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.

Christ

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.

overhead

 

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Thought-Pourri: Take A Seat Edition

As the weather improves and things become more busy both professionally and socially, it becomes increasingly more difficult for me – and, I daresay, for you – to find some time to sit back, relax, and enjoy an interesting meander through things that we do purely for pleasure, rather than because we have to do them. So with that in mind, take a few minutes when you can, and have a flick through some of the art news stories below. They won’t clear up your calendar for you, but at least they will (hopefully) provide you with something of a break.

Easy, Chair

One of my favorite periods in decorative art is the style known as “William and Mary”, corresponding roughly to the reign of William III and Mary II of England. It was popular in Britain, Holland, and their respective colonies in the first quarter of the 18th century, and you see a lot of it in places like Boston or Colonial Williamsburg. Characteristically very architectural, furniture in this style often features carved elements such heavily crested rails, or playful barley twists, reproducing on a domestic scale the heraldic pediments and twisted columns that were popular during the Baroque era of architecture. Although it enjoyed a brief revival in this country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – along with, it should be said, virtually every other historical design style – it’s never been quite as popular as some of the other styles that came before and after it, due to the perception that it is rather too dark and uber-masculine.

Now, following years of painstaking research, the Philadelphia Museum of Art may be about to change how we think about this period of American decorative art. Known as the “Emerson Easy Chair” because it had been owned by ancestors of the American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, the newly-restored William and Mary armchair shown below should dispel any notion that everything about this period of design was oppressively heavy. This fascinating article in Antiques by the restorers who worked on the piece describes how they went about bringing this piece of furniture back to its formerly sumptuous appearance, complete with vibrant crimson upholstery and intricate gold trimmings. The end result is a piece of historical design that really makes you sit up and take notice.

Chair

New Director, Same Old Met

After a long search, a new Director will be taking his seat at the (to my mind) troubled Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose travails I’ve written about before, both here and for The Federalist. The new head of America’s largest art museum is Max Hollein, an Austrian who is currently the director of San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums; he previously served stints at museums in Frankfurt and at the Guggenheim in New York. So far reaction in the art press has been largely positive, mostly because Hollein brings a reputation for embracing Contemporary Art and raising lots of money, both of which are important to the leadership of The Met, if not to those of us who wonder whether The Met hasn’t become something of a lost soul in recent years. As Marion Maneker commented yesterday in Art Market Monitor, “[t]hat this directorship was also the focus of hopes and demands about diversity and representation within museums is only confirmation that the role of the museum in 21st Century society has changed dramatically.” None of this sounds like much of an improvement, frankly.

Met

Supposedly Shifting Sands

Since his assent to the position of man behind the throne in Saudi Arabia this past June, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been gaining a reputation for being something of a reformer and maverick, at least comparatively speaking. Women can now drive in his country, for example, and he had a hand in the extraordinary sale of Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”. Now news comes that the Saudis have reached out to the French to help them establish cultural institutions which the country currently lacks, including a symphony orchestra and an opera; the French are also being called on to do archaeological work at the major Nabatean site of Hegra, a location which I’ve told you about previously, in the hope of drawing foreign tourists to visit the remote site.

Of course if you’re a Catholic – and there are more than 1.5 million of them in Saudi Arabia – you can’t openly practice your faith. There are no churches in the country, and if you want to attend some type of service you must do so in a private home, but since the Saudi government does not allow non-Muslim clergy to enter the country in order to perform religious services, you can imagine how that goes. Moreover, if you convert to Catholicism from Islam, or if as a Catholic you try to evangelize others, you can be executed. So forgive me if I’m not particularly impressed by His Royal Highness’ so-called “reforms”.

 

The Disappearing Emperor: A Remarkable Art Discovery In Suburbia

If you’re fairly well-to-do, you may have a decent-sized art collection. If you’re *very* well-to-do however, not only do you have a rather significant art collection, but you tend to give parts of it away – and forget to document that you’ve done so. This appears to be the case with the rediscovery of a significant work of art by (arguably) the most famous of all French sculptors, depicting one of the most famous figures in the history of France, in, of all places, a borough hall in north-central New Jersey.

Work

The Hartley Dodge Memorial Building in Madison has for many years served as the town hall for residents of the Borough of Madison, New Jersey. It was a gift from Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge in honor of her son Hartley who, along with his parents (scions of the Dodge and Rockefeller dynasties), was a resident of the Borough. Hartley was killed in a car accident in France in 1930, shortly after he graduated from Princeton, and appears to have been something like a character out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The tragic irony of his death lies in the fact that his mother had sent him to France on an extended vacation to try to get him away from a new hobby he was pursuing, i.e., learning to fly airplanes, because she felt that this was too dangerous a pastime.

For understandable reasons, Mrs. Dodge wanted this building named for her late son to not only be beautiful – which it certainly is, as you can see in these images of its newly-restored grandeur – but to have only the best of everything. As a result, not only did she create a grand and elegant architectural masterpiece where one would hardly expect to find such a structure, but she also brought in a number of appropriately grand and elegant works of art, in order to decorate the walls and rooms of the building.

Strangely enough, despite their significance, both she and local officials forgot to properly document what exactly it was that she had given them to display, and as time passed, the identification of these objects was forgotten.

It turns out that one such forgotten work donated by Mrs. Dodge was a sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The piece, titled “Napoleon Enveloppé Dans Ses Réves” (“Napoleon Wrapped In His Dreams”), is a life-sized marble bust of the diminutive French Emperor. Here we can see an image of Rodin himself, posing with the work in question:

Rodin

In this piece, Rodin shows a somewhat tired and pensive Napoleon, wrapped in his military cloak and indeed his own thoughts. The artist has idealized Napoleon’s features to some extent, particularly the nose, which seems to lack the projecting tip that one normally sees in contemporary representations of Bonaparte. Compare, for example, the Rodin to this copy in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of one of the many busts that the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) made of Napoleon during the Emperor’s lifetime.

Interestingly enough, before its move to suburbia this Rodin was, for many years, on display to the public at The Met. Mrs. Dodge acquired the piece from the estate of another Gilded Age oligarch, Thomas Fortune Ryan, who had not only paid Rodin to complete the work, but also lent it to The Met for an extended period of time. It was removed from view following Ryan’s death in 1928, and Mrs. Dodge acquired it a few years later. [N.B. Ryan, incidentally, built my second-favorite church in New York, St. Jean Baptiste, as well as several buildings at my alma mater, Georgetown.]

Baptiste

For over seven decades then, the bust sat on a plinth in the Madison Borough Council Chamber, where few if any visitors suspected that they were looking at a significant work of art by the artist generally regarded as the father of Modern sculpture. Then during Christmas break in 2014-15, Madison hired then-graduate student Mallory Mortillaro to go through the art collection and create a catalogue of the borough’s holdings. She was immediately struck by the piece, noting that the story of how it came into the possession of the borough made her suspect that it was of greater significance than anyone knew at the time. “I mean, this is Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge,” she explained to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I knew we weren’t dealing with random bits from somebody’s attic.”

Room

Perhaps the pièce de résistance in this story came when Ms. Mortillaro reached out to the Rodin Museum in Paris and, some months later, that museum sent Jérôme Le Blay, a well-known French art expert who is an expert in the authentication of 19th and 20th century French art, particularly that of Rodin. As Janet Foster, a trustee of the Hartley Memorial, recounted, “[Le Blay] walked in and saw the bust and said, ‘Oh! There you are!,’ ” Foster recalled. ” ‘I wondered what happened to you.’ ” It turned out that the Rodin Museum in Paris had a plaster cast of the Napoleon bust in its own collection, but never knew whether Rodin had actually completed the sculpture or, if he had, what had become of it.

Fortunately for art lovers, the newly rediscovered Rodin will not be staying in suburban New Jersey. In fact, it’s now headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it will be displayed on extended long-term loan alongside other Rodin sculptures in that Museum’s collection, just in time to mark the centenary of the artist’s death on November 17, 1917. One can imagine that, this time at least, no one is going to lose track of it.