable, putting them into practice was a painstaking process. “To precisely match the wood and paintings, we had to work one millimeter at a time,” says Ciatti. “Only then were we able to move on to the stage of esthetic restoration—the cleaning, filling in of lost portions, and retouching.”

On a scaffolding some eight feet above us, a young woman using an oversized magnifying glass and the thinnest of paintbrushes was applying color to the elbow of a disciple to the left of Jesus. “Our theory of conservation here in Italy is that we don’t want to completely restore the original colors because we believe that retouching must indicate that restoration has taken place,” says Ciatti. To illustrate this, he shows me a panel at ground level that is closest to full restoration. At the bottom of the painting, he points to an urn of water or wine below the table where the Last Supper takes place. Up close, I can see faintly etched lines that mark the restoration spots. The paint has a slightly different pigment than the original.

Work at the OPD laboratory isn’t confined to flood-damaged art. Close by the Vasari panels, cleaning and restoration proceeds on masterpieces from Florentine museums, including paintings by Anthony Van Dyck, Annibale Carracci, Fra Angelico—and even Jackson Pollock. But my jaw drops at the sight of Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi, one of the top draws at the Uffizi Gallery. Under restoration here since 2011, it will be returned to the Uffizi in 2016.

Nature had nothing to do with the damage to this masterpiece. It was left unfinished by Leonardo when he moved from Florence to Milan in 1481. The painting passed through several owners, finally entering the Medici collection sometime in the 17th century. The Uffizi has owned it since 1670. “Over those many years, a lot of varnish was applied to the painting, probably to hide the fact that it was unfinished and instead pretend it was done in a monochromatic style,” says Ciatti. As evidence he points to the azure and white sky that Leonardo had just begun to paint before abandoning the work; it also was covered by a honey-brown varnish.

The OPD lab is in the process of slowly thinning the layer of varnish, though not removing it entirely. “We want the artwork to have the patina of an old painting,” says Ciatti. “This is the traditional Italian philosophy of conservation.” The British approach, by contrast, tends to take the cleaning process further, leaving a newer sheen.

Across town from the OPD lab, I pay a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce where Vasari’s Last Supper will be returned. I am here to see Cimabue’s Crucifix (circa 1288), another masterpiece heavily damaged by the 1966 flood and returned to Santa Croce a decade later. This large tempera-on-wood crucifix (176 by 154 inches) represents a break from the Byzantine style that showed Jesus as aloof, regal and triumphant. He is instead depicted as a suffering, dying man—victim of a fate shared by ordinary mortals. He is the Christ who would become the universal symbol of Christian spirituality.

The Cimabue work now hangs much higher than before—some 20 feet above the Basilica floor—to guard against any future cataclysmic flood. Even after the OPD’s efforts, the damage from submersion in the muddy waters a half-century ago left portions of Christ’s face and his thighs discolored. But considering the near obliteration of the paint and the cracking of the wood, it seems a miracle that the masterpiece survived at all.

Another near-miraculous event occurs on my walk back to my lodging on a hillside across a bridge over the tranquil Arno. Just as I arrive at the river’s edge, a police convoy slowly drives past, with the Popemobile at its center. I had forgotten that Pope Francis was visiting Florence. In a city of only 362,000 inhabitants, and at the low point of the tourist season, everybody in his path had a front-row view. To my astonishment, I am no more than nine feet away from Francis as he smiles and waves back on his way to deliver a homily at Santa Croce.

By Jonathan Kandell

Life and Light http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/09/venetian-renaissance-painting/ Wed, 28 Sep 2016 20:49:31 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4816 Continue reading ]]> Venetian Renaissance painting is as distinctively beautiful as the city that nurtured it.

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Archangel with Tobiolo and Two Saints

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Archangel with Tobiolo and Two Saints (L’arcangelo con Tobiolo e due santi), 1414-1415, oil on canvas, 64 x 70 in.

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of a Lady with a Book Vittore Carpaccio, Annunciation Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, The Archangel with Tobiolo and Two Saints Bartolomeo Veneto, Portrait of a Gentleman Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child Blessing

In Giorgio Agamben’s essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of Living Among Specters,” the Italian philosopher writes, “If we compare Venice to a language, then living in Venice is like studying Latin, like trying to pronounce every word, syllable by syllable, in a dead language… It must be remembered, though, that one should never declare a language dead provided that it still somehow speaks and is read…The truth is that a dead language, just like Venice, is a spectral language that we cannot speak but that still quivers and hums and whispers in its own special way, so we can eventually come to understand and decipher it, albeit with some effort and the help of a dictionary.”

Most visitors to Venice have experienced the legendary city’s “spectral” quality, the feeling of being outside of time, straddling the present (navigating labyrinthine streets filled with tourists and vendors) and the glory of the past. Venice’s striking character is unique in Italy, however; it is without a doubt dazzling, but at the same time its architecture and charm differ from the overwhelming monumentality of Rome and Florence. Instead, it is strangely familiar. Venice is uncanny—as if everyone has visited the city before in a collective dream. This dream, however, may be the shared experience of language and culture which finds deep roots in Venice’s humanist tradition and proto-modernity. In this sense Venice holds a past we hope will teach us something about ourselves and where we come from, if we can only learn to speak and understand its distant tongue.

The Denver Art Museum’s exhibition “Glory of Venice: Masterworks of the Renaissance” (from October 2—February 17) provides the dictionary Agamben alludes to. In the masterpieces of the Venetian painters on display, visitors can begin to understand the language and concerns of Renaissance Venice, its particular brand of humanism, and how it influenced and guided the expressive work of the city’s painters. By viewing the colorful gems of Venetian painting from the late 15th to the early 16th century, visitors will be able to experience what is unique and enduring in Venetian painting, how it began, and its arrival at a synthesis of perspective, naturalism, landscape, light, and color. At a glance, these elements evoke a definition of realism (if brought together in the service of achieving fidelity to reality), and this is part of Venice’s contribution to painting, the optical realism light and color can create, a mission later embarked on by the Impressionists. Somehow, it is more though, and like all great art there is a deeper dimension to work of painters such as Bellini (the painter who gave the Venetian style its first full utterance), Giorgione, and Titian (whose work signals the end of the show’s time frame), where color and realistic perspective serve humanistic and compositional concerns as well as the divine.

“Glory of Venice” presents more than 50 major masterworks of Venetian painting, the core of which are 19 paintings on loan from the prestigious Gallerie Dell’Accademia in Venice. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to trace the development of the Venetian style, its sensitivity to color and light and its deep humanism, in a collection of paintings which rarely travel, including Christ Carrying the Cross by Giorgione (on loan from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice), The Annunciation by Vittore Carpaccio (from the Fondazione Magnani Rocca in Parma), and culminating in the refined early works of Titian, which signal the beginning of a new era in Venetian painting that included Veronese.

The humanism of the Renaissance found a particular expression in Venice. The Venetians celebrated their city and their lives in a glorious pageantry of finery and ceremony which put the human being and society at the center of things. Venice became the most prosperous city in Europe during the 13th century (although the 15th and 16th centuries were the time of the city’s decline in power) and this allowed the Venetians to enjoy and examine life and the world of beautiful things that surrounded them, as well as to enjoy the influx of culture and ideas which made their way to the privileged city. The scholarly obsession with antiquity was less present in Venice, and the brand of humanism that developed there reflected the concern with the here and now and the city’s geographic place at the crossroads of east and west. Works were commissioned for government buildings, and artists included details of their city in works depicting biblical subjects, opening the door to landscape painting.

In Giovanni Bellini’s oil on wood Virgin with Standing Blessing Child (circa 1475–80) the naturalistic landscape emerges behind the Madonna and Child, both rendered with deep sensitivity to shape and color. This feature became a mark of Bellini’s followers and opened the possibility of realistic depth and perspective and led to the landscape being approached as subject in its own right. As the show’s curator, Angelica Daneo, describes it, “Landscape really lends itself well to explorations of light and color. As you go through the exhibition, the landscape becomes the protagonist. In the Renaissance of Florence, the human figure is at the center, the prominent subject of the painting, but in Venetian painting landscape dominates the composition. If you see an Italian Renaissance painting where you are so attracted by the landscape, it’s a good chance it’s Venetian.”

The Venetians drew (or rather colored) from life, filling their work with sumptuously lifelike representations of holy figures, humble and glorious. Long gone were the alien Christs and Madonnas of the Byzantine era, but the Venetians also avoided the hard, idealized statue-like figures found in painting elsewhere in Italy. What emerged was something uniquely Venetian—beautiful and familiar works unified by color and composition. In the work of the Venetian masters of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the line begins to become blurred in favor of color, and this diffusion leads to a soft beauty but also to optical realism and new possibilities for shape and depth. Titian’s Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Dominic, and a Donor (circa 1513) creates shape, depth, and life with color. The oil on canvas depicting the Virgin and Child being adored by saints is a triumph of Venetian painting, soft and hazy, full of movement, with the scene set against a landscape with character and depth. The folds of the Virgin’s garment are free of hard shadow or rigid line and instead are created with precise attention to light and shade. It is clear why the early period of Venetian Renaissance painting culminated in the deep sensitivity of Titian.

The Venetian painters’ visual language creates the phonemes that constitute our own contemporary visual language of verisimilitude in which realism (in figure, landscape and the relationship of the two) forms the bedrock from which an endless procession of artistic augmentations are able to proceed. By adding dimension and depth, the Venetians were able to represent space and figures that were empirically recognizable as “real” and manipulate them into glorious and colorful compositions. The humanistic tradition of Venetian painting echoes down through Italian art, finding perhaps its last great expression in the golden age of Italian film, in which filmmakers and writers such as Roberto Rossellini and Giuseppe De Santis used life to create great works of soaring beauty and deep humanity. Luchino Visconti’s 1943 masterwork Ossessione (shrouded in its own brand of Venetian atmospheric haze) is a wonderland of diffuse light and sensuous shape, and in Michelangelo Antonioni’s revolutionary 1960 film L’Avventura the landscape gains a dominance and psychological character it had never before enjoyed in cinema. These works achieve a humanistic power in much the same way a Venetian masterwork would by using the recognizable and reorganizing it into perfect artifice with graphic and emotional sensitivity.

Venetian painting is characterized by pictorial excellence and sensitivity to light and color. Light is what makes possible the language of Venetian painting. This explains the Impressionists’ attraction to the Venetian painters, whose attention to the effects of light and atmosphere they studied and sketched in the Louvre. The realistic representation of space and light is a phenomenon the contemporary world takes largely for granted due to the ubiquity of cameras, and as late as the 15th century this feat was something very special. As important as Giotto’s discoveries were in the realm of perspective and the return to sketching from nature, over the next two centuries they were refined and supplemented by the work of Giorgione, Bellini, and Titian, which brought forth new advances in dimension and depth, made possible by the introduction of oil paint. Light and shadow and their Janus-like relationship to the dimensionality of figures in space create even greater realism and emotion. It leads one to ask, why were the perfection of and sensitivity to light effects in painting so particular to Venice? The answer could be la nebbia—the fog.

The autumn fog which envelops Venice is part of its spectral myth. How do we see light when it is what allows us to see? Shadow provides negative evidence of light’s presence but this allows us to see only its absence. In fog we see light struggle through atmosphere. By living in a city sometimes shrouded in fog, Venetian painters may have become acutely aware of light and its reality, its sculptural character in atmosphere. This is speculation, but perhaps also a key to the past. If you are fortunate enough to stand in Venice in the early morning fog of autumn, stop and think of what Bellini may have seen when he stood in the same spot 500 years earlier, and attempt to think what he may have thought. Imagine the haze that characterizes some of his most affecting works. In this way it may be possible to decipher the language of Venice, to cross the bridge of time and see ourselves and our human world a little more clearly through the fog.

By Chris Shields

A Rage for Ruins http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/09/hubert-robert/ Wed, 07 Sep 2016 19:16:08 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4782 Continue reading ]]> The 18th-century French painter Hubert Robert catered to the aristocracy’s fascination with the ancient world and the eroding effects of time, with works which continue to astonish.

Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767

Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767, oil on canvas, framed: 141.5 x 168.5 x 7.5 cm (56 x 66 x 3 in.) unframed: 119 x 145 cm (47 x 57 in.).

Featured Images:(Click to Enlarge) Hubert Robert, Studio of an Antiquities Restorer in Rome, 1783 Hubert Robert, A hermit praying in the ruins of a temple, c. 1760 Hubert Robert, The Old Temple, 1787- 1788 Hubert Robert, Le Panthéon avec le port de Ripetta, Salon of 1767 Hubert Robert, The Obelisk, 1733 -1808

If ever there was a social butterfly at the Royal Academy in France, it was Hubert Robert. During his artistic domination in and around Paris during the second half of the 18th century, Robert cultivated countless relationships with a veritable Who’s Who of ancien-régime Paris, floating through the city’s circles of intellectuals (particularly members of the fashionable Republic of Arts and Letters), antiquarians, and amateurs, as well as fully realizing his lofty aspirations as a painter of architecture, landscape, and antiquities.

His friend and eventual colleague at the Royal Academy, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Lebrun, wrote extensively not only of his talent but also of his charms, which were many. Two oft-quoted passages from her Souvenirs are worth repeating here: Robert “excelled above all at depicting ruins … It was fashionable and a great luxury to have one’s salon painted by Robert.” She went on to write that he also “cut the best figure in society, of which he was moreover very fond. Loving all pleasures, without omitting those of the table, he was generally sought out, and I doubt that he dined at home more than three times a year. Plays, balls, dinners, concerts, visits to country houses, nothing was declined by him, for all the time he did not employ working, he spent in amusements.”

Realizing his ambitions and climbing France’s social ladder were made possible no doubt thanks to his innate skill as an artist and draughtsman. The canvases of which Vigée Lebrun spoke, and which were Robert’s trademark for nearly 50 years, were known as capricci, a term denoting the decorative convention for depicting picturesque architectural ruins that had developed in baroque Rome and reached its apex among the Italian painters with Giovanni Paolo Panini, for whose work Robert felt a deep affinity. Robert’s charisma, coupled with his artistic ingenuity and his ability to create those arresting and novel capricci for which he was—and still is—amply praised, made for an ideal combination and brought him the praise for which he had hoped.

Robert was considered one of the most important painters by patrons, critics, and artists alike in the 18th century and was acclaimed well into the Belle Époque. Paeans to him peppered the writings of some of France’s most important literary figures, from Denis Diderot—who gave him the nickname “Robert of the Ruins”—to Edmond de Goncourt and Marcel Proust more than a century later. But the 20th century has been less kind to him, and more than 80 years have passed since he was the subject of a major retrospective. This year’s exhibition, “Hubert Robert, 1733–1808,” serves to remedy that. The show first graced the walls of the Louvre, the very institution where Robert himself was installed with his own studio and apartments in 1779, and is currently on view across the Atlantic at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (through October 2).

The son of the valet and the chambermaid of the Marquis de Stainville, Hubert Robert received the privilege of a trusting patron, the foundation of a master’s early education since the Renaissance (as in the legendarily celebrated cases of Leonardo and Francis I and Michelangelo and Lorenzo de’ Medici), even while in his youngest, formative years. Stainville and his son, the Comte de Stainville, had evidently had spotted talent, refinement, and social adeptness in the budding artist. In 1754, at just 21, Robert was invited to join the entourage of the Comte de Stainville in Rome, where Robert internalized as much of the Eternal City as he could, as the numerous notebooks of sketches sold at his posthumous auction attest.

His relationship with Stainville not only provided him with an opportunity for this ever-important artist’s Grand Tour, it also made possible his admission to Rome’s French Academy, a distinction generally only given to winners of the Rome Prize, which he in fact never received. He remained in the city for another 11 years, and it was during that Roman holiday that the cornerstones were laid for Robert’s career, cornerstones that would quite literally appear and reappear on the architectural ruins that populated his drawings and canvases throughout the rest of his life.

His portrayals of artists in their own dilapidated, romantic surroundings suggest that the worlds of fantasy and reality straddled a fine line for him even beyond the well-known capricci. In The Artist in His Studio, painted in 1765, during the last year of his Italian sojourn, an artist—possibly Robert himself—draws from a marble bust on his work table. On the walls, drawings and a framed painting are hung without much care, one having turned 90 degrees. The sunlight shining in from the open windows is the only illumination, while the only other living creature is his loyal dog sniffing curiously in the foreground.

This meta-narrative runs through his career, as with the somewhat romanticized chalk drawing of the sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, best known for his restoration on Roman marbles, at work in his studio in the mid-1760s, and, 20 years later, the lively and vibrant Studio of an Antiquities Restorer in Rome (circa 1783). Here, the entire workshop has become a capriccio in itself, with eroded Corinthian columns pulled from a decrepit portico in the recesses of his mind that he very likely faced in person two decades before. The structure supports a much later wooden roof sheltering sarcophagus fragments, marble statuary like the allegory of the Nile that today sits in front of the Palazzo Senatorio, and bronzes such as a larger-than-life-size Minerva. It is a clear and sunny early morning on which these men work and visitors, notably mostly women, look on in wonderment, dwarfed by the beauty and the antiquity surrounding them.

These fictitious vistas of Roman monuments, set outdoors more often than indoors, had by the 1780s become Robert’s specialty, and much of the show is devoted to the genre that he more or less singlehandedly popularized. For Diderot, painted ruins translated to poetry, and Robert’s compositions highlighted the “beautiful horror” that Diderot felt was paramount to the power of these works. Likewise, it is almost impossible to ignore the similarities between Robert’s fantastic depictions of the detrimental effects of time and nature on the creations of man and Edmund Burke’s 1757 tract on the sublime. The melancholic, idealized beauty of Robert’s compositions proves to be a perfect visualization of Diderot’s sentiments toward ruins as filtered through his own reading of Burke. In 1767, at the time of Robert’s Salon debut, Diderot famously wrote, “The ideas ruins awaken in me are big. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes. Only the world remains. Only time endures.”

Though he has been canonized for these almost ubiquitous ruinous views, Robert was in fact so prolific that it is easy to forget the sheer scope of his oeuvre. But one thread remains, and that is Robert’s striking understanding and interpretation of mortality and life’s fragility, from timeworn, fragmentary architecture to laundrywomen performing the labors that would mark their lives daily. This sense of looming death might well have fed into Robert’s own need for constant sociability and what Vigée Lebrun might describe today as a “fear of missing out.”

In this extensive exhibition, with over 100 artworks in total, we see in Robert’s art of the second half of the 18th century his personal trajectory and France’s as well, from his movement alongside the ranks of nobility, his academic upbringing, his reliance on Italian masters like Giovanni Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, his involvement in interior and exterior artistic projects, his consideration of other media (in the form of stone folies and painted porcelain), to the effects of the Reign of Terror under Robespierre as seen through the artist’s own imprisonment at Saint-Lazare and through the post-Revolutionary destruction of châteaux and ecclesiastical monuments (and even their rehabilitation under Alexandre Lenoir with an 1801 interior of the Museum of Monuments).

One unusual example that stands out is Robert’s extant work for Jean Joseph, marquis de Laborde, the tax collector under Louis XV. In 1786, under Robert’s scrupulous supervision, his capricci were reanimated in three dimensions in the gardens at the Château de Méréville (View of Méréville in the direction of the château). Laborde acquired the property, located about 40 miles south of Paris, in 1784, hiring the architect Jean-Benoit Vincent Barré to transform the medieval structure and Robert to conceive interior painting schemes and garden follies. Surviving drawings provide us with visual evidence of the scale of the massive landscaping project, which was recently restored. The château itself, the interiors of which included six paintings by Robert installed in two rooms, is today still unvisitable, having fallen into disrepair after the building was abandoned in 1897 and its contents sold in Paris three years later.

Four of the canvases Robert painted for Méréville—The Fountains, The Landing Place, The Obelisk, and The Old Temple—are today preserved at the Art Institute of Chicago. (The location of the other two is unknown.) Each reads as yet another tribute to Robert’s Roman holiday, truncating the wonders of that city into a series of complementary paintings destined for a thoroughly northern building. In The Landing Place, the viewer must look up to a most unexpected angle to glimpse one of the Quirinal Hill’s Horse Tamers precariously perched atop the remains of an equally incredible temple-cum-portico-cum-arch. The composition is somehow still open and airy, as nearly half the canvas is given over to a cornflower-blue sky with wisps of cumulus clouds, while in the foreground, gondolas await the figures lounging on stairs that lead to nowhere. Robert’s nonchalant and unorthodox rendering of reality shines here and in the three pendant paintings specially designed for Méréville’s petit salon.

Thus the sprezzatura that clearly defined Robert’s persona also characterized his art in Rome and beyond, and he and his close friend and fellow member of the Academy Jean-Honoré Fragonard together championed a new form of painting, marked by quick, loose brushwork and a seeming effortlessness. But that rapidity and slackness later became his academic downfall. In 1796, after that style of painting had ceased to be all the rage at the Salon, one observer noted, “The weakness of fa presto is the weakness of this facile and ingenious painter.” Nearly 20 years earlier at the Salon, Diderot had been among the first to predict that Robert’s supremacy would wane due to his painterly style: “If this artist continues to sketch, he will lose the knack of finishing, his head and his hand will become wayward….he is extravagant, his wife is a woman of fashion, he has to work fast.”

Vigée Lebrun’s 1788 portrait of the painter, which opens the exhibition catalogue, gives the sense that such criticisms probably did not much discourage him. His appearance is as casual as his sometimes slapdash brushstrokes, with wild, unkempt hair; a broken-in and wrinkled woolen coat; and a self-assured expression as he leans on his left arm to casually support his palette. Vigée Lebrun painted him in the act of looking, but she also painted him in the act of painting. His wide-eyed gaze and mien even suggest the very term that literally translated into his art, and that only a close confidant like Vigée Lebrun could have captured: capricious. Here we have a man of conviction, a man who would not change his favored artistic style for anyone, even if his refined upbringing might suggest otherwise. Evidently, despite his incarceration and the deathly chill of the Terror, Robert was not deterred from continuing to create the ruinous, saturnine world that had brought him fame among the aristocracy decades earlier, from being the artist and socialite he wanted to be, and, in short, from living his life.

By Martina D’Amato

Hieronymus Bosch: Dark Past http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2016/03/hieronymus-bosch-paintings/ Tue, 29 Mar 2016 17:49:13 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4479 Continue reading ]]> A celebratory exhibition in Hieronymus Bosch’s hometown doubles as a major art-historical achievement.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgment

Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgment, ca. 1495-1505.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Hieronymus Bosch, Saint John on Patmos Hieronymus Bosch, Saint John the Baptist Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgment Hieronymus Bosch, Allegory of Gluttony and Lust Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi

Demons, ungodly beasts, and perverted, malformed humanoid beings—all over 500 years old—will assemble in a small town in the Netherlands this month. Their bodies huddled, shouting, being consumed, contorted, or tortured, they will be hung about the village for visitors from far and wide to see. These creatures, hatched from both heaven and hell, are neither plot twists from a network sci-fi drama nor the predictions of some medieval soothsayer. They are the characters that dot the canvases of the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (or Jheronimus Bosch). They come together in unprecedented number, not for a religious rite or cosplay convention but for a celebratory exhibition in Bosch’s hometown of ’s-Hertogenbosch (or Den Bosch, as it is often called). There, the largest retrospective of Bosch’s work in history—20 paintings, 19 drawings, and a number of panels and triptychs—will be on view, bringing together the macabre, the absurd, and the unthinkably beautiful.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death. The highly imaginative work of Bosch, creator of his own unique visual language, somehow appeals equally to highbrow art fans and outré weirdos. One look at The Garden of Earthly Delights, a circa 1460–1510 oil on oak triptych widely considered the artist’s masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why: expertly rendered biblical motifs and nude figures challenge the eye and art historical analysis, while odd creations like a mobile blade propped between two ears navigating the torturous landscape of hell look like something straight out of an underground comic book. The exhibition “Vision of Genius” will run at the Noordbrabants Museum in ’s-Hertogenbosch through May 8. Simultaneously, the town will stage tours and events—a parade, light show, canal cruise, 3-D presentation, musical and theatrical performances, etc.—and will likely have something to please any type of Bosch fan there is.

Curiously, the idea for “Vision of Genius” came to ’s-Hertogenbosch’s mayor, Tom Rombouts, 15 years ago. After seeing “Jheronimus Bosch,” a 2001 exhibition at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam that also included immersive, festive Bosch-related programming, Rombouts wanted to bring the party to the artist’s hometown. Having no works by Bosch at the Noordbrabants Museum to loan when negotiating with other museums, the institution’s director, Charles de Mooij, and Bosch scholar Jos Koldeweij proposed a focused program of scholarship and conservation to the City Council in 2007. The Bosch Research and Conversation Program (BRCP) was thus established and did well not only to conserve and study the artist’s oeuvre but also to entice prominent museums around the world to loan works to “Vision of Genius.” Haywain, from the Museo Nacional del Prado, joins four Afterlife Panels from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Ship of Fools from the Musée du Louvre, and works from the Met, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Gemäldengalerie, and others.

The research conducted by the BRCP was “mainly technical,” says de Mooij, and included photography conducted in visible daylight, microphotography, infrared, and X-rays. “One of the important results is that it makes clear what was the hand of Bosch,” says de Mooij. The artist, who ran a successful studio and often received commissions from abroad, counted Pieter Bruegel the Elder among his followers—a fruitful situation for Bosch but not necessarily for scholars five centuries later. The team behind BRCP created a vast database of their photos of Bosch’s work. “By comparing all those photos and details, it became possible to distinguish the hand of the master,” says de Mooij. “I think that’s one of the most important results of their investigation.” These results have been published on the BRCP’s website, making it “possible for the public to compare for themselves and find their own conclusions,” says de Mooij. A print publication also accompanies the exhibition and research. A two-part monograph comprises a catalogue raisonné, which features all the works in the exhibition in text and image, and a volume published by the research team featuring all of BRCP’s technical studies, photographs, and results, giving readers the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the way Bosch’s paintings were created. Says de Mooij, “it’s cliché to say it’s richly illustrated.”

Nine of the paintings in the retrospective have been restored, six as a result of the BRCP’ efforts. Says de Mooij, this is “very remarkable, given the fact that the oeuvre of Bosch is so small.” With the restoration process came, of course, new discoveries and interpretations. “In several paintings,” says de Mooij, “there were more owls than before, after the restoration.” According to de Mooij, the presence of owls is closely aligned with Bosch’s fascination with the ever-looming possibility of damnation. “The owl is not only a bird of night and personification of evil, but it also means the devil is looking at us,” says de Mooij. “An owl is looking at an owl and also looking at us!”

The detection of an underdrawing in Death and the Miser (circa 1494 or later) was another breakthrough during the restoration process. The underdrawing features a man on his deathbed in the midst of a monetary exchange with the personification of death—he is either giving death money in exchange for more life, or receiving money from death. In the painting that Bosch ultimately painted, the one we know today, the dying miser’s actions are more ambiguous: as death looms through a doorway in the miser’s bedroom, the miser considers a sack of money being offered by a demon, while an angel, with his hand on the miser’s shoulder, points to a crucifix emitting a single beam of light. This is an example of what de Mooij considers Bosch’s optimistic nature. “The emphasis lies on the evil,” says de Mooij, “but there’s always the possibility to do the good.” A recurring theme of Bosch’s work is that the artist, who had a highly religious, humanistic upbringing, “always depicts man as a pilgrim going through life to the inevitable death,” says de Mooij. “There are all sorts of temptations, but in the end one can go to heaven instead of going to hell.”

Death and the Miser is not just notable for its restoration. The painting, which is on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is the inside right panel of the divided “Wayfarer Triptych.” The triptych’s side panels, long ago torn apart, are each in separate museums around the world—the Ship of Fools at the Louvre and the Allegory of Gluttony and Lust at the Yale University Art Gallery. While the central panel of the triptych was lost, the backs and fronts of the side wings were divided, with the outside of the wings forming the octagonal “Wayfarer painting” now at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. In “Vision of Genius,” the Wayfarer Triptych will be reunited with its other fragments for the first time since their separation, and the Ship of Fools and the Allegory of Gluttony and Lust will be able to be seen together as a single image. Pieces of the altarpiece of the Brotherhood of Our Lady from St. John’s Cathedral in ’s-Hertogenbosch will be brought from three countries to form another rare reunion.

But every painting in “Vision of Genius” will be having a long-awaited homecoming. Bosch, who was born in ’s-Hertogenbosch around 1450, worked and lived in and around his hometown his whole life. His father, Jan van Aken, was a painter, and his two brothers were trained as painters, as well. It is thought that Bosch, who rarely dated his paintings, painted at least 16 triptychs, of which eight are still intact and five are fragmented. A highly religious man, Bosch became a “sworn member” of the Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, an arch-conservative religious group with a limited number (some 40) of influential local citizens that held meetings at a private chapel at St. John’s Cathedral. It would be an understatement to acknowledge the influence Bosch’s religion had on his painting—not solely in his biblical motifs or blatantly Christian imagery, but also in his hellish monsters and creatures.

A sixth of the inhabitants of his town were clergy; there were monasteries with scriptoria, and printing presses: in short, Bosch was aware of the artwork and religious content that came before him. “He knew much more than we formerly assumed, so there were sources of inspirations,” says de Mooij. “He wasn’t the first to paint or draw a monster.” Still, this is not to take away from Bosch’s unnervingly innovative and at times bizarre creations. Surrealism took centuries to drink Bosch’s Kool-Aid. Yet, the surreal qualities of his inventions shouldn’t come at the expense of realizing his talents as a realist painter. “He was a master of realistic painting,” says de Mooij, “look at the birds he painted.”

Though “Vision of Genius” seemingly has a bit of everything, museum-goers should be warned that they won’t see The Garden of Earthly Delights in Den Bosch. Philip II of Spain acquired a group of Bosch’s paintings, including the triptych, in the late 16th century, which explains the ample collection of Bosch’s work at the Prado. Says de Mooij, “I didn’t even ask the Prado to lend it to us. In terms of fragility, it’s in remarkable condition, but it’s too important.” Let’s hope the aforementioned ear demon doesn’t feel too left out.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Carlo Crivelli: Glitter and Gold http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2015/12/carlo-crivelli-paintings/ Thu, 10 Dec 2015 01:20:06 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4260 Continue reading ]]> For the first time, American audiences can feast their eyes on the extravagant, richly ornamented paintings of Carlo Crivelli, an elusive Early Renaissance master.

Carlo Crivelli, The Dead Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist

Carlo Crivelli, restored by Luigi Cavenaghi, The Dead Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist, about 1475, on canvas, 66.4 x 64 cm;

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation with Saint Emidius Carlo Crivelli, The Dead Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Carlo Crivelli, Virgin and Child

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

Pictures of Power http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2015/12/byzantine-art-icons/ Thu, 10 Dec 2015 00:55:47 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4262 Continue reading ]]> A rare collection of Eastern Orthodox icons comes to Norfolk, Virginia.

The Werhner Triptych, Byzantine, 10th century, ivory.

Mother of God with Saints, also known as The Werhner Triptych, Byzantine, 10th century, ivory.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Saint Nil Mother of God of the Uncut Stone The Werhner Triptych, Byzantine, 10th century, ivory. Cameo of Saint Nicholas Saint John the Baptist

Icon painting is a living tradition. Of the 160 rare icons now on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art’s exhibition “Saints and Dragons: Icons from Byzantium to Russia” (through January 10), many examples date from the Middle Ages. However, “they go all the way up to 2014,” says the show’s curator, Seth Feman, giving viewers a comprehensive look at the iconography of the saints, Jesus Christ, and the Mother of God through the eyes of the Eastern Orthodox Church over centuries of art-making and worship. Icons, which are most typically rendered in egg tempera on wood, are thought to be “windows to heaven,” having the ability to act as a pictorial gateway for communicating with the divine. Each icon bears the spiritual energy of the saint who graces it. Closely tied to Biblical narrative, artists creating icons today must use a template of Church-approved “originating icons.” These time-tested, powerful pictures have been said to have performed miracles such as healing the sick or rescuing a city from an impending threat.

The collection of icons on view at the Chrysler reveals just as much about the history of Byzantine art as it does the story of the Orthodox Church and the spread of Christianity through Russia. It is a collaboration between the British Museum in London and the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass.—the show’s first and only other stop in North America. In fact, before this exhibition of 35 icons and 30 related art-historical objects (such as cast metal objects, ivories, and engraved gems), many of these exemplary pieces had never been seen outside London. Prince Charles, as it turns out, was instrumental in getting the collection on the road. “The show began, as I hear it, in a conversation between Sir Richard Temple, an icon collector, and Prince Charles about the British Museum’s collection,” explains Feman. “Prince Charles learned that a lot of icons were in storage and felt that they should be shared and sent out for conservation.” Soon after, the British Museum approached the Museum of Russian Icons. “They have an extensive collection,” says Feman, “and seemed like a logical partner.” From there, the Chrysler Museum, which Feman says has professional connections with the Museum of Russian Icons, accepted the offer to show the exhibition throughout the fall and winter.

Diverging from the Museum of Russian Icons’ set-up, in which the pieces from the British Museum were shown in a separate room, the Chrysler will combine examples from both museums throughout the exhibition space. “We’re fully integrating them, with the understanding that most of our visitors will be unfamiliar with the material,” says Feman. Initially, the Chrysler wanted to organize the exhibition in a way that would trace the flow of the Orthodox belief system and iconography from its Mediterranean roots to Russia. However, thousands of objects would have been necessary to properly illustrate the journey. The Orthodox Church has its origins in the churches founded by the Apostles in the Balkans and the Middle East in the first century A.D. It gained followers throughout the Byzantine Empire (or “Eastern Roman Empire”) during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, simultaneously developing a highly devout artistic style, which is thought to be more symbolic than realistic when compared to the naturalism of Greco-Roman art.

The Apostle Andrew is traditionally credited with the origins of Christianity in Russia, having made a legendary visit to the unfounded site of Kiev and foretelling the foundation of a great Christian city on its land. The icons in “Saints and Dragons” come for the most part from Russia, with examples from Greece and Turkey rounding out the collection. It can be challenging to identify the original location of many of the icons. “Some are ambiguously located,” says Feman. “There’s still work to be done historicizing them.” The organization of the show instead falls into four natural groups, representing popular imagery: “All Saints,” “Feasts and Holidays,” “Images of God,” and “Images of the Mother of God.”

Two exceptional icons from the British Museum make their American museum debut in “Saints and Dragons”: Saint John the Forerunner, an icon from Constantinople, circa 1300, and Miracle of Saint George and the Dragon (often referred to as the Black Saint George) from late 14th-century Russia. Saint George—a Roman soldier who spread Christianity while traveling with the military and was subsequently tortured for it—is perhaps the most popularly depicted saint in Greek and Russian Orthodox iconography. In the Black Saint George he is seen riding a black horse, lance in hand, vanquishing a dragon underfoot.

The Chrysler will be the only American institution to exhibit six ivory icons from the British Museum. These incredibly delicate pieces were unfortunately unable to be shown at the Museum of Russian Icons due to government restrictions on the import of elephant ivory. The Chrysler however, with the help of officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was able to secure permission to bring the ivory icons to Virginia—facilitating a rare and exquisite treat for museum-goers.

By Sarah E. Fensom

Joachim Wtewael: Myths, Monsters, and Mannerism http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/2015/10/wtewael-paintings/ Wed, 28 Oct 2015 21:25:27 +0000 http://www.artandantiquesmag.com/?p=4160 Continue reading ]]> The astonishing art of Joachim Wtewael, full of wild imagination, shows a little-seen side of 17th-century Dutch painting.

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600, oil on canvas, 64 x 81 inches.

Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge) Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, 1602 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Self-Portrait, 1601 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, The Apulian Shepherd, circa 1600–05 Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1604–08

When we think of Dutch Golden Age painting, we automatically envision homey scenes of everyday life, sumptuous arrangements of foodstuffs and flowers, or portraits of respectable burghers, all rendered with close attention to naturalistic detail. With those expectations in mind, the works of Joachim Wtewael come as a shock. A riot of mythological activity unfolds in his pictures, with Greek gods and goddesses disporting themselves without regard for the censors; sea monsters, satyrs, and putti popping out of nearly every corner; and lovers embracing passionately while floating by on clouds. There are scenes from the Christian religion, too, but painted with such sensuality and dynamism that they seem more like pagan dreams. Wtewael (pronounced OO-te-val), though very successful during his lifetime (1566–1638), became obscure in subsequent centuries, partly due to his style and subject matter but also for other reasons—obscure enough, in fact, that he had to wait the better part of five centuries for his first retrospective exhibition.

That overdue event is now under way, opening on November 1 at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, after runs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the city where Wtewael was born and spent his life. Through January 31, visitors to “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael” will have the opportunity to be astonished by the variety and verve of the artist’s oeuvre. Over 50 works will be on view—a sizable number in light of the fact that this artist was not particularly prolific—oils on canvas and panel, oils on copper (a favorite medium of Wtewael’s), and drawings in both ink and chalk. Through these, a fuller and more nuanced picture of Dutch art at the turn of the 17th century begins to emerge, a picture that takes in the diversity of cultural, religious, and artistic trends that came together at that pivotal time.

In 1581, when Wtewael was still a teenager, the Netherlands declared independence from Spanish rule and set up a Republic, under terms defined by a treaty ratified in the artist’s home town. While Spain would not formally acknowledge Dutch independence for nearly 70 more years—during which time war was intermittently waged—the tenor of life in the Low Countries changed forever, from an aristocratic, Catholic- and foreign-dominated one to a nationalist, fundamentally bourgeois, and religiously tolerant society in which Catholics and Protestants shared power and co-existed more or less harmoniously. A change in the arts went along with this political and cultural shift, reflected in a new enthusiasm for everyday-life subjects drawn from the bourgeois environment. But as with most times of transition, there was no rigid line, and there was much overlap between the new styles and subjects and those that were an inheritance from the previous era.

The art of Wtewael falls under the general category of Mannerism, an international style that was very popular in both Southern and Northern Europe during the second half of the 16th century and can be recognized easily by its penchant for elongated, even distorted, figures in exaggerated postures; its use of unnatural pastel colors; and an emotional tendency toward dramatic moods, eroticism, and general artifice. Today the most famous Mannerists are Italian and Spanish, like Parmigianino and El Greco, but Wtewael’s principal inspiration came from the Flemish Mannerist Bartholomeus Spranger (himself the subject of a monographic show at the Met earlier this year), a court painter for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at Prague whose work became widely known through reproductive prints made by the Dutch engraver and painter Hendrik Goltzius. Haarlem, Goltzius’ base of operations, was one of the two main centers of Mannerism in Holland, where he and Cornelis van Haarlem held sway. The other was Utrecht, where Wtewael and Abraham Bloemaert championed the style. And even though Wtewael turned out to be the last great Dutch Mannerist, at the time none of these artists was thought of as a throwback.

Wtewael’s first teacher was his father, Anthonis, a glassworker who also practiced painting on glass. At the age of 20, after a two-year apprenticeship with another local artist, Joos de Beer, Wtewael set off for Italy and then France, where he was no doubt exposed to international contemporary art, though it is not clear with whom he studied or even if he did. When he returned to Utrecht six years later, he joined a guild, set up a workshop, and started accepting apprentices of his own. Before long, major collectors throughout the country were acquiring his works. But painting was never to be Wtewael’s only pursuit—or even, arguably, his main pursuit. In the true Dutch entrepreneurial spirit, he went into business as a flax merchant and made so much money at it that he no longer needed to sell paintings to live, or even to maintain a high standard of living. By 1596 he was able to afford a house large and luxurious enough to remain in for the rest of his life. There he raised four children to adulthood, at least one of whom, Peter, carried on his art practice.

With the money he made from flax dealing, Wtewael bought municipal bonds as well as shares in the United Dutch East India Company, and he more than dabbled in real estate. He also involved himself in Utrecht politics, serving on the town council more than once. And while his art might suggest otherwise, Wtewael was a staunch Calvinist and a pillar of the Dutch Reformed Church who filled a number of offices in two congregations—deacon, regent, churchwarden, first warden, and dispenser of the poor box.

Despite these diverse and energetic extracurricular activities, Wtewael made such an impact as a artist, and so soon after opening his studio, that by 1604 Karel van Mander, the most influential Dutch critic and art historian of the era, felt comfortable calling him one of Holland’s best painters. In his Schilder-boeck (“Book of Painting”), a key text published that year, van Mander praised Wtewael’s “excellent judgment and intellect” and noted that he was one of those artists who painted from the imagination (uyt den gheest) rather than from nature or life (naer het leven). He also noted, with a touch of humor, that Wtewael’s work was so diverse that it was hard to imagine that one artist could be responsible for all of it. On the other hand, van Mander did take the opportunity to chide him for not fully devoting himself to his art, writing that it was surprising that the goddess Pictura had so favored Wtewael, since he clearly assigned painting second place in his life.

Be that as it may, Wtewael seems to have had no regrets about his life choices. He was secure enough about both his art and his financial standing that he felt no pressure to sell his works and in fact held quite a number of them back from the market, keeping them for his own enjoyment and that of his family and his intimate circle of friends. According to Arthur K. Wheelock, curator of Northern European Painting at the National Gallery and a co-author of the exhibition’s catalogue, this practice of Wtewael’s is one reason for his later obscurity. So many works remained in the possession of his descendants—the last one died childless in 1972—that much of the rest of the world remained not-so-blissfully ignorant of the wonders of Wtewael.

Those wonders are on full view in the current show, which includes all phases of Wtewael’s work—mythological scenes, biblical narratives, portraits, and the occasional genre picture. The mythological ones make the strongest impact, in terms of sheer pictorial virtuosity and storytelling powers. The Apulian Shepherd (circa 1600–1605) is emblematic in many ways. For one thing, it is an oil on copper, which Wtewael favored because the smooth, burnished surface of a copper plate allowed him maximum precision with tiny brushstrokes and yielded a particularly lustrous finished product. For another, it manages to fit an almost unbelievable amount of narrative detail, a dizzying number of figures, and several distinct textures of painting into one very small frame (the object is only about 6 by 8 inches in size, typical for copper paintings, which were meant to be held in the hand for the close contemplation of connoisseurs).

The story being told here comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the favorite font of Classical myth for centuries’ worth of European artists and poets. The Southern Italian shepherd has stumbled upon a group of nymphs, some clothed, some nude, who having been ousted from their cave by the god Pan, are passing the time by dancing in a glade. Instead of paying the supernatural beings due respect, the crude shepherd mocks and abuses them, and in return they transform him into an olive tree. Out of this simple yet powerful little mythical anecdote, Wtewael has made a very strong visual statement that is also a pretext for showing off pretty much everything he could do with paint and brush. The choreography of the nymphs is so palpably full of motion and grace that it seems to incarnate the very essence of Mannerism. Every figure, from the shepherd at far left, already sprouting olive branches from his arms, to Pan holding his pipes in the cave at the lower left, to the lute-playing musician at the far right, seems to be in motion. The dynamism of the figures corresponds to the dynamism of the entire composition, in which multiple spaces coexist without any loss of clarity or meaning. The whole painting has a narrative drive that makes it seem like a window on a world that just might be more real than our own.

Another oil on copper—Wtewael’s largest, at around 12 by 16 inches—takes this exuberance to the limit and beyond. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (1602), a depiction of a joyous event that nonetheless prefigures the disaster of the Trojan War, is so crowded with swirling divine, semi-divine, and human wedding guests, suspended on clouds seemingly miles above the landscape, that the eye can barely take it all in. We experience this painting as a generalized explosion of pagan energy. In Perseus and Andromeda (1611), the cavorting sea monster and the winged horse flying overhead convey a similar sense of a magical universe in perpetual motion. In other mythological works, however, Wtewael took a calmer approach. For example, Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Grows Cold (Sine Cerere et Baccho Friget Venus), an oval-shaped oil on copper from around 1600–05, places the wine god at the center of a tight composition, one hand raising a full glass and the other wrapped around the shoulders of Venus. One his other side is Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, holding a cornucopia, while a little Cupid with rainbow wings emerges from the bottom, being hugged by both goddesses. Here there is nothing to distract from the message of the picture, a sentiment taken from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: Love needs food and drink in order to thrive.

Even in his Christian paintings, Wtewael deployed both sensuality and a sense of fun that sometimes belies the topics at hand. In his Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1600), he chose to portray the saint in the moment before he was riddled with arrows by his Roman executioners. Instead of a pitiable pincushion, we get a graceful, well-muscled figure, posed in contrapposto against a thick tree trunk in a densely forested landscape. Over his head a rosy, plump putto hovers, while the executioners crouch in shadows at the bottom of the frame. In an Old Testament subject, Lot and His Daughters (circa 1597–1600), Wtewael chose to emphasize the fruit, cheese, bread, and wine with which the sinful girls plied their hapless father, also dwelling rather intently on their perfectly Mannerist nude bodies, complete with alabaster flesh and elongated necks.

The appeal of pagan myth in Christian Europe is a long story. It begins with moralistic reinterpretations of Ovid in the Middle Ages, goes through the passionate embrace of Classical culture in the Italian Renaissance—abetted by the widespread belief that myths were an expression of Platonic philosophy—and devolves into a more lighthearted appreciation of the myths’ imaginative power and ability to reflect aspects of human nature, not excluding the erotic. This is the spirit in which the sophisticated Dutch art aficionados and litterateurs of the 17th century seem to have taken them.

In a magisterial self-portrait, done in a realistic, un-Mannerist style in 1601, Wtewael gave subtle expression to the meaning of myth in his own life. The artist, holding his palette and brushes, dressed in black with a huge white ruff, stares challengingly out at the viewer, his pointed beard seeming to deliver a little jab of its own. In a catalogue essay, Liesbeth Helmus observes that typically, a self-portrait of this type would show a dab of white paint on the tip of the artist’s brush. Here, however, Wtewael has made the paint blood-red, which Helmus argues is a covert reference to Mars, the god of war, with whom Wtewael deeply identified.

One of Wtewael’s favorite stories was the one in which the cuckolded god Vulcan surprises his wife, Venus, in flagrante delicto with Mars. He painted it in 1601, and then again a few years later. These two pictures (both in the current exhibition), which are among the very few from the 17th century in which sexual intercourse is openly depicted, were intended for the private viewing of collectors. The later one, dated to 1604–08, was long kept hidden in various ways. In the early 19th century it was placed in a hinged frame behind a more innocuous painting by another artist, a portrait of a viol player. Sometime after that, it was enclosed in a folding dark-brown leather case, like the binding of a book, and surreptitiously stored in a bookcase. Only in 1983, when the Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired it, were Mars and Venus allowed to see the light of day again. Wtewael’s oeuvre has had a similar fate, and now, after centuries on the shelf, it can be revealed in all its splendor.

By John Dorfman