Bargain Sale Patriarch: A Tale of the Sad Decline of Art Collecting

I was surprised to read the news that British investment banker Jonathan Ruffer is to open a new public gallery dedicated to his collection of religious art, focusing on the period known as the Spanish Golden Age of the 17th century.  Ruffer famously purchased the monumental series of paintings known as “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” (c. 1640-1644) by Francisco de Zurbarán a few years ago for the bargain price of £19 million, and then gave them back to the Anglican Church, which had owned them for the last two centuries.  However Mr. Ruffer has been accumulating many other works for his personal collection for years now.  The reason he is able to do so, frankly, is overall rather a sad one for the world of art collecting.

Creating an art collection like the one which will form the nucleus of this new museum in County Durham, focusing on major works from the Counter-Reformation in Spain, is not an easy thing to do.  The majority of the art of this period is now housed in publicly-owned museums, rather than held by individual collectors.  The fact that someone could still, just within the last 20 years, assemble a group of works of the level we’re expected to see in this new, public-but-private museum, is truly remarkable.

The fact that Ruffer chose not to hold on to the Zurbarán paintings, which would have been the star of this new museum, surprised many, but then there are many surprising things about these pictures.  The story of how “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” ended up in England in the first place, for example, is pure speculation. The generally accepted theory is that they were captured as booty by British privateers, stolen on their way to a monastery in the New World from Spain.  They were then brought back to London and auctioned off quayside.

What is known for certain however, and which is rather fascinating, is that at some point the paintings entered the collection of James Mendez, the son of a Sephardic Jew who had come to England as the personal physician of Queen Catherine, wife of King Charles II.  As the Mendez family wanted to get along with the Anglican gentry, they discarded what they perceived as more overt aspects of their Jewish culture.  Although these paintings were painted by a Catholic for a Catholic institution, their Jewish subject matter and monumental scale probably seemed too overtly Jewish for a family trying to mingle in English high society at that time, which was often blatantly anti-semitic. Thus they eventually passed into the collection of the Anglican Bishops resident at Auckland Castle.

Today the stigma of being a lover of religious art has spread to become a kind of general malaise throughout the world of art collecting.  When a group of thirteen magnificent, beautifully made religious paintings like these, from one of the greatest painters of the 17th century, sells for around $30 million, while a hideous monstrosity like this sells for $142 million, something is very wrong.  If you wanted proof that our present society prefers ugliness to beauty, not just aesthetically but in everything else, here at least is some compelling evidence advancing that theory.

Of course, the flip side to this downturn in taste is that it is a great time to be a collector with an eye for beauty and meaning, as Mr. Ruffer clearly is.  The paintings and sculptures that are being overlooked, by the pursuers of the new and lacking in nuance or skill, do not fetch as high a price.  So of the saleable stock remaining from the world of Western Civilization before its decline into incontinence, should you have a few million sitting around, there are still some lovely things to be had.

Detail of "Jacob" by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644) Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

Detail of “Jacob” by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

 

 

 

Men In Armor: Art on the Edge of Change

At The Frick in Manhattan, a new exhibition entitled Men in Armor opens today, juxtaposing portraits by El Greco and his contemporary, the less well-known Italian painter, Scipione Pulzone.  The show is taking place as part of a commemoration of the 500 years since the death of El Greco, whose work was rediscovered and re-appreciated beginning with the Impressionists and which continues unabated today.  What unites both paintings, apart from their timeframe, is the portrayal of two martial members of Roman society.  Yet despite what at first glance may seem to be very similar images, there are important differences between the two, which speak to how Western art stood on the edge of change, not long after these portraits were painted.

Pulzone’s portrait of Jacobo (also known as Giacomo) Boncompagni is an example of the highly refined, haughtily aristocratic imagery which characterized society portraiture during this period.  Boncompagni, commander of the Papal Army back when there were Papal States, was the son of the man later elected as Pope Gregory XIII.  We all know that a number of the popes, particularly during the Renaissance, were far from saintly, but it should be pointed out that Gregory XIII is generally considered to have tried his best to live piously during his pontificate; the affair which produced Jacobo Boncompagni took place when the future pope was still a layman.

Despite the fact that Pulzone is portraying one of the most powerful Italians of his day, the painting speaks to a foreign influence.  The seriousness and darker tones of this type of portrait were originally popularized by what was, at the time, Europe’s greatest superpower: Spain.  Even as early as the time of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog and author of the “Book of the Courtier”, Spain was looked to by many aristocrats and intellectuals of the Renaissance as a model of both appearance and behavior, worthy of being emulated.

Earlier, related examples of how European artists catered to the serious tastes of the Spanish court include Titian’s famous image of Felipe II as Crown Prince, painted around 1550-1551, and the 1557 portrait of the now-King Felipe by the Dutch portraitist Antonis Mor.  In both of these propaganda images, as in the portrait by Pulzone, the background is dark, the individual is starkly lit, and the gleam of intricately inlaid armour contrasts with the muddled shades and textures of the fabric.  Notwithstanding their comparatively minimal surroundings, the men in these paintings give off an impression of restrained luxury, and a male peacock’s pride of appearance, even though the flashy, comic book colors which we often associate with the Renaissance are completely absent.

The Frick’s rare, full-length portrait by El Greco of Vincenzo Anastagi, sergeant-major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, at first might seem to be related to these other images.  Like these, Anastagi is also shown dressed in gleaming armor, ruff collar, and plush velvet, minus the fashionable codpiece sported by both Felipe II and Jacobo Boncompagni.  However, closer inspection reveals some significant differences between the images of Anastagi and his contemporary Boncompagni, which both speak to their relative status in the pecking order, and show how Western art was about to start looking inward.

For one, the armor worn by the two men is quite different: Anastagi’s is polished, but plain, whereas Boncampagni’s armor is highly decorated, reflecting their relative wealth and status.  Anastagi is placed in a simple, white-washed room with a small window, the blandness of the background made slightly more dynamic by the addition of some burgundy velvet drapes.  By contrast, even though Boncompagni stands in a darkened room, he is placed next to a table covered by a rich, satin tablecloth, and the space is punctuated by the sweep of a steel blue velvet curtain edged in gold embroidery.  We can also see that Anastagi’s rather ordinary, workaday soldier’s helmet lays, untied and discarded, on the floor behind him, while Boncompagni rests his arm on a magnificent, engraved and hammered helmet, perhaps from one of the highly prestigious Renaissance armorers in Milan.

There are also palpable differences in the expressions of these two men.  Ananstagi, with his sunburnt nose from many days out on the ramparts of the castle, looks somewhat suspiciously at the viewer, trying to decide what to make of the person who is looking back at him.  Boncompagni, on the other hand, seems self-assured and detached, almost languidly so, as he deigns to give you some of his attention.  Whereas El Greco gives us an individual in this painting, Boncompagni gives us a type.

Not convinced? Take a look at what each of these two men are doing.  Anastagi is a real person, who doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands unless he is handling a weapon.  Boncompagni on the other hand, is putting on a show, rather than telling us anything really significant about himself.  His hands hold a document and a baton, respectively, indicating that he is a man of learning and power to be reckoned with, but they look and indeed function as theatrical props.  Clearly, if Pulzone is showing us the world as people imagined it to be during his time, El Greco is, by contrast, giving us a sense of what the people of that era were really like.

By the time of El Greco’s death in 1614, a new style of portrait painting had taken hold in Spain and began to spread elsewhere.  It reflected the sobriety of earlier portraiture to the Spanish taste, but also displayed a greater willingness to avoid flattery.  What the deceivingly simple Frick exhibit does, is to show when that sea change in Western art really began to take place.  That transition to a more natural portrayal of the sitter, making him less attractive but more introspective, is due at least in part to the work of perceptive and challenging artists like El Greco.

Detail of "Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi" by El Greco (c. 1550-1551) The Frick Collection, New York

Detail of “Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi” by El Greco (c. 1550-1551)
The Frick Collection, New York

When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome