From The Federalist: Think Pink at The Frick

My latest for The Federalist is out today, reviewing the new exhibition at the Frick Collection, “Moroni: The Riches of Renaissance Portraiture”, which I had the pleasure of seeing last weekend. Thank you as always to my editor, Joy Pullman, who makes sure that my natural tendency toward verbosity does not get out of control. If you find yourself in New York during the show’s run between now and June 2nd, I highly recommend going along to see it. Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/24–1579/80) is an Italian Renaissance artist whose portraits I’ve always admired, but who has always been somewhat obscure, or at best a specialist interest. This exhibit is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for my readers in the U.S. to see most of his major works gathered together in one place, and I hope that my Federalist article will encourage people to go see it and decide for themselves whether Moroni deserves more recognition than he currently receives.

Although I was already familiar with a number of the pieces in this show, albeit mainly from books, it’s always the case that seeing works of art in person brings new insights. As I point out in the article, I was particularly struck by Moroni’s affinity for the color pink, which stands out as his “signature color” – if you will forgive the reference to Julia Roberts’ character in “Steel Magnolias” – and in particular the way that he was able to capture light reflections off of the various shades of pink that his sitters wore. Conveniently, The Frick has one of my favorite Velázquez portraits of Felipe IV on display very close to the galleries housing the Moroni exhibition, and as the king in that portrait just happens to be wearing pink himself, I was able to see how both artists, despite working almost a century apart, used an almost impressionistic technique in capturing the reflections of silvery light on pink fabric.

As a final note, I just want to share Moroni’s 1560 portrait of Gabriel de la Cueva, 5th Duke of Alburquerque, and tell you how much I enjoyed finally seeing this picture – which normally resides in Berlin – in person. The mixture of rich, velvet black with multiple shades of pink silk, ranging from breeches the color of smoked salmon to the coral pink jerkin to a collar with intricate pink embroidery, might make you think that de la Cueva was nothing but a dandy. Yet that unflinching stare, and the inscription in Spanish that appears on the marble wall at the lower right, make clear that the Duke is going to kick your ass into next week if you don’t watch yourself: truly a magnificent painting.


New Survey Reveals Homogeneity in Art Writing

A very interesting survey about the art press was released by Nieman Reports last week, and it goes a long way toward establishing a fact that I’ve been quite aware of for quite some time, and which I daresay most of my readers know instinctively: people who write about art are overwhelmingly on the left, nearly to the exclusion of any other views.

From my time studying the art world in an academic setting nearly twenty years ago, to what I now do on a daily basis, such as reading multiple publications about things like upcoming sales and shows, I’ve been very aware of the fact that I’m usually the odd man out in a group of commentators. I often don’t agree with the weight ascribed to the work of untalented hucksters masquerading as artists, I roll my eyes at curatorial mistakes regarding sacred art which even a 2nd grade parochial school student would not make, and I often want to take a dose of brain bleach with my coffee, just to get all of the soul-sucking, intellectually lazy poison that I’m forced to read each morning out of my head. Thanks to this new report, which surveyed over 300 professional visual arts journalists, we can start to see some hard data that goes a long way toward explaining why this may be the case.

Take a look at the results from Question 96: “How did you vote in the 2016 presidential election?” Only 0.47% of those surveyed voted Republican in that election, while 84.98% voted Democrat. The remainder of participants either voted Libertarian or Green, or did not vote at all whether by choice or because they were ineligible to vote. Admittedly, one might conclude that these results could have been affected by the somewhat polarizing Republican candidate for President that year.

Yet before we chalk up those numbers to the influence of a particular candidate, consider the results in response to Question 97: “How do you identify in politics?” Of those surveyed, 48.11% identified themselves as “Progressive”, 34.91% as “Liberal”, and 7.08% as “Moderate”. Once again, only 0.47% of recipients identified themselves as “Conservative”. If the 327 participants in this survey are from the most prominent general media and art-specific publications in the country, and only one or two of those individuals self-identifies in an anonymous survey as a Conservative, is it so far outside the realm of possibility to suggest that the almost entire absence of conservative views in the art press may have an impact not only on what we read, but also on what we see in museums and galleries, or what prices are achieved in the art market?

In its article summarizing the survey results, Nieman’s asks, “So what are the implications of a mostly homogeneous field of arts writers? What is the cost to the culture of having the top jobs and much of the influence in the hands of a few white men?” Interestingly, the homogeneity considered troublesome is one based on race and gender. The question of whether there is a cost to the culture of having an almost exclusively left-wing art press doesn’t even appear to have dawned on those who carried out the survey.

We can, and should, ask why there is such a lopsided view of things in what we read about art. If, as polls generally show, this country has a relatively even split between left and right when it comes to electoral politics, opinions on social issues, and so on, why would art media outlets intentionally ignore the views of tens or hundreds of millions of people in its reporting? Do conservatives not buy art, or read art blogs, magazines, and newspapers? Do they not attend museum exhibitions or scholarly lectures? If they don’t, is it because they find no value in the visual arts? Or is it because they’ve been made to feel unwelcome, causing them to turn elsewhere for cultural enrichment?

The reader should note that drilling down to figure out the socio-political opinions of the participants was not really the intent of this survey. Rather, the report looks at how the art journalism industry has been changing, identifying the sources used by the participants to do their jobs, the influence of technology on their work, etc. That being said, given the results to the questions posted above, I suspect that we can be reasonably confident in asserting that an equally enormous disparity between left and right would result from a survey focused specifically on the respective worldviews of the participants.

A century ago, writing about art often skewed toward the right, with the mainstream press championing artists who were in the Western tradition, and skewering those who chose to break with that tradition. Now, the pendulum has swung to the extreme opposite end of things, so that what was once considered subversive and revolutionary is now the dogmatic purview of the art media establishment. Regrettably, the present reality is unlikely to change, barring some sort of major societal upheaval – but at least it keeps people like me busy.


Art News Roundup: Da Vinci Deluge Edition

Since 2019 has been declared the “Year of Leonardo Da Vinci”, on account of this being the 500th year since his death, there is a deluge of Leonardo-related projects currently in the works: books, documentaries, exhibitions, you name it. There are at least two films about the artist currently in development, one slated to star Leonardo DiCaprio and based on Walter Isaacson’s recent biography, although whether we’ll see those on the screen this year or not who knows. The really big event, if you happen to find yourself in Paris later this year, is going to be the upcoming Leonardo retrospective at the Louvre, which will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime event for fans of Da Vinci’s work. There are certainly plenty of interesting Leonardo-related stories swirling around the Louvre at the moment, even long before the retrospective opens.

For one thing, there’s still no news on whether Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi”, the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, will be part of the Paris show or not. In fact, neither is there any news about why, more than a year after it was sold and then donated to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it’s still not on exhibition. Rumors continue to swirl about in the art press that experts made a mistake in attributing the work to Leonardo, and that the piece is not by him at all, but rather by one of his assistants. We shall just have to wait and see how this controversy shakes out.

Back in France, experts at the Louvre are now saying that they believe a drawing, which is currently held in a collection outside Paris, could be a preparatory drawing for the “Mona Lisa”, perhaps executed by Leonardo with the assistance of his workshop. As with most Leonardos, the figure in the drawing is rather odd, and somewhat androgynous. That being said, artists for centuries often employed their assistants as models for either sex when sketching out a composition, and it would not have been at all unusual for Leonardo to do this. We may never know for certain the origin of this particular drawing, but the closeness of the position of the arms and hands in the drawing to those in the final, autograph work in the Louvre is hard to ignore.

While this particular drawing won’t be in the Louvre show in the Autumn, other, important pieces by Leonardo from other collections will be. This includes a series of works from Italy, such as Da Vinci’s early, circa 1472-1475 “The Annunciation” from the Uffizi, that were being held up over a diplomatic row between the left-wing French and right-wing Italian governments. That fracas now appears to have been patched up, and the show will be going ahead with loans from Italian museums, after all. In exchange, France will agree to lend Italy a number of works by Raphael for the upcoming 500th anniversary of *his* death next year. I wouldn’t go to Paris to see the world’s greatest assemblage of Leonardos, but I would definitely go to Rome to see the world’s greatest assemblage of Raphaels, if that comes off. Stay tuned.


Raphael Restored 

Talking of Raphael, the artist’s scale drawing of the lower half of his most famous fresco, “The School of Athens” in the Vatican, has now been restored at the Ambrosian Library in Milan following a four-year conservation effort; a detail of the drawing appears below. The massive “cartoon”, as this type of drawing is known, is somewhat unusual in that it was not used to transfer the outlines of the design to fresh plaster, but rather prepared by Raphael for his patron, Pope Julius II, to show at full size what he planned to paint. Not only does it demonstrate the incredible skill and attention to detail employed by this Mozart of painting – Raphael was only 25 when he created this – it’s also the largest surviving Renaissance drawing in existence, at over 6 feet long and nearly two feet high.


Van Eyck Enigma

Over on the blog of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Silvia Centeno and Sophie Scully are in the middle of a fascinating series of posts on a recent discovery which they made concerning one of the most important Netherlandish pieces in the museum’s collection. Unusually, Jan Van Eyck’s circa 1440-1441 “The Crucifixion and Last Judgment”, which consists of a pair of panels depicting said events, still retains its original frames. Around the inner edges of those frames are Biblical texts in Latin, created using raised plaster. Recent radiographic studies have revealed however, that running around the outside of the Latin texts are texts in Dutch, which at present are mostly invisible to the naked eye. There’s a lot of fascinating scientific research here to enjoy, so keep checking back at the Met blog as the restorers/conservators continue their research.


Wright for Williamsburg

Captain Richard Bayly was an Irishman who fought in the British Army during the French and Indian War alongside the young George Washington, among others. After he returned to Britain in 1760 at the conclusion of his military service, he had his portrait painted by a young artist who eventually became one of the most interesting and unusual British artists of the 18th century, the fascinating Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797). Sadly Bayly died young, only four years after his portrait was painted, but now, this striking painting has been acquired by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, making it the first work by Wright to enter their permanent collection. As the Williamsburg Art Museums are currently undergoing a massive expansion, my guess is that this picture will feature in their newly enlarged premises upon completion.


From The Federalist: An Art Restorer Resurrects “The Annunciation”

I recently acquired a 17th century Northern Italian painting of “The Annunciation” – NOT “The Expulsion of Hagar”, I might add – and had it cleaned and restored by a professional art restorer, Katja Grauman. Not only did Katja do an incredible job with a work of art that was probably bound for the scrap heap without a serious bit of intervention, but she was also a fascinating interview, as I think you’ll agree after reading my latest for The Federalist, which is out this morning. In our conversation, Katja describes what she had to do to bring the painting back to life, and also how she went about becoming an art restorer. It’s a career path that involves a mix of art, science, history, being crafty, and loving and preserving old things for future generations.

My thanks as always to my editor, Joy Pullman, for helping bring this article into a readable format, and my particular thanks to Katja Grauman, for her professionalism, patience, and skill. To see more of the often miraculous restorations that Katja is able to bring about, even when you might think that a piece is beyond repair, be sure to take a look at some of the amazing before and after images on her website. They were what convinced me to entrust my painting to her hands, and I’m deeply grateful for having done so. If you’re looking to have something cleaned and restored, by all means reach out to her with full confidence: I will absolutely be doing so again with other works in my collection that need some professional care and sensitive attention.

Annunciation_after restoration

Hey There, Hagar: Art Errors

Those of you who attended or have seen my lecture in Chicago last May on the problem of sacred art in a secular world, may recall that part of my presentation demonstrated some horrible cataloging by major auction houses around the country. This portion of the talk was intended to demonstrate that a number of people in the art world are making some rather rookie mistakes when it comes to sacred art; what’s worse, buyers as well as sellers are relying on the alleged expertise of these individuals when it comes to identification. Lest one think that I had only come across a few isolated examples, I wanted to demonstrate how this sort of thing happens on a regular basis, without having to hunt very long to find examples of it.


The painting shown above was sold at auction over the weekend by a major auction house in a large American city. It was described in the catalogue as a 17th century Italian oil on canvas depicting “The Annunciation” which, if you are familiar with the Bible, or know a bit about art history, it obviously does not. For one thing, the Virgin Mary is never depicted in art dressed as a half-naked slave girl. For another, the Annunciation takes place before the conception of Christ, not at some point subsequent to His birth. At the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel didn’t just swoop down from Heaven like some sort of celestial stork, toss the Baby Jesus on the ground, then go tap Mary on the shoulder and say, “Hey there, go over and pick up your new baby.”

What this painting *actually* depicts is a moment described in Genesis 16. Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl owned by Sarah, the wife of Abraham, has borne Abraham a son, Ishmael. Subsequently, Sarah has given birth to Isaac, her own son by Abraham. Because of Sarah’s jealousy, Abraham has expelled Hagar and Ishmael from the encampment, and mother and son have wandered off into the wilderness alone with a jug of water and some bread. Eventually they run out of food and water, and are preparing to die.

At this point in the story an angel (identified in some retellings of the story as St. Michael) appears to Hagar, and points her to a nearby well where she can get fresh water for herself and her son, so that they can survive. Hagar is also promised that God will make a great nation of Ishmael’s descendants. Tradition – and yes I am over-simplifying here so don’t @ me – is that those descendants are the Arabs.

While not as popular an artistic subject as the Annunciation, the Biblical account of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and their subsequent rescue by the angel has been represented many times in Western art. In fact, it was a popular subject in Italian painting during the 17th century, the time and place from which the misidentified painting hails. Here’s an example by the great Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669), now in the collection of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota:


This more loosely-painted version is by the late Baroque-Rococo painter Gaspare Diziani (1689-1767), and now hangs at the St. Mungo Museum in Glasgow:


And here’s another version by the early Baroque painter Simone Cantarini (1612-1648), which is at the Pinacoteca San Domenico, in the Italian ciy of Fano:


As you can see, the expulsion of Hagar was not exactly an unpopular subject for Western artists, including 17th century Italian artists. Perhaps some of my readers couldn’t recall this Bible story until being reminded of it, and perhaps a few others weren’t even aware of it until today. However, I feel reasonably safe in assuming that many or even most of you did know straightaway that the first image in this post wasn’t a depiction of the Annunciation. In my book, therefore, you have every right to congratulate yourselves.

Why does this sort of egregious art error continue to plague the market? Laziness is one factor; the general secularism of contemporary society is another. On a practical level, it doesn’t seem to me to be so terribly difficult for an auction house or a gallery to pick up the phone and ask the local parish priest if he can help identify a work of Christian art, and yet this doesn’t seem to be happening on a regular basis. Otherwise, these kinds of mistakes would not continue to pop up over and over again.

This example does go to show, however, that knowing your Bible can be beneficial in the present age. Even with a low opening bid, no one ended up bidding on this piece. Had it been properly identified in the sale, perhaps there might have been a different result for the consignor.


Art News Roundup: Exotic Tales Edition

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed that a somewhat forgotten genre of 19th century art has been regaining quite a bit of attention in both museums and salerooms.

In general terms, “Orientalism” was an art movement that depicted individuals and locations in the Middle East and North Africa, or at least inspired by such places. These areas were becoming more familiar to Westerners as travel to such locales became easier and more fashionable. Artists who visited places like Damascus, Algiers, or Cairo returned to their studios to produce canvases and sculptures which tried to capture aspects of the – to Western eyes – more exotic aspects of the people and places they had seen. Like all art movements, Orientalism was hugely popular with collectors for a time, but gradually fell out of favor thanks to market saturation and changing tastes.

Recently however, Orientalism has been making something of a comeback. Larger-than-expected crowds visited recent retrospectives on Delacroix (1798-1863) at The Met, and Fortuny (1838-1874) at The Prado, exhibitions showcasing the work of two artists who are particularly well-known for painting Orientalist subjects. In June, I’ll be seeing a retrospective in Barcelona on the work of Antoni Fabrés (1854-1936), an artist who, like Delacroix and Fortuny, worked in the Orientalist style for a significant part of his career.

Meanwhile, art dealers and auction houses are seeing an increase in interest in collecting Orientalist art, after many years of relative stagnation. Yesterday for example, Bonham’s in London auctioned off two works by Ludwig Deutsch (1855-1935), an Austrian artist who was an almost exact contemporary of Fabrés in terms of both dates and style. “At the Mosque” (1895) went for over $730K, above the high end of its estimate; “Respect” (1902) fetched above $660k, approaching nearly double its pre-sale estimate.


Why Orientalism is becoming the new thing in certain circles, one can only guess. Perhaps it’s a reaction to the soul-sucking minimalism that we’ve been forced to endure in both Contemporary Art and design for the last couple of decades. You can hardly get further away from Lucio Fontana and Philippe Starck than this stuff. Whatever the reason, this interest in things from long ago and far away, as seen through Western eyes, appears to be in the ascendant once again.

Crown Cot

A fascinating discovery in England provides an interesting postscript to the Wars of the Roses. As reported by Live Science, an incredibly ornate, rather exotic-looking carved oak bed, which for many years was used in a hotel honeymoon suite and was thought to be a Victorian reproduction, turns out to be a bed that was created for Henry VII and Elizabeth of York – two of the protagonists in “Richard III” if you remember your Shakespeare – to spend their wedding night in. The very grand bed has now been conserved and restored, and is revealing all sorts of fascinating secrets thanks to scientific analysis: like the fact that the headboard was once painted ultramarine blue, which at the time was so expensive as to be out of reach for all but the wealthiest of patrons.

Turkish Ticky-Tack

If you can read Spanish, this is a fascinating article in La Vanguardia; even if you can’t, it’s worth having a look just to enjoy the pictures. A few years ago, a property development company in Turkey decided to take the maxim, “Every man’s home is his castle” quite literally, and build a luxury residential community in which every single house looks like an ornate, miniature French Renaissance château. That might have worked in theory, but for the fact that not only are all of the houses almost exactly the same, but they are all crammed up one against the other; moreover, the developer never secured the financing to complete the project, so the bijoux châteaux are currently all sitting empty.

President Palpatine?

For those of you looking for what one imagines must be an incredibly demanding job, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is in need of a new President. The spaceship-like Museum, which is currently under construction in Los Angeles, will house the art collection of Director George Lucas, who in his collecting over the years has been particularly drawn to art that tells stories, naturally enough. The museum will also contain plenty of pop culture items, from Star Wars props to Lucas’ personal collection of comic books. A word of advice: if you do decide to apply and you land an interview, don’t bring up Episodes I-III unless someone else brings them up first.


When Buildings Vanish: Digital Technology Brings Back Long-Lost Structures And Their Art

Over on The Art Newspaper recently, Noah Charney explored the question of what to do with the memory of historic buildings, after they’ve been completely razed to the ground. In writing about the World War II-era destruction of castles in Slovenia, where Mr. Charney resides, he gives some examples of how local institutions are now creating landscaped environments that evoke a memory of vanished structures, without actually rebuilding them. Interestingly, he notes that the demolitions were carried out by local pinkos on “principle” (if that’s not too oxymoronic a term):

Socialist partisans did not approve of the aristocracy and wanted to eliminate the physical remnants of feudalism and the class system, even though the aristocrats themselves were long gone. But their castles, full of beautiful objects and works of art, remained. The Nazis generally preserved palaces, to occupy them themselves, until Hitler’s 1945 Nero Decree resulted in the destruction of German infrastructure to prevent its use by incoming Allied forces. The partisans, however, voluntarily destroyed their own cultural heritage, just because they disapproved of the people who had built them and what they stood for.

[N.B. As an aside, I highly recommend reading Mr. Charney’s work for The Art Newspaper, since he’s particularly interested in researching objects and buildings that are now lost to history.]

Yet when it comes to actually envisioning what has been lost, particularly when there are no detailed photographs available to refer to, advanced digital technology is increasingly able to provide us with the next best thing to a full reconstruction of a building, or even an entire city. To that end, the Getty Foundation recently announced funding for several digital mapping projects that will advance our knowledge and understanding of some historic sites around the world. Of these, the two that I want to draw the reader’s attention to both have to do with important cultural sites in Italy.

The “Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project” (“PALP”) is a joint effort between UMass Amherst and NYU, which will integrate images and data from excavations at Pompeii, in order to get a better idea of how the structures and art uncovered at the site to date occupied the spaces where they once stood. At present, there is no single resource linking art objects and architectural fragments to the remains of the buildings where they were found. This is a very exciting idea if, like me, you’re endlessly fascinated by Pompeii and the surrounding cities that were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.


Another project which the Getty has chosen to fund, “Mapping the Renaissance in Florence”, is being carried out by the University of Exeter in collaboration with Cambridge and the University of Toronto. Somewhat like the project at Pompeii, it will seek to integrate data and images with a fairly detailed map created in Renaissance Florence, including works of art that once (or still do) reside in the city’s structures; an app associated with this project which can be used by both researchers and sightseers is already in the works. For me, one of the most surprising aspects of this particular project was seeing the digital illustration of a Florentine church that no longer stands, and of whose existence I was previously unaware: perhaps I have not read my Bernard Berenson closely enough.


San Pier Maggiore was a large Benedictine church and monastery that was first built in the Middle Ages, later remodeled and expanded, and torn down in the 18th century when it became structurally unsound. Today, only part of the entrance portal remains, incorporated into later buildings. You can see it in the above illustration on the lower right, as the triple-arched structure with the center archway serving as the entrance into a courtyard space.

Among the works of art that were once located in the now-vanished church was a strange, yet extremely interesting image by Francesco Botticini (1446-1498) depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, which is now in the National Gallery in London. For many years it was believed to be by Botticini’s contemporary Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), and when you see pictures such as Botticelli’s “Mystical Nativity”  of about 1500-1501, which is also in the National Gallery, you can see why this was the case. In both pictures the dome of the sky has been sliced open at the top, revealing an Earth encased in a celestial sphere that is normally hidden from view.


If we zoom in on the lower portions of Botticini’s picture, behind the kneeling figures of the donor and his widow, we get to see some amazing views of late 15th century Florence, as well as some of the countryside surrounding the city. What I find a bit of a head-scratcher in the detail shown below is that the dome of the Cathedral of Florence appears to be lacking both its lantern and finial ball and cross. The lantern was completed in 1461, and the ball and cross were placed on top in 1469, but the altarpiece itself was painted between 1475-1477.


Perhaps this part of the image was rubbed away over time? Or perhaps this is just a bad photograph and these elements are visible to the naked eye? Whatever the case, if one of my readers happens to drop by the National Gallery anytime soon, I’d be curious to know what you can see when viewing the piece in person.

Sometimes it’s possible to bring back a heavily damaged or destroyed building to some semblance of what it once was. When this is not possible, there are still ways to keep the memories of those structures alive in the former locations, through a creative application of art, architecture, and landscape design. At the same time, we should be appreciative of those who are using technology to provide us with the ability to not only see these vanished places in virtual space, but also to understand their former contents in context.

Art News Roundup: Seeing And Believing Edition

For those of you who are new to my blogging, each week I do a writeup of some interesting items that I’ve come across in the art press, which I refer to as the “Art News Roundup” – even though I’m still not hugely satisfied with that moniker. For one thing, I don’t just write about “art” per se, but also about architecture, archaeology, design, and other things that catch my eye. Since I haven’t come up with a better title to date, I’m sticking with what I’ve got for the sake of continuity from the old blog. While Tuesdays hereabouts are for long-format articles, Thursdays are for curated links and short commentaries, where I get to tell you about things like interesting discoveries, new exhibitions, forthcoming books, etc.

So without further ado, let’s dive in, shall we?

Leonardo Lunacy in London
An Italian scholar has postulated that this statue of the Madonna and Child in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is by Leonardo Da Vinci. It obviously (to me, anyway) isn’t, and I’d chalk this theory up to wishful thinking coupled with the latitude provided by an uncertain provenance, but slap the name “Da Vinci” on anything these days and you’re assured of your fifteen minutes of fame in the art press. Have a gander and decide for yourself, but there are plenty of examples of smiling Madonnas, angels, and the like from around the beginning of the 14th through the end of the 16th centuries in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, none of which have anything at all to do with Leonardo.

Viewing de Vuez
Quelle surprise! Workers renovating a townhouse in Paris recently stumbled across a huge 17th century painting hidden behind a false wall. The circa 1674 canvas, by Arnould de Vuez (1644-1720), depicts the arrival in Jerusalem of the Marquis de Nointel, Louis XIV’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The cityscape in the background appears to be a reasonably faithful view of the holy city at the time of the visit, and on closer inspection one can make out major landmarks such as the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock. No one is quite sure why the piece ended up being affixed to the wall and then covered over, although speculation is that the owners did this during World War II, when the Nazis were looting art from all over Paris and occupied France. The painting is currently undergoing cleaning and restoration, which is expected to be completed in May; it will form the design centerpiece of the new Oscar de la Renta boutique that will be occupying the space.


Seeing Spain in San Diego
“Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain” will open at the San Diego Museum of Art on May 18th and it looks to be well-worth seeing; if I happen to find myself out that way, this is definitely a show I’ll go along to check out for myself. It’s not often the case in this country that one gets to take in a survey of Golden Age Spanish art (which is roughly the period from about 1500-1700) alongside works related to the Spanish empire. Along with works by El Greco, Murillo, Velázquez, Zurbarán, and others from its own collections as well as on loan, the Museum has one of my favorite Spanish bodegónes (still life paintings), the circa 1602 “Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber” by Juan Sánchez Cotán, which will be part of the exhibition. Some of the art in the show will be from Spain, while some will be from the Spanish colonies, or pieces produced in Spain for export to those colonies, so it should prove to be quite an interesting juxtaposition of styles, materials, and historical information.


The Collector In Private: How Our Objects Tell Our Stories

Recently when ill with the flu, I found myself binge-watching HGTV, probably because I occasionally like to add insult to injury in my life. One of the programs featured a designer creating “artwork” for a finished home. While the end result was predictably awful, it actually told me more about the people who lived in the house than it did about the host. The homeowners ooh’ed and aah’ed over how much they loved the “artwork”, which they themselves did not acquire, and which was placed where someone other than themselves thought it should be placed.

For historians, the placement of a work of art in someone’s home can often reveal a great deal about the person who owned the object. This significance is often lost to us when a painting or sculpture is placed in a museum alongside other objects coming from various dates, eras, and owners. It’s a problem that I’ve often complained about in my writing over the years, when discussing sacred art that has been removed from the sacred spaces which it used to occupy. Yet it’s also true of pieces that were created or collected for private enjoyment.


One great example of this was King Charles I of England (1600-1649), shown above in a portrait by Gerard van Honthorst, whose personal art collection was partially reassembled last year for a show at the Royal Academy in London. I didn’t get to see the exhibition, and I daresay most of my non-English readers didn’t either. Nevertheless, a recent lecture I watched touches on some of the same subjects addressed in the show, and gives great insight into how one of the most famous art collectors of the 17th century used the work that he collected to define the most intimate aspects of his day-to-day life.

Simon Thurley is one of my favorite English historians, particularly when it comes to his lectures on art and architecture. Currently, he’s in the midst of a series of presentations on artistic and architectural patronage in England under succeeding dynasties, having begun with the Tudors and just recently having spoken about the Stuarts. Even if you’re already a student of English history, I can fairly reasonably guarantee you that a Thurley lecture will present you with new information and insights which will further illuminate your knowledge.

I knew before watching Dr. Thurley’s most recent lecture that Charles I was both a great patron and collector, having commissioned works from important artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck, and having amassed an art collection that, after his execution during the English Civil War, was scattered into some of the great princely collections of Europe. What I did not know was the fact that, until his death, only a very small group of people knew that he owned such a massive and important collection, which he displayed at the now-vanished Palace of Whitehall in London, the sweep of which is shown in the painting below from the Royal Collection. It’s hard to reconcile Charles’ level of privacy with the actions one might expect in an age when wealth was openly flaunted by many, and when Charles himself was someone who believed firmly in absolute monarchy and the Divine Right of Kings.


The bulk of Charles’ collection was displayed in the King’s private apartments, rather than in the public areas of the Palace. These were areas of the building to which only members of the royal family and the most intimate of courtiers were granted access. Thus, unlike many of his contemporaries who built enormous galleries to publicly showcase their art, and thereby broadcast their taste, wealth, and power to any and all visitors, King Charles rather modestly kept his art largely to himself.

In his lecture, Dr. Thurley provides examples from contemporary written accounts of how many visitors to Whitehall during Charles I’s reign made no comment whatsoever on some of the very important works of art there, including paintings by Mantegna, Titian, and Veronese. This seeming omission is explained by the fact that these visitors were given access to the spaces where objects such as official portraits were displayed, but they never secured entry into the private rooms. As he explains when showing the architectural layout of the palace, indicating which rooms and wings were accessible and which were not, Dr. Thurley also shares some interesting information regarding what the King chose to display in his private apartments.

Among the works that Charles kept close to himself is this beautiful group portrait of five of the royal children with two of their favorite dogs, a painting that is now at Windsor Castle:


The directness and intimacy of the work is breathtaking, if you consider the formality of court life at the time. We get a sense of the personalities of all five siblings here, particularly the three eldest: on the far left we see Princess Mary, then the future King James II (looking a bit melancholy), and the future King Charles II at the center of the picture, gazing boldly at the viewer. The fussy, half-naked infant on the far right is Princess Anne; I particularly like how Princess Elizabeth is trying to both stop her baby sister from falling out of the chair, and from grabbing a hold of what must have been a very good and obedient mastiff.

Another work that the King kept close to him is this lovely High Renaissance image (in a later frame) of the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist in a landscape; we can just see St. Joseph with a lantern inside the ruined building in the background:


At one time this painting of the Holy Family with St. John was believed to be by Raphael, but historians now believe it is more likely a work by his workshop assistants or those in his circle, probably based on Raphael’s design. This was not at all unusual at the time, for popular artists often had so many commissions that they could not possibly hope to keep up with demand. We can see a rather similar-looking Virgin Mary in the “Madonna dell’Impannata” in the Pitti Palace in Florence, which dates from around the same time, and this painting like the one in Charles’ collection is now believed to have been executed mostly by Raphael’s workshop assistants to his designs, with only some intervention by the Master in some of the faces or other details.

After having been sold off by Cromwell during the English Civil War, King Charles’ painting ended up at the Escorial in Spain. It remained there until it was stolen during the Napoleonic period, and eventually made its way back to a collector in England. [Quite a number of works of art currently in English and French collections were stolen from Spain during the 19th century, and unlike some you don’t see Spain screaming and wailing about getting all of them back, but we’ll leave that subject for another time.]

In any case, the Van Dyck portrait of his children and the Raphael-esque devotional painting are two of the images that Charles I wanted to see when he got up in the morning, and at night before he went to bed. Dr. Thurley doesn’t explore the question, but for the purposes of this post it’s a relevant one for us to ask: do these art choices, and the placement of them in the King’s private apartments, tell us something about the King’s character and personality? Did he smile and greet the image of his children and their dogs, for example, or did he pray before the image of the Holy Family and St. John?

As to the former, Charles loved having paintings of his children around him, and commissioned quite a few of them, so we can reasonably assume that this was one of his favorites. We know that the beginning of his marriage to Queen Henrietta Maria was a bit rocky, but once they started having children they became very devoted to one another; they would have nine children in all, not all of whom survived to adulthood. Over time, as he became less popular with the low church Protestants who came to dominate Parliament, he and the royal family withdrew more and more from public life in order to spend more time together. So perhaps an image such as this one not only reminded Charles on a daily basis of his paternal love for his children, but also of his duty to them as a monarch to try to set an example of how one ought to rule.

Regarding the devotional art, we may not want to read too much into the fact that this very personal, affectionate, and Catholic image was kept in the King’s bedchamber. Although Charles tolerated his wife’s Catholicism, he himself was a Protestant, and intended to remain so. He often clashed with the Presbyterians and Puritans, who (wrongly) suspected that he was either about to convert to Catholicism or legalize it once more in Britain, but at the end of the day he was what today we might call a smells-and-bells Anglican: a very devout one, who spent a great deal of time in prayer, but not a Catholic. As the Catholic Herald pointed out in their review of the Royal Academy exhibition on the King’s collections, “Charles’s taste lay with the Catholics, and while that tells us something about his aesthetic leanings, and quite a bit about his political ambitions, it does not very much about his faith.”

By way of conclusion then, I have an interesting question that I’d like my readers to consider.

If a group of historians visited your home today, without your being present to explain what art you had on display, or why you put it where you did, what conclusions would they be able to draw? We’ve seen how the art objects that Charles I chose for his private apartments tell us something about the man himself: what mattered to him, and what inspired him on a daily basis. In our own, far less magnificent way, each of us has a collection of pictures, decorative objects, and the like, however great or small, that whether we realize it or not tells a story about us.

So it’s a good exercise to, periodically, take a step back, look at what you have on the walls, shelves, and tabletops, and ask yourself, what do these things say about me? Do I actually like or agree with the message they are conveying about who I am to others? Whatever you happen to collect – be it paintings, porcelain, or postage stamps – you may be surprised by what you discover about yourself, if you take a  detached look at both what you collect and where you display it.

From The Federalist: A Review Of The New Tolkien Exhibition At The Morgan

I hadn’t realized that The Federalist was going to run my review of the new J.R.R. Tolkien exhibition that just opened at the Morgan Library in New York so soon, but since it appeared today I’m happy to share the link with you. As I always do, I extend my sincere thanks to my editor for being the patient and careful reader that she always is. Somehow, Joy Pullman inevitably manages to condense my often rambling prose into a more readable format, for which I’m very grateful.

Even though as I write this the Federalist article just came out, already the comments section on the piece (as well as some voices on social media) are criticizing *my* major criticism of the show, which is that it fails to examine Tolkien’s religious faith. As usual in the lazy age in which we live, people have failed to actually take the time to read what I wrote in its entirety. In the article, I acknowledge the fact that no single exhibition can hope to explore all aspects of an artist’s life and work. If a particular artist happened to be a member of the Shinto faith, but that faith had little direct impact on his life and work, a museum might reasonably decide not to discuss that issue, in the context of a general survey exhibition on his life and work.

Yet it must be acknowledged that Tolkien himself was a very devout Catholic. He himself stated, as I quote in The Federalist piece, that “The Lord of the Rings” is a Catholic book. Tolkien’s entire life was informed by his faith – from his being raised by a Catholic priest when he and his brother were orphaned at a young age, to his helping his future wife to convert to Catholicism as part of their courtship, to their eldest son becoming a Catholic priest, to his close relationship with another famous Christian fantasy author, C.S. Lewis, whom he helped to move from doubt to belief, and so on. I found the fact that the show doesn’t even touch upon Tolkien’s Christianity, let alone explore it, but does spend time examining his horror of conflict based on his wartime experiences, or his views on environmentalism given what he saw of industrialization in early 20th century England, to be a serious oversight.

Agree with me or not, I hope you’ll take a moment to pop by the The Federalist and have a scroll through the piece, and by all means feel free to share your own thoughts in the article’s comment section.


From The Federalist: An Interview With Sculptor Alexander Stoddart

Gentle Reader:

Welcome to the newly-redesigned and updated site, which among other things will be the home for my blogging activity from now on. Thanks to those of you who migrated here from Blog of the Courtier, which I recently archived after over a decade of posts. Realizing as I do that there are still a few kinks to work out over here, please feel free to let me know via the Contact section of this site if you come across anything that isn’t working properly, or that doesn’t display well on your end of things, since no matter how many times you preview something before you publish it, you’re never 100% sure whether the final product is any good once it heads out into the ether.

I had intended to write this first post on the new site last week but, due to a rather nasty bout of the flu, I’m only able to get around to it now. My latest piece for The Federalist is now available for your perusal, and in it I interview Alexander Stoddart, the Queen’s Sculptor in Ordinary in Scotland. It’s quite a long interview, even cut down as it was from the considerable transcript that I started with, but I think you’ll find it worth your time. My sincere thanks to (ever-patient) editor Joy Pullman for leaving intact virtually everything I submitted to her.


Mr. Stoddart is not only an enormously talented artist, he’s also an absolute riot. I remember messaging my publisher immediately after the interview, and commenting that we should take the senior staff of the magazine on pilgrimage to Paisley, the town in Scotland where Mr. Stoddart lives and works, just so that we could all join him at his local watering hole. His great sense of humor and deep insight into art, culture, and the human condition would enthrall all but the smallest of minds for hours.

Once again, cheers to those of you who are long-time readers, and to those of you who are just getting to know my work, for joining me here on this new venture. It will take a little time yet to settle back into the groove of writing on a regular basis, but I hope you’ll continue to bear with me during the interim. Thank you for your support!