My latest piece for The Federalist is up today, on the problems faced by large museums which continue to add to collections they can neither afford nor properly display. My deepest thanks to everyone at The Federalist for continuing to allow me to share my thoughts with their readers.
My sincere thanks to Jay Caruso and Neal Dewing of The Fifth Estate for inviting me onto their show last evening. We had a wide-ranging, amusing, cantankerously satisfying discussion about art, which you can stream or download later today. Be sure to check out their episodes with past guests, including Mike Rowe, Dana Perino and Ed Morrissey – wait, how did I merit getting on this show? – and take the time to leave them a review on iTunes, if you like what you hear. Podcasters really do benefit from your iTunes feedback, and it only takes you a few seconds.
One of the topics I touched on in passing during the show was the rediscovery of a lost painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane by Charles LeBrun (1619-1690), which had been sitting in storage at the Louvre since 2008. LeBrun was the favorite painter of France’s “Sun King”, Louis XIV, and one of the most important artists in French history. This particular work was so popular at the time it was painted, that contemporary copies of it were commissioned by several prominent European collectors. The original was stolen after the French Revolution, and ended up in a Trappist monastery for two centuries. It is currently being restored, and will go on display to the public later this year.
Regular readers may recall that another painting by LeBrun, “The Sacrifice of Polyxena”, was discovered in the Hotel Ritz in Paris a few years ago. It was later purchased at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which at the time only owned a single group portrait by LeBrun. Despite the dearth of LeBrun paintings at the Met, the painting is not currently on display there. Whether this is because the piece is undergoing restoration or, quelle surprise, the museum has nowhere to display it, who knows.
The practice of large museums like the Met sitting on enormous quantities of art that never gets put on display is something that has bothered me for some time, and in the near future you may be reading some of my lengthier scribblings about that issue. In the meantime, over on Apollo journalist and artist Crystal Bennes has been writing a very interesting series titled “What’s In Store”, in which she highlights some of what is currently held in storage at major museums around the world. She has already visited both the Hermitage and the National Gallery of Scotland, and this month she writes about the Ateneum, the National Gallery of Finland.
A particularly stunning find is the “Bust Portrait of A Black Man” by the Swedish artist Nils Jakob Olsson Blommér (1816-1853), who is known primarily for his somewhat kitschy scenes taken from Norse mythology. This painting languished in storage at the Ateneum for a century and a half until recently, when it was finally put on public display. I think you will agree that it is a haunting, beautifully executed work, in the best tradition of Old Master portraiture.
Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Summer Exhibitions
Much as I’d like to, I can’t possibly visit and review all of the art shows I’d like to see this summer. So for my readers who find themselves in the following cities, here are a few exhibitions that you may want to put on your calendar. If you happen to visit one of these shows, be sure to leave your feedback in the Comments section on this post, letting us know what you thought of the exhibition.
El Siglo de Oro. The Age of Velázquez
July 1 – October 30
The “Siglo de Oro”, i.e. the “Golden Age” of Spanish culture, occurred between about 1550-1650. It was a century-long flowering of the arts and literature that included most of the greatest Spanish Old Master painters, such as El Greco, Murillo, Zurbarán, and of course, Velázquez, among others. This was my specialty subject when I was studying at Sotheby’s, and an area of art history that is always close to my heart. While overall the best place to see Siglo de Oro art is in Madrid, with the cooperation of the Spanish Crown and a number of international institutions, Berlin has managed to put together what appears to be a fairly comprehensive overview of this period, with 130 examples of painting, sculpture, and drawing.
Museum of Fine Arts
Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence
August 9 – December 4
Opening a bit later this summer, the MFA’s look at the work of the Della Robbia family and their colorful Renaissance ceramics promises to be especially popular. The Della Robbias combined elegant human figures, and delectable renderings of fruits and vegetables, in what became the signature style of their workshop – a style which ceramics manufacturers still copy today. For me the standout here is the loan of Luca Della Robbia’s magnificent “Visitation” of 1445 from San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, a church in the Tuscan town of Pistoia, a work which has never traveled to the United States before. Created nearly 600 years ago, it is just as fresh, poignant, and beautifully observed now, as it was then.
The Art Institute
America after the fall: Painting in the 1930’s
June 3 – September 18
The Great Depression not only brought about an end to the high life of the Roaring ‘20’s, it also ushered in a new era in American painting wherein artists took a more serious, sometimes dour (or even sinister) tone. The Art Institute’s examination of this period features masterpieces that are well-known images – Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” and Edward Hopper’s “Gas” for example – as well as important works displaying the wide variety of styles explored by American artists during that era, from the surrealistic dream images of Georgia O’Keeffe, to the seedy social realism of Paul Cadmus. If you are interested in learning more about the development of Modern Art in America between the Wars, this appears to be an excellent opportunity for you to do so.
While you are there, be sure to check out the Art Institute’s newly-acquired “Christ Carrying the Cross” by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). While del Piombo is a bit of a derivative hybrid of Michelangelo and Raphael at times, his figures often have a wonderfully sculptural quality, and he employs shadows and angles that almost anticipate the development of Tenebrism. This picture is the first del Piombo in the Art Institute’s collection, and although he painted several variations and copies of this composition – there is one in The Prado for example, whose shading is a bit more subtle, although perhaps a bit overcleaned – it is well worth seeing if you are unfamiliar with his work.
The Phillips Collection
William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master
June 4 – September 11
Portraits painted by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) usually lack the beauty and style of a good John Singer Sargent, as the subjects often come off as a bit defiant and slightly unrefined. Yet in their directness, they are images of an increasingly confident America at the turn of the previous century. Chase not only painted powerful portraits and casually elegant still lifes, he also played a huge part in making oil pastels popular in this country – a medium which, if you have ever worked in it, is simultaneously wonderfully tactile and frustratingly delicate. This survey of Chase’s output features a number of his portraits, still lifes, interiors, and pastels, as well as his typically Impressionist works of languid ladies lunching in landscapes.