Thursday, September 28, 2023

Art Eyewitness Review: Manet/Degas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art



Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 24, 2023 - January 7, 2024

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

Every ten years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents an epic, "once-in-a-lifetime" exhibition devoted to Impressionism. Occasionally, the curators at the Met show two "show-stopper" Impressionist-era exhibits in quick succession. 2023 is one such banner year. 

Van Gogh's Cypresses had hardly completed its three month run on August 27, than an even bigger blockbuster, Manet/Degas, took center stage at 82nd and Fifth Avenue. Building on the Met's rich holdings of paintings and works-on-paper by these celebrated French artists, the Metropolitan curators cast their net and hauled in spectacular loans from museums in the U.S. and Europe. The Musée d’Orsay – where a version of Manet/Degas was shown a few months earlier – was particularly generous in sharing its treasures. 

Manet/Degas can trace its pedigree to an "ancestry" of Impressionist exhibitions which no other U.S. museum can match. 

The succession of "once-in-a-lifetime" shows at the Met began with the centennial retrospective, Manet, in 1983. I made it to this exhibit, elbowing my way through throngs of art lovers to behold Manet's final masterwork, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which was making a very rare visit to the U.S. from London's Courtauld Institute.

Al Mozell, Photo (1983)
 Gallery view of the 1983 Manet retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ten years - and a few months - later, two spectacular Impressionist exhibits were shown at the Met in 1994. These were Degas Landscapes and Origins of Impressionism. I missed seeing these shows, but, on the basis of studying the catalog of Origins, it is a certitude that they were in the grand Met tradition.

                                       Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)                                        Édouard Manet's Lola de Valance,1862

In 2003, Manet/Velzquez traced the Spanish roots of French 19th century art, and in 2013, Impressionism: Fashion and Modernity matched the haute couture of the age of Manet and Degas with some of the most beloved paintings by these masters of Impressionism and colleagues including Claude Monet and Gustave Caillebotte.  

I won't try to further describe these earlier Met exhibits because I'm going to need a full supply of superlatives for Manet/Degas. Given the enthusiastic response at the press preview, the Met's exhibition history is about to repeat itself. I am already bracing myself for the "throngs of art lovers" which I encountered back in 1983, 2003 and 2013.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 )
 Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibit
 showing Édouard Manet’s The Balcony, 1868–69

The relationship of Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is a classic case of the attraction of opposites. Manet was charismatic, competitive and radical in politics and in art. Degas, an introvert by nature and often abrasive in his personal opinions, was generous in his support of fellow painters, especially women artists like Mary Cassatt.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Edgar Degas’ Visit to the Museum, 1879-90

It is to be expected that many visitors to Manet/Degas will debate the relative merits of the two French artists. The Met exhibition is exceptionally thorough in its inclusion of major works from all stages of their respective careers. If one is inclined to make comparisons, with a "Best Artist" award in mind, there are plenty of paintings and drawings to support a judgement, pro or con, Manet or Degas.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibit showing Edgar Degas'
 The Bellelli Family, 1858-69, on the far wall.

It is better, I feel, to consider the relationship of Manet and Degas as one of synergy, not competition. They addressed similar or contrasting themes, if not in tandem, then certainly in reaction - to each other and to the world around them. Appraising each other's works and acutely conscious of the spirit of their times, Manet and Degas played pivotal roles in creating the matrix of modern art.

The careers of Manet and Degas are entangled by irony. Manet paved the way to Impressionism while refusing to participate in the Impressionist salons held between 1874 to 1886. Degas was one of the most energetic organizers of these group exhibitions, yet he regarded himself a "realist" and a disciple of the great advocate of meticulous drawing, Jean August Dominique Ingres. What Ingres would have thought about Degas' late-career monotype prints, some of which come close to abstract art, can hardly be imagined.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Detail of Edgar Degas’ Racehorses before the Stands, 1866–68

Degas' early works, as we will discuss, certainly show the influence of classical French art. But, by the time he died in 1917, old and nearly blind, Degas had created some of the most innovative works of art of the nineteenth century. Manet, despite his early death, left a formidable body of paintings and prints. While some are surprisingly indifferent in quality, others like his portrait of Emile Zola are worthy rivals of the Old Masters.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868

Manet/Degas abounds in its presentation of Impressionist masterpieces, works you've seen time and again in reproduction. I thought at times that I was walking through the pages of an art history text rather than a museum gallery!

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863-65

Exhibit "A" in Manet/Degas is Olympia,.Manet's uncompromising nude is still a work which can stop you in your tracks.But, situated among other great paintings by Manet and Degas, it no longer exhales the breath of scandal. Rather, in the words of the great art critic, John Canaday, Olympia "a picture of a common girl, happens to be one of the most elegant paintings of its century ..."

Olympia was also uncompromisingly honest, as we can see in the expression of Victorine Meurent, who modeled for Manet. These are eyes that have seen how the world  - the real world - works.

As Canaday further noted, Manet's challenged the smug hypocrisy of France under the regime of Napoleon III. Manet was simply being truthful about the society of his era. Paris in the mid-1800's had 200 officially registered houses of prostitution, some of which were sponsored by the French government for the benefit of foreign dignitaries like the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. 

The French political and cultural elite were not pleased to see the reality of life so clinically revealed.  Manet was subjected to prolonged censure and condemnation which cast a shadow over his prospects for years to come. 

Degas, after a false start doing allegorical paintings, followed Manet's example. His portrait of a working class woman drowning her sorrows in a glass of absinthe, is one of the great examples of high art serving as social commentary.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Detail of Edgar Degas' In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker), 1875–76

Both Manet and Degas aspired to be a "painter of modern life", a form of social activism outlined in the 1863 essay by Charles Baudelaire, whom we shall meet later. The Manet/Degas exhibition brilliantly illustrates how these two artists of genius approached that role.

Early in the 1860's, Manet met Degas at the Louvre where the later was working on an etching after a portrait by Velazquez. There could not have been a better way to foster a friendly rivalry than a shared fascination with the art of the great seventeenth century Spanish master. 

"Good clean work," Manet declared approvingly of Velazquez' painterly technique, "It puts you off the brown-sauce school."

"Brown sauce" or "gravy" was the dismissive rebuke which young artists of the 1860's hurled at the somber-toned, heavily varnished paintings favored at the annual Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. On that point, Manet and Degas could agree, but only a few years later, an incredibly cruel and thoughtless act by Manet imperiled their relationship.

One evening, Degas attended a musical recital during which Manet's wife, Suzanne, a talented pianist, performed. Degas decided to surprise the Manets with a double portrait of them, painted from memory. Suzanne was shown at the keyboard with Manet lounging on a sofa absorbed by the music. It was a touching gesture from a man who usually guarded his emotions.

Edgar Degas 
 Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet, 1868–69
Courtesy of Kitakyushu Municipal Museum

Manet was not impressed by the painting and - after Degas departed - he slashed the portrait of Suzanne with a penknife, discarding what he considered a "defamation" of his wife's features. Manet then portrayed Suzanne in a similar pose - no doubt to show Degas how it should have been done. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Madam Manet at the Piano, ca. 1868-68

Needless to say, Degas was deeply hurt by this act. He demanded the "offending" painting back and returned a still life that Manet had given him.

Historians are still puzzled by this incident. Degas' portrait of Manet was not particularly accomplished, especially when compared to the superb sketches which Degas often made of Manet. Perhaps the likeness of Suzanne Manet was not up to Degas' usual standards, either. But the painting had been created from memory, no easy task, and it was given as an act of friendship.

Only an artist possessed of self-assured arrogance and undoubted talent could have reacted in such an insensitive way to Degas' generous gift. Perhaps the brutalizing effect of the criticism Manet had received over Olympia was a factor in his appalling treatment of Degas.

Making the "best of a bad business", the Met's curators replicated the oblique slash on Degas' painting as one of the signature images of the exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of the entrance to the Manet/Degas exhibition, 
showing self-portraits by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas

This "slash" motif is - literally - a brilliant stroke. But it is more than a clever way  of evoking a serious, if temporary, hiatus in the relationship of Manet and Degas. Rather, this slash symbolizes the era in which these two artists lived. The age of Impressionism, the 1870's and 80's in France, was a period of war and social strife, of cannon fire and crashing banks.

The incident of the defaced painting likely occurred in 1868 or 1869. A year later, Manet and Degas joined France's National Guard, defending Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71. Their rapprochement was one of the few positive results of that disastrous war for France.

Despite the heroism of the National Guard, German siege artillery smashed the defensive positions surrounding Paris. The fall of Paris in February 1871 was followed by the uprising of left-wing radicals and embittered Parisian workers known as the Commune. The revolt was crushed by the newly-installed Third Republic with the loss of 30,000 fatalities. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Manet/Degas showing
 Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, ca.1867–68.

Manet recorded the street fighting and subsequent executions in a series of prints, but, curiously, he reused the figures of a firing squad from his paintings of the execution of the Emperor Maximilian in Mexico in 1867. The version of Manet's depiction of Maximilian's death from the National Gallery in London (above) is on view in Manet/Degas.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Detail of Édouard Manet’s The Barricades, ca. 1871, published 1884

In conflating the execution of Maximilian with that of the Communards, Manet was not being the least bit derivative. Instead, he was making a statement. The deaths in one war often lead to another - and he would be proven correct, as the effects of the Franco-Prussian War contributed directly to the outbreak of World War I.

Manet's interest in contemporary events was matched by his comrade from the siege of Paris. Degas, however, chose a less dramatic subject, but one of immense importance: the day-to-day workings of the capitalist economic system. 

In the autumn of 1872, Degas traveled to New Orleans. Degas' family had large-scale investments in the U.S. cotton industry. Degas uncle, Michel Musson, was an important cotton broker in New Orleans. After visiting his uncle's office, Degas painted two scenes, rare, accurate depictions of business operations, modern for its time. The first is of greater historical significance, the second  important for artistic reasons.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Edgar Degas' A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

Degas' first painting is a carefully composed study of his uncle's cotton brokerage in action. The placement and interaction of the office staff and local businessmen  are so perfectly posed as to appear choreographed. The features of each man is delineated with precision and insight recalling the famous portrait drawings by Ingres from the 1820's and 30's. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of  A Cotton Office in New Orleans

The second, less famous work was Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, now in the collection of the Harvard Art Museum. Seemingly without incident, this oil painting on linen shows the influence of Japanese art on Degas, Manet and many other French artists who came of age after the opening of Japan to the West in 1853. The dramatic cropping and placing the pictorial action in the foreground of the painting make participants of those who study it more than observers. Here, in this picture, we can see the first stirrings of modern art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
Edgar Degas' Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, 1873

Degas ventured to New Orleans to appraise his family's business prospects rather than to study art. He had every reason to be concerned. Cotton was no longer "king" as it had been before the Civil War in America. Hardly had Degas returned to France in the spring of 1873 than a world-wide economic panic began. The brittle finances of France were particularly hard-hit. The Degas family bank eventually sank in a sea of red ink in 1876.

 France during the age of Impressionism confronted adversity at every turn. In addition to repeated bank failures and the humiliating defeat of the Franco-Prussian War, the populace of France faced a litany of daily woes. Even the wine harvests were blighted - by a parasitic insect, the Phylloxera aphid, unwittingly imported from America!

The environmental effects of industrialization was even more damaging. Factory chimneys and plumes of smoke issuing from locomotives are a background feature of many Impressionist paintings. These are the tell-tale signs of erosion of the quality of life in France, which can be traced demographically. After inching upward earlier in the nineteenth century, the average life expectancy in France stalled in 1850 at the age of 43 and did not reach 45 until 1900

Manet lived eight years longer than the national average, but the 1870's and 1880's was a time of troubles for French men and women of all classes. The haunted eyes and careworn expressions on the faces of many of the individuals painted by Manet and Degas confirm this. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Edgar Degas’ Violinist and Young Woman, ca. 1871 

Two other protagonists in the Impressionist saga, very important to Manet, shared his fate of having their lives cut short, while being at the height of their creative powers. These were Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) and Berthe Morisot (1841-1895).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Édouard Manet’s Repose (Portrait of Berthe Morisot), ca. 1871
Berthe Morisot was an intimate friend and, most probably, an unrequited lover of Manet. There was obviously some degree of "chemistry" between them. And there are so many sensational portraits of Morisot by Manet in the Met's exhibition that it might justly have been entitled Manet/Degas/Morisot!

Charles Baudelaire's name might well be tagged on to the title, too, so important were his ideas and observations on the place of the artist in modern French society. But we will reserve the contributions of Baudelaire, Morisot and others to the inter-woven careers of Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas for an additional essay to appear shortly in Art Eyewitness. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Manet/Degas, showing a seascape by Édouard Manet
 and Edgar Degas’ New Orleans scenes

To close this present review, let us avail ourselves of Degas' verdict on Manet and apply it to him as well. And while we are at it, let us accord this accolade to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée d’Orsay. 

Manet, Degas declared as he left the funeral service for his friend and rival "was greater than we thought." 

Greater than we thought.

True for Manet. True for Degas. And true for the curators of Manet/Degas.  


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           

Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image:                                                                                                                       Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the entrance to the Manet/Degas exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York.

Al Mozell, Photo (1983) Gallery view of the 1983 Manet retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Lola de Valance, 1862. Oil on canvas: 48 1/8  x 36 ¼  inches (123 x 92 cm) Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 ) Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibit showing  Édouard Manet’s The Balcony, 1868–69.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas’ Visit to the Museum, 1879-90. Oil on canvas: 36 1/8 x 26 3/4 inches (91.8 x 68 cm) Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Manet/Degas showing Edgar Degas' The Bellelli Family, 1858-69, on the far wall.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Edgar Degas’ Racehorses before the Stands,1866–68. Oil on paper mounted on canvas: 18 1/8 x 24 in. (46 x 61 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Emile Zola, 1868. Oil on canvas: 57 1/2 x 44 7/8 inches (146 x 114 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863-65. Oil on canvas: 51 3/8 x 75 3/16 inches (130.5 x 191 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Edgar Degas In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker), 1875–76. Oil on canvas: 36 1/4 x 26 15/16 in. (92 x 68.5 cm) Musée d'Orsay.

Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917) Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet, 1868–69. Oil on canvas: 25 9/16 x 27 15/16 in. (65 x 71 cm) Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art Photo: Courtesy of Kitakyushu Municipal Museum

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023 Édouard Manet’s Madam Manet at the Piano, ca. 1868-68. Oil on canvas: 15 3/16 x 18 15/16 in. (38.5 x 46.5 cm)

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the entrance to the Manet/Degas exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art., showing self-portraits by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of Manet/Degas showing Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, ca.1867–68. Oil on canvas: 76 in. x 9 ft. 3 13/16 in. (193 x 284 cm) The National Gallery, London.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Detail of Édouard Manet’s The Barricades, ca. 1871, published 1884. Lithograph on chine colle: 18 5/16 x 13 1/8 in. (46.5 x 33.4 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas' A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873. Oil on canvas: 28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (73 x 92 cm) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Pau, France.  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas' Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, 1873. Oil on linen: 23 1/8 x 28 ¼ in. (58.7 x 71.8 cm) Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Edgar Degas’ Violinist and Young Woman, ca. 1871. Oil and crayon on canvas: 18 ¼ x 22 inches (46.4 x 55.9 cm.) Detroit Institute of Arts.    

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Édouard Manet’s Repose (Portrait of Berthe Morisot), ca. 1871. Oil-on-canvas: 59 1/8 x 44 7/8 inches (150.2 x 114 cm) Rhode Island School of Design.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Manet/Degas exhibition, showing a seascape by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas’ New Orleans Cotton Office scenes.


Sunday, September 10, 2023

Art Eyewitness Essay: The Face of the Buddha at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Face of the Buddha

Tree & Serpent:
 Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE 

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
July 21 to November 13, 2023

Part II

By Ed Voves

Original Photography by Anne Lloyd

The life journey of Siddharta Gautama, from crown prince of the Sakya Kingdom in ancient India to the transcendent status as the Buddha, is one of the most important spiritual events in world history. The depiction of the events in Buddha's life and his path to enlightenment is vitally significant in the story of art, as well.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently presenting a magnificent exhibition of early Buddhist art, entitled Tree & Serpent. The Met's exhibit stresses the importance of the rise of Buddhist art in the southern region of India known as the Deccan. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Gallery view of Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India,
 200 BCE-400 CE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Since Buddhism later spread southward to Sri Lanka and then to Southeast Asia, the importance of the role of the Deccan is very important, indeed. The way that Buddhism evolved as a religion and the manner in which it is  presented in terms of visual art still bear the impress of the Deccan experience, from 200 BCE to the year 400 of our current era.

It is a complex story, however, as I commented in my initial review of Tree & Serpent - although one which the Metropolitan curators, led by John Guy, the Met's great scholar of South Asian art, present in a very cogent and insightful way.

The Tree & Serpent exhibition exceeded almost all of my expectations. Yet, I was left with a  perplexing question regarding the profoundly moving statues of the enlightened Buddha, grouped together in the final gallery of the exhibition. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 A view of the concluding gallery at the Tree & Serpent exhibition,
 showing statues of the Buddha from the 2nd to 7th centuries

Here in the radiantly-gold gallery at the end of the exhibit were images of the Buddha which conform to what non-specialists in Asian art – like myself – regard as “Buddhist art.” 

The art on view in the preceding galleries of Tree & Serpent is very different in format from these statues of the Buddha. Where was the connection between the earlier sculpted narrative reliefs showing scenes from the life of the Buddha and these serene, solitary sculptures?  

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) 
 Statue of the Buddha, Nelakondapalli monastic region, 3rd century, 
and Temple step ("moonstone") from Sri Lanka, ca. 8th century

The complex wrinkle in the story of Buddhist art is mainly due, I believe, to the fact that the Buddha preached religious truths which, initially, had little regard for aesthetic or artistic concerns.

“Beauty is nothing to me,” the Buddha proclaimed in his earliest sermons, the Dasadhamma Sutta, “neither the beauty of the body, nor that which comes from dress.” 

India, however, is a land bursting with fertility.  Life force is strong and vigorous, demanding forms of visual representation which Buddhism, for all of its otherworldly austerity, eventually embraced. The ancient nature cults which existed prior to Buddhism were co-opted, as we can see in such works as the lively, erotically-charged statue of Śrī Lakmī, Goddess of Abundance, 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023)
 Śrī Lakmī, Goddess of Abundance, 2nd century 

If the devotees of Buddhism made an accommodation with nature deities like Śrī Laki, there still existed a “bridge too far” which they did not cross for nearly five hundred years. The depiction of the Buddha's physical likeness remained a "taboo" practice across much of the time period covered by Tree & Serpent.

As numerous carved bas-reliefs show, there was no prohibition on presenting scenes from the life and the legend of the Buddha. But the Buddha had to be represented symbolically. A sacred flame, a pair of footprints, a Dharma wheel or an empty throne, these are what was permissible for an artist to use to denote the Buddha's presence.


Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) 
Railing Pillar Medallion:
 Tree Shrine Marking the Buddha’s Wakening, ca. 150 –100 BCE 

Clearly represented on the railing pillar medallion, above, are the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, two kneeling female devotees and the throne seat (āsana) marking the spot where the Buddha sat, but no image of the Buddha.

That is how this most important feature of Buddhist art continued to be treated, even when the great emperor, Ashoka (304-232 BCE), ruler over much of the Indian subcontinent, embraced Buddhism. An empty throne is not exactly an image which a mighty monarch is likely to favor. Yet, so it remained.

Shortly before Ashoka's reign began, another contender for dominion over India appeared. Alexander the Great seized control of several provinces in the upper Indus Valley, along with much of present day Afghanistan, on the dubious premise that these regions had been ruled by the Persians, whose empire he had overthrown. 

A Hellenistic Greek Statuette of a Rider Wearing an Elephant Hide Cloak,
 possibly Alexander the Great, 3rd century BCE 
Metropolitan Museum of Art photo

With Alexander's army, marched Hellenistic art and culture. The actual Macedonian/Greek occupation of Indian territory was brief, outliving Alexander by only a few years. Hellenistic culture was more resilient, in part because some of  Alexander's outposts in Afghanistan evolved into small Greek-speaking kingdoms. Greek art in the east, generally referred to as the art of Gandhara from the name of its most productive locale, remained a creative force for several centuries. 

Over the years, a lively, often heated, debate has contested whether the example of Greek Gandhara art motivated Buddhist artists to begin painting or sculpting portraits of the Buddha, thus abolishing the age-old ban. 

Indian scholars and art curators have countered claims that the introduction of Greek art initiated life-like portraiture of the Buddha and standards of artistic realism in the subcontinent. Indian artists, including those working in the Deccan, had long been creating images of gods and men evoking naturalism of a very high order, particularly in the monumental likenesses of nature deities known as yakshas and yakshis. 

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)
 Head of a Yaksha, from Mathura, 1st century BCE

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)
 Head of a Yaksha, from Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh, 1st century

This "pro-India" stance is based on convincing evidence. However, one has only to leave the Tree & Serpent exhibition and walk to the Met's Asian Art Galleries to find brilliant examples of Gandhara sculptures which seemingly resolve this issue in favor of the Greeks.

The Met's Gandhara treasures are such an "embarrassment of riches" that it would be difficult to pick one or two to make the case for the decisive influence of Greek art on the evolution of Buddhist portraiture. 

 Gandharan Buddha, from the Takht-i-bahi Monastery, 3rd century
Metropolitan Museum of Art photo

High on the list of such Gandharan masterpieces is the astonishing statue of the Buddha (above), dating to the 3rd century.  Scholars believes that this Buddha was made for the Takht-i-bahi Monastery, located near the strategic Khyber Pass which gave access to trade routes to central Asia and China's Silk Road.

Gandharan Buddha (detail of above)

Sculpted in grey schist, a dense and difficult stone to carve, this Buddha evokes the spirit and form of images of Apollo which intrepid Greeks erected wherever they journeyed throughout the ancient world.

 And not just the Greeks but Roman merchants, too, brought Western influences to India via the flourishing seaborne trade for spices during the first to third centuries, the age of the Pax Romana. 

The Tree & Serpent exhibition displays several examples of Roman provincial-quality metal objects which reached India as part of this long-distance commerce. But even more intriguing from the standpoint of the present essay is a small bronze Buddha, dating to the  first  to mid-second centuries. It is currently displayed in the Met's Asian galleries.

Seated Buddha, from Gandhara, 1st to mid-2nd century 
Metropolitan Museum of Art photo

With his head framed by a distinctive, serrated halo and his hand held-up in a gesture of welcome, this small statue reflects the spirituality of Buddhism. The Met's leading scholar on Gandharan art,  Kurt Behrendt, has made a close study of this work of art. Behrendt traced "numerous connections with Roman imperial portraits of the first century A.D., especially those of Nero..." 

That the deranged emperor, Nero, might serve as a model for the Buddha is an alarming thought. But the fact that this bronze statue was made in Gandhara, not imported from Rome, shows that Western art conventions were indeed influencing the way that the face of the Buddha was being portrayed by artists in the northern areas of the Indian subcontinent.

In the final analysis, there is no need or reason to make an "either/or" choice, Gandharan or Deccan, as the decisive influence in the revolutionary shift in the portraiture of the Buddha. Vital contributions were made across the artistic landscape, east and west.

If special credit is due to any particular group it should be accorded to an obscure tribe from the Eurasian steppes who literally galloped in, seemingly from out-of-nowhere: the Kushans. 

On view in the last gallery of Tree & Serpent is an unusual Buddha, physically imposing, with the commanding presence of a warrior rather than a mystic or a sage. Buddha Granting Protection dates to the early second century when the  Kushans, who commissioned this statue, were doing the same thing, protecting the people they had conquered, Against all expectations, Kushan rule brought political security, economic growth and religious freedom to Afghanistan and northern India, two of the most embattled regions of the world.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)
 Buddha Granting Protection, Kushan dynasty, early 2nd century 

The Kushans were originally part of a confederation of Indo-European nomads, wandering with their herds on China's western frontier. Early in the first century, the Kushans were pushed-out by more numerous tribes into the arid Bactrian Desert. Formidable horsemen, the Kushans launched a hard-hitting campaign, overwhelming the vulnerable Greek kingdoms in Afghanistan and then seizing a small, but strategic, slice of northern India.

At that point, the Kushans could have indulged in an orgy of massacres and scorched earth, similar to what the Huns and Mongols would later unleash. Instead, the Kushans showed enormous respect for the Greek and Indian populations now under their hegemony. The Kushans used their control of the Khyber Pass to encourage trade and travel, enriching themselves and their neighbors, including China, in the process.

The greatest of the Kushan kings, Kanishka I, who reigned from 127-150, added to these tremendous achievements by embracing Buddhism and encouraging Buddhist art. He placed a portrait of the Buddha on the reverse side of his gold coinage, the Buddha standing in a pose similar to that of Buddha Granting Protection, on view at the Met.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)
 Buddha Granting Protection, from Mathura,
 Kushan dynasty, early 2nd century 

As befitted a ruler of vast domains, Kanishka maintained two capital cities. Peshawar was located near the Khyber Pass in the heart of the Gandhara region. The second was Mathura, a major Buddhist center in the Indian province  which the Kushans ruled. Flourishing schools of art were maintained in both cities, each with a distinctive style of art. 

 Crowned Bodhisattva, from Mathura,
 late Kushan dynasty, 3rd–early 4th century 
Metropolitan Museum of Art photo 

Art in the Gandhara region under the Kushans maintained the stylistic elements of the Greco/Roman art we have been examining in this essay. Artists of the Mathura school, however, developed conventions of portraying the Buddha and saintly Buddhist figures, the Bodhisattvas, that were more in keeping with the earliest expressions of Buddhist art from southern India.

The Mathura school of art would ultimately be the more successful, influencing Buddhist art throughout Asia. But we should not think in terms of "winners and losers" when we reflect on the differences in style between Gandharan portraits of the Buddha and those of the Mathuran artists. Kushan rulers like Kanishka permitted freedom of expression, indeed encouraged it, and the artists of both schools responded by searching their hearts and souls to create portraits of the Buddha, images of sanctity and devotion, which people of all faiths can appreciate.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)
 Gallery view of Tree & Serpent, showing a Buddha, 3rd century, and a Temple step ("moonstone") from Sri Lanka, ca. 8th century

In his reflection on Civilization, Kenneth Clark called the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, the site of Giotto's fresco paintings, "one of the world's holy places." Without exaggeration, I think that the Met's Gallery 999, where Tree & Serpent is currently displayed, is such a sacred place, as well.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                  Original photography, copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved

Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Buddha (detail), Alluru, Andhra Pradesh, 3rd century. Limestone: H. 39 3/4 in. × W.13 in. × D. 6 1/4 in.(101 cm × 33 cm × 16.5 cm) National Museum, New Delhi

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Gallery view of the Tree & Serpent: Early Buddhist Art in India, 200 BCE-400 CE exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) A view of the concluding gallery the Tree & Serpent exhibition, showing statues of the Buddha from the 2nd to 7th centuries. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Statue of the Buddha, Nelakondapalli monastic region, 3rd century, lent by State Museum, Hyderbad, India; Temple step ("moonstone") from Sri Lanka, ca.8th century, lent from a private collection.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2023) Śrī Lakmī, Goddess of Abundance (excavated at Jamālpur mound), 2nd century. Sandstone: H. 41 in. × W. 12 in. × D. 11 in.(104.1 cm.× 30.5 cm.× 27.9 cm) National Museum, New Delhi

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Railing Pillar Medallion: Tree Shrine Marking the Buddha’s wakening, ca. 150 –100 BCE. Sandstone: 27 in.× 19 1/2 in. × 6 3/4 in. (68.6 cm × 49.5 cm × 17.1 cm) .Excavated at Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, ca. 1873. Indian Museum, Kolkata (inv. 294)

Unknown Artist, Hellenistic Greek. A Statuette of a Rider Wearing an Elephant Hide Cloak, possibly Alexander the Great, 3rd century BCE. Bronze: 9 3/4 in. (24.8 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. #55.11.11

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Head of a Yaksha, from Mathura, 1st century BCE. Sandstone: H. 19 in. (48.2 cm); W. 15 3/4 in. (40 cm); D. 14 in. (35.6 cm) Lent by Cleveland Museum of Art.

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Head of  a Yaksha, from Sanchi Stupa, Madhya Pradesh, 1st century. Sandstone: H. 11 5/8 in. (29.5 cm); W. 6 1/8 in. (15.5 cm); D. 5 7/8 in. (15 cm) Lent by Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Unknown Artist, Gandhara. Buddha, from the Takht-i-bahi Monastery, 3rd century. Schist: H 36 1/2 in. (92.7 cm); W. 11 in. (27.9 cm); D. 5 1/2 in. (14 cm) Metropolitan Museum, #2014.188

Unknown artist, Gandhara. Seated Buddha, 1st to mid-2nd century. Bronze with traces of gold leaf: H. 6 5/8 in. (16.8 cm); W. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm); D. 4 in. (10.2 cm) Metropolitan Museum, #2003.593.1

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023) Buddha Granting Protection, from Mathura, Kushan dynasty, early 2nd century. Sandstone: H. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm); W. 13 in. (33 cm); D. 6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm) Metropolitan Museum, lent from a private collection.

Unknown artist, Mathura, North India. Crowned Bodhisattva, late Kushan dynasty, 3rd–early 4th century. Sandstone: H. 16 3/4 in. (42.5 cm); W. 13 in. (33 cm); D. 6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm) Metropolitan Museum #2016.701

Anne Lloyd, (Photo 2023)  Gallery view of the Tree & Serpent Exhibition, showing a Buddha statue, 3rd century, and a Temple step ("moonstone") from Sri Lanka, ca. 8th century.