Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.


Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.




​Sacred Art In Sardonic Times: A New Exhibition On 18th Century Parisian Religious Art

For the most part, I’m not hugely interested in the majority of 18th century French painting. I find scraggly landscapes populated with cavorting shepherds, and mythological scenes featuring flower-bedecked nymphs the color of raw prawns to be rather ho-hum. Perhaps because the French taste was so de rigueur at European courts during this period, and frivolous, often sardonic images covered walls, furniture, snuff boxes, and just about everything else, it became overly diluted and, to me, very boring.

So it was interesting to scroll through this article in Apollo Magazine and learn a bit more about some of the religious paintings of the era, which are featured in a new exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris, “Baroque during the Enlightenment: 18th Century Masterpieces in Paris Churches”. As I’ve often commented in these pages, one of the joys of art history is that there is always something new to learn: just when you think you’ve tapped out a particular area of enquiry, something new appears on the radar. A quick run through this PDF press release, which features images of the works included in the exhibition, shows why this is the case.

As Apollo correctly points out, the title of the exhibition is a bit of a misnomer, for most of the images in the show are not really examples of Baroque art. Many of them feature pastel palettes and sweet expressions employed by artists such as Francois Boucher in decorating the boudoirs of royal mistresses like La Pompadour. Some of the images look like still lives of the dainty figurines being produced during the same time period by European porcelain factories like Sèvres or Meissen.

At the same time, for all of the Rococo frou-frou of Nicolas Largillière’s “Nativity” (1730) from Saint-Suplice, there are some works which, when examined individually, are more interesting compositions than one would normally associate with the general frivolity of 18th century French art. David’s physically powerful and visually stark “Christ on the Cross” (1782) for example, now in the Cathedral of Mâcon, is something of a surprise, since David rarely ventured into the realm of sacred art. He is better-known as a history painter, an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, and later as Napoleon’s chief artistic propagandist. 

While his depiction of the Crucifixion is more focused on capturing the human form – albeit with strangely disproportionate arms – than in conveying themes such as suffering and redemption, at the same time the artist is consciously harkening back to the work of Baroque artists, particularly the Tenebrists, who specialized in this kind of intense, stripped-down imagery.

Similarly, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre’s “Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket” (1748) harkens back to late Renaissance and Baroque models, in particular showing the influence of much earlier Venetian artists such as Veronese for both its composition and coloring. 

Like David however, Pierre doesn’t quite get the details right. The effect of his altarpiece is somewhat spoilt by the overly decorative and frilly French uniforms of the supposedly English henchmen shown attaching the aged Archbishop at Mass. Moreover the expression on the chief attacker’s face is also more comical and pantomime-ish than threatening.

Taken as a whole, these paintings show how the Enlightenment had a pernicious effect on the elites who commissioned them. While some of these pieces are charming and beautifully executed, none of them is particularly inspiring. What we are seeing is mostly play-acting, with the costumes and settings being more important than the story. 

Perhaps the only really moving piece in the entire show is Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié’s painting of the Baroque “Calvary Chapel Of The Church of Saint-Roch” (1765), which shows a hauntingly beautiful sculptural-architectural creation from the end of the Baroque era that was later destroyed by leftists (of course) during the French Revolution. Really, this chapel should be copied and recreated elsewhere. I can’t quite get my mind off that beautifully simple pose of the statue of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross:

While some of the works in this show are now in museums, others are normally still hanging in the churches for which they were originally created. If you know anything about art history, you know that this is something of a rarity, since most works of art at some point end up getting stolen from the Church and shipped off to the national collection under some pretext. To see these examples displayed together therefore, is a rare occurrence, and no doubt worth your time should you happen to find yourself in Paris this summer.