Art News Roundup: Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Couch Edition

Perhaps the most famous quip – among many – made by President Theodore Roosevelt’s rather infamous eldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), which she embroidered on a throw pillow displayed in her home, was “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” For the most part, I try to be positive about what I write here, pointing to items which I find interesting and which, I hope, my readers will find interesting as well. But sometimes, you have to sit right down next to Mrs. Longworth on her couch, and have a good chin wag over the nonsense which those of us who cover the art world are forced to put up with on a daily basis.

Take the current fawning of the art establishment over the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) for example. I suppose that, on the whole, one should be grateful when the black turtleneck brigade occasionally deigns to recognize that Western art existed before the 20th century. In the last few years, Gentileschi has become the darling of those who generally eschew sacred art and Old Master painting, because she has been made to fit into the narrative of contemporary feminism. Art media types – many of whom couldn’t distinguish a Frans Hals from a Franz Winterhalter – have been going into raptures over her art of late, resulting in a sudden spike in the commercial value of her paintings.

Yet when you look at her work as a whole, Artemisia turns out to be a bit of an Artemisi-yawn. She mostly painted herself (with her crazy, rolling eyes) dressed up as someone else: Cleopatra, Lucretia, a saint, etc. When she wasn’t painting rather lifeless and unappealing nudes, her preferred party trick as an artist was typically something involving men abusing women, or women getting revenge on men, or Judith doing something with the head of Holofernes, or women injuring themselves. Her paintings are often cold, bitter, and derivative of the work of other artists such as Caravaggio (1571-1610), her own father Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), and others. No doubt she had talent, but there were plenty of other Italian Baroque painters whose abilities far exceeded hers, who remain largely unknown or unappreciated outside of specialist circles today.

Now, before everyone rushes to Gentileschi’s defense, I fully recognize that her tragic personal history no doubt influenced both her outlook on the world and the way she portrayed it on canvas. Nor should anyone assume that I am so stupid as to dismiss the work of a great artist because of her sex. As a matter of fact, I’m heading to Philadelphia this weekend to see a major retrospective on the work of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), the greatest of all the women Impressionist painters, and in my opinion a far better artist than, say, her undeservedly more famous contemporary Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).

But the truth of the matter is, while Gentileschi could certainly paint, she really wasn’t anything all that special. In this day and age of course, saying so goes against the popular grain. It’s like pointing out that Beyoncé could do with a vocal coach because she doesn’t actually sing very well: as an aside, it was beyond presumptuous of her to imagine that she could play the great Etta James on film, for example, when she clearly doesn’t have the pipes for it. By all means, go have a wander through the interwebz and check out Gentileschi’s work for yourself, but I suspect you’ll eventually come to the same conclusion that I have.

Assuming that Mrs. Longworth hasn’t asked us to leave at this point, let’s settle into our seats and have a few other strongly-worded things to say, as we look at some of the current news from the art world.

Burne-Jones Burn

In what must be one of the most scathing reviews of Pre-Raphaelite art written since the movement appeared in the 19th century, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones himself goes against the popular grain to let us know exactly why he can’t stand the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who is the subject of a major retrospective that just opened at Tate Britain in London. The review points out – quite rightly, I might add – that after Burne-Jones settled into his artistic style in his early 20’s, he basically stagnated for the next forty years. Looking across the breadth of the artist’s output over such a long career, one comes to realize fairly quickly that his maidens are interchangeable, his monsters aren’t in the least bit scary, and on the whole everyone in his pictures seems to be utterly bored to death. While I don’t completely agree with some of Mr. Jones’ comparators, I do whole-heartedly agree with his conclusions, even though I realize that this risks my alienating those of you who had posters of this sort of thing in your college dorm room. “Edward Burne-Jones” opened at Tate Britain yesterday, and runs through February 24th.


The Beacon Gets Lit

A “painting” [shudder] by Contemporary artist Mary Corse (1945-) caught on fire yesterday at the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, home of the Dia Art Foundation. Ms. Corse creates minimalist works that combine things like canvas, tile, plywood, and electrical elements, into objects that look like bus shelter advertising frames without adverts which, for reasons best explained by others, are considered to be terrific art by those with more money than sense. Fortunately, no one was injured in the conflagration, but the piece, valued by some fool at $1 million, was significantly damaged. No word from the museum on which of Ms. Corse’s works was the culprit.


Ludicrous in Liverpool

It seems a bit off to me, in an age of constant complaints about “cultural appropriation”, that the art establishment would pay tribute to Contemporary sculptor Ugo Rondinone (1964-), an Italian-Swiss artist who lives in New York, for creating a prominent work for the city of Liverpool in the form of a contemporary totem sculpture. [N.B. It’s really just a pile of rocks painted with what looks like poster paint, rather than a sculpture, but there you are.] If the Scouser alderfolk actually wanted such an object, and I’m not sure what one would be doing in Liverpool, there are plenty of indigenous sculptors in the Americas who possess actual artistic talent for such things. No doubt they would have loved the possibility of creating such a public piece, rather than seeing it entrusting it to someone who is ripping off their culture in the most childish-looking way possible. My recommendation would be to dump this awful thing into the River Mersey and start over.



Art News Roundup: Hopper on the Block

I don’t normally tell people what art they ought to buy or not buy, since the “what” of art collecting is really up to personal taste. That being said, it’s just been announced that the greatest painting by the American Modern-Realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) left in private hands is coming up for sale at Christie’s. So if you happen to have $70 million sitting around, you should absolutely attempt to buy it.


“Chop Suey” (1929) is classic, iconic Hopper, full of strong colors, unusual angles, and an air of mystery. You sense that we are in a moment somewhere between inaction and action, where with a single word, everything might change…or not. In fact, you’ve probably seen this image so many times, illustrating the cover of books from the Jazz Age or in retrospectives of Hopper’s work, that you probably didn’t even realize that this piece is privately owned.

This is a deceptively simple painting, until you really start to look at it. There are obvious questions such as, what are the two women talking about, or what are the young couple behind them talking about? But there are also less obvious points of enquiry, which always make trying to interpret a Hopper painting a great deal of fun.

Why, for example, does it appear as if there two light sources in the window above the man’s head, crossing over each other? Why is the fire escape ladder hanging down in front of the window at our right? Why do the couple have the little green-shaded lamp on their table, but the two women have theirs on the windowsill?

The $70 million estimate for this picture strikes me as a bit conservative: I wouldn’t be surprised, particularly in this market and given the Chinese-American thematic material, to see a Chinese collector pay $100 million for this work. The Chinese are primarily interested in brand names, when it comes to consumption, and Hopper is definitely in the upper pantheon of American artists when it comes to Modern Art.

Hopper’s current auction record is $40.5 million, for an interesting but unpopulated urban landscape painting, “East Wind over Weehawken” (1934). It depicts the slightly grim, rocky neighborhood that one drives through on the way to the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan from New Jersey. While Hopper’s landscapes and seascapes are nothing to sneeze it, they are more numerous than his figural paintings, which makes me think that “Chop Suey” will do better than its estimate.

And on to some other art news we go…

Beautiful Bath Tiles

The English city of Bath has welcomed visitors to its thermal springs since ancient times, when the Romans started visiting to take the waters. What visitors may not realize however, is that the current Bath Abbey, built in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, stands atop a far larger, demolished Cathedral that was built by the Normans beginning in the 11th century. Now, workers at the Abbey have uncovered some of the original Plantagenet floor tiles from that earlier building, and they are glorious things indeed.


Blunders in Brussels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), one of the most important and highly influential Flemish artists of the 16th century, certainly deserves a stand-alone museum, and the good people of Brussels were about to give him one. It was to be in a Renaissance house located on the same street where Bruegel lived and worked after his marriage in the parish church nearby. Unfortunately, the Bruegel House museum, which was to open next fall, is now on indefinite hold. This is not due to a lack of funds, but rather due to an overabundance of what the Belgians are particularly good at: inventing convoluted bureaucracies with draconian and utterly stupid rules.

Under current guidelines, government agencies must request approval from the federal government before spending more than $65,000, and in this case the federal government turned down the request. Work on the project has been halted indefinitely, even though the agencies involved have more than enough in reserve to pay for the project. A spokesman for the Minister of Budget, Sophie Wilmès, told the press that funding the museum was “not a desirable solution because it contradicted the budgetary objectives for federal agencies.” One is put in mind of Jim Hacker’s “British sausage” speech.


Da Vinci Doodles

Thanks to the latest bit of gee-whiz technology, you can now get closer to looking over the shoulder of a great Old Master painter than ever before. The Victoria and Albert Museum is digitizing its collection of notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, and has put the first two volumes online for you to virtually thumb through. The remaining two volumes will be released online in 2019 as part of the commemorations surrounding the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. Not too much in the way of high art in this first release, but plenty of engineering sketches and, naturally, the master’s famous right-to-left handwriting.



Meeting Moroni: Italian Renaissance Genius To Get His Due At Last

For Christmas one year, when I was around 10 years old or so, I received a massive book on the National Gallery of Art here in DC. I count it as one of the seminal reference works that got me started on learning about Western art, as it features about 1,000 works from the NGA collection along with accompanying essays and analysis from critics, historians, and technical experts, as well as copious notes and bibliographical materials. Among the artists surveyed was Giovanni Battista Moroni (1525-1578), who at the time was characterized as a mid-level painter with some skill in portraiture. There are three Moroni portraits in the collection of the NGA, and even at a young age, I was always drawn to these images, because I thought them far better works than the commentators appeared to suggest in the text.

With that in mind, I was very pleased to read just recently that the Frick in New York will be mounting a show early next year celebrating Moroni’s portraiture, which will be the first major exhibition of the artist’s work ever held in this country.

One of Moroni’s most famous portraits, which will be in the Frick show, is a late work known as “The Tailor” (c. 1570-1575), from the National Gallery in London. It depicts an unknown man at work cutting a garment on a table, who has paused and is looking out at the viewer. It is a very direct, deceptively simple image, which because of its simplicity can make it easy to overlook some of the wonderful detail in the piece. Notice for example the carefully observed details of the sheen on the metal belt buckles, and the tiny bit of warm reflection off of the gold signet ring which the man is wearing on the pinkie of his right hand, that contrasts with the cool reflection off the curve of the handle of the steel scissors just next to it. [N.B. I must say, Brits, the painting looks like it could do with a good clean.]


The sitters in Moroni’s paintings are often dignified, stylish individuals, but while their attire may seem somewhat outlandish to us today, there is nevertheless something about the way in which Moroni paints them that seems to make them exist out of time, in a way that few of the artist’s contemporaries were able to accomplish. Take a look at his portrait of Prospero Alessandri from 1560 for example, which is in the princely collections of Liechtenstein. Yes, that outfit is rather something, but if you focus on the face and the relaxed pose, rather than the garments – which, admittedly, are beautifully represented by the artist – he would not look out of place if you ran into him at your local microbrew pub:


Similarly, look at the intense, sunburnt, battle-weary face of Gabriel de la Cueva y Girón, later the 4th Duke of Alburquerque, one of the Grandees of Spain. This was a man who had spent a great deal of time in the saddle and on the battlefront with his troops, and as a younger son never expected to end up with what we might call a “desk job”. Yet within three years of Moroni painting this picture the sitter’s brother, the 3rd Duke, had died without heirs, and de la Cueva inherited the Dukedom, as well as being made governor of Milan. The Spanish inscription on the plinth next to him is a couplet which (roughly) translates, “Here I am without fear, and of death I do not dread.” I doubt the Lombards dared to complain to him very often about the Spanish occupation.


Then there is the portrait usually called “The Man in Pink”, but more properly, it is Moroni’s portrait of Giovanni Gerolamo Grumelli, painted about the same time as the preceding two portraits. Here we see an aristocratic Lombard dandy in full plumage, ready to mingle with the other dandies at the Spanish court in Milan. Grumelli was a well-liked and successful lawyer from an important family in Bergamo, who became a government official and professional archivist. He married three times (he was widowed twice), fathered many children, and was a close friend and advisor to St. Charles Borromeo about how to implement the reforms of the Council of Trent. In the past, pink was considered the preferred color for boys in the same way that blue is now, but the added twist here is that the Grumelli family crest bore a piece of pink coral on it, meaning that pink was not just a fashionable color for them, but a heraldic one as well.


Despite the skill demonstrated in these portraits, Moroni was not particularly good at straight-on religious paintings. However, he was adept at creating an updated version of what had been a traditional Christian artistic concept from the Byzantine and Romanesque through the Gothic and mid-Renaissance: the image of a donor, i.e. patron, depicted in prayer alongside saints or in Biblical scenes that had significance to that patron. This was a type of art that gradually died out beginning around Moroni’s time, when we begin to see fewer and fewer images of a patron alongside, say, the Nativity or surrounded by saints, and in some ways Moroni’s work is a kind of last gasp of that art form.

For example, in Moroni’s “A Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna” (c. 1560) here in the National Gallery, which was the first piece of his that really caught my attention as a child, we see a man in stylish 16th-century attire praying before the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. The picture is quiet and still, while the flesh tones are warm and real. Similarly, in Moroni’s “A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ” (c.1555-60), in a private collection, a more somberly dressed young man is shown witnessing Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan from behind some classical ruins:


As an aside, I have to say that for many reasons, The Frick has become my favorite museum in New York, hands down. While not as vast a collection as that at The Met just up the street, both the permanent collection and the special exhibitions at the museum, the former 5th Avenue mansion of financier Henry Clay Frick, have never failed to please, educate, and inspire every time I visit. Its curatorial staff has taste and style, and doesn’t dumb down its shows in the way that The Met and many other major museums have done in recent years, in an effort to try to attract more visitors. On my most recent visit, to review “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, there were certainly plenty of visitors, but not such a crushing throng as to be unable to sit and quietly look at and think about the art on display. And while there seems to be a continuing see-saw of conflict between the museum’s desire to expand and the NIMBYism of its neighbors, hopefully the ability to show not only more of the works in its permanent collection but also to host larger exhibitions, lectures, and other events, will soon come to fruition.

“Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture” will open at The Frick on February 21st of next year and run through June 2nd: I can guarantee you that you will read my review of it somewhere.