Art News Roundup: Martian Sleepover Edition

I may not be the trendiest fellow on the planet, but I’m pretty good at spotting and predicting trends as they arise.

I sensed when I went to review it not long ago that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ current exhibition, “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel” demonstrated an interesting trend in the evolving concept of what a museum experience should be. The experience in this case was the opportunity to stay overnight in a space that copied a motel room in one of Hopper’s paintings with exacting detail. I attempted to register for this when tickets became available, but perhaps not surprisingly it sold out almost immediately. At the time, I speculated that other museums would start offering the same thing as part of their temporary exhibitions, and it looks as though I’’m on trend, as it were.

The Design Museum in London, as part of its new exhibition “Moving to Mars”, will allow a visitor and a companion to spend the night inside one of the displays, which recreates at full scale a design originally submitted to NASA as part of an architecture competition for imagined living environments on the Red Planet. Unlike the Richmond show, which offered multiple possible opportunities for a Hopper sleepover, in this case only one evening will be available. The lucky winner will receive not only overnight accommodation, but also a set of loungewear designed for Martian colonists, a private tour of the exhibition, dinner and breakfast, a private screening of a Mars-themed film, and a swag bag. If you’re interested in entering the competition, you’ll need to do so before Midnight UK time on December 17th; the winner will have to spend the night of January 17th at the museum.

On the positive side, this gimmick goes a long way toward making a cultural institution seem less stuffy, but still glamorous. Not everyone gets to have this experience, after all, because only one bed is made available. Whether the privilege of sleeping in it is afforded via booking a room as one would an hotel, or whether it’s awarded via a lottery or a competition, by definition the number of people who might want to be able to participate far exceeds the number of people who would actually be able to do so.

By generating greater interest from the press, the museum can hope to attract more visitors to their show. More visitors mean more revenue, whether in terms of ticket sales, catering, or merchandise. In addition, it raises the perception of a museum as a place that doesn’t simply close at the end of the work day and lay dormant overnight. For the survival of these institutions, particularly in attracting those who might not otherwise ever set foot inside them, the exhibition-as-AirBNB seems a winning idea.

Yet at the same time, I can see a few potential pitfalls, as well.

Putting aside the more obvious risks with respect to security, damage to objects in the collection, and so forth, it’s hard to see how you could logically and seamlessly install a bedroom in an exhibition on, say, early 20th century Russian landscape painters. Do you bring in a sleigh, surround it with a bunch of birch sticks in pots, and cover the floors in artificial snow? Other environments would only attract those who have a warped sense of where it’s appropriate to sleep, and possibly a warped sense of what is appropriate behavior, to match.

You may recall the story from earlier this year about a Las Vegas luxury hotel bar decorated like a 1980’s New York crack house, albeit with works of art by people such as Banksy and Basquiat valued in the millions. In that case, at least, the bad art is the property of people with bad taste – but what about when the art is public property that belongs to everyone? What happens if John Q. Public gets up in the middle of the night to go to the loo, and knocks over an Attic vase?

For now, I suspect that we’re going to see more of this trend, so long as museums can think of a way in which to integrate a bedroom into their exhibitions. Like any cultural phenomenon however, at some point trendiness becomes commonplace, until it no longer attracts the attention it once did. Perhaps the cause of the eventual decline will be when something awful happens to one or more guests, or a state or local authority gets involved and challenges a museum’s ability to invite people to sleep on the premises. Until then, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for shows that have a sleepover component, since let’s face it – I want to have that experience, myself.


And now, on to some art news stories from the week gone by.

TWA Trophy

One outer space place where you *can* stay overnight anytime you like, or at least drop in for a drink, is the new TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, an adaptation of a Space Race-era masterwork by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961). Although I flew in and out of the building many years ago, back when it was still a working airline terminal affectionately known as “The Pregnant Oyster”, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see the restoration-expansion for myself. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see it come back to life, as I wrote about previously, and so, it seems, are many others. The Architect’s Newspaper has just named the hotel 2019’s Building of the Year, noting that “the sensitive restoration and reactivation of Saarinen’s masterpiece” convinced the jury to award the prize, and I suspect that a number of other publications and associations will likely follow suit.


Ancient Armor

A magnificent Iron Age shield found near Pocklington, a town in Yorkshire, has just emerged from many months of conservation and study, and some are calling it one of the most important early archaeological finds ever made in the UK. Dating to somewhere between 320-174 BC, the roughly 2 1/2 foot-long bronze shield was buried with a Celtic warrior who probably died in his late 40’s. The shield is a beautiful piece of workmanship, worthy of “The Lord of the Rings”, covered with swirling patterns and a prominent, never-before-seen scalloped edge decoration. Moreover a number of marks on the object, including a hole likely made by a sword during battle, indicate that this wasn’t just a decorative item prepared for a ceremonial burial, which challenges how many historians have previously thought about the levels of artistic development and technical sophistication achieved in Celtic culture long before the Romans first arrived in 55 BC.


Garden Gustav

A work by (arguably) Austria’s most famous artist, Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), which was stolen from an Italian art gallery back in February 1997, has turned up in…the gallery. Sort of. A gardener cutting back some ivy on one of the exterior walls of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi in Piacenza came across a metal door set into the structure, and when he opened it, inside was a garbage bag which contained a painting believed to be Klimt’s “Portrait of a Young Woman” (1917). The picture will need to be authenticated by experts, although initial reports indicate that the back of the canvas still bears the wax seals and stamps that were placed on the object when it was sent out on loan for exhibition, increasing the likelihood that this is, in fact, the missing painting. The work is particularly rare because, some years ago, an art student noticed that it appeared to be painted over the top of an earlier painting, something which Klimt almost never did. Meanwhile, Italian police are investigating both the original crime, which was never solved, and how the painting ended up in its unusual hiding place.


Art Books for Christmas: Give the Gift of Seeing

Not infrequently, I get questions about what books I can recommend for readers who are interested in learning more about art. With Christmas fast approaching, and the prospect of either finding a gift for someone else, or knowing that you’re going to receive a gift card from Aunt Hortensia that you’ll need to spend, I thought I’d put together a short list of some recommended titles that should work for a general audience, whether for those just starting to read about art or those knowing a decent amount about it already, and avoiding the often dry and academic texts that more in-depth study usually requires.

I hasten to add, I don’t receive any compensation from the authors or publishers of these works for the following endorsements. They’re simply books which I’ve found to be both enjoyable and informative. Hopefully your gift recipient – or you, yourself – will find the same to be the case.

National Gallery of Art, Washington – John Walker

This is a hefty, out-of-print volume that can still be found for sale online, which you’ll find on the bookshelf of many art aficionados both in the U.S. and abroad, and it’s worth the investment. Not only is it beautifully illustrated, with well over 1,000 works from the museum’s permanent collection, but it contains both long essays on individual objects, as well as shorter pieces looking at several pieces at once, and how they’re all related to one another. And because the NGA collection covers around 1,000 years of Western Art, you’ll not only be able to appreciate the variety contained in this great national collection assembled on behalf of the American people, but you’ll also have a single historical reference work that you can turn to again and again for future research and encouraging further reading. Although there are newer NGA guides with updated scholarship, they’re much shorter and less comprehensive than this one, so be sure to seek it out online or in your local used bookshop.


Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940 – Charlotte Vignon

Readers may recall that I reviewed this book for The Federalist over the summer, and in it, Dr. Charlotte Vignon surveys Duveen Brothers, the most powerful and influential art dealers in the world at the turn of the previous century. She focuses mainly on the family’s role in establishing the market for decorative arts, such as furniture, tapestries, and porcelain, rather than their prowess in areas such as painting, sculpture, and drawing. Published this year by the Frick Collection in New York, this well-illustrated hardback occasionally borders on being an academic work, thanks to copious notes and statistics, but for the reader interested in learning more about the the history of the art market, and how it affected American taste and collecting, it’s a very important addition to the library. It also demonstrates very well the perennial fact that, for all its glamour, there’s always been something just a bit shady lurking about in the trade in works of art and antiques.


Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists – Robert Hughes

Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was an Australian art critic whose style I always appreciated, even if I didn’t always agree with his assessments. Reading his thoughts on art is a bit like reading Dashiell Hammett ‘s musings on crime: insightful, sometimes jaundiced, but usually tempered by realism and frankness. He’s the sort of writer that you’d want to accompany to an exhibition opening, and then go get plastered with afterwards. For the reader who wants something that he can pick up and put down, or flip through at random, this collection of Hughes’ articles and essays is the perfect gift.


Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet – Royal Academy of Arts

Although I didn’t review it when I reviewed the show for The Federalist recently, the exhibition catalogue for The Met’s current show on French painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) is probably the best I’ve seen this year. Beautifully bound and sumptuously illustrated, with essays by members of the Royal Academy in London (who hosted the show before it traveled to New York), the hardback not only looks magnificent on a coffee table, but it fully incorporates the very graphic imagery that made Vallotton such an interesting and influential figure at the turn of the previous century. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Vallotton, if you or your recipient like the work of Gauguin, Hopper, or Klimt, you’ll probably love both the art and this book.


A Stroll with Mr. Gaudí – Pau Estrada

I bought this hardcover children’s book as a gift for my nephew on my last trip to Barcelona – no worries, it’s available in English – and I almost kept it for myself. This wonderfully illustrated volume takes the reader on a pleasant walk through early-20th century Barcelona with the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) as he goes about his daily routine. In it, we see Gaudí looking over the progress at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia and refining his ideas with his design team, stopping in or pausing in front of some of his other buildings, and meeting up for lunch with his friend and patron Count Eusebi Güell (1846-1918) to talk about all sorts of things that interested them both. Perhaps most charmingly, Senyor Gaudí begins and ends his daily comings and goings by greeting the friendly dragon-salamander who guards the fountain entrance to the Park Güell, where the architect’s home still stands today. Whether as a gift for yourself or for a small person in your life, this book will make the reader smile, and want to learn more – which to my mind, shows it to be a very good book indeed.


Art News Roundup: Traveling About Edition

We’re back to normal for a couple of more weeks, Gentle Reader, before radio silence temporarily resumes during the Christmas holidays due to my impending travels.

In case you missed it, my latest for The Federalist was published yesterday, in which I reviewed a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Private Lives, Public Spaces” examines the advent of home movies, and their use by artists, celebrities, and ordinary people over the past century. As one might expect in the present age, the museum is largely interested in how these films fit into a contemporary social construct, but it’s certainly possible to go view them, as I did, with an eye more to interest and curiosity, skipping some and lingering over others. As I pointed out in the magazine, it was only a couple of days later when I realized that, no doubt unintentionally, MoMA had pointed to something much more important than mere human matters. Be sure to check it out if you’re in New York between now and July, although I’d suggest that small children are probably not the right audience for parts of it, for various reasons.

With that very brief intro then, let’s turn to some art news stories of note from the week gone by, traveling to three very different cities in order to do so.

Helene at Helsinki

Truthfully, I must confess that Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) was entirely unknown to me until I read about a new retrospective of her work, which is being examined in tandem with the work of other Finnish artists working in and around the Finnish countryside. Schjerbeck is much-loved in her native land, but little-known here, which is a pity because her art is very compelling indeed. As a painter, she gradually changed from a realist to an expressionist, and to such a significant extent that it’s hard to believe the pictures in the show were all made by the same person. I particularly like the silvery-ocher-olive tones of “Cypresses, Fiesole” (1894) shown below, which she painted during one of her many travels, and these trips played a significant part in the ever-changing nature of her style. It would be great to see an intrepid American museum mount a solo show of her work in the near future. “Through My Travels I Found Myself – Helene Schjerfbec and Finnish Artists in Ruovesi” at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki runs through January 26th.


Degas at Cassatt’s

I’m one of those weird people who doesn’t like the theatre, but does enjoy reading plays. That being said, although I won’t be able to see it due to time constraints, I’m somewhat interested in seeing “The Independents”, a new play currently running off-Broadway, about the relationship between two of the most important artists working in Paris at the end of the 19th century: American Impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917). The product of research into the two artists’ correspondence, anecdotal information, and examination of their work, and inspired by a National Gallery retrospective on the two of them from a few years ago, the piece can only attempt to telescope their relationship into a series of encounters in which Degas would come to visit Cassatt at her studio, but we do know that it was a love-hate thing. Degas had definite misogynistic tendencies, and once criticized one of Cassatt’s paintings by remarking, “A woman should not be allowed to draw like that!”, while Cassatt was often manipulative and overly-analytical, and yet they continued to both collaborate and spar with one another for nearly four decades. To playwright Chris Ward’s credit, wherever possible he integrates Cassatt and Degas’ own words into the dialogue, adding the rest through his own literary imagination. “The Independents” is at the Jerry Orbach Theatre in Manhattan and its run has been extended until January 5th, but here’s hoping it gets a national tour at some point.


Abraham at Auction

Noël Hallé (1711–1781) was a French history painter who executed the sort of vast canvases of hundreds of figures that you needed to cover the walls of your ginormous country chateau or government ministry. Much of his work features the lighter, pastel colors preferred by the Rococo court of Louis XV (1710-1774), and there’s a tendency in his work to sometimes tip the scales a bit into what, to modern eyes, seems a bit shallow, sugary, and little more than window dressing. However, I particularly like a piece of his coming up for auction, “Abraham and the Three Angels” (1762), which he painted for the Paris Salon Exhibition of 1763, for there’s a kindness and a sense of grace in the relationship between the patriarch and his celestial visitors that I find very touching, even for all of its theatricality. What’s more, philosophe Denis Diderot (1713-1784) supposedly hated this picture, which of course means that it’s actually quite good.

If you’re thinking of bidding on it be forewarned: the picture is about 8 ½ feet wide and 7 ¾ feet tall. As a result, you’re probably going to need a bigger sofa to hang it over. The pre-sale estimate is somewhere in the $300k range, and the auction itself will take place at Druout in Paris on December 16th.


The Cat’s Meow

I want to thank you, Gentle Reader, for your patience during my brief blogging break over the past couple of weeks. I’ll explain why I took it shortly, but first I want to draw your attention to a couple of items of interest. As it happens, all three give me the direct or indirect opportunity to write about the most spirit animal of all internet spirit animals, the cat.

Giving Tuesday

This being Giving Tuesday, I want to once again draw your attention to the giving campaign by the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage. Due to the way that the GoFundMe page is set up, we can’t reflect the total of all the donations we’ve received since we started this final push to raise the funds necessary to establish a hermitage. This is because some donors prefer to send a check or use PayPal, rather than use GoFundMe.

What I’m very pleased to tell you here however, since we can’t reflect this on the GoFundMe site, is that we’re roughly halfway to our goal of $37,000 thanks to your outstanding generosity. I want to thank you on behalf of the Friends, as well as our Franciscan hermit friend Brother Rex – and not forgetting his feline friend Clare, named after St. Francis of Assisi’s dear (human) friend St. Clare – as we near the point of finally being able to find the hermit a home. Even if you’re not in a position to help financially, please consider sharing this link with others who may be able to help us get to the end of this campaign: just scroll down to the bottom of the page to see all of the ways that you can give. Whether through GoFundMe or one of the other donation methods, every cent counts, and donations are tax-deductible.

Thank you again for your support!

The Federalist

For those of you who missed it last week, my most recent piece for The Federalist is now available for your perusal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently opened a retrospective on the work of Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), an artist who isn’t exactly a household name in the U.S., but who was a highly creative, interesting figure at a time of immense change in the history of Western Art. Thanks to the Met show, as well as a concurrent show at The Phillips Collection here on DC on “Les Nabis”, the circle of young Parisian artists of which Vallotton was a member, his work is now in a position to become much better known to a wider American audience.

Among the many works in the Met show are a number of Vallotton’s woodcut prints, a medium which he almost single-handedly helped revive in Europe long after it had fallen into disuse. The images are usually those of social commentary or satire, and while some are quite serious in tone, many have an appealing touch of humor or whimsy. Among the latter are a series of six he printed between 1896-1897 on musicians and their instruments, and in “The Flute” we can see that the flautist is trying to practice while the cat is trying to get some attention. The same very well-observed cat appears in other Vallotton woodcuts as well, and it was amusing to see it popping up here and there in the exhibition. If you get the chance to see either show, you won’t be disappointed in the variety of works available for your consideration.


I took a break from blogging because, as those of you who follow me on social media know, two weeks ago today I made the very difficult decision to put down Lili (pronounced “Lee Lee”), the cat whom I was privileged to share my home with for the past nine years. She arrived as a tiny kitten that could sit quite comfortably on top of your head and snuggle herself in, a bit like in the classic Looney Tunes cartoon, “Feed the Kitty” (1952) by the great animator Chuck Jones (1912-2002). Even when she became an adult and could no longer fit on even my enormous head with its perpetually tangled mop, she would still perch on the back of the sofa and proceed to lick all the product out of my hair.

Lili was a small cat, with an oversized personality as big as her incredibly thick, luxurious black-and-white fur coat, and a parade tail the size of a feather duster, which she used to wave proudly as she sauntered about. She very vocally expressed her opinion about everything, did not suffer fools, and loved hunting. She also, which in a lifetime of pet cats I’d never seen before, had certain dog-like tendencies, including growling (not hissing) at the mailman, or wanting to play fetch with fallen leaves in the back garden during the autumn.

She could be quite the drama kitty, as well. I’m told by those who looked after her when I would leave for a weekend or for a long vacation, that she’d barely eat anything while I was gone. Yet almost inevitably, when I’d return she’d greet me by pooping on the floor to express her immense displeasure at my having left her in the first place.

Sometimes I’d come home from work, to find her plushness sprawled provocatively across something she knew very well that she wasn’t supposed to be sitting on, but she would just give me a look as if to say, “Don’t bother me when I’m looking magnificent.” I’d steer clear until, inevitably, she wanted to be held over my shoulder like a baby, and endlessly petted and talked to. She often slept with me on the opposite pillow, but even if she didn’t, she’d show up very early in the morning and bat my nose with her paw, just to wake me at the hour when she thought I ought to get up.

Not surprisingly, I eventually realized that I was living with the feline version of Joan Collins (minus the poop of course), and would refer to her as such when she was being particularly grand. She appeared to appreciate and respond to that, diva that she was. Thus, we eventually came to an understanding that I belonged to her, rather than the other way round.

Being someone who uses tools such as reason and precedent to make my way in the world, her loss affected me more than I had anticipated. She suddenly became very ill with what turned out to be total renal failure due to kidney cancer, and there was nothing that could be done to save her. The very kind veterinarian assured me that I had done nothing wrong, and the decision I had to make was merely the quicker and ultimately less painless of the two options. I know some people in this situation prefer to let their pets die naturally, but in this case there was no reason to prolong the inevitable.

The aftermath was more difficult to process, in part because I’m single and have no children. No doubt those of you who come home to a spouse and/or a child care for your pets very much as well, of course, but your pets aren’t the only thing you come home to. When you’re on your own and feeling sick, or things are going pear-shaped in some area of your life, or you’re just climbing into bed and turning out the light, a pet somehow provides a sense of well-being, in that you have someone else to care for who needs you. It takes you out of yourself to have to constantly bear in mind that you’re their whole world.

Now, I’m not a “pet parent”, nor do I believe in a “rainbow bridge” for dead pets. If I want to become a parent, I’ll go reproduce. And the only rainbow bridge I’m interested in is the one that rains Skittles.

That being said, I’m also not a harsh theological or philosophical realist. On the contrary: I’m smart enough not to presume to put restrictions on what the Man Upstairs can and can’t do for us in the next life, as regards our beloved pets. Nor do I wish to waste any time speculating or debating on the subject, when I have things to do and people who need my help. The takeaway here is that I’ll continue to feel Lili’s loss for a long time, but I’ll always be grateful to have had her in my life.

Thank you for the opportunity to share some thoughts with you, Gentle Reader, and we’ll return to our regular programming this Thursday.



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.


Art News Roundup: Don’t Mess With The Nonnas Edition

Tuesday was a bit busy at The Daily Planet, Gentle Reader. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to post one of my usual long-format musings as usual. So to make up for that, you’re getting an extra-long edition of weekly curated links to some of the most interesting stories from the art world over the past week.

Before we plunge in however, I want to offer a word of grateful thanks to my friends Mac and Katherine Barron. The most recent episode of their hilarious podcast, as its title suggests, includes among its offerings an encouragement to their listeners to help support the effort to establish a permanent home for the Little Portion Hermitage. Thanks to those of you who have already contributed, and who are keeping the fundraising in your prayers, and please consider donating or passing along information about this project to anyone whom you think either may be able to help directly, or can spread to word to others who might be able to help. We need your support!

Blasphemous Battering Ram

At 2:00 am on Monday, thieves used a tree trunk as an improvised battering ram to smash their way into the Cathedral of the quiet town of Sainte-Marie d’Oloron in the French Pyrenees, a favorite stopping point for pilgrims taking the Camino de Santiago into Spain. According to Agence France-Presse, they smashed display cases and carried off a host of items, including gold and gilded vessels used for the celebration of Mass or other liturgical purposes, rare vestments such as a cope donated to the Cathedral by François I (1494-1547), and a Baroque Nativity scene. Over on the Art Crime blog, Victoria Ricci notes that the heist must have been pulled off with some advance planning, given the timing, the tools involved, and the fact that the burglars entered the church using one vehicle but escaped using another. The town has been so shaken by the theft, that volunteers are now photographing and cataloging everything in the Cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, from relics to works of art to furnishings, just in case something like this ever happens again. Although eyewitnesses saw three of those involved in the crime, as of this writing, sadly, there’s no word from police as to any leads or suspects.


Wow That’s Great, Bass

Was there a big “oops” at Christie’s in New York last week? Miami’s Bass Museum recently consigned a portrait to the auction house, which listed the picture in its fall Old Masters sale catalogue as being “in the manner of” Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). This is auctionspeak for, “It looks like a Rembrandt, but we’re too afraid to say that it is, so no guarantees.” That trepidation may have something to do with the opinion of one of the world’s leading Rembrandt experts, Jan Six, who says the painting is by one of the master’s pupils, rather than by Rembrandt himself. Clearly at least a few people disagreed with that assessment however, because the small canvas, which is only about a foot square, sold for $675,000 last week over a pre-sale estimate of $15,000-$20,000.


Burly Hurley Hurly-Burly

News that the State of Massachusetts has put the hulking Hurley Building in Boston up for sale is one of the best pieces of architectural news I’ve heard in a long time. Surprising no one, the unfinished Brutalist behemoth is such a mess that it will be cheaper to tear it down and start over, rather than try to renovate or restore it. Apparently a group of rather foolish people want to save it, but so far Brutalist structures have not been spared in most cities, and for good reason: they are extremely difficult to repair, ruin historic neighborhoods and college campuses, and are just bloody ugly to look at. Now if only they would take the wrecking ball to Boston’s hideous City Hall building, a similarly hated architectural disaster nearby, while they’re at it…


Lights Out in London

Those of you planning to visit London’s National Portrait Gallery in the near future, had better do so sooner rather than later. The museum will be closing for three years of renovations beginning in June 2020, and while a selection of works from the permanent collection will be out and about on traveling exhibitions, the bulk of its holdings will be put into storage for the duration. No word on whether my friend Rupert Alexander’s portrait of Sir Andrew John Wiles (2015) will be one of the pieces sent around, but if there ends up being an American edition of the tour, I’d certainly love to see it in person.


The “New” Newark

Back when I visited the Newark Museum for the first time a year and a half ago, I was astonished at the breadth of that institution’s collections, which includes everything from Ancient Egyptian and Greek sculpture, to Japanese and Tibetan bronze objects, to paintings by great American artists such as Cassatt, O’Keeffe, and Sargent. I wondered why it wasn’t more heavily marketed as a cultural destination along the Northeast Corridor, i.e. the heavily used Amtrak passenger train route that stretches from Massachusetts to Virginia. Now, in what seems to me a very smart move, the institution has decided to rebrand itself as the “Newark Museum of Art”, following years of market research which revealed that more than 50% of those surveyed had no idea what the museum was – presumably, as I did before going there myself, they thought that it was only a city history museum. While the large complex does contain some interesting information about Newark’s founding and industrial past, the real jewels of the collection are pieces like this glorious canvas, “Twilight, Arbiter Twixt Day and Night” (1850), by the eminent Hudson River School painter Frederic Church (1826-1900).


CabriniGate Update

Regular readers will recall my reporting on what has become known in the press as “CabriniGate”, a very public kerfuffle over New York City’s decision not to put up a statue to St. Frances Xavier Cabrini as part of its efforts to honor more women who were important to the city’s history. This, despite the fact that Mother Cabrini received more nominations than any single other individual by an overwhleming majority, infuriated many Italian-Americans in the city and elsewhere. Now ArtNet is reporting that this incident may have led to the abrupt resignation of so-called New York culture czar Tom Finkelpear, who stepped down last week. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Mother Cabrini herself, the first American citizen to be canonized a saint, had a hand in all of this from upstairs: she was far too humble of a soul for that. What I am saying however, is that if you’re a public servant who thinks you can simply ignore the little old Italian ladies who are the heart and soul of many parish communities in New York – and the career politicians who need their support for reelection – then you value your continued employment very, very cheaply.


Art News Roundup: American Spirit Edition

In case you missed it, my latest for The Federalist was published yesterday, in which I reviewed the new exhibition, “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel”, which just opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. After a long run in Richmond through late February, it will move on to Indianapolis until late summer of 2020, so those of you in the Midwest will have the opportunity to see it as well. I just wanted to offer a couple of additional thoughts about the show for my readers, since you can’t possibly squeeze everything into a single review article for a magazine, not even an online one.

No matter how well you think you know an artist, a really good exhibition is one in which you end up learning something totally new about his work. In this case, the new-to-me aspect was a series of watercolors that Edward Hopper painted while he and his wife Josephine were on vacation in Mexico. Just as the Hopper retrospective at the National Gallery back in 2007 exposed me to the artist’s gloriously bright oil paintings of coastal Maine, which I had never seen before, and which seemed far more happy than his usual work, so, too, these Mexican watercolors were quite the revelation. They’re more muted in tone than his boldly-colored seascapes, and yet somehow I just like the idea of the Hoppers sitting on the roof terrace of whatever hotel they’re staying in, having some margaritas and a smoke while sketching and enjoying the views of the sky and mountains, tiled domes and lofty bell towers.




This ties in rather nicely to another aspect of the exhibition, which was very enjoyable to experience. Because the Hoppers liked to take long road trips across the country, the show has interactive screens showing you some of the routes that they took, the hotels and motels where they stayed, and Jo’s messages from postcards sent to family and friends or selected notes from her diary. In one motel somewhere in Texas, for example, she goes into raptures about the indoor swimming pool, painted a cerulean blue. At another, she practically salivates over the interior decoration, and the combination of “Veronese Green” upholstery with teal curtains and carpets. She notes on one of the postcards that she clapped her hands in joy when she opened the drapes and saw the effect of that rather bold color combination in daylight.

What’s more, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition provides something I’ve never seen before, but helps make the volume a particularly charming one – and a good Christmas gift idea for those of you looking for something different. In the back of the book is a pocket containing two removable, highly detailed road maps, that follow some of the trips which the Hoppers took in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Not only is this a terrific way to help teach children about both art and geography, but for the serious art nerds among you, I would think that planning a vacation along the same routes would be a great deal of fun. You can order the catalogue via the VMFA online shop by following this link.

Before we move on to some of this week’s more interesting art news stories, just an update on the Little Portion Hermitage project. Thank you again to those of you who have already donated, and who are keeping it in your prayers. We are doing well, slowly and steadily working toward our goal, but there’s still aways to go yet. If you or someone you know may be able to help, please consider joining in our effort to both encourage the eremitic life, and to finally get Brother Rex (and his cat, Clare) a permanent home. Your contribution is tax-deductible, and the charity is fully-licensed in the state of Maine. I’ve been greatly honored to have served on the board since its inception, and it means a great deal to me. So thank you, in advance, for your support.

Moore in Maine

Meanwhile, one of the new exhibitions in New York that I’m planning to drop in on this weekend would probably interest Edward Hopper himself, particularly since the subject is his beloved state of Maine. Contemporary artist John Moore (1941-) paints substantial, mesmerizing canvases in a style that recalls Photorealists such as Richard Estes (1932-), but with less of a hard edge, and employing a rich palette that, here, speaks to the pastel shades that often color the atmosphere after a passing shower. His latest show, “After the Rain”, which opened at Hirschl & Adler in New York just recently, juxtaposes decaying industrial elements with the beauty of water, cloud formations, and incredibly luxuriant plants that look as though they came out of a Medieval illuminated manuscript. The eye delights in Moore’s attention to detail, and the occasional note of visual humor challenges the brain into thinking more closely about what it sees. “After the Rain” runs through December 6th.


Ray Rethink

Staying in New York for the moment, American Surrealist Man Ray (1890-1976) is probably best known these days as an experimental photographer, who created some of the most iconic images of the Art Deco era, in locations from Paris to Hollywood. Yet Ray always considered himself to be a painter, first and foremost, something which has been neglected in the years since his death. To help remedy that, a new exhibition of Ray’s paintings brought together from museums and private collections around the world has just opened at the Di Donna Galleries in New York, showing the wide range of images which Ray produced during his career. As the ongoing effort to complete the catalogue raisonné of Ray’s efforts on canvas and paper continues, shows such as this are critically important not only in drawing attention to an artist’s work, but also in flushing out pieces that may be forgotten or unidentified. What may prove particularly interesting here is what we’ll see starting to emerge from attics and rumpus rooms around the country, in reaction to renewed interest in Ray’s paintings, and start heading to the galleries and auction rooms. “Enigma and Desire: Man Ray Paintings” runs through December 13th.


Humongous Hale

Speaking of Art Deco, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art (“OKCMOA”) is about to unveil a newly-restored, ginormous work of that era, as part of a new exhibition on American art during the Great Depression. The 24-foot wide canvas, “The Triumph of Washington” (1931) was painted by American Realist Gardner Hale (1894-1931). Back in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Hale was an up-and-coming young artist who received commissions from around the country to paint giant frescoes and murals. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident in December 1931 while on vacation with his wife in California, and so he never got to see his mural displayed at the Smithsonian as part of the bicentennial celebrations marking George Washington’s birth. The piece later ended up in a private collection in New Jersey, where it was stored rolled up in a box for over 80 years, before being acquired by OKCMOA. You can check out a video of the massive canvas being installed, over on the Museum’s YouTube channel, and while the juxtaposition of Washington et al before a skyline of Art Deco skyscrapers and surrounded by a sea of flags is completely over the top, I have to say I kind of love it. “Renewing the American Spirit: The Art of the Great Depression” opens at the OKCMOA on Saturday, November 2nd, and runs through April 26th.



What Price, Cimabue?

Readers will recall the rather stunning news I reported on a month ago, that “The Mocking of Christ”, an extremely rare panel painting by the proto-Renaissance Florentine painter Cimabue (c. 1240-1302) had been found hanging in the kitchen of a somewhat humble apartment in France. The small picture, which was once part of a larger altarpiece, was auctioned in suburban Paris this past Sunday, and carried a pre-sale estimate of between $6-7 million. In the end, it sold for over $26 million, which is not only a new record sales price for the artist, but is also the highest amount ever paid at auction for a medieval work of art.


There’s no word yet on who bought the painting, or where it will end up, but we do know that it was purchased jointly by two anonymous collectors. Fabrizio Moretti, one of the most successful of the (comparatively few) younger art dealers handling Old Masters these days, bid on their behalf. I suspect that I probably would have reacted as he did, when he was able to see the Cimabue for the first time. “It’s one of the most important old master discoveries in the last 15 years,” Art Critique quotes him as saying. “When I held the picture in my hands, I almost cried.”

Part of me is left wondering what the astronomical price paid for this picture really represents. Bear in mind that this was an auction, not a gallery sale. That means that at least two bidders were willing to go tens of millions of dollars over the estimated value of this work, in order to obtain it. We don’t know why these bidders wanted the picture, but we can think of some explanations for why they overpaid, which a more rational, detached observer might conclude that they did.

The easiest explanation of course, is the economic one. In this analysis, the value of a piece is set by what buyers in the marketplace are willing to pay for it. In turn, what those buyers are willing to pay is based on a number of factors, such as scarcity, condition, fitness for purpose, and so on. It’s also the case generally that, the rarer and more highly valued the commodity, the fewer people there are with the resources necessary to obtain it.

Yet there’s also a very important intangible to consider here, which is at least partly reflected in S. Moretti’s reaction to the Cimabue, and that is the question of taste. In this instance, we don’t know whether the taste which motivated the buyers of the Cimabue was entirely of their own motivation, or whether it was one which their dealer has been helping them to develop. At the end of the day, an art dealer needs to make a profit, since the trade does not run on a mantra of “l’art pour l’art”, but what distinguishes a good art dealer from a bad one are not only things like market knowledge or negotiating skill, but also a willingness and indeed an enthusiasm for educating his client.

In my own case, if I were to put myself in the shoes of a potential buyer in this situation, what would I have done? Certainly, I recognize the significance of both Cimabue and this tiny panel, because owning this object carries with it a great deal of responsibility to make sure that it is preserved for future generations. I have to ask myself however, whether I would have paid nearly $27 million for it, assuming of course that I had that kind of lolly just lying about.

The answer, I’m afraid, is no.

It’s not because I dislike Cimabue, I hasten to add, nor is it because I deny the picture’s historic importance, or because I dislike the subject matter. This is a lovely jewel of a piece, by a figure of immense importance to art history, which depicts a scene of great spiritual significance in the faith which I profess. In short, I’m very aware of what this object is.

No, the reason I wouldn’t want to spend that much comes down to that slippery question of taste. Don’t misunderstand me: I’ve always loved Florentine art, and have studied certain aspects of it for decades. I wouldn’t mind owning a small piece like this, whether a scene from Scripture or the lives of the saints, of the classic gold ground panel housed in a carved, gessoed frame variety.

Yet there comes a point in late Medieval/early Renaissance Italian art in which these dismembered limbs from once glorious altarpieces, that were chopped up a century or more ago in order to make them easier to sell to collectors, become difficult to tell apart. Just last weekend, for example, I wandered through one of the Renaissance rooms of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where there are perhaps a dozen or so 13th century panels hanging on the walls or inside display cases. Admittedly, I had never seen any of these pieces before, and I only know just enough about Italian art from this period to get myself into trouble, but without looking at the placards it was almost impossible for me to identify any of the painters of these objects.

In the end, the Cimabue is a beautiful painting of great quality, but is it $27 million worth of beautiful? Particularly when one could, for example, obtain a very rare religious work by Velázquez – such as this wonderful painting sold at Sotheby’s a few years ago of the early Christian martyr St. Rufina of Seville, as modeled by one of the artist’s daughters – for a bit more than half the price? I know which one I’d choose – although, as long as we’re playing fantasy art collector league, I wouldn’t say no to a $10 million Duccio.


Art News Roundup: Mamma Mia Edition

Please forgive my Tuesday silence, gentle reader, but I was home in bed with the first man-flu of the season. Thanks to those of you who posted and sent encouraging messages while I wallowed in my misery. Being cooped up for three days, I had plenty of time to read on various art topics in-depth, and this particular story about a monument that hasn’t even been built yet was simply too good not to share.

Last year Chirlane McCray, the wife of New York City’s current mayor Bill de Blasio, spearheaded a project called “She Built New York”, with the goal of putting up more monuments to women who contributed to the history of the city. As part of the effort, a poll was launched in which the public were allowed to nominate candidates to be honored. Of all the women nominated, the one who received far and away the most nods was St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), the first American woman to be canonized a saint.

Mother Cabrini, as she is more popularly known, was an Italian-American immigrant who arrived in New York in 1889, and went on to found schools, hospitals, and orphanages to care for the immigrant poor in New York, and later in cities throughout the country, from Chicago to Seattle. The vote on putting up a statue to her wasn’t even close. The second most popular nominee, new urbanism theorist and activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) – who BTW definitely deserves a monument for her efforts to fight the atrocities of the man who tried to destroy the city, urban planner Robert Moses (1881-1981) – received less than half the nominations that Mother Cabrini did. However, for reasons which I will leave to the reader to muse upon, Mother Cabrini was left off the final list, despite her runaway popularity with New Yorkers.


As one might imagine, Italian-Americans in the city were furious, but perhaps chief among them was Nicholas DiMarzio, the present Bishop of Brooklyn. For you see, his Excellency is not only an Italian-American himself, and the bishop of the borough where Mother Cabrini was based in New York, but he has kept a small statue of Mother Cabrini on his desk for the past 50 years, having a great devotion to her. Not surprisingly then, the Diocese announced that since Gracie Mansion had no interest in honoring Mother Cabrini, it would start its own fundraising campaign to put up a public monument to the saint near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.

As part of the effort to raise awareness and donations, Bishop DiMarzio recently led a procession from the park in Brooklyn named after Mother Cabrini to a nearby parish which she would have known in her lifetime, where he celebrated Mass. Said parish is actually a merged community of two former congregations, as the former Italian-American parish of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary – where Mother Cabrini and her sisters had worshiped – was, ironically, bulldozed by the aforementioned Robert Moses in 1941 in order to build an expressway, despite the loud protests of many Italian-American New Yorkers. Yet stay with me, gentle reader, for this rather opera buffa-like story doesn’t end there.

Now it seems that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself an Italian-American, has stepped into the fray, and announced that New York State will be donating the funds needed by the Diocese to erect a monument to Mother Cabrini in Brooklyn, since Mayor de Blasio won’t be stepping up to the plate. Meanwhile, after being chewed out on-air during a radio call-in show by actor Chazz Palminteri – a native New Yorker, Italian-American, and devout Catholic – the Mayor seems to be back-pedaling a bit. Mr. de Blasio indicated that the city may well put up its own statue to Mother Cabrini in a “second round” of monuments, once the first seven selected by Mrs. Hizzoner get their plinths. Thus, it’s entirely possible that New York will end up with two sculptures honoring America’s first saint, rather than one.

For some of my readers this story may seem very, very strange, particularly since the subject of the as-yet-unbuilt monument was a lady of devout piety who cared for the poor. However for those of you who, like me, are personally very familiar with how people of Mediterranean origin tend to work out their differences, this all reads quite a bit like what tends to happen at the family dinner table. Only now, it’s been thrust out onto the public stage.

In the meantime, I plan to keep an eye on the proposals for the monument(s), since one assumes that there will be a competition for the design. Personally, I would go for whatever another Italian-American, sculptor Anthony Visco, proposes, if there’s going to be a competition. Stay tuned!

Park Perspective

Staying in New York for the moment, those of you who are interested in landscape architecture will want to pick up a copy of a beautifully illustrated new book by Cynthia S. Brenwall, “The Central Park: Original Designs for New York’s Greatest Treasure”, which is the subject of a very interesting review published this month in Antiques. It never really occurred to me before that, thanks to the tear-down-and-build-bigger mentality of developers and the (again) machinations of Robert Moses, most of Victorian-era New York has vanished, with the exception of Central Park. Although some elements that were proposed for the park were never built, and others have disappeared due to decay or neglect, much that is old remains, even if surrounded today by, as reviewer James Gardner puts it, “buildings taller than the citizens of the nineteenth century could have conceived in a fever dream.”


Meadows Maravillas

Heading south to Dallas, the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University – which I really must get down to see at some point – has two new exhibitions of interest to those of you who, like me, love Spanish art. “El Greco, Goya, and a Taste for Spain: Highlights from The Bowes Museum” runs through January 12th, and is the first-ever visit to these shores of treasures from the Bowes in County Durham, including works by Claudio Coello (1642–1693), Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-1690), and of course El Greco (1541-1614) and Goya (1746-1828). Just down the hall, “Sorolla in the Studio: An Exceptional Loan from an Important Spanish Collection”, which runs through January 12th, focuses on a female nude by Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923), and the artist’s working method at the beginning of the 20th century. The piece was Sorolla’s response to the “Rockeby Venus” by Velázquez (1599-1660), now in the National Gallery in London, which in turn was a response to the Uffizi’s “Venus of Urbino” by Titian (c. 1488-1576), which itself was inspired by the “Sleeping Venus” by Giorgione (c. 1477–1510), now in Dresden. Eat your Wheaties, and learn your art history, kids.


Franco’s Favorite

Sticking with things Spanish, as Spain removes the remains of the late dictator Francisco Franco from the Basilica at the Valle de los Caídos– where he never wanted to be buried anyway – to a cemetery in suburban Madrid, Art & Object has an interesting overview on the life and work of painter Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945), a Basque artist whose work you’ve probably never heard of (except for when I occasionally write about him.) The article riffs off the fact that Zuloaga was much appreciated by Franco, a man admittedly not known for his good taste, though as is usually the case with people writing about the Spanish Civil War this piece is lacking in nuance. Still, it’s worth reading, as Zuloaga’s work has not really been examined closely by English-speaking art critics, at least not yet.

On a personal level, for many years I was turned off by many of Zuloaga’s mature period portraits of rather vampy women, who to me often look like morphine fiends. Yet as I grow older I’ve come to appreciate some of his earlier paintings, such as that shown below, “Woman of Alcalá de Guadaíra” (1896), which is reminiscent of the best of the fin de siècle Catalan artists such as Ramon Casas (1866-1932) and Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931). Having seen this very beautiful painting in person, I can tell you that both the robin’s egg blue jacket and the white muslin skirt of the model positively shimmer in the light.



Before we close, just an update on what might be called our “Home for a Hermit” project: thanks to those of you who have already donated, and who are keeping the effort in your prayers. Steady progress is being made toward our goal of finally raising enough to purchase a permanent home for the Little Portion Hermitage, so if you or someone you know might be able to help, please consider joining us. I thank you in advance for your kindness.

Art News Roundup: Solo Goya Edition

Like any other commodity, art gets around, but so do the ideas which lead to stylistic innovations in art.

Case in point: next weekend the Cincinnati Art Museum will open a major exhibition called “Treasures of the Spanish World”, featuring works of fine and decorative art from Spain and Latin America. All of the exhibits are on loan from the temporarily-shuttered Hispanic Society of America Museum & Library in New York, whose grand headquarters has been undergoing major renovation and is expected to reopen next year. The fact that such a large collection exists outside of Spain is quite remarkable, but the fact that it’s in America is a great opportunity for my fellow Americans to learn more about the role of Spain in cultural history.

Among the most significant objects heading to Ohio is Francisco de Goya’s controversial masterpiece, popularly known as “La Duquesa Negra” (“The Black Duchess”) because of her attire, but more properly a “Portrait of the Duchess of Alba” (1797). As the preferred painter of the Spanish Court, Goya (1746-1828) took a different tack from his predecessors, often depicting the royal family and their courtiers in rather unsympathetic or perhaps more earthy fashion. The nature of his relationship with one of his aristocratic patrons, the aforementioned Duchess of Alba, has always been subject to a great deal of gossip and speculation.


That whiff of scandal comes in part from the fact that, in this painting, the Duchess is shown pointing to something on the ground. Closer examination reveals that is writing, which reads “solo Goya” (“only Goya”). Because from our perspective the words are upside down, the implication is that the Duchess herself has written the text in the dirt. If that wasn’t enough to set tongues wagging, note that the Duchess is depicted wearing two rings: one bears the name, “Alba”, and the other the text, “solo Goya”, yet again.

Are these elements of the picture an indication that the Duchess only wanted the best, and that therefore she only wanted to be painted by Goya, the best artist then working in Spain, along the lines of the old advert, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins”? Or is there an implication of something more than a business relationship between patroness and painter? The reader is invited to draw his own conclusions, since art experts are still fighting over this topic.

The core of the Hispanic Society’s collection was assembled by philanthropist and Hispanophile Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955), who collected pieces from Spain, Portugal, and their former colonies, and his initial gift was added to over the years by subsequent donors. It includes everything from original Moorish tiles from the Alhambra Palace in Granada, to ivory colonial period statues from the Philippines and Goa. Everything won’t be heading to Cincinnati, of course, but what will be there should provide visitors with a hint of what to expect when the Society is finally able to move back into its home.

Due to the nature of the institution from which its component objects are drawn, this is the sort of exhibition that one doesn’t see very often in Europe, where there’s a tendency among the former imperial powers to segregate the work of their homegrown artists from those executed by artists in their former colonies. Yet once these countries began expanding their power and influence overseas, they couldn’t help but influence and themselves be influenced by the cultures that they were coming in contact with. We saw this last year in the Frick Collection’s exhibition of “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, where not only was there some evidence to suggest that the artist, the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), had executed the thirteen giant canvases for a client in South America, since his family had set up a kind of regional showroom in Lima to market his work in and around Peru, but several of the figures are depicted in garments that are reminiscent of traditional Inca attire.

Given the breadth of the Hispanic Society’s collection, and the extremely rare opportunity to see some of the key works from that collection outside of New York, I want to particularly encourage those of you in the Midwest, or who find yourselves there during the show’s run, to make the time to catch this show. The significant influence of Spain on the history and culture of the Americas and indeed of the United States is not a subject that is taught very much in schools, where the focus tends to be on the British and French empires. I suspect that, if you take the time to tour this exhibition, you will come away from it with a greater appreciation of that influence, as well as for the beautiful objects that the Spanish-speaking world has created over the centuries.

“Treasures of the Spanish World” is at the Cincinnati Art Museum from October 25th through January 19th.

And now, on to some of this week’s more interesting news stories from the art world.

Pamplona to Paris

Sticking with the Spanish theme for a moment, Juan Bautista del Mazo (c. 1612-1667) was an important painter from the Golden Age of Spanish art, whose work is not very well-known outside of specialist circles, not even within Spain. The son-in-law of Spain’s greatest painter, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), del Mazo trained in his future father-in-law’s studio beginning in the 1530’s, and assisted him on many commissions, particularly excelling in the depiction of landscapes. The two worked together so closely, that one of the big debates going on in art circles at the moment is whether some paintings that are currently attributed to Velázquez need to be re-assigned to del Mazo.

In the meantime, works that are currently known to be by the younger artist hardly ever come up for auction. Last week his “View of Pamplona” (c. 1550-1557), a fairly small painting at roughly around 2 feet by 4 feet, and featuring the coat of arms of the former kingdom of Navarra appearing in the clouds over the city, sold for $140,000 at auction in Paris. As greater research and new technologies begin to ascribe more of Velázquez’ work to del Mazo, and reassessment of the younger artist takes shape, his paintings are likely to increase in value, so I’d consider this purchase to have been quite a bargain for whoever bought it.


Naples to Seattle (and Dallas)

What looks to be an excellent new survey exhibition opening today in Seattle, and later moving to Dallas, will bring many great works of Renaissance and Baroque art to these shores for the first time. “Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum” at the Seattle Art Museum will showcase 40 works from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, whose core collection was formed by the powerful Farnese family, and later acquired by the Bourbons. Visitors will have the distinct pleasure of seeing two portraits of the same member of the Farnese family, painted by two of the greatest artists in history, but executed decades apart: Raphael’s “Portrait of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese” (c.1509-1511), and Titian’s “Portrait of Pope Paul III” (1543). The show runs through January 26th, after which it will travel to the Kimbell in Dallas from March 1st to June 14th.


Staying Put in Pompeii

And speaking of the Bay of Naples, last week I mentioned how British scientists are going to try to read hundreds of carbonized scrolls buried in the infamous 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, among other sites. This week, archaeologists digging at Pompeii have uncovered a remarkably well-preserved depiction of Roman gladiators fighting in the arena, with one having clearly wounded the other in rather graphic fashion. The wall fresco is located in the basement of what is believed to have been a tavern or wine shop, and was probably the 1st-century equivalent of a sports bar frequented by professional athletes, their supporters, and their groupies. Despite centuries of digging, much of the ancient site remains unexcavated, so hopefully there will be more of these discoveries to come.



Just a gentle reminder to please consider supporting a cause that’s very dear to me. Thank you!!


A Special Request of My Readers

Gentle Reader:

I don’t normally come to you begging for support, but in this case I’m doing so via the blog, in part because I know that a number of you either aren’t on social media at all, or you use it only occasionally – and otherwise you might not be aware of a charitable effort that I’m involved in and promoting across media platforms.

Please join me in support of an effort that is very close to my heart: to finally establish a permanent home for Little Portion Hermitage, whose board I’ve been proud to serve on for the past several years. We’ve been steadily raising funds and met our initial fundraising goal, but as it’s turned out, these days even the most humble of hermit homes doesn’t come cheap. We can’t keep sending out the current hermit, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, to go look at potentially suitable properties, while knowing that we still don’t have quite enough to be able to acquire one.

If you’re thinking about making a donation, I want to reassure you that this effort is a legitimate one. Friends of Little Portion Hermitage is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization registered in the state of Maine, and all donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Brother Rex himself is a consecrated hermit in accordance with Canon 603 of the Roman Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, and is under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of the Diocese of Portland. This effort is therefore properly aligned with both Civic and Church authorities.

If you’re not in a position to help out financially, then I’ll ask you two things: please keep this effort in your prayers, and please pass along this information to anyone whom you think may be able to contribute, or who might know people in a position to do so.

Thank you in advance for your kindness!


Little Portion Hermitage:


Federalist Twofer: Art Nouveau Scotland and Renaissance Spain

This morning, gentle reader, I have two new exhibition reviews of mine to point you towards – one published last week, and one today – looking at the work of two very different, important figures.

For those of you who missed it, my penultimate piece for The Federalist was uploaded this past Thursday. In it, I reviewed a new show at The Walters in Baltimore, on the life and work of architect, artist, and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), and the development of the Glasgow Style of art and design. Although I still find something rather off-putting about a great deal his work, the retrospective did have, in the form of several of his late watercolors, some unexpected highlights that I found very appealing indeed. In fact, if someone were to take on the task, I’d love to see a show dedicated solely to Mackintosh’s late paintings, like the one shown below, so that we could see more of his mesmerizing, highly-detailed views of the south of France, alongside his compositions featuring arrangements of lush flowers and carefully-observed everyday objects.


But wait: there’s more!

You can also head over to The Federalist and read my latest, released today, reviewing the first-ever American exhibition on the great Spanish Renaissance sculptor Alonso Berruguete (c. 1488-1561). The show opened at the National Gallery here in the Nation’s Capital this past weekend, and while nowhere near as large as the Mackintosh retrospective, it will certainly appeal to those interested in sculpture, architecture, and seeing how the Renaissance developed outside of Italy. It will also appeal more specifically to those of you who enjoyed the wildly popular “Sacred Made Real” exhibition of Spanish sacred art in London and Washington some years ago.

Although I was already well-acquainted with Berruguete before seeing the show, having seen a great deal of his stuff in Spain, when looking at his work outside of its usual context it suddenly struck me that it was far more forward-looking than I had previously appreciated. Technically, this is Renaissance art, but it’s clear that in many aspects – its drama, convolutions, and highly decorated surfaces – one could argue that Berruguete was anticipating the development of the Baroque by over a century. It’s his combination of Classical, Gothic, and Moorish, however, unlike anything that came before it, that will stun you if you see the exhibition, like the detail shown below.


Both of these shows will be traveling after they finish their runs in Baltimore and DC, so be sure to check here and here to see if you’ll be able to catch them during their time in the U.S.

If you like either (or both) of these articles, do be so kind as to share your feedback over in the comments section at The Federalist? For some reason the comment section over there tends to turn into a slug fest between commenters arguing about subjects which have little or nothing to do with what I’m writing about, so it would be nice to read some thoughtful feedback/criticism for a change. Many thanks in advance!