Art News Roundup: Houston, We Have A Velázquez Edition

As I spent a big chunk of yesterday in bed with a cold, here’s your day late, but hopefully not a dollar short, roundup of some interesting news from the art world for this week. For yours truly, the really interesting news this week is that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has recently re-attributed a painting in its permanent collection to the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The canvas, titled “Kitchen Maid”, is believed to date to around 1620, when the young artist was working in his native Seville.


Two other pieces by Velázquez, which were already very familiar to me, are related to this one. More obviously, there is a larger-sized depiction of a kitchen interior with the same model, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it’s probable that the Houston piece was a study or work-up for the finished version. Not many of Velazquez’ studies or drawings survive, unfortunately, so as a clue to his working method the newly attributed painting should prove to be a major object of study for both art historians and conservators.


The other piece to which the painting is related is Velázquez’ “Kitchen Maid With The Supper At Emmaus” at the National Gallery of Ireland, from the same time period. This canvas is the most complex of the three, so it may well be that the Houston piece was the first study the artist made on canvas. That would make the Chicago picture, a second, more advanced composition, with the Dublin work as the final product. To have all three of these survive is rather unusual in art history, even though this practice was not uncommon at the time.


While it may seem odd for the artist to have placed what would normally be considered a background scene to the main action in the foreground, the precedent comes from Dutch paintings and engravings of the time; as part of the Counter-Reformation movement it allowed the faithful to more fully reflect upon and imagine themselves being present at Biblical moments. Moreover, this is not the only example of Velázquez using this concept in his art. His better-known “Christ In The House Of Martha And Mary” (c. 1618), now in the National Gallery in London, is almost a companion piece to the Dublin picture, in this respect.


While the attribution has not been fully put to the test, as is often the case the careful cleaning of dirt and varnish from the surface of an old, overlooked picture made all the difference for those experts who have examined it so far.

And now on to some other art news of interest.

Selfie Stupidity

Another day, another example of self-obsessed social media users ruining a work of art while trying to take a selfie with no thought for anyone but themselves. A group of women at an exhibition in the International Arts Center in the city of Yekaterinburg decided to take a picture of themselves, and in the process knocked over a display case (you can see a still of this below) containing engravings by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Both pictures had their frames and glass damaged, but while the Goya appears to be fine, the Dalí was damaged from the glass shattering. Apparently no criminal charges will be brought against this group of Stygian witches, despite the museum requesting such action, but I would certainly love to bring a civil lawsuit against them.


Sparkling Seaside

Yes, I do actually recommend Contemporary Art from time to time, not just Old Masters, and so it is with great pleasure that I let you know that new works by British Contemporary artist Gordon Hunt (1958-) will go on show tomorrow at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, and it looks to be an exhibition well worth your time. As the Northeast begins to settle into the long, dark, gray of late Autumn, Hunt’s images of sun and sea, pleasure boats, and people enjoying the water in his native Cornwall or along the Mediterranean are a light-filled joy; you may even feel the need to break out your sunglasses for some of his sunset scenes. His sparkling, glowing technique is reminiscent of the work of the French Pointillist pioneer Georges Seurat (1859-1891), but updated for a modern audience. “Discovery: Contemporary Art Perspectives From England” is on show at Agora until December 1st.


Bidding for Binney

For reasons best known to itself, the Philadelphia Bar Association has decided that it has too many portraits of dead lawyers on its hands, so it has decided to auction them – as well as hundreds of other objects – at Freeman’s American auction next week. Among the highlights are this magnificent 1833 Thomas Sully (1783-1872) portrait of Congressman Horace Binney (1780-1875), who not only turned down an appointment to be a Supreme Court Justice – TWICE – but was one of the few men in Congress to have the backbone to publicly stand up to POS American dictator…er, President Andrew Jackson. Binney certainly knew how to pick them, when it came to have his portrait painted, because as a young man, he was the subject of another magnificent portrait by the great Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) which is now in the National Gallery here in DC, but for some reason is not currently on view. It would be neat – is that the right word? – if the NGA were to purchase the portrait of the middle-aged Birney so that visitors could compare how artistic style changed in America.



Florence To Tourists: Become A Criminal, Will Train

In the beauty contest of stupid ideas, this one has to be a contender for Miss Universe.

The Opera Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, which oversees a number of major tourist attractions in the Tuscan capital, has launched an app called Autography, which allows visitors to leave virtual graffiti on some of the city’s most iconic monuments. The idea came about as a way to combat real-life graffiti, which the non-profit has to spend considerable time and money scrubbing clean. Users will be able to scribble their names, messages, and so on onto virtual images of Florence’s Cathedral, Baptistery, and other buildings using a program called Autography, which promises to store their scrawls in a permanent database that will be accessible to other visitors. The graffiti, it is noted, will be screened – i.e. curated – for anything in the way of “insults, unauthorized material or judged inappropriate.”

The reader will need to bear with me, because this is a truly radical concept, but surely such graffiti is, by its very nature, insulting, unauthorized, and inappropriate, regardless of its content.

Here in the Nation’s Capital, we don’t seem to suffer from the same degree of loutishness in our public spaces, at least not yet. The notion that one would go down to the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and find all of the pillars tagged, is practically unimaginable. When such acts do occur, they are appropriately dealt with.

Yet if you have visited Europe in recent years, it seems as though the battle between weak authorities and brazen criminals was conceded to the latter long ago. Practically every church door is covered with graffiti, and shop owners now go to the trouble of paying miscreants to come and spray-paint their roll-down doors, so as to try to reduce the level of cleanup they will have to do later. It reminds me of how the later, more decadent Roman emperors would bribe barbarian tribes, in order to keep them from sacking Rome.

Part of the ill-informed philosophy behind efforts such as Autography, of course, stems from the artistic establishment’s lionization of guerilla graffiti artists such as Bansky, whose appeal I have never understood. Creating art by spray-painting a photoshopped image from a template onto public or private property is hardly the work of genius. The tolerance or in some cases active encouragement of this practice has led to a kind of mutually assured destruction by government and the arts, in which common decency, historic preservation, and the rule of law are forced to take a back seat to expressions of personal selfishness.

Will the Opera’s plan work? Logic would dictate that those who are most of a mind to place graffiti on a cathedral bell tower are highly unlikely to say to themselves and their cohort, “Hey, let’s go check out that new app where we can pretend to draw our names on a wall.” Moreover, the risk here is that those who would never normally engage in such behavior will now try it, and find the experience so intoxicating that they will subsequently want to try it out in real life. Virtual reality, after all, is no substitute for experience.

Most of us do not view defacing public or private property as a laudable activity. It is a behavior which demonstrates a fundamental lack of charity toward others, which is particularly ironic in a house of Christian worship. For while ultimately the fault for this galactically stupid idea lies with the Opera, the Archdiocese of Florence should be of ashamed of itself for even consenting to be a part of such an ill-conceived plan, in which the walls of its sacred buildings are to become the proving ground for future antisocial nonsense.


Graffiti inside the lantern of the Duomo, Florence

A Grateful Appreciation of Professor Charles E. Rice

R.I.P. Professor Charles E. Rice (1921 - 2015)

R.I.P. Professor Charles E. Rice
(1921 – 2015)

On February 26th, Professor Charles E. Rice of the University of Notre Dame Law School died at the age of 83. He was a legend among Notre Dame students, and well-known among both jurists and Catholic thinkers for his writing, his advocacy on behalf of human life, and his sharp, incisive sense of humor.  You can read more about his achievements in this press release from Notre Dame, but I wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences of the man, as has my fellow Domer Diana von Glahn over on Patheos.

I was assigned to Professor Rice for Torts I my first semester of law school at Notre Dame. Being somewhat stubborn, I did not appreciate his teaching style, at first. Why was he so brusque? Why did he insist on our memorizing his outlines and repeating the exact terms that he would use in class? We weren’t primary school students learning our multiplication tables! To put it mildly, he got on my nerves.

When  it came time to take the final for Torts I, I did not write down the answers the way Professor Rice had wanted us to. The inevitable then happened. He called me into his office, a few days before we went home for Christmas break, and said “Not only did you fail…you failed SPECTACULARLY. No one has EVER failed my exam as low as you have.”

He pointed out that he could make me repeat the course, or he could let me take the exam again, even though I wouldn’t get any quality points for it. I agreed to the latter, and he asked how long I would need to prepare for the exam. I told him a week. On the day, I retook the exam, and got an “A”.

Now, most people would have left well enough alone, at this point, having ruined their Quality Point Index. They would have switched into another section for Torts II in the Spring. However, I am not like most people.

So the first day of Spring Semester, Professor Rice walked into the classroom, and saw me sitting there. On the way out afterwards, he asked why I didn’t seek to transfer into another section, given my experience in Torts I. I told him I was happy to take the second half of Torts with him, since he was a good teacher, although I still disagreed with his teaching method. He seemed surprised, but I stayed.

You can guess what happened: I failed the final again.

We sat in his office that May and after telling me, “You’re a stubborn SOB”, Professor Rice asked how I wanted to handle the latest “F”. A week later, having memorized all the notes like everyone else had, I took the exam again. This time I believe I got either an A- or B+. Again, the issue wasn’t that I was incapable of understanding the material, but rather my refusal to give into the practice of rote memorization as being dispositive of one’s ability to practice law.

In time however, I came to realize that Professor Rice was right to teach the 1st year students the way he did. Most students who are not going to cut it as lawyers drop out after the 1st semester, and certainly by the end of 1st year. The amount of reading, memorization, and regurgitation that goes on is enormous. Frankly, as harsh as it is, if you cannot make it through that part of law school, then you should be doing something else.

After surviving first year, Professor Rice became my faculty advisor, my mentor, and my friend. I studied Jurisprudence with him my 3rd year, and also did a directed readings thesis with him. Sometimes I would drop by his office just to hang out and watch him smoke his pipe, while we would talk about things that mattered to both of us – like good books, weird court decisions, interesting saints and popes, and so on.

Later, Professor Rice wrote my recommendation for my Master’s program after law school, as well as for my first job out of graduate school. He was a character reference for my bar admission, as well as for my current job. When I moved back to DC after several years away, and had to build a network of contacts all over again, he introduced me to a friend of his who has over the years become one of the truest friends I’ve made in this town. In fact, said gentleman was the one who contacted me on Wednesday to let me know that Professor Rice had died.

I never saw Professor Rice in person again after I left South Bend, We stayed in touch via email, postcards, Christmas cards, and even the occasional phone call. Sometimes, he would drop me a note after reading one of my blog posts to tell me I’d done a good job, which would make my day. Whenever I would see him on television or in print, I would proudly point him out and tell people who he was, if they didn’t already know.

By no means was I Professor Rice’s prize student. However I think he took a shine to me because I was willing to be different, and to do what I believed needed to be done, even if it meant not being like or being liked by everyone else.  That was something which he himself had to deal with at times in his own career, though obviously on a far more profound scale than my puny efforts to date. Yet just to be around him, to engage him in conversation, and to be encouraged by him, was to be persuaded that all is not lost – at least, not yet.

More than what he taught me in lecture halls or seminars or office hours, what I learned from Professor Rice over the years during which I have been privileged to know him is that being a Christian man in an anti-Christian age is not going to be easy. And you know what – who cares? We should go do it anyway.

God bless you, Charlie, and thanks, always.