The Courtier On The Fifth Estate; Art Finds From Museum Storage

My sincere thanks to Jay Caruso and Neal Dewing of The Fifth Estate for inviting me onto their show last evening. We had a wide-ranging, amusing, cantankerously satisfying discussion about art, which you can stream or download later today. Be sure to check out their episodes with past guests, including Mike Rowe, Dana Perino and Ed Morrissey – wait, how did I merit getting on this show? – and take the time to leave them a review on iTunes, if you like what you hear. Podcasters really do benefit from your iTunes feedback, and it only takes you a few seconds.

One of the topics I touched on in passing during the show was the rediscovery of a lost painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690), which had been sitting in storage at the Louvre since 2008. LeBrun was the favorite painter of France’s “Sun King”, Louis XIV, and one of the most important artists in French history. This particular work was so popular at the time it was painted, that contemporary copies of it were commissioned by several prominent European collectors. The original was stolen after the French Revolution, and ended up in a Trappist monastery for two centuries. It is currently being restored, and will go on display to the public later this year.

Regular readers may recall that another painting by LeBrun, “The Sacrifice of Polyxena”, was discovered in the Hotel Ritz in Paris a few years ago. It was later purchased at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which at the time only owned a single group portrait by LeBrun. Despite the dearth of LeBrun paintings at the Met, the painting is not currently on display there. Whether this is because the piece is undergoing restoration or, quelle surprise, the museum has nowhere to display it, who knows. 

The practice of large museums like the Met sitting on enormous quantities of art that never gets put on display is something that has bothered me for some time, and in the near future you may be reading some of my lengthier scribblings about that issue. In the meantime, over on Apollo journalist and artist Crystal Bennes has been writing a very interesting series titled “What’s In Store”, in which she highlights some of what is currently held in storage at major museums around the world. She has already visited both the Hermitage and the National Gallery of Scotland, and this month she writes about the Ateneum, the National Gallery of Finland.

A particularly stunning find is the “Bust Portrait of A Black Man” by the Swedish artist Nils Jakob Olsson Blommér (1816-1853), who is known primarily for his somewhat kitschy scenes taken from Norse mythology. This painting languished in storage at the Ateneum for a century and a half until recently, when it was finally put on public display. I think you will agree that it is a haunting, beautifully executed work, in the best tradition of Old Master portraiture.

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4 thoughts on “The Courtier On The Fifth Estate; Art Finds From Museum Storage

  1. I enjoyed the Podcast interview. Very enlightening. I’m not very knowledgable about the art world, but I feel that many of the things you described about it being overly pretentious and closed off to outsiders could be said about contemporary English/Literature. In school, our English department focused endlessly on “critique” of books and never about their merits. The only positive a work of art can have is its usefulness in critiquing wider culture. Everyone seemed more interested in Foucault than Melville, Austin or anyone. Our department literary magazine was just endless repeats of free verse poetry about riding the subway, partied or lord knows. Anyway, I guess my point is I agree that most discussions of art can feel excessively snobby or just impenetrable. It’s refreshing to have just listened to an hour conversation about art.
    Also, thanks for sharing that painting by Blommer. It’s truly incredible: The look on his brow, the neck, the ear, just the whole work is awesome.

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    • Bryan thanks so much for your kind words and for listening to the podcast! I’m glad you enjoyed it. If you love a particular artist or writer’swork, then my best advice is that you learn all about them, and ENJOY yourself! All the best!

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  2. Thank you for a very interesting and informative discussion, especially regarding the contemporary art world. I appreciated your thoughts on how unmoored from reality, common narrative, and beauty contemporary art is, and how it exists almost solely for the elites, like much of contemporary architecture.
    Thank you also for your prior article on Marie Antoinette. I know that (contemporary!) literature and myth skewers her, but I did not know how far from the truth she was portrayed. I read her entire letter and now have a much better understanding of her as a person.

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