Art News Roundup: Houston, We Have A Velázquez Edition

As I spent a big chunk of yesterday in bed with a cold, here’s your day late, but hopefully not a dollar short, roundup of some interesting news from the art world for this week. For yours truly, the really interesting news this week is that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has recently re-attributed a painting in its permanent collection to the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The canvas, titled “Kitchen Maid”, is believed to date to around 1620, when the young artist was working in his native Seville.

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Two other pieces by Velázquez, which were already very familiar to me, are related to this one. More obviously, there is a larger-sized depiction of a kitchen interior with the same model, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it’s probable that the Houston piece was a study or work-up for the finished version. Not many of Velazquez’ studies or drawings survive, unfortunately, so as a clue to his working method the newly attributed painting should prove to be a major object of study for both art historians and conservators.

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The other piece to which the painting is related is Velázquez’ “Kitchen Maid With The Supper At Emmaus” at the National Gallery of Ireland, from the same time period. This canvas is the most complex of the three, so it may well be that the Houston piece was the first study the artist made on canvas. That would make the Chicago picture, a second, more advanced composition, with the Dublin work as the final product. To have all three of these survive is rather unusual in art history, even though this practice was not uncommon at the time.

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While it may seem odd for the artist to have placed what would normally be considered a background scene to the main action in the foreground, the precedent comes from Dutch paintings and engravings of the time; as part of the Counter-Reformation movement it allowed the faithful to more fully reflect upon and imagine themselves being present at Biblical moments. Moreover, this is not the only example of Velázquez using this concept in his art. His better-known “Christ In The House Of Martha And Mary” (c. 1618), now in the National Gallery in London, is almost a companion piece to the Dublin picture, in this respect.

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While the attribution has not been fully put to the test, as is often the case the careful cleaning of dirt and varnish from the surface of an old, overlooked picture made all the difference for those experts who have examined it so far.

And now on to some other art news of interest.

Selfie Stupidity

Another day, another example of self-obsessed social media users ruining a work of art while trying to take a selfie with no thought for anyone but themselves. A group of women at an exhibition in the International Arts Center in the city of Yekaterinburg decided to take a picture of themselves, and in the process knocked over a display case (you can see a still of this below) containing engravings by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Both pictures had their frames and glass damaged, but while the Goya appears to be fine, the Dalí was damaged from the glass shattering. Apparently no criminal charges will be brought against this group of Stygian witches, despite the museum requesting such action, but I would certainly love to bring a civil lawsuit against them.

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Sparkling Seaside

Yes, I do actually recommend Contemporary Art from time to time, not just Old Masters, and so it is with great pleasure that I let you know that new works by British Contemporary artist Gordon Hunt (1958-) will go on show tomorrow at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, and it looks to be an exhibition well worth your time. As the Northeast begins to settle into the long, dark, gray of late Autumn, Hunt’s images of sun and sea, pleasure boats, and people enjoying the water in his native Cornwall or along the Mediterranean are a light-filled joy; you may even feel the need to break out your sunglasses for some of his sunset scenes. His sparkling, glowing technique is reminiscent of the work of the French Pointillist pioneer Georges Seurat (1859-1891), but updated for a modern audience. “Discovery: Contemporary Art Perspectives From England” is on show at Agora until December 1st.

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Bidding for Binney

For reasons best known to itself, the Philadelphia Bar Association has decided that it has too many portraits of dead lawyers on its hands, so it has decided to auction them – as well as hundreds of other objects – at Freeman’s American auction next week. Among the highlights are this magnificent 1833 Thomas Sully (1783-1872) portrait of Congressman Horace Binney (1780-1875), who not only turned down an appointment to be a Supreme Court Justice – TWICE – but was one of the few men in Congress to have the backbone to publicly stand up to POS American dictator…er, President Andrew Jackson. Binney certainly knew how to pick them, when it came to have his portrait painted, because as a young man, he was the subject of another magnificent portrait by the great Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) which is now in the National Gallery here in DC, but for some reason is not currently on view. It would be neat – is that the right word? – if the NGA were to purchase the portrait of the middle-aged Birney so that visitors could compare how artistic style changed in America.

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Sargent’s Silk: The Fabric Connecting Two Beautiful Portraits

One of the fun things about being an art nerd is when you get the chance to make new discoveries regarding old friends. Such is the case with my favorite American artist, John Singer Sargent, whom I have written about for years (such as in my first piece for The Federalist almost three years ago.) One of his best-known portraits and indeed one of my favorites as well has always been his mesmerizing portrait “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (1892), now in the National Gallery of Scotland. So it was quite a surprise this past weekend while visiting the excellent Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey to come across another wonderful Sargent portrait previously unknown to me, but which appears to have a visual connection to this more famous portrait of Lady Agnew.

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I had gone up to Newark to see the new exhibition, “The Rockies & The Alps”, which I will be reviewing soon, but while at the museum I was astounded by the breadth of the permanent collection. The Newark Museum is the largest museum in New Jersey, with over 200,000 objects, and includes holdings in the areas of the Ancient Mediterranean, Asia, decorative arts, American painting and sculpture, science, Modern and Contemporary Art, and much more. There was no way to see it all in the new hours I spent there, but you can see an extensive sampling of some of the pieces in their holdings over on my Instagram account.

At the far end of a corridor in the American Wing, I spotted a full-length portrait of a seated lady, and I knew immediately that it was a Sargent even though it was some distance away. When you become familiar with the work of a particular artist, after awhile it becomes something akin to being in a sea of people on a metro platform or airport terminal and suddenly spotting an old friend amidst all of the distraction. I had a similar experience on another floor in the American Wing at the Newark Museum a bit later, when I saw a work some distance down a corridor and thought, “That looks like an Edward Hopper,” and it was: another terrific piece in the museum’s permanent collection.

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The portrait of “Mrs. Charles Thursby” (1897) depicts a good friend of the artist, Alice Brisbane Thursby (1859-1953). Her father, Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), was a utopian Christian socialist who led a somewhat peripatetic and occasionally scandalous personal life. Papa Brisbane popularized Fourierism in the United States in the mid-19th century, and his writings were adopted at proto-communes such as Brook Farm near Boston. (If you’re familiar with Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”, you’re probably saying to yourself right now, “You’re a Fourierist?”)

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As she was growing up, Mrs. Thursby’s family dragged her all over the US and Europe, and it was while she was studying art in Paris that she met Sargent, who was living there at the time; they became lifelong friends. She later married a British Naval Officer and civil engineer, Lt. Charles Radcliffe Thursby, whose work and land holdings took the couple back and forth between England, America, and Argentina. Having spent most of her childhood moving about every few years, it’s not surprising that these two were very well-suited.

There are many wonderful details about the portrait that give us an indication of the personality of the sitter. Mrs. Thursby looks at us with a mixture of determination and intellectual curiosity. She is curious to find out exactly who we are, and to find out why we’ve come to see her. Note how Mrs. Thursby appears to be about to get up out of her chair to greet us, which suggests that she is a somewhat restless, lively figure who does not like to sit still. This a lady who is always on the move, always out and about doing something.

Notice, too, the wonderful detail of her hand, and those fingers. In Sargent’s unforgettable, bolt-upright portrait of “Mrs. Adrian Iselin” (1888), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, we are told everything we need to know about the subject by the way she seems to balance her entire weight on the outstretched pinky finger of her right hand, suggesting that this is not a woman whom you want to cross. In the Newark Museum’s picture we see a similar strength of will in Mrs. Thursby’s fingers, but the splayed, open hand suggests to us that the woman whom we see here is more open to the world around her than was the rather dour and imposing Mrs. Iselin.

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But here, for my money, is the *really* interesting bit.

The portrait of Lady Agnew shows the subject seated in a chair covered in a floral upholstery, while Mrs. Thursby is seated in a chair whose fabric is completely white. Yet if you look closely, you’ll see that the two women share the same backdrop: a piece of pale blue silk embroidered with gold figures. In the portrait of Lady Agnew, these figures are more clearly meant to represent characters, since the fabric in question was a large piece of Chinese drapery.

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By the time he paints the portrait of Mrs. Thursby several years later however, Sargent has become even more impressionistic. He is still using that wonderfully loose brushwork which is indicative of his love and study of Velázquez’ technique, but the transcription from real life to canvas has become more hazy. Even the color is less of a direct copy of the original, since it now appears to be made up of just as much brown and gray as blue.

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Like many artists, Sargent kept a number of objects in his studio which he used and reused in his paintings. If you’ve seen the live-action Disney film of “Cinderella” for example, you’ll recall that in the scene in which the artist is painting the portrait of Kit on horseback, there is a pre-painted backdrop of putti tumbling out of heaven which is hung behind the prince to help center the composition. This Chinese panel in Sargent’s work was one such object, which is why it appears in both the portraits of Lady Agnew and Thursby. No doubt those of my readers who are more expert in Sargent’s work than I am would be able to identify other pictures where the same silk appears – and by all means, please do so in the comments below.

This is just a recent, personal example of one of the things I love about studying art history. The more art you see and know, the more you come to recognize and appreciate connections between works of art, just as one piece of music or film can immediately recall another that you’re already familiar with. More to the point, should you happen to find yourself in the Newark area – only 9 miles from New York City – go visit Mrs. Thursby for yourself, and see the rest of the collection at her very fascinating permanent residence.

In “The Artist’s Garden”

“The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920”, is a terrific exhibition showcasing American painting, drawing, design, and photography during a period when the idea of American home life changed completely. With greater wealth and greater amounts of free time on their hands, middle class Americans began to make their homes into places where the outside was just as cared for as the inside. Your teak patio furniture, trellis hung with wisteria, and stamped concrete garden pavers grew out of this change in attitude toward what gardens, and indeed being outdoors, was all about.

The first observation to be made is that this is a very attractive, easy to like exhibition. One could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that this is merely an assemblage of paintings of pretty women and flowers, colorful glass objects, and tiny photographs. Yet as one moves through the rooms, the idea takes hold of what a profound shift in thinking the American psyche underwent during the late 19th and early 20thcenturies.

Until a century ago, most Americans used the land surrounding their homes primarily for growing their own food and keeping livestock – Pauline Wayne, the last cow to graze on the White House lawn, departed for Wisconsin in 1913. By the middle of the 19thcentury however, a significant ground shift was beginning to take place in the relationship of man to the land, which is well-documented in this exhibition. The barn yard gradually became the back yard, a haven from the brave but ugly new world of belching factory smokestacks and clanging streetcars.

This change in attitude toward the use of one’s property went hand-in-glove with the effort to try to beautify American cities. Students of architecture and urban planning will be familiar with the fruits of this greater movement. Temporary installations such as the Philadelphia Bicentennial Exposition of 1876, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1905, had permanent echoes across the American landscape, from Central Park in New York, to the Macmillan Plan and the National Mall here in Washington.

While your average, middle class American could not dream of achieving anything similar with their more modest means and surroundings, writers and artists still wanted to encourage those of more ordinary means to make their home gardens as beautiful as possible, as a way of fostering civic pride and cleanliness. It was all very well to construct grand boulevards and expansive parks in American towns and cities.  If they led to ramshackle houses whose grounds consisted of little more than chicken coops and piles of dirt however, the whole “effect” which these reformers were trying to achieve would be lost.

The strength of this exhibition is not only in some of the individual paintings, sculptures, and decorative art objects, but also in stepping back and taking a look around at the America which this show evokes as a whole. What is particularly telling is that fact that on the whole, the lifestyle evoked by this exhibition is not at all unfamiliar to us, even more than a century later.  True, we do not dress as the people in these images do, and our homes and gardens may be somewhat less fussy than those celebrated in some of these images.

Yet even though generations have passed, we still continue to hold to the ideals of making our home and garden simultaneously a place to relax and to show off – ideals which were fostered by the artists and designers featured in this exposition. Thus the painting of a lady reading a letter at her dining room table, silhouetted by open French doors leading onto a sunny garden patio shaded by a pergola, with some slight alterations could come out of a contemporary magazine spread. The fact that I daresay many of my readers spend their Saturdays mowing lawns, pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, and so on, none of which has anything to do with the production of food and everything to do with what it means to be in the American middle class, originally comes from the era which produced these works of art.

Rather than comment on the individual pieces in the exhibition, if you care to follow me on Instagram, later today I will be posting some photos I took of a number of pieces in the show; just visit this link:

https://instagram.com/wbdnewton/

“The Artist’s Garden” is at The Chrysler until September 6th; it then travels to The Reynolda House in North Carolina, on to The Huntington Library in California, and finally to the Griswold Museum in Connecticut. Whether or not you are particularly interested in American impressionism, this show is a wonderful evocation of a world which, though now long-gone, still has a profound influence on how Americans live and see their homes today.

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