Thought-Pourri: Happy Hippo Edition

It’s been a big week for art news since last week’s roundup, gentle reader.

The very, very big news is that Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which I shared some thoughts about earlier this week, sold for a whopping $450 million last night at Christie’s in New York. This is by far the highest amount ever paid for a single work of art in any art auction, ever, far outstripping the previous auction record holder, Pablo Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)”, which sold for $179 million back in 2015. Despite the naysayers – and there are many – at the end of the day a Da Vinci is a Da Vinci, even if it’s a Da Vinci that’s not in especially good nick.

Meanwhile, the other big story is that rival auctioneer Sotheby’s is currently licking its chops, after the Massachusetts Appeals Court halted the sale of the Berkshire Museum’s auction of a series of paintings from its permanent collection, including two works by Norman Rockwell which had been donated to the museum by the artist himself. While the pictures in question are not of great importance in art history, the really interesting item here is how the courts will address the question of deaccession, which is always a thorny subject when it comes to art law. I’m not going to weigh in on the pro’s and con’s of the practice, but it will be interesting to see what the final result is, and whether it sets any precedents.

Anyway, on to some other, less portentous news items.

Happy, Happy Hippo

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of William, the Ancient Egyptian hippopotamus that has long been a symbol of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Met has just opened a new exhibition featuring the beloved blue beastie. In addition, William will be feted with lectures, activities, and even cookies and cocktails named in his honor. William being, of course, the best of all possible boys’ names, and my childhood wish to become an Egyptologist notwithstanding, I’ve always had a soft spot for this little sculpture; perhaps I should look into obtaining a reproduction for myself. Check the Met’s website for a full of listing of exhibition and event details.

Hippo

The Queen’s Cranach

Technology once again comes to the rescue of the art world, in identifying a lost work by one of Germany’s most important Renaissance artists. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) is perhaps best known for his paintings of naked ladies, who are so physically unappealing that it’s hard to understand why his pictures were so widely collected. He also painted portraits however, and it turns out that one of these – long thought to be a copy – was purchased by England’s Queen Victoria as a Christmas present for her German husband, Prince Albert. Personally, I don’t much care for Cranach, whose work was commissioned mostly by Northern Europeans with bad taste (probably because they couldn’t produce anything to rival what was being painted in Italy at the same time.) Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story, down to the rather grisly preparation method – pigeon tendons! – which helped confirm the authenticity of the picture.

Cranach

Clearly Contemporary Claptrap

Speaking of unappealing works of art, I’ve been saying for years that most of the Contemporary Art world is rather boring, and highly derivative in nature, since it constantly has to try to shock the viewer due to an inability to demonstrate much of anything in the way of skill and creativity. Marcel Duchamp hung a urinal on a wall and titled it “Fountain” a century ago, after all; much of what is supposedly avant-garde these days has been said by others, elsewhere, in more interesting ways. So it was particularly refreshing, in this review of a show at Turin’s brand-new OGR complex juxtaposing Ancient, Classical, and Contemporary Art, to find a reviewer who apparently agrees.

Turin

Restoring Russian Ruins

A few years after The Wall came down, we were visiting some friends in Munich who hoped to finally get back their family estate near Potsdam, which had been taken by the Soviets when Germany was divided after World War II; they eventually managed to secure the property and restore it. White Russians, on the other hand, have been waiting to reclaim their ancestral homes for roughly a century now, thanks to the Russian Revolution which broke out in November 2017. Some of these palaces were preserved, but the majority have long been ruins. This interesting piece in Art Daily is just a sampling of some of the problems faced by those trying to reclaim their family’s homes – such as, how do you get people to willingly travel hundreds of miles out in the middle of nowhere to fix up falling down old houses?

Estate

Sorolla and Stock Sale

For many years now, New York art dealer Otto Naumann has been one of the most hallowed names in the world of Old Master painting – and is certainly the most important dealer in this genre in the United States. Now that he’s retiring from the trade, Naumann has decided to sell off his remaining stock through Sotheby’s. In addition to Renaissance and Baroque religious, mythological, and still life paintings, works that will be coming to the auction block include some of what Old Master collectors would consider “Modern” art, such as this beautiful work by Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) of a Castilian peasant pouring himself a glass of water. On their website, Sotheby’s has more on Naumann, his collection, and the upcoming multi-day sale of his stock, which will take place between January 26-31, 2018. If you happen to have a few million sitting around, or know someone who does, this is a sale not to be missed.

Sorolla

The Bling’s The Thing: Meet The World-Famous Artist You’ve Never Heard Of

The buzz in the antiques market at the moment concerns the possible sale of a sapphire and diamond-encrusted coronet, made for Queen Victoria and designed by her husband Prince Albert. While the art press awaits the news of whether it will be exported from England, which seems unlikely given its historic significance, this piece of jewelry gives me a chance to introduce you to the work of an artist who was once one of the most popular painters in the world, and who now is mostly forgotten. This is a shame, for not only did he paint beautiful pictures, but he managed to capture his time in a way which I believe has been overlooked.

Having your portrait painted by a famous artist has been a status symbol for centuries, from Sandro Botticelli in the 15th century to Andy Warhol in the 20th. In his day, the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805-1873) was a hugely successful part of this long tradition. If you were anybody, or aspired to be somebody, during the early to mid-Victorian period, you wanted to be painted by Winterhalter. Emperors, princes, and maharajas all paid hefty sums to be immortalized on canvas by his brush, and the artist rose from obscure, peasant poverty to become a steam engine-era millionaire of international renown.

Winterhalter was in particularly high demand for his portraits of glamorous women, such as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and the Empress Eugénie of France. Perhaps his most famous painting is a portrait of the latter surrounded by her ladies in waiting, but I prefer his portrait of the former in a white ball gown, wearing diamonds braided into her long hair, a work that is still hanging in the Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. [On a personal note, my Mother used this painting as a reference in designing her wedding dress, so it has always been a personal favorite.]

Winterhalter painted many of the royal families of Europe, employing a mixture of flattery and attention to detail that ensured a never-ending stream of prestigious clients. He not only made them look beautiful, in some cases more beautiful than they actually were, but he had an eye for detail that allowed him to capture the subtleties of dress, such as sparkling jewels and silks for the ladies, and polished boots and military medals for the gentlemen. In fact he received so many commissions, that his studio employed dozens of assistants just to keep up with the orders for both original works and copies of them. Although his first big break came in France, it was the British Royal family that really placed the promising young Winterthaler on a firm, international footing.

In 1842, Winterhalter painted his first portrait of the 23-year-old Queen Victoria, who as you can see in the image below just so happens to be wearing the sapphire and diamond coronet that has now come onto the market. The little crown is wrapped in her braids, rather than being placed on top of her head, as you might expect, making what we would consider a fashion statement. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, designed the piece to be worn this way based on several Van Dyck paintings of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill-fated King Charles I, who was shown wearing a similar little crown on the back of her head. Winterhalter’s image of the somewhat shy and reserved young Queen became hugely popular, both at home and abroad, and many copies were made.

The British Royals were so pleased with the result, that over the next two decades they commissioned well over 100 paintings from Winterhalter. Prince Albert’s favorite Winterhalter portrait of his wife, which the Queen commissioned in 1843 and gave to her husband as a birthday present that year, was never intended to be displayed to the general public. It shows the young Victoria leaning back against some red velvet cushions, displaying both her décolletage and a heart-shaped locket that had been a gift from Albert. We can see that part of hairdo has come undone, and her long hair trails down the side of her neck in an extremely informal, seductive sort of way.

Stripped of the sentiment behind it, I have always found this to be a rather tacky picture. At the very least, there is certainly nothing dignified about it. It is reminiscent of the “glamour photography” craze of the 1990’s, in which women paid photographers in strip malls to take photographs of themselves dressed as prostitutes, as gifts for their husbands. (No wonder the divorce rate climbed to 50%.)

Winterthaler’s last official portrait of the Queen was painted in 1859, and it is one of his best images of her. Victoria is no longer the shy, young princess suddenly thrust onto the world stage, nor the blushing bride who only has eyes for her handsome husband, but a beautiful, yet strong woman, the ruler of a vast empire. Gazing confidently down from her throne, she is Britannia personified. Images such as this helped to cement the cult of personality that grew up around Victoria, and for a time protected her during the long years of her self-imposed internal exile following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

So given examples such as these, why is it that Winterhalter does not leap to mind in the same way that other portrait painters like Velázquez or Gainsborough continue to do, centuries later? Perhaps it is because his paintings, for all of their technical skill, can sometimes seem more like interior decoration than works of art. His figures are often ciphers: they may be beautiful or handsome, but in their Winterhalter portraits it appears that we can learn little to nothing about them as individuals.

By way of contrast, take a look at the work of another society painter, John Singer Sargent, who was working a generation after Winterhalter but still in the Victorian era. In his 1888 portrait of Mrs. Eleanora Iselin, now in the National Gallery here in DC, he shows us a society maven, dressed in rich, dark silks, standing next to a luxurious piece of antique furniture. The genius of Sargent is in the detail of the extended pinkie: hers is such an iron will, that we almost believe that this haughty lady could balance her entire weight on just the strength of her tiny finger.

It is true that Winterhalter rarely exhibits this level of nuance or psychological insight in his images. Popular as his paintings and prints of them were at the time, the art critics of his day never cared for his work in general. As his idiosyncratic style fell out of fashion, and the monarchs whom he painted died or were forced from their thrones, the public lost interest in him as well. People wanted to be able to study a portrait, and walk away from it feeling that they had experienced a kind of revelation about the sitter from the experience, rather than simply having seen a pretty picture.

To give him his credit however, I think we can look at Winterhalter’s work today, and read him as a skilled chronicler of obsession. Many of those whom he painted were incredibly vain and acquisitive, and during the 19th century they and the nations over which they ruled were all in competition with one another on the world stage for colonies and commerce. The Victorians had a seemingly bottomless appetite for accumulation, overstuffing their fussy houses with art, furniture, and bric-a-brac, and displaying as much fabric and bling on their own persons as they possibly could. Viewed through this lens, Winterhalter was simply putting these obsessions onto canvas in tandem with the spirit of the Victorian age.

Thus “Sissi”, as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria was called, was famous for obsessing for hours over preparing her luxuriant hair and maintaining her svelte figure. In fact as she grew older, and her beauty began to fade, she refused to have any more portraits or photographs taken of her, so that people would remember her as she had been. The Spanish-born Empress Eugénie of France loved ordering and helping to design fine clothes, and spent her nearly two decades in power setting standards and starting trends in French fashion. At the same time, she managed to accumulate one of the largest collections of jewelry in Europe.

Queen Victoria, as we all know, was mainly obsessed with her husband – to the point of an almost macabre unwillingness to accept the reality of his untimely death. It is telling that although she had favored Winterhalter with many commissions in the era named for her, after Albert’s death she never employed the artist to paint her again. However when she was finally lured back out into public life, attending the formal State Opening of Parliament in 1866, she did so wearing the same coronet that she had worn when Winterhalter first painted her portrait.

Whatever ultimately happens to that coronet then, it is a tangible reminder of an age of obsession and acquisition which her reign helped inaugurate, and one which Winterhalter knew and understood extremely well.