Art News Roundup: Houston, We Have A Velázquez Edition

As I spent a big chunk of yesterday in bed with a cold, here’s your day late, but hopefully not a dollar short, roundup of some interesting news from the art world for this week. For yours truly, the really interesting news this week is that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has recently re-attributed a painting in its permanent collection to the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The canvas, titled “Kitchen Maid”, is believed to date to around 1620, when the young artist was working in his native Seville.

criada

Two other pieces by Velázquez, which were already very familiar to me, are related to this one. More obviously, there is a larger-sized depiction of a kitchen interior with the same model, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it’s probable that the Houston piece was a study or work-up for the finished version. Not many of Velazquez’ studies or drawings survive, unfortunately, so as a clue to his working method the newly attributed painting should prove to be a major object of study for both art historians and conservators.

Criada2

The other piece to which the painting is related is Velázquez’ “Kitchen Maid With The Supper At Emmaus” at the National Gallery of Ireland, from the same time period. This canvas is the most complex of the three, so it may well be that the Houston piece was the first study the artist made on canvas. That would make the Chicago picture, a second, more advanced composition, with the Dublin work as the final product. To have all three of these survive is rather unusual in art history, even though this practice was not uncommon at the time.

Criada3

While it may seem odd for the artist to have placed what would normally be considered a background scene to the main action in the foreground, the precedent comes from Dutch paintings and engravings of the time; as part of the Counter-Reformation movement it allowed the faithful to more fully reflect upon and imagine themselves being present at Biblical moments. Moreover, this is not the only example of Velázquez using this concept in his art. His better-known “Christ In The House Of Martha And Mary” (c. 1618), now in the National Gallery in London, is almost a companion piece to the Dublin picture, in this respect.

MariaMarta

While the attribution has not been fully put to the test, as is often the case the careful cleaning of dirt and varnish from the surface of an old, overlooked picture made all the difference for those experts who have examined it so far.

And now on to some other art news of interest.

Selfie Stupidity

Another day, another example of self-obsessed social media users ruining a work of art while trying to take a selfie with no thought for anyone but themselves. A group of women at an exhibition in the International Arts Center in the city of Yekaterinburg decided to take a picture of themselves, and in the process knocked over a display case (you can see a still of this below) containing engravings by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Both pictures had their frames and glass damaged, but while the Goya appears to be fine, the Dalí was damaged from the glass shattering. Apparently no criminal charges will be brought against this group of Stygian witches, despite the museum requesting such action, but I would certainly love to bring a civil lawsuit against them.

Falling

Sparkling Seaside

Yes, I do actually recommend Contemporary Art from time to time, not just Old Masters, and so it is with great pleasure that I let you know that new works by British Contemporary artist Gordon Hunt (1958-) will go on show tomorrow at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, and it looks to be an exhibition well worth your time. As the Northeast begins to settle into the long, dark, gray of late Autumn, Hunt’s images of sun and sea, pleasure boats, and people enjoying the water in his native Cornwall or along the Mediterranean are a light-filled joy; you may even feel the need to break out your sunglasses for some of his sunset scenes. His sparkling, glowing technique is reminiscent of the work of the French Pointillist pioneer Georges Seurat (1859-1891), but updated for a modern audience. “Discovery: Contemporary Art Perspectives From England” is on show at Agora until December 1st.

Med

Bidding for Binney

For reasons best known to itself, the Philadelphia Bar Association has decided that it has too many portraits of dead lawyers on its hands, so it has decided to auction them – as well as hundreds of other objects – at Freeman’s American auction next week. Among the highlights are this magnificent 1833 Thomas Sully (1783-1872) portrait of Congressman Horace Binney (1780-1875), who not only turned down an appointment to be a Supreme Court Justice – TWICE – but was one of the few men in Congress to have the backbone to publicly stand up to POS American dictator…er, President Andrew Jackson. Binney certainly knew how to pick them, when it came to have his portrait painted, because as a young man, he was the subject of another magnificent portrait by the great Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) which is now in the National Gallery here in DC, but for some reason is not currently on view. It would be neat – is that the right word? – if the NGA were to purchase the portrait of the middle-aged Birney so that visitors could compare how artistic style changed in America.

Binney

 

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Art News Roundup: The Anteater of His Majesty Edition

As you might expect, the right-click Google Image Search function is a boon to art collectors and commentators, when we’re attempting to identify a picture that we think we’ve seen before, but aren’t exactly sure where. I was recently looking at an online auction catalog listing of a painting that’s coming up for sale, and it reminded me of something else, but I couldn’t place what about it was familiar. On a number of occasions, the search function has helped me to identify a piece, particularly when I have a notion that I’ve previously seen it, or something like it, which helps both my writing and my acquisition decision-making process. Yet another fun aspect of this function is the fact that it can lead to some interesting side trips down the digital rabbit hole.

As I was scrolling through the search results, I came across a rather unusual Old Master painting of an anteater:

anteater

The image was embedded in this 2011 online story, about how this painting in the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid may well be by the great Spanish artist, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).

In July 1776, as certain events were occurring elsewhere, King Carlos III of Spain inaugurated the Museum, and was presented with an anteater as a gift from the people of Buenos Aires. It survived its trip across the Atlantic from Argentina to Spain, and the king, no looker himself, fell in love with the strange-looking animal. Initially, the king kept the anteater in the Palacio de Oriente, the principal royal palace in Madrid, and it is hilarious to imagine His Most Catholic Majesty taking it for walks down long, marble corridors, covered with canvases by Titian and Velázquez, and frescoed with ceilings by Tiepolo.

For reasons which one can only imagine, the king eventually ordered that the anteater be moved to the Buen Retiro, a large park in downtown Madrid, where there was already a royal menagerie. “Unfortunately,” as historian Ana Mozo explains in this article [translation mine], “the animal arrived in July and died in January, probably because of the lack of ants.” While this was a sad ending to quite an unusual adventure, the animal itself was immortalized by order of the king himself.

“The Anteater of His Majesty” is not only a magnificent work of art, by one of the most important Spanish artists in history, but there is also something wonderfully eccentric, bordering on the surreal, about this entire episode and indeed the painting. As it happens, Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) also had a pet anteater at one time, and there is a very famous photograph of him from 1969, taking it for a walk in the streets of Paris. I suspect that Dalí, who studied art in Madrid and was a staunch monarchist, was probably aware of the royal anteater, but I leave that question to those with greater knowledge than I currently possess.

Dali

And now, on to some art headlines.

Henri I in Haiti

Continuing in the, “Wow, I’ve never heard of that before,” vein, I was intrigued by this review in the Art Newspaper of a new book chronicling the architecture sponsored by Henri Christophe (1767-1820), a former African slave who, in 1811, was crowned King of Haiti. During his reign, Henri I built a number of massive buildings across the island, most of which have now disappeared. However, the ruins of his Sans-Souci Palace, shown below, are an extraordinary example of what he was able to accomplish on an architectural level in a comparatively brief period of time. This seems like quite a fascinating subject for armchair architectural historians such as this scrivener, and definitely worth exploring.

Haiti

Emerging in Edinburgh

In one of the stranger vicissitudes of history, an 18th century Anglican church in Edinburgh, which later became a Presbyterian church, before ending up as a Catholic Church about 150 years ago, is now undergoing a major art restoration project as a result of a significant discovery. As Bendor Grosvenor details here, when the Calvinists took over the building they whitewashed over the 1774 murals of the Ascension by Alexander Runciman (1736-1785) that decorated the walls, but Scottish art historian Duncan MacMillan had a hunch that the paintings were still there. Lo and behold, he was correct, and restoration work is currently underway. Some interesting links are embedded in this piece, but ignore the joke about Pope Clement VIII, since we should all thank His Holiness for endorsing the drinking of coffee.

Restore

Fascinating in Florence

The Uffizi Gallery, the most important art museum in Florence, has just released a terrific online resource for those interested in sculpture, archaeology, and architectural design. Indiana University here in the U.S. has been working with the museum to digitize its entire collection of Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture as 3D images, a project which the research team estimates that they will be able to complete by 2020. It’s already possible right now to see 3D scans of a number of objects owned by the Uffizi, such as this bust of the Emperor Caracalla, as well as a host of sculptures and architectural elements that are not currently on public view.

Caracalla

A Newly Discovered Dalí: Deceptively Simple

The art world is a-buzz today after the rediscovery of a deceptively simple work by the great Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Currently referred to simply as “Untitled”, the 1932 painting was authenticated by Nicolas Descharnes, a leading Dalí expert whose name often pops up in discussions of the master’s work. It has been in a private collection for over 75 years, and is now up for sale at Heather James Fine Art in Manhattan. Whoever ends up owning this little jewel of a picture will be a very lucky individual indeed.

Pole

The small painting – only 9 inches tall and 6 inches wide – shows a long fisherman’s pole sticking out of a window; it is bathed in a strong, raking light that casts a deep shadow on the wall of the structure. Because it is lacking in the strange figures and details that usually populate Dalí’s work, it may not fit what most people think of when it comes to his art. However as pointed out by Descharnes in this article from ArtNet, given its size and intimacy the piece is most likely a preparatory study, since the same elements appear in his painting “Morphological Echo” (c.1934-36), which is currently on loan to the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Echo

To my eye, what is particularly engrossing about the picture is the way that Dalí treats the wall surface, which will look familiar to anyone who has spent time on the Costa Brava. Many thick layers of plaster cover the walls of rough brick or stone, and if the finished surface is not given a regular topcoat of whitewash to deal with the damaging effects of sun, salt, and wind, it begins to change color and flake off as mold and water have their way. You can see a real-life example here, in the exterior walls of this ruined farmhouse on the Costa Brava:

Casa

Dalí beautifully captures the effect of the crumbling wall surface, but gives it the unusual greenish-ochre cast of an approaching storm, which was characteristic of his work during this period. He was heavily influenced by the works of the earlier, Italian Metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), who often used this somewhat sickly lighting effect in his paintings. An example is his famous “Le Muse inquietanti” (“The Disquieting Muses”), painted sometime between 1916-1918, which is currently in a private collection in Milan. Note that the sky has a similar, greenish cast, as if a hurricane has just passed or is about to pass through, which was one of the factors leading poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) to write a poem about the piece.

Muses

Another influence here, I suspect, is that of traditional Spanish bodegón painting. These still lifes of common kitchen items and food, set against stark backgrounds, have long fascinated painters in Spain and elsewhere. To see what I mean, note these two paintings by Dalí showing a simple basket of bread, which bookend the date of the newly-discovered study. The earlier example from 1926 is in the Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, while the 1945 version is in the Teatre-Museu Dalí in the artist’s hometown of Figueres. Note how the use of strong lights and shadows creates an almost photorealistic quality, much as it does in his study of the pole in the window:

Bread28

Bread45

While this newly authenticated painting is not a major work by Dalí, I think it is an exceptionally charming one. It represents aspects of a place that he loved, the Catalan Costa Brava, and with which he identified on a deeply personal level throughout his life. In creating this vignette, he demonstrated his ability to be daring in composition, coloring, and light, while at the same time showing us that he didn’t need to paint strange, melting clocks or swarming ants in order to create a truly striking work of art.