Art News Roundup: Invisible Hand Edition

Scottish Enlightenment economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790), who played a profound role in the development of free market economics, and indeed in the foundation of this country, is perhaps best known today for his seminal work, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776. On December 12th, Christie’s will be auctioning off Smith’s own, first edition copy of “The Wealth of Nations” in London, with an estimated sale price of between $650,000 to over $1 million. Given the provenance of the book, and the love of both conservatives and libertarians for Smith’s work, I predict that the final hammer price will be at the high end of this range, if not even a bit higher. All you really need for this to happen is for two modern capitalists with deep pockets to get into a bidding war with one another, and the sky’s the limit.

Granted, neither Smith himself nor the book in question have much of anything to do with art in a direct way. Yet Smith’s principle of the “Invisible Hand”, by which positive, public outcomes can result from the self-interested, private actions of individuals, are a major philosophical underpinning of museums as we know them in the Western world. A collector who accumulates great works of art, historic artifacts, or important specimens for his own private delectation, and whose collection subsequently becomes broadly available to others for enjoyment and education is, in a sense, an exemplar of that “invisible hand” creating a public good from what was originally a private motivation. Many paintings, sculptures, and drawings have been preserved for future generations because individuals in the past acquired them for themselves, and kept them safe from the ravages of time, war, natural disasters, the vicissitudes of fashion, and so on.

And now, on to some other news which you may find hand-y.

Michelangelo: The Hands of a Master

The so-called “Rothschild Bronzes”, once owned by the famous Rothschild banking dynasty, are a superb pair of early 16th century sculptures of warriors mounted on giant panther-like beasts, which of course anticipate “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” by nearly 500 years. After considerable scholarly debate, as well as technical analysis using various methods of dating, measurement, and comparison to contemporary drawings, a group of art history experts at Cambridge recently announced their conclusion that the pair are by Michelangelo (1475-1564), making them the only known bronze figures of the Italian Renaissance genius to have survived to the present day. A book chronicling the 4-year research project involving these figures has just been published, and will be receiving a great deal of scrutiny from other art experts. Is this a rush to claim authorship? Or is there a legitimate body of evidence to err on the side of this attribution, which would fill a major hole in the record with respect to Michelangelo’s work in metal? Stay tuned.

Michaelangelo Bronzes

Rembrandt: The Fingers of a Master

A number of my readers – clever folk that you are – wrote to me over the past week regarding the interesting news that an oil study by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) may bear the Dutch Old Master’s fingerprints. The work, which is roughly the size of an 8×10 photograph, depicts a model with his hands clasped in prayer, looking upwards. The young man in the picture, who was probably a Jewish neighbor of the artist, posed as Christ for Rembrandt on several other occasions that I’m aware of, such as in the Louvre’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1648); a number of other, related oil studies are known, including this slightly larger sketch in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While at present there’s no way to know for certain whether the fingerprints are indeed those of Rembrandt, in time they may be able to establish a baseline for comparison to other works believed to be by the artist, should unexplained fingerprints be found on those paintings. This particular work is going up for sale at Sotheby’s in London next week, with a pre-sale estimate of about $7.6-$10.2 million.


Valadier: The Marketing of a Master

You’ve probably never heard of the Italian silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726-1785), a master of 18th century sculpture, decorative art, and jewelry, who was based in Rome but had an international clientele thanks to his excellent craftsmanship and the not-so-subtle marketing of his luxury goods by one potentate to the other: “If the King of Poland has one of Valadier’s goblets, I want one, too,” is how this sort of thing always works. Should you find yourself in New York over the holidays however, drop by The Frick Collection to see their current show on the work of this remarkable artist and artisan, who created jaw-dropping luxury goods for decades while managing to keep up with the changing tastes of the aristocracy, from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. His opulent objects were so popular for palace decoration, diplomatic gifts, and tokens of friendship, that the studio couldn’t keep up with the orders pouring in from all over Europe. For example, shown below in an overhead shot is the 9-foot long plateau (base) of a massive 1778 dining table centerpiece by Valadier from a collection in Madrid, made out of precious stones, bronze, silver, and gold. If you want to see the whole thing, you’ll need to get to The Frick by January 20th.




Thought-Pourri: Cut The Crap Edition

You may recall the contretemps that took place back in 1999 when a work by overrated British Contemporary artist Chris Ofili entitled “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996) went on show at the Brooklyn Museum, as part of the “Sensation” exhibition organized by the loathsome advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is perhaps best known on this side of the pond for an incident in 2013 involving his now ex-wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, while they were dining at Scott’s, my favorite London restaurant. The only reason you may have heard of Ofili, of course, is because of this particular piece, which “features a black Virgin Mary with exaggerated features, surrounded by butterfly-like images of women’s butts cut from porn magazines. Shimmering yellow, gold, and blue, the piece rests on two spheres of elephant dung; another adorns her breast.”

Unfortunately said work, which I will not illustrate here, is now coming back to New York – permanently. It was purchased by the (equally loathsome) hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen in 2015 for $4.6 million, and Cohen is now donating it to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As someone commented to me recently, when they visit MoMA they have to avoid certain sections of the museum, and I would imagine that this piece will presumably be located in one of *those* galleries. It is a pity that our cultural institutions continue to proudly display work that can at best be described as poorly-executed manifestations of the workings of diseased minds, as supported by people of horrifically bad taste.

On that note then, on to some more interesting stories.

Saving Salus Populi

Now here’s an image of Our Lady which I’ll happily share with you. After months of careful cleaning and restoration, the medieval Byzantine icon of the Madonna known as the Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of the Roman People”) was recently put back on display at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Years of dirt, soot, and grime were removed, along with badly-executed previous overpainting, to reveal the original splendor of the image of Mary holding the Child Jesus. The painting is a particular favorite of the current Pontiff: he went to pray before it on the morning after his election, and comes to visit before and after every time he travels outside the country, leaving a bouquet of white roses when he does so. In a papacy filled with many regrettable moments to date, this is at least one thing for which I can roundly applaud this pope.


So Long, Chagall

In a bit of a Scylla and Charybdis situation, the National Gallery of Canada has decided to sell one of the paintings in its permanent collection in order to purchase another painting; what’s highly unusual about this story is that the Canadians are selling a Modern painting in order to purchase an Old Master. The painting that the museum wants is by the Neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the most important French painter of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment” (1779) is an extremely rare religious work by David, who was an anti-Catholic freemason, and dates prior to the French Revolution. The work that the National Gallery intends to sell is “The Eiffel Tower” (1929) by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Personally, I’d rather have the Chagall, but I can understand the reasoning here. As you would imagine, this is what is known in the trade as a “developing story”, so stay tuned.


Seeing Delacroix

Speaking of French art, The Louvre has just opened a major exhibition on the life and work of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1862), whose work as head of the Romantic school of French painting is essentially the antithesis of David’s. Personally, I’ve always found him something of a mixed bag, as I find the majority of his most famous works rather muddy and melodramatic. His portraiture, however, is often very interesting, such as in the 1837 self-portrait of the artist shown below.

If you can’t get to Paris between now and July 23rd, not to worry. The show will travel to The Met in New York from September 17th through January 6th, albeit at the slightly reduced size of 145 paintings instead of the 180 on show at The Louvre, since a number of the pieces in France cannot travel. This will be the first major American exhibition ever held on the work of Delacroix, which may cause some of us, myself included, to reconsider our currently-held views on this enormously important and influential 19th century artist. We shall see.




Chair Chic: Comfortable French Design in the Age of Charles X

On this date in 1825 Charles X (1757-1836) was formally consecrated and crowned King of France, during the traditional high mass held for this purpose at the Cathedral of Rheims. While his reign may not be one whose achievements jump to the minds of most non-Frenchmen, as a patron of the decorative arts Charles had interesting taste which continues to appear in furniture design to this day. In particular, the anniversary of his coronation allows us an opportunity to reflect on chair designs that represent his reign – and how his influence overcame some of the rather tacky elements of Napoleonic design which preceded it.

By the time Charles X ascended to the throne of France, following the death of his brother Louis XVIII in 1824, he already had a long-standing reputation as a lover of fine furniture and design. While criticized by many on the left for his championing of pre-Revolutionary political ideals, his appreciation of contemporary design based on older models of comfort put him in the vanguard of patronage. For someone viewed in the popular press as a reactionary, i.e. too rigid, too pro-Church, and too autocratic, it is interesting that a simple, relaxed elegance supplanted the harsh, arriviste monumentality which had characterized furniture design in the decades that preceded him.

As the youngest brother of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s favorite brother-in-law, when he was a young man Charles X witnessed the transition from the over-the-top elements of his grandfather Louis XV’s Rococo style, to a more subdued sense of luxury, softened by the example of the Petit Trianon and informed by the discoveries at Pompeii. This earliest stage of what came to be called Neoclassicism embraced more simple lines, light colored woods with floral inlay, and a less formal feel than the grandiose pomposity of the preceding decades. This graceful style was, regrettably, supplanted by an increasingly stiff and blockier design, first under the French Republic and later under Napoleon.

Napoleon’s clunky style of Neoclassicism, using materials such as dark woods in geometric forms and military motifs such as bronze mounts of eagles and war trophies, came to be inextricably associated with his reign, and therefore known as the “Empire” style. It incorporated Greek, Roman, and even Egyptian elements, sometimes in a cartoonish sort of way. The style continued beyond his rule, as design styles usually do, but it gradually began to decline in popularity in France under the Bourbon Restoration of Louis XVIII. By the time Charles X came to the throne, his more refined taste and a kind of ante-Proustian “recherche du temps perdu” prevailed.

When this earlier Empire style was finally abandoned by the moneyed classes, it was in favor of a combination of lighter, contrasting woods, and more curved, comfortable forms, often using marquetry and inlay. Though somewhat different in feel from the court of Louis XVI, many of the forms popularized by Charles X hearkened back to his older brother’s era. It is reasonable to suppose that he and the surviving members of the nobility and bourgeoisie from the days before the Revolution saw that earlier age as a happier, more relaxed time, perhaps tinged subsequently with a sense of mourning for what had been lost.

The type of chair most commonly associated with Charles X is the upholstered, curved-arm chair shown here. There are variations with a higher back, sometimes with a curved back and top rail, sometimes with a straight top and straight back. Sometimes the entire arm is upholstered with only some of the wood showing, and sometimes there is no arm at all. In other variants there is more of a complete barrel/tub shape, which in itself reflects back to the low-backed bergere styles that were popular during the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

These styles have remained influential down the centuries, and indeed The Courtier has two modern variants on the Charles X tub chair in the living room at the manse. The emphasis on a graceful, yet simple curve in these chairs, not only pleases the eye but also comforts sitters of all shapes and sizes, in a way which the stiff, bolt-upright chairs of the Napoleonic period do not. One can see echoes of this style a century after the reign of Charles X in Art Deco club chairs and dining room chairs, and their modern variants, which continue to be produced today.

In trying to undo the socio-political upheavals of the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic period, Charles X may not have been particularly successful. Yet in promoting the more gracious elements of his youth in daily living, he re-introduced into the vernacular of French design an appreciation for elegance on a human scale, one which avoided both the frippery of his grandfather’s reign and the clumsy bad taste of those who had tried to destroy his family. That effort, arguably, proved to be the most lasting accomplishment of his own reign.

A contemporary version of a Charles X-style tub chair