The Sartorialist Channels Old-Master Painting by Carracci

I've been following Scott Schuman's Sartorialist blog for a long time. He is famous for capturing street fashion trends. But, occasionally he'll include capture images that seemingly nothing to do with fashion and capture a remarkable sense of place. Today, he posted an image of a "young butcher" in Asni, Morocco.

Maybe it's just the art historian in me; I was immediately reminded of "The Butcher Shop" (c. 1580) by Annibale Carracci (Bologna, 1560 — Rome, 1609). While Annibale and his brother, Ludovico, are often remembered for their Classical Baroque work, this painting demonstrates his remarkable range of experimentation.

Shuffling at Tate Britain: New rooms and old friends

I'm in London just in time to see changes made to Tate Britain, and share a few snapshots from my visit.

The Museum's collections have been rearranged and expanded. (Learn more here.) Works, such as Eve (1900) by Thomas Brock (1847-1922), have been taken from other museums — Eve was formerkly in the sculpture gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it stood on a very high pedestal — and put within the context of contemporaneous works.

With all works in chronological order, the Museum a visual feast of 500 years of British art. However, about seventy percent of eye-level wall space is given to art created in the last ninety years. One has to wonder why one of the museum's most popular paintings, The Lady of Shallot by J.W. Waterhouse is hanging some ten feet above a row of paintings, while cavernous space is given to "sound art" and "visual projections."

There, I've shared my nineteenth-century, figurative-art bias.

Now I can say without reservation that the Tate Britain is better than ever. Go see the paintings . . . and the sculptures!! Oh, the sculptures! They are worth visiting a thousand times.

Caravaggio and His Legacy in Los Angeles . . . errr what you doing here?

Does Baroque art burn more calories than other genres? What did that couple in leather pants say about Mary Magdalene looking hot?  Was Luca Giordan0 the first street artist? Is linseed oil more environmentally friendly than egg tempura?

These are questions that naturally occur when seeing a Caravaggist exhibition in LA.  I'm kidding . . .  sort of.

In the past two days, I have visited the Los Angeles Museum of Art twice to see Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy  ( 11 Nov 2012 - 10 Feb 2013). It is a remarkable exhibition, for eight works by Michelangelo Caravaggio on view and even more for the large body of Baroque works on load from over a dozen international institutions.  (Whether or not you are able to attend, the exhibition catalogue has good illustrations–at a reasonable price–of the remarkable gathering of works at the show.)

I've heard a lot of bellyaching about there "only" being eight Caravaggio's. Hogwash. There are at least two dozen paintings that, alone, would be worth the price of admission.



Assessing a "new" Leonardo da Vinci: Don't talk to art historians about art

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Salvator Mundi (c. 1500) Oil on walnut panel. Private collection. Next month, the National Gallery of London will display a "previously-unknown work by Leonardo da Vinci." Called Salvator Mundi (i.e. "Savior of the World"), the painting has been compared to surviving, fragmented preparatory drawings and undisputed paintings by da Vinci. As a result, many scholars believe it should be counted among a handful of paintings by the artist. Others doubt. The portrait of Christ  will be on display in the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, opening on November 9 in London, for everyone to compare and opine.

Anticipating certain and divisive scrutiny, Nicholas Penny, the Director of the National Gallery, says he is "pretty sure" it is by da Vinci. He was interviewed by The Sunday Times(London) for a feature in the paper's magazine titled "Leonardo? Convince Me.":

"It is a very weird picture." . . . It shares something, he says, with Leonardo's portraits The Lady with the Ermine and the Mona Lisa. "They respond, but hold something back. You can't think about them except in relationship to the viewer. They imply a narrative of which you are a part. That was not true of portraiture before Leonardo. The Salvator Mundi radiates intense presence. But because it's Leonardo you do wonder if you're going mad–and you certainly want people whose opinions you respect to look at it." He pauses. "People can judge for themselves."  (Sunday Times Magazine. 9 OCT 2011.)

Before becoming Director, Mr. Penny was the Clore Curator of Renaissance Art at the National Gallery for ten years. He is a serious scholar; an expert. But, his advice here is nonsense. We may never be able to decisively attribute the painting to da Vinci–it has been over 500 years. But, we can certainly do better than stand in front of it to experience "radiated presence"–whatever that means–or take comfort in an "implied narrative." It is the  kind of non-methodical, relativistic drivel that has made art history and art historians completely irrelevant to public debate in our evidence-based era.


I don't think Mr. Penny's advice in this interview is the basis for his opinions; but, he has been trained by a hundred years of art historical practice to talk to the public about art in an imprecise and unhelpful way. The Salvator Mundi painting has been through a host of scientific tests, including carbon dating and comparative chemical testing of pigments used in undisputed da Vinci paintings; and, a series of comparative stylistic studies, such as analysis of stroke and process. These are not the kind of tools available to average museum-goers who Mr. Penny invites to "judge for themselves." If he were a lawyer, we would expect him to say "Here is the compelling evidence for and against . . . therefore I am pretty sure it is attributable to da Vinci." not: "I'm pretty sure . . . It's weird  . . .  ask someone else." It is a sign of our times that a trained scholar and Director of one of the world's great museums would tell people to look at and interpret a Renaissance painting as though it were a 1960s drip painting. It is evidence of the public death of a way of talking about art called the "Morellian Method."


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Lady with an Ermine (1485) Oil on wood panel. 54 by 39 cm. Czartoryski Museum, Kraków.

Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891) was a trained doctor who had a love of art. During his lifetime, royal and national museums sprung up throughout Europe. Many Old-Master works were placed on public display for the first time, leading to an international public dialogue on art not seen before or since. Competing for attention, these collections–sometimes of dubious origins– were often overzealous and sloppy in attributing works of art to marquee names. Paintings labelled "da Vinci" have since been downgraded to "School of da Vinci" or "Unknown Florentine Artist." At the time, art historians, critics and collectors were anxious to divide up painters into similar Schools (e.g. Spanish, French, Neopolitan) by observations of subject, palette and, even, size. Morelli had a different approach. He suggested that the same rigorous scientific methods used in medicine (e.g. dissection and observation) be applied to the observation of paintings. In particular, Morelli believed that an artist was best known by the minute and inconsequential parts of a painting: leaves on trees, fingernails, dirt. Artists didn't reveal themselves in the big things; but, in the mundane areas of their art that were not subject to constant reinvention. He wrote detailed treatises on the varied hand gestures of particular painters, contrasting them with others. Over time, he was considered a kind of Sherlock Holmes of painting.Though some of his attributions were incorrect, Morelli's object-based method pre-dated many scientific tools that his nineteenth-century philosophy would have embraced.

School of Leonardo da Vinci. Bacchus (c. 1510) Oil on walnut panel transferred to canvas. 177 by 115 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.


By the early twentieth century, paintings were interpreted differently. Art was considered mostly through philosophical arguments alone, not craftsmanship combined with philosophy. Morelli was not relevant to Dadaists or Pop Artists. But, it was my belief that thos, like Mr. Penny, who continued to study art in the Classical Tradition, would retain the rigor and language of a scientific method in order to understand, preserve and teach the public about these works. I think Mr. Penny has a deep understanding–many years beyond technical possibilities of Morelli's era–but his comments appear to indicate his lack of belief  public capacity or interest to see paintings in a rigorous way. Maybe that is just my implied narrative.

Real Basílica de San Francisco el Grande in Madrid

  Ricardo Bellver (Madrid, 1845-1924) San Andres (Saint Andrew) Marble. Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, Madrid.

Located a short walk from the Royal Palace, the Basilica de San Francisco el Grande is not on most tourists' itineraries. It should be. Even when tourist visit, it is to see the Capilla de San Bernardo (Chapel of Saint Bernard) where a large painting by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828) hangs. Goya's work is worth seeing; but, it is hardly the most impressive in the Basilica.The site for the building was chosen in 1214 by none other than Francis of Asisi (1182-1226). It became the capital's hub for religious Royal and national events. Several weddings by Bourbon rulers took place there. However, after invading French troops used the Basilica as a military barracks, the building fell into disuse. (Both because of the cost of restoration and its association with the French.) During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Spanish government commissioned the country's best native artists and architects to retore the Basilica. (By the way, a basilica is different from a Cathedral or church in many ways. For one, a Cathedral is dedicated to a particular saint. Basilica's are dedicated to the Virgin. They also represent different hierarchies within the Catholic Church. A priest says Mass in a church, a Bishop in a Cathedral and the Pope in a basilica.)

Real Basilica de San Francisco el Grande (Royal Basilica of Saint Francis the Great) Madrid, Spain.

The Basilica's principal dome–one of the largest in the world–was painted by Casto Plasencia Mayor (). Plasencia had studied in Rome, where he did extensive studies of Raphael's frescoes in the Pope's apartments. He also drew inspiration from the eighteenth-century frescoes done by Tiepolo for the Royal Palace, just down the street.

Casto Plasencia Mayor (Spanish, 1846-1890) Cupola for the Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, Madrid

There are six chapels, each dedicated to a different saint and featuring epic-sized paintings. However, my favorite works in the Basilica, by far, are the twelve sculptures along the perimeter of the cupola, representing the original twelve apostles in larger-than-life carera marble. These were done by artists whose names are now forgotten and whose other works are almost all gathering dust in the basement of national and regional museums. (Please excuse my poor photographs. The light conditions in the Basilica are not great.)

Ricardo Bellver (Spanish, 1845-1924) San Mateo (Saint Matthew) Marble. Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, Madrid.

The Basilica and its artists deserve a great deal more attention. (I hope to write an extensive paper, perhaps a book, on it someday.) For more images, go to this album.

Van Gogh in the Vatican

Vincent Van Gogh (Dutch,  1853 - 1890) Pietà (c. 1880) Oil on canvas. 73 x 60 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. We do not usually associate the two; but, there it is: a Van Gogh hanging somewhere between one of the world's largest collections of antiquities and the Sistine Chapel.

More than four million people visited the Vatican Museums last year. I was was one of them. For those who have not made their own pilgrimage, it is difficult to describe the vast, Byzantine compound that holds the Catholic Church's collections. With objects as diverse as Egyptian artefacts and Sevres porcelains, the "museum" is divided into several exhibitions, conjoined with palaces that make up the Pope's apartments. Together, they are nearly impossible to see it all in a single day or, even, week. And, if you are like me,  mentally exhaustion sets in after an hour. So, it is understandable that most tourists make their way directly to the brightest stars in the collection (e.g. Raphael's frescoes, Laocoön), without seeing what in other museums would be show stoppers.

The Vatican has a sizable collection of modern and contemporary religious art.  These works range from mid-nineteenth-century artists to today and are hung in a series of dimly-lit, basement rooms leading to the Pope's apartments. Visitors are given the choice of a short cut directly to the Sistine Chapel or a fifteen-minute walk through the rooms where the Modern Collection hangs, sometimes unlabeled. Most choose the direct route. Even those who take the long way end up rushing past works by Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Giacomo Balla, Otto Dix and many, many others.

It was there I saw Pietà by Vincent Van Gogh. I cannot stop thinking about it. This post is an attempt to figure out why.

I am not nor have I ever been obsessed with Van Gogh. Of course, like many, I feel admiration for his singular way of seeing the world. I feel a shock every time I see one of his works in person. His sculptural use of oil paint and familiar colors combined with acrobatic compositions, makes common places, people and things members of alternate realities. His debilitating solitude, tortured genius and early death make him a rock star of art. (Back in the 90s, two posters, one of Kurt Cobain and the other of Van Gogh, hung above my roomate's desk.)

Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863) The Good Samaritan (c. 1848) Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

Some scholars believe that Van Gogh's Pietà, showing the dead, tortured body of Christ after the Crucifixion, is actually a self-portrait. (Note the red beard.) While in the Hospital of Saint-Rémy, housed in an old monastery,Van Gogh wrote his brother Theo: "I am not indifferent, and pious thoughts often console me in my suffering.” In any case, religious works by Van Gogh are rare. The Pietà is one of two biblical paintings he copied from Delacroix.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) The Good Samaritan, after Delacroix. Oil on canvas.

Van Gogh hugely admired Delacroix, mentioning him more than 95 times in personal letters. In particular, he admired Delacroix's use of bold and vibrant color.

Writing to his brother about Delacroix's Pietà, which he had in the form of a lithograph, Van Gogh wrote:

The Delacroix lithograph La Pietà, as well as several others, fell into my oils and paints and was damaged. This upset me terribly, and I am now busy making a painting of it, as you will see.

We do not know if he was referring the painting in the Vatican or the other version, hanging in Van Gogh Museum, which some believe to be made late. The Vatican Museum of Modern Art did not purchase its painting. Like many other works, Pietà was a gift from a member of the Church, who donated it his diocese in New York sometime mid-century. Of the two versions, the Vatican's is much smaller. It is also darker, which is, perhaps, more a result of not being as well cleaned. But, the darker hues, combined with the dim lighting, in my opinion, imbue the work with greater pathos.

Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798-1863) Pietà (c. 1850) Oil on canvas. Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo.

We should all be aware by now that most paintings we see in museums were never meant to be hung in a public space, let alone under modern, high-voltage lighting. While I do not know the original context for the work–if there even was a context–the overlooked space on the way to the Sistine Chapel seems a fitting.

Visiting Lisbon's Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga

Josefa d'Obidos (Portuguese, 1630-1684) Adoracão dos Pastores OR Adoration of the Shepherds (1669) Oil on canvas. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon. (Detail) With only 36 hours in Lisbon, there was little time to explore Portugal's capital.  I wanted to visit the city's most well-known art museum. So, when I asked a cab driver to take me to the Museum of Fine Art, I was taken to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. (Roughly translated as the "National Museum of Ancient Art," the term "ancient" in Portuguese does not have exactly the same meaning in English, which would imply anything from pre-historic to, perhaps, the birth of Christ.)

Unknown Portuguese sculptor. Saint Gabriel (c. 1675) Polychrome statue. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

The Museum's collection represents works from the Middle Ages to the mid-nineteenth century. While it is not the only museum of fine art or  necessarily the best, it was where I was taken. And, I am forever grateful to the cabbie who took me there.

Hieronymus Bosch (Flemish, 1450-1516) Triptych of the Temptations of St. Anthony Abbot with the Betrayal of Christ and the Way to Calvary (c. 1500) Oil on panel. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

Not surprisingly, the preponderance of the collection corresponds to the period when Portugal was among the world's superpowers. It is dominated by masters from the fifteen to seventeenth centuries, when Portugal was made rich discovering and trading with much of the world.

Antonio Pereda y Salgado (Portuguese, 1608-1678) Still life with vegetables and kitchen utensils (1651) Oil on canvas. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon. (Detail)

Many of us can name Spanish artists from the same period (e.g. Velázquez, El Greco). But, even though the Portuguese shared the Iberian Peninsula, their artists do not have anywhere near the same esteem or recognition.

Clemente Sanchez (Portuguese, Seventeenth Century) Sao Sebastião or Saint Sebastian (c. 1620) Oil on canvas. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

Clemente Sanchez (Portuguese, Seventeenth Century) Sao Sebastião or Saint Sebastian (c. 1620) Oil on canvas. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon. (Detail)

For example, the artist Clemente Sanchez (Portuguese, Seventeenth Century) demonstrates a remarkable level of training, on par with any artists of the period. Yet, I am unable to find his biography or any work by him online. In Saint Sebastian (c. 1620), Sanchez shows a remarkable arsenal of skills; and, more importantly, represents a different approach that combines both the naturalism of Velázquez and the classical ideal of Poussin, who were both working at the same time. If his work truly represents a unique, Portuguese approach to art, it is worth publishing to a wide audience.

Pieter Brueghel, The Younger (Flemish, a. 1564-1637) Acts of Mercy (c. 1625) Oil on panel. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

In addition to showcasing regional talent, the Museum features works that cannot be seen any where else by well-known, canonical Flemish, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian artists. The Portuguese were obviously aware of and collecting these artist like any other major European nation. (Even though the Museum has recently undergone a significant renovation, it has not yet put these works online.)

Unknown Portuguese sculptor (Eighteenth Century) Santo Onofre or Saint Onuphrius (Eighteenth century) Wood and glass. Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon.

On the Wednesday afternoon I visited, there were more guards than visitors. As a result, I had the Museum to myself. Each work of art was mine alone. If you are in Lisbon, it may not be in your tourist guidebook; but, for art lovers, it offers the opportunity to discover remarkable, no-where-else-to-be-seen artworks and level of intimacy with them that is usually reserved for the royalty that commissioned them. (To see all the images I took, visit my Flickr photo set here.)

A Brief Word on Art and Ecstasy

According to the Catholic Calendar of Saints, today is the Saint Day of Juan de la Cruz (Spanish, 1542-1591). While I am not Catholic, the history of art has been inspired by and is inseparable from it. For several months, I have been pouring over the poems of Juan de La Cruz; drawn in by their depth and simplicity. But, also, amazed at the relationship his mystic view of the relationship of man and God was expressed in contemporary painting. Francisco Ribalta (Spanish, 1565-1628) Christ Embracing Saint Bernard (c. 1625) Oil on canvas. 113 by 158 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Juan was a follower of Saint Teresa of Avila (Spanish, 1515-1582). Her doctrine of a personal relationship with God, was originally considered subversive by Church authorities, who believed it circumvented the need for Church ordinances. Teresa asked Juan to help spread and establish her ideals. As a result, he was imprisioned and submitted to a regular regime of circular torture for nine months.  While sitting in a windowless cell, he heard a someone singing a love song outside the prison wall. Inspired to write about his love for God, he convinced a guard to give him pen and paper. He wrote poems that, in Spain, have come to rival the reputation and insight of Shakespeare.

My favorite is titled "I Came Into the Unknown" (translated by Willis Barnstone). Below is a excerpt:

I came into the unknown

and stayed there unknowing,

rising beyond all science.

I did not know the door

but when I found the way,

unknowing where I was,

I learned enormous things,

but what I felt I cannot say,

for I remained unknowing,

rising beyond all science.

It was the perfect realm

of holiness and peace.

In deepest solitude

I found the narrow way:

a secret giving such release

that I was stunned and stammering,

rising beyond all science . . .

. . . And if you wish to hear:

the highest science leads

to an ecstatic feeling

of the most Holy Being;

and from his mercy comes his deed:

to let us stay unknowing,

rising beyond all science

Juan and Teresa's beliefs would later be accepted and incorporated into the Church's mainstream. A monument to Teresa was commissioned in Rome and executed by Giovanni Bernini (Naples, 1598-Rome, 1680)

Giovanni Bernini (Naples, 1598-Rome, 1680) "Ecstasy of St. Theresa" (1647–1652) - Marble, Cappella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Within Spain, other artists supported Teresa's advocacy for a closer, personal relationship with God. Perhaps my favorite work inspired hangs in the Prado Museum (above). In person, there works are intimate beyond words. They conjure feelings of awe and tenderness that border on the irreverent.

Five New & Brilliant Art Books for the Holidays

A reader just sent me a link to her list of 15 art books for the Holidays. So, I thought I'd make my own. I buy a lot of books and have a long wish list. The five here were chosen for being both beautiful and enjoyable for  beginners to experienced scholars.

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902) The Annunciation from the series The Life of Christ (1894) Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

1. James Tissot: The Life of Christ by Judith F. Dolkart, ed.

Principally known for his scenes of fashionable women, the artist James Tissot had a religious awakening near the end of his life. He created a series of 350 watercolors–now owned by the Brooklyn Museum–to illustrate the New Testament.  Tissot had traveled multiple times to the Holy Land. His knowledge of the terrain and remarkable arsenal of painterly skills combine to create some of the most original religious images I have ever seen. This book reproduces all 350 illustrations.

Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640) Fall of the Rebel Angels (1620) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

2. The Infinity of Lists by Umberto Ecco

The Louvre invited Ecco, a renowned philosopher and author, to organize a series of conferences and exhibitions. The result was a number of events, featuring art and literature about lists. In The Infinity of Lists, Ecco gathers lists from Homer, the Bible and poetry. My favorite example: the list of the rebel angels thrust out of heaven made by John Milton in Paradise Lost.

Francisco Ribalta (Spanish, 1665-1628) Christ Embracing Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1624) Oil on canvas 158 by 113 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

3. The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture from 1600-1700 by Xavier Bray, ed.

Religious statues are almost never seen today because they are still in use by churches, not museums. But they were often created by masters like Juan Martinez Montañés (Spanish, 1568-1649), considered the Michelangelo of wood. This book is a catalogue from a major exhibition that reunited the sculptors and painters who worked together in Spain at the height of the Spanish Empire.

Jean-Bernard Restout (French, 1732-1796) Morpheus or Sleep (n.d.) Oil on canvas 97 by 130 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.

4. Only in America: 100 Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections by Pierre Rosenberg

My wife and I spent much of last night looking through this book with a map of the United States at hand. Who knew so many wonderful paintings were in Cleveland? WARNING: This book may spawn a series of family vacations.

Luis Meléndez (Spanish, DATES) Jamón, Huevos, Recipientes (c. 1775) Oil on canvas 49 by 37 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

5. Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life by Gretchen A. Hirschauer, Catherine A. Metzger, Peter Cherry, and Natacha Sesena.

Since finding this book, I have become obsessed with still-life painting. Meléndez was a painter for the Spanish royal court who spent his life meticulously painting the varied regional foods of Iberia. Scholars from many disciplines (e.g. food, pottery, botany, politics) have used his paintings as research tools. He was able to achieve a remarkable level of fealty to reality while making his arguably mundane subjects endlessly fascinating and beautiful works of art.