Art News Roundup: Pompeiian Pooch Edition

Despite the fact that they were first excavated beginning way back in the 18th century, the Ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are continuing to yield fascinating finds for archaeologists, historians, and art lovers alike.

A find which could prove to be of enormous historic, if not artistic, significance has just been announced as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a major excavation, conservation, and restoration effort that began at the site in 2011. Archaeologists have found a wall with a bit of graffiti, written in charcoal, bearing the date October 17th. The writing is believed to be a note written by a workman who was in the middle of a home renovation project. If that’s correct, then the date of the destruction of Pompeii, which is traditionally placed on August 24, 79 AD, is wrong, and the history books will need to be rewritten.

Meanwhile, other excavators working at the site have uncovered an outdoor room which the press is now referring to as “The Enchanted Garden”, thanks to the magnificent frescoes contained within it. The room, or more properly the lararium, was where a wall shrine to the household spirits was kept. The family who lived in the house would make daily offerings here, in order to keep these bearers of good fortune about the place, and it was also a pleasant place to sit, protected from the elements but within reach of flowers and other plants.

While these spaces were common in Roman residential construction, this one is particularly interesting not only for its well-preserved beauty, but also for the presence of a dog-headed humanoid in one of the frescoes. It’s possible that he is the Egyptian god Anubis (or an individual wearing an Anubis mask). You may recall from your history books that Egypto-mania hit the Romans when Cleopatra came to live with Julius Caesar in 46 BC. No word yet on when this lararium will be open to visitors.


Watching the Watchmen

Regular readers will recall that last week I reported on how art conservation pron has become a thing in the museum world, attracting scores of visitors who want to see art experts at work on cleaning and restoring works of art. Well now, in what may be the most singular example of this trend, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has announced that Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece, “The Night Watch” (1642), a detail of which appears below, will be undergoing a very public cleaning and conservation, beginning next summer. For those of you who won’t be in Holland at the time, not to worry: the museum intends to livestream the restoration on the interwebz.


Reunited Ruffs

Speaking of art conservation and the Dutch, should you find yourself in Ohio between now and early January, you’ll definitely want to check out “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion”, which just opened at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition brings together three paintings (a pre-restoration detail of one of the canvases appears below) by the great Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) of groups of figures which, subsequent to cleaning and restoration, art historians have only just realized were portions of a large-scale portrait painting of members of the Van Campen family. The original painting was likely chopped up at some point after Hals’ death as a result of damage, with the incongruous bits painted over by a later restorer to make the pieces more commercially marketable. After Toledo, the show will head to Brussels, and later to Paris.


Measuring De Morgan

If you love computer-generated geometric designs such as fractals, and happen to find yourself in the UK in the next couple of weeks, then you’ll be interested in catching an exhibition that will be closing soon at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London on the work of the great English decorative arts designer William De Morgan (1839-1917). De Morgan is one of the most important of all Arts and Crafts era artisans, thanks in part to his designs for the company founded by his friend and contemporary William Morris (1834-1896). While De Morgan is often thought of as being fascinated with the exotic in his chargers, vases, and tiles, such as the ones shown below, bringing in references to the Middle Ages, India, and Persia, this new exhibition takes a look at the mathematical studies which helped him to come up with and execute geometrically complex designs by hand, without the benefit of CAD. “Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs” closes on October 28th.


Art News Roundup: Quadruple Dutch Edition

Only someone with such extraordinarily bad taste as the Bonapartes would have approved of it, but news is that the French Imperial Canoe – yes, you read that correctly – created for the midget dictator and then pompously over-modified by Napoleon III is being restored. The barge was originally a (comparatively) more sober, Neoclassical affair, designed by a French shipbuilding engineer, but provided with decorative elements by a Dutch sculptor from Antwerp. Appropriately enough, it was built for Napoleon’s secret visit to the city of Antwerp in 1810, to inspect the French fleet and view the arsenal which the French were stockpiling in that Dutch port city. Later, it was given additional sculptural elements by Napoleon III, including the sculpture of Neptune on the prow and the imperial crown supported by angels over the cabin.


That it has survived at all is rather remarkable, given that it was supposed to be only a temporary craft, and also given the political vicissitudes of the Bonapartes and the multiple wars which they and others brought upon France in the 200 years since the canoe was created. Bizarrely enough, it survived World War II due to the Nazis, of all people, who transferred it from the port city of Brest, where it had been held in dry dock, to the newly-established French Naval Museum in Paris. Had they not done so, the boat would likely have been destroyed during the Allied bombings of Brest in 1943. Following restoration, the rather cheesy canoe will go on display back in Brest next year, before eventually returning to Paris.

And speaking of cheese, let’s now move on to some more art news with a distinctively Dutch flavor, like a good chunk of smoked Gouda.

Rediscovered Rembrandt

Another week, another “missing” Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) has been identified, this time a scene of Jesus and the children as described in St. Matthew’s Gospel. While this is a major find from the point of view of art history, personally I’ve never cared for Rembrandt, and I find his religious pictures particularly bad, for reasons which this canvas makes patently clear, but there you are. What’s rather interesting in this case is that Dutch art expert Jan Six, who is in fact a descendant of a contemporary patron and collector of Rembrandt’s work (Rembrandt painted his ancestor’s portrait), had his eureka moment when he recognized that one of the figures in the painting was a self-portrait of Rembrandt himself, while another figure is likely Rembrandt’s mother. This is a very good example of why it’s important to look at and handle art objects as often as possible: the more you see, the better your eye gets.


Dueling Van Dycks

Meantime, in a rather interesting auction house development, two very late portraits by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) of the future King Charles II and his sister Princess Mary were announced for sale at Sotheby’s this coming December. The very next day Christie’s said, in effect, “Oh yeah? Well, our van Dyck is better.” And it certainly is: the Christie’s portrait of Princess Mary is of better quality than the Sotheby’s one. The conundrum for the collector is, do you want one really beautifully executed painting, or do you want a pair of decent but less exceptional ones?


Vanishing Van Gogh

Perhaps the most significant remaining mystery of World War II, when each incident is combined to be considered as part of a collective question, is what happened to the art looted by the Soviets and hauled back to Russia at the end of the war. Moscow has never been completely forthcoming about all of the pieces taken by the Red Army, whether officially or unofficially, in an action which the Russians have always justified as being a kind of tit-for-tat compensation for their own losses at the hands of the Nazis. Yet occasionally, stories about what lies hidden in the vast storerooms of state-owned museums in Russia do emerge, such as the fact that the preparatory drawing for Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) much-beloved masterpiece, “Starry Night” (1889), has been sitting somewhere in Moscow or St. Petersburg for decades.


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.