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.