Check out my latest for The Federalist, in which I discuss 3 beautiful Old Master paintings depicting scenes from the Bible about the birth of Jesus, and the importance of the actual text contained within these works of art. You may be surprised at not only the presence, but of the significance of these painted words. My thanks to The Federalist for letting me share my thoughts with their readers and with all of you, yet again.
We live in a time in which amateurish assemblages such as this are considered “worthy” of winning major art prizes, while childish nonsense is viewed as a “major” donation to an art museum. So let’s take a moment away from the madness to admire a beautifully painted, rather serene work of art by a great Old Master painter, which is coming up for sale tomorrow evening. While it’s not something that most of us have the space to hang on the wall, I would happily rearrange my entire house around it.
On Thursday Christie’s in London will be auctioning a private collection which, particularly if you love Spanish art as I do, will make your mouth water. The sale includes works by a number of both well-known and unknown Spanish artists, including Pedro Berruguete, Juan de Valdés Leal, and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as pieces by a number of other European and American artists. Decorative objects in the collection include things like Gothic chests, Persian carpets, Etruscan statuary, and just about everything else you would need to furnish a very well-appointed residence.
For me the highlight of the sale is a magnificent, life-sized painting of “St. Joseph and the Christ Child” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682), one of the greatest of all Spanish Old Master painters. In this picture we see St. Joseph holding the young Jesus by the hand, bringing Him forward for us to see. In the background is the base of a square column, while up above golden light pours through thick clouds, which are filled with little angels.
This painting is a perfect example of the Baroque art that was created during the Counter-Reformation, which sought to forge an emotional connection between viewer and subject matter. Murillo has provided a sharp contrast between the weight and solemnity of the two figures standing on terra firma, and the weightless movement of the heavenly figures floating up above. While over time the Baroque became more and more overwrought with gesticulation, ornament, and fussiness, until it eventually turned into the Rococo, here it is very dignified, while still carrying an emotional impact.
Take a moment to step back and notice the palette in this picture, and you’ll realize that the primary color in this piece is gray. Unlike in Gothic or Renaissance art, where colors were usually extremely bright and vivid, this piece is almost monochromatic. Murillo punctuates this by using a mustard gold for St. Joseph’s cloak, and a pale lavender for Jesus’ robe, but even these colors are somewhat toned down. His artistic choices were entirely in keeping with the more reserved court dress and social etiquette that held sway during the Golden Age of the Spanish Empire, when this painting was created.
The auction estimate on this painting is roughly $4-6 million, which admittedly sounds like quite a lot – well okay, it is quite a lot. However, when you consider that this pointless (if admittedly attractive) dropcloth…er, painting sold for $34 million recently, then the Murillo is really quite a bargain. Plus, no one will accidentally throw it in a corner of the garage.
Today I want to share with my readers a couple of stories I’ve been following in the art trade over the last few months:
The first involves former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos – she of the shoe closet of all shoe closets – and the art collection which she amassed with her late husband, President Ferdinand Marcos. When the couple went into exile in Hawaii back in the 1980’s, there was a great deal of speculation regarding what had happened to the assets they had accumulated over their decades in power in The Philippines. Among these was their art collection, which contained numerous works by Old Masters, French Impressionists, and Modernists. Some of the works were catalogued and their whereabouts known, but others had simply vanished.
Now it appears that part of the collection, including a painting by Monet, has been sitting in a warehouse in Brooklyn for years, and a fight is currently underway to decide who actually owns these works. Mrs. Marcos is still very much alive, and an elected Congresswoman in the Philippine government following her return to her home country. Other claimants to the cache include Mrs. Marcos’ former private secretary, the Philippine government, and victims’ funds who want the paintings to be sold and the profits distributed to those persecuted by the Marcos regime. This will be quite an interesting and convoluted case to watch.
The second story involves one of the lawsuits ancillary to the massive fight involving one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen, and the Swiss freelance art dealer who helped him amass a seriously impressive art collection. The best overall summary I’ve read on this is a long and absolutely fascinating, well-written and well-researched piece by Sam Knight in The New Yorker back in February, which I’ve recommended to my readers previously (scroll down past my commentary on the Knoedler Gallery scandal.) I again urge you to take the time to read Knight’s piece, as it is highly both informative and a real pleasure to read.
The latest news from this particular debacle involves the prize of the Rybolovlev collection, a newly-rediscovered painting by Leonardo Da Vinci depicting Christ, in an iconographic style known as a “Salvator Mundi” or “Savior of the World”. Da Vinci paintings are extremely rare, and extremely valuable, since only about 15-20 are generally accepted by art experts to be his work. Leonardo was so experimental with his painting techniques, and so easily distracted by his many other projects, that a number of his paintings did not survive the centuries, and in any case his output was always very small. The “Salvator Mundi” is very possibly the only painting by him to remain in private hands, as all of the other works known to be by him are in museums.
In a twist to this ongoing drama, Sotheby’s has preemptively pulled the trigger on a fight between themselves, the art dealers who originally discovered the painting, and Rybolvlev’s art dealer, who sold the piece to his client at a considerable profit. I won’t even pretend to encapsulate all that is going on here, but The Times does a good job at trying to give an overall summary. Like the Marcos case, this promises to be rather a complicated affair – but it will no doubt be absolutely fascinating.