The Disappearing Emperor: A Remarkable Art Discovery In Suburbia

If you’re fairly well-to-do, you may have a decent-sized art collection. If you’re *very* well-to-do however, not only do you have a rather significant art collection, but you tend to give parts of it away – and forget to document that you’ve done so. This appears to be the case with the rediscovery of a significant work of art by (arguably) the most famous of all French sculptors, depicting one of the most famous figures in the history of France, in, of all places, a borough hall in north-central New Jersey.

Work

The Hartley Dodge Memorial Building in Madison has for many years served as the town hall for residents of the Borough of Madison, New Jersey. It was a gift from Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge in honor of her son Hartley who, along with his parents (scions of the Dodge and Rockefeller dynasties), was a resident of the Borough. Hartley was killed in a car accident in France in 1930, shortly after he graduated from Princeton, and appears to have been something like a character out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The tragic irony of his death lies in the fact that his mother had sent him to France on an extended vacation to try to get him away from a new hobby he was pursuing, i.e., learning to fly airplanes, because she felt that this was too dangerous a pastime.

For understandable reasons, Mrs. Dodge wanted this building named for her late son to not only be beautiful – which it certainly is, as you can see in these images of its newly-restored grandeur – but to have only the best of everything. As a result, not only did she create a grand and elegant architectural masterpiece where one would hardly expect to find such a structure, but she also brought in a number of appropriately grand and elegant works of art, in order to decorate the walls and rooms of the building.

Strangely enough, despite their significance, both she and local officials forgot to properly document what exactly it was that she had given them to display, and as time passed, the identification of these objects was forgotten.

It turns out that one such forgotten work donated by Mrs. Dodge was a sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The piece, titled “Napoleon Enveloppé Dans Ses Réves” (“Napoleon Wrapped In His Dreams”), is a life-sized marble bust of the diminutive French Emperor. Here we can see an image of Rodin himself, posing with the work in question:

Rodin

In this piece, Rodin shows a somewhat tired and pensive Napoleon, wrapped in his military cloak and indeed his own thoughts. The artist has idealized Napoleon’s features to some extent, particularly the nose, which seems to lack the projecting tip that one normally sees in contemporary representations of Bonaparte. Compare, for example, the Rodin to this copy in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of one of the many busts that the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) made of Napoleon during the Emperor’s lifetime.

Interestingly enough, before its move to suburbia this Rodin was, for many years, on display to the public at The Met. Mrs. Dodge acquired the piece from the estate of another Gilded Age oligarch, Thomas Fortune Ryan, who had not only paid Rodin to complete the work, but also lent it to The Met for an extended period of time. It was removed from view following Ryan’s death in 1928, and Mrs. Dodge acquired it a few years later. [N.B. Ryan, incidentally, built my second-favorite church in New York, St. Jean Baptiste, as well as several buildings at my alma mater, Georgetown.]

Baptiste

For over seven decades then, the bust sat on a plinth in the Madison Borough Council Chamber, where few if any visitors suspected that they were looking at a significant work of art by the artist generally regarded as the father of Modern sculpture. Then during Christmas break in 2014-15, Madison hired then-graduate student Mallory Mortillaro to go through the art collection and create a catalogue of the borough’s holdings. She was immediately struck by the piece, noting that the story of how it came into the possession of the borough made her suspect that it was of greater significance than anyone knew at the time. “I mean, this is Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge,” she explained to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I knew we weren’t dealing with random bits from somebody’s attic.”

Room

Perhaps the pièce de résistance in this story came when Ms. Mortillaro reached out to the Rodin Museum in Paris and, some months later, that museum sent Jérôme Le Blay, a well-known French art expert who is an expert in the authentication of 19th and 20th century French art, particularly that of Rodin. As Janet Foster, a trustee of the Hartley Memorial, recounted, “[Le Blay] walked in and saw the bust and said, ‘Oh! There you are!,’ ” Foster recalled. ” ‘I wondered what happened to you.’ ” It turned out that the Rodin Museum in Paris had a plaster cast of the Napoleon bust in its own collection, but never knew whether Rodin had actually completed the sculpture or, if he had, what had become of it.

Fortunately for art lovers, the newly rediscovered Rodin will not be staying in suburban New Jersey. In fact, it’s now headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it will be displayed on extended long-term loan alongside other Rodin sculptures in that Museum’s collection, just in time to mark the centenary of the artist’s death on November 17, 1917. One can imagine that, this time at least, no one is going to lose track of it.

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Thought-Pourri: More Art And Architecture Stories For Your Perusal

Since I had positive reaction to last week’s round-up of interesting stories from the art and design world, I thought I’d try it again and see what my readers think of making this a regular feature of the blog. So here goes:

Barely-Known Birley

If you’ve ever watched an episode of the original, UK version of “Antiques Roadshow”, you’re familiar with Philip Mould, an art dealer who has managed to turn his expert eye for rediscovering important or overlooked old pictures with a successful media career. Recently his London gallery finished a show on the work of society painter Sir Oswald Birley (1880-1952), who was immensely popular with the American and British well-to-do during his lifetime, but has fallen into semi-obscurity since his death. There’s certainly an argument to be made that Birley should be mentioned in the same breath as other important society painters from the first half of the 20th century. Many of his works are certainly interesting, however I’m not quite sure that I’d consider him in the same league as John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, or Anders Zorn: you be the judge.

Birley

Light In Leeds

A bit further north, visitors to the Leeds Art Gallery, which is set to reopen today, will be able to visit a “lost” classical architectural space that had been forgotten about for decades. Workers doing demo work at the museum, which first opened in 1880 but has been closed for renovations since 2016, were surprised to find that when they took down a 1960’s drop ceiling, a glass-roofed, barrel-vaulted ceiling soared overhead. The end result belies the often-repeated canard that Victorian architects were only interested in dark, fussy interiors, since this space by Scottish architect George Corson (1829-1910) could not be more bright and classically inspired.

Leeds.jpg

Tanner’s Tones

The work of African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) is probably known to at least some of my readers, particularly his very popular “The Annunciation” (1898) now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Tanner, the son of a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a runaway slave, painted many Biblical works infused with details from his travels in the Holy Land. He is known to have created about a dozen different depictions of “The Flight Into Egypt”, one of which was just sold at Swann’s in New York for $341,000. Tanner’s fixation on this theme stems in part from his own family’s experiences of flight and persecution, which were mirrored in the experiences of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in St. Matthew’s Gospel account, but what really sets these nighttime scenes apart from a technical standpoint is his use of truly sumptuous blues and greens that dominate the paintings, which almost seem to dematerialize before our eyes.

M36028-15 002

More MFA

This week the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced the largest single bequest of European paintings to its permanent collection in the institution’s nearly 150 year-history. The van Otterloo and Weatherbie families, Boston-based art collectors, have promised a total of 113 Dutch and Flemish works to the museum, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and many others. Along with this enormous gift, the collectors are establishing a Center for Netherlandish Art at the MFA, which will be the first of its kind in the US, and dedicated to fostering greater collaborative research and scholarship in this area. Among the numerous works now entering the MFA, Willem Kalf’s “Still Life with a Peeled Lemon” (1664) caught my eye, particularly the juxtapositions of blue and orange that one sees in the fruit, bowl, and carpet.

Untitled

Florentines In Bavaria

In conjunction with a new exhibition and accompanying catalogue, Munich’s Alte Pinakothek has just completed restoration of Botticelli’s enormous altarpiece, “The Lamentation of Christ” (c. 1492), as part of “Florence and Its Painters: From Giotto To Leonardo Da Vinci”, which opens at the venerable art museum on October 18th. The picture was originally created for the somewhat forgotten and forlorn 1,000 year-old Church of San Paolino in Florence, which at various times was used by the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Carmelites, before becoming State property. In addition to undergoing restoration, the Boticelli altarpiece, as well as dozens of other works by artists such as Da Vinci, Raphael, and others, has been newly photographed and studied for the exhibition, using the latest technological methods and research. If you happen to find yourself in Munich in the next couple of months, this is definitely a show to check out.

Boticelli

 

 

“Savior” For Sale: Is This Da Vinci Painting Worth $100 Million?

Most of the time, art news doesn’t get front page treatment in general interest news outlets, but occasionally one comes across exceptions. Such an exception cropped up just yesterday afternoon, when both the art press and the mainstream media reacted to the announcement that the “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), the only known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in private hands, will be auctioned next month at Christie’s in New York, with an estimated sale price of $100 million. Rediscovered and authenticated by experts only a few years ago, this extremely rare work is attracting the kind of public attention and curiosity that those of us who plod along following developments in the art world almost never get to see.

Salv

As Christie’s explains in a very thorough press release and accompanying video announcing the sale, the painting dates to around 1500, and represents Christ as the Savior of the world. The pose and imagery in this picture have a long history in Christian art, but Da Vinci’s particular take on this subject is somewhat startling; while Art Net called it “spooky”, I think the more appropriate word here would be, “intense”. (If you want genuinely creepy, Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned.)

Baptist

Now that the “Salvator Mundi” is on the public radar, there is going to be an enormous amount of interest in both the picture itself, and what it will ultimately sell for. As to the former, take for example the following excerpt, from an instant message that I received overnight:

“Is it my imagination, or is Christ’s face bisected vertically by shadow and emphasis for artistic effect? Indeed, the impression was so strong that I had to draw a line on my monitor to determine that his eyes were on the same level, so disconnected they seemed.

If my impression is accurate, I’d imagine this was an intentional reference to His divine and human natures. Thoughts?”

To be fair to my interlocutor, I’m not versed enough in Da Vinci’s methods or intentions to be able to state with any certainty that what he describes was the artist’s intent, particularly given the artist’s somewhat heterodox views on Christianity, but it’s certainly a plausible argument. We know that Da Vinci was one of the earliest Renaissance artists to remove any haloes or emblems of royalty from the portrayal of religious subjects, which would fit in with the notion of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. We also know from his many notebooks that Da Vinci studied areas of science which had a direct impact on the final appearance of his work, such as human anatomy and linear perspective. His “Vitruvian Man” drawing – another extremely well-known work of his that pops up all over the place – most clearly demonstrates this.

Vit

Part of the issue with the “Salvator Mundi” however, is that it’s not exactly in good nick. The face has clearly suffered from over-cleaning, so much so that the eyes are not nearly as intense today, in their faded state, as they would have been when they were new. That penetrating gaze which captures and holds our attention would be even more intense, if the painting was better-preserved.

As to the $100 million price tag, this seems to be a figure based more on rarity rather than overall quality. Despite being (arguably) the most famous of all Old Master painters, Da Vinci’s artistic legacy rests largely upon a handful of paintings, and of course his famous sketchbooks. He was never a prolific artist, too often experimented with technical methods that failed, and worse still he was easily distracted by other, non-artistic projects. He was also infamous for starting pictures that he never finished, as in his painting of “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”.

Jerome

Yet despite his relatively tiny output, many of Da Vinci’s surviving works have had and continue to have a profound influence not only on art, but also on theology, philosophy, psychology, fashion, literature, science, film, music, and so on. Just think of all the pop culture references you still come across on a regular basis recalling the most famous portrait in the world, his “Mona Lisa”, or the most well-known Christian painting in the world, his “Last Supper”, more than five centuries after they were painted. Da Vinci may not have created a lot of art, but of what he did create, he has no rival in terms of penetration and saturation of the popular imagination.

Mona

Last

Now truth be told, I’ve never liked Da Vinci’s work. I find his androgynous figures unappealing, his coloring murky, and his inability to see a project through to completion to be a character flaw, rather than a mark of great intelligence. There does come a point at which, whatever inherent genius someone may have, their inability to complete the task before them within the time allotted becomes a stumbling block, rather than a trifle to be overlooked. You’re of course welcome to disagree, but I’ve always been more impressed with the almost celestial combination of genius AND facility in the work of Raphael and Mozart than I am with the tortured writhing of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

At the same time, I don’t think that $100 million is too outlandish a sum to name for the sale of the only known Da Vinci painting that is, in fact, available for sale. While the “Salvador Mundi” is never going to become as famous as some of the other Da Vinci images that are part of our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless a hugely significant work from an art history perspective. As a rare object, even one that is something of a shadow of its former self, it will no doubt attract a and deserve a lot of attention from those who could afford the exceptionally high price of becoming its next owner.