>How Much for An Ugly Michelangelo?

>During the weekends – and particularly during longish holiday weekends as the one I just took – I do not tend to read the newspapers or watch the news. I usually reason that, if something terrible important is happening, I will hear about it through conversation, telephone calls, or email. So when a friend posted on her Facebook wall yesterday news of what may turn out to be a lost Michelangelo painting, it was the first I heard on the subject.

The painting in question is a Pietà in the possession of a Buffalo, New York family. It shows the dead Christ in a rather ungainly position between the legs of a female figure presumably representing the Virgin Mary, with the arms of the corpus held out at right angles by two small figures, probably meant to be angels. It is believed to have been painted in 1545, possibly for Michelangelo’s friend Vittoria Colonna. The story behind both its discovery and, if genuine, its provenance is very interesting, and various experts will of course weigh in in response to a new book published on the piece as to whether or not it is a genuine piece from the hand of the Old Master.

As the reader may know, Michelangelo and Colonna associated with a crowd of pious thinkers, writers, prelates, etc., many of whom had somewhat heretical ideas. If this painting was created for Colonna, we could certainly try to discern whether there is some whiff of heresy about it, but there would not be much point. As tacky as heresy is, nothing can quite prepare us for what a truly ugly, ugly painting Michelangelo painted. For example, why do these small angels, if indeed they are wingless angels and not midgets, have large, children’s heads and unnaturally muscular frames? Why is the Virgin Mary so toad-like, with her rolling eyes and a swollen face twice the width of that of her Son? As I have commented before, Michelangelo was a rather terrible painter – a statement which is heresy to many art experts in and of itself – but the valuation of this newly discovered painting is very informative as to the nature of the art market.

It is not unreasonable to call this newly re-discovered work an ugly painting; there are those who would disagree, but then there are people who think all sorts of things. From a standpoint purely to valuation, it may surprise some of my Catholic readers to learn that religious art tends not to fetch as high prices these days as it used to, and particularly when the religious art for sale shows an unpleasant scene. If this piece with its unpleasant appearance and subject matter was merely by a good Renaissance artist not of general household name – someone like Lorenzo Lotto, for example – then the piece would not be valued at $300 million.

Nor can it be said that it is its intrinsic value to art history that gives this painting its enormous valuation, if definitely proven to be a genuine Michelangelo. There are many works of art that are unfinished, heavily damaged, or fragmentary, whose value lies not in their beauty, condition or preservation, but in what they show us about the working life of a great artist. For example, the (admittedly lovely) fragments of Raphael’s high altarpiece for the church of San Nicola da Tolentino, which was mostly destroyed in an earthquake in the 18th century, are important to art history because they are the remains of the first known solo commission which Raphael received when he set up his own workshop after years of apprenticeship. Yet fragments of a painting alone usually are not particularly valuable to those with the power to purchase such things, however interesting they may be to historians.

The real value here lies in the painting’s rarity. The possibility of owning a genuine piece by Michelangelo, which very, very few people or institutions can claim, is what has led to speculation with respect to the potential commercial value of this exceedingly repulsive painting. It is the same impetus, albeit on a grander scale, which drives people to bid on a strand of fake pearls because they happened to have belonged to Jackie Kennedy. Though of course, to own something that once belonged to a cultural icon is one thing; to own something created by him is quite another.

Paintings by Michelangelo simply do not come on the market with any frequency and so this piece, as unattractive as it is, is something so rare as to genuinely deserve the term, priceless. How can one put a price on something that is so rare that one can only guess what people will pay for it? Last year The Kimbell in Fort Worth paid an undisclosed sum for a painting attributed to an adolescent Michelangelo – though I continue to find such an attribution wishful thinking. What would they pay for a late work with, if confirmed, a known provenance?

In the art world it is often said that the three big motivations for selling are what are known as “The Three D’s”: death, debt, and divorce. The motivations for buying, however, are distinct. More often than not, the desire to own something no one else can claim to own, the rarest of the rare, causes artworks which have no real artistic value other than as a curiosity or historical document, to fetch outrageous prices. We shall simply have to see whether the predictions, in this case, turn out to be correct.


>A Royal Academy Show Actually Worth Seeing

>Gentle Reader: A reminder that you have until Wednesday August 25th to submit your entry for The Blog of the Courtier’s Birthday Contest! Details and a link where to email your entry may be found here.

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Should the reader find himself in London this autumn, a visit to the Royal Academy is in order, for the purpose of viewing something other the soiled bed linen and perverse pottery that have previously been displayed during their summer exhibitions. The new exhibition, “Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele”, features paintings and drawings from Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Hungarian National Gallery. The show runs from September 25 through December 12th, and tickets may be obtained at the Royal Academy’s website.

One of the highlights of the exhibition – for The Courtier anyway – is Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna of 1508. Named for the princely Hungarian family that eventually acquired it in the 18th century, it is an unfinished jewel of a painting from one of the important periods in Raphael’s lifelong development of the image of the Madonna and Child. Stylistically, it is related to his other Madonnas set in sunny, Tuscan landscapes, from the period he spent in Florence absorbing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, among others.

For example, take a look at the Madonna of the Goldfinch of 1505, in the Uffizi; his Madonna of the Meadow painted the same year, now in Vienna; and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre, painted in 1507. All of these are cousins, if you will, of the Esterházy Madonna. They all show full-length figures of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist, spending time outdoors in an idealized landscape setting of the Tuscan countryside.

It is worth pointing out however, that the figures shown in the Esterházy Madonna seem to be more complicated than those in these other pictures. Raphael would sometimes paint half-length figures, as in a portrait, such as his Small Cowper Madonna of 1505, now in the National Gallery here in D.C. In these half-length images there is some movement, but usually in the form of one or both figures leaning or reaching for something. Similarly, in his full-length Madonnas such as the aforementioned, the Virgin Mary is usually shown to be seated and fairly restrained in her movements.

By contrast, the Virgin Mary in the Budapest picture is twisting and turning from a kneeling position. She seems to be holding back the Christ Child from slipping off the rock upon which He is seated, as He tries to grab for the scroll which has drawn the enrapt attention of St. John the Baptist, who himself is shown in a half-kneeling, half-crouched position next to her. There is a sense of twisting movement among the three figures individually, as they twist in concert around the pyramidal core established by their forms.

We know that Raphael moved from Florence to Rome in late 1508, and that there he began to come under the spell of Michelangelo.The Courtier not being enough of an expert on the subject to know precisely when the Esterházy Madonna was painted along the timeline of Raphael’s development, it is interesting to wonder whether Raphael was working on this piece when he moved to Rome and began to look at Michelangelo’s work – which is full of wriggling, writhing figures – or whether this shows that he had absorbed all he could of the tranquility of Florentine painting and was already prepared for the more robust work he was to find in Rome. Is this why he left the piece unfinished?

Admittedly, this is all pure armchair speculation, but it is an interesting piece to consider, particularly if you, gentle reader, like The Courtier, enjoy the wide variety of images of the Madonna and Child which Raphael produced during his short lifetime.

The Esterházy Madonna by Raphael, c. 1508
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

>The Legacy of Andrew Mellon

>Today is the birthday of the late Andrew Mellon (1855-1937) who, among other accomplishments, was a successful banker, U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, and Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. His most important legacy, however, was the establishment of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. His donation of $10 million, along with a sizable portion of his collection, and his collaboration with architect John Russell Pope in building what is known today as the West Building of the National Gallery, helped form the nucleus of this comparatively young arrival on the international art stage. His gift raised the status of the national art collection in the capital from “the nation’s attic”, as the Smithsonian is sometimes still referred to, to a world-class institution.

Ambassador Mellon and his advisers had what in the art trade is referred to as a “good eye” for high quality paintings and sculptures by Old Master artists. Because of his substantial personal wealth, he was able to make smart, strategic purchases of works, often from royal or noble collections, which had not been on the market for centuries. The timing for beginning his collecting, after World War I, could not have been better. With the fall of the old European empires after World War I, as well as the rise of communism, Mellon was able to take advantage of the need for individuals and governments to raise cash by selling off these portable assets.

In 1930, after many years of private collecting, Ambassador Mellon established a foundation in his name with the purpose of establishing a national art collection. That same year, Mellon acquired nearly two dozen works from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, including Raphael’s important Alba Madonna of around 1510. Among the most important examples of Raphael’s work from an art history standpoint – personally I do not find it very attractive – this tondo shows a major transition for the great Umbrian master into the development of his later, Roman style, heavily influenced by the forms of Michelangelo.

Ambassador Mellon’s collecting continued, and by 1937 an Act of Congress created the National Gallery of Art by both accepting Mellon’s donation and authorizing the construction of a museum on the National Mall. Later on, other collectors including Mellon’s own children, members of the Kress family, the Chryslers, and other major collectors followed his example, endowing the museum with a substantial collection of Old Master, Impressionist, and Modern art.

Sadly, neither Ambassador Mellon nor John Russell Pope lived to see the West Building completed. I doubt Mellon or Pope would have made much of the East Building, which always seems a bit like the atrium of a Marriott Hotel, but then Mellon probably would not have made much of a great deal of the art housed in it either. He probably would have appreciated the National Gallery’s plans to annex its neighbor across the street, however: a more fiscally conservative move than trying to build something brand-new and using trendy construction methods. Still, with its stately but restrained facade and cool, inviting interior spaces, the West Building and the collection of beautiful art it holds are a tribute to Mellon’s efforts to establish Washington as an important location for the study and appreciation of great art.