Carving Up the Corcoran: An Art Collection, Redistributed

Even if you never visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which closed in 2014, chances are you’ve seen pieces which once belonged to the venerable institution, which was one of the first art museums in the country. With works by a host of artists stretching across centuries, it housed everything from Old Master paintings and Renaissance ceramics to substantial collections of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art. The final distribution of works from the now-shuttered museum has just been announced, and fortunately most of it will be staying here in DC.

The decline and fall of the Corcoran was a long, drawn-out, sad affair. As the museum lost its way in pricey projects which were never going to get off the drawing board, it entered a death spiral of financial difficulty, lawsuits, and bad press which ended up with its collection being given to the National Gallery to pick over. Having selected the pieces it wanted for its own collection, the National Gallery was charged by the courts to work with other institutions, particularly those in the DC area, to find a new home for a whopping 10,000+ items.

Not surprisingly, the National Gallery kept all of the best pieces for itself. It selected over 6,000 works from the Corcoran hoard, among which are this beautiful Cuatrocento Sienese altarpiece by Andrea Vanni (c. 1330-1413), which is quite a jewel:

converted to digital April 2006

Other pieces included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)’s sunny, highly atmospheric “Setting Out to Fish” from 1878:

Sargent

And the stunning “Young Woman in Kimono” (c. 1901) by Sargent’s contemporary, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932):

Mujer

Of the items being redistributed, 99.4% will be given to other DC institutions, including several universities, museums, government offices, and the Supreme Court, among others. As to this last recipient, the Justices will now be hosting this penetrating portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall painted in 1830 by Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1855), a scion of one of America’s most prominent family of painters. Somewhat unconventionally for a judicial portrait, it shows the Chief Justice staring pensively and perhaps even a bit wistfully off to his left, rather than at the viewer. For comparison, you can see a more conventionally Federal portrait by Sully’s uncle, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), which depicts a copy of an earlier portrait of President James Madison by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828); this Corcoran piece is headed to the National Portrait Gallery.

Sully

The majority of the remaining works – nearly 9,000 works in total – will be headed up Massachusetts Avenue to American University, where they will be housed in the Katzen Arts Center. I must confess that, probably like many Washingtonians, I’ve never actually visited this museum. Once the acquisition of the Corcoran works is completed however, I will likely have to make that difficult, 15-minute cab ride to see the result. Most of what they are getting are Modern and Contemporary works, which interest me very little, but who knows?

If you really want to get into the weeds, a full distribution list is available here, divided by receiving institution. Among the more interesting, smaller transfers, I was pleased to note that two drawings by Armistead Peter III will be returning to Tudor Place in Georgetown, the Neoclassical estate where he and the rest of the Peter clan resided for centuries. Upon his death, the house was converted into a museum, and one well-worth your time should you happen to find yourself in the village.

While it is regrettable that the Corcoran went away, the legacy of the institution will live on in these collections, and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale to other art institutions who lose their focus while trying to be all things to all people.

Thought-Pourri: Events Edition

Due to recent events, I wasn’t able to post on Tuesday, for which I apologize. Between traveling to review an exhibition (more to come on that), social obligations, and yesterday’s snow storm on the East Coast, among other things, it’s been a very busy week. Today’s won’t be a particularly dense piece for your delectation, I’m afraid. However, I think you’ll find the following events of significant interest.

The Arts with the Catholic Art Guild

The Catholic Art Guild in Chicago kicks off their 2018 event season this weekend at the magnificent church of St. John Cantius with pastor, author, and radio host Fr. Thomas Loya, who will be speaking on Byzantine iconography and its liturgical context. Other speakers in the coming weeks include composer Mark Nowakowski, historian Dr. Denis McNamara, architect Duncan Stroik, and sculptor Anthony Visco, along with hands-on workshops for those interested in manuscript illumination, stained glass, sculpture, and gilding. I’m speaking as well, as you may have previously read, and deeply honored to be included in such an august company of presenters. Hope to see many of my readers in the Chicagoland area there!

Guild

Holy Week with the Dominicans

Holy Week begins this weekend with Palm Sunday – hard to believe it is almost Easter already, particularly with the weather we’ve been having recently in the Capital, where it feels nothing like Spring. For those of you in the DC area, be sure to check out the liturgies and events at St. Dominic’s, the historic parish church located near L’Enfant Plaza in DC, as well as the profoundly beautiful Tenebrae service on Wednesday of Holy Week at the Dominican House of Studies, across the street from Catholic University. Oh, and for advanced planning purposes, the eighth annual Spring Gala at Dominican House is coming up: you’ll want to reserve your tickets in advance as this is always a well-attended, wonderful evening, and will feature music by The Hillbilly Thomists, whom you may have seen featured in the news.

Thomists

Wartime Sites with the NCAS

Beginning April 14th and continuing through May 19th, the National Civic Art Society is sponsoring a series of upcoming tours titled “Washington at War”, with a particular emphasis on the architecture and historical significance of places that have played a key role in shaping the Capital region and indeed the United States as a whole. Locations will include Fort Washington, the Lincoln Cottage, Soldiers’ Home, the U.S. Navy Yard, and Arlington National Cemetery, as well as the military memorials located on the National Mall. Register for the tours by following this link.

Fort

Thought-Pourri: Art News This Week

Before we take a look at some arts stories that caught my interest this week, I want to invite you to join me for a Baroque concert at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom, tomorrow evening at 7:30 pm.

The program for “But They Are At Peace: Music For The Feast Of All Souls” contains pieces for choir, organ, and soloists by Johann Sebastian Bach and the early German Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz. Featuring the Musica Spira ensemble as well as musicians from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, the concert begins at 7:30 pm and admission is free; there will be a free-will offering for donations to support the excellent music at St. Stephen’s. Details and directions may be found by following this link. I hope to see many of you there, and if you spot me in the audience please do come up and say hello!

Concert

And now, on to the news roundup:

A Sedona Surrealist Surprise

Much to the surprise of everyone, Bonhams auction house has announced that the star of its upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in November will be “Ohne titel (Sedona Landschaft)” [“Unititled [Sedona Landscape”], a painting of Sedona, Arizona by the great German Surrealist painter, Max Ernst (1891-1976), which had nearly been forgotten. Ernst painted the intensely-colored work during a visit to Arizona in 1957, and gifted it to a local surgeon; it has remained with the doctor’s family since then, and was last exhibited in 1961. The estimate of $500-$700k is, to my mind, rather low, but then again the work is only about 2 feet long and 18 inches high – perfect for over the sideboard. As I will be traveling to Sedona myself for a few days later next month, I’ll have to do a side-by-side comparison of Ernst’s painting alongside a far less important snap from my phone over on my Instagram account.

Ernst

Caravaggio and the Code of Silence

The myth that art theft is usually carried out by a sort of gentleman cat burglar, like Thomas Crown, Danny Ocean, or John Robie, is blown out of the water in this very interesting piece over on Vice. Art theft detective extraordinaire Charley Hill, who has helped in the recovery of a number of major art heists over the years, recounts the twists and turns involved in seeking one of the items he is still searching for, nearly 50 years after it went missing. “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609) by Caravaggio was stolen on Mafia orders from the Oratorian Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo back in 1969; it’s a very unusual work, completely different from Caravaggio’s better-known (and more conventional) version of the same subject, also painted in 1609. To this day, no one knows whether the missing altarpiece still exists, or who has possession of it. Hill believes he has an idea of where it is, and he’s determined to get it back.

Cara

Rocky Road for Rockwells

Regular readers will recall my take last month on the upcoming sale of two paintings by popular 20th century American artist Normal Rockwell, alongside a number of other works of art, which the artist had donated to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The plot has thickened somewhat of late. The Rockwell family has now joined a group suing the Berkshire to halt the sale, and requested a temporary restraining order while that issue is being decided; the State AG’s office also seems to be investigating. Meanwhile, the museum’s director has temporarily stepped down for medical reasons, in an unusual bit of either chance or timing. Stay tuned, as this fight is getting more and more interesting.

Rockwell

The Banality of Basquiat and Brown

Two of the most famous American names in Modern Art and Popular Fiction are the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) and writer Dan Brown. Both created work that can be safely categorized as pseudo-intellectual garbage that commands utterly unreasonable prices, whether in terms of auction sales or box office receipts. For your pleasure and mine, then, I’d like you to enjoy a pair of absolutely scathing, wonderfully written take-downs. The first comes from the great British art critic Waldemar Januszczak who, in characterizing a major new exhibition of Basquiat’s work at The Barbican in London, is left shaking his head: “This really is what the art world has become: a shallow, uneducated, disingenuous, over-moneyed, rapacious chewer-up of proper artistic values.” Meanwhile over at The Week, Matthew Walther’s piece on Dan Brown’s latest novel, “Origin”, is an absolute howl, noting that no gifted writer of thrillers “would dare to begin with several chapters of a man taking a guided tour of a museum complete with unevocative descriptions of each work of art and follow it up with such varied set pieces as a conversation in a boat, a conversation on a plane, and a conversation in a driverless Tesla SUV before settling in to two more long conversations in an apartment and an office building.”