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!