Sunday, March 26, 2017

Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden: The Collections of Count Tessin

If you love French 18th century art you are probably acquainted with the name Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770).  He was a Swedish politician, courtier, diplomat, public official, artist, writer, historian and best known of all among appreciators of art, a collector.   In the latter endeavor he did have some help from his father who died in 1728 and left him with a substantial collection of paintings.

The Nationalmuseum of Sweden and the Morgan Library have collaborated to bring this incredible exhibition to New York until May 14.  Possibly, the beginning of title “Treasures from” is a bit misleading for some like the critic from New York Times who seems to have expected Swedish and modern art, missed the second part of the title “The Collections of Count Tessin” on which the exhibition is totally focused.

Tessin was a Francophile and an unofficial ambassador to France.  His longest stretch in Paris was from 1739-1742 where he had a Palais and led the good life.   In 1741 he managed to attend the banker Pierre Crozat’s (1665-1740) estate sale.  Crozat’s holdings of by his contemporaries and Old Masters, were already famous and Tessin acquired 2,000 of them!

Tessin’s Parisian life style, however, did not agree with his pocket book and he had to sell a great deal of his collection to the Royal Family of Sweden.  Happily the latter had dreams of a museum and eventually this collection became a core part of today’s Nationalmuseum.

The number of great drawings in this show is really hard to believe.  To see works by Raphael, Callot, Giulio Romano, Durer, Goltzius, Rembrandt, Rubens and Watteau altogether and all of such high quality is an extraordinary treat.

A personal favorite, one of many, is by Jacques Callot (1592-1635), “The Tempation of St. Anthony” ca. 1635 was published during the last year of his life.  This is not the print that I have seen at several museums but the original drawing, which is much more lively.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669),  ”Two Studies of Women with Children” has a an immediacy and charm that could be explained by the fact that it is part of a series Rembrandt drew in the 30’s and 40’s as his own children were born and growing up.

I was going to show only two drawings but cannot resist the Antoine Watteau (1684-1721).  This artist, who died at a young age, led the charge into the French 18th century rococo style.
He often did drawings like this one, but the difference here is that they can identify the young woman on this sheet as the daughter of the artist’s biggest patron and at the upper and lower left as the salesgirl in Watteau’s famous sign for the art dealer Gersaint’s shop.

The reason I went to the exhibition, however, was Tessin’s French 18th century paintings, which I have known, forever, and experienced in the original when I went to Sweden many years ago.  Here it is again difficult to choose among the many.  Some of the artists represented are Lancret, Boucher, Chardin, Lemoyne and Toqué.  I amaze myself by mentioning the latter since I would definitely place him in the second rung of French 18th century artists but he happens to have outdone himself in his incredibly animated portrait of Tessin.   We have to give him credit, for Tessin to have realized his potential and picked him as his image maker.   As was customary, Tessin is wearing his richest finery.  Sitting at an important Louis XV desk, his library behind him shows how learned he is and I suspect he is looking at a map to show that he is also well traveled.

The Boucher “Triumph of Venus” from 1740 has been published in every review so I have picked another wonderful Boucher.  If not as large it is a far more intimate picture, “The Milliner”, 1746.   Tessin commissioned it from Boucher for Crown Princess Loisa Ulrika.  It was going to be part of a series of times of the day but this one of Morning is the only one the artist completed.  Considering who the painting was destined for and that this was the first in a series, the odds are far better that it was actually painted by  Boucher and not his studio.

I will end with one of the smaller images in the show, “A Student Drawing”, 1633-35, by Jean-Siméon Chardin ( (1699-1779).  It is one of a pair of paintings.   I do not think I remember it from Sweden but rather the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas where they own practically the exact same subject painted a few years later.   I have now learned that the artist repeated the subject  twelve  times showing how popular it was with his clients, and probably himself as well.

Great museums throughout the world have collections formed by major benefactors, but when you look at the consistent quality of the Tessin Collection and think that one connoisseur picked out these works you have to be wowed.  It adds to the enjoyment of the experience if you wonder….If I had lived 300 years ago could I have done the same? 

Sunday, March 19, 2017


"ALEXEI JAWLENSKY" is an exhibition that opened at the Neue Galerie in New York mid February.  There are about 75 paintings in this exhibition dating from 1900 until 1937. 

Jawlensky (1864-1941) was born in Russia and went to school in Moscow and studied in St. Petersburg with the well know Russian artist Ilya Repin (1844-1930).  Tiring of the latter’s realism Jawlensky moved to Munich in 1896.  Twelve years later his friend Wassily Kandinsky, the better known of the two, proposed forming Neue Künstlervereinigung München (literally the Munich New Artist's Association) and Jawlensky, Marianne von Werefkin, Gabriele Münter and others joined him.

As Peter Schjeldahl says in his New Yorker review the artist was more derivative than innovative and that is quite evident in the work. He was mostly inspired by Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, and Franz Marc of the Blaue Reiter School though it is not difficult to see influences from other artists such as van Gogh.  For example Self-Portrait with Top Hat, 1904 lent by a private collector.

Between 1914 and 1921 Jawlensky created a series, which he referred to as “Mystical Heads” and “Savior’s Faces” one of which I illustrate below.  They show him moving towards abstraction.  There are loans from all over including four from the Long Beach Museum near Los Angeles that I am sorry to say I did not know of.  They own one of the Variations mentioned above “Abstract Head: Late Summer (Crescent Moon)”, 1928.

Jawlensky was exiled from Germany at the start of World War I and moved to Switzerland from 1914 to 1921 when he returned to Southern Germany.  In Switzerland he stayed in a house with a window from which he had a view down a path.  Thus began a series called “Variations”. He painted the view over and over again, the works becoming more abstract each time until one has to be told or have seen earlier versions to know what he was representing.  The museum was not able to supply me with images so with apologies are thumbnails with 2 Variations one with “Black Figure”, ca. 1916 from the Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, next “Large Variation: Wide Path–Evening”, 1916 from the Museum Wiesbaden to illustrate my point.

By 1934 his arthritis was so debilitating that he could hardly wield a brush but his passion for painting carried him on.  Between then and 1937 he painted more than 1000 small images of what he called “Meditations”.  Many of them from a private collection are shown in the exhibition in a small darkened gallery accompanied by the music of Bach which Jawlensky listened to while working.  These works are considered religious in nature as Jawlensky took his Russian Orthodoxy very seriously.  Here is one of the Meditations from the Museum Wiesbaden, German, Meditation: My Spirit Will Live On, June 1935.

Jawlensky was an important colorist and expressionist and that is demonstrated at the Neue Galerie.  Some exhibitions, however, give one a real appreciation of an artist and others expose their weaknesses.  Even though there were a few still lives and landscapes, I found the repetition of Jawlensky’s series possibly more important for the scholar’s study rather than an appeal to enjoy his work.

The show was organized by Vivian Endicott Barnett an independent scholar and expert on the artist and will run through the end of May.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers

I had a list of exhibitions I wanted to see in New York and “The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers” (ca. 1590 – ca. 1638) an exhibition in the drawings galleries at the Metropolitan Museum was certainly not at the top.  The last thing I expected was to be blown away by it.  I have always thought of the artist as a draughtsman of very delicate drawings, which had a great influence on, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) who owned eight of Segers’ paintings and even reworked his prints.  It was not just Rembrandt who was influenced by Segers but others such as Jan Ruyscher and Philips Koninck.  Obviously, anyone who came into Rembrandt’s studio would have seen Segers’ work.

Sometime prior to 1652 Rembrandt acquired Segers original plate for his print of “Tobias and the Angel”.   He decided, however, to rework the plate and subsequently it the Rembrandt version shows “The Flight into Egypt”.  The former print lent by the Rijksmuseum, the latter from the Metropolitan.

“Mountain Landscape with a Distant View”  (1620-1625), oil on canvas laid down on panel by Segers, was believed for a long time to be by Rembrandt, and it is still thought possible that the latter added some of his own touches to the picture.

The exhibition does an excellent job of showing what a great innovator Segers was.   It was done in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum which has more works by the artist than any other institution. The show opened in Amsterdam last fall. This is Segers first solo exhibition in U.S. and the first anywhere to represent all the media he used. 

Segers was so popular in his own time that you would think that his history would be well recorded.  This, however, is not the case.  In fact, very little is known about him for certain.   He was born in Haarlem and at the age of six he moved to Amsterdam and in 1631 being in debt he moved to Utrecht and became an art dealer.  He must have sold enough to take care of his debts so he moved to the Hague where he stayed until his death.  It is probable that he never travelled further than Brussels and, if this is the case, he could never have seen the large river landscapes, castles and mountains that he represented in his work.

He created drawings, paintings and prints and then came up with the innovation of painted prints.  Like every artist there were influences from other artists and two of those were Pieter Breughel and Durer.  This etching titled “Mountain Valley with Fenced Fields” (1625-1630) is printed in blue but in different versions he painted the sky to indicate the time of day.

He was daring doing things no one had ever done before.  There are twenty-two impressions of this print, “The Enclosed Valley” (1625-1630):  ten were done on cloth; others on different colored papers using different colored inks.

Not all of Segers’ art was fantasy and here is a print he did from his window, which is accurate down to the shutters.

There is a two-volume catalog for the show, which I could hardly lift but could not purchase, since it was still on back order.  The Met had sold out the first two orders and had ordered a third but were still not sure if it could be supplied! 

This exhibition is a unique opportunity and well worth taking advantage of.  If you go
don’t miss the excellent 4 minute video that introduces the exhibition.  It helps a great deal in understanding the show.  If you cannot wait, however, you can also view it below:

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Communication must be the most complicated topic on the planet to master.  Have you ever said anything to your wife, husband, or friend that they totally misunderstood?  It happens to my wife and myself all too often.  In school I had a statistics teacher who said if a class is given instructions half of them will misunderstand.  I found this difficult to believe but as I get older I wonder… or did I misunderstand?!

According to Merriam-Webster there are many definitions for communication(s) but it boils down to information communicated or transmitted  and a technique for expressing ideas effectively. 

I deal in communication every week through my Missives where I try to tell my readers about an event I have seen or an experience I had.  Some relate to these on a personal level in that they had a similar reaction or experience.  Some give me the great compliment of saying that they are learning from what I write.  On the other side of the coin I have to gather information that has to be communicated to me.  I remember that often when I would ask a question at the dinner table my father would tell me to look it up in the encyclopedia and to my shame I usually was not that curious!

Later, I learned how to use a library but mostly used it just to complete assignments.  Then we were blessed, or cursed as some people think, by the Internet.  For me it is the greatest invention of our time.   I have learned so much just sitting at the dinner table when my wife or I bring up a question that we can look up instantly.  Yesterday, we were looking up the dates of the composers Mozart, Wagner and Dvorak and their lives.  Often, however, it’s far more complicated issues.

If, however, I want to write about an exhibition it can be far more difficult, particularly, if I am writing about an exhibition or an event that has not yet occurred such as the Turner exhibition I reported on recently.  I try not to read other reviews before writing but sometimes it is irresistible.  Occasionally, it is the article itself that gives me the idea for my blog.  Also, I sometimes look to learn what important point I may have missed, not for the opinion of the critic.

What used to be called the Public Relations Department at a museum is now called, almost universally, the Communications Department.  Unfortunately, there are Communications Departments that do not communicate.  For instance, I wanted to write about an exhibition that I had seen at the Los Angeles County Museum and about another that would open after I had left town.  I phoned and followed up with two emails to the address I found on line and never heard.  I did write about the show I saw but obviously could not write about a show in the future without more information.  The same was true with a phenomenon in Santa Fe called Meow Wolf.  It is an art collective creating installations and a loose story which you can wend you way through having very different experiences and results.  Without some inside information it was not possible to write and after emails to different people, I gave up… though I will try again.

Of course, the best way to learn is if you can have direct communication with an individual you can speak with and has access to the material you are looking for.  That was true for the Lyman Allen Museum, which I also wrote about recently.   I had met the curator beforehand and could get first hand information and images.

With larger institutions and where I might not have connections or do not wish to impose I must rely on the Communications Department and each handles these matters differently.  When I started these Missives I could get in touch with one person at the Metropolitan and that person supplied me with what information and photos I needed.  As there were more and more outlets to satisfy and more an more going on at the museum I was referred to specific individuals who were “in charge” of a specific shows at the Museum.  Now there is another layer on top of that which I believe to be an improvement.  For the last couple of pieces I wrote on the Met I was given a name in the department and a code to get to the press material and press images pertinent to the exhibition.

The Frick Collection, which is far smaller has done me the honor of sending me Press packages in advance of a show which I take as a compliment presuming they want me to write.  Once in a while I don’t comply but feel really badly about it since they certainly make it easy with a great deal of information including the press release and an illustrated check list from which I can ask for specific images.

As I tell every young person who asks the key to accomplishment is always who you know and that is also true for gathering information.  The person you know is more apt to put in time and effort to go beyond the basics and in that manner communicate the best.