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.

DavAb

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.

Pau

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.

esta

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.

pot

Advertisements

Art News Roundup: Better Late Than Never Edition

Forgive my delay in posting this week’s art news roundup, gentle reader, I was unavoidably detained yesterday. To make up for this, instead of my usual three curated bits of news from the world of art, architecture, design, and so on, I shall give you FIVE.

New Clues in New Mexico

In this absolutely fascinating story in the Post, reporter Antonia Farzan does her homework and digs deeply into the mystery of a stolen masterwork by Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and the quiet, reserved couple that may have had something to do with its disappearance over 30 years ago. The twists and turns of the investigation are fascinating, but the real punch at the end is when you learn just how much money the couple had in their bank accounts when they died, and how photographs revealed that they had traveled to about 140 countries and all seven continents during their marriage: an achievement that, on its surface, would seem to be beyond the means of an ordinary pair of public school employees. This is a story begging for a good screenplay.

DeKooning

Coming Back to Canterbury

In one of the weird ironies of collecting history, an illuminated 13th century Bible which was once part of the library of Canterbury Cathedral has been purchased for roughly $128,000 by…Canterbury Cathedral. The “Lyghfield Bible” is a Medieval French volume which miraculously survived Henry VIII and the Reformation, when many Catholic books were simply burned or destroyed, and passed through the hands of a number of private owners before ending up on the auction block last month. It is the only Bible from the former library to have survived completely intact, and will be part of a new exhibition space at the cathedral detailing the history of the building (from a Protestant perspective, natch.)

Biblia

Lo Spagnoletto in London

The Baroque painter Josep de Ribera (1591-1652), often referred to as “Lo Spagnoletto” (“The Little Spaniard”) by other artists, was born and raised in Valencia, but made his career in Italy, particularly in the city of Naples, which was under Spanish rule during his lifetime. Ribera is one of the most important and influential painters of the first half of the 17th century, painting dark and brooding canvases that are often intense and stripped-down psychological studies, and so it surprises me to learn that an upcoming show titled “Ribera: Art of Violence” will be the first major exhibition of his work ever held in Britain. Ribera is not always easy to like, and his paintings of martyrdom, torture, drooling idiots and sideshow freaks are rather off-putting: you can certainly see why Goya, a century and a half later, was fascinated by his work. “Ribera” opens September 26th and runs through January 27th.

Ribera

Magnificence in Magnesia

The ancient Greek city of Magnesia, which today is part of modern Turkey, remained relatively unimportant in ancient history until it became a Roman colony around the 1st century BC. After it was virtually destroyed in an earthquake in the early 1st century AD, it was completely rebuilt on a luxurious scale by the Emperor Tiberius. Now an ongoing archaeological dig at the site of the Temple of Artemis in the city’s ruins has uncovered six magnificent, over-life-sized statues, bringing the total recovered thus far from the excavation to more than 50. Scientists believe there will still be many more to uncover, and as you can see here the works are very beautiful indeed.

Statues

Mockery in Manhattan

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, New York has decided to grant landmark status to 550 Madison, a ridiculous pink skyscraper topped with a broken pediment designed by starchitect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) back in the late 1970’s. One should normally not speak ill of the dead of course, but as Mr. Johnson quite literally lived in a glass house, was an anti-Semite, a Nazi enthusiast, and loved to go on Charlie Rose long after this career was over and say terrible things about subjects which he did not in any way understand, I feel reasonably comfortable in laughing at the fact that anyone thinks that this particular monstrosity of his was worth preserving for the ages. As Hitler’s favorite architect, Albert Speer, once told art historian Robert Hughes in an interview, Johnson would have made a perfect architect for a fascist leader, since “Johnson understands what the small man thinks of as grandeur.”

Johnson

Battered Beauty: A Strange Picture Goes Under The Hammer

Coming up at the end of this month, Christie’s in New York will be auctioning an unusual painting which has been put up for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece began life as a late Medieval altarpiece, was defaced to become a work of propaganda, and in its present state is one of those pictures which probably only a real art nerd could love. Yet the story behind its creator, its alteration, and the way it looks today provide some interesting food for thought.

The work in question, “The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis”, is attributed to the great Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482), and was probably painted in 1472. It depicts the Madonna and Infant Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by (L to R) Saints Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Louis IX of France. The figures are placed inside an ornate Gothic gallery (look at that beautiful floor tile) which opens out onto a lush, inviting landscape. It is a large piece, roughly about four feet square, although not as gigantic as some other Flemish altarpieces of this period.

As you can see in the image accompanying this post, the picture was ruined at some point in the past. The result is that we can see some of the underdrawing for the figures that are now missing. When this piece was created, the artist or one of his assistants would have sketched out the design first, in order to have some precise visual guidelines to work by. This unusual detail, which normally is not visible to the naked eye, gives us some great insight into the methods of the man who created it.

Hugo van der Goes worked in what is today modern Belgium, and rarely left it, although his work was commissioned by and sent to collectors across Europe. Like his near contemporaries Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, his paintings have a jewel-like quality to them, both in the richness of his colors, and in his attention to the tiniest details. Although little is known about his personal life, we do know that in his 40’s he closed up his shop to become a brother at the Augustinian Abbey of Rouge-Cloître, outside of Brussels.

While van der Goes continued to paint and accept commissions even after joining the Augustinians, he was apparently troubled both by how much he had taken on, and by his perception that he was never going to be able to complete his work – at least, not to the level of excellence which he felt called upon to achieve. It may have been van der Goes’ perfectionism and scrupulosity which precipitated his retreating to the world of religious life, but eventually his psychosis developed into full-blown depression. He became convinced that he was a failure and going to be damned, and tried to kill himself in 1482, about ten years after this picture was painted. Although he survived the attempt, he eventually succumbed to his injuries, and died shortly thereafter.

Later in its history, van der Goes’ altarpiece was vandalized by an unknown individual. Whoever he was, he scraped off the image of the Madonna and Child, as well as the continuation of the background landscape which appeared behind them, and painted an interior scene of a church. He also scraped away the image of St. John the Baptist, and repainted him with an image of Elizabeth of York, the wife of England’s Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. St. Jerome lost his cardinal’s hat and his lion companion, and was turned into an Anglican bishop, while the figure of a king, originally intended to represent St. Louis IX of France, could now be interpreted as Henry VII.

In effect, the altarpiece became a marriage portrait, celebrating the union of Henry VIII’s parents. The defeat of Richard III, and the union of the Tudors and the Yorks through marriage, had provided Henry VII with the basis which he needed to claim the English throne for himself. Years later, despite the iconoclasm brought about by Henry VIII, when countless works of art were destroyed, someone managed to save this piece from the bonfire.

From a historical standpoint, it would have made contextual sense if this piece had been repurposed at some point during the Tudor period. However, Christie’s maintains that the scraping down and repainting took place much later, in the 18th century. To me this seems rather strange, given that the piece had survived intact through the Reformation; by the Georgian period, English collectors were eagerly snapping up art masterpieces such as this for their collections. Barring some subsequent discovery, we may never know why this painting has suffered as it has.

A few years ago, The Met had the changes removed, and the entire painting cleaned and restored. While van der Goes’ missing paint could not be put back, the picture did regain its compositional and architectural symmetry. Previously hidden details reemerged: St. Jerome’s lion friend returned to his side, for example, and in the foreground two beautiful little still lifes were uncovered. We see a glass vase with colombines on the left, and a silver censor (an incense burner used at Mass) on the right.

While no longer in a pristine state, this beautiful ruin is still expected to fetch a high price. Christie’s estimates that it will sell for between $3-5 million, though I do wonder whether that is a bit high for an individual collector of Old Masters to swallow, merely for the sake of specialized artistic interest. Perhaps when it leaves one institutional collection, i.e. The Met, it will be acquired by another. We shall see what happens.