Friday, May 31, 2024

Art Eyewitness Review: Mary Cassatt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mary Cassatt at Work

Philadelphia Museum of Art

May 18 -  September 8, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd 

Beginning on April 19, 1879, the Fourth Impressionist exhibition opened its doors to a much more appreciative audience than had attended the first showing by the group back in April 1874. For the price of 1 franc, art enthusiasts could study - and hopefully buy - the latest work by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and fourteen other artists. Renoir was a no-show that year, but an American-born recruit, invited to join by Degas, displayed 12 striking works of art.

It proved to be a dazzling debut. The dozen exhibited works included three superb pastels. But the standouts were two magnificent oil paintings - a beautiful portrait of a young woman at the Paris Opera and an unforgettable depiction of a bored, mischievous child sprawled on a blue-upholstered arm chair.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Woman in a Loge, 1879

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78

With these now-iconic paintings, the newest, and the only American-born, member of the Impressionists claimed her place in the ranks of the Independents (as the group was still officially known). By the time the Fourth Impressionist exhibition ended in May 1879 and 15,000 patrons had paid their 1 franc entrance fee, Mary Stevenson Cassatt had made her mark in the world of art.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Signature of Mary Cassatt on Bathing the Young Heir, 1890-91

Today, Woman in a Loge and Little Girl on a Blue Arm Chair are reunited in another special exhibition. This time, Cassatt’s works are on view in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Dorrance Galleries. Entitled Mary Cassatt at Work, this exhibition is an insight-packed examination of Cassatt's methodology, bound to heighten her status in art history as one of the major artists of her era.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 View of the East Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
 showing banners advertising the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit

Mary Cassatt at Work will surely delight art lovers who make the pilgrimage to Philadelphia to see it. With 130 works of art on view - oil paintings, works in pastel and prints - the exhibition curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) needed every square inch of gleaming, glistening gallery space to do justice to Cassatt's achievements.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Gallery view of Mary Cassatt at Work, Philadelphia Museum of Art

It's high time to celebrate Cassatt's amazing artistic career. Mary Cassatt at Work is the first major exhibition of the great American Impressionist to be held by a U.S. museum in a quarter of a century. Back in 1998-99, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston presented Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman. Despite the rousing success of this exhibition, Cassatt retrospectives remain surprisingly rare.

To focus on Cassatt’s “modernity” is to risk forgetting that she was a Victorian, a Victorian radical, certainly, but still a person of her era.

During the Victorian age, the “gospel of work” was a favorite theme of social commentators. The virtues of labor and industry were usually ascribed to the formidable, bewhiskered gentleman of the era. 

Given Cassatt’s frequent choice of scenes of family life and leisure as her chosen subject, one could be excused for thinking that she somehow found a way to ignore or evade the moralizing sermons of men like John Ruskin, who called for an embrace of “the pleasure and arduousness of useful, physical labor.”

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress, 1896

I don’t think that Cassatt and Ruskin would have agreed on much else, but on the importance of work, these two “eminent” Victorians were in complete accord.

Two years of intensive study of the 84 works of art by Cassatt in the PMA collection enabled curators, Jennifer A. Thompson and Laurel Garber, to grasp the importance of work for Cassatt. Toil and fortitude, exacting attention to technique and a proud sense of professionalism were revealed as key determinants of Cassatt's character.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Copy of a photo of Mary Cassatt, Paris, c. 1867

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) came from a wealthy American family, though not extravagantly so by the Robber Baron standards of the post-Civil War era. Cassatt’s parents – who were otherwise devoted to her - refused to subsidize her career in the hope that she would resume a more ladylike attitude toward life and art: get married and paint for pleasure.

Cassatt was not content with painting as a gentile, feminine accomplishment. She was driven to succeed commercially, desiring pay for her efforts rather than faint praise. The foundation of Cassatt’s success as a professional artist, first noticed at the 1879 Impressionist exhibition, can be summed up in that one word: work.

Work. Diligent, dedicated effort, characterized by the courage to try, fail and try again. 

Cassatt’s determination to create great works of art led her to express her attitude toward labor in remarks that now seem deliberately composed for inclusion in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations:

“I work & that is the whole secret of anything like conten(ment) with life.”

“I am independent! I can live alone & I love my work.”

“What one would like to leave behind is superior art and a hidden personality.”                                                    

For Cassatt, these assertions expressed the simple, unvarnished truth of her life. For historians and students of art, Cassatt ‘s “hidden personality” is a call to action.

Cassatt’s genius can be observed in the details of her paintings, pastels and prints. In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, Thompson and Garber direct our attention to the hands of the women Cassatt painted or, in the case of The Banjo Lesson, depicted with pastel.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Detail of Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894

Thompson and Garber perceptively comment on the never "idle" hands of Cassatt's protagonists.

Despite the spontaneity of her style, Cassatt’s attentive depictions of hands, whether at rest or in motion – wetting a towel, plucking a banjo or holding a book, balancing horse reins or cradling a nursing child – demonstrate that she was very much in control. These details challenge the idea that her oeuvre focuses solely on moments of leisure.

In fact, close study of Cassatt’s work reveals that she excluded everything except serious, purposeful activity by her female protagonists. No lawn tennis playing or bicycle riding, very popular activities for spirited American girls of her era. No amateur dabbling with sketch books or water colors!

This view of Cassatt as a thorough professional - rather than a gentile painter of mothers and infants - may come as a jolt. Mary Cassatt at Work has quite a number of surprises in store. Be prepared to entertain new interpretations of Cassatt and her oeuvre!

The first “concern” to be addressed is the absence of several of the greatest and most beloved paintings by Cassatt. Every special exhibition presents challenges about which signature works of art “must” be included and those that, for one reason or another, elude the curators' grasp.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition,
 showing Mary Cassatt’s Lydia at a Tapestry Frame, 1880

It was a real privilege to be able to see Lydia at a Tapestry Frame (1880) from the Flint Institute of Art. This was surely an essential Cassatt painting for a “Work” themed exhibition. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Young Mother Sewing (1900) also addresses this topic, but is not on view. The Met loaned other important works, notably Lydia Crocheting in the Garden at Marly (1880) which I will discuss in a follow-up essay.

More serious are the omission of key Cassatt paintings from the National Gallery in Washington, like The Boating Party. But this is due to the stipulation of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Galley that its paintings may not travel to other museums. The National Gallery did send Little Girl in a Blue Arm Chair, a truly sensational work of art, which benefited from Degas' assistance soon after he met Cassatt in 1877.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Detail of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78

The real “surprise” of Mary Cassatt at Work is the premier status accorded to Cassatt’s prints in the over-all plan of the exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) 
Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work,
 showing three states of Mary Cassatt’s print, The Fitting, 1890-1891

Cassatt's introduction to printmaking came from the same source as her invitation to join the Impressionists, Edgar Degas. Cassatt had studied traditional engraving techniques under an Italian master, Carlo Raimundi, in 1872. But it was the daring, unconventional nature of Degas' art, beginning with some of his pastels which Cassatt saw in a dealer's window in Paris, which "changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it."

After viewing prints by Cassatt, Degas recruited her to join with him, Camille Pissarro and Felix Bracquemond to produce a journal of engravings to be entitled Le Jour et la nuit. This was to be a new version of "impressionism" - images pressed onto paper, a visionary, modernist approach to a time-honored medium.

Unfortunately, Le Jour et la nuit never progressed beyond the planning stages. Cassatt was deeply disappointed. But preoccupied with exhibiting at the   Impressionist exhibitions of the 1880's and caring for her elderly parents who had come to live with her in France, Cassatt had little time for printmaking initiatives on her own.

In 1890, this frustrating situation changed radically. A vast exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints, held at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, seized hold of Cassatt's imagination after she visited the show with Degas. 

"You who want to make color prints," Cassatt wrote to Berthe Morisot, "you couldn't dream of anything more beautiful. I dream of it and don't think of anything else but color on copper."

Cassatt determined to do a series of 10 color prints, each illustrating an incident from a related topic, the daily lives of Parisian women. Unlike the Japanese woodblock printers, she would use the etching/aquatint on copper plate process, as she mentioned to Morisot. 

Although Cassatt hired a professional printer to assist her, she did much of the exacting, messy and potentially hazardous work herself!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Detail of Mary Cassatt’s print, The Letter, 1890-91

Rather than discuss Cassatt's printing technique in a review like this, the wisest course is to leave this subject to the experts. In the case of Mary Cassatt at Work, this is Christina Taylor, Conservator for Works of Art on Paper at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. With  the help of Laurel Garber and Tom Primeau, Taylor recreated, step-by-step, the printmaking process used by Cassatt to make The Letter (the original shown above).

A video recording of Taylor at work on her version of The Letter is featured in the exhibition gallery dedicated to Cassatt's "The Ten" and is also available in a longer version on YouTube. This video brilliantly complements the works of art on display in Mary Cassatt at Work and is highly recommended.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
  Christina Taylor, Conservator, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

After watching the video, visitors are well-primed to understand Cassatt's exacting and exhausting printmaking regimen. One entire wall of the gallery is devoted to showing the progressive versions or "states" of one of the series of depictions of Parisian women. Starting with Cassatt's preliminary drawing, it concludes with the seventeenth state of seventeen of The Bath.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit, showing the original drawing & early print states of Mary Cassatt’s The Bath, 1890-91

Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1890-1891 
 (seventeenth state of seventeen)

The ten final plates were utilized to create limited-edition sets of 25 prints of each. These were marketed by Cassatt's dealer, the renowned Paul Durand Ruel. The complete series of prints of "The Ten" is displayed on the opposite wall, making this gallery a tour de force presentation of classic printmaking and Cassatt's unrivaled application of the process. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 )
 Gallery view of Mary Cassatt at Work, showing Cassatt’s “The Ten” 

What should have been a singular artistic and financial success proved to be a frustrating disappointment. Despite all the innovations going on in the Parisian art world of the 1890's, connoisseurs were not prepared for Cassatt's "The Ten" prints.

The test of time has yielded a different verdict on "The Ten" series. Adelyn Breeskin, long-time head of the Baltimore Museum of Art and a major Cassatt scholar, declared that Cassatt’s prints were “her most original contribution… technically, as color prints they have never been surpassed.”

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Woman Bathing, 1890-91

The amount of gallery space devoted to Cassatt's prints raises a major point of concern. Is too much attention being devoted to Cassatt’s softground etchings and drypoint prints? One might conclude that this is so, especially at the “expense” of Cassatt's oil paintings.

After some reflection on the matter, I feel that the curators have made the correct decisions, vis-a-vis the amount of relative attention paid to paintings and prints in the exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024)
 Mary Cassatt’s Sailor Boy: Portrait of Gardner Cassatt as a Child, 1892

It is Cassatt's pastels - it seems to me -which need more emphasis in the galleries of Mary Cassatt at Work

Although there is an excellent chapter in the exhibit catalog on Cassatt's pastels, I think that a gallery devoted primarily to pastels would have greatly enriched our appreciation of Cassatt "the worker." It was pastels upon which Cassatt relied to continue her career as cataracts imperiled her vision, leading eventually to almost complete blindness.

A similar case study can be found in the life of Henri Matisse. Faced with ill health and a life-threatening abdominal cancer operation, Matisse turned to making illustrations for special edition art books, livre d'artiste, cutting out designs with scissors and specially colored art paper. The recent exhibition at the PMA, Matisse in the 1930's devoted a special gallery to these late-career works on paper. 

A comparable display focusing on Cassett's pastels would have done much to increase our understanding of Cassett's efforts to keep working, as the tide of life began to shift away from her.

However we approach Cassatt's pastels, these beautiful, sensitive works deserve to be studied and appreciated. They need to be valued aesthetically for the marvelous technique which Cassatt devoted to them, the related facility of hand and eye.

Ultimately, Cassatt's pastels are statements on human values, tenderness, empathy, caring and sharing.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Mary Cassatt’s Ellen Mary Cassatt, c.1889

In a forthcoming essay on Cassatt, I intend to reflect upon her humane feeling and the way it nurtured her art Cassatt's loving relationship with her sister, Lydia, will receive special attention. And some comment will be made on Cassatt's predeliction for painting mothers and babies, as an extension of her life.

For now, let us close with a detail from my favorite of Cassatt's pastels, The Banjo Lesson (1894)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) 
Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894

Mary Stevenson Cassatt was reputed to be a strong-willed, "difficult" woman. No doubt she was ambitious, driven to succeed. She could be antagonistic toward rivals like "that woman" Celia Beaux or haughtily dismissive, "What Sargent wants is fame and a great reputation."

But nobody paints or creates with pastel such a scene of warmth and humanity as this, unless there is a glowing ember or two of love and compassion deep within their hearts.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s Driving, 1881. Oil on canvas: 34 7/8 x 51 in. (88.8 x 129.8 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Woman in a Loge, 1879. Oil on canvas: 32 1/16 × 23 7/16 in. (81.5 × 59.5 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art # 1978-1-5

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78. Oil on canvas: 35 1/4 × 51 1/8 inches (89.5 × 129.9 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington # 1983.1.18

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Signature of Mary Cassatt on Bathing the Young Heir, 1890-91

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) View of the East Entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, showing banners advertising the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress, 1896. Oil on canvas: 15 × 21 1/4 inches (38.1 × 54 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Copy of a photo of Mary Cassatt, Paris, c. 1867

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894. (Full citation below.)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition, showing Mary Cassatt’s Lydia at a Tapestry Frame, 1880. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1877-78. (Full citation above.)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit, showing three states of Mary Cassatt’s The Fitting, 1890-1891. Drypoint and aquatint on wove paper. From the Cohn Family collection and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Cassatt’s print, The Letter.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Video image showing Christina Taylor, Conservator for Works of Art on Paper at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Detail of Mary Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibit, showing  the original drawing and early print states of Mary Cassatt’s The Bath, 1890-91.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) The Bath, 1890-1891. Color drypoint, soft-ground etching, and aquatint on laid paper, seventeenth state of seventeen: Plate: 12 5/8 × 9 3/4 inches (32.1 × 24.7 cm) Sheet: 17 3/16 × 11 13/16 inches (43.6 × 30 cm) Mat: 22 × 18 inches (55.9 × 45.7 cm. Art Institute of Chicago

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024 ) Gallery view of the Mary Cassatt at Work exhibition, showing Mary Cassatt’s “The Ten” prints. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Woman Bathing, 1890-91. Color drypoint and aquatint on laid paper: 14 ½ x 10 3/8 inches (36.8 inches x 26.3 cm) From a private collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Sailor Boy: Portrait of Gardner Cassatt as a Child, 1892. Pastel on paper Sheet: 25 × 19 inches (63.5 × 48.3 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s Ellen Mary Cassatt, c.1889. Pastel on laid paper: 12 × 14 1/2 inches (30.5 × 36.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. # 60.132.1

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2024) Mary Cassatt’s The Banjo Lesson, 1894. Pastel over oiled pastel on paper: 28 × 22 1/2 inches (71.1 × 57.2 cm).  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond  

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Art Eyewitness Review: Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits in the Renaissance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits in the Renaissance 


Metropolitan Museum of Art
April 2, 2024 - July 7, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves

On June 9, 1311, the populace of the Italian city-state of Siena celebrated the installation of a magnificent altarpiece in the city’s cathedral. Trumpeters, pipers and a lone castanet player led a throng of citizens and clergy to see the dazzling new work of Christian art. 

Created by Duccio di Buonisegna, this altarpiece, known as the Maesta, is dominated by a towering, 14-foot high likeness of the Virgin Mary. Surrounding  Mary is a retinue of angels and saints, each depicted with reverence and discernment.Yet, there is a baffling omission among this heavenly host.

Except as a young child cradled on the lap of his mother, Jesus is nowhere to be seen!

Duccio di Buonsegna, Maesta (main alter panel), 1308-1311

Appearances are deceiving. The Maesta actually had numerous painted images of Jesus. But these were placed on wooden panels on the back of the altarpiece, blocked from the sight of the congregation.

Why the mystery? Why conceal scenes from the life of Jesus from devout Christians in one of the premier churches of Christendom?

The answer, for the Maesta and for many other Renaissance paintings, involves grasping a mindset fundamentally different from that of our times. Cultivating an air of mystery and mysticism, expressing issues and ideals through the agency of allegory, this is how the Renaissance mind dealt with matters, both sacred and profane.

   Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
Gallery view of the Hidden Faces exhibition at The Met

A brilliant new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits in the Renaissance, investigates the practice of creating works of art that were both inspiring and cryptic - by design.

Embellished with symbolism drawn from Christian scripture and Classical myths, these painted portraits were often mounted behind decorated covers and screens. 


Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, Cover with a Mask, Grotteschi,
 and Inscription, ca. 1510

One such portrait and cover, inhabited by mythical animals called grotteschi, was painted around 1510 by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. A cryptic message looms above the mask which the grotteschi defend.

Suo Cuique Persona. Taken from ancient Roman texts, the inscription reads "to each his own mask."

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, Portrait of a Woman (La Monaca), ca. 1510

When the cover is lifted, the moment of revelation can be very disconcerting. In place of the grotteschi and the unnerving mask, we are confronted with the expressionless face of an unknown woman, possibly a widow named Caterina Antinori. She is known as La Monaca and her face is her "own mask."

On the backs of many of these these portraits were more examples of message-coded imagery - a family coat of arms, a personal motto, sometimes faux images of precious materials like marble or porphyry. One of the most significant portraits in Hidden Faces displays a skillful rendition of a vase of flowers, the earliest still life in European painting.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Gallery view of the Hidden Faces exhibition, showing a carved
 wooden canister by Meister der Dosenkopke, 1525 

Most of the works of art on view in Hidden Faces are portraits painted in oils, the great technical innovation of the Renaissance in northern Europe. Among the exceptions is a pair of carved wooden canisters showing the faces of Friedrich the Wise (1461-1525) and his mistress, Anna Rasper (above). These are believed to based upon sketches by Albrecht Durer.

The real standout among the unconventional treasures of Hidden Faces Is a small, wooden devotional shrine. It comes from the German province of Swabia, 1490. 

Distinctly medieval in appearance, this triptych is a rare work, one of the treasures of The Met's Cloisters collection. Surviving the centuries intact, it perfectly illustrates how religious images were kept behind "closed doors" for most of the time. Then for prayer sessions or holy days, the doors would be opened. 

House Altarpiece (triptych showing St. Anne, the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child  and various saints), from Swabia, Germany, ca. 1490. 

The central figure of the triptych is a figure of St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary and, therefore, the grandmother of Jesus. Greatly revered in Germany, St. Anne holds the infant Jesus and a diminutive Mary. She is depicted as a young girl in her blue dress - but smaller in proportion to Jesus. Quite a switch from the 14-foot Madonna of the Maesta!

In some cases, clever design features of the frames holding the paintings added new meaning to the proverb, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." 

An Italian mirror frame, carved in the shape of a tabernacle during the mid-1500's, appears at first sight to be one of the more prosaic objects on view in the Hidden Faces galleries. But an accompanying video loop documents how, by pulling on sliding shutters, two concealed images would be revealed.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Tabernacle Mirror Frame, Ferrara, Italy, 1540-60

The first is an allegory, based on Michelangelo's The Dream, while lurking below is the real object of devotion, the image of a "lady love." 

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Sequence of video images, showing the operation of the
 Tabernacle Mirror Frame (above) and hidden pictures. 
Video presentation created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art staff.

This juxtaposition of images (above) is hypothetical, created by the Met curators to show how the ingenious "mirror" worked. There is no connection between Michelangelo's The Dream, a drawing of a youth summoned to a life of virtue by an angel's trumpet call, and the portrait of the ill-fated Venetian beauty, Bianca Capello. But this superbly mounted display certainly demonstrates how the skill of artists and artisans could help safeguard evidence of romantic passion and forbidden love.

Was this a case of playing coy, erotic parlor games or something more serious? At its most profound, Hidden Faces reveals the power of images during the Renaissance as something so potent that each needed to be accorded special recognition and treatment.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Hans Memling's Allegory of Chasitity, 1479-1480
Works of art, especially portrait paintings, had to conform to staunchly-held Christian convictions. Likewise, the authoritarian political structures of Europe kept the first stirrings of individualism largely in check during the 1400's and 1500's.

People aiming to climb a few steps higher on the social ladder or just have their portrait painted had to be careful as they charted their course through the labyrinth of dues and obligations of a society, only partly liberated from feudalism.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Press preview for the Hidden Faces exhibit. At right is Alison Manges Noguera, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This process of self-expression and social conformity is at the heart of Hidden Faces.The exhibition is a brilliant successor to previous Met explorations of early portraiture, Renaissance Portraits (2011-12) and Medici Portraits (2021).

Hidden Faces tells the story of little known, arcane aspects of the Renaissance, rescued from history's footnotes. For this we have to thank the lead curator, Alison Manges Nogueria, for her outstanding research and organizational skills.

To untangle the often obscure details of the fascinating works of art presented in Hidden Faces, Nogueria and her colleagues have followed the wise policy of the scholars who studied the Maesta. The Met curators have paid as much attention to the backs of these Renaissance paintings, as they did to the portraits painted on their fronts.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Gallery view of the Hidden Faces exhibition, showing 
Hans Memling's Portrait of a Man in a two-sided display frame.

What is more, Nogueria and her team have utilized a double-sided display technique that enables visitors to Hidden Faces to inspect these fascinating works of art in like fashion. 

Of the numerous portraits on view in Hidden Faces, we will look at three. Each is a notable work in its own right. While not forgetting their unique insights, it is important to be conscious of how these paintings illustrate the overarching themes of this wonderful exhibition. 

The portrait, Francesco d’Este, created by Rogier van der Weyden and assistants, ca. 1460, exemplifies the continuing importance of heraldry and other badges of aristocratic power and privilege.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Rogier van der Weyden’s Francesco d’Este, ca. 1460

The identity of the sitter for this portrait took considerable scholarship to confirm. The coat of arms painted on the reverse showed that he was a member of the noble house of D'Este from northern Italy. That was the easy part of the process.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Reverse of Francesco d’Este, by Rogier van der Weyden and assistants, showing detail of lynxes on the coat of arms, ca. 1460

The confusing point was the presence of lynxes among the heraldic symbols, a deliberate feline reference to "Leo" in the name Leonello. This clearly makes the coat of arms that of Leonello d'Este, Marquess of Ferrara (1407-1450). Yet, historical detective work ultimately resolved that the portrait was of Francesco d'Este, the illegitimate son of Leonello. 

With a compromised pedigree, Francesco d'Este was apprenticed to serve as a soldier to the powerful Duchy of Burgundy, the celebrated stronghold of Chivalry and rival power base to the court of the kings of France. The dukes of Burgundy were leading patrons of the "new art," especially Flemish painters like Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) 
Detail of jousting hammer on Rogier van der Weyden’s Francesco d’Este

The details, front and back, of this important work deserve the rigorous, exacting study which has been devoted to it. For instance, Francesco d'Este is shown holding a small hammer used in jousting tournaments and a ring, possibly a prize which he won for a successful joust. As a soldier of Burgundy, d'Este would have had plenty of opportunities to engage in these chivalrous, mock combats - too many, in fact.

The Burgundian army in which Francesco d'Este served was top-heavy with armored cavalry. At the Battle of Grandson in 1476, the arrogant Burgundian knights attacked a force of tough, pike-wielding Swiss foot soldiers. The result was an unmitigated disaster for the Duchy of Burgundy and the ideals of Chivalry.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) 
Reverse of Rogier van der Weyden's Francesco d’Este,
 showing the D’Este coat of arms. 

The battle of Grandson may have been a personal disaster for Franceso d'Este, who commanded one of the Burgundian regiments. The evidence is unclear but it appears that d'Este did not survive the encounter with the Swiss pikemen.

A puzzling inscription was added to the upper left-hand corner of the d'Este coat of arms. It reads "Entirely yours Marquis of Este no longer Corcelles." Corcelles was a village near to the Grandson battlefield. D'Este may have  died there from wounds sustained in the battle.

The second of our case studies also illustrates a dramatic story related to symbolism and heraldry in Renaissance portraiture. As I mentioned above, people of ambition "had to be careful as they charted their course through the labyrinth of dues and obligations of a society, only partly liberated from feudalism."

Johann von Ruckingen, somehow, did not learn that lesson, until bitter experience taught him otherwise.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Portrait of Johann von Ruckingen, 1487, by Wolfgang Beurer 

Johann von Ruckingen was a prosperous merchant from Frankfurt, Germany, ennobled in 1468. In 1487, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, then a dangerous undertaking. While there, he joined two chivalric orders, the Order of the Holy Sepulcher and the Cyprian Order of the Sword. 

The insignia of the two chivalric orders were added to the frame of von Ruckingen's portrait. This had been painted in April 1487 just before he left for the Holy Land. Von Ruckingen's portrait formed one side of a diptych, the other no doubt bearing the likeness of his wife, Agnes.

Von Ruckingen must have thought he had joined the top tier of German society after surviving his trip to Jerusalem. He began to dress in extravagant fashion, violating the sumptuary laws. These rules restricted the degrees of color and style for clothing and quality of cloth, fur and jewelry according to rank. Von Ruckingen exceeded the dress code allowed to his level of nobility and was imprisoned until he relented.

Perhaps a key to von Ruckingen's rash behavior can be found on the reverse of his portrait. There we see his coat of arms, with a Wild Man lurking behind it. 

Ed Voves (2024) 
Wolfgang Beurer's Wildman with von Ruckingen Coat of Arms, verso of above portrait of Johann von Ruckingen

The Wild Man was a heraldic motif used in numerous European cultures. For a nobleman, whose family tree had roots in the ancient past, the Wild Man may have been an appropriate symbol. For a very new and junior member of the nobility like Johann von Ruckingen to make use of the Wild Man seems a reckless and foolhardy thing to do.

With the third portrait selected for our analysis, Hans Memling's Portrait of a Young Man, we lack the most basic item of information: his name. 


Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man (recto), 1485

Yet, there is much to be discerned from closely studying this work. For example, the young man's clothing and hair style are clues that he was a member of the Italian mercantile community in Bruges. These bankers and cloth merchants were important clients for Memling. The Italians knew talent when they saw it and Hans Memling was one of the premier painters of his era.

The pious Italian was portrayed on a panel which joined by hinges with another to form a diptych or to a pair of panels, to make a triptych. In both cases, the praying man would almost certainly been facing the image of the Virgin Mary and Child Jesus. The third, right-hand, panel (if it existed) most likely showed the wife of the Italian merchant. She would have been posed, hands-clasped in prayer like her husband.

Intelligent guesswork and careful scholarship have enabled us to to come close to fully appreciating this brilliant work by Memling, even without a positive ID of its subject. But the most intriguing detail, painted on the reverse of the portrait, remains tantalizingly just beyond our grasp.

Hans Memling, Flowers in a Vase (verso),1485

Here we see a glazed majolica jug, filled with flowers and displayed on a richly-tectured table cloth. Scholars believe that this is the first still life in art history, making it a very significant work of art.

The people for whom Memling painted this "still iife" would not have understood the concept at all. The jug is inscribed IHS, the monogram of Jesus. The flowers it holds symbolize key religious ideals related to the mother of Jesus: the lilies represent Mary's purity, the irises proclaim her as the Queen of Heaven and mater dolorosa, the "mother of sorrow." The very small flowers are aquilegias, associated with the Holy Spirit. And the table cloth was woven with the motif of stylized crosses.

Memling's "still life" is composed in the setting of a devotional altar. When the diptych or triptych was closed, this was the image which would have been seen. Unlike the shimmering gold and costly pigments used by Duccio to create the Maesta, all the artifacts depicted are common, almost "humdrum", objects of everyday life. It is a heavenly vision brought down to a family living room.

Hans Memling’s Flowers in a Vase (detail), 1485

The early Renaissance was the age of devout groups of Christians such as the Brethren of the Common Life, the Beguines, the Gottesfreunde or Friends of God. Their religious lives centered on the Devotio Moderna, a form of Christianity founded upon meditation, mysticism and charitable deeds.

For the most part, these “friends of God” were middle-class people living in Flanders, Holland and the Rhineland. But Italian merchants in these regions, like Memling’s praying man, would have known them well. And what is more, some may have joined them.

The shift from public religious ritual to an emphasis on personal spirituality led in time to Martin Luther and the Reformation. Many of the features of medieval art and Christian liturgical practice, which are brilliantly examined in this Met exhibit, were discarded or "reformed" away.

As artistic conventions changed in response to the Protestant Reformation and to the Catholic Counter-Reformation, portrait painting increasingly favored realism over symbolism, emotions over allegory. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2024)
 Jacometto Veneziano’s Portrait of a Boy, ca. 1475-80

When the features of  Renaissance worthies were brought to life by masters like Raphael and Titan, there was no need to resort to a code of arcane imagery to illustrate or define human character traits. Portrait painters became ever more skillful in depicting the facial features of their subjects and, in the process, increasingly proficient in probing the secrets of their souls. 

By the time of the emergence of Caravaggio at the end of the Renaissance, a great artistic revolution had transpired. Once locked away behind wooden covers and interpreted through cryptic symbolism, portrait painting now spoke with a voice - and a vision  - of its own.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                     

Introductory Image: Ed Voves, Photo (2024 Ridolfo Ghirlandaio‘s Cover with a Mask, Grotteschi, and Inscription (detail), ca. 1510.

Duccio di Buonisegna (Italian, 1255-1319) Maesta, 1308-1311. Tempera and gold on wood: 84 x 156 in. (213 x 396 cm.)  Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of the Hidden Faces exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Ridolfo Ghirlandaio‘s Cover with a Mask, Grotteschi, and Inscription, ca. 1510.Oil on panel: 28 3/4 × 19 7/8 in. (73 × 50.5 cm). Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of a Woman (La Monaca), ca. 1510. Oil on wood panel: 25 9/16 × 18 15/16 in. (65 × 48.1 cm) Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of the Hidden Faces exhibition, showing a carved wooden canister by Meister der Dosenkopke, 1525.

Unknown German Sculptor from Swabia. House Altarpiece (triptych showing St. Anne, the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and various saints), ca. 1490. Oil and gold on wood; metal fixtures: Overall (open): 13 3/16 × 11 7/8 × 2 15/16 in. (33.5 × 30.2 × 7.5 cm)The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection, #1991.10

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Tabernacle Mirror Frame, Ferrara, Italy, 1540-60. Walnut: Overall: 16 5/16 × 15 3/16 in. (41.5 × 38.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, #1975.1.2090

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Sequence of video images, showing the operation of the Tabernacle Mirror Frame (above) and hidden images. Video presentation created by the Metropolitan Museum of Art staff.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Hans Memling’s Allegory of Chasitity (cover for a lost portrait?), 1479-1480.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of the Hidden Faces exhibition showing  Metropolitan Museum curator, Alison Manges Noguera.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Gallery view of the Hidden Faces exhibition, showing Hans Memling's Portrait of a Man in a two-sided display frame.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Rogier van der Weyden’s Francesco d’Este, ca. 1460.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Reverse of Francesco d’Este, by Rogier van der Weyden and assistants, showing detail of coat of arms.

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Rogier van der Weyden’s Francesco d’Este, ca. 1460 (detail of jousting hammer, ring)

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Reverse of Francesco d’Este, showing of d’Este coat of arms. 

Ed Voves (2024) Portrait of Johann von Ruckingen, 1487, by Wolfgang Beurer (German, active 1480–1500)

Ed Voves (2024) Wolfgang Beurer's Wildman with von Ruckingen Coat of Arms, verso of above.

Hans Memling (Netherlandish, active by 1465–died 1494 ) Portrait of a Man (recto); Flowers in a Vase (verso), 1485. Oil on panel: 11 1/2 × 8 7/8 in. (29.2 × 22.5 cm) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (284.a (1938.1.a); 284b (1938.1.b))

Ed Voves, Photo (2024) Jacometto Veneziano’s Portrait of a Boy, ca. 1475-80. Tempera and oil on wood panel: 9 × 7 3/4 in. (22.9 × 19.7 cm). National Gallery, London.