Art News Roundup: Palace Plunder Edition

In honor of the 300th birthday of one of America’s greatest cities, one of the greatest art collections in the world is (partly) being put back together in the Big Easy, more than two centuries after that collection left the Parisian palace it used to call home.

From October 26th of this year to January 27th of next year, the New Orleans Museum of Art (“NOMA”) will be hosting “The Orléans Collection”, an exhibition that reassembles around forty of the paintings from a collection that was once the envy of all of Europe. Louis XIV’s nephew Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans (1674-1723), for whom the city of New Orleans is named, collected dozens of masterpieces by artists like Raphael, Titian, and many others. Today, the art that was once in his collection resides in museums around the world, from Edinburgh to St. Petersburg.

The Orléans Collection met its end when Duke Louis Philippe II, great-grandson of its founder, decided to betray the family during the French Revolution. He renamed himself “Philippe Égalité”, and turned the Palais-Royal – the family palace in Paris where the paintings once hung – into a libertine amusement park. In 1792, he plundered the collection, selling much of it off in a failed attempt to get himself out of debt. To add murder to the crime of treason and otherwise being a complete waste of space, the following year “Égalité” voted in favor of the execution of his cousin, King Louis XVI, a fact which shocked and grieved the King and the entire royal family.

Karma being a beotch, however, the following year “Égalité” ended up being guillotined himself: a perfect instance of good riddance to bad rubbish.

Between 40-50 of the paintings that formed the core of the Orléans Collection will be on display at the NOMA show, including works by Poussin, Rembrandt, and Veronese, among others. This is a very rare opportunity to see part of this family’s magnificent collection brought back together, so worth taking the time to see if you find yourself in New Orleans over the next few months. And what better way to mark the birth of the epicurean city of New Orleans, than by celebrating the epicurean taste of the man for whom the city was named.


And since we’re talking about plunder from palaces, let’s continue with some art news discoveries from other, palatial collections.

Hampton Court Hangings

On Tuesday, I watched a new video from Gresham College in London by (favorite) British art and architecture historian Simon Thurley, discussing themes and materials in Tudor art. In the course of the lecture, he discussed how the pinnacle of art, so far as the Tudor court was concerned, lay in the area of tapestries; King Henry VIII was known to have spent a fortune on them, including a set specially commissioned for Hampton Court Palace showing scenes from the life of St. Paul, that had later gone missing. Well lo and behold, one of those Pauline tapestries has just reappeared, and in of all places, Barcelona. It seems that this one was purchased by a Barcelona antiques dealer in the 1960’s, and sold to a private collector there, who has now sent it to antiquarian textile specialists Simon Franses in London for cleaning and conservation. The gallery will be displaying the work to the public from October 1st to October 19th, along with several other tapestries related to Henry VIII and the Tudor period.


Florentine Fumble

Speaking of tapestries, in the film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, Henry Jones, Sr. notes that curator Marcus Brody once got lost in his own museum. While the remark goes to Marcus’ somewhat befuddled character, the reality is that in many cases, museum collections are so vast that the staff don’t know or lose track of what they have in storage. This is a continuing problem in the art world, which I’ve written about previously, both here and in The Federalist.

Such it seems is once again the case, this time with the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, where a 1st century AD statue long thought to represent Queen Leda of Sparta has now been determined to be one of Aphrodite, which the Museum had apparently forgotten about or lost track of over the years. The piece had been acquired in 1882 by the Museum’s then-director, when the historic Palazzo Da Cepparello, where the marble figure had stood for centuries, was being converted into a rather palatial bank. Thanks to a grant from that most excellent American cultural foundation Friends of Florence, the statue – which has an interesting history and is not what it appears to be at first sight – has been cleaned and preserved for another 2,000 years. Hopefully she won’t get misplaced again this time.


Versailles Visitors

Highly acquisitive and rather tacky fellow that he was, the “Sun King” Louis XIV of France loved to receive lavish gifts; one can imagine that when, in 1686, he received dozens of diplomatic gifts from the King Narai of Siam (modern Thailand), including gold, silver, and other objects, that he relished the occasion. Among these was a specially commissioned Chinese silver ewer, bearing the French royal arms. It, along with everything else from that diplomatic visit, went missing from the Palace of Versailles sometime after the early 18th century, but the ewer was rediscovered just recently by the French auctioneers Beaussant Lefèvre as they were researching the sale of a private collection. The Palace has now bought back the vessel, and visitors will be able to see it in the setting for which it was originally created.


Thoughts on the Red Mass

The 60th annual Red Mass, sponsored by the John Carroll Society, took place this past Sunday, September 30th, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington. I was fortunate enough to attend, and to have a great view of the proceedings from the St. Anthony of Padua chapel (as you can see below.)  I entered into this event thinking that it was a way of honoring the work that work that other, important people in government do, and asking God’s blessing upon their efforts, but it ended with my realizing, with gratitude, that as a member of that professional community myself, I needed some blessings as well.

If you are wearing a coat and tie early on Sunday morning in Georgetown, it is reasonably obvious that you are probably going to church, since before the tourists descend on the village for brunch and shopping, we locals have it to ourselves for a few hours. I had to leave the house rather early, since previous experience of attempting to get to the Red Mass only half an hour before it started had taught me that was not going to ensure me a seat. As I walked past a cafe in my neighborhood, I saw one of my neighbors in a high-priced fleece, khakis, running shoes, and sunglasses, sipping a tall paper cup presumably filled with a caffe latte, and reading a book entitled “Existentialist Philosophy”. The contrast between the two of us did seem rather a cliché, and I chuckled to myself that it would have made a great Vanity Fair caricature or New Yorker cartoon, but there you are.

Once at the Cathedral the somewhat substantial line moved rather quickly, and I managed to obtain a seat which allowed me to stretch out my legs without striking my shins on the pew in front of me. More importantly, it allowed me to have unobstructed views of both the altar and the ambo. I managed to spot both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, though with their seating area being partially hidden by an arcade of columns from where I was, that was the full extent of the six Supreme Court Justices in attendance whom I happened to see – let alone any of the diplomats, members of Congress, or Cabinet officers.

The mass itself had all of the pomp and circumstance one could wish for on such an occasion, as the congregation asked the Holy Spirit to bless the workings of our legal system. I will admit that for much of the first part of the mass, I remember thinking that I was very small – despite towering over everyone seated around me, as I normally do. St. Matthew’s is a very grand church, decorated in a rather imperial, Tolkien-esque fashion, and to be in that physical environment, surrounded by all sorts of powerful office-holders who guide the nation was rather humbling. From the opening welcome by Cardinal Wuerl, acknowledging all of the dignataries seated in the congregation that morning, I really did feel a bit out of place for a time.

Yet during the homily by Archbishop Broglio, His Excellency spoke about something which he himself witnessed during his first year of seminary in Rome. He noted that one of the grand, 19th century Ministry of Justice buildings in the city had begun sinking into the ground, because it was built on poor foundations, and he noted that by contrast, ancient structures like the Colosseum and the Pantheon were still standing despite millennia of abuse and neglect. The idea to take away from it, he suggested, was that the fashionable is transitory: what matters is building on a firm foundation.  The danger was in allowing what might be currently popular in our country to take away from what is true, and he warned us strongly against letting that happen.

This was a great observation to take it and to take away with me, as I reflect on my professional future, but I also realized that there were a few other things to take away as well. The first and most important, was that no matter how important the people inside of that church might be, none of them are as important as the One whose house it is. Yet the second, on a more immediate level perhaps, was to recognize that in praying for our legal system to work justly, and for its ministers to execute their authority rightly, I was also praying for myself in the process. For in my own way I, too, am a part of that system, and hopefully I will be able to do my best to make sure that it is as fair and equitable, as much as any human institution can be.

As a postscript, to my great surprise and delight, one of the lectors at the mass turned out to be a mentor of mine from my undergraduate days at Georgetown, and at the conclusion of mass I must confess I had to “ditch” catching up with friends whom I knew were in the congregation in order to go find her. It was wonderful to catch up and meet her family, and it just so happened that in the process I suddenly found myself being presented to Cardinal Wuerl, whom I have heard speak many times but had never formally been introduced to before. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to kiss his ring before he could shake my hand, but then of course, you would not expect me to do any less.

St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. before the 60th Annual  Red Mass

Reflections on the Death of an American Ambassador

With the breaking news this morning about the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, the attacks on our missions in Egypt and Libya, and unexpectedly running into a diplomat friend twice over the past two days, the subject of diplomacy as a career choice has been on my mind quite a bit over the past 24 hours. In fact, diplomacy was a career which at one point I both studied and fully intended to embark upon – and, never say never, I have always been open to considering in the future. Yet despite what the public often thinks about a diplomatic career, that it is little more than one endless cocktail party out of some James Bond film, it is in fact a rather difficult life, based on the espousal and promotion of principle, which often involves a great deal of personal sacrifice.

My grandfather worked for the United Nations in South America during the 1960’s, and I grew up hearing from my mother about the experiences she had with him and my grandmother living in places like Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Peru, among others. This was part of my motivation for becoming interested in international politics, and why I wanted so very much to get into the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. There were other undergraduate universities I could have attended, but the Catholic roots of SFS – a school founded by a Jesuit priest and housed in a building named for another – really sealed the deal for me, when it came to selecting which institution would become my alma mater.

Once at school, I quickly obtained a part-time position with a diplomatic studies think tank, and set about trying to figure out the best way to graduate and end up in Europe, preferably Spain or Germany, for a diplomatic post upon graduation. I had visions of meeting and befriending interesting people in business, politics, and society in these places, trying to help our respective countries understand each other better for mutual benefit. In fact this was a view which I suspect was shared by quite a number of my classmates, since we were entering into uncharted waters, historically. The Soviet Union had only just recently collapsed; it looked as though Western values had finally triumphed and a new age of democracy and international cooperation was dawning.

Reality, of course, soon comes knocking when one imagines that any sort of career path is going to be easy. Within the first few days of orientation, I became acquainted with one of my classmates whose parents were both diplomats. He had lived all over the world, sometimes in rather exotic and unpleasant-sounding places, and possessed a kind of world-weary air combined with a love of British alternative music which I happened to share.

However over time I began to sense that having no permanent sense of home had left him intellectually bright but personally detached in some way. This was by no means an isolated case, but rather a pattern of personality which I often observed among the children of diplomats whom I befriended at college. It is of course unfair to speak in generalities, as no doubt there are plenty of well-adjusted diplomatic children. However I did hear repeatedly the lament that the constant moving about, having to leave old friends and make new ones, made it difficult for these children to form attachments, knowing they could rupture at any time.

Then of course apart from family strife, there is the danger for the diplomat that you will be sent to work in some horrid place in which you have absolutely no interest, and this is a very legitimate concern indeed if you are not someone who enjoys being far from civilization and organized agriculture. I have never wanted to ride a camel into a desert, nor trek through a rain forest, nor have a pee in a lean-to made out of aluminum siding, and I should hardly care to live in an environment where such things are not uncommon. In short, and with all due apologies to people who live in such places, if the local insects are generally the size of my hand, I will not be going there.

Academically I have always been more interested in Europe than in the other continents, and focused on it in my studies. This made the chances of their being a need for a fluent German speaker specializing in European economic integration or German foreign policy in off-putting corners of the world hopefully rather slim, at least in theory, if I did chose to follow the diplomatic route. Yet over time and meeting more diplomats, it became clear that this was not often the case. When you received your assignment, sometimes you got Paris, but sometimes you got the back of beyond – and frankly I’d rather not go there, thanks all the same.

Then yesterday and today on the way in to work, I ran into a friend in the diplomatic service whom I have not seen for some years, someone who is temporarily back in Washington for a few weeks before the next assignment overseas. I could not help but imagine, from the pure serendipity of the encounters, that my life might have turned out similarly, and there was a faint sense of something appealing about it, even with all of the potential drawbacks involved in living that life. At the same time of course, it is impossible not to think of the risks that career diplomats like my friend or Ambassador Stevens who, though the chances are extremely rare, can find themselves in, by the very nature of who they are and the offices they hold, and indeed by what they represent around the world.

Perhaps I am now at the age when I can appreciate that this is not such a bad thing, which in my late teens and early 20’s I would not have understood. I still want absolutely nothing to do with giant bugs of course, but as you grow older, and you come to not only understand but deeply appreciate the values behind our American form of democracy, you realize that promoting its interests abroad and encouraging others to follow in the good footsteps of our example is not such a bad thing. For however much we may at times fall short of living up to our own values and principles, as a nation we do actually believe in them, and keep striving to achieve and perfect them. It is our can-do attitude and sense of trying to give people a fair shake which makes us such a remarkably effective country around the world.

I think this is something Ambassador Stevens clearly understood, as he risked his life to work in such an extremely dangerous part of the world. He worked to communicate with the Libyan rebels as they sought to free themselves from the Gaddafi regime, and stayed on as the new Libyan state began to form out of the chaos of civil war, when he could so easily have asked to come home. His family ought to be proud, and his countrymen grateful, that he served his country so well.

So forget the black-tie balls and garden parties you see in Hollywood’s imagining of what diplomatic life is like. Instead, remember the example of those who, like Ambassador Stevens, put themselves into personal danger simply by representing your country in a different part of the world, far from home. For that is both a great position to hold, and a great responsibility to one’s nation.

Detail of “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein (1533)
National Gallery, London