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.

 

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Thought-Pourri: Art News This Week

Before we take a look at some arts stories that caught my interest this week, I want to invite you to join me for a Baroque concert at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, tomorrow evening at 7:30 pm.

The program for “But They Are At Peace: Music For The Feast Of All Souls” contains pieces for choir, organ, and soloists by Johann Sebastian Bach and the early German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. Featuring the Musica Spira ensemble as well as musicians from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the concert begins at 7:30 pm and admission is free; there will be a free-will offering for donations to support the excellent music at St. Stephen’s. Details and directions may be found by following this link. I hope to see many of you there, and if you spot me in the audience please do come up and say hello!

Concert

And now, on to the news roundup:

A Sedona Surrealist Surprise

Much to the surprise of everyone, Bonhams auction house has announced that the star of its upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in November will be “Ohne titel (Sedona Landschaft)” [“Unititled [Sedona Landscape”], a painting of Sedona, Arizona by the great German Surrealist painter, Max Ernst (1891-1976), which had nearly been forgotten. Ernst painted the intensely-colored work during a visit to Arizona in 1957, and gifted it to a local surgeon; it has remained with the doctor’s family since then, and was last exhibited in 1961. The estimate of $500-$700k is, to my mind, rather low, but then again the work is only about 2 feet long and 18 inches high – perfect for over the sideboard. As I will be traveling to Sedona myself for a few days later next month, I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison of Ernst’s painting alongside a far less important snap from my phone over on my Instagram account.

Ernst

Caravaggio and the Code of Silence

The myth that art theft is usually carried out by a sort of gentleman cat burglar, like Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean, or John Robie, is blown out of the water in this very interesting piece over on Vice. Art theft detective extraordinaire Charley Hill, who has helped in the recovery of a number of major art heists over the years, recounts the twists and turns involved in seeking one of the items he is still searching for, nearly 50 years after it went missing. “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609) by Caravaggio was stolen on Mafia orders from the Oratorian Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo back in 1969; it’s a very unusual work, completely different from Caravaggio’s better-known (and more conventional) version of the same subject, also painted in 1609. To this day, no one knows whether the missing altarpiece still exists, or who has possession of it. Hill believes he has an idea of where it is, and he’s determined to get it back.

Cara

Rocky Road for Rockwells

Regular readers will recall my take last month on the upcoming sale of two paintings by popular 20th century American artist Normal Rockwell, alongside a number of other works of art, which the artist had donated to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The plot has thickened somewhat of late. The Rockwell family has now joined a group suing the Berkshire to halt the sale, and requested a temporary restraining order while that issue is being decided; the State AG’s office also seems to be investigating. Meanwhile, the museum’s director has temporarily stepped down for medical reasons, in an unusual bit of either chance or timing. Stay tuned, as this fight is getting more and more interesting.

Rockwell

The Banality of Basquiat and Brown

Two of the most famous American names in Modern Art and Popular Fiction are the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and writer Dan Brown. Both created work that can be safely categorized as pseudo-intellectual garbage that commands utterly unreasonable prices, whether in terms of auction sales or box office receipts. For your pleasure and mine, then, I’d like you to enjoy a pair of absolutely scathing, wonderfully written take-downs. The first comes from the great British art critic Waldemar Januszczak who, in characterizing a major new exhibition of Basquiat’s work at The Barbican in London, is left shaking his head: “This really is what the art world has become: a shallow, uneducated, disingenuous, over-moneyed, rapacious chewer-up of proper artistic values.” Meanwhile over at The Week, Matthew Walther’s piece on Dan Brown’s latest novel, “Origin”, is an absolute howl, noting that no gifted writer of thrillers “would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art and follow it up with such varied set pieces as a conversation in a boat, a conversation on a plane, and a conversation in a driverless Tesla SUV before settling in to two more long conversations in an apartment and an office building.”

Original Copycat: The Great Painter You’ve Never Heard Of

Even if you’re reasonably familiar with the history of art, the name Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind, when you think of Old Master painters from Spain: El Greco, sure, Velázquez, absolutely, and even Goya, if we consider him the end of the Old Master period and the beginning of the Modern Period in art. But the intriguing thing about del Mazo is, not only was he a brilliant artist, but there may be well-known paintings of his, hiding in plain sight, that have yet to be identified.

I’m fortunate enough to own a pen-and-ink drawing by British artist Rupert Alexander, specifically a study of a portrait of Spanish Admiral Don Adrián Pulido Pareja, which is now in the National Gallery in London. For much of the portrait’s known history, it was thought to be a work by Velázquez. However an increasing number of scholars now believe that it is by del Mazo, who was not only Velázquez’ primary studio assistant, but also the great painter’s son-in-law. In 1633 del Mazo married Velázquez’ youngest surviving daughter Francisca and, interestingly enough, through their daughter Teresa – who married into a German noble family – are descended most of Europe’s kings and queens, including Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, King Felipe VI of Spain, and King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Because his father-in-law was extremely busy, as the principal court painter to King Felipe IV of Spain, much of del Mazo’s time was spent making copies of the original paintings executed by Velázquez. In a time before photography and commercial reproduction methods, copying served several important purposes for the Habsburgs, for whom maintaining close family ties was extremely important. One such purpose was to allow them to have more than one copy of their favorite pictures of family members on display for their multiple homes, without having to pack up their pictures and move them every time they went on a journey.

An example of this is the hunting portrait of Cardinal Don Fernando de Austria, showing the younger brother of King Felipe IV with his favorite dog. The original, by Velázquez, was part of a series of portraits of the family in hunting attire that decorated the Torre de la Parada, a now-demolished royal hunting lodge in the mountains outside of Madrid. The copy by del Mazo, as analyzed here by art expert Philip Mould, decorated a different royal residence in Spain, and differs only slightly from the original in the placement of the dog and the absence of the tree.

Cardinal

Another purpose for del Mazo’s copying was that it allowed the family to send these copies as gifts to geographically distant relatives, which they loved to do and in fact all of the Habsburgs did for centuries. Think of this in the way that you might send copies of your family Christmas photos to Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charlie out in California, whom you haven’t seen for many years, just so you can keep in touch and so they can see what you look like today. In addition to parents and children missing each other, or siblings wanting to keep in touch, the Habsburgs also tended to marry other Habsburgs, and so these pictures were sometimes used for negotiating marriages between different branches of the family.

Sometimes the original portrait was sent and the copy was retained, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes the original was so well-liked that the recipient requested multiple copies for, again, displaying in multiple homes. Velázquez’ portrait of the Infanta (Princess) Margarita wearing a blue velvet court dress ended up in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna after the fall of the Habsburg Empire; its rediscovery in the 1930’s is a remarkable story in and of itself. But even while it was lost, it was known to scholars because copies of it were executed by del Mazo for decorating the various Habsburg residences in Austria and Hungary, such as this one which ended up in Budapest (and is in desperate need of a good cleaning.)

Infanta

This skill in copying was something which del Mazo worked on throughout his life. He spent many years making copies of paintings in the Spanish royal collections, which included not only the portraits executed by his father-in-law, but also dozens of masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, and others, most of which later formed the nucleus of the collections at The Prado and at El Escorial. The end result was that he came to deeply understand and employ the techniques used by these artists in his own, original work, when he was able to paint it.

We can’t be certain of many one-off compositions by del Mazo himself, but one that most scholars are reasonably sure about is unquestionably his masterpiece, “A View of Zaragoza in 1647”, which is now in The Prado. This enormous painting, which is almost 11 feet long and nearly 6 feet tall, was long thought to be by Velázquez, but most scholars now agree that it is by del Mazo, possibly with some assistance from the painter’s more famous father-in-law. It’s a picture you’ve probably seen illustrating European history texts, but nothing you can see in print or in electrons prepares you for the sheer size and grandeur of this thing.

Zaragoza

This is a picture to get lost in, and you never tire of looking at it and taking in all of the details – not just all the interesting figures in the foreground, but also the wealth of architectural detail in del Mazo’s representation of the city itself. The towers, pinnacles, rooftops, and chimneys that define the skyline of the city are clearly delineated. If we look more closely, we can see even more minute observations by the artist, such as red tapestries flapping from balconies, tiny green treetops peeping above the walls of enclosed gardens, and even newly-washed white laundry drying out on the rocks of the opposite shore.

At present, only a handful of paintings are currently known or believed to be by del Mazo. He spent so much time making copies of other artists’ work, that he probably didn’t have a great deal of free time to come up with his own, original compositions. Yet with advances in technology that allow art historians to examine details of paintings which are invisible to the naked eye, I suspect that in the future we will come to identify more truly unique works by this supposed copycat artist, which will make him, while not the equal of his father-in-law, an important addition to the history of Western art.