Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Rembrandt Self-Portrait

When I was a student in London in the mid 1960”s I went several times to visit the Iveagh Bequest at Kenwood House, a beautiful building on the outskirts of London.

Kenwood was built in the 17th century and renovated in the third quarter of the 18th century by Robert Adam.  It was acquired by Lord Iveagh, a member of the Guinness family of brewery fame, in 1925 and given to the nation when he died in in 1927 and opened to the public in 1928.   The house has been temporarily closed for renovation including their leaky roof which seems to be endemic in rainy London.

What surprises me is that I remember well the self-portrait of Rembrandt that has resided there for the last 90 years.  So when I went to the Metropolitan Museum where it was briefly on loan it was like seeing a long lost friend.  Unfortunately, in the meantime it has been glazed putting a very noticeable barrier between me and the intimate experience.  It’s a little like an old flame showing up for dinner with a chaperone!

Rembrandt painted over 40 self-portraits between the late 1620's and his death in 1669.  This one dates late in his career from between 1663 and 1665.  Self-portraits are a perfectly logical pursuit for an artist since he or she are always an available model.  What I don't understand is that more artists don't seem to do it that often.

I think that one of the things we like about Rembrandt today is the colourist aspects of his painting.  Though it was not much appreciated in its time as Rembrandt fell out of favor. As you know, Rembrandt always used a subdued pallet with tones of white for contrast, splashes of color gave certain passages special emphasis.  Here we see a very prominent red shirt. Could it be that as people get older they are often more daring.  Who wears those loud colored shirts and trousers?  In the Mets own self-portrait of the artist painted just a few years earlier the red shirt just peeks out from his jacket.

A question that has been discussed is whether the natural aging process of the eyes and particularly cataracts which many people over 40 experience has an effect on an artists work. Having gone through this experience, I am convinced that it has.  Even the earlier Met self-portrait seems more precise.

 Perhaps I should mention here that I had my second lens implant a few weeks ago so that my eyesight did not get in the way of a direct experience with the picture.  One of the most noticeable aspects of the lens replacement is that whites become white again.  I have been joking after my first operation that if I looked at a painting with my left eye it needed cleaning and if I looked with my right it was miraculously cleaned... saves lots of money on conservation! 

I was glad to catch “my Rembrandt which only made a brief guest appearance in New York before joining his mates in Houston for a much larger show of the Iveagh bequest which opens shortly.

**An apology:  In my blog regarding the Spring Show I forgot to credit Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts as the owner of the wonderful Weenix painting of the hound.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes

"We have not found anything that is equal to your merit"

This from a letter written in 1501 by Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, to Pier Jocopo Alari Bonacolsi (circa 1455-1528) known as Antico. 

The exhibition "Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes" is a joint effort of The National Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Frick Collection in New York.  The collaborating curators were Eleonora Luciano of the National Gallery, Denise Allen of The Frick and Claudia Kryza-Gersch at the Kunst Kammer of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.   The latter lent several of the treasures to the show.  The show boasts 39 examples about three quarters of Antico’s known bronzes and what fabulous examples they are.  Antico was obviously not very prolific, though I am sure that we have either not yet found or identified others. 

When I arrived at the Frick on a Sunday morning the line was already over a block long.  I spoke to the guard outside and was told I could get in right away with a membership card and that everyone waiting outside was most probably there to see the large Renoirs that were on view since it was the last day of the exhibition.  While I breathed a sigh of relief that the Antico exhibition would not be mobbed I was also a little sorry for all those people who did not realize what a great treat they were missing.

Antico worked for three generations of the Gonzaga family, the rulers of Mantua, creating medals and sculptures after the antique to fit in with the great collections from antiquity that they had already acquired.  The medals were often portraits of the patron with allusions to mythology on the reverse.

The bronzes were also modeled on the sculptures that were being excavated during the last quarter of the 15th century and first quarter of the 16th in and around Rome.  All the sculptors of the period studied and emulated these works of art in an effort to bring back the beauty and perfection of the past.  They also added their contemporary techniques. 

Hardly anything is known about Antico’s early life but it is supposed that he originally apprenticed himself to a goldsmith.  This makes perfect sense when you view the smooth and beautiful lines of his bronzes, especially those partially gilded and/or with silvered eyes.

The show commences with an antique marble portrait of 140-150 AD lent by the Hispanic Society and opposite it a fabulous large bronze head with silvered eyes by Antico lent by the Getty.  Needless to say the former had known better days and was not exactly in pristine condition while the Getty bronze could have been made yesterday.

As you know, I always try to pick a work of art that I would like to take home with me.  I only get to choose one!  I found this particularly difficult because there are several that I love.  Possibly because of my background in French 18th century works of art, I love the gilding and silvered eyes we find on much of Antico’s work. To my own surprise the piece that ended up in first place was one of the large roundels of the Labors of Hercules, this one representing Hercules and the Ceryneian Hind lent by the Kunsthistoriches Museum.  For me part of the attraction is the subject matter that is so unusual and original.  Well, not exactly original since it is based on a Roman bronze provincial coin of Septimius Severus with variations.

Here I run into one of my perennial problems, an image never does justice to a work of art.  If I illustrated a bronze with gilding it would literally shine but the gallery lighting is not the same as that used for photography and when we see the object directly with our own eyes we interpret it differently.

I hope that now, with the large Renoir canvases returned to their respective homes, visitors to the Frick will discover the rare gathering of the exquisite works of Antico.  To my mind Isabella d’Este’s assessment of his talent was right on.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Spring Show - Another Art Fair

I am afraid that I must agree that there are just too many art fairs but like movies and books nobody knows which will catch on and which will not.

The Spring Show is put on by the Art and Antique Dealers League of America.  They had done a show for a few years at the downtown armory but people did not want to go there.  It did not catch on like Chelsea and the piers did for the contemporary events.  So last year they tried again, putting on an upscale show in a far better location, the Park Avenue Amory, where all the better non contemporary fairs take place.

They have allowed non Association members and even foreign dealers to join them at the Armory.  The show includes 63 galleries showing a varying quality of pictures  and works of art.  One and all agree that it needs some culling and upgrading.

These days when you go to a fair the Public Relations department has come up with an App to help guide you through.  These can be quite rudimentary as it was for the Spring Show or fairly elaborate as it was for TEFAF, but they all have the basic information, a press release, ground rules for the show, such as, vetting, and a floor plan.  The illustrations can be limited or extensive.  There might even be previous press coverage.  Obviously, all these possibilities are quite new and they will evolve depending on the financial possibilities of the fair organizers, the cooperation of the dealers and the skill of the IT people hired.

I visited the Spring Show twice.  Once for the opening where I stuck my head into every booth (to tell the truth, I just walked by some), chatted with the dealers that I knew, if they were not mobbed with potential clientsI tried to figure out if their was any rhyme or reason for the galleries selected and the installation in the their booths.

The second time I went was a few days later with my wife.  There were several reasons for this.  Obviously, if I am going to write about something I like to go at least twice, if possible; after a few days the exhibitors have a better idea of how business is going (if the dealers have lots of time to speak with a colleague it is nice for me, but it could be that there are not enough clients to keep them busy) and finally because my wife is much more patient than I am and she looks carefully at every single booth.  She was able to explain why one or two of the galleries were there in the first place but also called my attention to a booth, that I must confess, I totally missed.

It was the booth of a clock dealer by the name of Sundial NYC.  It was founded by the  Thompson family some 40 years ago and is now run by Steven Thompson.  His location is a booth in the Manhattan Art & Antiques Center, an unusual venue for a dealer with such high quality material and an obvious deep knowledge of his field.  But he is clearly worth a visit.

There were booths with treasures that caught me by surprise.  One such was a large painting by Jan Baptist Weenix (1621-1659) an over-life-size hound with a joint of meat eyeing a lurking cat.  Though it fit perfectly on the outside wall of the booth of Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, the lighting was unfortunately poor, but it did give us the opportunity of making a “discovery”!

I think that eventually art fairs will go the way of the airlines and consolidate.  Hopefully, we will end up with some truly high end shows but meanwhile there are a number of struggling entities that still need to find their niche. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Noah’s Ark - Nicolas Bertin (Paris 1667-1736)

I looked up Nicolas Bertin in Wikipedia, always a good place to start before you do the serious research and found:
“A student of Jean Jouvenet, Vernansal the elder and Louis Boullongne, he won the prix de Rome in 1685 for "Construction of Noah's Ark". He was admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1703.”
Nicolas Bertin’s father was a sculptor who died when Nicolas was only four.  Clearly, however, he already had received the artistic gene.  He soon became the pupil of Jean Jouvenet (1644-1717) known for his religious scenes commissioned by churches around France, many of which are today in museums.
In the Spring of 1685 Bertin competed for the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious award given out annually by the Academie.  It is an extremely grueling process starting with 100 contestants. For the first round they must produce a small oil sketch representing either a biblical or a mythological theme.  By the second round the contestants have already been reduced to 20 and must paint a small canvas of a nude based on a male model, demonstrating their understanding of anatomy.  In the final round the 12 remaining contestants have to do a drawing and paint a large canvas in 72 days while staying at the Academy with no communication allowed between the artists.
Interestingly enough we are now the proud owners of “The Construction of Noah’s Ark” the painting with which Bertin won first prize.  A charcoal drawing, a variant for one of the laborers is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Orléans.   
When we showed the picture in Paris a while ago, a little boy came through the booth and was fascinated by it.  He turned to his mother and said, “I thought Noah’s family helped build the ark”.   That is precisely correct but in this case Bertin had to also satisfy the Academie and demonstrate that he could paint people, animals, objects, landscape and the human body, hense the half-naked laborers in the foreground. 

click to enlarge
So here we see Noah as architect and his sons as contractors with their wives and children watching from nearby.  You can see two women watching their husbands and a child taking a break from breast feeding to watch his father and uncles cutting logs in order to build the ark.   On the ark itself the cousins are building another story on the ark.  Don’t miss the two camels on the right who guarantee us that we are looking at the construction of Noah’s ark and not somebody else’s.
We all have different tastes and so often I find that I like the early work of an artist better than the later work, though this is not always the case.  I think it is because the original thoughts and ideas are more creative and have not yet been codified in a formula often formed by the desires of the patron.  Yes, today every one blames the contemporary gallery owner for insisting on certain kinds of paintings from their artists’.   There is a very good reason, however, and that is the mutual survival of the artist and the gallery.  The art dealer knows what his clients will and will not buy.  It has always been so, before the galleries it was the patrons, those commissioning the art, be it the sitter or the Church that dictated what they were looking for.
I find it personally exciting to have this prize winner in our gallery!