The Courtier In The Federalist: Is ‘The Last Da Vinci’ Really Worth $450 Million?

My latest piece for The Federalist lands today, in which I look at some of the factors surrounding the record-breaking sale of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” at Christie’s back in November. I argue that the price is not as extraordinary as it appears, or at least as it was made out to be by the art media establishment, which tends to have – shocker – a rather bizarre attitude when it comes to valuing art. There were other factors at work in the bidding war for this painting, which everyone from The New York Times on down seems to have ignored in a rush to condemn its final sales price.

Special thanks not only to the always-patient Joy Pullmann, Executive Editor of The Federalist, whom I always confront with thousands upon thousands of words which she must judiciously trim down into something readable, but also to Dr. David Hebert of Aquinas College, for providing some helpful, explanatory context for the article on the economic aspects of this particular sale.

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Restraint Over Glamour: A French Baroque Master Tones It Down

With yesterday’s readings at Mass continuing the story of the revolt of Absalom against his father, King David, I started wandering around the infinite rabbit hole of the interwebz, reading up on some Biblical scholarship concerning the dysfunctional Davidic dynasty, and researching some works of art depicting the tumultuous relationship between David, his wives, and his children. In the course of this, I came across a painting by Eustache Le Sueur (1617-1655) who, although he died young, was a figure of great importance in the history of French painting. Yet it was not his striking image of a scene from the calamities of King David’s family that really grabbed my attention, but rather a wonderfully quiet, introspective, and architectural painting of his which I had not seen before.

Le Sueur was one of the founders of the “Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture” (“Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture”) which, after its dissolution during the French Revolution and subsequent reestablishment under Napoleon, became one of the divisions of the “Académie des Beaux-Arts” (“Academy of Fine Arts”.) As was true of many French court artists of his period, Le Sueur’s focus was usually on rich colors, billowing draperies, beautiful bodies, and plenty of action. His “Rape of Tamar” (c. 1640), now at The Met, exemplifies this in spades. It’s interesting to note that, when taken in at a distance, the palette here is a combination of both neutrals and different shades of the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue.) As it is believed that the painting was part of a decorative cycle for a Paris mansion, it may have been that this was the color scheme for the room in which it was originally placed.

Eustache

We can contrast what was fashionable in French courtly art at this period with the height of courtly art in Spain at the exact same time. Diego Velázquez’ “The Rest of Mars” (1640), one of a series of classical/mythological subjects painted for King Felipe IV which are now in The Prado, seems as though it was painted on a different planet in a different century, not in the same year as Le Sueuer’s “Tamar”. Here, unlike the figure of Amnon in the French piece, Velázquez does not idealize his subject at all. We see an old, tired, warrior – sporting quite the handlebar mustache – who stares out at us with a look that is one of both exhaustion and suspicion. It is so unsentimental and realistic, so frank in its unglamorous portrayal of its subject, that it anticipates by several centuries the work of American artists such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.

A 4134

Yet for all of his flash, Le Sueur was not simply a decorator. Between 1645 and 1648 he painted a series of wall paintings depicting scenes from the life of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order of monks, for their monastery in Paris. These works were eventually purchased by Louis XVI, and are now part of the permanent collection at The Louvre. It is difficult to believe that the same artist who painted the rather plastic, artificial-looking “Tamar” in 1640 is the same artist who, only a few years later, painted this rather stark, realistic night scene of a group of monks gathered around the deathbed of St. Bruno. Interestingly however, note that Le Sueur is once again sticking to neutrals, something which, even with the use of primary colors in the “Tamar” picture, he knew well how to employ in his art.

Bruno

But of all the paintings in this series the one that really struck me, which I wanted to share with you today, is this one – “St. Bruno at Prayer”:

Prayer

Le Sueur has depicted St. Bruno in prayer at the most critical juncture in the saint’s life, when he has decided that the time has come for him to abandon the world and devote himself to a life of prayer and penitence. There is a pious story that the saint was persuaded to do so when, at the funeral of Raymond Diocres, a supposedly saintly and well-respected professor at the Sorbonne, the corpse briefly came back to life to exclaim that despite his good reputation, it was all false and he had been justly condemned after death as a sinner. Thus, we see two undertakers in the background, through the archway, preparing to bury the corpse of Diocres in the churchyard.

Despite the questionable veracity of this legend, St. Bruno did, around this time, begin to withdraw from the world, and did go on to found the Carthusian Order, a strict, contemplative branch of religious life which is familiar to any of my readers who have seen the superb documentary film, “Into Great Silence”. St. Bruno got his start as a religious founder rather late in life, particularly at a time when history when people did not live very long. After spending much of the first half of his life climbing the ecclesiastical ladder, he only made up his mind to abandon the world around the age of 47, and really only began that process in earnest at the age of 50.

What Le Sueur does beautifully here is create that sense of Carthusian stillness around St. Bruno, long before the Carthusians themselves came to be, where he has no distractions at all from what is going on inside his heart. Even though the picture is wonderfully simple, in keeping with the values of the Order, Le Sueur still manages to throw in some color, not only in the form of the misty landscape outside of the church, but particularly in the red curtain and altar cloth which provide the strongest tone in the entire picture. There is even a bit of red brick showing through the whitewash and plaster on one of the walls.

The figure of the saint himself, in this elegant architectural space, is beautifully observed. We only see part of his face, hidden under his floppy hair and full beard – both of which will eventually be completely shaved off – but we can tell from his pose that this is a highly emotional and deeply personal moment he is experiencing. St. Bruno is so overcome with emotion that he clasps his own arms, whether to steady himself from shaking, or whether he is symbolically embracing the new way life he has chosen to begin, as he kneels before the crucifix.

Note as well that, although this is a painting from the Baroque period, the most Baroque thing about this image are the complicated folds and falls in St. Bruno’s garment, and in the drapery above and behind him. The architecture of the church, and even the altar itself, are incredibly plain, simple, and serious. The only levity, if we are to call it that, comes from the dangling red tassel, suspended from a red cord.

Although Eustache Le Sueur died relatively young, and a number of his most important paintings (particularly those commissioned for the French Royal Palaces) have been lost, this series of images from the life of St. Bruno help to dispel the notion that he was simply another highly decorative, frivolous painter, more interested in nudes and action than in introspection and genuine emotion. Perhaps he was lucky in that, for once, those commissioning his work were interested in things that were not of this world, rather than in the glitter and flash of the visible world in which we find ourselves. And as someone who had not been familiar with his toned-down, more personal work for the Carthusians until now, I’m very glad to have become aware of them.

 

Thought-Pourri: What’s In Edition

I’m still looking for ideas on what to call this weekly feature, partly because in the future, I’m considering turning it into a newsletter, and partly because I’m tired of the title. Titling it “Arts Roundup” or something like that seems rather dull. So please, if you have any ideas on what to call it – other than “Thought-Pourri”, that is – do share your ideas with me by using this form.

Tate Britain In Disarray

In the world of stupid ideas, this is one whose time – one thought – had come and gone, along with (the unlamented) Sir Nicholas Serota, but which now appears to be returning for another round. Five years ago, Tate Britain undid the art historical damage of Serota and his ilk by putting its collection back into roughly chronological order; now, that work is to be undone by its new director who, no surprise, hails from a Contemporary Art background. To re-hang a permanent collection in a way which makes sense to a temporary administrator and his flunkeys, but not to the vast majority of visitors, is not only short-sighted, but presumptuous and grossly egotistical. As Bendor Grosvenor has observed, “this seems to me reflective of an institution which doesn’t really know what it’s about. Shackled to the mother ship of Tate Modern, Tate Britain seems to see itself not as a museum, but a giant exhibition space, one that’s almost embarrassed by what it has to show. Consequently, the exhibition space – and what goes in it – must be changed every five years or so. A museum which was comfortable in itself, and happy to celebrate its collection, wouldn’t do this.”

Tate

Georgia In Hawaii

The great American Modern artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was a painter of sensuous floral paintings, as well as stark New York or Southwestern-inspired landscapes, but what few may be aware of is that she spent time working in Hawaii on commission from N.W. Ayer & Son, the advertising agency for Dole Foods Corporation – yes, the canned pineapple people. From early February to early April of 1939, O’Keefe sketched and painted the flora and landscapes of numerous sites in the Hawaiian Islands, including the Big Island, Oahu, and Maui; she ended up creating 20 paintings reflecting her time there, some of which were used by Dole in their ad campaigns, as shown below. Later this Spring, the library of the New York Botanical Garden will play host to an exhibition of many of these Hawaiian works, in an appropriately tropical setting, bringing them together for the first time in nearly 80 years in what will no doubt be a very interesting and popular show. “Georgia O’Keefe: Visions of Hawaii” opens on May 19th and runs through October 28th.

Georgia

Vegas In Neon

Few American cities are more closely associated with the use of neon lights than Las Vegas, Nevada, and so it will not surprise you to learn that Sin City has a major museum dedicated to this product of industrial design, creative advertising, and electrical engineering. The Neon Museum opened in 2012, and has become a popular tourist destination for those who want to see the remnants of famous casinos long since lost to the wrecking ball, such as the famous Sahara Hotel. The institution not only preserves and restores old neon signs at its facility, but is responsible for the care and maintenance of a number of historic neon signs in its collection which have been installed as public sculpture in and around Fremont Street. The museum has proven so popular that it has just announced a major expansion of its facilities, as well as the addition of new exhibitions and events, to draw in more visitors interested in these fun, supremely kitschy items of American design.

Vegas