Art News Roundup: Ladies’ Day Edition

My apologies for not posting earlier in the week, gentle reader, as I was on a brief getaway back in Smallville. I hope in this week’s Art News Roundup that you’ll find plenty of interesting news to make up for my oversight. And to be particularly apologetic to the ladies among you, I’m going to focus on some news stories about the ladies – whether as art collectors, artists themselves, or artistic subjects.

It just so happens that the very BIG story in the art world this week is a major gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the late Jayne Wrightsman (1919–2019). Although Mrs. Wrightsman, a former trustee of the museum, died earlier this year, the terms of her substantial donation to the Met were only announced yesterday. In addition to a generous bequest of $80 million, Mrs. Wrightsman left the New York institution hundreds of works of fine and decorative art, including paintings, sculpture, decorative objects, and rare books. We’re going to take a look at a couple of highlights from the overall Wrightsman collection this morning, and just so that you’re properly introduced, here is Mrs. Wrightsman, as photographed in 1966 by Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) for Vogue, in her apartment on Fifth Avenue and East 63rd Street in Manhattan.


Mrs. Wrightsman and her husband, Oklahoma oil millionaire Charles B. Wrightsman (1895-1986), were the sort of collectors who were both entirely self-taught art aficionados, spending years looking at, studying, and talking about art, but who also had the means at their disposal to acquire the very best works available to them on the market. Some were for the couple’s own private delectation in one of their many homes, while others were either acquired on behalf of, or eventually ended up at, the Met museum. Combining what they donated while Mr. Wrightsman was alive or after his death, with what Mrs. Wrightsman left to the Met after her own death, the Wrightsman collection at the Met totals a whopping 1,275 objects – enough to set up quite a substantial museum of one’s own.

Perhaps the part of the Met that most visibly bears the Wrightsman stamp are the Wrightsman Galleries, a series of rooms filled with 18th century French art, architectural elements, furniture, and decorative objects. Perhaps the most charming of these is a circa 1777-80 boudoir from the Hôtel de Crillon townhouse in Paris. The paneling is painted oak, and the room has four mirrors set into the walls at chamfered corners so as to better reflect light into the room, a very clever design idea for an urban setting.


Among the many paintings donated by the Wrightsmans to the Met was one of the most popular 17th century pictures in the museum, “The Penitent Magdalen” (c. 1640) by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652). De La Tour painted a number of canvases showing St. Mary Magdalen reflecting on her life and mortality late at night, the room lit only by a candle. Notice how she has not only taken off her expensive jewelry, but even cast some of it onto the floor, because she’s realized that a life of pleasure isn’t going to be getting her anywhere: she practically cuddles the memento mori in her lap, a human skull. While my personal favorite is the somewhat earlier and darker variation of this concept in the National Gallery here in DC, this is definitely a close second.


Another splendid donation the Wrightsmans made to the Met was Gerard David’s (c. 1460-1523) magnificent “Virgin and Child with Four Angels”, which dates to between 1510 and 1515. Unlike an altarpiece, which was meant to be viewed at a distance, this was an image created for private devotion, given that the panel is only slightly over two feet high, and a bit over a foot wide. Like all Flemish art of this period, the picture contains an astonishing amount of almost microscopic attention to detail. For example, note that in the walled garden located behind the pavilion where the Madonna and Child are standing, which is set in the outskirts of the recognizable city of Bruges, there’s a tiny Carthusian friar walking along a path near the garden gate, reading from his prayer book.


Among the latest works donated by Mrs. Wrightsman in her will there are six – yes, you read that correctly, SIX – paintings of Venice by Canaletto (1697-1768), as well as works by his contemporary Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and his rival Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), among others. Perhaps the single most important work coming into the Met is this 1636 portrait of Henrietta Maria of England (1609-1669) in a gold gown by Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The sheer number of pearls that you can see in this picture, particularly given how incredibly difficult large pearls are to find, but even more so during this period, tells you that this picture of the ill-fated queen was clearly designed to impress.


For those of you who find yourselves in New York between tomorrow and February 16th, the Met will be showing a selection of dozens of works from Mrs. Wrightsman’s bequest spread throughout the different departments of the museum. Highlights include a drawing (shown below) of Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) by her friend and favorite artist, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), as well as an early painting by Eugéne Delacroix (1798-1863) illustrating a scene from the hugely popular novel “Ivanhoe” by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). The people of New York owe Mrs. Wrightsman a great deal of thanks for her incredible generosity.


And now, on to the rest of the week’s curated art news.

Missing Macdonald

Readers will recall my recent review of the exhibition, “Designing the New: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Style” at the Walters, in which I explained how the Scottish architect was part of a group called “The Four”, along with his wife Margaret Macdonald (1864-1933), her sister, and her sister’s husband. Now, two silver-plated door panels by Margaret that were long believed to have been lost have turned up at the Dorotheum in Vienna, where they were identified by one of the auction house’s specialists, Magda Pfabigan (let’s hope she’s getting a well-deserved raise after this.) Titled “Day” and Night”, they were created for a smoking cabinet designed by Mackintosh (1868-1928) for the Vienna Secessionist Exhibition of 1900. They feature the elongated, slightly spooky figures for which Margaret was famous, and as exemplified in much larger works such as her “May Queen” three-paneled mural of the same date, one of the highlights of the Walters show. The estimate on these metal panels is 40-60,000 Euros, but don’t be surprised if they go for much more than that. Macdonald’s work only comes on the market very, very rarely, and these are prime examples of the epitome of her style, but in a more portable, easily displayed form.

mmmdoroBasket Bliss

While not, strictly speaking, an activity engaged in only by the fairer sex, the collecting of baskets of all shapes and sizes is something I’ve seen many of the ladies of my acquaintance enthusiastically engage in over the years. The biggest basket of them all is almost universally beloved, or at least smiled at, by the general public, but hated by the sort of people who brought you such hits as Government Center in Boston and the Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. The famous basket-shaped Longaberger Basket Company headquarters has been towering over the town of Newark, Ohio since 1997, and while the basket company itself is no more, the building found a buyer and was renovated over the past two years. Now, word is it’s about to become a high-end hotel. I’ll be fascinated to see what the hoteliers end up doing with this space – just imagine the size of the welcome baskets in the rooms.


That Touch of Ermine

One of the star pictures in the collections of the Glasgow Museums is “Lady in a Fur Wrap” (c.1570-1575), a mesmerizing portrait which, so long as I’ve been aware of it, has always been attributed to El Greco (1541-1641). The problem, as I always saw it, was that it’s always seemed a bit too realistically proportioned to be an El Greco, even if there are certain parallels in the picture to earlier work by the master. As it now turns out, that sense of uncertainty that I (and people who are actually qualified to hold such opinions) was not misplaced, for a major new scientific study by the Glasgow Museums and the University of Glasgow, in conjunction with the Prado, has revealed that the painting is in fact by Alonso Coello (1531-1588). The often very intense and minimalist Coello, who was court painter to the elegantly austere Felipe II (1527-1598) and did a great deal of work at El Escorial, is very familiar to those who study Spanish art, but otherwise he isn’t as well-known as he deserves to be. The identity of Coello’s glamorous sitter, however, currently remains a mystery.


8 Comments on “Art News Roundup: Ladies’ Day Edition

  1. I too love the dark though winsome Penitent Magdalene in the National Gallery, and its advantage over the “close second” is obvious by what is both present and absent: the light source is itself obscured by the skull. Light and death, for the viewer, occupy the same space. Penitent indeed!


  2. I am absolutely in AWE at the way that ermine is rendered! And I LOVE all your blogs, and your articles for the Federalist. Please keep writing!!


  3. William, I only just read this and all I can say is WOW!!! It made me want to take a trip to the Met. This is indeed quite an amazing collection. Pam


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