Carving Up the Corcoran: An Art Collection, Redistributed

Even if you never visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which closed in 2014, chances are you’ve seen pieces which once belonged to the venerable institution, which was one of the first art museums in the country. With works by a host of artists stretching across centuries, it housed everything from Old Master paintings and Renaissance ceramics to substantial collections of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art. The final distribution of works from the now-shuttered museum has just been announced, and fortunately most of it will be staying here in DC.

The decline and fall of the Corcoran was a long, drawn-out, sad affair. As the museum lost its way in pricey projects which were never going to get off the drawing board, it entered a death spiral of financial difficulty, lawsuits, and bad press which ended up with its collection being given to the National Gallery to pick over. Having selected the pieces it wanted for its own collection, the National Gallery was charged by the courts to work with other institutions, particularly those in the DC area, to find a new home for a whopping 10,000+ items.

Not surprisingly, the National Gallery kept all of the best pieces for itself. It selected over 6,000 works from the Corcoran hoard, among which are this beautiful Cuatrocento Sienese altarpiece by Andrea Vanni (c. 1330-1413), which is quite a jewel:

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Other pieces included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)’s sunny, highly atmospheric “Setting Out to Fish” from 1878:

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And the stunning “Young Woman in Kimono” (c. 1901) by Sargent’s contemporary, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932):

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Of the items being redistributed, 99.4% will be given to other DC institutions, including several universities, museums, government offices, and the Supreme Court, among others. As to this last recipient, the Justices will now be hosting this penetrating portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall painted in 1830 by Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1855), a scion of one of America’s most prominent family of painters. Somewhat unconventionally for a judicial portrait, it shows the Chief Justice staring pensively and perhaps even a bit wistfully off to his left, rather than at the viewer. For comparison, you can see a more conventionally Federal portrait by Sully’s uncle, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), which depicts a copy of an earlier portrait of President James Madison by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828); this Corcoran piece is headed to the National Portrait Gallery.

Sully

The majority of the remaining works – nearly 9,000 works in total – will be headed up Massachusetts Avenue to American University, where they will be housed in the Katzen Arts Center. I must confess that, probably like many Washingtonians, I’ve never actually visited this museum. Once the acquisition of the Corcoran works is completed however, I will likely have to make that difficult, 15-minute cab ride to see the result. Most of what they are getting are Modern and Contemporary works, which interest me very little, but who knows?

If you really want to get into the weeds, a full distribution list is available here, divided by receiving institution. Among the more interesting, smaller transfers, I was pleased to note that two drawings by Armistead Peter III will be returning to Tudor Place in Georgetown, the Neoclassical estate where he and the rest of the Peter clan resided for centuries. Upon his death, the house was converted into a museum, and one well-worth your time should you happen to find yourself in the village.

While it is regrettable that the Corcoran went away, the legacy of the institution will live on in these collections, and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale to other art institutions who lose their focus while trying to be all things to all people.

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Cheers to You, Chicago

Good Morning, gentle reader. I’m still recovering from a slightly surprising bout of jetlag from my trip to Chicago this past weekend, and from last evening’s coverage of the Met Gala – told you so – but let’s stay on the positive this morning. I wanted to share with you just a few observations about the great time I had in the Windy City; the images illustrating today’s post are taken from my Instagram chronicle of my adventures there.

First and foremost, my sincere thanks to the Catholic Art Guild and its President Kathleen Carr, as well as to Father Joshua Caswell and everyone at St. John Cantius, both for the honor of inviting me to speak to them, as well as for welcoming me with such graciousness and warmth to their community. They do great work, and I’m deeply grateful to have contributed in a very small way to what they are trying to accomplish. The audience was clearly interested in and receptive to what I had to stay, and I ended up staying nearly an hour afterwards to chat with and answer questions from some of those who decided to stick around and wait to share some kind words with me, including some of my blog subscribers and social media friends whom I was pleasantly surprised to finally be able to meet in person. The event was recorded, and will be on YouTube at some point; I’ll share the link once it’s up.

St. John Cantius is a magnificent place, of such grandeur and historic importance to the people of Chicago that it really needs to be put on the short list to be named a Minor Basilica. It was built by poor Polish immigrants who had very little, but gave the best of what they had to glorify God, making the rest of us (or at least, me) feel humble and selfish by comparison. I had a private tour with Father Caswell the morning before my talk, and not only enjoyed hearing the stories behind the building’s construction and decoration, but during our tour we were fortunate enough to stumble upon a really spectacular practice session on the church’s magnificent pipe organ, which you can hear in this video I shot while we were looking about the place.

I had intended to make a return visit to the Art Institute while I was in town, to see a few of my old favorites in their collection, but due to time constraints as the result of a busier-than-expected social schedule, I wasn’t able to get there. What more than made up for that was the discovery of a new art museum which I had never heard of before. Loyola University of Chicago is one of the oldest and largest Catholic institutions of higher learning in the country, and much to my surprise they have a small but very interesting art museum. The Loyola University Museum of Art – or LUMA, as it is called – is just across from Chicago’s landmark Water Tower and, as one might expect from a university art space, has a main floor gallery dedicated to changing exhibitions.

However what makes LUMA truly special, in my eyes, is what the visitor finds upstairs. In a series of several rooms on the upper floor one finds dozens of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and pieces of furniture, as well as liturgical and decorative objects. Most of these objects are of the sacred art variety, and particularly focused on the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe and the Americas. As I observed to my host, when later recounting my visit, if this had been an art and antiques gallery, I would have wanted to purchase almost everything on display.

Perhaps the greatest surprise was to discover that a version of one of the most well-known paintings of Sassoferrato – aka, Giovanni Battista Salvi (1609-1685) – was one of the highlights of the LUMA collection. His “Madonna and Child With Cherubs” (c. 1650) is probably well known to you from Christmas cards, spiritual books, prayer cards, and the like. It’s a large, radiant work of great tenderness, that invites quiet contemplation.

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Another superb piece at LUMA is “The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” (c. 1640), attributed to another great Italian Baroque painter, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666). “Guercino”, as he is more commonly known, was a contemporary of Poussin (1594-1655), and you can clearly see in his coloring that both he and the great French Baroque painter were on the same page. I love the intimacy in this detail of the Madonna and Child from the painting, with Jesus asleep from exhaustion, and the very motherly concern on the face of the Virgin Mary, as the Holy Family heads into exile and an uncertain future.

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In a completely different vein is this 15th century Netherlandish painting of “The Way to Calvary” by a follower of the great Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), whose retrospective at The Prado two summers ago was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. It’s not the weirdest Bosch (or in this case, pseudo-Bosch) painting out there, but as you can see in this detail it has both the insightful, cruel caricatures and a few of the creepy-crawlies that one expects to find in the master’s work. This is really terrific stuff.

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There are also many Iberian works in this collection, which is not surprising for a Jesuit school. I was surprised however, to come across a sculpture by Pere Oller (before 1394-1442), one of the most important Catalan medieval sculptors. It comes from the tomb of Ferdinand I, King of Aragon, which was commissioned by his son Alfonso V for the royal pantheon at the Monastery of Poblet, located in the mountains roughly midway between the cities of Barcelona and Tarragona. The tomb itself is no longer extant, having been destroyed by Napoleon’s troops along with many other religious buildings and works of art in Catalonia, but pieces of it are scattered here and there in public and private collections. LUMA’s is one of the surviving figures of mourners from that sculptural ensemble.

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Finally, there is this magnificent carved, painted, and gilded statue of the Immaculate Conception, and as I write this, I’m kicking myself for not writing down who it is by. (Unfortunately the LUMA website doesn’t list all of their holdings, either.) She is from Spain, about life-sized, and in a remarkably good state of preservation given her age. That face is really something.

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In addition to the many paintings and sculptures on display, there are practical-luxury items such as a charming German drinking vessel in the form of a golden owl, or heavily carved Italian furniture with all kinds of interesting animal paw feet. In the same display case one can see a wrought-iron door knocker from the Middle Ages in the form of a fearsome, spiked beastie – you had to be careful when grasping that handle – alongside colorfully glazed Renaissance ceramics. You could easily and happily spend a couple of hours here, admiring all of these beautiful things. And the best part is: no crowds, and admission is free.

To end with today, I wanted to suggest a bit of long-term planning for you. On November 4th, the Catholic Art Guild will be holding their annual conference, which features talks by a number of great speakers, including the Scottish artist Alexander Stoddart, currently the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary. The event will take place at the Drake Hotel, which has always been a required stop-in for me when I’m in town, as you can see in these two pictures taken several decades apart. God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’m planning to be there, and I hope you’ll consider joining me for a return visit to one of America’s – and the world’s – best cities.

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Thought-Pourri: Location, Location Edition

A week from today I’ll be flying out to Chicago, ahead of speaking at the Catholic Art Guild on Saturday, May 5th. I’m currently culling through my research to try to make sure I keep this presentation both on point and under the 1-hour mark, so that I don’t overwhelm the audience with too much information (or too many images.) Details are available here, and hope to see many of my readers from the Chicagoland area, there!

Now, on to some art news.

New To The National Gallery (UK)

Two beautiful new works have now joined the permanent collection of the National Gallery in London. The older of the two is the over-titled “Still Life with Lemons, Lilies, Carnations, Roses and a Lemon Blossom in a Wicker Basket, together with a Goldfinch perched on a Porcelain Bowl of Water, on top of a Silver Tray, all arranged upon a Stone Ledge” (c. 1643-1649) by Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649). This Zurbarán is the son of the more famous Francisco de Zurbarán, (1598-1664) whose “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” I recently reviewed for the Federalist, and his is a classic example of the “bodegón”, a type of stark but highly realistic still life painting that is typical of Spanish Baroque art. The second new acquisition is the more simply titled “Wineglasses” (c. 1875) by the great John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), which depicts a gazebo in a summery garden setting, probably in France, with dappled sunlight splashing over the surfaces. Makes you want to step right into the picture and have a drink, doesn’t it?

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Quite a Haul In Quincy

A different sort of acquisition scheme is described in this fascinating article from the Boston Globe about James Pantages, an employee and resident of the city of Quincy, Massachusetts, who spent the last 30 years buying art at modest prices, and then cramming his acquisitions into every possible space in his home. Among the paintings in his collection of over 1,200 works of art are pieces by George Inness (1825-1894), one of this country’s most important landscape painters; the polymath Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), whose murals decorate the U.S. Post Office Headquarters and the Longworth Building of the U.S. House of Representatives here in D.C.; and the great American Impressionist painter Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937). While not everything Mr. Pantages bought is significant, at this point the auctioneers who have been called in to assess and value the collection have only analyzed about 10% of the collection, so more treasures may await discovery. There is a touch of sadness to this article, I find, and I hope that Mr. Pantages will be able to find some comfort and peace in letting go of these items.

Fixed Up In Florence

Mannerism, the somewhat exaggerated art style that succeeded the High Renaissance in Italy, has been getting a lot more attention recently from academics and the art media, and two of the best representatives of it are Jacopo de Pontormo (1494-1557) and his pupil, Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572). A showcase for significant work by the pair recently re-opened to the public after a lengthy preservation and restoration project founded by American philathropists. The Capponi Chapel in the church of Santa Felicita in Florence houses the newly-restored “The Deposition from the Cross” (1528), which is generally considered to be Pontormo’s masterpiece; it is a twisting, turning composition of elongated, ethereal figures dressed in bright colors that look like they came from a Pucci scarf. Accompanying it in the chapel are frescoes of the Four Evangelists by Pontormo and Bronzino, now returned to their former glory. This is all thanks to major support from the Friends of Florence, a U.S.-based philanthropic foundation that is “dedicated to preserving and enhancing the cultural and historical integrity of the arts in the city and surrounding area of Florence, Italy.” Well done, and thank you.

Pontormo