Sunday, November 19, 2017

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer joins a long list of landmark exhibitions at Metropolitan Museum of Art. These exhibits do far more than just present great works of art for us to enjoy.  New insights, sometimes revolutionary in their implications, emerge from the Met exhibitions.

Many of these exhibits, like Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, appeared in the Tisch Galleries on the second floor of the Met. I have been privileged to see quite of few of them over the years and to review the more recent ones in Art Eyewitness.

To name but a few: Byzantium: Faith and Power (2004), Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity (2013) and Ancient Egypt Transformed: The MIddle Kingdom (2015). These brilliant exhibits transformed the Tisch Galleries into portals to the past and to the living essence of art. 

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer does no less.  However, the exhibit curator, Dr. Carmen Bambach, faced a seemingly impossible obstacle which her colleagues generally do not encounter. Michelangelo's greatest masterpieces do not travel.

David, "Il Gigante," cannot be loaned to museums like the Metropolitan. Nor can The Pieta - though it was sent over from the Vatican for the 1964 New York World's Fair.To view the statue, art lovers stood on a conveyor-belt like the moving walkway between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. That permitted about a 45 second look at The Pieta.

With Michelangelo's "greatest hits" off-limits, Dr. Bambach focused on what was available. In an epic eight year quest, she secured the loan of several smaller sculptures, a very good copy of The Last Judgement, much reduced in scale, a splendid selection of Michelangelo's drawings and a number of contrasting art works by other Renaissance artists.Two hundred pieces of art are on view, the greatest number of works by Michelangelo ever presented in a single exhibition.

Michelangelo, Three Labours of Hercules, 1530–33
Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2017

With these drawings - and a "special effects" masterstroke - Dr. Bambach has curated a comprehensive and readily comprehensible introduction to the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564).

Michelangelo is known to have burned many of his drawings toward the end of his life and was only prevented from destroying more by the art historian, Giorgio Vasari. But the great Florentine would have approved of an exhibition which emphasizes the importance of disegno or drawing. Disegno was the foundation of Michelangelo's art and life.

“Draw Antonio," Michelangelo wrote to his studio assistant, Antonia Mini. "Draw and don't waste time.” 

Mini did not waste any time selling the trove of drawings that Michelangelo had given him to inspire his practice of disegno. Deeply in debt, Mini sold the drawings, ironically insuring that they would survive to bear witness to Michelangelo's rise to greatness.

Michelangelo learned the basics of art in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448/49–1494). Several of Ghirlandaio's sketches are on view in the opening gallery, along with early efforts by Michelangelo. Ghirlandaio was a master of the fresco technique in painting and the main thrust of his desegno was to prepare the images to be painted in his frescoes.

Michelangelo must have profited by working with Ghirlandaio but he claimed to have taught himself art.There is some truth to that claim as Michelangelo's drawings have a sustained power and insight that Ghirlandaio's seldom match. 

Michelangelo, Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, 1532

Michelangelo's Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, created in black chalk in 1532, is one of the finest Renaissance character studies, matching the best of Hans Holbein's similar works. 

After a bit more than a year,1488-89, Michelangelo left Ghirlandaio's studio to survey the art collection of Lorenzo da Medici. Il Magnifico had created a sculpture garden at the Medici palace in Florence. Michelangelo was permitted to sketch the antiquities and then try his hand at sculpture.
In a famous encounter, Lorenzo da Medici commented favorably on the small sculpture of an aged satyr that Michelangelo had made. He noted, with wry humor, that the mythological creature would not likely have had a full set of teeth, as Michelangelo had depicted. The thirteen-year-old artist took a file and chipped away one of the satyr's teeth. Il Magnifico was so impressed that he invited Michelangelo to join his court.

Michelangelo's apprenticeship was over.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Michelangelo’s Study of Adam & Eve after Masaccio

The young Michelangelo also spent a lot of time in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, sketching the frescoes created by the tragically short-lived Masaccio (1401-1428). Michelangelo's copy in red chalk of Masaccio's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden adheres closely to Masaccio but we can glimpse the beginnings of his version of this fabled event, immortalized on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Lorenzo da Medici died in 1492 and within a few, short years, the searing drama of Masaccio's fresco was repeated in the lives of countless people in Italy, including Michelangelo. The French invasion of 1494 and the wave of puritanical religious fervor under Savanorola led to the fall of the Medici. The fragile political framework of the Italian city-states, especially Florence, never recovered, though the cultural awakening of the  Renaissance continued. 

Michelangelo found himself without a patron, a refugee from the lost Medici paradise. He  sought work first in Bologna and then in Rome under the revived power of the Papacy. 
Michelangelo  took with him an impressive portfolio of artistic skills. But his years with the Medici gifted him with a philosophical treasure of equal value: the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). 

Pico's teaching emphasized human dignity, the ability of individuals to shape their own destiny and the ideal of perfection as goal. Human beings could thus worship their Divine Creator with deeds, as well as prayers.

Michelangelo, Il Sogno (The Dream), 1530's

Michelangelo's The Dreamfrom the collection of the Courtauld Gallery in London, illustrates Pico's philosophy in action. A young man, perfect in bodily form, listens to the word of God, transmitted by an angelic trumpeter. The young man grasps the globe, while behind him rages scenes of cruelty, violence, lust and greed.

The symbolism in The Dream invites speculation and interpretation. Some commentators believe that the idealized youth is grappling with melancholy, as well as resisting temptation. The drawing was created in the early 1530's, following the terrible Sack of Rome in 1527 by the mercenary troops of Emperor Charles V.  It was certainly a depressing period in Italian history.

The Dream was probably part of a group of presentation drawings which Michelangelo made as gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. A young Roman nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri was also the recipient of Michelangelo's passionate friendship. Quaratesi likely was, as well. 

Michelangelo's homoerotic yearnings for these young nobles is quite evident. Yet the degree to which this passion was physically pursued will never be known. Michelangelo's private life, extremely limited by his obsessive work ethic, left him little time for self-indulgence. 

Michelangelo was a devout Christian and during his later years was a member of the religious circle inspired by the reform-minded poet, Vittoria Collona. Michelangelo was a close friend of Collona, for whom he created a powerful depiction of the Pieta, very different from the famous statue he had carved decades before.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Michelangelo's Pieta, ca. 1540 

Throughout his life, Michelangelo labored to create visual images testifying to the glory of God. This was done  chiefly through depictions of the male nude, including those of the dead Christ in his mother's arms. For Michelangelo, the youthful male body represented the epitome of God's creative handiwork.

This was such a far-reaching ideal that Michelangelo extended it to the way he portrayed women. A number of cultural historians, including Camille Paglia in her book, Sexual Personae, maintain that Michelangelo used male models for female characters in his paintings. Looking on his painted panel of the Holy Family called the Doni Tondo, the lithe, athletic body of the Virgin Mary certainly lends weight to that argument.

The Doni Tondo is not in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition but confirmation of this theory can be found in one of the the Met's own treasures, Michelangelo's Studies for the Libyan Sibyl which he painted on the Sistine Ceiling. The rippling arm muscles, the broad shoulders and ramrod straight spinal column are matched by the strength of character of the Libyan Sibyl's face. 

Michelangelo, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, c.1510–11

It should not it be forgotten that the finished version of the Libyan Sibyl is holding a massive volume, a Wisdom Book. The Libyan Sibyl represents the incarnation of mind/body perfection possible to a person, male or female, who is devoted to God's truth.

The incomparable physique of the Libyan Sibyl sketch is also evident in a preparatory study made around 1504 for the famous, now lost, cartoon for the Battle of Cascina fresco. Looking at Male Back with a Flag, one is struck by the obvious fact that Michelangelo retained much of his sculptor's technique even when he sketched and painted.

 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Michelangelo's Male Back with a Flag, c. 1504. 

That was especially true of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Unlike the Battle of Cascina, the cosmic drama of the Book of Genesis was carried through to completion. With skill and audacity to match Michelangelo, the Metropolitan has replicated the fabled Sistine Chapel ceiling with a lighted photo version above the Tisch galleries. The scale, though reduced, approximates the experience of looking at the original in Rome.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer

The effect of being able to study Michelangelo's studies for the figures of the Sistine ceiling and then to look above you at the wondrous copy is enlightening in a way that no close study of the many fine books dealing with the Sistine frescoes can ever be. 

The sheer brilliance of the Metropolitan exhibit enables you to look at the original study for the Cumaean Sybyl, check it against the dazzling overhead display and thus progressively see how the image was incorporated into the whole design of the Sistine Chapel fresco.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michelangelo' s Study of the Cumaean Sibyl (top),
followed by details of Metropolitan Museum reproductions of the Cumaean Sibyl

Even straining your neck to look at the original in the Vatican does not allow you to do that. My wife, Anne, an accomplished artist herself, described the effect. 

"I finally get the Sistine Chapel," Anne said. 

The sensational impact of the re-imagined Sistine Chapel is reinforced by the presence of a sculpture group in the very next gallery. To see a Michelangelo statute in the United States is a rare treat. There are two in this group, along with contrasting portrait busts, one from ancient Rome and another of Julius Caesar by Andrea Ferrucci (1465-1526). 

.Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit, Michelangelo's David/Apollo at left.

The standing sculpture, David/Apollo, begun around 1530, was never completed by the overworked Michelangelo. As a result, this non-finito work is impossible to identify as either David or Apollo. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit, Michelangelo's Brutus at center.

That's not case with the bust of Brutus. Sculpted in 1539, Brutus exerts a living presence. Here unquestionably is the portrait of a noble Roman. This forceful evocation of Caesar's assassin also points to the power-politics of Michelangelo's era.

Michelangelo was a supporter of the Republic of Florence, which had been suppressed by one of the Medici successors to Lorenzo the Magnificent. This was the brutal Duke Alessandro, assassinated in 1537 by his cousin, Lorenzino da Medici. Lorenzino was motivated by Republican sentiments similar to Michelangelo's. Alessandro's death, alas, did not lead to the restoration of the Florentine Republic. Michelangelo may have left his bust of Brutus unfinished in silent protest to the passing of Florence's republican tradition.

It is incredible to think that when Michelangelo stopped working on Brutus in 1539, he had a quarter of a century of life before him. Could he not have finished the bust of Brutus?

The obvious answer to this question is provided by the Metropolitan exhibit which cogently outlines his later epic works: the Last Judgment fresco and the architectural design of the basilica of St. Peter's. Michelangelo might cease working on a statue like Brutus but he never stopped working.

There is another reason, I believe, that many of the statues from his later years remained non-finito. Michelangelo was motivated by spiritual impulses that compelled him to work to the point that Spirit, God's spirit, was satisfied and then to move on. It was a case of God's will be done rather than Michelangelo's.

Michelangelo composed a beautiful poem, a madrigal, around 1534. These verses, translated by the great Renaissance scholar, Creighton Gilbert, confirm that Michelangelo certainly believed that he was obeying God's will.

Beautiful things are the longing of my eyes,                                                                  Just as it is my soul’s to be secure,                                                                                  But they’ve no other power                                                                                              That lifts to Heaven, but staring at all those.                                                                    A shining glory falls                                                                                                          From furthest stars above,                                                                                              Toward them our wish it pulls,                                                                                        And here we call it love.                                                                                                Kind heart can never have,                                                                                                To enamor and fire it, and to counsel,                                                                            More than a face with eyes that they resemble.

If my interpretation of this madrigal is correct, Michelangelo believed that God's face, with eyes that resemble stars, watched over his creative achievements. It was not Michelangelo's "kind heart" but heavenly inspiration that impelled him to attempt and to achieve the impossible.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) The Metropolitan Museum reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with Michelangelo's Creation of Adam at center. 

Any person fortunate to visit Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan is likely come to the same conclusion. The evidence is overwhelming.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved    

Madrigal by Michelangelo Buonarroti, c.1534. Translated by Creighton Gilbert in Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo, Princeton University Press, 1980, first edition published by Random House, 1963.

Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Daniele da Volterra's Portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti, ca. 1544, oil on wood, 34 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (88.3 x 64.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Three Labours of Hercules, 1530–33. Drawing, red chalk; 10 11/16 x 16 5/8 in. (27.2 x 42.2 cm) ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017,

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, 1532.
Drawing, black chalk; 16 3/16 x 11 ½ in. (41.1 x 29.2 cm) The British Museum, London

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Photo of Michelangelo’s Study of Adam and Eve after The Expulsion from Paradise fresco by Masaccio, c. 1503-04. Red chalk. Musée du Louvre, Department des arts Graphiques, Paris (3897 recto)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564) Il Sogno (The Dream), 1530's. Black chalk. Sheet: 15 5/16 × 10 15/16 in. (38.9 × 27.8 cm) Sheet: 15 5/16 × 10 15/16 in. (38.9 × 27.8 cm) London, Courtauld Gallery, Prince Gate Bequest (1978) inv. D 1978.PG.424

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Michelangelo's Pieta, ca. 1540, Black chalk,  28.9 x 18.9 cm (11 3/8 x 7 7/16 in. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 1.2.o.16

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian,1475–1564) Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto), Ca. 1510–11. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. Sheet: 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 in. (28.9 x 21.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924. 24.197.2

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Michelangelo's Male Back with a Flag, c. 1504.  Albertina, Vienna.123v

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Michelangelo' s Study of the Cumaean Sibyl and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's reproductions of the Cumaean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing Michelangelo's David/Apollo (C. 1530) and Brutus (1539), Marble Portrait of Emperor of Caracalla, Third Century A.D., and Andrea Ferrucci's Julius Caesar (c.1512-14) 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michelangelo's Brutus, center.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, showing the Metropolitan Museum reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with Michelanglo's Creation of Adam at center. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection

Philadelphia Museum of Art

November 3, 2017 –February 19, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection, on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is an exciting and important exhibition - for unexpected reasons. 

This exhibition is much more than a thoughtful reexamination of great masterpieces collected over a century ago. Old Masters Now presents a living collection, rich in new insights and revelations, asserting its cultural importance in ways that its first owner never could have expected.

The Johnson Collection occupies a special place in Philadelphia's cultural history. John G. Johnson is certainly not as famous an art collector as the controversial Dr. Albert Barnes. But in many ways, he was just as daring and adventurous in acquiring major works of art. Indeed, Johnson's choices often confound our stereotypes of Gilded Age art collectors. 

John Graver Johnson (1841–1917) was born in Chestnut Hill, then a small town outside Philadelphia. The son of a blacksmith, Johnson graduated from the city's prestigious Central High School and the University of Pennsylvania. Incredibly, a childhood photo of him survives from the 1840's, showing the sharp, perceptive eyes of a "Philadelphia lawyer" - years before he became one.

John G. Johnson: Boy and Man

Johnson was the greatest corporate lawyer of post-Civil War America. Although he only served briefly in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Civil War, it should not be forgotten that Johnson was a member of a generation that had passed through the "fire" of America's most tragic era. 

Johnson was a charter member - through hard work, rather than inheritance - of the American elite. But he knew the meaning of "nobless oblige," of giving back to the community that had nurtured him.  In Johnson's case, this was Philadelphia.

"I have lived my life in this City," Johnson stated in his will. "I want the collection to have its home here.” 

Johnson's collection - 1,279 paintings, 51 sculptures and  over 100 objects in other media - is the keystone of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View showing photo of John G. Johnson's home

When you enter the exhibition galleries, huge mural-size photos of Johnson's splendid homes on S. Broad Street are on display. For a moment or two, you can imagine yourself entering these opulent Edwardian-era rooms. 

Fantasy should not edge out reality, however. My wife, Anne, noted that the second interior photo, taken in 1936 long after Johnson's death in 1917, is stacked floor-to-ceiling with framed paintings. Significantly, it shows the escalating collection after Johnson's wife, Ida, died in 1908. 

     Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit,          Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection

The exhibit galleries, in contrast, display a significant number of Johnson's treasures in a spacious, almost contemplative atmosphere. In a nod to historical authenticity, one wall of the exhibit gallery is hung in the "stacked" manner of Johnson's home. 

I did not linger very long in front of this vintage display. There are so many great masterpieces in the exhibit, commanding our attention. 

Callisto Piazza, Musical Group, c.1520's

I've been looking at many of these "Old Masters" in the Johnson collection for decades now. For many years, these were grouped together in a separate gallery, by the terms of Johnson's will. He actually stipulated that they be kept in his Broad Street mansion, but his executors wisely ignored his wishes and brought them to the much safer environment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Seeing the Johnson Collection masterpieces in this brilliantly curated exhibition is a revelation. I realize that, for all the times I have looked, I have never really "seen" many of them as Johnson did. One gets the sense that Johnson's art collection became a way for him to channel his love, after the great personal loss of his wife's death, to future generations.

When it came to his day job, Johnson was a hard-eyed realist. Johnson twice refused appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. He did not want to exchange the $100,000 per year he made representing J.P Morgan, the Rockefeller family and the Sugar Trust for a paltry Supreme Court salary of $8,000. 

At the same time that he made all that money, Johnson also served on Philadelphia's Fairmount Park Commission which oversaw the city art collection. It was upon his recommendation that Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation was purchased in 1899. This painting was the first work by an African-American artist to enter a public collection in the United States and now hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art had great meaning  for Johnson on many emotional levels. Empathy, intellectual stimulation and aesthetic pleasure obviously guided his choices. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mark Tucker, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Director of Conservation, about one of Johnson's most surprising selections

The painting in question is Portrait of a Young Gentleman, by Antonello da Messina. Antonello came from Sicily, the only major Renaissance artist born in southern Italy. Somehow, Antonello established contacts with artists from the Netherlands and learned about oil painting. He was the first to master oil painting in Italy. His surviving works of art are comparatively rare and were not especially popular with American collectors in Johnson's time.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Gentleman, 1474

Why, then, did Johnson buy this portrait of a brash young man with a probing look in his eyes?

"The subject of Antonello's portrait," Mark Tucker noted, "has just come into the studio from the street. The collar of his doublet is undone and the cord used to stitch it in place is dangling loose. Usually, the sitter in a Renaissance portrait is posed very formally, every detail of his attire in perfect order.

"Antonello is not concerned with a formal pose in this portrait, of how the subject was dressed. Instead, he painted the movements of his mind."

There can be little doubt that Johnson bought this outstanding work of Renaissance art because he sensed that this alert, questioning, savvy fellow from the Quattrocento was a kindred soul.

The movements of Johnson's mind led him from collecting rather conventional  contemporary works like Mary Cassatt's very early genre scene, On the Balcony, to more daring choices like the Antonello portrait . 

Édouard Manet, The Battle of the U.S.S.“Kearsarge” and the C.S.S.“Alabama”, 1864

Johnson's range of interest extended to the Impressionists and  in 1888 he purchased Édouard Manet's Civil War naval scene, The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama.” Johnson saw this striking painting at a display of Impressionist art, organized by the French art agent, Paul Durand-Ruel, in New York City. Johnson may have been influenced to buy Manet's painting by his own military experience during the Gettysburg campaign.

This almost monochromatic work utilized Japanese-inspired compositional elements like a high horizon line and the off-center placement of the schooner in the foreground of the painting to convey a "you-are-there" viewpoint. Manet was long thought to have witnessed the sea combat, which took place just outside Cherbourg harbor in 1864, but careful scholarship has revealed that he painted the battle based on newspaper accounts.

In 1894, Johnson purchased Jan van Eyck's small devotional work, St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. With this pivotal acquisition, Johnson began assembling one of the largest collections of paintings from the Netherlands, works created between 1400 and 1700. By the end of his life, Johnson 's Flemish and Dutch masterpieces numbered 425. On the whole, he chose very wisely. But with art scholarship still in its infancy, a number of his paintings, thought to be by Rembrandt or by Bosch, have not retained their attribution.

Johnson also bought what he thought was a pair of tipsy Dutch drinkers by Frans Hals.  Subsequent research showed that it was painted by Judith Leyster, the greatest woman artist of the Dutch Golden Age. But an even greater surprise was in store about The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), painted around 1639. A print from the 1600 showed the same pair in the company of a lively skeleton, encouraging them to drink. In 1992, the conservators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art decided to put Leyster's painting to the test.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Judith Leyster's The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) 

As expected, a skeleton was detected lurking below a layer of overpainting. Mark Tucker meticulously removed this paint, restoring the skeleton to "life" and showing that Leyster's work had a very serious message. It was a memento mori, a caution about heedless over-indulgence and a warning against disregard of God's commandments.

Along with van Eyck's St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, the jewel of the Johnson Collection's Netherlandish works is Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460.  Along with Thomas Eakin's The Gross Clinic, van der Weyden's Crucifixion is the greatest painting in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is also a very powerful depiction of the struggle of faith vs. despair. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460

This pair of complementary wood panel paintings has been the subject of exhaustive study. It is now believed that they were placed side-by-side on the shutters of an elaborate altarpiece. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Mark Tucker showing the placement of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion on a model of a medieval church altarpiece, now missing

A wonderful model, which  Mark Tucker demonstrated at the press preview, shows the configuration of these Johnson collection paintings along with two others, discovered in 2012, that were part of the amazing altarpiece. The remaining paintings - and the altar - have yet to be discovered, if indeed they still exist.

Another work by Rogier van der Weyden figures in the Johnson Collection exhibit. The life-sized altarpiece, now in the Prado, Descent from the Cross, c. 1434, was copied many times. Around 1520, the Netherlandish artist, Joos van Cleve, reprieved Descent from the Cross, placing the dramatic scene against a naturalistic landscape. The original has a gold-leaf background.

Van Cleve's homage to van der Weyden has not been displayed for thirty years. It was painted on five wooden panels which have separated several times causing paint loss and other damage. The panels have also warped over time.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Lucia Bay with Joos van Cleve's The Descent from the Cross

A major conservation effort, requiring a year's exhaustive labor, was undertaken by Lucia Bay, an assistant conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The triumphant restoration is on display in the exhibit, enabling us to value van Cleve's painting as a major work of art. Rather than a derivative copy, van Cleve created a new version of this moving scene by van der Weyden, placing it within the context of the emerging school of landscape art.

Johnson traveled frequently to Europe to search out masterpieces. In an engaging memoir, Sight-Seeing in Berlin and Holland among Pictures (1892), he explained the philosophy upon which he based his collecting endeavors:

Art gives us real delight only when the eye derives pleasure from what is really worthy.

This is a cryptic remark, capable of being interpreted in a number of ways. Johnson closely studied art, becoming a master of appraisal. Yet the financial value of art works did not determine what was "really worthy" about the paintings and sculptures he collected.  Nor did Johnson select art works because they conformed to popular standards or the dictates of academic authority.

"Worth" derived from a process of engagement between collector and  object. Johnson carefully took the measure of the art he chose for his collection and  the paintings and sculptures, in turn, became an expression of his life, of the "the movements of his mind."

      Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson's home, c.1936                       Auguste Rodin's Thought appears at center

In one of the mural-sized photo's of his mansion, the one with paintings stacked floor to ceiling, we see one of the sculptures he collected. Thought by Auguste Rodin shows the head of his mistress/muse, Camille Claudel, emerging from a block of undressed marble. Rodin modeled the likeness of Claudel in clay but another artist, Camille Raynaud, did the actual sculpting.

Rodin originally called the work Thought Emerging from Matter. Looking at it in the exhibition galley of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one senses again "the movements of his mind" coming into play. Rodin's Thought clearly resonated with Johnson's powerful intellect and equally powerful emotions. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Auguste Rodin's Thought 

Upon receiving Thought, Johnson wrote to Rodin: 

[Y]our lovely marble has at last arrived and fascinates me . . . you have made that coldest of all things—marble—warm with life. I hope it will long dream in its present surroundings of paintings by the Masters of the Old and of the New Art.

That is where Rodin's Thought does indeed find its home, "dreaming" in the company of Johnson's treasures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its companionship with The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama,” St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata and the other great works on display is about to enter a new phase, or perhaps new "dimension" would be more exact. 

The Philadelphia Museum will soon unveil the Johnson Collection in a new digital publication. According to a press release, the Philadelphia Museum curators have "made use of a new technology implementing IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) to present digital images in a more versatile and flexible way."
When the digital version of the Johnson collection is released, I plan to do a follow-up review on this wonderful research tool.

"Masters of the Old and of the New Art" appearing in a new, digital format! There can be no more fitting way to begin the second century of the John G. Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image
Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish 1400-1464) Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460. Oil on panel, 71 inches × 6 feet 1 3/8 inches (180.3 × 186.4 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 335, 334. John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson, as a young boy, 1840's, combined with detail of Conrad F. Haeseler's Portrait of John G. Johnson, 1917. Oil on Panel, 34 x 24 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Miss Julia W. Frick and Sidney W. Frick, 1971.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection.showing photo of John G. Johnson's home. Archival Photo.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Gallery View of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit, Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection.

Callisto Piazza (Italian,c.1500-1561/62) Musical Group, c.1520's, Oil on panel, 35 5/8 x 35 3/4 inches (90.5 x 90.8 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 234, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Antonello da Messina (Italian,1430-1479) Portrait of a Young Gentleman.  Oil on panel,
12 5/8 x 10 11/16 inches (32.1 x 27.1 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 159, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Édouard Manet (French, 1832-1883) The Battle of the U.S.S. “Kearsarge” and the C.S.S. “Alabama.”  Oil on canvas, 54 1/4 x 50 3/4 inches (137.8 x 128.9 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 1027, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of Judith Leyster's The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier), c.  1639. Oil on canvas, 35 1/16 x 28 15/16 inches (89.1 x 73.5 cm).  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 440, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017), Detail of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion, with Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460.

Anne Lloyd, Photos (2017) Mark Tucker, Director of Conservation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing the placement of Rogier van der Weyden's Crucifixion on a model of a medieval church altarpiece, now missing. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Lucia Bay, Conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with Joos van Cleve's The Descent from the Cross. Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Detail of photo of John G. Johnson's home, c.1936                Auguste Rodin's Thought appears at center. Archival Photo.                                               
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2017) Auguste Rodin's Thought, modeled,1895, carved by Camille Raynaud, c.1900, Marble, 29 1/8 x 17 1/16 x 18 1/8 inches (74 x 43.4 x 46.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Cat. 1148, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting at the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry 

National Gallery of Art, October 22, 2017 - January 21, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

During the 1600's, the Dutch often compared themselves to the outnumbered Israelites battling against the Philistine hosts. After fighting for eighty years against the mighty Spanish Hapsburg empire, the United Provinces could be excused for a moment of self-congratulation in 1648. When the Treaty of Munster brought hostilities to an end that year, the Dutch had triumphed. David of the Netherlands had slain the Spanish Goliath.

The Dutch art of the Golden Age reflects that incredible victory - but in an unexpected way.  

Following the Treaty of Munster, depictions of military campaigns, never a major facet in Dutch art,  fell out of favor.  The popularity of Biblical scenes, a big feature of Rembrandt's early career, likewise declined. Instead, Dutch Gouden Eeuw artists evoked quiet harmony. Peaceful, "homey" moments for people grown tired of war were the order of the day.

These Dutch masters are the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington D.C., Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. The National Gallery is the final venue for this exhibit, following earlier displays at the Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

If Vermeer is the headline artist that is because the enigmatic painter from Delft has come to overshadow the other Dutch genre painters in this wonderful exhibit. 

Some of the finest examples of Vermeer's limited oeuvre, like Louvre's The Lacemaker, are on view in this wondrous exhibition. For three months, the Gouden Eeuw will live again and every art lover who can, should journey back in time, via the National Gallery in Washington D.C., to the age of Vermeer.

The NGA exhibit, for all of its celebration of Vermeer, does us the great service of seeing him within the context of his era.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting 

Vermeer actually represents the culmination of the post-Eighty Years War passion for genre painting. Throngs of people rush to see works by Vermeer but they should pay more attention to Gerhard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and the other Dutch genre painters. Thanks to the NGA exhibition, art lovers will be able to do exactly that.

Several surprises await them.

Gerhard ter Borch (1617-1681) is the unexpected "star" of the NGA exhibit and his works impressed me greatly. I find myself in complete agreement with the curator of the exhibition, Arthur Wheelock Jr, that ter Borch "is in many ways the most intriguing painter in the exhibition and the one who had the greatest impact on his colleagues." 
Wheelock further notes in the exhibition catalog:

Ter Borch mined gestures and expressions of figures to convey emotion, sometimes love or compassion, but also those fleeting moments of uncertainty that usually pass unnoticed by even the most observant friends and family. With these intimate scenes, which emphasised the inner life of his figures, ter Borch transformed the notion of "modern" in Dutch genre painting.

As well as providing new insights, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting is a valedictory tribute to the great series of Dutch Golden Age exhibits that the NGA has hosted over recent years. These began with the celebrated Vermeer retrospective of 1995-1996. This incredible exhibit displayed 22 of the the 35 known works by Joannes Vermeer, including the  "Mona Lisa of the North," The Girl with the Pearl Earring

The 1995-96 Vermeer exhibit was anything but a harmonious affair. The US Government lurched to a halt during the budget feud between Congress and the Clinton administration. Along with a huge snow storm in January 1996, the galleries of the NGA were closed for nineteen days of the Vermeer exhibit's three month schedule. 

The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not making an appearance at this exhibition but a very impressive array of ten other Vermeer paintings are included. There are thirteen works by ter Borch on display, as well as superb examples of the other major Dutch genre painters,  including Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, Caspar Netscher and Nicolaes Maes.

It is only natural that the NGA capitalizes upon Vermeer's current superstar status. And most of his works really do stand-out above the rest, though several of ter Borch's paintings more than hold their own. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Johannes Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c. 1662-65

Looking down the galleries of the exhibit, I was amazed to see Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace glowing in the distance. It was, of course, a brilliant manipulation of overhead lighting to achieve such an effect. But it was the sheer brilliance of Vermeer's handling of natural light over three centuries ago that makes possible such a display of curatorial skill. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Video frame from Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

The exhibiton presents a short video enabling a "compare-contrast" of Vermeer's paintings with those of the other genre masters. It is clear that Vermeer's Lady Writing, painted around 1665-67, was created with a deep awareness of ter Borch's Woman Writing a Letter.  

Ter Borch's masterpiece dates to a decade earlier. It is a superlative work, with his sister, Gesina, posing as a model. She was a gifted painter and poet in her own right. 

Gerhard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, c. 1655-56

Whether Vermeer, who seldom ventured far from Delft, saw ter Borch's Woman Writing a Letter is a difficult question to answer. But as a member of the Delft-branch of the artist's association, the Guild of St. Luke, Vermeer must have been familiar with the work of ter Borch (who lived in distant Devanter), at least by reputation. 

Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing, c. 1665

The major difference between these two paintings is the direct gaze of Vermeer's protagonist. She is regarding us, the viewers, rather than being absorbed writing a letter as Gesina ter Borch was.  However, comparison of these works by Vermeer and ter Borch gains in fascination if we include another painting by the latter artist in the discussion.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gerard ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page

This is ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page, painted about 1657. Gesina ter Borch apparently posed for the singer in the middle of the painting. 

However, it is the page who is the figure of real interest. The adolescent page boy, gingerly bringing in a carafe of beer or cider, looks directly toward us the viewer, just as Vermeer's Lady Writing would do nearly a decade later. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Detail of Ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page

The bemused look on the page boy's face is so similar to that of Vermeer's Lady that it is almost inconceivable that Vermeer had not seen ter Borch's painting before beginning work on his.

Such is the lack of documentation about Vermeer's life that we are unlikely ever to know if he had the opportunity to travel around Holland to see the work of his contemporaries. We may think that Vermeer was influenced by ter Borch as other Dutch artists were. Yet, we don't know for certain.

We are on much firmer ground to emphasize the cultural connections of these Dutch genre masters during the years following the Treaty of Munster. To a remarkable degree, the shared aspirations and similar standards of work and play among the Dutch people created an emotional atmosphere favoring the creation of these genre paintings.

In his book, Paragons of Virtue, Wayne E. Frantis emphasized the importance of the everyday life and culture of the Dutch people during the Gouden Eeuw. Earlier scholars had been obsessed with “decoding” the symbolism and allegorical references that they saw depicted in Dutch art. 

These didactic elements certainly existed, as can be seen in many of Vermeer's paintings. The painting of the Last Judgment in the background of Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, is a good example of this subtle moralizing. However, Dutch art from the 1650's onward was firmly grounded in the realities of contemporary Dutch society, which no longer displayed the kind of Calvinistic religious fervor that had characterized the war years. Genre paintings reflected the new intimacy and self-indulgence of Dutch society.

Frantis, one of today's leading scholars of Gouden Eeuw art, broadened the scope of his investigation beyond the visual arts. Frantis found that Dutch literature and music of the period also reflected a “realistic style” as well. Frantis quotes the preface of the Great Songbook of 1622, revealing how the practical, sensible world view of the Dutch permeated even the soaring, impassioned realm of music

Gerbrandt Bredero, (1585-1618) poet, playwright and song composer, wrote in the Great Songbook of 1622 (which was actually published four years after his death) that:

As for me, I have learned from one book only, the book of practice; if I have made some mistakes because of my insufficient knowledge of foreign languages, sciences, and arts, I, unscholarly layman, beg your pardon; be a little tolerant of this Dutchman… I have followed the saying common among painters: Those who come closest to real life are the best painters… 

This digression to the world of music is certainly worth taking given the number of Dutch genre paintings which depict small ensembles or individual musicians or singers.

Jan Steen, Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, c. 1659

Jan Steen's beautiful Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man (c. 1659) is a superb example of  the intersecting creative realms of art and music. It artfully evokes differing modes of attention, the young woman's on the notes of the musical score, the young man's gaze upon her delicate fingers as they strike the keyboard.

Vermeer's Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, was painted around 1675, a decade and a half after Jan Steen's musical tableau. What is noteworthy here is the emphasis on material cultural, the conspicuous display of expensive musical instruments, sumptuous fabrics and elaborate decor. Art and human artifice, so notable in Steen's painting, have been reduced to a mere pose in Vermeer's.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c. 1675

Young Woman Seated at a Virginal was one of Vermeer's last paintings. By the time, Vermeer worked on it, another change was overtaking Dutch art, as evidenced by this painting. The human-scale joys that the earlier genre works had celebrated were increasingly replaced by more attention to a celebration of "worldly goods." It was the Dutch equivalent of "keeping up with the Jones."

I found that the works of Pieter de Hooch in the exhibition confirmed Kenneth Clark's observation in Civilization on the growing elitism of the Dutch genre painters:

In 1660, he (de Hooch) was painting pictures of clean, simple interiors, their ordered space full of light. Ten years later his interiors were very elaborate, and instead of light whitewashed walls there was gold Spanish leather. The people were richer: and the pictures much less beautiful. 

De Hooch's Woman Weighing Coins, painted around 1664, illustrates this surface glitter to perfection. His protagonist shrinks into her rich attire to such a degree that we barely see her face. The room's blaze of garish color differs drastically from the modest red skirt and yellow towel in de Hooch's earlier Woman Nursing a Child with a Child and a Dog (1658). 

Pieter de Hooch, Woman Weighing Coins, c. 1664

To their credit, the Dutch at the end of the seventeenth century did not entirely succumb to crass materialism. Most of these genre paintings, right up to the passing of the Gouden Eeuw, made an effort to balance the affairs of the soul with those of the body. Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance is just the best-known in this respect 

It is measure of the Dutch achievement in art, science, philosophical inquiry and religious toleration that their Gouden Eeuw came closest to being an actual golden age, more so than any other society in recorded history.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664

The quiet dignity, simple joys and - occasionally - ribald sensuality that we see displayed in these wondrous genre scenes on view at the National Gallery of Art testify to the core humanity of the Dutch during their golden century of achievement.

God made the world, as the old proverb declares, but it was the intrepid, freedom-loving Dutch who created Holland. These endearing genre scenes from the age of Vermeer are the art works that the Dutch painted on their day of rest.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. and Ed Voves

Introductory Image:                                                                                                          Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) The Lacemaker, c. 1670-71, Oil on canvas, transferred to panel. Overall  (framed): 71 x 63 cm (27 15/16 x 24 13/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures, Acquired in 1870

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Gallery view of the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibit, showing patrons examining Jan Stein's Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, c. 1659.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Photo of Johannes Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c. 1662-65, Oil on canvas, framed: 76 x 69 cm (29 15/16 x 27 3/16 in.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Photo of the National Gallery of Art video, showing contrasting details of Johannes Vermeer's Lady Writing, c. 1665-67, with Gerhard ter Borch's Woman Writing a Letter, c.1655-56.  

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) Lady Writing, c. 1665. Oil on canvas,framed: 68.3 x 62.2 x 7 cm (26 7/8 x 24 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer

Gerhard ter Borch (1617-1681) Woman Writing a Letter, c. 1655-56. Oilil on panel, overall: 39 x 29.5 cm (15 3/8 x 11 5/8 in.) Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Photo of Gerard ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page, c. 1657. Oil on panel, unframed: 47 × 44 cm (18 1/2 × 17 5/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, ParisPhoto © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Franck Raux

Ed Voves, Photo (2017) Detail of Gerard ter Borch's Two Women Making Music, with a Page, c. 1657. 

Jan Steen (Dutch, 1625-1679) Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, c. 1659. Oil on panel, framed: 60.5 × 51.5 cm (23 13/16 × 20 1/4 in.) The National Gallery, London. Bought, 1871. © The National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c. 1675. Oil on canvas, framed: 73 × 67.5 × 8.5 cm (28 3/4 × 26 9/16 × 3 3/8 in.) The National Gallery, London. Salting Bequest, 1910 © The National Gallery, London

Pieter de Hooch (Dutch 1629-1684) Woman Weighing Coins, c. 1664. Oil on canvas, unframed: 61 × 53 cm (24 × 20 7/8 in.) Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Property of Kaiser Friedrich Museumsverein. bpk/Gemäldegalerie, SMB, Eigentum des Kaiser Friedrich Museumsvereins/Jörg P. Anders 

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch 1632-1675) Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664. Oil on canvas.
Framed: 62.9 x 58.4 x 7.6 cm (24 3/4 x 23 x 3 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection