Art, Catholicism, And Stillman (No Not That One)

If you’ve ever wondered how Whit Stillman so effortlessly conjures up the lives and social mores of the American bourgeoisie in his films, next month you’ll get the chance to see some of the splendid works in his family’s art collection come to auction – along with an unexpected connection to Catholic charity.

Sixteen works from the collection of the late Chauncey Devereaux Stillman (hereinafter “Mr. Stillman”), a cousin of the director’s father, will be auctioned by Christie’s this year. The sale will include paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, John Singer Sargent, and one of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portraits of Washington, among others. A highlight will be a painting by the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who was a personal friend of Mr. Stillman’s grandfather; he one of the first major collectors of her work. The paintings will be exhibited together during Classic Art Week in April at Christie’s New York; a first grouping will be sold in New York on April 27th, while the remaining group will be sold at Christie’s in London this Autumn.

Mr. Stillman had excellent taste, as one might expect. He came from one of the preeminent American banking families, which founded what eventually became CitiBank. A work from his collection, which had previously belonged to his father and grandfather, still retains the record for the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold in the United States. In 1989 the collector and philanthropist sold “The Halberdier” (c. 1530) by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (shown below), to the J. Paul Getty Museum for $35.2 million.

The proceeds from the upcoming auctions will be used to benefit the charitable foundation established by Mr. Stillman back in the 1980’s. The foundation not only maintains his former country house in upstate New York, where these paintings are housed, but also works to encourage the preservation from development of agrarian communities. The charity additionally does work, interestingly enough, to encourage greater appreciation of Catholic intellectual life.

As the Wethersfield Institute describes on its website, it seeks “to promote a clear understanding of Catholic teaching and practice, and to explore the cultural and intellectual dimensions of the Catholic faith.  The Institute does so in practical ways that include seminars, colloquies and conferences especially as they pursue our goals on a scientific and scholarly level.” Among those who have presented papers at the Institute are names well-known to at least some of my readers, including Mary Ellen Bork, Deal Hudson, and Russell Kirk. There is even an annual Mass at St. Michael’s in New York every year, to pray for the repose of Mr. Stillman’s soul.

Mr. Stillman’s lovely obituary in Crisis by Father George Rutler, pastor of St. Michael’s, which describes Mr. Stillman and his appreciation of great Catholic art, may be found here. The fact that the late collector had an actual Murillo in his home chapel makes me unbelievably jealous – which I suppose is not the point, but there you are. I particularly appreciated the following remembrance from Fr. Rutler: “The last Mass he heard was in his Madison Avenue apartment, and his whispered request of me was that the sign of peace be omitted ‘because the butler finds it awkward.’”

There is no mention in the auction announcement as to why the paintings are being sold. However, this article about some financial troubles which the foundation suffered a few years ago, after control had been wrested away for a time from members of the Stillman family, may provide a clue. Now that members of the family are back at the reins, one assumes that needs must, in meeting the ongoing needs of the charity.

Hopefully, for the sake of the good work being done by Mr. Stillman’s foundation both in preserving his legacy and promoting Catholic intellectual life, the sale, while no doubt painful, will be a success.

The Art Of “I Love You”

No matter how much you know about great art, there is always something new to discover. Recently I’ve become interested in the work of a Swedish painter, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793). During his lifetime he was arguably the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris, but today he is not as well-known as he ought to be. Today I want to draw your attention to a charming portrait of his wife, who was also a popular but now largely forgotten artist. The painting is not only a charming piece in its own right, but I think it captures something of the love which the two of them felt for each other, in a way which was very unusual for the time.

Roslin was born in Malmö, the city in Sweden now famous as a major international business and design center, but in 1718 not much more than a tiny provincial town of a couple of thousand people. He moved to Stockholm in his teens to study painting, and his career might have remained that of a provincial Swedish painter had he not been given the opportunity to travel and study in Germany and Italy. Then in 1752, Roslin moved to Paris, where he met a young lady named Marie-Suzanne Giroust (1734-1772).

Giroust was an orphan from a comfortably well-off, conservative family of artisans, whose father had been jeweler to the King of France. She used her inheritance to study art, and it was while she was taking classes in pastel drawing from Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), later the official court painter to Louis XVI, that she met Roslin at Vien’s studio in The Louvre. The two immediately fell in love, but Giroust’s bourgeois family refused to allow her to marry Roslin: he was from a poor family, he was a foreigner, and he was a Protestant.

It took seven years for Giroust to wear down her guardians, but eventually she succeeded, in part due to the intervention of the Count of Caylus, Roslin’s main artistic patron, and the Swedish Ambassador, who agreed to witness their marriage contract in 1759. This combination of persistence on behalf of the couple, and persuasion on behalf of the higher-ups, eventually convinced Giroust’s family that this would be a respectable marriage. She and Roslin went on to have six children together, 3 boys and 3 girls.

“The Lady With The Veil”, which is in the National Museum in Sweden, was painted by Roslin in 1768. It shows a lady dressed “à la Bolognaise”, the style then fashionable in the Italian city of Bologna. The lady’s head, shoulders, and part of her face are covered by a voluminous, black satin veil, which has led some art historians to speculate that it was painted during Carnival or Lent.

Despite her somber overlay, it is hard to imagine a more feminine and charming image of a lady. The subject of this picture is smiling and blushing at someone over to her left. Even though we can only see one of her eyes, the one that we can see is obviously twinkling at the object of her gaze. Whoever it is, she clearly has a soft spot for them, but it is actually the fan that tells us who she is looking at.

Back when ladies carried fans, they were more significant communications weapons than we would appreciate today. Depending on how a lady held her fan, she could send a message to someone else, provided that they knew how to read the secret signals which a lady’s fan could convey. The drawing of a folded fan across the right cheek was well-known “fan-speak” for, “I love you.”

No prize then, for guessing that the lady with the veil is Giroust herself, and the person whom she is signaling to is her husband, Roslin.

When this painting was exhibited in the Salon of the French Royal Academy the year of its creation, the French philosopher Diderot praised it, and famously commented that it was “très piquante’ – “very spicy”. Given the flirtatiousness of the Rococo era, it would be easy to look at this picture as an example of 18th century coquetry, like the work of Boucher or Watteau, which was later swept away by the horrors of the French Revolution. However given the back story of the couple involved, I think there is a lot more depth to this picture than meets the eye.

What I find particularly interesting is that this image was painted in 1768, nearly a decade after Roslin and Giroust were married, and after they had to fight tooth and nail for years just to get permission to marry in the first place. This is a couple that had already been through tremendous strain and hardship together long before they got to their marriage vows, let alone having to deal with the six rugrats they soon had scampering about the house after they were married. It strikes me that a man who could paint his wife in this way, after ten years of marriage and six children together, is still very much in love with her, and she is still very much in love with him.

Sadly, Giroust died of breast cancer at the age of 38, four years after this portrait was painted. Her husband never remarried, but he did manage to survive the French Revolution, unlike many of his patrons. This image remains a beautiful testament to their marriage, and the power of truly devoted love.

Museum Madness: Why I Was Right To Worry About The Met

I’m afraid that today’s post is going to involve a lot of links, but trust me – it’s a fascinating and important story, and one that I greet with a mixture of satisfaction in knowing that I was right to question what was going on, while simultaneously regretting that I was right to be worried.

Back in August, I wrote the following in The Federalist about the problems faced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:

Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it is millions of dollars in the red, despite receiving more than 6 million paying guests annually. The Met plans to cut a total of 100 employees by the end of 2016, and has reduced the number of special exhibitions it will hold. Yet despite its financial woes and staff reductions, this year the Met has taken on a costly new lease to expand into the hideous, Brutalist former premises of the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of an effort to make itself appear more up to date.

Then on February 28, 2017, Met Director Thomas Campbell suddenly announced that he was resigning his post. This took place three weeks after the publication of a rather damning article in the New York Times which asked, inter alia, why one of the wealthiest museums in the world couldn’t afford to pay its bills. At first, much blame seemed to be put squarely at the foot of the outgoing Director, as someone who could not seem to manage the behemoth institution.

Mr. Campbell, a tapestry curator at the Met, took over running America’s largest and most important art institution in 2009, following the retirement of Philippe de Montebello, who reigned over the Met from 1977 to 2008, and presided over the single largest period of expansion in the history of the institution. Naturally, his was going to be a hard act to follow, and as more and more press reports emerge about the internal culture at the Met over the past several years, it’s clear that America’s premiere artistic institution has become something of a floundering mess.

Yet it doesn’t appear that Mr. Campbell himself is entirely to blame for what went wrong. Last week, the New York Post published this eye-opening piece on the six- and seven- figure compensation received by Met leadership, including members of the board, even as the museum was financially sinking.

In follow up to this story a few days later, ArtNet published an internal email which seems to show the museum justifying the millions of dollars in payments by noting that that the payments were in line with those made to executives and board members at comparable institutions. Of course, the email does not make clear whether the comparable institutions were failing as well, with staff asked to resign, retire, take pay cuts, or suffer pension cuts.

In the April issue of Vanity Fair, now available online, reporter William D. Cohan takes a fascinating, deep dive into the culture of The Met under Mr. Campbell’s leadership. He begins with the aforementioned Times piece, which included an interview with former Met curator George Goldner, about what has gone wrong with the museum over the past several years. He also ends his piece with Mr. Goldner, and an interview in The Art Newspaper from the day after Mr. Campbell resigned. Among the cacophony of voices explaining why The Met went off the rails, Mr. Goldner’s rings the truest.

Mr. Goldner noted that when he started at The Met in 1993, it was “a very traditional institution, which focused mainly on exhibitions, acquisitions, scholarship and the galleries. It had a clear identity and a manageable agenda.” By the time he left, it was trying to be trendy and fashionable, in order to make even more money from donors and draw even more visitors to its halls and concession stands.

“There was an argument that all the new rich people collected contemporary art,” Mr. Goldner told The Art Newspaper, “and we weren’t going to get their donations otherwise. I don’t believe that’s what a cultural institution should base its programme on. I don’t think that the Harvard Law School decides what kind of law they teach based on future possible donations.”

Personally speaking, I suspect that Mr. Goldner is incorrect as regards the motivations of Harvard Law School. But be that as it may, he did hit the nail on the head when it comes to thinking about exactly what large museums like The Met are supposed to be doing, and what guidance their leadership should be providing. And the buck, as the NY Post and ArtNet seem to indicate, does not stop with Mr. Campbell.

Among the major problems which the art world faces is that of the art museum which tries to be all things to all people, but neglects to do its core job properly. Trying to turn The Met into MoMA or The Whitney is an example of this line of thinking. As Mr. Goldner commented, “[h]aving a big centre of Modern art at the Met is like having a centre of Italian paintings 20 blocks away from the Uffizi. Part of what has created the morale issue is that other departments have felt that their concerns have been relegated to a secondary position behind contemporary art and digital media.”

At some point, someone is going to have to come in and clean house at The Met. There needs to be a renewed focus on preserving and enhancing the core collection of the institution; improving visitor facilities and services; commitment to the training, retention, and good compensation of loyal, professional staff; and a rededication on the part of leadership – including at board level – to passing on the legacy of the institution to future generations. It is a privilege to serve on the board of America’s finest art museum, but it is also a significant duty, and ought to be treated as such by those fortunate enough to be in a position of leadership at a cultural institution which must exist outside of what is merely trendy.