Monday, October 18, 2010

Michelangelo Behind A Sofa in Tonawanda?

Not long ago there was a flurry of excitement about a newly-discovered Caravaggio painting, a finding that was quickly debunked. All it took was a few days for that claim to die quietly.

Now – in Tonawanda, NY of all places – comes the news that a Pieta, thought by its owner to have been painted by Michelangelo, has been kept in a portfolio behind a family’s sofa for 25 years. The painting was stowed away for safe-keeping after being accidentally knocked off the wall while being dusted!

The painting seems to have a verifiable provenance, going back to Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo’s dear friend and sometime muse. Michelangelo would have been 70 years old when he painted the wood panel. It eventually found its way through marriage, via Croatia, to a German baroness who subsequently willed it to the current owner’s great-great-grandfather's sister-in-law.

In 2007, Italian art historian and restorer Antonio Forcellino began researching the painting. In an article published by the London Sunday Times two weeks ago, Forcellino said he was "breathless" when he saw it for the first time. "Only a genius could have painted this — the darkness which underscores the suffering, the Virgin who looks as if she's screaming and the figure of Christ after he has been deposed from the cross. ... It's definitely by Michelangelo, and I was lucky to find documents that prove it," said Forcellino. "The X-rays that have been done are the key". He has published a book about the painting which will be available in English next year.

Attribution acceptance in academic circles will take some time. After examining the painting, Michelangelo authority William E. Wallace, an art history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, expressed doubts, saying, "You can do scientific analysis of the paint and the surface and the panel and all that tells you is we're dealing with something old from the 16th century." Nonetheless, he did not rule out the possibility that it is the work of Michelangelo. And one way or the other, Wallace agrees that the painting's age and well-documented history make it deserving of display and scholarly debate about its origins.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Caravaggio Experience in Rome, April 27-29, 2011

Last April I led what I called a Caravaggio Pilgrimage in Rome, specifically to see the blockbuster Caravaggio exhibition at the Scuderie. Although that magnificent show is now just a fond memory, Rome remains the city with the largest concentration of Caravaggio paintings anywhere in the world, by far.

The Eternal City continues to invite glorious total immersion for Caravaggio fans, and I'm planning a three-day Caravaggio Experience in Rome, April 27-29, 2011 for exactly that purpose!

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio arrived in Rome in the last decade of the 16th century, brimming with ambition. As it turned out, his youthful confidence was well founded, and his brilliant new painting style shook the art establishment to its roots.

Until his volatile temperament got the better of him, causing him to flee the city in 1606, there was constant demand for his work in Rome -- for easel paintings commissioned by private collectors as well as large canvases to decorate chapels in various churches.

As a result of that decade of patronage, Rome today is a Caravaggio-rich city. Twenty of his paintings are still on view, spotted around Rome -- many in the very chapels and palazzi for which they were originally painted more than 400 years ago. The city's collection spans his entire career, including two of his first known paintings and his last.

During the Caravaggio Experience in Rome our small group (not more than 6 participants) will explore Caravaggio’s Roman canvases, visiting nine sites -- four churches and five museum galleries -- in the historic center of the city. By the end of our three days together, we will have spent time with all 20 of the Caravaggio paintings that are to be seen in Rome.

To fully appreciate Caravaggio's work, an understanding of the world he lived in -- and the way he lived in it -- is essential. Therefore, on Day 1, before heading out on our site visits, we will discuss the social, political, religious and artistic realities of his day. I'm a great believer in context, and I've designed this SmArt Talk expressly to provide the background to enhance participants' appreciation of what we’ll see on our site visits.

1600 was a significant moment in time and Caravaggio was definitely a man of the moment. His importance in the history of art will be the unifying thread throughout our thee-day program.

Prints and pictures in books are better than nothing, but in truth, they are a feeble substitute for seeing the actual paintings. To one degree or another, the true colors and surface textures are lost in reproduction. And how surprising it can be to see the actual size of a painting, when we've become so familiar with the image in books or online.

I can talk about the tears in the Lute Player's eyes, the work-worn hands, the healthy glow of the infant's cheek, or the powdery bloom on the grapes in the still life, but one can only fully experience Caravaggio's astonishing naturalism and the stunning power of his compositions when standing before the actual paintings.
I'm already excited, just thinking about revisiting Caravaggio in his adopted city with a small group of like-minded people.

For more information about the Caravaggio Experience in Rome program, please contact me at

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Virgin Eleousa

The Cleveland Museum of Art has recently acquired its first Byzantine icon: the Icon of the Mother of God and Infant Christ. It was painted in Crete, c. 1425-50, in tempera and gold on cypress-wood panel; 96 x 70 cm.

This type of icon is known as a Virgin Eleousa or Virgin of Tenderness, characterized by the touching cheeks of Mother and Child, in a composition that combines spiritual majesty with human sympathy. The icon signifies the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation: Christ born of human flesh and destined to die for the sake of humankind. The gaze of Mary, who cradles the Christ child, is filled with a sense of pathos, born of the knowledge of Christ’s future sacrifice.

Of course, for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, the image can be appreciated as a representation of the human bond between mother and child, and the universal ideal of tender, protective motherly love.

This particular icon is rare in that it can be attributed to a specific icon painter, Angelos Akotantos (died c. 1450), who signed as many as 30 icons and to whom an additional 20 are reliably attributed. Active in the early-to-mid 15th century, Akotantos had a workshop in Candia, the capital of Crete. From here he supplied icons to Greek churches and monasteries on Crete, Patmos, Rhodes and elsewhere.

The large size of this icon may suggest its original placement on a templon in an Orthodox church. A templon (from Greek meaning "temple”) is a feature of Byzantine churches, similar to an alter rail or rood screen; a barrier separating the laity in the nave from the priests preparing the sacraments at the altar. The templon first appeared in Christian churches around the fifth century AD and eventually evolved into the modern iconostasis, (a wall of icons and religious paintings) still found in Orthodox churches today.

Icons of this importance rarely appear on the market, and this painting stands out as one of the most significant icons to enter an American museum collection in recent years.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vanitas: Not Living in the Moment

In thinking about the vanitas genre of art, it occurs to me that that it’s all about not living in the moment.

Most of us have never been exposed to truly horrible death … unlike people who lived (and died) during the 14th century, when the Great Plague (aka the Black Death, the Great Mortality) killed roughly half the world’s population.
It’s estimated that in Mediterranean Europe the plague wiped out 75-80% of the population in just four years. After that, devastating plague epidemics popped up somewhere in virtually every generation until it made its final appearance in Europe in the 19th century.

Lack of sanitation, marauding armies, high infant mortality, famine, primitive (often barbaric) medical treatments, no FDA inspections of food, no OSHA regulation at the job site … it’s almost impossible for most of us, today, to understand the constant presence of death that was the reality of life for everyone until very recent times.

Not surprisingly, given the uncertainty of daily survival, one of the most widely circulated books printed with movable type before 1500 was a self-help book called Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying). Written within the context of the horrors of the Black Death, it provided protocols and procedures for how to "die well" according to Christian precepts of the late Middle Ages.

Prior to the Great Plague, the rituals and consolations of the death bed were generally attended to by a clergyman. But the priesthood had been especially hard hit by the epidemic, and it would take generations to rebuild. Ars moriendi was an innovative response by the Church to provide the guidance of a "virtual priest" to those who sought to die with propriety.

Gradually, the idea of preparing for one's own death became common practice, as a daily meditation, during bad times -- and good. We know, for example, that the 17th century sculptor, Gian-Lorenzo Bernini, was a devout practitioner of the art of dying well.

(Click to listen to a podcast on The Art of Dying … then click on the audio symbol in left-hand column).

As always, art reflected the times, and a type of sacred art - the memento mori – came into being, to emphasize the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures and achievements, and to focus meditation on the prospect of the afterlife. "Memento mori" is a Latin phrase which translates as "Remember your mortality" or "Remember you will die."

A subset of Memento mori, a vanitas painting is a still-life containing symbols of death, meant as a reminder of the transience of life, the vanity of ambition, and the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasures. In reminding the viewer of inevitable death, a vanitas painting serves as a veiled exhortation to repent.

Common vanitas symbols include human skulls, over-ripe fruit and decaying flowers, smoke, time-pieces, bubbles, musical instruments, and jewelry, gold and other riches.

All this is not to say, however, that we can’t just “be in the moment” and enjoy a so-called vanitas picture for its inherent beauty. I suspect that many artists took secret pleasure in the fact that the viewing experience evoked by a sensuous vanitas still life is in direct conflict with the moralistic message!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Using Art As A Drawing Card

The theft in March 2009 of a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) shone the light of international media attention on a site that had previously not been widely known outside Norway.

The picture, titled Let the Children Come To Me, is valued at $2M to $3M -- or perhaps more now, given its newfound notoriety.

The thieves were caught and the painting retrieved. It has undergone restoration and is now back safely in a church in Larvik, 105km southwest of Oslo. Church security has been improved.

Church officials are eager to capitalize on what is known in Norway as the “Munch effect”— referring to the increased interest in works by Edvard Munch after The Scream was stolen, for the second time, in 2004.

Charged with developing a strategy to ensure that the region can profit from the publicity of the robbery, a tourism manager in Larvik said, “I imagine that an additional 10,000 people may come to see the work annually, if we market it right.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What do the Pantheon & St. Ivo Have in Common?

I've just discovered that Borromini reprised the Pantheon's ancient stepped-ring dome in his c.1650 charming Baroque design of St. Ivo.

It's not something one readily notices from street level.
But, when photographing the dome of the Pantheon from the roof of a building on the Piazza della Rotonda, I captured this image of Borromini's delightful, fanciful corkscrew cupola atop St. Ivo in the near distance.

Large-as-life ... stepped rings on the dome beneath the bell tower!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Rapid Reversal of Fortune

In my posting one week ago, questioning the possible attribution of a Martyrdom of St. Lawrence to Caravaggio, I said I thought it would be a while before the experts pronounced their final verdict. While I was right to question the attribution, I was wrong about how long it would take for the experts to weight in ...

Yesterday, Antonio Paolucci, the head of the Vatican Museums and a former Italian Culture Minister, took back the claim -- announced just 8 days earlier-- that the Jesuit-owned Martyrdom of St. Lawrence might be the work of Caravaggio.

In a front-page article in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Paolucci wrote, "The quality isn't there, whereas in a Caravaggio [the quality is] always high, even when ... he uses maximum carelessness and a minimum of his expressive resources."

In the article, entitled "A New Caravaggio? Not Really," Paolucci wrote that the work was not up to Caravaggio's standard, citing “inadequacy” of technique, and stylistic shortcomings. He called it a "modest" effort at best, and suggested that it was most likely (a student?) copy of an original painted by a Caravaggio-influenced artist.

Their hopes dashed, I imagine the Jesuits who own it are rather disappointed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Caravaggio? Or Caravaggio-esque?

Speaking of Caravaggio … and exciting art discoveries … Reuters reported on the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano’s announcement that a Martyrdom of St Lawrence has been found among the possessions of the Society of Jesuits in Rome, and their suggestion that it was painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

At first blush it appears to have many of Caravaggio’s stylistic hallmarks, but it has not yet been authenticated as his work.

"Certainly it's a stylistically impeccable, beautiful painting," the newspaper said in its Sunday edition, hedging its bets as it cautioned that further analyses, in-depth documentation, and stylistic examination are required before it can be attributed for certain to the Italian master.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence displays features typical of Caravaggio's style, including dramatic chiaroscuro and the unique perspective from which the subject is seen. Other similarities are seen in the saint's hand, the active pose of the body, virtuoso foreshortening and the emotive facial expression.

Maurizio Marini, a Caravaggio scholar, points out that St. Lawrence - a martyr burned to death during Roman persecutions in 258AD - is not known to have been a Caravaggio subject. Marini said the stylistic similarities are inconclusive and he expressed skepticism, saying that claims of new Caravaggios often surface but seldom hold up.

However, the author of the article, an art historian named Salviucci Insolera, cites the fact that Caravaggio’s circle of patrons included the powerful ... Jesuit ... Crescenzi family. But, hedging her bets, she added, "That the painting is at the very least a Caravaggio-esque work of the highest order is quite obvious."

Although it’s hard to tell by simply looking at a web-sourced image of a newspaper picture of the real thing, I question attribution to Caravaggio … based primarily on two things:

  1. Caravaggio is known to have used the same sitters repeatedly, and this model appears to be one we’ve never seen before.

  2. The facial expression seems to lack the vigor I expect of Caravaggio. He produced a series of what amounted to studies of extreme emotion – and if being cooked alive doesn’t engender extreme emotion, I don’t know what would – and this Lawrence simply doesn’t convince me that he’s feeling the heat.

That having been said, (I say, hedging my bets) could it be an early work, painted soon after his arrival in Rome, when he was still developing his skills and used any model who would sit for him for no pay? But then, at that point he didn’t yet have a connection to the Jesuits through the Crescenzi family. And he hadn't yet arrived at this degree of foreshortening or compositional complexity.

Così complicato! It’ll be a while before the experts pronounce, but I’ll let you know when I hear more.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Velazquez: Lost & Found

It happens surprisingly often, and, oh, the vicarious thrill I get when it does … when I hear that someone has discovered what might well be a lost painting by an Old Master!

Just imagine John Marciari’s excitement --- as a junior curator at the Yale University Art Gallery -- when it dawned on him that the unidentified painting languishing in storage looked suspiciously like it might be an early masterpiece by Diego Velazquez!

The Los Angeles Times reports on an article in the current issue of the Madrid quarterly Ars, in which Marciari makes the case that the canvas, which portrays The Education of the Virgin, is actually a 1617 altarpiece by the Spanish master. He believes the painting, which appears to have suffered water damage, was the altarpiece at the Carmelite Convent of St. Anne in Seville, which flooded in 1626.

A large canvas (> 5’ by 4’ ), The Education of the Virgin shows the young Mary learning to read at the knee of her mother, St. Anne, with her father, St. Joachim, looking on.

Marciari claims that the technical evidence of pigments, ground, and canvas are consistent with artistic practice in Seville in the early 17th century. He writes, “Further examination – of style and technique, of the painterly conceits, the manner of quotation, and other factors – leads to a unique origin: Diego Velázquez, born in Seville in 1599 and active there only until 1623, but even from the first moments of his career responsible for the revolutionary change in Spanish painting represented by the altarpiece.”

Marciari points to similarities between The Education of the Virgin and another early Velazquez work, The Luncheon (kept in Saint Petersburg Hermitage) “from the way that the figures emerge from the darkness, to the inconsistently cast shadows that set off brilliantly depicted still-life elements, to the long thick strokes of paint.” He cites comparable elements, such as St. Anne's ochre-colored draperies, in accepted Velázquez works.

The still-life at the left side of the canvas is similar to pottery bowls, plates and baskets present in other Velázquez’s paintings, as are the treatment of “deep, animated folds” in the garments of Saint Anne and the young virgin.

The quarterly journal says the Yale work "could be this master's most significant find for more than a century." Laurence Kanter, the Curator of early European art at the Yale Art Gallery calls the discovery all the more remarkable because museums today rarely have the chance to acquire a work by Velázquez. Kanter points out that Velázquez "has never been out of favor. From the beginning, he has been one of the great, canonical painters of the Western tradition, and because he worked for the kings of Spain, most of his work is still in that country."
Given to Yale in the 1920s by alumni brothers, it was previously listed as the work of an unknown 17th century Spanish painter. The painting is undergoing restoration and may be on display in the Yale Gallery as early as 2012.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Art World All-A-Twitter about Turner Landscape

The art world is all-a-twitter, so to speak, about Wednesday's Sotheby's London auction of J. M. W. Turner’s magnificent 1839 landscape, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino. It was expected to sell for £12 – 18 million ($18 - 27mm), but the auctioneers hammer fell at just shy of £30mm ($45mm). As a point of comparison, a Turner view of Venice fetched £20.5mm at auction in 2006. Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino was purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

But the excitement was about more than just the price.

According to Sotheby's David Moore-Gwyn, Senior Specialist in Early British Paintings, "This is Turner at his absolute best. One of the most evocative pictures of Rome ever painted, this picture has everything: a colourful, relaxed beauty, exquisite detail, flawless condition and superlative provenance and exhibition history. One of the last great Turner masterpieces to have remained in private hands, its sale at auction represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for collectors and one of the landmark moments of my 35-year career at Sotheby's."

That’s something worth twittering about!

By “superlative provenance,” he means that the painting has only appeared on the open market once in the 171 years since it was painted. It was originally bought by Hugh Munro, a friend and patron of Turner. Almost 40 years later, while honeymooning in Italy in 1878, the 5th Earl of Rosebery and his new wife, Hannah Rothschild, acquired it. For the next 100 years, it hung in the family's country home or in their London residences, until, in 1978, it was loaned to the National Gallery of Scotland.

The painting is further distinguished by its immaculate condition.

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino ("Cow Pasture") is a view of the un-excavated Roman Forum, bathed in hazy light. It is the last of Turner's 20-year series of views of the city. Turner painted it at the peak of his career, from studies and sketches he made on two visits to the city. The sun-washed panorama shows features of classical, renaissance and baroque Rome, but in the foreground we see livestock and herders, the activity of modern life. The painting shows the artist at the height of his technical powers and represents the culmination of Turner's fascination with Rome. Some consider Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino to be the finest among his many depictions of Italian cities.

The Getty now must apply for an export license, as the picture is considered part of Britain’s cultural heritage. It appears that this is a mere formality, although if someone in Britain were able to raise £30MM in the next three months, the decision might well go against export.
The headline of yesterday's Scotsman newspaper lamented, "£30m Scots Turner Painting Lost to Nation". The article points out that the "three-month 'export stop' would allow a potential UK buyer to match the price, but that 'no-one will have enough money to pay for it'". However a Sotheby's spokesman said the UK already has a large collection of Turners and that it is "important for the artist's international reputation that his works were able to be viewed around the world." He added that this case is "not in the same league as when a very great but very rare work of art is sold and by its loss we're impoverished."
I'm thrilled to think that Turner's Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino may be hanging at the Getty when I'm there in January!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Amateur Classicists & Art Historians: The National Trust Asks “What’s Going On Here?”

One might wonder how an important and historically valuable painting can end up languishing in storage for 30 years, especially when it’s a huge (approx. 8’10’ x 7’ 9”) masterpiece by Jacopo Tintoretto! Very often, it’s the poor condition of a painting and the lack of funds for restoration that are the culprits.

That was the case for the magnificent octagonal canvas recently put on display at the 17th-century Kingston Lacy House, in Dorset, UK. When The National Trust acquired the house and its contents in 1981, it was impossible to identify the subject matter of this painting – much less to attribute it with any certainly to the hand of Tintoretto – due to layers of darkened varnish and discolored, flaking touch-up paint.

Put in storage during restoration work on the house, the piece was then discredited by some scholars who, perhaps deceived by its bad condition, expressed doubt that it was by Tintoretto himself. Those doubts made a conservation effort seem less imperative … so the piece remained hidden away.

Happily, a recent fundraising effort has allowed the canvas to be cleaned and restored. In the process, X-rays and infrared analysis helped to expose the unquestionable energy, fresh coloring, and loose, broad brushstrokes of the master himself, confirming the attribution to Tintoretto that was stated in a 1847-1852 Kingston Lacy inventory.

At that time, the painting was referred to as Apollo and the Muses, although in Greek mythology there were nine Muses, whereas the painting contains only seven figures, besides Apollo and two cupids. As a result of the cleaning, some of the figures have been otherwise identified, and the painting has been given a rather cumbersome new title: Apollo (or Hymen) Crowning a Poet and Giving Him a Spouse.

Tintoretto painted the canvas in the 1560s or 1570s. It was one of many works acquired in 1849 by William John Bankes*, the owner of Kingston Lacy, when he was living in Italy. Supposedly, it came from the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, but there is no record of it there, and it is possible the dealer who sold it to Bankes fabricated its prestigious provenance.

The National Trust’s Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, Alastair Laing, said: “This is undoubtedly a work of great significance. Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto are the three great masters of the mid- to late-16th century in Venice and to have a painting by Tintoretto in an English house, rather than still in its original location in Venice, or in an Italian museum, is extraordinary.”

“It is all the more fascinating that we do not yet know who or where it was painted for, or what the actual subject is,” he added.

Art experts believe that the painting depicts Apollo, or possibly Hymen, the god of marriage, placing a crown on an androgynous figure who holds a book, probably a poet. Mythical figures surround them, including the god Hercules and a woman believed to be the betrothed. Fortune sits with her back to us, extending a brimming cornucopia toward them.

Although the iconography would likely have been readily understood by viewers in the 16th century, today the identity of some of the other figures is still uncertain … as is the significance of various objects, including a die depicting five dots**, a gold box and a dish of gold coins. Here are some of the mysteries the National Trust is trying to resolve:
  • Why is Hercules (identified by his usual attribute: a lion’s head and pelt) in the picture, with spear (or staff) and bow?
  • Is the young man his son, Hyllus, whom Hercules, once he became immortal, encouraged to marry his former mistress, Iole?
  • Who is the woman whose left hand is linked to Apollo’s left hand?
  • What is the significance of the objects beneath Apollo/Hymen’s feet, which appear to include a gold cup, a gold dish containing coins, a gold box, and a golden steeple? Is he trampling them to signify his contempt for wealth?
  • What is the significance of the enormous die under the figure of Fortune, showing five dots?
  • Could all the symbols and the players be related in some way to the content of the book that the ambiguous “poet” figure holds?

The restoration of Apollo (or Hymen) crowning a Poet and giving him a Spouse has raised as many questions as it answered, and The National Trust is asking the public to help solve its mysteries. If you have any ideas about the subject matter of this wonderful canvas, contact The National Trust through their website. Oh, yes …and please tell me, too!

* His close friend, Lord Byron, called William John Bankes "the father of all mischief'". As a result of homosexual indiscretions, Bankes fled to live in exile in Italy, as sodomy was then considered a grave crime in England, deserving of the death penalty. Nonetheless -- despite the fact that he could never return to England -- he continued to acquire and send artworks back to his 8,500-acre estate. It is believed that before his death he secretly returned to have a last look at his collections in his beloved Kingston Lacy, which had been in the Bankes family since 1663.

** The 5-dot die is found in another painting by Tintoretto, Mercury and the Three Graces (Palazzo Ducale, Venice). In the 17th century Claudio Ridolfi, explained that: “One of [the Graces] leans on a die, because the Graces accompany offices [which, in Venice, were chosen by lot]. ”

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Magnificent Pagan Altar Unearthed in Israel

Workers on a hospital construction project in Ashkelon, Israel, have discovered an ancient pagan burial field dating to the Roman period of the 1st/2nd centuries CE (or AD, as I was taught in school).

Under the supervision of the Israel Antiquities Authority, numerous family and individual burial structures have been unearthed. One of the tombs contained a large limestone sarcophagus with a decorated lid, with an unusual interior pillow-effect where the stone at one end was left slightly raised in the spot where the head of the deceased was to rest.

Perhaps the most exciting find, though, is a magnificent pagan altar made of granite, decorated with bulls’ heads and laurel wreaths adorned with grape leaves and clusters of fruit. Although incense altars usually stood in Roman temples, this one stood in the center of the ancient burial field. It was used for burning incense, particularly myrrh and frankincense, while praying to the gods. The resulting burn marks remain visible, despite the altar having been buried for almost 2,000 years.

I wonder if building contractors in lands with long histories eventually become inured to archeological delays on their projects?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Seraphim Are Red, Cherubim Are Blue

Further to yesterday's posting:

Whenever I look at Jean Fouquet’s Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels, I wonder about the host of blue and red figures crowding in on the throne. I’ve finally taken the time to try to satisfy my curiosity, and this is what I've learned thus far:

1. Cherubim support the Throne of God and represent the Presence of His Glory.

2. Seraphim surround the Heavenly Throne as fiery guardians.

3. Cherubim and seraphim were not counted among the seven choirs of angels in the Jewish Bible, nor were they mentioned in the angelic hierarchy during the early centuries of Christianity; but they were generally believed to exist.

4. It was Pope Gregory the Great (540- 604) who established nine angelic orders divided into three choirs, with cherubim and seraphim populating the highest choir.

5. Angels were believed to be fire, breath, spirit, and radiance. Biblical descriptions of these “beings of fire and wind” were immaterial, unsubstantial.

6. Thus, a certain degree of imaginative license was given to artists who attempted to visualize these abstract creatures, and by the time of the Renaissance, artists were portraying cherubim and seraphim as pudgy, pink-cheeked, winged infants … which today are often referred to as “putti”.

7. Artists traditionally clothed cherubim in blue, while seraphim are clothed in red, and I surmise that these colors symbolize the wind and fire of their immateriality.

By the way: The word putto is the singular form of putti, the Italian word for "small boy" or "child". The Italian was derived from the Latin putus, meaning "boy" or "child”. In modern Italian, putto now only signifies a cherubic, winged little boy figure in art, as in this famous duo by Raphael.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

The King's Favorite Mistress

The first time I saw this panel -- the right-hand wing of the "Melun diptych” -- in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, I was stunned to see that it was painted in the mid-1400s … it looks so much more modern that that!

Jean Fouquet (1420–1481) was the first French artist to travel to Italy to personally experience the early Italian Renaissance. Returning to Northern Europe sometime after 1437, he linked elements of the Tuscan style with the style of the Van Eycks, and thus became the founder of an important new school of painting. He was a master of both manuscript illumination and panel painting, and his excellence as an illuminator is evident in the precise rendering of fine detail and lucid characterization that we see in this Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels.

The picture is actually a portrait of Agnès Sorel (1421–1450), a favorite mistress of King Charles VII of France, to whom she bore three daughters. She was apparently an extraordinarily beautiful young woman, of high intelligence, and it is said that her presence at his court brought the king out of a protracted depression. She was known as la Dame de Beauté.

For her private residence King Charles gave her the Château de Loches -- where he had been persuaded by Joan of Arc to accept the French crown -- and she came to have considerable influence over the King. This, combined with her extravagant tastes, gained her powerful enemies at court.

Agnès died at the age of 28, possibly the victim of murder. Recent forensic analysis of her remains has confirmed that she died from mercury poisoning, but in those days mercury was used to treat worms and was sometimes used in cosmetic preparations, so her poisoning might not have been politically motivated.

After her death, the King chose her cousin, Antoinette de Maignelais, to take her place as his mistress.

The "Melun diptych" (c. 1450) originally stood on an altar in the cathedral at Melun, 25 miles southeast of Paris. One of Fouquet’s most important paintings, the Virgin and Child panel faced the left-hand wing -- now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin -- which depicts Etienne Chevalier with his patron saint, St. Stephen.

Monday, May 24, 2010

More Exhibits Worth A Trip

Here's info on two more summer exhibitions, one in Madrid, one in Sydney; plus two shows to plan for: Washington DC in the Fall, and Boston in 2011.

SYDNEY - Art Gallery of New South Wales
Victorian Visions
20 May - 29 August, 2010

Victorian Visions presents an impressive collection of 45 paintings, watercolors, drawings and sculptures by some of the luminaries of Victorian art, including works by Rossetti, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Poynter, Watts and Waterhouse. This is the first time that many of these works have been seen in Australia.

The prosperity of the Victorian era (1837-1901) transformed the British art world, creating a community of artists who were free to create paintings that depicted powerful stories from ancient history and contemporary life with a new richness of color and wealth of detail. Many of the works in the exhibit are superb examples from these significant artists, including the impressive 2.6-metre tall painting Marianne by J W Waterhouse; Holman Hunt’s Il Dolce Far Niente; Richard Redgrave’s The Tempstress; and Leighton’s Athlete Struggling with a Python, long recognized as the seminal work in British new sculpture.


Una casa-un palacio
22 May - 25 July, 2010

Una casa-un palacio is an exhibition featuring the works referred to by Le Corbusier in a lecture he gave in Madrid in 1928. The exhibit shows how Le Corbusier’s priciples of design confronted the rational and optimal resolution of technical, functional and economic problems, without forgetting beauty. The exhibition includes a selection of photographs and original plans of Le Corbusier’s works, projects, paintings and pieces of furniture, dated around the year 1928, as well as a number of photographs, letters and documents.

Domestic architecture is represented by Villa Cook, Villa Stein and two houses at Weissenhof in Stuttgart, and the Palace of the League of Nations project in Geneva represents institutional architecture. Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965), better known as Le Corbusier, was a heroic figure from the history of architecture. Considered by many “The Architect” of the 20th century, Le Corbusier has all the features that define Modern architecture.


WASHINGTON, DC - The Phillips Collection
Side by Side: Oberlin’s Masterworks at the Phillips
September 11, 2010 - January 16, 2011

Illustrating its unconventional approach to displaying art, The Phillips will present loosely themed groupings of some of its own masterworks plus important works from Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. Half of the 24 paintings and one sculpture on loan from the Allen are old masters, dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. They include rare works by painters of the British, Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Italian, and Spanish schools.

Included among the old masters will be one of the most important examples of northern baroque painting in the United States, Hendrick ter Bruggen’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene (1625); The Fountain of Life, a superb 16th-century painting probably painted in Spain after a work by Jan van Eyck; and Joseph Wright of Derby’s night scene Dovedale by Moonlight (c. 1784–85). Oberlin’s modern holdings include works by Alberto Giacometti, Barnett Newman, Pablo Picasso, and Mark Rothko.


BOSTON - Boston Athenæum
Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey
February 9 - June 3, 2011

The imaginary world of artist and author Edward St. John Gorey (1925-2000 maintains a delicate balance between the hilarious and ominous uncertainty.

Gorey’s love of literature and the ballet, and his off-beat and ironic sense of humor, resulted in a sardonic and witty oeuvre; this exhibition explores the diversity of his art through original pen and ink illustrations, preparatory sketches, unpublished drawings, and ephemera.

The exhibit includes roughly 180 objects, including selections from numerous well-known Gorey publications. While his Edwardian-inspired images appear simple, the pen work is often complex.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Some Summer Exhibits in the US

Some enticing exhibits in the US this summer. Here are but a few:

Frick Art & Historical Center
May 14 - September 5

Small but Sublime: Intimate 19th Century American Landscapes at the Frick Art & Historical Center. 22 small-scale paintings and drawings by 18 American artists, ranging from the realistic style of Hudson River School to the American Impressionists. Admission is free.

The Morgan Library & Museum
May 18 - September 12
Eight extraordinary drawings by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) demonstrate the variety and dynamism of his draftsmanship. Dürer, master of the German Renaissance, transformed drawing in Northern Europe. Using his unrivaled talent as a draftsman and the force of his powerful artistic personality, Dürer tirelessly promoted drawing as a medium, creating works of exceptional beauty and remarkable technical skill.

Exhibitions focused on Dürer’s drawings are rare, and this marks the first time in more than twenty years that the Morgan’s outstanding Dürer holdings will be displayed together. Also included are prints and treatises by the artist.In his pursuit of beauty, Dürer devoted careful attention to every aspect of artistic production. On view in the exhibition are a woodcut, its associated woodblock, and a letter to the patron for whom it was made. In the letter Dürer wrote, “Please let it be as it is. No one could improve it because it was done artistically and with care. Those who see it and who understand such matters will tell you so.”

The Morgan Library & Museum
May 21 - August 29
Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design gives us scenic vistas, winding paths, bucolic meadows, rustic retreats suitable for solitary contemplation and other alluring naturalistic features of gardens created in the Romantic spirit.

The Romantics looked to nature as a liberating force, a source of sensual pleasure, moral instruction, religious insight, and artistic inspiration. Eloquent exponents of these ideals, they extolled the mystical powers of nature and argued for more sympathetic styles of garden design in books, manuscripts, and drawings, now regarded as core documents of the Romantic Movement. Their cult of inner beauty and their view of the outside world dominated European thought during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The exhibition features approximately ninety influential texts and outstanding works of art, providing a compelling overview of ideas championed by the Romantics and also implemented by them in private estates and public parks in Europe and the United States, notably New York’s Central Park.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
12 May-15 August
An Italian Journey: Drawings from the Tobey Collection, Correggio to Tiepolo presents 72 extraordinary works of the 16th-18th centuries, from a preeminent private collections of Italian Old Master drawings. Masterpieces by historically important draftsmen—principally Italian masters but also artists whose careers brought them south of the Alps—among them Correggio, Parmigianino, Bernini, Poussin, Guercino, Canaletto, and Tiepolo.

J. Paul Getty Museum, LA
May 18 - October 17
Printing the Grand Manner: Charles Le Brun and Monumental Prints in the Age of Louis XIV features eleven large prints intended to evoke the grandeur of Le Brun’s large-scale paintings and tapestry designs that illustrate events from the exemplary lives of ancient rulers such as Alexander the Great and Constantine the Great. Examines the prints' rich vocabulary and illuminates the context in which they were made between the mid-1660s and the mid-1680s.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
May 22 - September 6
The de Young Museum hosts the Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, which includes approximately 100 paintings from the Musée d’Orsay’s permanent collection. Highlights the work of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, among others.

The Musée d’Orsay is lending their most beloved paintings while it undergoes a partial closure for refurbishment and reinstallation in anticipation of the museum’s 25th anniversary in 2011.
Birth of Impressionism will be followed in the fall of 2010 by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, and Beyond: Post–Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay. The de Young will be the only museum in the world to host both exhibitions.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Smithsonian-Haiti Cultural Recovery Project

The Smithsonian Institution is leading a team of cultural organizations to help the Haitian government recover Haiti’s cultural materials damaged by the Jan. 12 earthquake. A conservation site will be set up where objects retrieved from the rubble can be assessed, conserved and stored. It will also be the training center for Haitians who will eventually take over the conservation effort.

“The highest priority ... has rightly been to save lives and provide food, water, medical care and shelter,” said Richard Kurin, Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture at the Smithsonian. “However, Haiti’s rich culture, which goes back five centuries, is also in danger and we have the expertise to help preserve that heritage.” The rainy season in Haiti has already begun, and the hurricane season is on its way. Much of Haiti’s endangered cultural heritage is in destroyed buildings and is at risk of permanent destruction.

Among the artifacts at risk are architectural features such as stained glass and historic murals, as well as paper documents, photographs, artifacts and some of the 9,000 paintings from the Nader Museum which is now in ruins.

“With this unprecedented inter-agency effort ... we express our collective belief that in times of great tragedy it is essential to help a country preserve and protect its cultural legacy for future generations,” said Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Top: Little Crippled Haiti, Edouard Duval Carrie
Bottom: Damaged painting at Galerie Nader, by Rigaud Benoit

Monday, May 10, 2010

Time-Travel Destination: Padua

I only dream of traveling back in time when wishing I could have seen a particular work of art before its destruction. Today my time-travel destination would be late-15th century Padua.

In those days, Padua was an essential stop for travelers in the Republic of Venice. A center of humanist culture and higher learning, Padua was home to Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, as well as the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani.

Located in the transept of the late-13th century church of the Augustinian Hermits, the cappella Ovetari was decorated with “must-see” frescoes painted by Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506), who was one of the most admired artists in Europe.

Mantegna’s fresco cycle was the opening salvo of Renaissance painting in northern Italy. It established the young artist’s reputation and had an immediate impact on his contemporaries. In fact, Mantegna’s Ovetari work continued to influence artists and to draw art-lovers to Padua until an errant Allied bomb demolished the chapel during World War II.
The frescoes had aged badly; nonetheless, it was a tremendous loss.

Fortunately, from the beginning, the frescoes had inspired copyists (Musee Jacquemart-Andre, Paris), and in the 19th century a series of black and white photographs had been taken. Also -- by happy chance -- in the 1930s two of Mantegna’s scenes had been detached from the wall and removed from the chapel in order to conserve them. Little did anyone then imagine the historic extent of that conservation!

The chapel has since been reconstructed. Today the plain gothic architecture looks much as it first did to Mantegna and his co-workers -- with the exception of the two conserved Mantegna frescoes which are back in place, and the original terracotta altarpiece which was reassembled from fragments salvaged from the rubble.
Starting out on a team of seven artists, Mantegna was the only one left at the end of the nine-year project. It was Mantegna’s style that characterized the fresco cycle. Today nothing is to be seen on the left wall of his Episodes in the Life of St. James.
But on the right-hand wall, despite the ruinous condition of The Attempted Martyrdom of St. Christopher and The Beheading of St. Christopher, we see Mantegna’s magnificent classicizing marble architecture, teeming with ranks of precisely outlined figures, painted in the imposing Tuscan style that he had already absorbed by the time he was in his late teens. We see Mantegna’s novel treatment of perspective, and the way he lowered the viewpoint in order to enhance the monumentality of the composition.
And, it turns out that one day we may not have to depend on time-travel to see Mantegna's fresco cycle in situ. Since 2001, Italy's Istituto Centrale per il Restauro has been quetly working with tens of thousands of fragments (averaging 3 centimeters square), piecing the puzzle together. Over time, the wall paintings may gradually be recomposed ... a slowly-healing wound. All it will take is funding, patience and restorers' skill.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Horse That Wasn't, Is

Late in the 15th Century, while living at the court of the Duke of Milan, Leonardo da Vinci met his greatest artistic challenge. The Duke, Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, decided to honor his father Francesco with an equestrian statue. In 1482, he commissioned Leonardo to design and build the largest equestrian statue in the world.

Leonardo spent years preparing the design of Il Cavallo (The Horse), and he managed to take it as far as the clay model. But, before it could be cast, the Duke -- facing imminent war with the French -- sent the bronze he had gathered for the horse to be cast into cannon. To top it off, when the French invaded Milan in 1499, the huge earthenware model was destroyed by Gascon archers, who used it for target practice.

Sforza was exiled and Leonardo returned to Florence. His patron gone, the project was abandoned and many of Leonardo's key drawings for the project were misplaced.

In fact, however, the drawings actually did survive the centuries, and in 1995, the "lost notebooks" of Leonardo were rediscovered in Madrid's Biblioteca Nacional. The story of what happened then is fascinating, culminating in 1999 -- exactly half a millennium later -- when Il Cavallo was cast in bronze, in one piece, in a foundry in New York State. The artist responsible was an American sculptor, Nina Akamu.

Two castings of the giant equestrian statue were made. The first was sent to Milan as a gift to Italy from the United States. The other went to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, in Grand Rapids, MI. Standing 24’ high and weighing 15 tons, Il Cavallo is still the largest free-standing horse statue ever made.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Destructive Art

There seems to be a trend brewing, called "Destructive Art".

For a recent gallery show in London, Michael Landy installed a huge glass
tank and invited people to toss in their "creative failures".

The South London Gallery website offered an explanation of the various
notions the installation represented, ending with "and [] makes reference to the
derision with which contemporary art is sometimes treated." ... hmmm ...

I personally prefer art that lifts the spirit. With all the bleakness and destruction that exists in the world ... why strive to create more?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Shaquille O’Neal as Art Curator

Size Does Matter, an exhibit curated by Shaquille O’Neal, will continue to run through May 27, 2010, at the Flag Art Foundation, a contemporary art space on W.25th St in NYC.

In an article in New York Magazine (02/15/10), when asked how he made his choices, Shaq said, "Art is a process of delivering or arranging elements that appeal to the emotions (...). The thing about size -- if it's big or small you have to look at it. Because I'm so big you have to look at me. I think of myself as a monument. But sometimes I like to feel small."
(Maybe by going to a planetarium? MJM)

Shaq weighs 320 pounds and stands 7'1" in size 22 shoes, so he knows something about size relativity! He selected 66 works for the show, ranging from Andreas Gursky's billboard-size photograph, Madonna I, to a tiny portrait of Shaq himself, by Willard Wigan.

The exhibit, which includes works by international artists (including the likes of Chuck Close & Cindy Sherman), explores the ways that scale affects perception. Large and small objects require different viewing approaches, elicit unique responses, and reflect a variety of purpose. The exhibit demonstrates how scale can be treated as a key compositional component in a variety of media.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Curatorial Intervention Goes Too Far

The Caravaggio exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome was fabulous … with the exception of the ill-conceived lighting. Perhaps the curators were trying to play off Caravaggio’s trademark “chiaroscuro” when they opted to create their own light & dark effect in presenting the two-dozen works on loan from museums around the world.

The dim ambient light in the rooms could have been effective if the canvases had been evenly lit. Instead, spotlights were trained on the paintings, presumably to highlight specific sections of each work.

Caravaggio’s own treatment of light and color in his work was carefully wrought for compositional balance and narrative clarity. I would have preferred a wash of light that allowed me to take in each composition as a whole, as the artist conceived it, without curatorial contrivance.

Why would the curators feel the need to tamper with … er, augment … Caravaggio’s work?

For some years now there has been a trend in museums to try to make old art more accessible to new audiences. This is not a bad thing: the ability to generate more profit from a special exhibit allows the production of expensive landmark exhibits like the Scuderie exhibition.

But I believe the effort to be misguided, if -- in trying to facilitate the experience for modern audiences – the work becomes even further removed from the context in and for which it was created.

Museum illumination is a fine art in itself … especially for work produced pre-electricity.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Polychrome Sculpture

Immaculate Conception
c. 1628
Juan Martínez Montañés (attrib.)

polychromed wood
Church of the Anunciación, Seville University

The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700
February 28–May 31, 2010
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Dramatic Expression of Spanish Baroque

This painted and gilded lifesize wood figure, Saint John of the Cross, was carved by Francisco Antonio Gijón and painted, it's thought, by Domingo Mejías, c. 1675. Gijón was a sculptor from Seville who was known for his ability to carve dramatic works with intense expression. He was only 21 when he was awarded the commission for this sculpture and he completed it in about six weeks!

My work preparing me for the Caravaggio Pilgrimage in Rome has me immersed in the transition from Mannerism to Baroque. So I was delighted to learn of the Spanish Baroque exhibit that just opened in Washington DC.

Spanish Baroque art expressed the religious fervor of the Counter-Reformation in spades -- and some arrestingly real polychrome sculptures and paintings were produced.

About 20 Spanish masterpieces of the 17th century are now on view in a fabulous exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600–1700 will showcase major paintings by Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Francisco Pacheco, as well as painted and gilded polychrome sculptures carved by Gregorio Fernández, Juan Martínez Montañés, and Pedro de Mena, among others.

The exhibition makes it possible to see the dynamic and intricate relationship between two-dimensional pictures on canvas and painted sculptures. Many of the sculptures have never been exhibited away from the Spanish churches, convents, and monasteries where they continue to be venerated by the Catholic faithful.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Glory Days of Byzantium

This sounds like an exhibition worth detouring for, if you are anywhere near Bonn, Germany, between now and June 13th, 2010:

More than 600 magnificent artifacts that shed light on the history, archaeology and art of the “Byzantine Millenium” -- from the foundation of Constantinople by Constantine the Great in 324 A.D. to the conquest by the Ottomans in 1453. The exhibit (including the perfumer pictured) concentrates above all on the Empire’s prosperity from the time of Justinian I (527–565 A.D.) until the plundering of Constantinople by western crusaders in 1204.

The press release says that “Precious ivories, spectacular icons and manuscripts, architectural fragments, sculptures and everyday objects are presented in their original contexts … [addressing] the main questions of the Byzantine state, Byzantine art and culture, society, economy, the Byzantine military, as well as daily life.” I'm told that computer graphics and animated films introduce the various sections of the exhibition -- could be pretty cool, if they're well done.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Da Vinci in Drag?

Coincidental to my last posting, in which one academic claims that the model who sat for Da Vinci's Mona Lisa (Louvre, Paris) had dangerously high cholesterol, now a team of Italian scientists and art historians have suggested that the famous portrait is actually a disguised self-portrait of da Vinci!

They claim to see similarities between the Mona Lisa's facial structure and that of the artist's own face as evidenced in a circa 1515 self-portrait. They also cite his homosexuality and interest in riddles as support for their theory.

The French government -- Da Vinci’s remains are at Amboise Castle in the Loire Valley – seems to be taking the research team seriously and are considering their request to open the Renaissance master's tomb and use his skull to "rebuild Leonardo's face and compare it with the Mona Lisa."

ArtInfo says, “The undertaking would have tickled Marcel Duchamp, the keen wit behind L.H.O.O.Q. (1919) -- a reproduction of the Mona Lisa embellished with a mustache. The late Modernist icon had a cross-dressing artistic alter ego himself, named Rrose Sélavy." ( “C’est la vie” … get it …?)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mannerism or Marfans?

Vito Franco calls his new field of research "icono-diagnostics." I have to wonder: Is he just another guy trying to get his 15 minutes of fame, or is icono-diagnostics legit?

A professor of pathological anatomy at the University of Palermo, Franco claims that the model who sat for Da Vinci's Mona Lisa (Louvre, Paris) had dangerously high cholesterol. He made that diagnosis after spotting signs of xanthelasma -- a build up of yellowish fatty acids under the skin - under her left eye, as well as subcutaneous lipomas, benign tumors composed of fatty tissue, on her hands.

His study of other masterpieces convinced Franco that the young nobleman in Sandro Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Man (National Gallery, Washington) was probably afflicted with Marfan syndrome. Franco believes that the young man’s unnaturally long, thin fingers are a tell-tale indicator of the rare condition that affects connective tissue and can result in a sudden, early death.

But I’m skeptical when he suggests that the long-fingered hands of the woman who posed in the 1530s for Parmigianino's Madonna With the Long Neck (Uffizi, Florence) indicate that she too suffered from Marfans. Parmigianino was a Mannnerist painter and Mannerists were all about exaggeration. In fact, Wikipedia says, “Mannerism makes itself known by elongated proportions” and that very same Madonna With the Long Neck is shown as an example of mannerist artificiality!

On the other hand, Franco seems more credible when he suggests that Dutch magical realist Dick Ket unwittingly traced the progression of his illness in his work. Ket, who died of a congenital heart defect at the age of 37 in 1940, left behind 40 self-portraits. One of these, painted in the year before his death, shows the artist with swollen fingertips, a common side effect of several heart and lung complaints. "In a painting seven years before, his fingers are less deformed," Franco said. "But it shows an abnormal swelling of the veins on his neck -- a sign of the same syndrome, in its initial phase."