Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Touching Art at the Boston MFA

By Charles Kessler

Not with your hands, silly, but touching as in affecting or poignant art that depicts touch, especially in paintings of the Virgin and Child. On a recent visit to the MFA, I took some close-up details that capture this quality; I've also linked to each work's page on the MFA website so you can view it in its entirety.
Rogier van der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435-40, oil and tempera on panel, 54 1/8 x 43 5/8 inches.
Andrea del Sarto, Virgin and Child, c. 1509-10, oil on panel, 32 1/2 x 25 3/4 inches.
Lorenzo Lotto, Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Nicholas of Tolentino, 1523-23, oil on canvas, 37 1/8 x 30 5/8 inches.
And here is a detail from probably the greatest Mannerist painting in the country. It's touching in both meanings of the word, yet it's disturbing and horrifying:
Rosso Fiorentino, The Dead Christ with Angels, c. 1524-27, oil on panel, 52 1/2 x 41 inches.
More of my visit to Boston in the next post. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hidden Philadelphia Museum of Art

By Charles Kessler

Gallery 297 – Drawing Room from the Lansdowne House, London, England, c.1766-75, designed by Robert Adam with decorations by Giovanni Battista Cipriani.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is known for its many period rooms. These rooms have their good points. They're exotic and mysterious — qualities art tends to lose after becoming familiar. And, of course, they place art in the type of room it was originally intended for, which can be enlightening (like how the smaller Dutch paintings don't look so small in those cozy Dutch interiors).

The down side is paintings tend to get lost among all that furniture, wallpaper, drapery and ornate moldings.  To make matters worse, some entire rooms are hidden because they're off to the side or just get lost in the confusing layout of the galleries. So this visit I was determined to make a concerted effort to dig out paintings I overlooked in the past — and it was like discovering a whole new great art museum!
Gallery 262, Room with Paneling in the Jacobean Style, made in England, c.1625.
Here are my favorite discoveries, along with information (derived mostly from the museum's website) about each of the works. I also provided a link to the PMA webpage about the work and the location of the painting in the museum in case you want to try to find it yourself someday.
Rembrandt, Head of Christ, c. 1648-56, oil on panel, 14 x 12 ½ inches (Gallery 262).
This is one of the PMA's most famous paintings, and that I missed it all these years illustrates my point. Rembrandt, following Caravaggio's lead, used a real person (one of his neighbors in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam) as a model for his depiction of Christ rather than an idealized or conventional stereotype. This painting is probably the one a 1656 inventory mentioned as hanging in Rembrandt's studio, and it's one of the few paintings that Rembrandt's family kept.
Thomas Gainsborough,  Pastoral Landscape (Rocky Mountain Valley with a Shepherd, Sheep, and Goats), c. 1783, oil on canvas, 40 ⅜ x 50 ⅜ inches (Gallery 277).
This Gainsborough is considered an excellent example of eighteenth-century English pictorial landscape, and it was probably a complete invention, i.e., not done from nature. The PMA website quotes Sir Joshua Reynolds's description of Gainsborough's working method:
From the fields he brought into his painting-room, stumps of trees, weeds, and animals of various kinds; and designed them, not from memory, but immediately from the objects. He even framed a kind of model of landscape, on his table; composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees, and water.
Delacroix, The Death of Sardanapalus, 1844, oil on canvas, 29 x 32 ½ inches (Gallery 299).
As with many of his paintings, Delacroix took the subject of this painting from a poem by Lord Byron. It is about the death of Sardanapalus, the Assyrian king who, besieged by enemies, decides to kill himself, and, narcissist that he was, take all his favorite possessions with him — including his slaves and wives! This painting is a small version of a large painting (now at the Louvre) that was highly criticized when Delacroix first exhibited it, but the painting was to launch the Romantic art movement and Delacroix's career. Delacroix probably made this smaller version so he could keep a copy for himself.
Jacopo Pontormo, Portrait of Alessandro de' Medici, 1534-35, oil on panel, 40 x 32 inches (Gallery 251).
I love Early Mannerist painting, so I was delighted to find these great paintings by Pontormo and Bronzino. Both portraits are of Medici Dukes, and they serve to show the difference between private and public portraiture. Pontormo, rather than painting an heroic, official image, created this pensive, if strange, portrait. According to the webpage about the painting, it might refer to fourteenth-century love sonnets by Petrarch about some drawings his beloved gave to him. I don't know what this typically Mannerist erudite subject has to do with Alessandro, but whatever.
Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Cosimo l de' Medici as Orpheus, c. 1537-39, oil on panel, 37 x 30 inches (Gallery 250).
On the other hand, there is this typically erotic and bizarre painting by Bronzino, Pontormo's devoted pupil. It is of Cosimo I de' Medici, who became duke in 1537 after the assassination of his cousin Alessandro. Bronzino's slick style (what we'd call corporate today) flattered power and was to influence court portraiture for centuries.

And finally, speaking of hidden masterpieces, next to the Barnes on the way up the hill to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, there is an entire museum that's relatively unknown – the Rodin Museum. Definitely worth checking out,
The Rodin Museum, 2151 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA, 19130.

if just to see this alone:
Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell, modeled 1880-1917, cast 1926-28, bronze, about 21 x 13 x 3 feet.