Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Charterhouse of Bruges

As I have said before, I love small focused exhibitions since too often I get lost or confused in the larger ones when the curator of the show is trying to make too many points at once.  Our trip to New York revealed two such small exhibitions and I will write about one this week and the other next.

The Frick Collection was kind enough to send me an elaborate Press Kit when the show “The Charter House of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos” opened but I decided I had to see it before writing.  It was well worth waiting for.  The Frick has one small exhibition space, smaller than a New York hotel room, which they often use to show that would get lost in a larger venue and they used it to optimal advantage for this exhibition.

A Charter House is a Carthusian monastery. For those like me who are not sure who the Carthusians are, they are part of an austere monastic order started by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084.  They remove themselves from the world as we know it, one of solitude and silence, staying mostly in their cells  I would go mad by day two, but that is their chosen life to concentrate on their religious beliefs.  While some art might be considered distracting other subjects were believed to be of assistance in meditation, at least in the 15th century.   As a result the Charterhouse in Bruges, became a repository some of the major art of the period and and the subject of this show.

Sometimes one enjoys works of art by association and that is the case for me.  This exhibition includes two marble relief sculptures of Carthusian monks, ca. 1380-1400 from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I remember close to a decade ago a long row of alabaster figures of Carthusians, 36 strong and 16 inches high, at the Metropolitan Museum.  Known as the Mourners. They were lent by the museum in Dijon where they were created to surround the ducal tomb.  The photo below shows how impressive they were by the throngs around them in the Met’s Medieval Court.   Here is the article from the New York Times covering that event.

Here is the image from the Met in 2010 and the 2 kneeling figures from Cleveland at the Frick.




Bruges is a small town in Belgium that had some truly great artists working there including one of the greatest, and a teacher to so many others, Jan van Eyck (1395-1441).  Looking at some of his small paintings one gets the feeling he painted with a single brush hair, he is so precise and his little figures so perfect.  Often it is helpful to have a magnifying glass which is graciously supplied by the Frick from a rack of several on the wall.

The nine works in the show are all of a small scale so one can grasp the sense of the exhibition quite easily.   The smallest of the objects is a Boxwood carved “prayer nut” by Adam Dircksz and his workshop which was lent by a private collector.  It was made for the Carthusian Fran├žois du Puy, circa 1517-21 just 1 7/8 inches in diameter.  Here the magnifying glass was most helpful, and the artist also must have used some visual aid!  It is beautifully carved with praying monks outside and the inside shows the mother and Child on one side and two monks praying on the other.  A prayer tool that could be carried in a pocket must have been a source of great comfort and support to the bearer.



Jan Vos was elected to be prior of the Charterhouse of Bruges in 1441 and remained so for nine years.   While most works of art were given to the Charterhouse by lay patrons, Vos
commissioned the two pre-eminent artists of Bruges to paint works, so he himself became a patron.  I wonder what others thought of him being portrayed as such in some of the paintings he commissioned.  Jan van Eyck’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth and Jan Vos” in the Frick collection was commissioned shortly before the artist’s death in 1441.  It is thought that a very accomplished member of his studio completed the painting and it has been suggested that was Petrus Christus.  The closely related “Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos“ lent for the exhibition by the State Museum Painting Gallery in Berlin, was painted by Petrus Christus a few years later.  The Frick’s painting was once in the care of my family gallery from a private collection.



I will end with a painting we sold to a private collector that has been lent to the show, “The Virgin and Child by a Fountain”, about 1440.  It is called a workshop copy of a work painted by Jan van Eyck in 1439, though I heard from at least one museum director that if the virtually identical painting did not exist in the Museum in Antwerp our picture would be considered the original by van Eyck.  Years ago we were lucky enough to see the two paintings side by side and I could not see that the one considered autograph was superior or different, for that matter.   Such is the life of a purveyor of Old Masters.  It is not unusual for an artist to repeat a painting for second patron.  How many portraits did Gilbert Stuart do of George Washington, some of them virtually identical?   In one museum I once found the papers where a curator said that theirs’s was the original of a work of sculpture though he was not sure himself!  The rule is don’t buy a work of art if the copy hangs in the Louvre, because you are bound to lose that argument, no matter what.  As hard as it is still for me to believe this incredible “Virgin and Child by a Fountain” was not an easy sell!


Curating this exhibition and gathering these loans is a rather remarkable feat and it was done by Emma Capron, who is the current Anne L. Poulet, Curatorial Fellow at the Frick.  Judging by the show and catalog which includes far more material than in the exhibition, this budding professional is a definite keeper!  She did the catalog with two of my old friends, Dr. Maryan W. Ainsworth Curator in the Department of Painting at the Metropolitan Museum and Till-Holger Borchert, Director of the 16 City Museums of Bruges.

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