Category Archives: Art

A Sumptuous Painting Surrounded by Stories – WSJ

Sounds like what my “Art Salon” is all about!

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There is plenty of speculation about the unknown sitter’s identity in Titian’s glittering ‘Portrait of a Lady in White,’ a work that flaunts the artist’s technical skills.

Sometimes the stories and speculations that surround works of art can deflect from our interest in the work itself. That’s certainly true of Titian’s glittering “Portrait of a Lady in White” (c. 1561), currently in Southern California on loan to Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum from the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) of Germany’s Dresden State Art Collections—home to some of the world’s best-known old master paintings. The lady’s enigmatic glance and lavish, yet monochrome, attire provide ample excuse for conjecture as to both her identity and the assertively rhyming nature of her costume. It’s unusual to have a catalog for a single-painting exhibition, but this one is exceptionally rich in resources for information about the canvas’s history, travels and recent conservation, as well as details about the sitter’s costume, jewelry and possible identity.

‘Portrait of a Lady in White’ (c. 1561), by Titian
‘Portrait of a Lady in White’ (c. 1561), by Titian Photo: Elke Estel/ Hans-Peter Klut

Born around 1488/90, Tiziano Vecellio, known to us as Titian, was apprenticed as a youth to Venice’s most eminent painters, the brothers Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, and by the time of his death during the 1576 plague epidemic he had spent years as the most internationally acclaimed of many great Venetian Renaissance artists. This portrait is among Titian’s late works, and there is documentary evidence suggesting that this is the same painting the artist sent to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, in 1561. When August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, purchased a hundred works from the Este Collection in 1746, the “Lady in White” was included, and it is already listed in the elector’s paintings catalog of 1765. The work remained in Dresden until 1945, when it was among the art taken to Moscow by the Soviets, who returned it to Dresden, then part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), in 1955.

The depiction of such an elegant lady inevitably leads to speculation as to her identity, and there have been suggestions that she was a model, a courtesan, or one of the artist’s daughters. Moreover, there had been two versions of the work—the presumably slightly earlier one, sent to Philip II of Spain in 1559, is long lost and now known only via a 1628/29 copy by Rubens (now in Vienna). As the Gemäldegalerie’s curator of Italian painting, Andreas Henning, writes in the catalog, the fact that Titian not only painted the same subject twice, but “took up the same model…in various other paintings, clearly shows that the woman portrayed is not seen as much as a real person as an ideal.”

That appears evident to this viewer, based on the various lyrical effects that coalesce to give this painting its impact. Despite eyes that peer forcefully to the viewer’s right, the lady’s beauty doesn’t suggest anything much about her personality. The red lips, rosy cheeks and finely plucked eyebrows could serve as an ad for a cosmetics company. Even the gossamer covering of the lady’s shoulders and décolletage seems primarily about Titian’s painting virtuosity; the lack of tension on the decorative lacing across the front of her corset tells us that the artist has only the faintest interest in visually defining her bust. Rubens’s copy of the lost, slightly earlier, version shows no such restraint, as he manages to slightly emphasize the contours of her bosom and dangles a gemstone pendant between her breasts. Was this a characteristic “Rubenesque” interpretation or was Titian’s earlier now-lost version also a tad racier?

Discussions as to whether the lavish white dress might be wedding attire seem beside the point. This is a visual feast replete with generous servings of old-fashioned visual rhymes. The pearl hairband, earrings and necklace rhyme with the fabric puffs at the top of her left sleeve and continue on the ruching of the bodice. The gold bracelets rhyme with the bits of gold thread and the lady’s golden hair, and even the clearly delineated gold that holds the left earring’s pearl, and the gold ring on her left hand. The deep red stone in that ring, in turn, rhymes with the lady’s red lips and paler red cheeks, fading into the barely palpable rose tone of her face and bodice. The flag/fan she holds appears in other paintings of the time, but it’s also suggestive of the lily held by the archangel Gabriel in Annunciation paintings; in those works, Gabriel generally displays minimal affect, in contrast with the Virgin, and that’s how this lady appears as well.

This may not be the earliest painting that suggests an intoxication with the challenge of painting gorgeous satin. But surely Titian was flinging down a gauntlet that was picked up with great panache in the 17th century by a range of artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Ter Borch and others, vying for the most dazzling displays of that fabric. These effects remained a staple of show-off portraiture through the 18th and 19th centuries. Both Whistler and Sargent, for example, were challenged in wholly different ways by painting ladies in white dresses. An art wag’s hybrid of Sigmund Freud and Frank Stella might pronounce that “sometimes a painting is just a painting.” In the case of Titian’s “Portrait of a Lady in White,” we can only respond, “But oh, what a painting!”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-sumptuous-painting-surrounded-by-stories-11552667110?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=2

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Castiglione: Lost Genius.

Sure wish I could visit this collection.
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By Karen Wilkin
WSJ Jan. 12, 2016 5:23 p.m.
Fort Worth, Texas

It’s not an overstatement to describe “ Castiglione: Lost Genius. Masterworks on Paper From the Royal Collection,” at the Kimbell Art Museum, as “revelatory.” I confess, however, that I hadn’t planned to see the exhibition. I simply happened to arrive in Fort Worth on the evening the show opened, visiting my friend George Shackelford, the Kimbell’s deputy director. “You’re going to be surprised,” George said, as we headed off to the museum.

I wondered. The Genoese painter Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664) was one of those obscure 17th-century Italians whose name I always had to check on museum labels. I vaguely recalled once having been impressed by some amazing sheep and a wonderful turkey in a picture in a French museum, but Castiglione had never firmly installed himself in my mental image bank. There were elaborate prints, I thought, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them, either. I seemed to remember, though, that he was known in his lifetime for explosive bad behavior, rather like his predecessor Caravaggio.

Shephard with Urn, With His Flock - (mid-1640s)

George was right. Castiglione’s drawings proved to be dazzling, the etchings were gorgeous, and the monotypes—which I had been unaware of— were extraordinary. The most striking drawings, made principally between the mid-1630s and mid-1650s, were of biblical stories or secular pastoral scenes, with the occasional foray into mythology. Many of them related to paintings, but a group of highly finished, unusually large drawings, dating from the 1640s and 1650s, at the heart of the installation, remained a mystery. Rather than being preparations for any of Castiglione’s known paintings, they seem to have been made as ends in themselves—a highly unusual notion for the time. (The wall texts suggested they may have been intended as substitutes for commissioned paintings that the famously irascible artist didn’t complete.)

Whatever their subject or intention, Castiglione’s drawings were all packed with agile, gesticulating figures and personable animals, very recognizable but conjured up with a minimum of loose, apparently rapid strokes. Each participant, human or otherwise, demonstrated an individual, clearly expressed response to the event depicted.

This kind of narrative “acting,” meant to be followed like a text, was evidence of what Castiglione learned from his celebrated French contemporary, Nicolas Poussin, whose carefully staged works the slightly younger man from Genoa encountered during an extended sojourn in Rome. But Castiglione’s astonishing range of brushmarks seemed wholly his own: scribbles, smudges, crisp parallel strokes, fluid sweeps, controlled pools and splotches. This vocabulary of touches not only evoked lively images, but also created an all-over expanse of flickering darks and lights—a tonal fabric so complex and rich that it was tempting to consider it independently of its subject matter, like an expressive 20th-century abstraction.

The richness and dynamic pulse of the drawings was fascinating, as were the freedom and seeming ease with which Castiglione assembled his complicated compositions. Even more compelling was learning from the exhibition’s organizers and authors of its comprehensive catalog, the Castiglione scholar Timothy J. Standring and Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings, Royal Collection Trust, that these complicated, apparently effortless visual dramas had been executed alla prima, in sepia-toned oil paint using a dry brush, with no underdrawing or preparation of any kind. This improvisatory way of working seemed strangely modern, like the unstable, light-struck crowds of figures, animals and landscape elements that resulted from this exuberant approach.

Equally dazzling light effects were evident in the etchings, for which Castiglione was celebrated in his day. Mostly of religious subjects, they were testimony to their author’s familiarity with his near-coeval Rembrandt’s prints. Castiglione’s originality was manifest in the monotypes—a technique he seems to have invented, in which a metal plate is coated with sticky ink, white elements are scraped or wiped out, and one or two images printed. The dark and light contrast in Castiglione’s monotypes was so abrupt, their bold, staccato marks so economical and spontaneous, that it was difficult to believe that these startling images were made in the mid-17th century.

The supercharged intensity of the monotypes, however, made it easy to believe the stories about Castiglione’s notoriously volatile temper, which troubled his relationship with patrons and tainted his reputation during his lifetime. After his death, it seems, his virtuosity outweighed tales of his bad character. The 90 drawings, etchings and monotypes in “Lost Genius,” for example, have been in the British royal collection since 1762, when King George III purchased more than 200 of Castiglione’s works on paper from a former British consul who assembled them earlier in the century, when the artist was acclaimed and appreciated. Yet in the 19th century, Castiglione’s improvisatory style fell out of favor and he was essentially forgotten. Messrs. Standring and Clayton deserve enormous thanks for reintroducing us to a remarkable artist. And I’m very glad I went to Fort Worth.

Ms. Wilkin is an independent curator and critic.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/castiglione-lost-genius-masterworks-on-paper-from-the-royal-collection-review-1452637387

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‘Alfred Maurer: At the Vanguard of Modernism’ Review

I’m in a little “Art Club”, and I found this interesting.
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By Lance Esplund May 25, 2015 2:28 p.m. ET
Andover, Mass.

It is nearly impossible to convey the original impact an artist from the past had on his contemporaries. What matters is his artworks’ impression in the here-and-now. But art and artists don’t exist in a vacuum. A painter’s worth can be entangled, complicated, multifarious. Through hindsight, he can become more—or less—estimable; and the value of his initial reception may outweigh that of his oeuvre.

These issues struck me while viewing “ Alfred Maurer: At the Vanguard of Modernism,” a survey of more than 70 paintings at the Addison Gallery of American Art, on the campus of Andover’s Phillips Academy. Like Maurer’s artwork, the Addison mixes Modernist and Neoclassical sensibilities, and the show looks perfectly at home in this compact, noble museum. Co-curated by Maurer scholar Stacey B. Epstein and Susan Faxon, the Addison’s associate director, the retrospective is supplemented by numerous loans from major public and private collections. And it raises as many questions as it answers about Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932), a storied and tragic figure who garnered early international success as a Realist; pursued Fauvism, Expressionism and Cubism with a vengeance; and, his reputation languishing, hanged himself in his childhood home.

The unsettling questions: We know that Maurer was among the first Americans to experience the art of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. But did he advance the revolution? Was he a comrade-in-arms or merely a tourist—passing through?

Eternally restless, Maurer was a gifted, omnivorous and fickle painter. He was also an emissary, in America, for European Modernism. Maurer was born in New York. His father, the German-born artist-lithographer Louis Maurer (1832-1932), worked for Currier and Ives, idealizing America’s booming industry and its waning frontier. Maurer followed suit, studying with Louis’s teacher William Merritt Chase. In 1897, however, he moved to Paris, enrolling temporarily at the Académie Julian; but he soon sought training alongside other expats in the American Art Association—schooling himself in cafes, salons, galleries and the Louvre.

In Paris, where he lived more or less permanently for 17 years, Maurer fell under the exotic spell of Edouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler. And he befriended Leo and Gertrude Stein, whose superb collection of the Parisian avant-garde consumed Maurer like a fever. Soon, he abandoned his tonal palette for wild, fragmented Fauvist color. He also acted as an agent for Albert C. Barnes, choosing and purchasing Modernist artworks for his pioneering collection; and he was instrumental in organizing the 1913 Armory Show.

The Addison’s chronological retrospective, divided into five galleries, represents distinctive periods and styles—suggesting not a survey but a group show. The first and largest room establishes Maurer as an accomplished Realist, incorporating elements of Manet, Whistler, Chase and John Singer Sargent.

Detail of An Arrangement (1901)

Paintings here include the award-winning “An Arrangement” (1901)—a dark, moody portrait of a woman seated on a tilted floor—exciting for two Chinese vases, which feel whiplashed into being. Typically, Maurer’s figures seem locked into place, as if he were nailing down all the details. In “At the Shore” (1901), calligraphically rendered children—secondary characters—are the most believable and satisfying. Unusual here is Maurer’s assured, luminous gem “Rockaway Beach with Pier” (c. 1901). Its cursory forms—fluid surf, sand, boats, bathers and sky—suffused in blue light, magically coalesce.

Anxiety energizes these early academic works, as if Maurer’s painting style were an ill-fitting suit. In “Young Woman in Kimono” (c. 1901), in which a brilliant blood-red overpowers a sea of earth tones, Maurer’s color seems to be attempting to break free, to take flight. And in the loosely handled, standing life-size portrait “Jeanne” (c. 1904), the woman, cigarette in hand, snidely glares at the viewer. Her tilted hat swoops like a bird.

The next two galleries bustle with Fauvist landscapes, portraits and still lifes from 1907-14. Ecstatic, reborn, Maurer emulates Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain. Entering these galleries is like walking into a hothouse. In the best works here—including “Fauve Landscape with Train” (c. 1907), “Landscape with Trees” (1909), “Autumn” (c. 1912) and a series of “Fauve Landscapes” (c. 1908-12)—Maurer thinks, and breathes, in color. He expresses himself emotionally, interpreting the world with genuinely fresh eyes.

But too often Maurer’s work devolves into pastiche. His Fauvism feels applied, secondhand—not lived, not essential. The critic Henry McBride referred to Maurer’s styles as coming “wholesale . . . not so much a growth as a mere change of garments . . . [American paintings in which] there always remained . . . the tingle of a foreign accent.”

Maurer was neither a great draftsman nor a great colorist. In his tonal paintings these defects are less evident; but when he pares down to spare bold lines and broad planes of Fauvist color, his compositions fall short. Still, Maurer’s Fauvist period—especially his pictures in the Barnes Collection—is his strongest.

The final two galleries include paintings mostly from the 1920s on, when Maurer engaged with Cubism, Expressionism and abstraction. Here, he incorporated the Metaphysical Surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico and the elongations of Amedeo Modigliani, and he unsuccessfully wedded Fauvist color to Cubist structures.

Detail of Autumn (c 1912)

This show demonstrates that Maurer’s work cannot match that of the Europeans he so admired. Yet there are a few lovely, authentic and heartfelt pictures.

“Abstract Still Life, No. 2” (1928-30)—plaintive creams and grays ruptured by turquoise—is a masterpiece. And in a beautiful 1924 broadside illustrated by Maurer, Sherwood Anderson writes about his collection of Maurers: “These paintings are such living things, plucked out of the life of modern cities. The young girls are like desert flowers, flashing into quick beauty just caught . . .” Reading this, it struck me that Maurer’s gift may have been time-sensitive. His greatest contribution may have been that of acting as an intermediary—a bridge. Maurer’s multifarious paintings, fresh from Paris, provided Americans with the perfect introductory mixed bouquet—representative of the various species of the European avant-garde.

Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.
http://www.wsj.com/articles/alfred-maurer-at-the-vanguard-of-modernism-review-1432578487

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