Saturday, December 18, 2021

Art Eyewitness Review: A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone and Baltimore


A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone and Baltimore

Baltimore Museum of Art
October 3, 2021 - January 2, 2022

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Most great art museums, especially in the United States, aim to build representative collections of art from around the world, past to present. Some institutions, however, are known for having rich selections of the oeuvre of particular artists. 

The Whitney Museum in New York City, for instance, is the premier site for studying the works of Edward Hopper. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is particularly well-endowed with paintings by Claude Monet and John Singer Sargent. But if you want to appreciate the art of Henri Matisse, you really need to make a pilgrimage to Baltimore.

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) is currently presenting an outstanding exhibition highlighting the astonishing collection of modern art amassed by Claribel Cone and Etta Cone. These two sisters from Baltimore, born in the mid-1800's, lived outwardly conventional lives, while nurturing a passion for modern art, especially for the work of Matisse.

Gallery view of A Modern Influence at the Baltimore Museum of Art
Photo by Mitro Hood

The BMA exhibition is entitled A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone and Baltimore, appearing from October 3, 2021–January 2, 2022. Approximately 160 works of art by Matisse - paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and illustrated books - are on view in this insightful examination of the partnership which transformed America's appreciation of modern art.

Also of note, a new facility for art scholarship, the Ruth R. Marder Center for Matisse Studies, has just opened at the BMA, enabling access to the BMA’s Matisse collection and related resources, after the exhibition closes.

 A Modern Influence focuses on the role of the younger of the sisters, Etta, and her enduring friendship with Matisse. But a brief introduction to the lives and joint endeavor of Claribel Cone and Etta Cone is in order.

The Cone family initially lived in the southern states of the U.S. before settling in Baltimore. The two sisters were expected to devote themselves to the realm of family and their Jewish faith. Claribel Cone, born in 1864, and Etta Cone, born in 1870, certainly maintained the ties of their large and loving family. But the strong-willed Claribel, who earned a medical degree in 1890, then a very rare accomplishment for women, and Etta found an unexpected way to assert themselves. They became quiet revolutionaries in the cause of modern art.

It was the more domestically-inclined Etta who initiated the creation of the Cone art collection in 1898. In that year, her brother Moses gave her $300 to renovate the family home in Baltimore. Etta, at age 28, was well on her way to being a Victorian maiden aunt, dutiful and dedicated to hearth and home. She was the perfect family member to buy new curtains, carpets and other accessories for the Cone residence at Eutaw Place in Baltimore.

Instead, Etta bought five paintings by the American Impressionist painter, Theodore Robinson.

In 1898, works by the French Impressionist masters were only beginning to be accepted in the United States. The cachet of European Old Master art in Gilded Age America reigned supreme, as wealthy Americans like Henry Frick purchased works by Holbein and Rembrandt by the cart-load.

Etta’s selection of Robinson’s impressionistic works, painted around 1888, was notable on two counts. As well as being an act of self-assertion on Etta’s part, her choice of Robinson’s paintings marked the beginning of a significant moment of transition in the American art scene. The tide had begun to turn away from ignoring contemporary artists, especially Americans. Etta Cone - perhaps instinctively - was one of the first to take advantage of this cultural shift.

The profits from the Cone family textile business provided a modest allowance to both Claribel and Etta, insuring their financial independence. By 1900, Dr. Claribel Cone was a highly regarded pathologist. Her work at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore brought her into contact with an aspiring medical student named Gertrude Stein. As events were to show, Gertrude Stein’s future lay in the realm of the arts, not the sciences.

In 1901, Claribel and Etta took the first of many trips to Europe. The two sisters engaged in two of their favorite pursuits, visiting art museums and shopping for exquisite laces and other textiles, as well as small objects d’art. Where their limited funds allowed, they also purchased Japanese prints. Their guide during their early visits to Europe was Leo Stein, brother to Gertrude.

From left, Claribel Cone , Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone in Italy, 1903

Four years later, now in the company of Gertrude Stein, these otherwise conventional ladies from Baltimore confronted the “shocking” rebellion of artists deemed the “New Barbarians” and “Fauves” or wild beasts. They visited the 1905 Salon d’Automne, the pivotal exhibition when the new art and “old guard” criticism dramatically crossed swords. Henri Matisse was particularly targeted for abuse.

“We asked ourselves are these things to be taken seriously,” Claribel later noted. But when the Steins bought a work by Matisse, Etta followed suit, purchasing Yellow Pottery from Provence, remarkable for its color scheme, if conventional by the standard of other works by Matisse from the period.

Henri Matisse, Yellow Pottery from Provence, 1906

If Matisse hoped for further sales to the Cone sisters, it would many years before they opened their purses to make another significant purchase. Moses Cone died in 1908, leaving a grieving Etta with more family duties to perform. Claribel devoted increasing periods of her time to medical research, much of it in Germany. She was marooned in Germany in 1914 when World War I broke out, remaining there even when the U.S. entered the war.

Reunited with her family in 1918, Claribel now joined with Etta in their second and major round of art acquisitions. In 1922, the Cone sisters returned to Europe with ample funds provided by the huge profits the family company had made during the war. Though the sisters bought widely, including Claribel’s expenditure in 1925 of $18,860 for Paul Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from the Bibémus Quarry, their artist of choice was Henri Matisse.

The particular appeal of Matisse’s art for the Cones can be traced to several sources. Both Matisse and the Cone sisters loved the “outward appearance” of objects, particularly hand-woven textiles. The myriad ways in which fabrics can transform a physical environment or a person’s physique appealed to the French painter and his "Baltimore ladies."

Matisse was born in the town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis in northern France, a region that had been prominent in textile production as far back as the Middle Ages. He was the son and grandson of weavers. And of course, the Cone sisters’ disposable income for art purchases came from the cotton mills established by their brothers in North Carolina. Matisse and the Cones were kindred spirits in the love of beautiful cloth.

Henri Matisse, Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent,
 Ornamental Background  and Checkerboard, 1928

During the 1920′s, Matisse hearkened back to the Odalisque paintings of Ingres, Delacroix and other painters of the 19th century Romantic tradition. But as the decade progressed, Matisse began moving beyond the erotic appeal of the semi-clothed odalisques. Instead, Matisse evoked an amazing degree of sensuousness from textures of exotic clothing and draperies, carpets and wall hangings.

Henri Matisse, Purple Robe with Anemones, 1937

The emotional charge of the clothing of his models was to set the tone for many of Matisse’s mid-career works, several of which which Etta purchased. These include one of the "signature" works by Matisse in the BMA collection,  Purple Robe with Anemones (1937). Another painting, created over three years of exhaustive labor, is equally significant and, in some ways, more intriguing: The Yellow Dress (1929-31).

Henri Matisse, The Yellow Dress, 1929-31

There is an enigmatic element to The Yellow Dress. Matisse's model for this painting has a distant, dreamlike expression, as if she is focused on an other world. Her facial features lack the sharp definition of Matisse's odalisque or the young woman in Purple Robe with Anemones. Her face and arms seem to be fading away, leaving the shimmering yellow dress behind, wraith-like in the vibrant, well-articulated setting of the room

As Matisse labored on The Yellow Dress, Etta struggled too. Claribel's death in 1929 left her in a state of lingering shock. Etta lovingly preserved her sister’s rooms, placing fresh flowers, as if in expectation that Claribel would return. It may be reading a little too deeply into this incident, yet, I feel that The Yellow Dress may have served as testament of Etta's love for her sister and the emotional loss she felt at her passing.

Henri Matisse at Etta Cone's apartment in Baltimore, Maryland, 1930
In 1930, Matisse came to the U.S. to execute a large commission for the Barnes Foundation in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He came down to Baltimore to express his sympathy to Etta Cone. Both artist and patron were compassionate human beings, kindred souls who grew closer in friendship as the troubled years of the 1930's rolled on. Shortly before World War II, Etta sent a brand new Schwinn bicycle as a gift to Matisse's grandson, Claude. After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, this bicycle was the family's main mode of transport and food purchases.

Etta Cone in her apartment at the Marlborough Apartments, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1930-1940

Following her sister's death, Etta Cone dedicated herself to make the Cone collection a major statement of the cultural ideals she shared with Claribel. Etta was also determined to make her own, unique mark as a patron of art. Despite the fact that she had been the first to purchase works of fine art, most people familiar with the two sisters assumed that Claribel was the driving force of their art collecting, rather than Etta's partner in this endeavor.

Matisse and Etta Cone thus created a new partnership, closely engaged in a joint effort to carry modern art to ever greater creative heights. The most remarkable work to emerge from this visionary initiative is Large Reclining Nude, painted in 1935. 

If Purple Robe with Anemones is a signature Matisse, the status of Large Reclining Nude is even higher. It is one of the true icons of Modern Art. And Etta Cone – assisted by the “ghost” of Claribel - played an important role in its creation.

Henri Matisse, Large Reclining Nude, 1935

When Matisse examined the massed array of his works in the Cone apartment rooms, he saw, for the first time in many years, one of his most notorious paintings, The Blue Nude (1907). This controversial work had been reviled when it was first presented, but Claribel had purchased it in 1926. After spending some time with his still infamous creation, Matisse determined to paint a matching nude, this time in a complementary color.

As he worked on Large Reclining Nude, Matisse took an elaborate series of 22 photos of the various stages or states of composition. These he sent to Etta in two letters, dated September 19th and November 16th, 1935. 

Etta responded enthusiastically, “I was touched by your attempt to take my mind off things... You’ve been very successful; the first time I looked at the drawings I spent two hours totally immersed in them.. I’m waiting impatiently for the opportunity to see the finished painting of the ‘Reclining Nude.’ . . . "

Gallery view of A Modern Influence, showing Matisse's Large Reclining Nude and preparatory sketches. Photo by Mitro Hood

By making Etta part of the creative process, Matisse recognized her aesthetic kinship. And by doing so, Matisse produced a very different masterpiece than what he had at first intended. What had begun as a naturalistic depiction of a nude woman, evolved into a new incarnation of the body, more of a symbolic presence of a body and spirit at rest. 

When Large Reclining Nude reached Baltimore, Etta hung it in a rather cramped room, facing The Blue Nude. The placement of the two paintings made them appear to be "squaring-off" in a confrontation. In a sense this was true. By placing the two paintings facing each other across the room, Etta was asserting herself as an equal to Claribel, as a force in the art world to be reckoned with.

Indeed, Etta was developing into a major art scholar, as well as a patron. The year before Large Reclining Nude arrived, Etta wrote and published the catalog of the works of art she and her sister had collected. And she began to plan for the future of their collection. 

Once again, she acted in concert with the spirit of Claribel. Perhaps in premonition of her death, Claribel had recommended to Etta that their joint collection be donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art “in the event the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore becomes improved.” 

Etta Cone continued to purchase works of art by Matisse, prints and sculptures, as well a paintings. In fact, she bought so many that she had to rent the adjacent apartment to her own, so that she could store the overflow. Among the later works she purchased was a copy of the limited edition book of Matisse's "cut-out" prints entitled Jazz, published in 1947. 

Henri Matisse, Icarus (Icare), 1947

One of the most notable images in Jazz was Icarus. I saw the original cut-out, created by the crippled, bed-ridden Matisse, in a fabulous exhibition at MOMA during the winter of 2015. It is an indelible image of the human condition. Daring the fates for the sake of soaring aloft (creativity), we may reach too far - and then fall to earth. But in the process, we create works of genius, which endure after we are gone.

Etta Cone died on August 31, 1949, having bought her final painting by Matisse five months before. Modern art was indeed appreciated in Baltimore by 1949 and Etta bequeathed the Cone Collection of over 3,000 works of art, (600 by Matisse) to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Along with this trove of Modernist masterpieces, Etta donated $400,000 to build a new wing to the museum which opened in 1957.

Such was the culminating act of vision and generosity of Matisse’s “Baltimore Ladies.” But there was more at work here than just enlightened patronage. 

Over the course of nearly a half century, Matisse and the Cone Sisters joined together in a grand enterprise of encouraging human empathy by sharing works of beauty. This was especially true in the case of Etta Cone. She transformed collecting art into an act of friendship, making her partnership with Henri Matisse a peerless work of art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 
Images courtesy of the  Baltimore Museum of Art 

introductory image: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Etta Cone (VI/VI). 1933-1934. (VI/VI) 1931-1934 Charcoal with stumping and erasing on two joined sheets of paper Sheet: 711 x 409 mm. (28 x 16 1/8 in.) The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland BMA 1950.12.70  © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Gallery view of A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone and Baltimore at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo by Mitro Hood.

Claribel Cone, Gertrude Stein, and Etta Cone sitting at a table in Settignano, Italy, June 26, 1903. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, CG.12.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Yellow Pottery from Provence, 1906.  Oil on canvas : 21 7/8 × 18 3/8 × 5/8 in. (55.6 × 46.7 × 1.6 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.227. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard, 1928. Oil on canvas: 21 5/8 × 14 7/8 in. (54.9 × 37.8 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.255. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Purple Robe with Anemones. 1937.  Oil on canvas: 28 3/4 × 23 5/8 in. (73 × 60 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.261. © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) The Yellow Dress, 1929-1931. Oil on canvas: 39 9/16 × 32 1/8 in. (100.5 × 81.6 cm.) The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland BMA 1950.256 © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse in the dining room of Etta Cone's apartment at the Marlborough Apartments, Baltimore, Maryland, 1930. Claribel Cone and Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art

Etta Cone in her apartment at the Marlborough Apartments, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1930-1940. Claribel Cone and Etta Cone Papers, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Large Reclining Nude, 1935. Oil on canvas: 26 1/8 × 36 3/4 in. (66.4 × 93.3 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland. BMA 1950.258 © Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

Gallery view of A Modern Influence at the Baltimore Museum of Art, showing Matisse's Large Reclining Nude and preparatory sketches. Photo by Mitro Hood

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954) Icarus (Icare), 1947. From the unbound volume "Jazz" published in 1947. Color stencil print (pochoir) Book Edition 227/250 (270 total edition) Sheet: 420 x 324 mm. (16 9/16 x 12 3/4 in.) The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland BMA 1950.12.745.8

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Rembrandt in Amsterdam

 Rembrandt in Amsterdam

Edited by Stephanie S. Dickey & Jochen Sander 

Yale University Press//384 pages

Städel Museum, Frankfurt, October 6, 2021- January 30, 2022

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Every time I visit the Frick Collection in New York City, I make a point to "check-in" with Nicolaes Ruts (1573-1638). This somber-faced merchant lived in Amsterdam, with trading contacts extending all the way to Russia via the North Sea, around the Arctic coast of northern Norway and then down to the ice-free port of Archangel. The letter in his hand might bring news of a safely-landed cargo of precious furs from Siberia or a ship lost in the storm-tossed seas.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Nicolaes Ruts, 1631

The magnificent likeness of Nicolaes Ruts which we see at the Frick was the first significant portrait painted by Rembrandt van Rijn. The year of its creation was 1631. 

So successful was Rembrandt's image of Ruts, and other portraits executed soon after, that the trajectory of the young painter's life changed forever. Rembrandt had just purchased a sizable plot of ground, with garden, in his home town of Leiden. But commissions to paint wealthy merchants like Ruts were glittering opportunities which could not be forsaken. Rembrandt relocated his studio - and his life - to Amsterdam.

Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition tells the story of how Rembrandt ventured to the rising center of trade and commerce of the Netherlands during the mid-1600's. The exhibition is currently on view at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Earlier, it appeared in a Covid-19 interrupted presentation at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

The superbly illustrated catalog to Rembrandt in Amsterdam was edited by the curators of the exhibition, Stephanie S. Dickey & Jochen Sander, with contributions by a team of scholars. Dickey wrote the opening, biographical essay and several studies on important aspects of Rembrandt's oeuvre, including the way he treated the life of Jesus in several powerful works. Sander focused on how Rembrandt created his own distinctive style or "brand" according to twenty-first century usage.

Gallery view of the Rembrandt in Amsterdam exhibition at the 
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Rembrandt's life is a three-part drama, of rise, triumph and tragedy. This brilliant exhibition deals with the second chapter, Rembrandt's golden hour of fame and fortune. It ably complements Rembrandt: the Late Works at the National Gallery in London (2014), thus providing a wide-ranging reappraisal of the Dutch master's life and career.

However, Rembrandt in Amsterdam is not a story exclusively dealing with Rembrandt. Paintings by other notable Dutch "Golden Age" artists are also presented, making for a "crowded canvas" in the exhibition galleries and the pages of the accompanying catalog.

Gerard van Honthorst, Govert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, Carel Fabritius and Jacob Backer are some of painters who share the stage in Rembrandt in Amsterdam. They proved to be worthy competitors, especially in the portrait trade. 

From the 1640's, these rivals gained lucrative commissions, many of which would otherwise have gone to Rembrandt. In some respects, this was a case of being victimized by his own success. Rembrandt had trained a number of these artists, including Flinck, Bol and Fabritius, in his own studio. 

These younger artists benefited mightily from Rembrandt's teaching and example. They kept an eye on changes in taste among the art-buying public, as can be seen in Jacob Backer's elegant, bejeweled Portrait of a Woman, painted around 1647.

Jacob Backer, Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1647

This shift to an easier-on-the-eye mode of painting became known as the "bright style." Flinck, as noted in the exhibition catalog, was a pioneer of the lighter tones and close attention to surface detail which soon "supplanted Rembrandt's earthy palette and rough brushwork as the choice of a newly sophisticated clientele."

Rembrandt ignored these fickle alterations of taste. He took his teaching duties seriously, working so closely with his students that it is often difficult to ascertain who was the primary painter of some of the most celebrated works attributed to him. One of the "icons" of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., A Girl with a Broom, was almost certainly completed by Carel Fabritius around 1651. 

           Rembrandt van Rijn, A Girl with a Broom, ca. 1646/1648;          completed 1651, possibly by Carel Fabritius

Rembrandt's willful, heedless character also played a significant part in his undoing.  Boldly signing his canvases with his first name only, Rembrandt claimed a place at the pinnacle of the Dutch cultural elite. It was a rarefied, vulnerable position for a miller's son, with a steep drop and no safety net should he fail and fall.

One of the principal themes of Rembrandt in Amsterdam is the process by which Rembrandt established his "brand" to use modern terminology. His successful transition to Amsterdam was based on his evolution from being primarily a "history" painter to embracing "the ideal of the universal master, proficient in all aspects of his craft."

Though a recognizable brand, a Rembrandt painting was never a standardized, "pre-fab" production. As Stephanie Dickey notes, Rembrandt's "approach was disruptively fluid: group portraits became action scenes, lofty historical figures were brought down to earth and the flat Dutch landscape gained a numinous mystery through nuanced effects of light."

Rembrandt van Rijn, Landscape with Stone Bridge, 1638

Rembrandt's life-sized portrait of Andries de Graeff (1611-1677) is a notable example of his "disruptively fluid" approach to painting. What appears to be a forthright likeness of anc imperious, worldly gentleman is loaded with complex, contrarian details. 

Rembrandt van Rijn, 
Portrait of a Standing Man (Andries de Graef), 1639

De Graef came from a very prominent, powerful family. His austere black garments proclaim his wealth, as the color black was difficult and expensive to dye on to cloth. His simple, linen collar (as opposed to an elaborate neck "ruff") shows de Graef's allegiance to the populist political faction who were opposed to granting too much power to the central government led by the Stadtholder.

Likewise, de Graef's glove, fallen to the ground, might represent a nonchalant disregard for formality. Or, it might suggest a gauntlet thrown down as a challenge. De Graef, who rose to be finance minister of Holland, 1652-57 and mayor of Amsterdam, 1657-1672, was certainly a man to be reckoned with. Rembrandt's bravura portrait clearly asserts this, even as he leaves us to ponder  some of the puzzling details of the painting and its protagonist.

The exploration of character, of the man or woman behind the mask of facial features, is the supreme attribute of Rembrandt's portraits. The work from Rembrandt's early career which best exemplifies this is Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat (1637). 

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat, 1637 

The skillful interplay of light and shadow on the garments of this unknown man is matched by the duality of Rembrandt's handling of his face. The competing aspects of human character, of our capacity for good or evil, are here delineated in portrait painting at the very summit of artistic skill.

Rembrandt's productivity as a portrait painter began to lapse in the 1640's. Instead, he continued with character explorations, increasingly of family members or of himself. These now rank among the greatest glories of world art.


Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, ca. 1654-56

However, portraits of his wife, Saskia, or later of his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels, were not commercially viable works of art. This was especially true of paintings of Hendrickje, by then Rembrandt's common-law wife, who was denounced in 1654 by Dutch Reformed Church officials for living as a "whore."

As Rembrandt rose in the world, so did his taste for the finer things of life and for the money to pay for them. This led him to make a serious miscalculation, centered on one of the major works on view in Rembrandt in Amsterdam.

In January 1639, Rembrandt wrote to Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), the secretary to the Statholder, Frederik Hendrik, announcing that he had finished an official commission of two paintings depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus. Huygens had been an early admirer of Rembrandt and had done much to advance his career. In the letter, Rembrandt mentioned that he was sending a major work of art by way of thanking Huygens for his patronage.

Gallery view of Rembrandt in Amsterdam,
showing The Blinding of Samson (left) and Venus and Cupid Lamenting the Dead Adonis by Cornelis Holsteyn, 1655    

The gratis painting was The Blinding of Samson, created in 1636. It is a spectacular work of art, as can be seen in the exhibition gallery at the Städel Museum. It is also a singularly unpleasant painting, graphically depicting one of the most notorious acts of betrayal and cruelty in the Bible. 

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Blinding of Samson, 1636

Although technically brilliant, The Blinding of Samson is so repellent that Rembrandt's reason for selecting it as a gift to Huygens needs to be questioned. 

Was Rembrandt's motive in sending the painting really a demonstration of gratitude? Or was he aiming to add Huygens to the list of influential patrons with a "Rembrandt" in their collection? Rembrandt actually had the temerity to advise Huygens how to hang The Blinding of Samson on the walls of his home. Once installed, bragging-rights and enhanced sales would be insured.

Huygens, in fact, declined the gift, most likely because it could be interpreted as a bribe. Yet Rembrandt insisted that he accept the painting. It is not certain that Huygens did so, though Christopher White, one of Rembrandt's most knowledgeable biographers, believes he did. If so, it was a costly victory for, as White notes, Huygens completely ignored Rembrandt "for the last thirty years of his life."

This unfortunate incident occurred in the same year that Rembrandt purchased a palatial house in Amsterdam. To do so, Rembrandt secured the first of many loans to pay the 13,000 guiders needed to buy his new home. If Rembrandt considered the idea that he should trim his personal expense account or paint more portraits to stay out of debt, he soon brushed the thought aside.

Rembrandt clearly was tempting fate by offending Huygens and by living  beyond his means. But such foolhardy conduct needs to be considered in light of his incredible artistic output and the awesome level of achievement which occurred as he began edging toward financial and personal disaster in the years before his 1656 bankruptcy.

Although his portrait production diminished over the course of the 1640's, Rembrandt created some of the most awesome paintings of his career during this decade, including The Night Watch (1642) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1644). The magnitude of these works need to be considered alongside Rembrandt's investment of time, talent and effort in the wide-ranging sketching and printmaking of these years.

Not since Albrecht Dürer had any artist attempted to create prints of such profound beauty and technical sophistication.  No artist, since Rembrandt, has even come close to the measure of the Dutch master's success in works on paper. 

It is one of the many virtues of the exhibition catalog, published to the highest production values by Yale University Press, that Rembrandt's drawings and etchings are given equal prominence to his paintings. The selection of these works on paper and the detail and clarity on the pages of the catalog is superlative.

Rembrandt  van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643

The Three Trees, 1643, deserves special consideration, as it unites several strands of thought and study regarding Rembrandt as his troubles continued to mount. It is an elaborate work, an etching with drypoint and engraving on laid paper. Does it represent an actual location visited and sketched by Rembrandt?

Rembrandt is known to have gone on walking/sketching rambles but the hundreds of drawings he made as strolled along the streets of Amsterdam or hiked about its suburbs rarely served as direct sources for commercial works like his etchings. The thatched cottages is this pen and brown ink drawing, now in the Getty Museum collection, almost certainly were on-the-spot depictions of humble dwellings.

Rembrandt  van Rijn,
Two Thatched Cottages with Figures at a Window, ca. 1640. 

Rembrandt most likely did see and sketch a copse of trees, similar to these cottages. These drawings were stored in binders - and in his memory - for future reference. But Rembrandt's landscapes, whether The Three Trees or the earlier oil painting, Landscape with Stone Bridge, are imagined spaces, typical rather than topographically accurate landscapes.

As Rembrandt sketched from nature, he likely communed with the spirit of his beloved Saskia, or at least brooded on her passing in 1642. The catalog includes a very poignant drawing of Saskia Asleep in Bed, dating to the time of her last illness. It may, indeed, show Saskia on her deathbed.

The Three Trees is an "imagined" landscape, a place of emotional solace as Rembrandt grappled with Saskia's death and his other woes. 

Rembrandt  van RijnThe Three Trees, 1643
 (detail from the Metropolitan Museum of Art version of the etching)

With this incomparable etching, Rembrandt attempted to depict an ideal setting, where earth and sky join "hands" and thoughts on human mortality could be seen from a more enduring perspective. The Three Trees, perhaps, represents a vision of paradise transplanted to a field on the outskirts of Amsterdam.

God made the world, as the old proverb proclaims, but the dike-building, marsh-draining Dutch created Holland. Reflecting on The Three Trees, its hard to resist the conclusion that Rembrandt was trying to lend a hand to God and the Dutch in both endeavors.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Introductory image: Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Self-portrait in a Velvet Beret,1634. Oil on oak panel:  58.3 cm (22.9 in) x  47.4 cm (18.6 in). Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie #810.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) Nicolaes Ruts, 1631. Oil on panel: 46 x 34 3/8 in. (116.8 x 87.3 cm). Purchased by The Frick Collection, 1943. #1943.1.150

Gallery view of the Rembrandt in Amsterdam exhibition at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Photo courtesy of the Städel Museum.

Jacob Backer (Dutch, 1608-1651) Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1647. Oil on canvas: 95.3 × 74.9 cm (37 1/2 × 29 1/2 in.) Getty Museum. Gift of J. Paul Getty. #71.PA.18

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669)  A Girl with a Broom, probably begun 1646/1648 and completed 1651, possibly by Carel Fabritius. Oil on canvas: 107.3 x 91.4 cm (42 1/4 x 36 in.)  National Gallery of Art. Andrew W. Mellon Collection.  Accession Number 1937.1.74

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Landscape with Stone Bridge, 1638. Oil on panel: 29.5 cm × width 42.5 cm × depth 5.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased 1900 SK-A-1935

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Portrait of a Standing Man (Andries de Graef), 1639. Oil on canvas: 200 cm (78.7 in) x 124.2 cm (48.8 in). Hessen Kassel Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister. #GK 239.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat, 1637. Oil on panel: 31 5/16 x 27 5/16 in. (79.5 x 69.4 cm). The Armand Hammer Collection, Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, AH.90.59

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, ca. 1654-56. Oil on canvas: 101.9 x 83.7 cm. National Gallery, London. Bought with a contribution from the Art Fund, 1976. Inventory number NG6432

Gallery view of Rembrandt in Amsterdam, showing The Blinding of Samson (left) and Venus and Cupid Lamenting the Dead Adonis by Cornelis Holsteyn, 1655. Photo courtesy of the Städel Museum.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) The Blinding of Samson, 1636. Oil on canvas:  219.3 x 305 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Inventory #  1383.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) The Three Trees, 1643. Etching with drypoint and engraving on laid paper: 21.8 x 28.7 cm; plate: 20.8 x 28 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchased 1939.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) Two Thatched Cottages with Figures at a Window, ca. 1640. Pen and brown ink, corrected with white gouache: 13.3 × 20.2 cm (5 1/4 × 7 15/16 in.). Getty Museum. Object # 85.GA.93.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669) The Three Trees, 1643. (Detail from the version of the etching in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, 800-1500


Imperial Splendor: The Art of the Book

 in the Holy Roman Empire, 800-1500

                        By Jeffrey Hamburger and Joshua O'Driscoll                        

  Morgan Library & Museum-Giles Ltd./216 pages/$45

Morgan exhibition: Oct. 15, 2021- Jan. 23, 2022

Reviewed by Ed Voves

December 25, 800 AD is one of the great dates of European history. On that long-ago Christmas Day, the Frankish king, Charlemagne, was crowned as the first Holy Roman Emperor. The ceremony took place in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Charlemagne's huge, unwieldy realm, which Voltaire derided as neither holy nor Roman nor even an empire, lasted until 1806.

One factor, perhaps the most important, for the longevity of the Holy Roman Empire was the realization by the empire's rulers that knowledge is power. 

From Charlemagne to the Hapsburg Dynasty during the Renaissance, the authority of the Holy Roman emperors was founded upon patronage of learning, as well as military might. Books, copied by hand and bound in glittering, jewel-studded covers, were commissioned and bestowed as signs of power and benevolence. Books were the most potent symbols of the Holy Roman Empire, far more so than the heraldic eagle badges decorating knightly shields and fluttering banners.

The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City is currently presenting an exhibition of some of the most important books created under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire.  The exhibition catalog, published by the Morgan, in association with D. Giles Ltd., expertly combines cogent, insightful text with superlative illustrations.

Written by hand and illustrated with spectacular "illuminated" pictures and chapter initials, the splendid volumes on view at the Morgan were chiefly devoted to Christian theology and the sacred rites of the Roman Catholic Church. Along with documenting Christ's teachings, these magnificent books provided the foundation for the revival of education in Europe during the often tumultuous centuries following Charlemagne's death in 814.

Luke portrait & initial page, Helmarshausen Gospels, c. 1120-1140

Voltaire's jibe about the "holy" in the title of the Holy Roman Empire was actually quite inaccurate. Religion really was an important unifying factor for this vast political state. Often, it was a matter of actual piety that motivated the creation of the  illuminated manuscripts now on display at the Morgan. In other cases, worldly ambition played an important role.

The course of events covered by the Morgan exhibition and the superb catalog published in conjunction with it follows a three-part chronology.

The patronage of hand-copying and illustrating devotional books under Charlemagne and his successors was initially directed from the Imperial court. This was established by Charlemagne at Aachen. Then, as new dynasties gained the throne, the locus of power shifted to strongholds further east, including Prague and Vienna. 

The other powerful source of patronage was the Church. As their wealth and influence grew, monastic orders, such as the Benedictines, began commissioning new editions of sacred books on their own initiative. 

Bibles, liturgical volumes such as missals - used to proclaim the Christian Mass - and choir books were created in the copying chambers or scriptoria of the monasteries. These pious works, graced with astonishing illustrations, proclaimed God's majesty - and the divinely sanctioned rule of the Holy Roman Empire.

Portrait of an Artist, likely from Augsburg, late 15th century

Often, the identity of the manuscript makers remains unknown, even as late at the 1300-1400's. Details, however, can be gleaned from unique aspects of artistic style, discernible in important manuscripts. From meticulous study of their work come "names" for these otherwise anonymous scribes and artists. Such is the case of the artist known as the "Gregory Master" (active 972-1000) because of the distinctive illustrations for a book of letters written by Pope Gregory the Great.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, secular artists began to make their mark along with the scribes of the religious orders. At first, they were itinerant craftsman, traveling to monasteries to assist in creating illuminated books. 

With the rise of urban centers during the thirteenth century, these laymen  began to establish their own workshops in cities like Augsburg. Important innovations followed in due course, widespread use of paper rather than expensive parchment, wood block printing of illustrations, the invention of movable type and savvy publishing practices, many introduced by Albrecht Dürer.

This neat, well-defined timeline overlooks the compelling human interest stories of how these almost miraculous books were made and used. Each illuminated manuscript has its own unique biography. Testaments of "holy writ," these deluxe volumes were also cherished as talismans of local pride and other earthly concerns - power, social status and wealth.

The "backstory" of the Stammheim Missal exemplifies the underlying cultural attitude to books during the Middle Ages. 

The Stammheim Missal was created around 1170 at the Benedictine monastery at Hildesheim in Saxony. Hildesheim was one of the most influential  monastic centers in Germany. It had been founded by Bishop Bernward, who directed its operations from 993 to 1022. The monks at Hildesheim revered Bernward and wanted him to be declared an official saint of the Christian Church, an honor normally accorded only after a long, scrupulous investigation. To "encourage" the process, this spectacular liturgical book was created.

Miniature showing St. Bernward, Stammheim Missal, c. 1170

As might be expected, the venerable Bernward (who eventually was decreed a saint in 1192) appears in one of the illustrations of the Stammheim Missal. He is shown receiving a communique from heaven, delivered by an angel. 

Creation of the World, Stammheim Missal, c. 1170

The most fascinating illumination in the Stammheim Missal, however, envisions the cosmological order of the world. Like Michelangelo's fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the stages of the creation of the world are presented, in conjunction with episodes of human sinfulness and its consequences from the Book of Genesis. Jesus, depicted as a Byzantine-style Pantocrator or Ruler of the Cosmos, reasserts divine order from on- high, with the assistance of a pair of extraordinary angels.

This was the world-view of the Christian Middle Ages, re-imagined, again and again, in the sacred, hand-created volumes on view In the Imperial Splendor exhibit. Heaven and earth, God and gold leaf were bound together by the covers of a book.

And what book covers! The "star" of Imperial Splendor is the Lindau Gospels, one of the treasures of the Morgan Library. 

The manuscript of the Lindau Gospels was written in Latin at the monastery of St. Gall, in Switzerland, around 880-890. It is not opened in the exhibit showcase to display the pages of its sacred text. Rather, all attention is directed at the gleaming, bejeweled book covers. 

Lindau Gospels, c. 880; front cover from Eastern France, ca. 870

These spectacular "treasure covers" of the Lindau Gospels actually predate the text transcribed by the monks at St. Gall. The front cover was made about a decade before, apparently in France. The back cover, from Salzburg, Austria, dates from a century earlier, 780 to 800, having been previously used for another, now lost, gospel book. Both covers are likely to have been gifts to monastic community at St. Gall from the reigning Holy Roman emperor.

        Lindau Gospels, c. 880, back cover from Salzburg, c. 780-800                                                     

According to Joshua O'Driscoll and Jeffrey Hamburger, curators of the exhibition, the metal-working skill and artistry devoted to the back cover utilizes "eight distinct techniques, including two types of champleve enamel, cloisonne enamel, garnets and inlaid glass, precious stone settings, the chip-carved plaques between the arms of the cross, and the two pierced-relief medallions on either end of the cross's vertical arm."

From the standpoint of early Christianity or later "puritan" reformists, the glittering Lindau Gospel book covers might be condemned as contradicting the letter and spirit of Christ's teaching. Yet, the place and timing of the creation of the Lindau Gospels explains the rationale of this imposing book as an expression of God's majesty and the earthly power of the Holy Roman Empire

The monastery of St. Gall, in present-day Switzerland was founded by a wandering Irish monk as part of the effort to convert Germanic tribes to Christianity. Elements of the Celtic traditions which are so noteworthy in the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels were preserved in the manuscripts and works of art created at St. Gall.


Title Page, Epistle Lectionary, St. Gall, ca. 880

Missionaries - and later the monastic scribes and craftsman at St. Gall - appealed to the sensibilities of the Germans to convince them of the truths of Christianity. The precious metals and jewels of the Lindau Gospels book covers were equated with the "treasures" of heaven, an analogy which led many to accept baptism into the Christian faith.

The probable date for the creation of the Lindau Gospels, c. 880, coincided with the invasion of Europe by another "barbarian" people little interested in any treasures in heaven. The Magyars burst into central Europe from the steppes of Russia, via the Carpathian Mountains. For over a half-century, the Magyars spread havoc throughout Europe, ravaging as far as the Atlantic coast of France and over the Pyrenees into northern Spain. One group of raiders reached St. Gall in 926, forcing the monks to gather their books and writing materials and flee to Reichenau, a better-protected monastery, 

The eventual victory of Emperor Otto I over the Magyars at the Battle of Lechfield in 955 saved Europe. But it had been a close call on a number of occasions. The Lindau Gospels were preserved, testifying to the providential aid of God and the military prowess of Otto I and his knights.

As a work of art symbolizing the power of Christian civilization, the Lindau Gospels has few peers. The Book-Shaped Reliquary, on loan to the Morgan exhibition from the Cleveland Museum of Art, is certainly worthy of similar respect. Indeed, it is displayed next to the Lindau Gospels in the exhibit display cases.

Artist in the Circle of the Gregory Master,
Book-shaped Reliquary c. 1000

The reliquary was created to appear to be a book, though the only pages were separate sheets believed to have come from the first gospels. These were concealed in an inner compartment. The Book-shaped Reliquary was commissioned by a devout nobleman, Duke Otto the Mild of Saxony, during the fourteenth century. 

Like the Lindau Gospels covers, the Book-shaped  Reliquary reused precious objects, in this case a magnificent ivory carving, showing the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding feast of Cana. This ivory plaque was created around the year 1000, by an artist working in the style of the Gregory Master, perhaps with his guidance.

Following the repulse of the Magyars, and of the Norse Vikings who raided from the sea during the same period, Europe achieved a measure of stability during the eleventh century. Yet, the Holy Roman Empire suffered a political disaster in 1077 from which it never fully recovered. When Emperor Henry IV insisted that he had the right to appoint bishops within the empire, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated him. This crushing rebuke led to an upsurge of local independence movements by the German nobility. 

Although Imperial prestige was later restored to some degree, the internal unity of the Holy Roman Empire never fully revived. Centralized authority wielded by a powerful monarch and his court failed to take hold, as it did in England and France. The Holy Roman Empire evolved into a "decentralized" state where the leading feudal lords elected the emperor.

With their political hegemony thwarted, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire had to contend with diminished financial resources. As a result, they were often unable to continue subsidizing the arts, especially illuminated manuscripts with treasure bindings like the Lindau Gospels. Instead, patronage flowed from powerful nobles and later the Free Imperial Cities.

Workshop of Berthold Furtmeyr, introductory pages to the Weltchronik of Rudolf von Ems, created 1400-1487.

An excellent example of this shift in cultural clout is the Weltchronik. This lavish world chronicle was begun by Rudolf von Ems, a German knight and poet, to honor Emperor Conrad IV, around 1200, and completed by Jansen Enikel after his death. Whatever the intentions of von Ems were when he commenced his mighty literary endeavor, there is precious little of the Holy Roman Empire's grandeur in the opening illustration of the version of the book, created during the 1400's.

Albrecht IV of Bavaria & Kunigunde of Austria, worshiping the Virgin Mary and Jesus, detail from Weltchronik (above), 1400-1487

Instead, the place of the emperor and his consort had been usurped by Duke Albrecht IV of Bavaria and his wife, Kunigunde of Austria. The heraldic coats of arms of Bavaria and Austria figure as prominently as the duke and duchess and rival in size and splendor the angels who hover around the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus.

The visual magnificence of this edition of the Weltchronik also testifies to the reaction of manuscript creators to the invention of printing by Johan Gutenberg and Johan Fust in 1455. 

Prologue to the Psalms in the Gutenberg Bible, 1455

Gutenberg Bible was intended for daily use, not for display on church altars or religious processions. Manuscript scribes and illuminators could never compete with such a utilitarian, cost-effective process. So, like Hollywood movie producers reacting to television during the 1950's with "Cinemascope," they enhanced the scale of their production values.

In a brilliant passage of the catalog of Imperial Splendor, Joshua O'Driscoll and Jeffrey Hamburger write:

What illuminated manuscripts could not offer in quantity, however, they could make up for in quality. Numerous manuscripts of the later fifteenth century are marked by a kind of gigantism, with large, often enormous pictures rivaling panel paintings. An ambitious program of illustration could separate a particular commission from run-of -the-mill production.

For over a half century, this curious, hybrid publishing culture continued. Then, in 1517, Martin Luther used the printing press to protest the sale of Papal Indulgences. Luther's revolution brought the medieval era's "art of the book" to a close with resounding finality. 

The Protestant Reformation further undermined the power of the Holy Roman Empire which staggered under the calamities of the Wars of Religion until Napoleon administered the coup d'grace in 1806. 

Gallery view of the Imperial Splendor exhibition.
    The illuminated manuscript shown here is a homilary, created for nuns of the Cistercian Order, Westphalia, c. 1330. 

Today, nothing remains of the "imperial splendor" of the Holy Roman Empire except for the illuminated manuscripts on view at the Morgan Library and Museum. Despite the passage of centuries, these astonishing works of mind, body and spirit endure and inspire. These masterworks remain potent symbols of the state of intellectual inquiry and moral integrity which we call Civilization.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Gallery photos of the Imperial Splendor exhibition, courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, all rights reserved.

Introductory image: Matthew portrait. Heiningen Gospels. Hammersleben, c. 1170-1200. Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.565, fol.13v

Cover art of Imperial Splendor:The Art of the Book in the Holy Roman Empire, 800-1500, courtesy the Morgan Library and Museum and Giles Ltd.

Luke portrait & initial page, Helmarshausen Gospels, c. 1120-1140. J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig II 3, fols. 83v-84r.

Artist Unknown. Portrait of an Artist, likely from Augsburg, late 15th century. Chicago Art Institute, 1947.77

Miniature showing St. Bernward, Stammheim Missal, c. 1170. J. Paul Getty Museum, MS 64, fol. 156r.

Creation of the WorldStammheim Missal, c. 1170. J. Paul Getty Museum, MS 64, fol. 10v.

Lindau Gospels, in Latin, manuscript from Switzerland, St. Gall, ca. 880; front cover from Eastern France, ca. 870; back cover from Austria, Salzburg region, ca. 780–800. The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.1. Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1901.

Epistle Lectionary, in Latin, from Switzerland, St. Gall, ca. 880. The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.91, fols. 1v–2r. Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1905.

Book-Shaped Reliquary, c. 1000. Circle of The Master of the Registrum Gregorii (German, active c. 972-1000). Ivory, silver: gilded, pearls, rubies, emeralds, crystals, onyx, carnelian, oak; overall: 31.6 x 24.4 x 7.5 cm (12 7/16 x 9 5/8 x 2 15/16 in.); part 1: 17.8 x 14 cm (7 x 5 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust 1930.741

Workshop of Berthold Furtmeyr, introductory pages to the Weltchronik of Rudolf von Ems, created 1400-1487. J. Paul Getty Museum, MS 33, fols. 2v-3r.

Albrecht IV of Bavaria & Kunigunde of Austria, adoring the Virgin Mary and Jesus, detail from Weltchronik (above), 1400-1487.

Prologue to the Psalms in the Biblia Latina, (Gutenberg Bible), Old Testament volume, Mainz: Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, c. 1455. Morgan Library and Museum. PML 12. 1, 292v-293r.

Gallery view of the Imperial Splendor exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Shown in the illustration is a homilary, created for nuns of the Cistercian Order, Westphalia, c. 1330. From the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Photo courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum.