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.



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.

Art News Roundup: To See, Or Not To See

Before diving in this morning, just a word on headings. As regular readers and subscribers know, I haven’t been happy with “Thought-Pourri” for some time, in titling this weekly roundup of interesting stories from the art world, even though I used to think it was clever. Puns do tend to wear on you after awhile, and that includes the pun which serves as the title of this blog. [Note to self: Must still get around to changing it.]

In any case, for now we’re going to stick with the more ho-hum “Art News Roundup” until I figure out something else since, while not exactly clever, it’s efficient and descriptive, particularly since on social media, oftentimes all you get to see is a post title and a link. This allows me to write something (hopefully) clever after the colon, while keeping the business end of things before the colon. And speaking of business, let’s get on to that.

There’s an interesting piece in ArtNet yesterday that I wanted to feature here before getting into some things that I recommend you go and see, since it discusses the sort of art which I do not recommend that you go and see, at least for the most part. In it, the author bemoans the decline of attendance at New York museum and gallery shows featuring Contemporary Art, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, and describes what gallery owners are doing to try to reverse that trend. “If you read between the lines,” the writer notes, “it’s also a great example of how New York galleries are pushing vintage approaches to art viewership to fight plummeting foot traffic—a trend that’s threatening not only galleries’ commercial viability, but also their existential purpose as a free place to exhibit art.”

That’s all as may be, but of course, what one could also read between the lines, and which the article fails to explore or even mention, is the possibility that the numbers for these Contemporary Art shows are down because, on the whole, average people don’t actually like the art. After all, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art broke its all-time attendance record last year, and the single most popular show was “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”, which by itself brought in over 700,000 visitors. Just a thought.

Anyway, on to three spots where I highly recommend that you *do* go have a look-see.

New to the National Gallery (UK)

Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649) is a Spanish Golden Age artist whose work is both rare and not very well-known. The son of the more famous painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Juan died relatively young during a plague epidemic in Seville, and it’s only within the last several decades that his own work has begun to emerge from the long shadow of his father. With the help of the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, that museum recently acquired a still life by Juan, “Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket” (c.1643-1649), which had been in a private collection in Madrid for generations. I highly recommend watching this lecture from Letizia Treves, Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings at the National Gallery, discussing the artist, his career, and this work, since not only is it obvious that Ms. Treves know her subject very well indeed, but her presentation is clear, full of interesting slides, and I for one learned a great deal from it, even with my having specialized in this period of art when I was in grad school. And of course, it goes without saying that the painting is worth seeing should you find yourself in London this summer.


Nip in to Newark

As your summer travel plans evolve, remember to keep the Newark Museum in mind, if you happen to find yourself in the New York/New Jersey/Philly area over the next month. Their excellent exhibition “The Rockies and the Alps”, which I reviewed for The Federalist back when it opened, runs through August 19th. Not only does it have plenty of beautiful paintings, alongside sculptures, drawings, and photographs showing what American and European artists were looking at and depicting in the mountain landscapes they visited with increasing frequency in the 19th century, but there are also interactive aspects of the show for the kiddos, and the Newark Museum itself is a revelation: you can easily spend an entire day there with the rugrats and find plenty of things to do. [N.B. I can also recommend the excellent Deluxe Diner, just around the corner, as a lunch spot.]


Young Leonardo at Yale

A bit further up the coast, Yale recently opened its latest exhibition “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio”, which looks to be both extremely interesting and somewhat controversial. The interest comes from the fact that the world will be marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci next year, and there will be a slew of exhibitions around the world acknowledging his importance, of which this is the first. The controversy comes from a desire, at least on the part of some museums and experts, to attribute anything that has even a tangential connection to Leonardo as therefore being by him, particularly in the light of the media spectacle surrounding the sale of the “Salvator Mundi” (which I suppose I contributed to. in my small way.)

For example, Yale believes that the piece shown below, “The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus” (c.1472-1473) from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, is mostly by Leonardo. Perhaps it is. I don’t see anything particularly remarkable about this piece, since to my eye the perspective is clumsy and the figures more Benozzo Gozzoli than Leonardo da Vinci, although the misty mountains in the background are certainly the sort that Leonardo liked to paint. On the other hand, I’m most emphatically not an expert, so you should just go along and see the works on show for yourself, and make up your own mind. “Leonardo” is at the Yale University Art Gallery through October 7th.