Italian Treasure, American Albatross: The Perils Of Purchasing A Pontormo

For some time now, I’ve been following an international tug of war over a striking 16th century portrait by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (1494-1557). The painting was purchased by a prominent American art collector from a British aristocrat two years ago. Unfortunately, what has happened since then exposes why American collectors – even those collecting objects that are far less valuable – need to be wary of doing business in other countries.

Pontormo lived in Florence for most of his life, where he studied with Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, among others. He’s known for his unusual religious paintings and portraiture, where his figures often have both elongated proportions, and a somewhat pensive mood that reflects his own melancholy nature. His more famous pupil Bronzino (1503-1572) took up many elements of his master’s style, and eventually became *the* society portraitist of the day. But whereas Pontormo’s portraits always seem a bit sad and introspective, Bronzino’s were all about slick self-confidence. Toward the end of his life, Pontormo produced fewer and fewer paintings, and turned in on himself to such an extent that even Bronzino couldn’t get in to see him.

Portraits by Pontormo rarely come on the market, as there are only about a dozen plus in existence, and most of these are in Italian museums. This particular image of Florentine nobleman Carlo Neroni disappeared sometime in the 18th century, but was rediscovered by an art expert back in 2008. It had been purchased by the 3rd Earl of Caledon in 1825 and passed down through his family, who had no idea what they had. The painting was loaned to the National Gallery in London, until the 7th Earl decided to sell his newly-discovered treasure. In 2015, it was purchased by American hedge fund executive J. Tomlinson Hill of Blackstone Group, for somewhat over £30 million.

Yet despite the fact that Mr. Hill is now the rightful owner of this Pontormo, matters have conspired to prevent him from doing what he wants with his property.

To begin with, Mr. Hill cannot take his painting back to the U.S., without first obtaining an art export license from the British government. This is an issue faced by American collectors around the world, not just in Britain, and not just among those with Mr. Hill’s means at their disposal. Age and value are both considerations, but in the UK, art created as recently as 1967 may require an export license, if you want to bring it back to the States.

Even if you apply for an art export license however, while you are waiting to hear if it will be approved by the British government, a British museum has the right to attempt to purchase the object from you for the price you paid for it. You don’t have to sell, but then there’s no telling what might happen to your request for an export license, either. It puts the art collector into something between a rock and a hard place.

The fact that you might be able to get your money back seems like a good option. Unfortunately for Mr. Hill, the value of the pound has declined significantly since he bought the painting in 2015 and began his long wait for a decision regarding his export license. As a result, he could lose millions of dollars if he‘s forced to sell the painting to a British art museum today.

To me, there’s something rather illogical about this situation, and it should give Americans pause before purchasing art or antiques abroad.

What, exactly, have the Brits prevented from leaving their country that’s so vitally important to their national heritage? To begin with, they didn’t even know this painting existed until recently. It isn’t as if Mr. Hill purchased a statue which stood on the façade of one of the countless cathedrals that the British stole from the Catholic church, or that he managed to pick up the bed that Princess (Alexandrina) Victoria was sleeping in at Kensington Palace when she learned that William IV had died and she was now Queen.

In fact, this painting has absolutely nothing to do with Britain whatsoever, other than the historical accident of its being located there. Pontormo was not a British artist. The subject of this painting was not a British person. The art was not even created for a British collector.

At some point in the past, someone stole or purchased this painting in Italy, and it somehow ended up being resold to a collector in the UK. It lay completely forgotten and unnoticed in the private home of a British noble family for nearly two centuries, until it was temporarily loaned to a public museum a few years ago. That, in sum, is the full extent of this painting’s tenuous connection to the British people, whose tax dollars were supposed to go toward purchasing it for a public museum.

Now granted, giving a country the chance to hold on to its cultural heritage is better than the alternative, for there are many objects in our museums – including British ones – which were stolen from other countries in order to enrich individual and national collections. However a reasonable person would conclude that there’s a difference between denying an export license for, say, a George Stubbs painting of a British racehorse, or a Hans Holbein portrait of one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, and denying an export license for a work of art which has no real connection to Britain at all. I find it difficult to fathom the argument that somehow a British museum or collector has a greater moral right to purchase this painting than does an American.

The latest news on this debacle is that Mr. Hill’s application for an export license has just been denied, and he’s also turned down the UK National Gallery’s offer to purchase the painting. He could of course try for another export license in about ten years, but that possibility seem unlikely to succeed. And I doubt very much that he would want to go through this hassle all over again a decade from now, particularly since this very rare work of art isn’t going to be getting any less valuable in the interim.

Instead of obtaining a jewel for his art collection, and one which, given his years of philanthropic support of American museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, would likely have gone to an American institution at some point in the future, Mr. Hill has now found himself with something of an albatross – albeit a very beautiful one. 

Dali, The Dominican, and Forgotten Faith

​After the March for Life last Friday, I rushed over to the National Gallery of Art to meet up with a friend, who wanted a quick tour of some of the highlights of the NGA’s collection. When you’ve only got about 45 minutes to “do” a vast museum before the place closes, you’ve got to be somewhat strategic with your choices. Fortunately, when I asked the gentleman in question whether there was a particular area of art that he was interested in, he immediately said “Italian Renaissance”, and away we went.

At the end of our very speedy tour however, which not only encompassed the Italians but also some Spanish, French, and Dutch Baroque, I made a point of finishing up at “The Sacrament of The Last Supper” (1955) by Salvador Dalí, which at the time it was acquired was the most popular painting in the entire National Gallery. It’s a piece I’ve been familiar with all my life, since a reproduction of it hung in our playroom at home. Despite its initial fame, today Dalí’s large, mystical work hangs in a basement hallway, located on the way to the museum gift shop, where hundreds of people hurry past it every day without even looking at it.

Dalí’s return to the Catholic faith in middle age generated some of his most interesting works, including not only the NGA’s “Sacrament” but the magnificent “Madonna of Port Lligat” (1949), now at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and what is arguably his most popular painting, the massive “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951) in the Kelingrove Gallery in Glasgow. As is the case with all of the artist’s work, the National Gallery’s picture normally requires a bit of explanation, since it isn’t actually a representation of the Last Supper in the way that we understand that term. For reasons of space, I’m not going to attempt that here.

Instead, I’d like to point the reader to the work of an artist you’re probably unfamiliar with, but in whose work I think you’ll see some earlier echoes of what Dalí was trying to do, centuries later. A fellow Spaniard who lived centuries before Dalí, he too came to a deeper religious faith in the middle of his life. In his case, it led him straight into the Order of Preachers, i.e., the Dominicans.

Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649) was a painter from the Spanish province of Castile, who trained in Italy for a number of years before returning to work in Spain. When I was in Madrid a few weeks ago, I had the chance to take in one of his greatest works, “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which was painted between 1612-1614 for the Dominican priory church of St. Peter Martyr in Toledo. Interestingly, during the course of executing this altarpiece, Maíno decided to join the Dominicans himself. As a result, he is more commonly referred to as “Fray Maíno”, in reference to his becoming a Dominican friar, much as the Italian Renaissance artist “Fra Angelico” is also commonly known by his Dominican friar name.

For a work that was painted over 400 years ago, there is something strikingly modern about Maíno’s altarpiece. Notice the almost photographic renderings of the gourd and puppy in the foreground, for example, or how the figures look like ordinary people, rather than idealized statues come to life. I particularly love the unusual detail of St. Joseph, on the right-hand side of the picture, who is holding and kissing the Baby Jesus’ arm, while the Child and His Mother smile at each other. There is a wonderful immediacy in the way that Maíno brings us into this scene, as a participant in something that is almost more real than real.

While Dalí’s “Sacrament” is a very different picture, more monumental and symmetrical, there are definite parallels with Fra Maíno’s style. The bread and wine on the table for example, and indeed the folds of the tablecloth itself are, like the details in Maíno’s altarpiece, beyond real. You could almost reach out and pick up one of the pieces of the broken loaf of bread in the foreground. And in fact, that’s exactly what you’re being invited to do: there’s a space right in front, across from Christ, for the viewer to come to the table.

Similarly, while the monks bent in prayer around the table are physical types, who mirror each other on either side of Christ, as in Maíno’s work there is no question that they are taken from studies of real individuals. We cannot see their faces, but we do see their hair, and what incredible attention to detail in the growth and coloring of different types of human hair we can see among these ordinary men. It is fascinating to think that, in the 17th century, Maíno was looking at the human figure in a way that later, through the advent of photography and the exploration of Surrealism, Dalí was able to resume with the same purpose: to express his Christian faith.

Perhaps the reason why the National Gallery has banished this painting to a basement is because we live in a time when elites are embarrassed both by faith and by those who have it. Ancient paintings and sculptures looted from churches and monasteries are considered acceptable acquisitions for museums because they represent the past, rather than the present or the future. Those who openly despise or who are indifferent to Christianity do not want to see Modern or Contemporary paintings or sculptures that celebrate Christian belief: rather, they want to see art that skewers it. The fact that such an overtly Catholic work of art even made it into a major museum is a testament to the enormous popularity of the artist, rather than an appreciation of this particular subject matter.

I can certainly understand why this piece is not to everyone’s taste. Yet for those willing to take the time to look at and try to understand what is going on in this painting, I believe there are many worthwhile things to discover here, both in terms of a deeper understanding of Christianity, as well as a greater appreciation of the history of art. Among these is a realization that, for all of its apparent strangeness, Dalí’s work does not exist in a vacuum.

Painting “The Walk Of Shame”: The Intimate Art Of An American Master

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite artists, the American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Regular readers will recall that my very first piece for The Federalist was a review of an exhibition at the MFA in Boston displaying a selection of works from the artist’s archive, which was recently donated to the museum by his family. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on his most famous output, the portraits he painted of family, friends, and the powerful people of his day.

However there is another side to Sargent, which is often overlooked in surveys of his art, and that is his more intimate, informal work, such as that which accompanies this post.

“A Street in Venice” (1882), now in the National Gallery here in Washington, is one of my favorite paintings; it is so different from the glitzy, glamorous portraits that we usually associate with Sargent, as to appear to be the work of another artist. It depicts a young woman wearing a black, fringed shawl over a long white skirt and a red blouse, walking down a side street in Venice. Two men in hats and overcoats standing in a doorway are having a smoke and watching her as she passes by. In the background, a man and woman are sitting in chairs and chatting outside of another doorway, and although most experts think they are at a cafe, I always think that they are peeling vegetables as they talk.

There is nothing about the picture which immediately tells us that this scene is taking place in Venice. There are no canals, no gondolas, no extravagant churches or palazzi. It could just as easily be somewhere in Spain or France. It is probably winter, given the gray, overcast skies and the men’s heavy coats, although the young woman certainly isn’t dressed for the weather. She is either avoiding the gaze of the two men, or so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she doesn’t even notice them.

Given her attire, her downcast eyes, and introspective expression, I like to think that what we are looking at is what we might call a “walk of shame” picture, when you’ve stayed out all night and finally make your way home at dawn. If you remember the scene in “Moonstruck” where Cher walks home in the early hours of the morning, still wearing her party dress and overcoat after a night at the opera, and leisurely kicking a can down the street with her extravagant, beaded red heels, you get the idea. I suspect that this painting is set in the morning, since there are not a lot of people about yet, and the shop on the left side of the picture is closed.

Among the many wonderful things about this picture is the fact that there is hardly any color in it, and yet it is still a lively composition. There are a few slashes of red, in the young woman’s blouse and the flowers or comb that she is wearing in her hair, and in the center of the picture there is the pink skirt of the woman sitting in the background, but there is very little else in the way of bright color. Here and there we see some ochre, teal, olive, and brown, but the majority of the picture is composed of shades of black, white, and gray.

Textures are also beautifully rendered in this painting. Notice also how Sargent is able to suggest the bouncing of the fringe on the shawl as the woman walks, and the swishing of the white skirt around her feet, with a bare minimum of brush strokes. The heavy wooden door on the left is wonderfully observed, with the lower portion already gray from being splashed with rainwater countless times, while the upper portion is still its original color, thanks to its being higher up and slightly protected from the overhang of the building.

John Singer Sargent’s portraits are, understandably, his most famous work. Yet much like Velázquez, whom he admired and emulated throughout his career, Sargent was much more than someone who painted simply to flatter those who could afford his paintings. In quieter, more loosely-painted works such as this, he showed that he was not all flash and glam. Rather, he was someone who could create grand works of art, but could just as easily create an engaging, more personal picture, with a real sense of immediacy about it.