Sunday, May 26, 2019

Moroni: the Riches of Renaissance Portraiture at the Frick Collection

Moroni: the Riches of Renaissance Portraiture 

The Frick Collection, New York 

February 21 through June 2, 2019 

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Many of history's greatest creators achieve success because their abundant skills mirror the vision, ideals and needs of the societies in which they live. One may say of such fortunate individuals that they are the right artist in the right place at the right time.

Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1520-1579) was not one of these artists. Moroni was blessed by neither time nor circumstance. His talent, however, was superlative and his paintings are masterpieces of the highest order.

Moroni is the subject of a brilliant exhibition at the Frick Collection. Moroni: the Riches of Renaissance Portraiture is now in its final days. 

  A view of art works from the Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture exhibition in the East Gallery, Frick Collection; photo: Michael Bodycomb

So important and revelatory is this reappraisal of the little known Italian Renaissance master that a special trip to New York City is in order if you have not seen the show or if you want a second look. Cancel your engagements, adjust your schedule - go to the Frick exhibition and witness the paintings of a truly unsung hero of art.

Why is Moroni not better known? Geography, as we will discuss, certainly plays a major role. But the real reason for Moroni's eclipse is a consequence from what we can call the "end of the Renaissance." This is a little studied, indeed often unrecognized, aspect of cultural history. 

Following the sundering of Christendom by Martin Luther's challenge to Papal authority and the horrific sack of Rome in 1527, the intellectual climate of Europe dramatically changed. The mood of writers, philosophers and artists darkened. A controversial book or painting could alienate the "powers that be," with very painful consequences for the offending author or artist. Even Michelangelo was not above criticism.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Giovanni Bressani,1562

Moroni's entire working life took place in the altered circumstances of the "end of the Renaissance." 

Moroni's obscurity was further affected by the fact that he was not a native of Florence or a Venetian. He was born in the small town of Albino in Lombardy. He spent almost all of his life there or in nearby Bergamo. Located between Milan and Venice, Moroni’s home ground was not exactly the dark side of the moon. Moroni was rewarded with portrait commissions from the nobles and merchants of Milan and Venice, but he never made an effort to relocate to either of these powerful and wealthy cities.

Little is known of Moroni's inner life but it is almost certainly true that he remained in Albino/Bergamo by choice, rather than by necessity. Moroni's decision to stay close to home is likely to have been motivated, at least in part, by a very sensible character trait in difficult times - discretion.

In 1545, Pope Paul III and the bishops and theologians of the Catholic Church convened a major council to strengthen the Church in response to the break-away Protestant denominations. The council was convened in the Italian city of Trent, located about ninety miles from Bergamo. 

Moroni, in his early twenties, was just entering the prime of life as the council began. He traveled to Trent, where commissions for religious-themed work could be expected. He stayed for a few years, long enough to discover that Church leaders were not pleased with the current trends of art, notably Mannerism with its self-indulgent,erotic paintings, thinly disguised as allegory.

Mannerism was mainly a Florentine school of art. Moroni had trained under another Lombard painter, Moretto da Brescia (c.1498-1554), who rejected the coy sensuality of the Mannerists. 

Moretto, a notably pious artist, specialized in full-length portraits. He also excelled in capturing the growing climate of fear and melancholy which was affecting people all over Europe. Moroni was greatly influenced by Moretto and, on his return from Trent, showed that he could match and even excel him. 

One of Moroni's first full-length portraits is on view in the Frick exhibition. This arresting work shows Gian Ludovico Madruzzo, a Catholic clergyman destined for high places in the Church. Moroni may have met him through Madruzzo's uncle, who was the prince-bishop of Trent. Madruzzo succeeded to the title later in life and was so esteemed that he was selected to deliver the funeral eulogy for Emperor Charles V.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo, c.1551-52

For all of his honors and friends in high places, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo does not appear in his portrait to be comfortable or confident. His pose is one of authority, but he stands stiff and “on guard.” Dressed in a black clerical gown, he looks more like an austere Spanish nobleman alert to a slight to his honor. But what really grabs and holds our attention is Madruzzo's facial expression. 

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo (detail)

Madruzzo regards the viewer with deep scrutiny, bordering on suspicion. It is a tense moment. Just back from a walk with his faithful dog, he confronts a messenger with an official dispatch, or perhaps a favor-seeker begging a moment of his time. Madruzzo's skeptical, haunted expression testifies to the age of anxiety in which he and Moroni lived.

Moretto's influence on Moroni is also apparent in the religious paintings which were the other feature of his work. Moroni utilized the art of his teacher in a strikingly unique manner. 

In his reverential work, Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child, Moroni depicts an aristocratic worshiper in a scene straight out of the devotional practice being formulated by the Council of Trent. The Council was still in cession at the time of the painting, around 1555, and the theologians assembled at Trent were adamant that religious art be direct and understandable statements of Christian faith.

Moroni conformed exactly to the Council of Trent's doctrine, with brilliant psychological handling. The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child are painted in the style of painting by Moretto but the pious "gentleman" is not praying before a painting or a statue. He is worshiping in the living presence of Mary and Jesus.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, 
Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child, ca. 1555

Moroni reveals this by showing the thin golden ring of Mary's halo and her shadow on the wall.  Statues cast shadows but do not have ethereal circlets around their heads. In this subtle way, Moroni is depicting a religious experience of the most profound kind.

Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child is a powerful evocation of contemplative prayer. In the tormented times of the late 1500’s, Catholics were encouraged to meditate on their religious beliefs, as the protagonist is doing , and then put their faith into practice. One of the great books of the time, The Spiritual Exercises by St. Ignatius of Loyola, provided a step-by-step guide to this task. Moroni’s painting illustrates St. Ignatius’ injunction to keep our minds “secluded” by “concentrating instead all our attention on one alone, namely the service of our Creator and our own spiritual progress…”

Moroni’s art, however, was not “secluded” from the everyday rituals and realities of his era. The work ethic of the artisan class, macho male bravado, feminine “wiles” and folk magic all appear in his portraits. In a master stroke, the curators of the Frick exhibition have assembled artifacts from  Moroni’s era which match those in his paintings – often to an astonishing degree.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Isotta Brembati, c.1555–56

This is best exemplified in Moroni’s full-length portrait of Isotta Brembati (1530-1586), painted around 1556.  Moroni had painted a portrait bust of the same lady about five years earlier, notable for the sharp, calculating look in her eyes. Born in Bergamo, she was a brilliant woman and an accomplished poet, writing in Latin.

Except to note that Isotta Brembati had aged quite a bit in the interim, our attention does not linger on her face very long in in the second portrait. Instead, we focus on her splendid apparel, jewelry and most spectacularly, a martin pelt draped over her shoulder. Directly in front of this magnificent portrait is a display of accoutrements replicating those in the painting.

Giovanni Battista Moroni's Isotta Brembati, with artifacts from the 1500's, on display in the Oval Room of the Frick Collection, photo: Michael Bodycomb

The most extraordinary of these artifacts is the a golden, bejeweled mask covering the marten's head, Bearing the symbol of a dove or the Holy Spirit,  it was an amulet for women of child-bearing years. The fur of the martin, according to folk lore, increased the chance of conceiving a child and protected the mother during pregnancy.

Unknown artist from Venice, Marten’s Head, ca. 1550–59

A golden-headed marten pelt also appears in a splendid portrait by Paolo Veronese of Countess Livia da Porto Thiene, a noblewoman from Vicenza who was pregnant when she posed in 1552. This portrait by Veronese is one of the treasures of the Walters Museum in Baltimore. In 1967, curators at the Walters secured an actual golden marten mask dating to the 1500's to complement the Veronese portrait. Thanks to the generous loan from the Walters, this golden mask and a more modern marten pelt are featured in the Moroni exhibition at the Frick.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni'), c.1570

Moroni's most famous painting is on view in the Frick exhibition. It is a portrait but not of a countess or clergyman or melancholy humanist. Instead, The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni')
 is a true Renaissance man. Exuding intelligence, skill and confidence, the tailor is about to cut a bolt of black cloth, the most costly of fabrics due to the number of immersions in dye to "fix" the color. 

There are no known self-portraits of Moroni but I have an idea that the artist was painting a part of himself when he portrayed this unknown tailor. When Sir Charles Eastlake purchased this work for the National Gallery in London in 1862, he was certain that this showed a nobleman in the guise of a tailor. Close examination of the fabric of the tailor's suit shows that he is wearing cloth "suitable to his station."

The tailor's "station" is that of a master craftsman. Supremely gifted in his difficult trade and a perceptive student of human nature, the tailor had to satisfy the demands and needs of the "high and the mighty" - just as a portrait painter must do. He is the kind of man that Moroni proved himself to be.

Why did Giovanni Battista Moroni stay in Bergamo rather than Milan, Venice, Rome or the court of the Holy Roman Empire? The answer is there in his unforgettable paintings. The  "great' world exists on our doorstep, in our backyard, on our neighbor's face, just as much as it does in a glittering palace or the likeness of a fashionable celebrity.

Three centuries after Moroni died, another Italian genius was asked why he remained so close to home rather than seeking his fortune in the capital cities of Western Europe and the United States. Moroni would have appreciated his reply.

"You may have the universe," Giuseppe Verdi said, "if I may have Italy."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Images courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York City

Introductory Image:
Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Bust Portrait of a Young Man with an Inscription, c. 1560. Oil on canvas: 18 5/8 x 15 5/8 inches. The National Gallery, London; Layard Bequest, 1916. Photo: © The National Gallery, London

A view of art works from the Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture exhibition in the East Gallery of the Frick Collection, New York City; photo: Michael Bodycomb

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Giovanni Bressani, dated 1562. Oil on canvas: 45 3/4 x 35 inches. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Purchased by  Private Treaty, 1977. Photo: National Galleries of Scotland

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Gian Ludovico Madruzzo, c. 1551-52. Oil on canvas: 78 5/8 x 45 5/8 inches. Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Gian Ludovico Madruzzo (detail) Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons,,_gian_ludovico_madruzzo,_1551-52,_02.jpg

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Gentleman in Adoration before the Madonna and Child, ca. 1555. Oil on canvas: 23 1/2 x 25 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Samuel H. Kress Collection. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) Isotta Brembati, c. 1555–56. Oil on canvas: 63 x 45 1/4 inches. Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo - Lucretia Moroni Collection. Photo: Fondazione Museo di Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo

Giovanni Battista Moroni's Isotta Brembati, with period artifacts from the 1500's, on display in the Oval Room of the Frick Collection, during the Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture exhibition; photo: Michael Bodycomb

Unknown artist (Venetian, 1500's) Marten’s Head, c. 1550–59. Gold with enamel, rubies, garnets, and pearls; modern pelt;synthetic whiskers: 3 5/16 inches (jewel only). The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Museum acquisition by exchange, 1967. Photo: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Giovanni Battista Moroni (Italian, c.1520-1579) The Tailor ('Il Tagliapanni'), c. 1570. Oil on canvas: 39 1/8 x 30 1/4 inches. National Gallery, London , purchased in 1862. Inventory number # NG697

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Impressionist's Eye at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Impressionist's Eye

Philadelphia Museum of Art
April 16 - August 18, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photography by Anne Lloyd

Curators of art exhibitions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries customarily displayed paintings floor-to-ceiling. Placement of an oil painting or a watercolor could make or break its reputation - and marketability. 

When I visited the current blockbuster exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Impressionist's Eye, my eyes almost immediately detected a "problem" or warning flag. Pierre-Auguste Renoir's color-drenched Still Life with Flowers and Fruit, painted in 1889, hovered so high up on the gallery wall that prolonged study would surely leave the viewer with a "crick" in the neck.

Since the location of Renoir's still life fails to conform to the best practice of modern museum display, there had to be a reason for its seeming off-beat placement. Even by the standards of the 1800's, Still Life with Flowers and Fruit demands to be hung at eye level or close to it. Why so high?

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of The Impressionist's Eye exhibition,
 Renoir's Still Life with Flowers and Fruit at top. 

The answer, as I discovered, had everything to do with the title and theme of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) exhibition: The Impressionist's Eye.

In 1889, Renoir received some decorative commissions for several country villas. It is believed that when confronted with the challenge of creating an eye-catching painting for placement above a door way of one of these villas, Renoir conceived the idea of this still life. 

A brilliant balance of complementary colors for the flowers set against a blood orange and Burgundy red background, Renoir's painting transformed the "blank" space over the door. Still Life with Flowers and Fruit is the kind of painting which turns a room into a salon.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Still Life with Flowers and Fruitc.1889

With this remarkable work, Renoir delivered a masterful lesson on the way that an artist's eye looks at a "problem" and finds a solution. His success calls into question the idea that Impressionists did little more than focus their eyes and paint the motif.

In an often quoted remark, Paul Cezanne declared that his fellow Impressionist, Claude Monet, "is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!"

Monet certainly was "an eye" as his long career of depicting the natural world attests. When we look at a Monet landscape like Bend in the Epte River near Giverny, the "eye-hand" coordination of this great artist is very evident.The sensation of looking at the dappled, rustling leaves of poplar trees along the riverbank was skillfully transmitted to the canvas. Monet's astonishing visual faculties were key to this artistic alchemy.

Claude Monet, Bend in the Epte River near Giverny,1888

Yet Monet was more than just an "eye." His technique was in a constant state of evolving, as was the work of Camille Pizarro, Edgar Degas and the rest. The Impressionists explored the realm of perceptional reality, earning a place for their art in the vanguard of the social and scientific theories of their time. Jules Laforgue, a noted critic, wrote in 1883:

The Impressionist’s eye is, in short, the most advanced eye in human evolution, the one which up until now has grasped and rendered the most complicated combination of colors known. 

Despite their emphasis on painting in oils en plein air, the Impressionists were anything but doctrinaire. They embraced a wide range of media, exploring every opportunity - like Renoir with Still Life with Flowers and Fruit - to create works of art which were innovatory in technique and of tremendous emotional significance.

The Impressionist's Eye is the latest in a series of major exhibitions almost entirely composed of works of art from the PMA's collection. With a massive rehab of the Philadelphia Museum underway, PMA curators are looking intently at their own extensive holdings of paintings, works on paper and sculpture.The immediate objective of such scrutiny is to continue presenting major exhibitions in a "hard hat" environment. But there is a much more important curatorial task underway, as well.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018)
 The Resnick Rotunda at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

 Most of the oil paintings in The Impressionist's Eye exhibition are regularly on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Others, especially the clutch of precious Van Gogh's, are so often on loan to other museums that the iconic Sunflowers and Portrait of Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle are nowhere to be seen.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Gallery view of The Impressionist's Eye exhibition.
 Claude Monet's Path on the Island of Saint Martin, Vétheuil, 1881, at right

By looking anew at these familiar Impressionist oil paintings in the setting of a special exhibition, we are enabled to gain a better appreciation of these works. This is especially true in assessing their relation to the revolutionary era in which they were created.

The Impressionist oeuvre included sketches, water colors, prints, photographs and sculpture - every form of art which these artists could use to take the measure of the world around them.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Three Impressionist works on paper by (clockwise)  
Henri de Toulouse-LautrecPaul Cézanne and Berthe Morisot 

The juxtaposition of so many Impressionist sketches with a "starting line-up" of celebrated oil paintings is one of the immediately noteworthy features of The Impressionist's Eye. I was especially impressed with a group of sketches by three different artists, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Cezanne and Berthe Morisot. Each drawing demonstrates versatility in draftmanship across a spectrum from the crisp realism  of Toulouse-Lautrec to the ethereal evocation of beauty and character in the works by Cezanne and Morisot.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Toulouse-Lautrec's Portrait of Gustave Lucien Dennery (detail),1883

Toulouse-Lautrec's Portrait of Gustave Lucien Dennery is an outstanding work in its own right, but was almost certainly created in preparation for a full-scale oil portrait executed the same year,1883. This portrait, of an artist colleague of Toulouse-Lautrec's, is in the Louvre collection. It would have been a major coup to have the drawing and the oil painting displayed for comparison in The Impressionist's Eye.

Fortunately, the Philadelphia  Museum of Art's collection has a major Impressionist oil painting and preliminary sketch which permits us to do exactly that.

Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire is one of the most familiar Impressionist-era masterpieces, almost always on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By contrasting this mighty oil painting with one of Cezanne's water color and graphite versions of the mountain, we are enabled to look ourselves with "the Impressionist's eye."

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, oil on canvas, 1902-1904, above,
Cézanne's watercolor & graphite depiction of Mont Ste-Victoire, below.   

Jennifer A. Thompson, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's chief curator of European art, provides a key insight to understanding Cezanne's devotion to Mont Sainte-Victoire.

Thompson notes that Cezanne created seventy images of Mont Sainte-Victoire, "making it one of his most repeated and varied themes. None of these objects is a repetition of another; each comes at the motif from a different point of view..."

Cezanne's deliberation in visualizing Mont Sainte-Victoire - focusing and refocusing to gain new impressions of his favorite mountain - was a trait he shared with his fellow Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Their art works, in turn, reflected scientific inquiry and social debate occurring at the same time.

The great American scholar, Meyer Schapiro (1904-1997) traced the long debate on the nature of human perception which took place prior to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. The shift in scientific theory from a belief in absolute phenomena to a world of transitory sensations sparked acrimonious debate. This was reflected in the critical response to the Impressionist salons of the 1870's and 80's. In a book based on his famous lecture series on Impressionism, Schapiro noted:

Impressionist pictures were, in their day, often described as madly arbitrary because the painters gave to familiar objects in the pictures of landscapes colors that others had not yet perceived in nature. Scientists, exploiting their authority, supported the hostile, often philistine, reactions, by asserting that a defect of the artist's eye, lens, or retina was responsible for the tones of violet in their canvases, much as a doctor later accounted for El Greco's elongated figures by his supposed astigmatism...  Although the Impressionists shocked their contemporaries by introducing into landscape certain tones and relationships of colors that looked unreal, they were later acclaimed as the acute observers of a true coloring that we now take for granted.

The Impressionist's Eye charts the way the "madly arbitrary" coloration of Monet, Renoir and company was put into practice. Organized thematically, we are enabled to see how the "eye" of these pioneering modernists focused on nature, the modern city, everyday objects and people (with a special nod to the bathers of Degas, Renoir and Cezanne).

By following a thematic path for the exhibit, Jennifer Thompson draws attention to the academic distinction between "Impressionists" and "Post-Impressionists." It would be reckless to deny that 1886, the year of the last Impressionist salon, was not a major turning point. At the last Impressionist salon, Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte created a sensation. A new school of art, based on pointillist dabs of color, was proclaimed, later called Post or Neo-Impressionism

But was there really such a "disconnect" between the Impressionist "founders" = Monet, Pissarro and Renoir - and the second generation who embraced Seurat's exacting pointillist color theory? 

Camille Pissarro, Railroad to Dieppe, 1886

Camille Pissarro, the "father" of Impressionism, embraced pointillism - for a few years - as we can see in one of the key paintings of the exhibition, Railroad to Dieppe. Pissarro wrote that he spent two weeks of laborious effort on this scene. The impact of urban and Industrial development, here in the shape of the railroad locomotive, was a key element of Pissarro's oeuvre throughout his long career. 

Pissarro's flirtation with pointillism raises questions of Impressionism vs Post- Impressionism. Where, for instance, do unconventional artists like Berthe Morisot, Vincent van Gogh and the great Degas fit into such a hard and fast equation?

Given the continuities and singularities of the Impressionist revolution, it is perhaps unfortunate that the artists did not retain their original group title, "Independents." Had this been done, the "either or" categories would not likely have been created.

A particularly astute quote from the exhibition text provides the best answer to this important topic.

For the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, works that were rapidly produced — or gave the appearance of being made quickly — were complete statements in themselves. Over a forty-year period, we witness their mark-making changing across media from blunt strokes to rational dabs and dots and later to flat planes of color, as they sought to capture fleeting moments.

Given the "embarrassment of riches" on display in The Impressionist's Eye, one could continue a review like this for a very long time without exhausting superlatives in describing the exhibit. In closing, it is more sensible to underscore several salient points.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
Jennifer Thompson, curator of European art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

First, Jennifer Thompson has just written a major study of the art of this era, on view in the exhibit. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Highlights from the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an outstanding book. I plan a separate review for the summer months.

The second point is that The Impressionist's Eye is an exhibition which deserves a second or third visit. Many of the works on paper will be replaced by a second rotation, due to their sensitivity to light. Among the treasures due to be displayed will be Mary Cassatt's stunning reworking of the techniques of the great Japanese print-makers, The Letter

Mary Cassatt,The Letter, 1890-1891

Ultimately, the greatest insight to be derived from The Impressionist's Eye is a seemingly contradictory point. Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot and all of the other "Independents" devoted their prodigious talents to depicting life in its temporary, transitory dimensions. But in doing so, they pioneered ways of looking at "fleeting moments" that have become an enduring source of joy, insight and creative inspiration for all humankind.

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

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers (1889), collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on view at the The Impressionist's Eye exhibition.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Impressionist's Eye exhibition, showing Pierre Renoir's Still Life with Flowers and Fruitc.1889.  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Still Life with Flowers and Fruitc.1889. 39 1/4 × 55 1/4 inches (99.7 × 140.3 cm) Oil on canvas The Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson, Jr., Collection,  1963 Philadelphia Museum of Art,1963-116-16

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) Bend in the Epte River near Giverny,1888. 29 x 36 9/16 inches (73.7 x 92.9 cm) Oil on canvas  The William L. Elkins Collection,  1924  E1924-3-16

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Resnick Rotunda, one of the principal galleries devoted to Impressionist painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Impressionist's Eye exhibition, showing (at right) Claude Monet's Path on the Island of Saint Martin, Vétheuil, 1881. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Three Impressionist works on paper (clockwise): Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Portrait of Gustave Lucien Dennery, 1883, Paul Cézanne's Peasant Girl Wearing a Fichu, 1890-1893 and  Berthe-Marie-Pauline Morisot's Young Woman with Brown Hair, 1894.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Portrait of Gustave Lucien Dennery, 1883. Sheet: 24 1/4 x 18 1/2 inches (61.6 x 47 cm) Charcoal and black crayon on laid paper (recto and verso)  The Henry P. McIlhenny  Collection  in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny,  1986  1986-26-33

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1902-1904. 28 3/4 × 36 3/16 inches (73 × 91.9 cm) Oil on canvas The George W. Elkins Collection, 1936  E1936-1-1

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906) Mont Ste. Victoire, c.1902-1906  Sheet: 18 1/2 × 12 1/4 inches (47 × 31.1 cm) Watercolor  and graphite on wove paper  Made possible by the families of Helen Tyson Madeira and Charles R. Tyson, 2015  2015-42-1  

Camille Pissarro (French, born in the Virgin Islands, 1830-1903) Railroad to Dieppe, 1886. 21 × 25 inches (53.3 × 63.5 cm) Framed: 32 × 35 inches (81.3 × 88.9 cm) Oil on canvas. Bequest of Helen Tyson Madeira, 2014 2014-167-1

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery view of The Impressionist's Eye exhibition, showing curator Jennifer Thompson presenting a lecture.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (American, 1844-1926) The Letter. 1890-1891  Plate: 13 9/16 x 8 15/16 inches (34.4 x 22.7 cm) Sheet: 17 x 12 inches (43.2 x 30.5 cm) Color drypoint and aquatint The Louis E. Stern Collection,  1963 1963-181-122

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Gainsborough's Family Album at the Princeton Museum of Art

Gainsborough's Family Album

Princeton University Art Museum
February 23 - June 9, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

In June of 1787, the British painter Thomas Gainsborough was staggered by the death of Carl Friedrich Abel. A noted composer and master player of the viola da gamba, Abel had been one on the music-loving painter's greatest friends. In a letter to Rev. Henry Bate-Dudley, Gainsborough wrote:

We love a genius for what he leaves and we mourn him for what he takes away... For my part I shall never cease looking up to heaven - the little while I have to stay behind - in hopes of getting one more glance of the man I loved from the moment I heard him touch the string. 

Visitors to the superb exhibition, Gainsborough's Family Album, now at the Princeton University Museum of Art, will likely extend these moving words to Gainsborough himself.

Gainsborough's Family Album presents forty-four works by Gainsborough - all dealing with the subject of family: Gainsborough's family. The theme is hugely significant because Gainsborough painted his wife and daughters, siblings, niece, nephew and in-laws at exactly the moment when the concept of the modern family was taking shape. 

Earlier in history, family units were more extended and communal in nature. That of course is a broad generalization but the eighteenth century definitely saw a shift to more focused units of familial affection. Thomas Gainsborough's family, as the Princeton exhibition shows, was at the epicenter of this development, Great Britain during the reign of a noted family man, King George III. 

The facts of Gainsborough's life are essential to understanding the Princeton Museum exhibition and the greater story it tells.

Thomas Gainsborough,Self-portrait, mid-1770's, 
completed by Gainsborough Dupont, 1790

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was a native of Suffolk in the eastern part of England, directly across the North Sea from the Netherlands. John Constable (1776-1837) was born in that region too and both artists looked to the great Flemish and Dutch art traditions which had begun to depict family life as an important theme a century before. 

Gainsborough's family were devout Christians, but not of the established Church of England. They were "independents," outsiders who could not hold government jobs or commissions in Britain's armed forces. Excluded from positions of power, many Independents found scope for their talents in the mines, factories and iron foundries of the rising Industrial Revolution. A Baptist preacher, Thomas Newcomen, invented the first effective steam engine in 1712.

Thomas Gainsborough, 
Humphrey Gainsborough, the Artist's Brother, early 1770s

Gainsborough's brother, Humphrey, followed a similar path. Humphrey was the minister of the Independent congregation of Henley-on-Thames on Sunday. During the workweek, he was an engineer, who is credited with a number of inventions, including improvements to Newcomen's engine.

Very much an "independent" himself, Thomas Gainsborough directed his creative talents in a different direction - the field of art.

Another vital factor about Gainsborough was  his personality. A charismatic and contradictory man, Gainsborough's personality was cut from the "whole cloth" of human nature.

A portrait painter by necessity, Gainsborough devoted himself to painting "landskips" of the English countryside - which seldom sold. He cared little for reading but was a skillful amateur musician. Generous to his friends, Gainsborough was thin-skinned and combative in his relationship with the art establishment, often at odds with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the president of the Royal Academy. 

And then there was his family. Gainsborough was a loving, doting father to his two daughters, Mary and Margaret. He was dutiful to his wife, Margaret, respecting her good sense and financial management skills. Gainsborough, however succumbed to the sexual temptations of the "rakehell" 1700's. He nearly died in 1763 of a fever likely caused by a "dangerous liaison."

Gainsborough's infidelity was especially hurtful as Margaret was the illegitimate daughter of the third Duke of Beaufort. She received a hefty annuity from the Duke's estate which bankrolled Gainsborough's artistic career, especially during his early struggles. Thus, Gainsborough's unfaithfulness was truly a "blow upon a bruise."

By way of recognition of his wife's many virtues, Gainsborough painted a number of portraits of her later in life. This 1777 likeness of Margaret Gainsborough is surely one of the greatest portraits of a wife ever painted by a husband.  

Thomas Gainsborough, Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Wife, 1777

For all the excesses and contradiction in his life, Gainsborough was shrewd and perceptive in the way he portrayed his family. He both loved his family as individuals and grasped their strengths and weaknesses. In doing so, Gainsborough had to have reflected on his own character and character faults. Only a person with strong self-awareness could have painted the incredible portraits which we see in the special exhibition gallery at Princeton. 

Thomas Gainsborough, 
The Artist' with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary, 1748

One of the first paintings on view in Gainsborough's Family Album is a very early work, painted in 1748. It shows a dapper Gainsborough and his wife, Margret, wearing a billowing, blue silk dress. Gainsborough's family was engaged in the clothing trade and he was extremely skillful in depicting a variety of textiles. This is a very fashionable painting, a conversation piece in the style of Gainsborough's teacher, Francis Hayman.

The Artist with his Wife, Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary is also a somber, sorrowful work. The little child died before it was finished and the expressions of her parents reflect their emotions. Gainsborough had been attempting to establish his painting business in London at this time. In order to protect his wife and future children, he made the courageous and risky move to leave London for the more healthy environment of Sudbury in Suffolk and then the spa resort of Bath.

Gainsborough and his wife were blessed with two surviving daughters. The eldest was also named Mary, born in 1750, with Margaret following a year later. Gainsborough called them "Molly" and "the Captain."

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 View of the entrance to the Gainsborough's Family Album exhibit

While the girls were still very young, Gainsborough painted them chasing a butterfly, one of the great treasures of British art. This enchanting work appeared in the first presentation of Gainsborough's Family Album at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is not on view in the Princeton show but a spectacular, over-sized copy welcomes visitors at the entrance to the exhibition gallery.

In 1760-61, Gainsborough painted a pair of double-portraits of his daughters which pose a number of questions. Gainsborough devoted exceptional skill to the faces of Mary and Margaret, yet both pictures of the adolescent girls remained unfinished. The most likely answer is that these were experimental paintings, tests of Gainsborough's ever-developing technique.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough,
 the Artist's Daughters, c. 1760–1 

The portrait of Mary reaching out to Margaret was originally painted on a single canvas, with Mary positioned slightly above Margaret. Later, the painting was cut into two separate portraits. Restorers, at some point in more recent times, reunited and touched-up the two parts, albeit in a way that was never intended. Had this been a finished painting, none of this would likely have occurred.

The unfinished nature of the double portrait of Molly and The Captain which introduces this review provides more insight into Gainsborough's technique. The cat they are playing with is barely sketched-in. Even more startling is the minimal attention given to the texture of the girls' dresses. For an artist who devoted enormous effort to getting the sheen and crinkle of silk and satin "just right," Gainsborough seems almost negligent in the way he painted his daughter's clothing. He just gives the impression in both of these portraits of everything but the faces of Mary and Margaret.

The word Impression is key to understanding Gainsborough. In many ways, he was the first "impressionist" though Velazquez could claim that honor too. It was not an accident either. Gainsborough often tied his painting brush to a long stick and painted at a considerable distance from his canvas. The effect was what you would expect in a Renoir or Van Gogh.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, speaking of Gainsborough after his death in 1788, directed the attention of his audience to how "all those odd scratches and marks… this chaos, this uncouth and shapeless appearance, by a kind of magick at a certain distance assumes form."

This "kind of magick" is less noticeable in Gainsborough's grand manor portraits - though it is certainly there. British artists - and more to the point, their aristocratic patrons - were enamored of the magnificent portraits of Charles I and his court painted by Anthony van Dyck. Every rich detail - exactly true to life. That was expected of Gainsborough and he complied, as can be seen in several formal likenesses he painted of his daughters as they matured into young ladies.

Thomas Gainsborough, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough,
the Artist's Daughters at their Drawing, C. 1763

The 1763 oil on canvas, subtitled The Artist's Daughter, at their Drawing is especially evocative of Van Dyck's influence. Looking at this marvelous work helps us understand why Gainsborough spoke of the Flemish master with his dying words, "Van Dyck was right."

Gainsborough looked at much more than surface details as we see in the portrait he painted of his sister Sarah, around 1777-79. Sarah Dupont (1715-1795) was well into her "sixties" by the time her brother painted her. The bloom had long faded from her looks, but perceptive intelligence, dignity and integrity beam from her eyes.

Thomas Gainsborough, Sarah Dupont, the Artist's Sister, c. 1777–9

All these traits in combination make for a lively and aware person - a person of inner beauty. This is the person Thomas Gainsborough saw and painted nearly two and a half centuries ago.

What he saw in his sister, Sarah, Gainsborough saw and painted in his other family members. Their portraits, on display at the Princeton University Museum of Art, speak to human values which may be glimpsed on the faces of those we know and love, if - like Thomas Gainsborough - we look hard enough to see.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Original photo by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum, the Art Institue of Chicago and the Yale Center for British Art

Introductory Image: Thomas Gainsborough( British, 1727-1788) The Painter’s Daughters, Playing with a Cat, 1760-61. Oil on canvas: 75.6  x 62.9cm. (29 3/4 × 24 3/4 in.) National Gallery, London. Accession Number: NG3812

Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788), completed by Gainsborough Dupont, (British, 1754–1797) Self -portrait, mid-1770s and 1790. Oil on canvas: 76.6 × 63.5 cm (30 3/16 × 25 in.) The Samuel Courtland Trust. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788) Humphrey Gainsborough, the Artist's Brother, early 1770s. Oil on canvas: 59.7 × 49.5 cm (23 1/2 × 19 1/2 in.) Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788) Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Wife, ca. 1777. Oil on canvas: 76.6 × 63.8 cm (30 3/16 × 25  1/8 in.) The Samuel Courtauld Trust. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Thomas Gainsborough( English, 1727–1788) The Artist with his Wife Margaret and Eldest Daughter Mary, 1748? Oil on canvas: 92.1 × 70.5 cm (36 1/4 × 27 3/4 in.) The National Gallery, London. Acquired under the acceptance-in-lieu scheme at the wish of Sybil, Marchioness of Cholmondeley, in memory of her brother, Sir Philip Sassoon, 1994

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) View of the entrance to the Gainsborough's Family Album exhibition,  Princeton University Museum of Art, 2019.

Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788) Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters, c. 1760–1. Oil on canvas: 40.6 × 58.4 cm (16 × 23 in.) Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bequeathed by John Forster

Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788) Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist's Daughters, at their Drawing, c. 1763–4. Oil on canvas: 127.3 × 101.7 cm (50 1/8 × 40 1/16 in.) Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. Museum purchase, 1917.181

Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788) Sarah Dupont, the Artist's Sister, c. 1777–9 Oil on canvas: 77.2 × 64.5 cm (30 3/8 × 25 3/8 in.) The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection; through prior gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Denison B. Hull, Mr. and Mrs. William Kimball, and Mrs. Charles McCulloch, 1987.13