Monday, March 13, 2017

A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece 700 BC – 200 AD at the Onassis Cultural Center New York City

A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece 700 BC – 200 AD 


Onassis Cultural Center New York City

March 9 – June 24, 2017 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

"Know thyself." "Gnothi seauton" (γνῶθι σεαυτόν).  This maxim, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Delphi, proclaims the philosophical aspirations of the ancient Greeks.
Intellectual exploration did not entirely define the lives of the Greeks - any more than it does the lives of modern-day individuals. A fascinating exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York City examines Greek civilization from a different vantage point: emotion. 
A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece 700 BC – 200 AD brings a wide-ranging array of works of art and artifacts to the mid-town Manhattan gallery of the Onassis Center. 

                Installation view of A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD       Photograph © Joseph Coscia, Jr.

Most of the exhibition objects are loans from Greek museums and chart the evolving attitudes of the ancient Greeks to the interplay of emotions. Other works come from Greek-speaking cities in southern Italy or are Roman-era copies of statues made by famous artists of the Greek past.

In a brilliant move, the curators of A World of Emotions created a grouping of statues as was often done in antiquity. The statue in the foreground, Pothos, is the daimone or spirit of yearning. Pothos is about to be hit by an arrow from the bow of Eros, the god of love.

Ed Voves Photo (2017), Roman-era Statues of Pothos (left) and Eros, 2nd century AD

This splendid representation of Eros is believed to be a copy, made about 70 years after Christ, of a bronze by the master sculptor, Lysippos who lived in fourth century BC. It was found at a different site in Rome than the place where Pothos was unearthed. Yet, the grouping of these two works is a masterful interpretation of the more playful aspects of emotion in the Greek world.

Emotion among the Greek, or Hellenes as they called themselves, was more often blood-chilling than heart-warming. Indeed, the most significant work in all of Greek literature begins with an evocation of unrestrained anger.

The first word of Homer's Iliad is menin, rage. This uncontrollable anger, the wraith of Achilles, resounded throughout antiquity. From Alexander the Great's heedless murder of his friend, Cleitus, who had saved his life in battle, to curse tablets which were commonly used in ancient vendettas, the Greeks often strayed from the path of reason.

Fortunately, Greek life and art was  balanced  by the practice of more positive traits and virtues.  Upon entering the A World of Emotions exhibit, visitors are greeted two marble statues from the sixth century B.C. known as Kourai. These two sculptures from the Archaic era preceding the Persian Wars exude emotional well-being.

Ed Voves Photo (2017), Gallery view of A World of Emotions

For me, it was like meeting old friends. Last autumn, I had seen the heroically nude kouros and the kore, with her dangling braids, at a spectacular exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. I had visited The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great too late in the exhibit's run to post a review. Yet, here were the kouros and kore to welcome me to A World of Emotions!

Greek sculpture was influenced by the statues which Greek merchants and mercenary soldiers saw in Egypt, beginning around 850 BC. The enigmatic smile of the kourai has counterparts in Egyptian sculpture and amazingly appears on statues at medieval cathedrals like Chartres in France and Magdeburg in Germany.

For the Greeks, the "Archaic" smile denotes self-awareness and a sense of connection with the gods. We can see a growing confidence on the face of this kouros, which dates to 510 to 500 BC, exactly the years when democracy in Athens was gaining political favor. By contrast, the great kouros in the Metropolitan Museum presents a more determined, yet more fearful, visage. The Met's kouros dates to 580 BC and was used as a monument for a young aristocrat's grave. That era, the early sixth century,was a time when ruthless oligarchic power and debt-slavery were ripping Athenian society apart. 

Statue of a Kouros, ca. 500 BC, © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports,   
Photo by Kostas Xenikakis

By the time that this beaming, confident kouros was created, Greek democracy was on the rise.

Maybe I am just old-fashioned but I favor Archaic-era statues over the later Classical period. I especially love the fact that they were painted with garish colors, thereby confounding the theories of Age of Reason scholars who praised them for their "pure" natural color. Traces of dark red can easily be seen in the hair of the kore on view in the exhibition. The kore's necklace, bracelet and earrings were painted blue and a crown of gilded copper-alloy flowers once graced her head.

Placed on a pedestal on the Acropolis, the beautiful, decorative kore assumed the "proper" place for women ordained by the aggressively male society of ancient Greece. A women who ventured beyond the role of homemaker or hetaerae prostitute risked being viewed as a latter-day Medea, the mythological character who rebelled against male oppression and betrayal. 

Many of the most fascinating works of art in the exhibit relate to women, so often excluded from a political role or even an artistic career in Greek society. A brilliant fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii illustrates depicts the Sacrifice of Iphigeneia. In this story from the Trojan War cycle. Agamemnon must sacrifice his beloved daughter, Iphigeneia, to placate the gods or his stalled armada will not be able to sail to attack Troy.

Wall Painting with Scene from the Sacrifice of Iphigeneia, ca. 62 AD 
© Archeological Museum of Naples

Evidently, this outrageously unjust act was too much for even the Greeks to tolerate. Later versions of the story changed the ending, with the goddess Artemis bringing a deer to be slaughtered in place of the innocent Iphigeneia. This recalls the similar, happy, conclusion of the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. 

It is doubtful that the change in the story of Iphigeneia was influenced by the Hebrew scriptures. More likely, it reflected the effect of the endless wars which plagued the Greek world. By the time that this fresco was painted in Pompeii, only a few short years before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, peace had been imposed by the Romans. Most Greeks were glad of it. The reprieve of Iphigeneia, pictured here, is in keeping with the Pax Romana but not of the blood-thirsty spirit of the Greeks earlier in their history.

To mourn for those slain in warfare was in fact one of the few public roles of women in Greek society. They certainly had plenty of occasion to do so. 

Amphora with Mourning Scene, ca. 530 BC, © Vatican Museum  

The poignant and timeless image on this black-figure painted Amphora was painted around 530 BC. This was the era when Sparta gained military ascendancy over much of Greece. The woman mourning the dead warrior is most likely Eos, or Dawn, grabbing a hank of her hair as she grieves for her son, a victim of the wrathful Achilles at Troy. 

But separating mythology from human actions in Greek history is not always easy. The woman shown here might well have symbolized a mother from Argos convulsed in grief after the Spartan victory in the Battle of Champions in 546 BC. Or the scene could have occurred two centuries later following the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC when the armies of Athens and Thebes were decimated by King Philip of Macedon and his Achilles-like son, Alexander. There were lots of battles, plenty of sons to mourn.

The motivations that impelled the Greeks to engage in self-destructive wars and other (to us) irrational acts were actually based on a strict code of ethical conduct. The catalog to A World of Emotions has several compelling essays which provide crucial insights into the psychology and social factors that governed Greek behavior. Professor Angelos Chaniotis, the lead scholar of the curatorial team, summarizes these insights.  

A public life free of emotions has never existed, in any past society... As regards ancient Greece, certain features of Greek society and culture enhanced the part played by emotions in public life: the spirit of competition (agon) that characterized Greek culture, the importance of family and the duties connected with it - especially the duty to avenge an act of injustice or an insult against a relative or an ancestor - social values, such as an advanced sense of honor and shame, and the obligation to show gratitude for a favor and repay it (charis).

Along with place of emotion in public life, there was what another of the exhibit scholars, Anthi Dipla, calls the "private spaces of emotions." Here the differences between ancient and modern world views largely disappear. For in these personal, interior realms, care, concern and grief for spouses, children, soul mates, even pets were addressed. 

Greek parents often erected a statue to a child, happily saved from disease, to thank the gods for the young one's preservation. There is one of these in the exhibition, dating to the third century BC. The statue of a little boy holding a goose was dedicated in the sanctuary of the river god, Kephisos, in central Greece. 

Ed Voves Photo (2017), Statue of a Boy with a Goose, 3rd century BC (detail) 

Perhaps the boy was saved from drowning. Whatever the case, the ability with which the sculptor has captured the smiling boy's sense of well-being is little short of a miracle of art.

More often, parents would have to erect funeral stele with heartbroken inscriptions. A particularly poignant one is on view in World of Emotions, which records the devastated feelings of parents when their only daughter, named Zoe (the Greek word for life), died,while delivering a still-born baby around 200 AD.

Ed Voves Photo (2017), Gallery view showing steles of Kalliteles (left) and Polyeuktos

Not far from the monument to Zoe are other memorial steles, this time with sculpted depictions of deceased young boys. At the foot of each is a leaping, playful dog. I stood before these statues, of Kalliteles and Polyeuktos, and briefly lost track of time. I was still grappling with the impact of reading the translation of Zoe's memorial. Trying 
to focus on the historical and aesthetic details of these poignant monuments was difficult, if not impossible.

The emotions, the raw feelings displayed in the Onassis Center gallery, are what matter. 

It is with a lingering sense of shock that one realizes that these ancient emotions still resonate today. We observe the skillful ways that Greek artists evoked a feeling or depicted a sentiment. But such technical details are only a part of the World of Emotions exhibit.

What is really occurring at the Onassis Center, I believe, is a psychic or spiritual "event."  The emotions sculpted in marble or painted on clay have passed beyond the sphere of art criticism and have attained a form of immortality. This is what is displayed on the walls of the Onassis Center, ingrained into something harder and more lasting than stone.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:   
Head of Penthesilea Marble, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, inv. no. BS 214 © Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig. Courtesy of Onassis Cultural Center, New York.

Installation view of A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD. Photograph © Joseph Coscia, Jr., 2017 Courtesy of Onassis Cultural Center, New York.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017),  Roman-era Statues of Pothos and Eros, 2nd century AD. Exhibit at the Onassis Cultural Center, New York City, March 9 to June 24, 2017.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017),  Gallery View of the A World of Emotions Exhibit at the Onassis Cultural Center, New York City, March 9 to June 24, 2017.

Statue of a Kouros, Marble, ca. 500 BC, from the Sanctuary of Apollo at Ptoos. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, inv. no. 20 © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports–Archaeological Receipts Fund, Photography Kostas Xenikakis  Courtesy of Onassis Cultural Center, New York.

Painting with Scene from the Sacrifice of Iphigeneia Fresco on plaster, ca. 62 AD, from Pompeii. Casa del Poeta Tragico Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, inv. no. 9112 © Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli / Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo Courtesy of Onassis Cultural Center, New York.

Amphora with Mourning Scene Terracotta, black-figure, ca. 530 BC, from Vulci. Musei Vaticani, inv. no. 16589, © Foto Musei Vaticani  Courtesy of Onassis Cultural Center, New York.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Statue of a Boy with a Goose, 3rd Century BC (detail) from the collection of the National Archeological Museum, Athens. Exhibit at the Onassis Cultural Center, New York City, March 9 to June 24, 2017.

Ed Voves, Photo (2017), Gallery view of World of Emotion, showing steles of Kalliteles and Polyeuktos. Exhibit at the Onassis Cultural Center, New York City, March 9 to June 24, 2017.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin at the Morgan Library and Museum


Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden:

The Collections of Count Tessin

Morgan Library and  Museum, New York City
February 3 through May 14, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The eighteenth century has come back to life in a splendid exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Focusing on a special loan from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden, visitors to the Morgan are enabled to grasp the importance of the gentleman connoisseur as the arbiter of the 1700's art scene.

Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden showcases the collections of eighteenth century oil paintings and Old Master drawings and prints which Count Carl Gustaf Tessin assembled during the 1730's and 1740's. Count Tessin then sold these impressive works of art to the royal family of Sweden. When Sweden's government opened a national museum of art in the nineteenth century, the Tessinsamlingen filled the galleries of the new facility with many of its finest works of art.

During the 1700's, Europe's Age of Enlightenment took hold in the minds of intellectuals like Carl Gustaf Tessin (1696-1770). As a young man, Tessin traveled throughout Western Europe but it was in France, which he visited on four occasions, that he found the greatest inspiration. In 1739, he returned to France as his nation's ambassador with the mission to secure French help to revive Sweden's dwindling political and economic power. Tessin expanded his diplomatic brief to purchase an array of art works to promote a cultural renaissance in Sweden.

This was not just a public-spirited endeavor. Tessin amassed his collection so that he would become a latter-day Medici. From his father, he had inherited the rank of surintendant or surveyor of the Swedish royal palace. Now, as Sweden's emissary to Versailles and a devoted patron of the arts, he could make his own mark. In the portrait he commissioned while in France, we see him surrounded by all the trappings of the realm of high culture.

Jacques-André-Joseph Aved, Count Carl Gustaf Tessin, 1740

Tessin's portrait supplies one of the more humorous elements in the exhibit. Tessin was Sweden's "unofficial" ambassador to France and, perhaps to make more of an impression, spent lavishly, dipping into his own resources. When it came to having his portrait painted, Tessin tried to save money by picking a more affordable artist, Jacques-André-Joseph Aved (1702–1766), rather than one of the "grand manner" masters like Hyacinth Rigaud.

Aved succeeded in presenting Tessin as a man of the Enlightenment, carelessly dressed but absorbed in his intellectual pursuits. But the painting sessions dragged on so long that Tessin's finances were just as strained as if he had commissioned Rigaud.

Tessin was indeed an Enlightenment intellectual. If not a philosophe of the caliber of Voltaire, he had a discerning intellect and the gift for cultivating the best artists and scholars of his time. He met the brilliant, ill-fated Watteau on a early trip to France and later added a number of Watteau's superb sketches to his collection, including this appealing  study of a young woman's head from four different angles.

Antoine Watteau, Four Studies of a Young Woman's Head, ca. 1720

Tessin also displayed the good taste and even better sense of befriending the long-lived master of genre painting, Jean Siméon Chardin (French, 1699–1779). Tessin purchased several of Chardin's works, including The Morning Toilette, the introductory work of art for this review. 

The Morning Toilette is one of the masterpieces of this wonderful artist, whom Kenneth Clark regarded as the "greatest painter of mid-eighteenth century France." The Morning Toilette was selected as an illustration for Civilization and it is worth quoting Clark's astute observation about Chardin:

Chardin's pictures show that the qualities immortalized in verse by La Fontaine and Moliere - good sense, a good heart, an approach to human relationships both simple and delicate - survived into the mid-eighteenth century...

It is significant that Clark noted qualities connecting Chardin to cultural masters of the seventeenth century. Tessin, as we shall see, possessed the same ability to grasp the merit of works of art from the 1600's. But Tessin was also an eighteenth century man of affairs. The oil paintings in which he took the greatest pride in collecting were not works by Chardin but "eye candy" by masters of the Rococo style like François Boucher.

Boucher (1703–1770) created a sensation at the Salon of 1740 with his mythology-themed, The Triumph of Venus. Tessin simply had to have it, even though his finances were starting to suffer, and it was the toast of his collection when he returned to Sweden in 1742. 

François Boucher, The Triumph of Venus, 1740

The Triumph of Venus is a technically accomplished painting, recalling Botticelli's Birth of Venus. It, however, is almost completely devoid of "good sense, a good heart, an approach to human relationships both simple and delicate." 

Of course, taste in art changes over the centuries. The eroticism of this painting must have seemed potent indeed to Count Tessin and his colleagues back in Stockholm. Triumph anchors the exhibit at the Morgan, and, initially at least, exerts a striking presence in the gallery. But the longer one studies Boucher's magnum opus the more unappealing it becomes, like a rich dessert after a heavy meal.

 Gallery view of Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden at the Morgan Library

Boucher's genre scene, The Milliner, is a much more compelling work. It evokes to perfection the ideal of life in France during the 1700's, le douceur de vivre. Yet the effect is the same as with The Triumph of Venus. There is simply too much sweetness in this picture when the lives of the majority of the French people were marked by grinding toil and the loss of loved ones in the endless, futile wars of the age.

François Boucher, The Milliner, 1746

In 1749, only a few years after returning home, Tessin was forced to sell most of his paintings, including The Triumph of Venus, to King Frederik. As surintendant of the palace, Tessin would have had ready access to his former collection, a measure of compensation.

Tessin would have been better advised to spend his money on less glamorous, less pricey purchases. To his credit, when opportunity arose to buy works of truly enduring value, Tessin did not hesitate. This occurred in 1741 with the auction of the vast collection of drawings owned by Pierre Crozat, who had been Watteau's great patron.

It is these works by Durer, Rembrandt, Watteau and others that are truly treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden. 

Rembrandt is represented by an impressive array of works ranging from a heart warming study of a woman teaching a child to walk to a vigorously sketched depiction of Three Thatched Cottages by a Road. This country scene, free of allegorical references, could be displayed next to a landscape drawing by Vincent van Gogh - to their mutual advantage.

Rembrandt, Three Thatched Cottages by a Road, ca. 1640,

The quality and diversity of the works on paper collected by Count Tessin are astonishing. Drawings in graphite, charcoal, ink, chalk, pastel and the "pencil" of watercolor demonstrate the range of accomplishment of seventeenth century artists that is often obscured by the mighty achievements in oil painting by titans from Caravaggio to Vermeer. 

Conversely, the ability in drawing by the eighteenth century artists favored by Tessin is also notable. Watteau's exceptional facility in sketching needs little comment here. A lesser known contemporary of Watteau, Antoine Coypel (1661-1722) is represented by a portrait sketch of a young woman model, so lively, so sparkling with intelligence that her penetrating gaze literally drew my attention from across the gallery at the Morgan.

Antoine Coypel,Young Woman, En Face, c. 1690's.

This outstanding portrait sketch was one of a series of studies. From these, Coypel could select  the head of the Virgin Mary or of Venus, depending on the subject of his current painting. Coypel was a "history" painter, for which one should read "allegory." There are none of his oil paintings in the Morgan exhibit. This is just as well, for his works in oil are didactic and overwrought. But with this portrait of a young woman, created with chalk and pastel, Coypel succeeded brilliantly. 

Why the visual arts of the Age of Reason were so marked by the glaring contrast between acutely perceptive sketching and frivolous, saccharine painting is one of the mysteries of the Enlightenment. 

That Tessin could dip into his dwindling resources to purchase one of Durer's supreme masterpieces, Portrait of a Young Woman with Braided Hair, is, however, a testament to his passion for art. 

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of a Young Woman with Braided Hair,1515

Surveying the incredible range of his collection, one gets the sense that these works of art held a deeper meaning for Tessin than merely serving as mementos of his travels. Rather, l think these paintings and sketches were surrogates for the relics or devotional art works that Tessin would have acquired had he traveled about Europe a century or two earlier. 

By 1700, pilgrimages to Christian shrines were being replaced by the Grand Tour. Europe in the eighteenth century was entering a secular age, but idealists like Tessin were still searching for nobility, still looking for meaning and for works of art to express this yearning. 

Antoine Coypel, who was a cultural theorist as well as an artist, urged his fellow artists to undertake this spiritual quest as well. Painters, Coypel wrote should "express those sentiments and movements of the soul which rhetoric teaches are necessary if we wish to be heard by all the nations of the earth."

Rembrandt, Study for the Figure of Esther in The Great Jewish Bride,1635
Count Tessin continued his impressive diplomatic career upon returning to Sweden, as well as becoming the leader of the Riksdag, Sweden's parliament. Tessin advanced to the rank of President of the Chancellery or prime minister, which he held from 1746 to 1752, and served as tutor to the heir to the throne. 

Tessin's brilliant career came to a sudden halt when he tried to preserve the Riksdag's independence from royal control. He retired to his estates and died in 1770. The prince he tutored absorbed Tessin's passion for the arts but not his belief in political liberty.The year after Tessin died, Gustavus III launched a reign marked by cultural patronage and authoritarian politics. Gustavus was assassinated at a masked ball in 1792 as the radical spirit of the French Revolution reached northward to Sweden.

Tessin's artistic legacy can be witnessed in the outstanding exhibit at the Morgan. It is a testament to the cultural contribution that a single, enlightened human being can achieve. Three centuries later, the "sentiments and movements of the soul" of Count Carl Gustaf Tessin are still making their presence felt.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:                                                                                                         Jean Siméon Chardin (French, 1699–1779), The Morning Toilette, 1740–41, Oil on canvas, 49 x 39 cm. (unframed). Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin Collection. NM 782 Photo: Cecilia Heisser/Nationalmuseum     

Jacques-André-Joseph Aved, (French, 1702–1766) Count Carl Gustaf Tessin, 1740. Oil on canvas, 149 x 116 cm. (unframed).Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin collection, NM 5535 Photo: Cecilia Heisser/Nationalmuseum     

Antoine Watteau (French, 1684-1721) Four Studies of a Young Woman's Head, ca. 1720. Red, black and white chalk on buff paper, 55 x 42 cm. (mounted). Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin collection, NMH 2836/1863 Photo: Cecilia Heisser/Nationalmuseum

François Boucher (French, 1703–1770) The Triumph of Venus, 1740. Oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm. (unframed).Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin collection, NM 770 Photo: Cecilia Heisser/Nationalmuseum 
Ed Voves (2016), Gallery view of Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden:
The Collections of Count Tessin, showing The Triumph of Venus by François Boucher, 1740.

François Boucher (French, 1703–1770) The Milliner, 1746. Oil on canvas, 64 x 53 cm. (unframed). Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin collection, NM 772 Photo: Cecilia Heisser/Nationalmuseum    

Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606–1669) Three Thatched Cottages by a Road, ca. 1640, Pen and brown ink and wash, with touches of white heightening, 42 x 55 cm. (mounted). Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin Collection. NMH 2087/1863 Photo: Cecilia Heisser/Nationalmuseum 

Antoine Coypel (French, 1661-1722) Young Woman, En Face, c. 1690's. Black, red and white chalk and pink pastel, on brown paper, 34.7 x 24.5 cm. (unframed). Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin collection, NMH 2854/1863 

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471-1528) Portrait of a Young Woman with Braided Hair, 1515. Black chalk and charcoal on brownish paper. Laid down. Framing line in black ink. Fold. 65 x 50 cm. (mounted). Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin collection. NMH 1855/186 Photo: Cecilia Heisser/Nationalmuseum

Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606–1669), Study for the Figure of Esther in The Great Jewish Bride, 1635, pen and gray-brown and dark brown ink, brown and gray wash, on beige paper. 55 x 42 cm. (mounted). Nationalmuseum of Sweden, Tessin collection. NMH 1992/1863 Photo: Cecilia Heisser / Nationalmuseum

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence

National Gallery of Art

February 5–June 4, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The ancient Greeks believed that the world was created of four basic elements: earth, air, fire and water. To this mix, the Greeks added a mysterious spiritual substance called aether. Modern physics long ago disproved this theory. But when you behold the Renaissance-era sculptures of Luca and Andrea Della Robbia, you might agree with the Greeks.

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color in Renaissance Florence recently opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This is the first major exhibit devoted to the Della Robbia art dynasty to appear in the United States. It was planned and presented by Marietta Cambareri, Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Della Robbia: Sculpting with Color is a "must see" event. The National Gallery presentation is the second and final appearance of these Della Robbia treasures. We are not likely to see such a display of them in the United States for many years to come.
For over a century, the Della Robbia family fashioned glazed terracotta statues, portrait busts and bas reliefs. Terracotta is a delightful and descriptive Italian art term, meaning "cooked earth." To the basic elements of clay and fire, the Della Robbia artists seemingly added air and water, as symbolized by their signature blue and white glazes. The resulting sculptures exude a lifelike presence and an ethereal force.

Luca della RobbiaMadonna and Child with Lilies, c. 1475

Luca Della Robbia (1399/1400-1482) was born at the turn of the fifteenth century and practiced art for a very long time. He did not start out as a ceramic master but rather trained to be a goldsmith.

Oddly enough, a significant number of the great artists of the Renaissance were apprenticed or studied to be goldsmiths. Filippo Brunelleschi, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Albrecht Durer all started out as goldsmiths but went on to achieve greatness in other fields of art. So too did Luca Della Robbia.

The goldsmith connection is not just a coincidence. This exacting, meticulous craft demanded of its apprentices skills that later turned them into Renaissance masters of architecture, painting and sculpture. Giorgio Vasari acknowledged this in the account of Luca Della Robbia that he included in his Lives of the Artists:

Nor do I marvel in any way at this, seeing that no one ever became excellent in any exercise whatsoever without beginning from his childhood to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; wherefore those men are entirely deceived who think to be able, at their ease and with all the comforts of the world, to attain to honorable rank. It is not by sleeping but by waking and studying continually that progress is made.

Vasari records that Luca was apprenticed under the greatest goldsmith in Florence, Leonardo di Ser Giovanni. Just when Luca made his move to sculpting we don't know. Incredibly, given his tremendous success with terracotta, Luca first made his mark with sculpting marble. Again, we don't with whom he trained - perhaps it was with Nanni di Banco - but in 1431 Luca was awarded a major commission in Florence and achieved a resounding triumph .

Luca was tasked to carve ten bas reliefs for the Cantoria, the organ loft for the S. Maria del Fiore Cathedral of Florence. The spectacular dome designed by Brunelleschi was nearing completion and decorations and statuary for the interior of the great church were progressing too. Luca's carvings of  singing and dancing children, illustrating Psalm 150, was such a success that the leading Florentine authority on art, Leon Battista Alberti, ranked him in the company Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Donatello.

The stage was set for a rivalry in marble sculpting between Luca and the illustrious Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, aka. Donatello (1386-1466). It never happened.

Soon after the seven years spent finishing the Cantoria panels, Luca unveiled a new glazing process for ceramic art. Luca's revolutionary glaze enabled sculptures modeled from clay to appear to have been made from marble. The new glaze held color too with astonishing vibrancy - except for red, still the most volatile color for ceramic artists to use, all these centuries later. 

 Luca della Robbia, Madonna and Child, c. 1441-1445

The most famous of the Della Robbia ceramics were the devotional bas reliefs of the Madonna and Christ Child. This was the Della Robbia "brand," produced in large numbers and subtle variations by Luca and his nephew and successor, Andrea della Robbia (1435–1525). Many of these were produced from molds of the original work of art. With mass production came affordable prices. Della Robbia ceramics were a populist art form - and good business.

The secret of the glaze was kept within the family. It was only shared with one assistant, Benedetto Buglioni (1459/60-1521), who set up his own workshop. Vasari tells a colorful story that Buglioni filched the glaze recipe with help from a servant girl in the Della Robbia household but that is very unlikely. No "cut-throat" rivalry ever seems to have existed between the two workshops.

The trademark Della Robbia images of Virgin Mary, the Infant Jesus and surrounding angels recall the dancing, singing children of the Cantoria. It does not require much of a leap in imagination to grasp Luca's transition from sculpting in marble to working with terracotta.

Nothing, however, prepares the viewer for Luca's three dimensional figures. This is especially so for the near life-size depiction of the meeting of the Virgin Mary and her older cousin, Elizabeth. The key moment of the Visitation, as this episode is called, occurs when Elizabeth realizes that the youthful Mary is to give birth to the Messiah. This is the dramatic subject of Luca's statue, assembled from several interlocking parts.

Luca's The Visitation is a masterpiece of contrasts, of age and youth, of miracle and reality, of bible history and living faith. The elderly Elizabeth, past her child-bearing years, is soon to give birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist. Her young cousin, hardly more than a girl, has been chosen by God as mother of humankind's redeemer, the Christ.

Luca della Robbia, The Visitation, c.1445

The Visitation is normally displayed in the Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia, Italy. It is the first time it has been presented in an exhibition in the United States. Positioned as the center piece of the exhibition, it is actually easier to study at the National Gallery in Washington than in its niche in the church in Pistoia.

The Virgin Mary in this almost impossibly beautiful statue reappears again and again in the glazed terracotta works of the Della Robbia.  A comparison readily springs to mind with the lithe, graceful beauty of Botticelli's mythological women in Primavera. But this relationship is only skin-deep. The Della Robbia artists were devout Christians. Andrea, in fact, was an ardent supporter of the puritanical monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who consigned art works with non-Christian themes to the "bonfire of the vanities."

Very few of the Della Robbia ceramics had secular or non-Christian themes. The allegorical image, Prudence, which serves as the introductory image of this review is very much in keeping with Christian iconography. Prudence holds a mirror of self-knowledge, rather than vanity, with the Janus-like face of the elderly sage testifying to the wisdom of the past.

 Andrea della Robbia, Bust of a Young Boy, c. 1475

The lifelike quality of Andrea della Robbia's Bust of a Young Boy was obviously modeled on a living person. It was almost certainly intended as a portrait of the young Jesus. Andrea created this around 1475, the same time as he was working on the garlanded roundel of Prudence.

This was the era when pre-Christian philosophical ideas were being embraced by Florentine intellectuals. Chief among these was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who created a new Platonic academy in Florence under the patronage of Cosimo de Medici. But the Della Robbia were such staunch supporters of Savonarola that two of Andrea's sons entered the Dominican religious order.

Andrea, reflecting Savonarola's emphasis on austerity, took the momentous step of modifying the Della Robbia glazing technique. He sought to evoke a more naturalistic skin tone to make the Christian saints, even Jesus, appear as flesh and blood beings. 

Giovanni della Robbia, Pietà, c.1510/1520

In some of the Della Robbia statues, the skin was left without glaze. The rough terracotta of the Pieta sculpted by Giovanni della Robbia, Andrea's son, at some point between 1510 and 1520, is particularly effective. This conveys Christ's suffering and his mother's anguish to a degree that more polished works with this theme, including Michelangelo's celebrated version, do not.

Santi Buglioni (1494-1576) also utilized the part-glazing technique after he inherited control of the Buglioni workshop from his adoptive father, Benedetto. 

In this very accomplished - and affecting - portrait of Mary and Jesus, Santi Buglioni brilliantly used the unglazed surface of the terracotta to emphasize the humanity of Mary and the infant Jesus. Here Mary's face has lost some of the extreme youthfulness depicted in Luca's The Visitation. Mary is still a young woman, but age and apprehension about her son's welfare are beginning to take a toll.

 Santi Buglioni, Madonna and Child, c. 1520's

The Della Robbia ceramic statues and bas reliefs became a fixture of Italy and much of Europe during the 1400’s and 1500’s. By the end of the sixteenth century, however, this distinctive art form became a victim of its own success. The family largely died out and the secret of the glaze recipe died with them. Then, during the Victorian era, art scholars like John Ruskin and Walter Pater rediscovered the Della Robbia ceramics.

Art enthusiasts began collecting Della Robbia ceramics once again and Americans, in particular, purchased these works with enthusiasm.

Over the entrance of the Sculpting with Color exhibit is displayed one of the greatest Della Robbia works purchased by an American. This is Giovanni della Robbia’s multi-part masterpiece, Resurrection of Christ, created in the first decades of the 1500’s. Originally commissioned by the aristocratic Antinori family of Florence, it was bought by the president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, A. Augustus Healy, in 1898. Healy donated it to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1908.

Giovanni della Robbia, Resurrection of Christ, c.1500-1520

Technically speaking, Resurrection of Christ is a “lunette relief.” On an spiritual level, it is a testament of belief in God’s grace as manifested by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Initially, this might seem a contradiction. Front and center on the 46-part lunette, next to the risen Christ, kneels the proud Antinori donor. This was likely Niccolò Antinori who purchased the family palace in Florence for “4000 large and heavy florins” in 1506.

One should not be too preoccupied with this act of self-promotion. Niccolò stands in – or kneels – for all humanity. 

In this astonishing work of art, the Roman soldiers, clad in fancy armor and contemporary Florentine garb, flee in panic. Niccolò stays and prays. For all his wealth, Niccolò Antinori is like the leper cured by Jesus, one of ten healed, but the only one who remembered to thank God.

In a way, Niccolò Antinori was also a surrogate for Giovanni della Robbia, creator of this magnificent piece, and for Andrea and Luca before him. The Della Robbia were all men of faith, who thanked God with their art.

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

Introductory Image: 
Robbia, Andrea della (1435-1525) Prudence, ca. 1475. Glazed terracotta. 164.5 cm (64 3/4 in.) weight: 1223 lb. (554.749 kg) Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1921

Robbia, Luca della (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) Madonna and Child with Lilies, c. 1475.
Glazed terracotta. 48 x 37 cm (18 7/8 x 14 9/16 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Quincy Adams Shaw through Qunicy Adams Shaw, Jr., and Mrs. Marian Shaw Haughton  

Robbia, Luca della (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) Madonna and Child, c. 1441-1445. Glazed terracotta. Framed: 120 x 79.5 x 17 cm (47 1/4 x 31 5/16 x 6 11/16 in.) image: 63 x 50 x 14 cm (24 13/16 x 19 11/16 x 5 1/2 in.) Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Firenze  

Robbia, Luca della (Italian, 1399/1400-1482) The Visitation, c.1445. Glazed terracotta.
151 x 148 x 60 cm (59 7/16 x 58 1/4 x 23 5/8 in.) Church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia

Robbia, Andrea della (Italian, 1435-1525) Bust of a Young Boy, c. 1475. Glazed terracotta. 13 x 11 13/16 x 7 7/8 in. (33 x 30 x 20 cm) pedestal: 1 13/16 in. (4.6 cm)
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Firenze

Robbia, Giovanni della (1469-1529/30Pietà, c. 1510/1520. Glazed terracotta. 72 x 44 x 32.7 cm (28 3/8 x 17 5/16 x 12 7/8 in.) Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, 1943.4.70

Buglioni, Santi (1494-1576) Madonna and Child, c. 1520's. Glazed terracotta. height: 41 9/16 in. (105.57 cm) The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, 27.218

Robbia, Giovanni della (1469-1529/30) Resurrection of Christ, c.1500-1520. Glazed terracotta. 156.2 x 349.3 x 29.2 cm (61 1/2 x 137 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) Brooklyn Museum, Gift of A. Augustus Healy

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America at the American Folk Art Museum

Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America

American Folk Art Museum
October 6, 2016–February 26, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Teddy bears and fairy tales were not part of the bedtime ritual of children in early America. Instead, the sobering prayer from The New England Primer was chanted, sing-song, for nearly two hundred years:

Now I lay me down to sleep,  
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

A profoundly moving exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City provides insight into the haunting presence of Death during the colonial era and the formative years of the American Republic.

To modern sensibilities,The New England Primer prayer may seem morbid, indeed harmful to a young child. Look about the gallery walls of the American Folk Art Museum and you will come to understand why Death was acknowledged each long-ago night. 

The paintings in Securing the Shadow all portray deceased people, for the most part children. Many of the works are posthumous portraits, painted after the moment of death. Several paintings belong to a second category, begun when the subjects were hale and hearty, only to be finished after Death had snatched them away.

People in early America were well aware of Death - and not just because of the New England Primer prayer.

Well into the nineteenth century, the number of babies born into an American family normally ranged between eight to ten. On average, five of these children would likely die before reaching adolescence. Temperate regions like Pennsylvania tended to be healthier than Tidewater Virginia or bitterly cold New England. Yet sudden outbreaks of disease could strike anywhere. The dreaded Yellow Fever killed 5,000 people in Philadelphia in 1793. In a few short months, half the population of the City of Brotherly Love was wiped out.

Charles Willson Peale, Rachel Weeping), 1776

One of the first paintings on view in Securing the Shadow comes from Philadelphia. Charles Willson Peale originally painted this as a solo portrait of his deceased daughter, Margaret, in 1772. Little Margaret died that year of smallpox. Later, during the momentous year of 1776, Peale added the grief-stricken countenance of his wife, Rachel, to the enlarged work.

Rachel Peale had cause to weep. Margaret was her second child to die and a third, Eleanor, died the following year. Mrs. Peale died in 1790 after having give birth to ten children. A year later, Charles Willson Peale married Elizabeth DePeyster from New York who bore him six more children before she died in 1804. Of Peale's seventeen children from the two marriages, six died during childhood. This is an "average" figure for the period.

There are no "average" emotions involved in losing a loved one, particularly a child.

Hiram Powers is chiefly known for his  1844 statue, The Greek Slave, which scandalized many and inspired others. Six years earlier, Powers' first born child died from a brain tumor. The grief-stricken sculptor made a cast of the head of the four year old boy. Some of the eyelashes, eyebrows and hair were embedded in the plaster. 

Hiram Powers, James Gibson Powers, c. 1838

Powers' love for his "Jimmy" was mixed in too. As a result, this plaster cast projects a sense of earthly realism and spiritual immortality that few other works of art in the exhibit can match, poignant and powerful though they are.

And the other works in Securing the Shadow are poignant and powerful. What really sets most of the paintings apart from Powers' cast of his son is a more subtle difference. The posthumous portraits share a coded visual language familiar to the people of the time, but now mysterious to us.

Joseph Goodhue Chandler, Charles H. Sisson, 1850

The majority Americans of the pre-Civil War era shared an evangelical Christian heritage. Almost all would have recognized the whip in the hand of young Charles H. Sisson as a symbol of Christ's agony and martyrdom. The New England artist, J.G. Chandler, painted the portrait of Charles H. Sisson, who died on December 8, 1850 aged three years and ten months. The parents of the little boy were indeed martyrs, enduring the deaths of four of their eight children at young ages.

Ambrose Andrews, The Children of Nathan Starr,1835

The Children of Nathan Starr seem a much healthier family - deceptively so. The youngest  - a little boy - clad in a gray dress points not at the badminton shuttlecock but toward heaven. Little Edward Starr died in 1835, the year that Ambrose Andrews, an itinerant New England artist, painted this picture.

Four years later, Oliver Tarbell Eddy created a similar work. Here another little boy in a dark dress holds objects related to his early death. Eddy's The Alling Children is a masterpiece of Christian symbolism.

Stephen Alling, holds a hammer with wooden boards and nails at his feet. This alludes to Christ's death on the Cross in the same way that medieval depictions of Jesus as an infant had done. Young Stephen Alling was just four years old when he died  in 1839. He seems  much more mature in Eddy's painting, just as the little Jesus had been depicted in icons as more of a man than a child.

Oliver Tarbell Eddy,The Alling Children, Ca. 1839

In a final touch, the three sisters of Stephen, Mary, Cornelia and Emma regard their deceased brother with the mournful solemnity of Christian saints like Mary, Christ's mother, and Mary Magdalen at the foot of the cross. 

The father of these Alling children was a wealthy New Jersey jeweler. Stephen Ball Alling (1808–1861) could pay for the services of a major artist like Eddy. Most bereaved parents in the U.S, during  the late 1830's, especially after the Panic of 1837, could only afford lesser talents to memorialize their children.

A fairly typical example of these "naive" portraits is Mary and Francis Wilcox by Joseph Whiting Stock. The title of the book on the stole bears the title "Remember Me." The child Mary points toward heaven just as little Edward Starr had done. In a very touching gesture, the actual toys that the two children pose with in the picture, a porcelain doll and a Staffordshire bank, are placed next to their portrait in the Securing the Shadows exhibit.

Joseph Whiting Stock, Mary and Francis Wilcox, 1845

Joseph Whiting Stock's paintings exemplified the "naive" or folk tradition in American art. Stock was also a model of Yankee ingenuity and his journal and account book provide us with detailed records of life and art in early America.

Stock's journal also grimly records the constant reckoning of Death. Some of the entries for commissions read tersely, "Jane Livsey, her daughter from corpse." The joint portrait of Francis and Mary Wilcox was noted  on  February 15th, 1845. "deceased children of P.f. Wilcox."

Other entries in Stock's journal are more emotional. On February 28, 1838, he wrote of the death of a seven year old boy he had painted a few years before:

Eugene B. Sperry who departed this life the 26th inst. at 10 minutes past 1 o clock, A.M. O. Eugene! Thou wast a brave little fellow and generous' But thou art gone to thy happy home to join thy father ...

Stock empathized with the sorrows of those he painted for he was not stranger to suffering. Stock was born in 1815 in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1826, he was crippled from the waist down when an oxcart fell on him. He took up art and using a specially constructed wheelchair was able to begin a professional career.

Stock was one of the first Americans to make regular use of railroad travel to conduct business, traveling throughout New England and New York to paint portraits. In 1839, tragedy struck again when he was badly burned mixing a batch of varnish. An emergency hip operation to prevent infection saved his life and he quickly returned to his wide-ranging travels. He died, aged 40, of tuberculosis in 1856.

As his life ebbed, the ever-resourceful Stock painted portraits based on daguerreotypes. These early photographs were used by others to record the image of deceased persons and thus were a form of competition to the portraits of the dead that Stock frequently painted. 

Young Woman with Rose, c. 1844

Securing the Shadows presents a special installation of postmortem daguerreotypes from the Burns Archive. Some of the deceased are posed with grieving family members or individually, as in the example included here, with a hand-tinted rose.

Death was so constant a factor of life in early America that the boundary between portraits of the living and those of the dead are sometimes hard to tell. The wonderful, Picking Flowers, which serves as the introductory image to this review is a case in point. 

We do not know if this unnamed little girl was painted from life or was, to borrow Stock's journal phrasing, a "daughter from corpse." Yet, she steps on a crushed flower, a cat seizes hold of a mouse at her feet. These are symbols of death. The goldfinch in the branches above the child is a Christian symbol of the Resurrection.

Ultimately, the works of art on view in Securing the Shadow are about redemption. These paintings and photographs preserved an image of the fleeting lives on earth of those who have passed on to immortal life with God in heaven.

The Soul, as these compelling images proclaim, does not perish with the Body.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Introductory Image
Picking Flowers, attributed to Samuel S. Miller (c. 1807–1853), probably New England, 1840–1850, oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 27 1/2 in., collection Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0255.1961. Photo by Richard Walker

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827) Mrs. Peale lamenting the death of her child (Rachel Weeping), 1772, enlarged 1776; retouched 1818. Oil on canvas. 36 13/16 x 32 1/16 inches (93.5 x 81.4 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1977-34-1 Gift of The Barra Foundation, Inc., 1977

Hiram Powers (American, 1805-1873) James Gibson Powers, modeled c. 1838. Plaster. 11 1/4 x 6 1/4 x 5 5/8 in. (28.7 x 16.0 x 14.4 cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum Museum purchase in memory of Ralph Cross Johnson  1968.155.110

Joseph Goodhue Chandler (American, 1813-1884) Charles H. Sisson, 1850. Oil on canvas.
122.2 x 63.7 cm (48 1/8 x 25 1/16 in.) Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch 1953.5.5 National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Ambrose Andrews (American, 1801–1877) The Children of Nathan Starr,1835. Oil on canvas, 28 3/8 x 36 1/2 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Nina Howell Starr, in memory of Nathan Comfort Starr (1896–1981), 1987, 1987.404. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

Oliver Tarbell Eddy (1799–1868) The Alling Children, c. 1839. Oil on canvas. 47 1/8 x 62 7/8 in. (119.7 x 159.7 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1966 Accession Number: 66.242.21  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Joseph Whiting Stock (American, 1815-1855) Mary and Francis Wilcox, 1845.
Oil on canvas. 122 x 101.6 cm (48 1/16 x 40 in.) Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch 1959.11.2  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 

Young Woman with Rose, artist unidentified, United States, c.1844, tinted sixth-plate daguerreotype, collection of Stanley B. Burns, MD. Photo courtesy Stanley B. Burns MD & The Burns Family Collection and Archive.