Tag Archives: collecting

Paris When It Glows

American painter Rodgers Naylor’s new exhibition at Susan Calloway Fine Art here in Georgetown opened this past Saturday evening, and I was fortunate enough to attend the opening reception with a group of friends. I was impressed by Naylor’s understanding of late afternoon light, as well as his technique and use of unexpected color choices to create certain elements of his painting. The show, which runs through April 21st, is definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in the nation’s capital over the coming weeks, particularly because it looks as though most of the paintings have already sold, and will be disappearing into private collections for the next 50-odd years.

“A Journey From Paris To The South” is a collection of oils by native Washingtonian/Colorado resident Rodgers Naylor, recalling his travels through France last year. Picturing scenes from the French capital, as well as the countryside of places like Burgundy and Provence, the show is very easy to like. From the moment you approach the gallery on Wisconsin Avenue, you are put in the mood of what you are about to see by the display in the large bay window in the front of the building, which features a large canvas of Sacré-Cœur and Montmartre, alongside several smaller works.

Naylor clearly enjoys painting views of the French countryside, such a group of hay bales that look like sheep in a field, or its rolling geography – excuse me, “terroir” – from which fine French wine comes.  However he also enjoys painting Parisian cityscapes, such as the dark waters of the Seine around a sunken bridge pier, or a bistro along one of Haussmann’s boulevards opening up for that evening’s diners.  There is a variety of work on show that will appeal to any collector’s individual tastes and preferences with respect to landscape painting.

This is a good opportunity to describe how reproductions in a book, or even online, never teach us as much about a work of art as does up-close, in person examination, and why I always want to encourage my readers to go to galleries or museums and take a look at art in person, to understand and appreciate how it is made. For example in this exhibition, I was struck by Naylor’s technique with respect to how he achieves a sense of motion, which does not necessarily “read” when one is looking at one of his pictures online. In portraying a moving vehicle, Naylor paints a square of pale, almost margarine yellow, and pulls away from it, creating an impression of moving light without actually creating streaks: a quite clever and effective way of achieving this effect.

A related, unusual technique of Naylor’s is demonstrated in how he forms the branches and leaves of a tree or a vine. Most of us if asked to draw something like a shrub would probably draw some curvy, lumpy thing on a stick.  The end result would look almost inevitably more like a clump of broccoli, rather than a large plant.

Instead of painting in such a curvilinear and literal way, however, Naylor essentially paints a series of squares. He then runs these into one another to create leaves, branches, and ultimately the form of the tree, vine, etc. that he is representing. Again, this is something that one cannot appreciate in an online photograph or exhibition catalogue, but when you are able to look at the painting up close and realize how it was done, you realize that the painter has thought about how to create a realistic effect, without trying to reproduce exactly what one sees with the naked eye.

In addition, Naylor’s color choices are often very inventive indeed, and must be seen at close quarters to be understood. In painting a scene at sunset for example, he will use a rather bright purple or pink that one does not necessarily notice at first. Only on further investigation does one realize that the dark portions of his trees are full of lilac and lavender, or the corners of his buildings have fuchsia streaks along them.

And my goodness, does Naylor love light. He is particularly adept at contrasts of light and shadow in late afternoon, just before sunset, where one can “see” his use of a bright, truly cheerful use of the color orange – he even uses a rather bright orange in his signature, as one of my companions for the opening pointed out.  In his views of vineyards and fields, the various oranges employed make you want to go spend some time in the sun enjoying the harvest, or traveling along an allée of trees from one village to the next.  While on the whole I found his paintings to succeed better when the scale of the people portrayed within them were kept smaller, or more obscured, he is a man who clearly enjoys being outside in the fresh air observing both man and nature as they go about their business, and he wants others to enjoy observing this with him.

To be able to spend an evening looking at bright and cheerful pictures of Paris and the French countryside, on an otherwise gloomy and rainy evening in early Spring, was a pleasure in and of itself. Especially in his smaller paintings, Naylor evokes that sense of the personal and intimate which one finds in the smaller-scale work of artists such as Renoux, where large spaces are represented on a small scale.  In both large and small formats, he delights the eye with an explosion of cheerful color and interesting technique all his own, and hopefully my readers in the Washington area will get the chance to enjoy it for themselves.


Patrons at the opening on Friday evening

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The Way to Collect

As those who have been to my home or office know, I have a decent collection of mid-20th century paintings and signed prints from Spain, and unfortunately not enough wall space on which to hang them.  They are works I have collected over the past couple of decades, and I continue to augment that collection when I come across new finds, even though I will definitely need a bigger house in which to display them all.  So while reading through my normal blog roll this morning I spotted a bit of news involving a local art and antiques dealer, and thought that this might be a good opportunity for me to share some thoughts  about what I believe is the best way to approach collecting, whether art, books, sports memorabilia, or what have you.

I was sad to learn, via Topher Matthews over at The Georgetown Metropolitan, that Antiques of Georgetown is closing for good, after more than forty years in the trade.  While my favorite place in the village to browse over the discarded artifacts of times past remains L’Enfant Gallery – where there is a 17th century Spanish cabinet I have been drooling over for years – I have enjoyed dropping into this old curiosity shop, first as an undergraduate and later as a “townie”.  There will still be many places in the neighborhood to browse for such items, but of course each time one of these long-established businesses closes, they seem to be replaced by something of the chain store variety, making shopping for that unique item somewhat less, well, unique.

In my experience, the best professionals in the field of collecting are not going to dismiss or ignore you for having questions and being interested, as they are, in such matters.  Merely because you are not in the market for a million-dollar work does not mean that you cannot learn about and enjoy art, antiques, and collecting from those who engage in this activity professionally.  For example, I periodically have exchanges about collecting art (and neckties) with one of the experts on the American version of “Antiques Roadshow”, which began with my emailing him and asking where he found the exceptional necktie he wore on a particular episode.

As is the case with many things in life, the important thing is to get over one’s fears of the unknown, and start exploring.  There are vast amounts of printed and online material to help you, of course, but one of the best ways to learn about such things is through the first-hand observation and tactile experience of them.  Taking the time to examine things up close, and touch them where possible, will provide a far greater understanding of the object than can be gleaned from books or online publications, as invaluable as those resources are.

Many people are put off by having an unpleasant experience with a dealer when they first attempt to put their toe in the water, and certainly when I was a teenager I can remember being shooed away by shopkeepers who thought I might break or steal something.  Today, when this sort of thing occasionally happens, I simply cross that shop off my list and do not darken their doorstep again.  There is an antique bookshop in Barcelona, for example, where a few years ago I purchased a very rare, autographed edition of a book by one of my great-great-grandfathers.  I returned a year or so later to find out whether they had any other books by him, but was treated with something approaching derision by the shopkeeper.  Therefore, I no longer patronize them, and warn people off shopping there.

However to give these people their due, remember that they do not know you from Adam, and have no idea of what a good fellow you are.  They are usually independent business owners, and oftentimes the objects which you are examining are both their livelihood and unique.  If you fumble through a pile of jeans in a chain retail shop, there will likely be no damage at all to anyone; the items on display were mass-produced and easily replaced.  If however you are fondling a rare, late 19th century crystal claret jug and you damage it, the shopkeeper may never see a return on his investment or be able to find one like it.

When it comes to the question of what one collects, I always think that the best advice is to take a two-pronged approach.  First and most important of all, you should collect what you love, rather than what someone else tells you that you ought to love, simply because it is popular or because it is presently viewed as being valuable.  I realize that for my friends and former classmates who are now art advisers, this would be viewed as something of a dig at their profession, but as I am not writing this post for the nouveau-riches who want to acquire by purchase with their millions what nature denied them in personal taste, I will leave it to them to keep their clients informed as to what is worth having.

The second, equally important bit of advice is to find the best example of what you like, rather than obtain something simply because it comes into the general category you are hunting for.  A small collection of well-chosen objects is better than a large collection of a few hits and many misses, at least from my point of view.  You do not need to create a hoard of paintings, books, etc., in order to have a good collection.  Rather like life, having many acquaintances but only a few close friends not only makes things easier from a logistical point of view, but also indicates that you possess at least some level of discernment.

Self-education is unquestionably the best way to get to know your subject, and I would suggest that attending auctions and estate sales, going to flea markets, and consignment shops, will prepare you in ways which simply reading about these things will not.  Do not worry about going along to these things, for no one is expecting you to accidentally put up your hand and bid for the Rubens.  You can ask questions and look at things, research what you have seen, and build up your understanding through seeing not only how you react to something, but also to how others react to it.

At the same time, do not shy away from having a quiet one-on-one visit to your local antiques dealer or gallery, in order to avail yourself of their knowledge and experience – that is, if they prove to be receptive to sharing it with you.  If they really want to cultivate you as a customer over time, they will share their thoughts with you, in the hope that you will return as you are able.  This makes the experience unlike the hard-sell, and more like the relationship you develop over time with your tailor or barber – and that is a relationship which is certainly worth cultivating.


“Interior of the Salon of the Archduchess Isabella of Austria”
by Willem Van Haecht II (c. 1625)
Norton Art Museum, West Palm Beach, Florida

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On Museums, Vandals, and Idolatry

You may have spotted news reports yesterday, gentle reader, regarding vandalism which took place over the weekend at the National Gallery in London. For those who missed it, two works by the 17th century French old master, Nicolas Poussin, were attacked on Sunday for reasons which still remain unknown. A man took a can of red spray-paint to Poussin’s paintings “The Worship of the Golden Calf” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which portray these events from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of St. Luke, respectively. The man was subsequently arrested, though as of this writing there have been no reports on what any charges would be. Fortunately, the conservation department of the museum managed to remove all of the red paint and no permanent damage was done to the paintings.

Reading about this event quite literally made me sick to my stomach, as I am sure it did many in the art world. A proposed solution which seems to be gaining traction among journalists and the commentariat is that there ought to provide greater security and screening, as well as an admission charge, both at the National Gallery and other British institutions where there are currently no such barriers to free entry. However these methods, while the intent behind them may be at least somewhat laudable, will ultimately prove ineffective at stopping those determined to engage in vandalism. They also reflect, ironically, how like the Israelites worshiping the golden calf, sometimes museums can forget that they are meant to serve others, not to worship idols.

Art history is full of examples of people who try to destroy works of art, whether because they are mentally ill, or politically motivated, or both. Pieces like Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica, for example, have been attacked by individuals who are not quite compos mentis. Large-scale, politically motivated instances range from Savonarola ordering a bonfire of the vanities in Renaissance Florence, to Chairman Mao and the violent iconoclasm of his so-called Cultural Revolution, to the Taliban blowing up statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.  However as it happens, perhaps one of the most famous of all acts of art vandalism ever committed took place at the National Gallery in London almost a century ago.

On March 10, 1914, Suffragette Mary Richardson approached the “Rokeby Venus” of 1614-1615 by the great Spanish old master painter Diego Velázquez, which is the only one of his female nudes known to still be in existence, and smashed the glass that covered it. She then hacked at the canvas at least seven times with a meat cleaver before she was pulled off by a docent and by a policeman who happened to be in the museum. Ms. Richardson claimed that she took this action because one of her suffragette colleagues, Emmeline Pankhurst, had been arrested the previous day.

Subsequently in court, Ms. Richardson explained that

I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas. Mrs Pankhurst seeks to procure justice for womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women, and that until the public cease to countenance human destruction the stones cast against me for the destruction of this picture are each an evidence against them of artistic as well as moral and political humbug and hypocrisy.

Ms. Richardson subsequently spent six months in prison as a result of her act of vandalism, which was the maximum sentence at the time. Richardson later went on to join the Labor Party and run unsuccessfully several times for Parliament. Later still, in the 1930′s, she left the Labor Party and went on to head the women’s division of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), where I am sure she felt very much at home.

One of the unfortunate fallout results of Ms. Richardson’s actions, and copycat attacks by colleagues of hers at the National Portrait Gallery and other British museums, was that for a time, women were actually barred from visiting public museums. They would only be permitted to enter a museum if they were accompanied by an adult male, who could also vouch for their trustworthiness, i.e. that they would not try to vandalize any of the art on display. This humiliating and deeply insulting result was the only way people at the time, nearly a century ago now, felt that they could protect works of art from the more radical elements of the feminist movement. The powers that be at the time determined that it was more important to protect the art in public collections than it was to protect the dignity of those who sought to visit and study those collections.

In the wake of the Poussin attacks over the weekend, there is practical fallout for the National Gallery regarding future exhibitions. The planned lending of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” to the National Gallery for an upcoming exhibition was going to be a sensation, as one of the few paintings by da Vinci comes from Krakow to London. The Polish foundation which owns the painting has expressed concern that the work may be vandalized or worse, given recent events at the National Gallery, and that there will be meetings to debate what to do, and whether the planned lending should proceed. No doubt other public collections and private collectors are going to do the same, before they will confirm that the lending of their pieces to the National Gallery will proceed.

However a more personal concern for those who visit public collections ought to be the question of whether, because of the bad acts of one person, they ought to be treated as guilty until proven innocent. Putting in greater security at public museums is not a bad idea, of course – particularly if you have borrowed someone else’s property for a show, and you do not want to be held liable for any damage it may suffer while in your care. Yet ultimately, greater security will do nothing to deter those who are determined to deface or destroy a work of art.

At the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, bag checks have been the norm for years. The guards look through your packages at the various entrances, and you are directed to a cloak room where you must leave your items. Yet despite these measures, quite recently a deranged woman still managed to attack one of the paintings at the Gauguin exhibition, by trying to pry it off the wall.

Ironically, when a work of art is placed into public hands, it often runs a greater risk of being damaged or destroyed, unless of course the work in question happens to be by Goya and finds its way into the hands of the repulsive Chapman brothers. The more people who have access to a painting like a Poussin, for example, the greater the chance that some crackpot will – ahem – take a crack at it. The best a museum can hope for is to reduce the risk that a work of art will be damaged or destroyed by certain methods of preventing disaster, such as through the use of bag checks and mandatory cloakrooms.

A public institution cannot, for the sake of protecting a work of art, forget that its mandate is one of public service rather than the adoration of idols, in the form of art objects. Art is fragile because it cannot fight back or run away when it is physically attacked; no matter its size or the composition of its materials, because of its static nature art relies on human beings to protect it from time, the elements, and indeed other human beings. Yet it is important for the museum to remember that, although works of art must be protected, the museum is losing sight of its purpose as a public institution if it views and treats everyone who comes to see a work of art as a potential criminal.

The National Gallery is fortunate that no lasting damage was done to the Poussin paintings, and the adoption of policies such as bag-checking would certainly be prudent.  However, no matter how good its security, vandalism cannot be completely prevented in a public institution. Rather than taking a misanthropic view of human nature, it would be more logical for the National Gallery to accept the fact that this type of crime will happen again at some point, since prevention is not a panacea for the preservation of objects in public collections. Taking that into consideration, hopefully the practical solutions which the museum adopts as a result of this event will be tempered by reason, keeping foremost in consideration its role as a public institution, and the end result will not cause the public to abandon a National Gallery which becomes as unpleasant a place to visit as a TSA checkpoint.

Detail of damage to “The Worship of the Golden Calf” by Nicolas Poussin (c. 1633-34)
National Gallery, London

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The Bad Taste of the Bourgeoisie

Forgive my beginning this piece with what some may consider a dig, gentle reader, but a review in this morning’s online edition of the Torygraph made me think about what horrible things people have hanging on their walls. The television film being reviewed considers why some works of art fetch astronomical prices, and questions the motivations among a class of new elites for paying such prices. However what also needs to be questioned is whether these collectors are really all that different from the middle classes, when it comes to wasting resources on objects which are meaningless to their owners.

The Daily Telegraph’s James Walton discusses a film , “The World’s Most Expensive Paintings” that aired over the weekend in the U.K.: a sort of countdown of the ten most expensive paintings sold in recent years.  Walton describes how the presenter, Alastair Sooke, takes the viewer down a different road from the usual fawning over the lives of the very wealthy which audiences perennially enjoy. Sooke believes that the people paying extraordinarily high prices for art are doing so out of a sense of exclusivity and a celebration of wealth, rather than out of an appreciation for the art they have purchased.  Walton concludes his review by asking a hypothetical, “is this really a new state of affairs, or does it represent a return to a centuries-old aristocratic tradition?”

In many cases, the goal of the private art collector buying at the high end of things is to be considered a man of sophistication and wealth by his peers. The social class of the high-end players in the art market may have changed, from lords and ladies to financiers and entertainment moguls, but the game has basically remained the same. No doubt many well-to-do collectors appreciate the art they are spending fortunes to acquire, but many others simply want to be well-thought-of by their peers, and so buy what everyone else is buying, or what an art advisor tells them to buy, without really thinking about what they are doing.

Now let us look a bit further down the tax table.  There are few things I loathe more than the meaningless, reproduction “decorator art” by unknown artists that one can pick up in bulk, pre-framed, in almost any shop carrying housewares. Such things are often featured on do-it-yourself television programs, where the interior decorator does a before and after on a room. I inevitably cringe as they gesture to the “art” (untitled and by an unnamed artist, natch.,) purchased specifically to match the drapes or the upholstery.  This is generally where the middle class collector, regrettably, purchases the art that decorates his home.

Unlike the man of infinite wealth, the bourgeois is not trying to join an elite club with a high price of admission when he purchases a piece of art.  However, if he fails to hang something over the sofa, his friends and neighbors would make comments about his walls being bare. This would somehow reflect badly on his taste, or his ability to afford something to hang over the sofa in the first place. Thus, the price points between the economic classes may differ, but the motivations really do not.

It is particularly irritating to see that this attitude toward art is so ingrained among the bourgeoisie in this country, who are usually more possessed of common sense than the newly rich.  For the same price or less than what one paid at an establishment when one picked up new sheets and vacuum cleaner filter screens along with one’s art, one could purchase an actual, original work of art from an artist, a market, an online auction, and so on.  It is not so difficult a task as people seem to think, so long as they collect what they like, and not what is being flogged to them as being hip or trendy, a kind of “must have” for those who have no idea what they are doing.

A goal of mine in these pages, gentle reader, is to try to convince people not to be afraid of art as something being solely the realm of intellectuals or the extremely well-off. Some of the rich may waste their enormous resources in buying paintings which they do not care about in order to fit in with their peers, but there are plenty of average, everyday people who, in their way, do exactly the same thing. Both groups need to make more an effort to educate themselves, and to collect better.

Visitors to an art exhibition, 1950′s

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Building Your Own Art Collection: The Example of Huguette Clark

I often encounter a perception among my peers that building an art collection is a pursuit limited either to those who are elderly and of inherited wealth, or new-money types who need to spend as much as they can on whatever they can.  However, an interesting bit of news about a new art foundation may provide us with an excuse to think about what an art collection is really about, and why you should consider forming one.  It is not so difficult, or expensive, as you may think, and can prove extremely rewarding in many respects.

This morning the art world is a-flutter over the news that the late, reclusive mining heiress Huguette Clark, who died in May at the age of 104, has left a substantial fortune approaching $400 million to create a foundation “for the primary purpose of fostering and promoting the arts.”  Mrs. Clark also made a bequest of an important example of Claude Monet’s “Waterlily” series to the Corcoran here in Washington.  She specified that her beautiful estate in Santa Barbara, California (where she had not set foot in nearly 50 years), be turned into a museum to display her art collection.

Because Mrs. Clark was so secretive and private a person, we are only sketchily aware of the art she owned at the time of her death.  In addition to the Monet that she donated to the Corcoran, we know that she owned paintings by such important artists as John Singer Sargent, Auguste Renoir, William Merritt Chase, Edgar Degas, and Vincent Van Gogh. The bulk of the Clark collection had been formed by her father, Senator William Clark, and donated to the Corcoran upon his death, where there is an entire wing dedicated to it.  His daughter seems to have preferred establishing her own museum rather than sending the last bits of the collection to DC, apart from the solitary Monet.

There are aspects to the Clark case that read like a cross between the classic documentary “Grey Gardens” and the Bette Davis potboiler “The Old Maid”.  However I would like the reader to think a bit more about the Clark art collection, or what remains of it.  Note that the aforenamed artists were not Old Masters living several centuries before Mrs. Clark, but rather painters whose working periods covered the later 19th and early 20th centuries.  In other words, Mrs. Clark’s collection featured the work of artists who became active at most a couple of decades before her birth in 1906, and some of whom were still alive and painting when she was a young woman.  It was a world that was more familiar to her than one which existed during the Renaissance or Baroque eras, and it was one that she must have personally liked, given that she had the wherewithal to collect anything she wanted.

Now it is true, of course, that most of us in our 20′s and 30′s are not in a position where we can go to an art gallery or auction house and bid on a painting by the great American artist James McNeil Whistler, much as we may like his work. However, what about acquiring an etching by him for $425?  Similarly, even if you never own a sculpture by the most prominent of all British modern sculptors, Henry Moore, and wish that you could, perhaps $700 is not too much to pay for a study by him.

Even this may even seem a bit too intimidating of a price point for someone starting out, with a limited disposable income, to begin an art collection – particularly if you are not familiar with art history and the work of two such very different artists.  And that is perfectly fine, dear reader.  The pleasure of collecting art, as all connoisseurs come to discover, is both the hunt and what you learn along the way.  We all have to start somewhere, and the best advice, as I see it, is to take a two-pronged approach toward art collecting.

First and most importantly, buy what you like.  The reason the contemporary art market is so flooded with appallingly bad art – apart from the decline of Western civilization into a moral relativist barbarism – is because too many people with more money than sense are being told by the black turtleneck brigade that they *must* like something, in order to be considered cultured, educated, hip, or what have you.  Suffice to say, experts know many things, but they can often be wrong.

There is certainly a place in the world for experts whom private collectors and public institutions consult regarding the purchase of works of art.  Yet even if you get to the point where you are so well-to-do that you can afford to collect very expensive art, you are going to be like Elmer Fudd in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon with the word “Sucker” printed across your forehead if you fail to develop your own taste and appreciation before you get to said point.  The more you learn, the better and more informed the choices you will make.

Second, buy the best art that you can afford.  If you can only afford to spend $25 on a print that you like at a local flea market or regional art fair, then make sure that you are getting the best $25 print that you can for your limited funds.  Once you come to appreciate a particular type of work, you will gravitate toward work by that artist, those like him, technique, era, or subject matter. Indeed, subject matter alone is an infinitely vast area for the new collector to consider: New England seascapes, fashion illustrations, abstract compositions, portraits of military officers, etc.  As you find works that you like, you will become more familiar with what these types of works are supposed to cost, and whether you are considering for purchase a work that is well-priced, whether it is a bargain, or whether it is overpriced.

This combination of self-education and buying the best that was available enabled Mrs. Clark (and her father before her) to accumulate a remarkable group of paintings.  And yes, gentle reader, you and I can do the same, even if not to the same scale.  Certainly I for one would love to have a Degas hanging in the stairwell at the manse, but as that remains an unlikely proposition, I will stick for now to what I do collect.  I do so out of love for both the pleasure of the hunt, and the educational experience it provides.  Why not challenge yourself to do likewise?


The Rastro flea market in Madrid on a Sunday

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