Art News Roundup: To See, Or Not To See

Before diving in this morning, just a word on headings. As regular readers and subscribers know, I haven’t been happy with “Thought-Pourri” for some time, in titling this weekly roundup of interesting stories from the art world, even though I used to think it was clever. Puns do tend to wear on you after awhile, and that includes the pun which serves as the title of this blog. [Note to self: Must still get around to changing it.]

In any case, for now we’re going to stick with the more ho-hum “Art News Roundup” until I figure out something else since, while not exactly clever, it’s efficient and descriptive, particularly since on social media, oftentimes all you get to see is a post title and a link. This allows me to write something (hopefully) clever after the colon, while keeping the business end of things before the colon. And speaking of business, let’s get on to that.

There’s an interesting piece in ArtNet yesterday that I wanted to feature here before getting into some things that I recommend you go and see, since it discusses the sort of art which I do not recommend that you go and see, at least for the most part. In it, the author bemoans the decline of attendance at New York museum and gallery shows featuring Contemporary Art, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, and describes what gallery owners are doing to try to reverse that trend. “If you read between the lines,” the writer notes, “it’s also a great example of how New York galleries are pushing vintage approaches to art viewership to fight plummeting foot traffic—a trend that’s threatening not only galleries’ commercial viability, but also their existential purpose as a free place to exhibit art.”

That’s all as may be, but of course, what one could also read between the lines, and which the article fails to explore or even mention, is the possibility that the numbers for these Contemporary Art shows are down because, on the whole, average people don’t actually like the art. After all, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art broke its all-time attendance record last year, and the single most popular show was “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”, which by itself brought in over 700,000 visitors. Just a thought.

Anyway, on to three spots where I highly recommend that you *do* go have a look-see.

New to the National Gallery (UK)

Juan de Zurbarán (1620-1649) is a Spanish Golden Age artist whose work is both rare and not very well-known. The son of the more famous painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 – 1664), Juan died relatively young during a plague epidemic in Seville, and it’s only within the last several decades that his own work has begun to emerge from the long shadow of his father. With the help of the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, that museum recently acquired a still life by Juan, “Still Life with Lemons in a Wicker Basket” (c.1643-1649), which had been in a private collection in Madrid for generations. I highly recommend watching this lecture from Letizia Treves, Curator of Later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century Paintings at the National Gallery, discussing the artist, his career, and this work, since not only is it obvious that Ms. Treves know her subject very well indeed, but her presentation is clear, full of interesting slides, and I for one learned a great deal from it, even with my having specialized in this period of art when I was in grad school. And of course, it goes without saying that the painting is worth seeing should you find yourself in London this summer.


Nip in to Newark

As your summer travel plans evolve, remember to keep the Newark Museum in mind, if you happen to find yourself in the New York/New Jersey/Philly area over the next month. Their excellent exhibition “The Rockies and the Alps”, which I reviewed for The Federalist back when it opened, runs through August 19th. Not only does it have plenty of beautiful paintings, alongside sculptures, drawings, and photographs showing what American and European artists were looking at and depicting in the mountain landscapes they visited with increasing frequency in the 19th century, but there are also interactive aspects of the show for the kiddos, and the Newark Museum itself is a revelation: you can easily spend an entire day there with the rugrats and find plenty of things to do. [N.B. I can also recommend the excellent Deluxe Diner, just around the corner, as a lunch spot.]


Young Leonardo at Yale

A bit further up the coast, Yale recently opened its latest exhibition “Leonardo: Discoveries from Verrocchio’s Studio”, which looks to be both extremely interesting and somewhat controversial. The interest comes from the fact that the world will be marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci next year, and there will be a slew of exhibitions around the world acknowledging his importance, of which this is the first. The controversy comes from a desire, at least on the part of some museums and experts, to attribute anything that has even a tangential connection to Leonardo as therefore being by him, particularly in the light of the media spectacle surrounding the sale of the “Salvator Mundi” (which I suppose I contributed to. in my small way.)

For example, Yale believes that the piece shown below, “The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus” (c.1472-1473) from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, is mostly by Leonardo. Perhaps it is. I don’t see anything particularly remarkable about this piece, since to my eye the perspective is clumsy and the figures more Benozzo Gozzoli than Leonardo da Vinci, although the misty mountains in the background are certainly the sort that Leonardo liked to paint. On the other hand, I’m most emphatically not an expert, so you should just go along and see the works on show for yourself, and make up your own mind. “Leonardo” is at the Yale University Art Gallery through October 7th.


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?


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.




Forgotten Painting, Forgotten Genre

Recently, news that a major work by a Spanish Baroque painter has been on display at Hearst Castle for almost a century without being identified caught my interest. The giant altarpiece by Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa (c. 1634-1698), depicting the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary (Gospel of St. Luke 1:26-38), was painted in 1690, and has hung on the wall of the Assembly Room of Hearst’s atrocious country house in San Simeon, California since it was acquired from a Los Angeles art dealer back in 1927. As you probably know, the utterly repulsive William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was not only a publisher and a Congressman, but an art hoarder of the first order. From paintings and sculpture, to furniture, ceramics, and even entire cloisters, he bought anything and everything that wasn’t tied down. Nevertheless, it seems incredible that such a major work, particularly one which is so enormous and which, as it turns out, is both signed and dated, went unidentified for so long.


The work is particularly rare because compositions of this size are unusual for Pérez. He was one of the royal painters to Carlos II (1661-1700), the last Habsburg king of Spain, and a second-tier painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He isn’t a household name like El Greco (1541-1614) or Velázquez (1599-1660), which is partly to do with the fact that his compositions seem to be more highly decorative than they are particularly original. In fact, he is best known for creating highly decorative images in which religious figures are shown surrounded by lush garlands of flowers – as in this example depicting St. Teresa of Ávila – but there is more at work in such pictures than meets the eye.


This mixing of still life and religious painting was not new by the time Pérez began to produce these works, but it became his specialty even as it fell out of fashion. The genre, usually referred to as “garland paintings”, began when Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625) and Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632) created an image of the Madonna and Child surrounded by a garland of spring flowers for Federico Cardinal Borromeo of Milan in about 1608, shown below. It was a painted representation of the way in which the devout would traditionally decorate a religious image in their home or local parish during Eastertide or other Feasts of the Church, but had the benefit of the lush displays of flowers, fruit, and greenery not having to be thrown out.


Cardinal Borromeo saw this new type of image as a response to the iconoclasm of the Protestants, who by this point had been destroying works of art for decades, as well as banning pious practices such as processions, the decoration of churches with flowers, and so on. Because these types of pictures were both highly decorative as well as spiritually symbolic, they could fit into either an ecclesiastical or a household setting. In this example painted for a private home and dating from about 1621, Brueghel, working in collaboration with Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), painted the still life elements, while the latter painted the figures. Interestingly, some experts believe that the model for the Virgin Mary is Rubens’ first wife Isabella Brant, which I can believe, and that the Christ Child is Breughel’s son, the future artist Jan Breughel the Younger, although in my opinion the latter suggestion seems a bit off for the timeline of that artist’s life.


By the second half of the 17th century, this “garland painting” style was no longer as fashionable elsewhere in Europe, but Pérez continued to receive commissions to paint them. The image of St. Teresa shown earlier was one of a series which he completed between about 1675-1680 for the Franciscan convent of San Diego in Alcalá de Henares, which is fairly late for this genre. All of the paintings depicted Spanish Counter Reformation saints who had recently been canonized, including St. Teresa of Ávila, her friend and fellow Descalced Carmelite St. John of the Cross, the Jesuits St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Borgia, and others, and in that sense their depiction inside of garlands, in a genre that had Counter Reformation origins decades earlier, is not surprising.

Since most of Pérez’ surviving work is in the form of garland paintings or still lifes, the rare canvas from Hearst Castle is all the more valuable for understanding his development as an artist. I confess that I don’t find it to be a particularly great image, since the artist’s skills clearly lay more in depicting the realm of the floral than in the human. Nevertheless, it is a major discovery and will provide art historians with a wealth of new material to investigate for years to come.