Sunday, February 23, 2014

Piero Della Francesca: Personal Encounters

I wrote about Piero Della Francesca almost a year ago regarding an exhibition at the Frick On my return to New York recently I found another Piero loan show, this time at the Metropolitan Museum, and quite different from the Frick’s.

While the Frick exhibition was an analysis of one altarpiece and bringing parts of it together this one, called, “Piero Della Francesca: Personal Encounters” focuses on Piero’s private devotional paintings which are rare in his oeuvre.  It was curated by Kieth Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings

I often wonder what is the genesis of an exhibition.  Why should there suddenly be a Piero show when a short while ago there was another Piero show?  In this case the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture (FIAC) came to Keith wanting to sponsor a loan.  2013 was the Italian year of Culture in the U.S. and FIAC suggested working with the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. So Keith picked up the phone and called his friend the director at the Accademia.  They decided that they would take one work, “Saint Jerome and a Supplicant” and conserve it and do a technical analysis including the necessary archival research.  From a curatorial point of view it is not right to move and endanger masterpieces unless there is a scholarly goal in doing so.   From the Accademia’s point of view it was not only an opportunity for new scholarship but they would also have assistance in restoring the painting.

With that as a cornerstone Keith came up with an exhibition which was ideal for the Met’s small gallery where they have been doing focused Old Master shows.

The no brainer was to ask the Galleria Nationale delle Marche in Urbino to extend the loan of the painting that they had sent to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as part of the year of culture.  It was the mysterious looking “Madonna and Child with two Angels” painted late in Piero’s life and is, certainly the most inspiring of the selection in the show.  It is not known for whom the painting was done but speculation is that it was for a member of the family of Frederico da Montefeltro,  Duke of Urbino and a major patron of the arts.

Developing his theme  of bringing together devotional paintings it was logical for Keith to ask the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin for their “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” having similar scale and subject matter to the Accademia’s picture. The Berlin picture has far greater losses than the Venice Jerome and is surely a shadow of its original self, still there are comparisons to be made, particularly in the landscape.

The earliest painting in the show is from the mysterious private collection in Newark, Delaware known as the Alana Collection.  It is a Madonna and Child dating about 1440. It is a Madonna and Child, obviously a most popular subject  for devotional pictures, but what makes this a particularly interesting panel is the reverse where a perspective study of a wine cask is rendered as if it were a work of intarsia, the sort of bravura trompe l’oeil woodwork being done at the time for paneled rooms.


The show presented lots for scholars to debate about one of the most studied of early Renaissance masters. But for the non-specialist all but one of the works was disappointing. It was a lesson in how much our reaction to an Old Master is based on the condition of the work.  Happily Piero’s , newly cleaned, Urbino Madonna retains the precision of detail that gives an almost eerie power to a lesser-known painting that is one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces.  The exhibition closes March 30th.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Strange Life of Objects

If Maurice Rheims, the renowned auctioneer and author (who married into the family of the French Rothschilds) will forgive me for using the title of his book, I have a story or two to tell.  We always wonder how works of art arrive where they do.  In fact we often think that works of art have always been in the museums where we first see them, though this is rarely if ever true.

Emma Schaefer left a marvelous 18th century collection as a complete surprise, to the Metropolitan Museum.  Walking through the Schaefer collection galleries  at he Met years ago my father commented that if Jack and Belle Linsky (Swingline Stapler fortune) had held on to a Meissen porcelain figure instead of trading it we would have found the piece across the hall in the Linsky galleries rather than the Schaefer galleries.  His point was, either way the work of art ended up at the Met.

We hear stories of "discoveries" which means that someone with a keen eye has seized a work of art from obscurity by identifying its place in art history.  My parents owned a painting by a French 18th century artist which was obviously of fine quality and it came from a well known collection but it was only after they died and it was cleaned that my wife was able to follow the leads and identify it as by Boucher.  No matter where that picture is it will retain its identity and not disappear from its proper context.

My parents also owned a sanguine drawing by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805).  It was the head of a boy and my mother always called it her second child.  After she died I offered it in Master Drawings, New York.  A woman who went to concerts that one of my parents best friends attended got into a discussion with him about me and how she had advised on what camp I should go to.  The friend suggested she visit the gallery and sure enough she came to the opening of Master Drawings New York that year. She bought the drawing because it went with another Greuze that she owned of a little girl.  Unfortunately, she died a few years later and we were offered the drawing by her heirs. We resold the drawing to a client abroad and recently I heard that it was again available. 

 Pierre-Antoine Demachy (1723-1807) “Le Charlaton au Louvre”

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about closing my New York gallery and illustrated works on which I was steeply reducing the prices.  Among them was this watercolor I had acquired as a gift from a French art dealer and his wife who were close friends of my parents. It was one of 3 works of art I got back out of my divorce 40 years ago and the only one that I could afford to keep at the time.  It hung at times, in our home and sometimes it rested in the closet.

Then decision time came.  Though my "new" wife of the last 39 years and I have collected in many fields, for the last 20 plus years we have concentrated on our Native American collection and an 18th century French watercolor really did not fit in.  I felt that someone else should enjoy it rather than again relegating it to the closet.

An email came from an unlikely source, a school friend whom I have known since 5th grade!  He said he liked the idea of acquiring something with so much personal history as well as our relationship at school.   He came to New York with his wife to see the drawing for himself.  When I asked him why he had decided to buy it.  He said "it just grabbed me."

When my father took us to the Cloisters and other museums he used to say, "this was ours, this was ours”.  Isn't it wonderful how works of art can weave there way through our lives and on into those of others.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Renaissance & Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection

Janine and J. Tomilson Hill have been collecting bronzes for the last 25 years and they have generously lent 33 of their Renaissance to early 18th century bronzes to the Frick for exhibition from January 28 til June 15.

If you like bronzes, it is a must.  Even if you don’t, give it a chance you may be surprised.  In museums we, as viewers, are usually separated from the art by barriers and vitrines.  The latter are a particular hindrance in relating to a work of art.  There are fields of art such as manuscripts that I have great difficulty relating to in a vitrine but put one in my hands and it is a whole other experience.  What makes this show especially exciting is that the Hills have allowed the Frick to show their bronzes without cases.  Be warned the guards are, therefore, extra vigilant so don’t lean on the cases, but you can get quite close and there are no stand back lines on the floor.  We can, in this way, more readily appreciate the hand that worked the finished bronze not just the creator of the model.

The curator of the exhibition, Denise Allen, wrote very clear labels helping to give the viewer insight into the works of art. Since she was in the galleries when we were there, I asked her a totally unfair question that I thought she would refuse to answer but figured it was worth a try.  I asked which was her favorite bronze in the show.  She replied immediately that there were so many to choose from but she did have a favorite and I was surprised by her choice.  It was a pacing horse, one of the most common subjects for small bronzes.  Curators often pick something that is unusual and that they do not see very often.  Mind you this horse is by one of the Renaissance’s greatest Italian sculptors, Giovanni da Bologna (ca. 1529-1608) but Denise had other very good reasons as well.   She pointed to the modeling and detail and made another excellent point, it stood up to enlargement.  Many more artists can work in small scale but when they try to enlarge their work it falls apart.  In this case the small statuette stands up so well to enlargement that a detail  was used for the poster for the show.

What is nice about art is that I do not have to agree with the expert and I am not wrong.  I just have a different eye and look at art differently.  My favorite bronze in the show is one of Mars by Willem Danielsz van Tetrode (Dutch, ca.1525-1580).  He is a warrior leading his troops into battle.  Unfortunately, this Mars has lost his sword which was originally in his right hand.  This is not unusual since it would have been a separate piece of bronze and fell out over the centuries.  But look at the detail of the head, with his hair flying as he surges forward.  I find it so exciting.

The Hills collect modern art as well but I don’t feel that the juxtapositions or justifications on the labels work for several of the examples but one I found compelling.  It was in the room where there are bronzes related to religion including several crucifixies.  A bronze Christi Vivo (living Christ) by Allesandro Algardi  (Italian 1598-1654) hangs near a colored terracotta by Lucio Fontana (Italian 1899 –1968).  For me they both show the same nervousness in the handling something that catches one off guard and draws you in.

One bronze is larger than all the rest in the show; it is almost 3 feet tall. The sculpture is by Adriaen de Vries (The Hague ca.1545-1626 Prague). Called a Bacchic Man, he holds grapes in his hand and has his left foot on a pail with grapes on it. He also seems to wear a wreath of grapes on his head.  It is possibly a unique cast and makes quite an impression in the small Frick galleries.  It has a rather rough surface, which may be more due to the fact that it started its life out of doors than to the finishing, but for me it just adds to the power of the figure.

Patricia Wengraf the renowned London dealer has written the excellent catalog with contributions by Denise Allen, Claudia Kryza-Gersch, Dimitrios Zikos and Rupert Harris.
If you cannot see the exhibition the excellent reproductions showing the bronzes from different angles and with details make it worth its $100 price tag.

I have referred to just a fraction of the bronzes in the exhibition and I could make another list just as easily.  Please go and make your own choices.  Remember, unlike a museum collection, anything in a private collection just might be available again, in the fullness of time.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Master Drawings New York 2014

En route Santa Fe to New York.  My gallery is not participating in Master Drawings New York this year but as I write I am airborne, headed back.  Happily they produce a very good brochure, listing the galleries with a sample photo of what each gallery is showing with addresses of the galleries and a map.  The brochure always has a brief introduction by someone significant in the art world relating to works on paper.  This year it is by the well-known artist, Eric Fischl, writing on the subject of two drawings by Jacques-Louis David.

I was thinking about some illustrations for this missive and since of necessity this will appear after Master Drawings New York has closed I will illustrate works on paper from Stiebel, Ltd. which will still be on view for the next couple of weeks.

Rowlandson, British (1756-1827)

In an arrangement with the auction houses many Master Drawings brochures are distributed in auction sale catalogs and fall out when you open the catalog.  This is a two way street because at this same time of year the auction houses have major drawing sales.

Most of the dealers exhibiting are in the Old Master field but there is a smattering of dealers in modern and living artists as well.  One will also find a number of dealers from abroad such as the British dealer, Jean-Luc Baroni, who exhibit at New York galleries that are not participating in Master Drawings.  Master Drawings closed on February 2 but some galleries will retain their exhibitions a bit longer.

Pierre Parrocel, French (1670 – 1739)

Few get to all the 29 galleries plus the auction houses though others set that as a goal.  I try to make a list and hit the ones I can from that list.  Of course, the problem in New York is that there are so many other distractions and my missive on our "Super Sale" (link) has generated a number of visitors.

Camile Pissarro, French (1830-1903)

I guess I will have to make some decisions as to which way to go.  Most of the. Galleries are between 66th and 86th streets and between Fifth and Park Avenue with a few further afield.  Baroni is up on 93rd Street but considering that he has illustrated a Lucian Freud I do hope to make it there.  I think that I will start nearer to Stiebel, Ltd.

Stanislas Lepri, Italo-French (1905-1980)

First day back in New York I did make it to a number of galleries.  One was a dealer from Milford, Connecticut, Christopher Bishop.  He said that he had studied Art History at Yale and decided to stay in the neighborhood.  He told me that when he thought of establishing a bricks and mortar gallery all advised him that today the market was on the road and doing the art fairs, which is so true.  He deals in traditional French and Italian 17th and 18th century drawings and some Flemish but what caught my eye was  a drawing of the Supper and Emmaeus attributed to Anna Hoffmann who was born in Switzerland in 1622 or 23.  The drawing has been date around 1642 and is inscribed in German on the back as “by hoffmann’s daughter from Zurich”, her father was  Samuel Hoffmann (1591-1648) the Swiss painter  who trained in Rubens’ studio.

The most intriguing work I saw today was at a Parisian dealer, Laura Pecheur.  She had an unfinished drawing of a katsina by a Hopi or Zuni  Indian.  The sheet is  signed Vernon, probably an adolescent being taught by Methodist Missionaries. It was acquired on a trip through Arizona and New Mexico in 1945 by AndrĂ© Breton (1896-1966), the writer and poet best known as the founder of Surrealism.

Another area that interests me is Latin American Art and a pre-eminent gallery in this field is Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art.  She was showing a lovely small Diego Rivera drawing of a young girl. The great muralist, whose fabulous room at the Detroit Institute of Art has been in the news lately as a piece for potential auction under the city’s bankruptcy proceedings has had his reputation somewhat diminished as he seems to be known better as the husband of Frida Kalo.  Once in a while you might be lucky enough to also see a Kalo in Mary-Anne’s gallery.

Still so much more to see and I look forward to viewing a few more galleries before the week is out.

Max Seliger, German (1865-1920)