Monday, September 30, 2019

The Polarities of Richard Serra

Installation view of
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Reverse Curve, 2005/19,
corten steel, two plates,
Overall:  13' 1/2" x 99' 9" x 19' 7" (4 x 30.4 x 6 m)
Plates:  2" (5 cm) thick, 
at the exhibition "Reverse Curve," 
Gagosian, 522 West 21st Street, New York, 
September 17, 2019 - February 1, 2020
Photo:  Hillary Ganton     

Richard Serra (1938 - ) has been challenging one's perception of objects in space for over fifty years.  Through his sculpture, this octogenarian addresses questions such as what it means to look left or right or around convexity or concavity. He deals with the properties of the material involving effects of weight and how varying scales of solids displace space differently in the same place.  Methodology and results incorporate contrasts.  The man-made is combined with nature, heaviness is turned into lightness and things appear and disappear. His monumental sculpture has been associated with Minimalism and Process Art.  Serra's work however is unique. Three Gagosian galleries presently offer the opportunity to engage with Serra in the exhibitions Reverse Curve, Forged Rounds and Triptychs and Diptychs.


Installation view of  
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Nine, 2019,
forged steel, nine rounds,
7' x 6' 4 3/4" diam. (213.4 x 194.9 cm)
6' 6" x 6'  7 3/4" diam. (198.1 x 202.6 cm)
6' x 6' 11" diam (182.9 x 210.8 cm)
5' 6" x 7' 2" diam. (167.6 x 218.4 cm)
5' x 7' 7" diam. (152.4 x 231.1 cm) 
4' 6" x 8' diam (137.2 x 243.8 cm)
4' x  8' 6" diam. (121.9 x 259.1 cm)
3' 6 1/2" x 9' diam. (108 x 274.3 cm)
3' 2 1/4" x 9' 6" diam. (97.2 x 289.6 cm)
 at the exhibition "Forged Rounds,"
Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, 
September 17, 2019 - December 7, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton     

The Forged Rounds show displays 4 new works.  Together there are 21 forged steel round or cylindrical drums of varying diameters and heights, weighing 50 tons each.  They are divided among 4 rooms in diverse combinations:  nine rounds, six rounds in two groups, four rounds in two inverted stacks and two rounds that are barely contained in their allocated area.  The round's heft was dictated by the 50 ton weight limitation set by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for crossing over the George Washington Bridge.  Serra's pieces are produced in Germany foundries.  The round pieces of forged steel are made in Wetzlar, Germany and the corten steel ones are fabricated in Burbach, Germany.     They are then shipped to Port Newark, New Jersey where they get trucked into Manhattan. If they weighed more than 50 tons, they could not be transported over the bridge and would not get to the gallery.  


Installation view of 
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Channel, 2019,
forged steel, two rounds,
Each 48" x 102" diam. (121.9 x 259 cm)
at the exhibition "Forged Rounds,"
Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, 
September 17, 2019 - December 7, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton 


The configuration and placement of  each work trigger contrasting reactions.  In the smallest room installed with Channel, the space seems confining as if the air itself were constricted.  Each round is flush against one wall leaving navigation between them tight. Although the same size rounds, 48" x 102", appear 4 times again, 2 rounds in 2 other pieces, Combined and Separated and Inverted, the Channel rounds in their setting give the impression of being much larger and heavier. 



Installation view of 
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Combined and Separated, 2019, 
forged steel, six rounds, in two groups
Two, each 78" x 79 3/4" diam. (198 x 202.6 cm)
Two, each 72" x 83" diam. (182.9 x 210.8 cm)
Two, each 48" x 102" diam. (121.9 x 259.1 cm),
at the exhibition "Forged Rounds,"
Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, 
September 17, 2019 - December 7, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton 

The other pieces allow visitors to move in and around and through the arrangements.  Elements materialize and vanish depending on the viewer's chosen route.  Formations change accordingly - six components may visually become two.  This is distinctly evident in Combined and Separated and Inverted.  


Installation view of  
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Inverted, 2019,
forged steel, four rounds, in two inverted stacks
Two, each 48" x 102" diam. (121.9 x 259.1 cm)
Two, each 54" x 96" diam. (137.1 x 243.8 cm)
Each stack 102" x 102" diam. (259 x 259 cm),
at the exhibition "Forged Rounds,"
Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York,
 September 17, 2019 - December 7, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton   

Inverted is particularly inviting for circulation.  Differing viewpoints of the divergent stacks point out dissimilarities in their appearance. Although both have bulk and weight, the inversion with the larger round on top looks squatter and less stable than the one with the smaller round atop.  The latter appears to adhere more to the properties of gravity.  


Installation view of 
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Inverted, 2019,
forged steel, four rounds, in two inverted stacks
Two, each 48" x 102" diam. (121.9 x 259.1 cm)
Two, each 54" x 96" diam. (137.1 x 243.8 cm)
Each stack 102" x 102" diam. (259 x 259 cm)
at the exhibition  "Forged Rounds,"
Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, 
September 17, 2019 - December 7, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton  


Serra's work calls forth a desire to touch.  Visitors are commonly seen placing their hands on the forged steel surface as if to confirm its substance.  Guards do not seem to mind.  Physical contact is also engendered by the sculptures' intricately textured finishes in contrast to their rugged hugeness.  

Installation view of 
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Combined and Separated, 2019, 
forged steel, six rounds, in two groups
Two, each 78" x 79 3/4" diam. (198 x 202.6 cm)
Two, each 72" x 83" diam. (182.9 x 210.8 cm)
Two, each 48" x 102" diam. (121.9 x 259.1 cm),
at the exhibition "Forged Rounds,"
Gagosian, 555 West 24th Street, New York, 
September 17, 2019 - December 7, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton 

The artist uses steel in a way like no one before.  This structural and fabricated material is an alloy of iron and carbon.  Forged steel involves working with the solid form of the alloy by heating and hammering.  Surface results depend on the way steel is cooled after it is formed as well as its exposure to weather. The artist has some control over the outcome.  

Reverse Curve is made of corten steel which has additional alloying components mixed in with the iron and carbon.  This makes the steel stronger and corrosion resistant.  It is characterized by a rusty, orange patina caused by weathering.  In the case of Reverse Curve, one side of the metal was unprotected when shipped.  On this side, the elements especially sun, wind and rain produced an effect akin to a Color Field painting.  Thus, nature contributed a rich fall-like coloration and a rhythmic striation along this side's full length. Man-made and natural processes have collaborated to make art. 


Installation view of
Richard Serra (1938 - ), Reverse Curve, 2005/19,
corten steel, two plates,
Overall:  13' 1/2" x 99' 9" x 19' 7" (4 x 30.4 x 6 m)
Plates:  2" (5 cm) thick, 
at the exhibition "Reverse Curve," 
Gagosian, 522 West 21st Street, New York, 
September 17, 2019 - February 1, 2020
Photo:  Hillary Ganton   

The lyrical lightness of Reverse Curve belies its approximately 60 ton weight - about 120,000 pounds.  This work highlights Serra's use of free standing objects.  It is made up of  2 plates  together creating an object close to 100 feet long.  Nothing is bolted together or to the ground.  Where the floor is uneven, light seeps through segments of the sculpture's lower edge.  It also brings up the question of emotional effects.  Walking about and through some of Serra's sculptures may elicit contradictory feelings.  A tilt toward the viewer (a concavity) creates the anxiety that the work may fall on you.  In opposition, a segment bending away from the viewer (a convexity), creates a sense of comfort as if the piece can protect you from dangers. Rounds can seem like megaliths brought over from some prehistoric site and induce awe. Although Serra said that emotional responses were not his intention, he added that if his work had that affect, it was great but "Don't blame me."  

Richard Serra (1938 - ), Diptych #5, 2019,
paintstick, etching ink, and silica on handmade paper,
47 3/4" x 63 1/4" (121.3 x 160.7 cm)
at the exhibition "Triptychs and Diptychs," 
Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, 
September 16, 2019 - November 2, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton     


Serra's drawings are independent of his sculptures.  They are not designs for three-dimensional pieces where models are used for working out ideas.  His drawings may be based on existing sculptures but are not used in the preparation of them.  

In drawing, Serra explores the representation of weight and space in two-dimensions and considers the question of what the process of drawing is about that is making marks on a page.  He has drawn since childhood and drawing remains an almost daily practice.  He says drawing for him "...is like a language.  It's a way to think."  In fact, he was accepted to graduate school at the Yale School of Art with a submission of 12 drawings after majoring in English literature as an undergraduate.  


At Gagosian's Madison Avenue gallery, the exhibit Triptychs and Diptychs presents 20 of the artist's 2019 drawings.  They make clear Serra's habit of making up his own tools to conceive his inventions.  He had been working at a print shop in Los Angeles making a print and thought of making a drawing using etching ink and a roller like in the printing process.  In the Diptychs and Triptychs he made a drawing with paintstick - the tubes of which had been melted then formed into bricks for ease of application.  He then used a roller to apply ink then silica over the paintstick drawing which produced a thick, textured layer of black. 



Detail of Richard Serra (1938 - ), Diptych #5, 2019,
paintstick, etching ink, and silica on handmade paper,
47 3/4" x 63 1/4" (121.3 x 160.7 cm)
at the exhibition "Triptychs and Diptychs," 
Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York, 
September 16, 2019 - November 2, 2019
Photo:  Hillary Ganton     


He lets the process of creation show.  Smudges, spatters, finger marks and holes from where the handmade paper was tacked to the wall are not removed.  The deliberate and accidental fuse.  

Black is Serra's color of choice.  He sees black and white as the written medium we grew up with.  Moreover, black is used in structure and form which holds his interest.  Black absorbs light as opposed to reflecting it. Because of this property, Serra says that black has a different weight than colors such as green or yellow that reflect light. 

Although space may be the overriding subject matter of all of Serra's art, so is the individual viewing.  

Reverse Curve  
September 17, 2019 - February 1, 2020
522 West 21st Street, New York

Forged Rounds
September 17, 2019 - December 7, 2019
555 West 24th Street, New York

Triptychs and Diptychs
September 16, 2019 - November 2, 2019
980 Madison Avenue, New York


Thursday, August 22, 2019

Why Leonardo and Rembrandt Still Matter Today Part II

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

This August 2019 ArtWithHillary blog post concentrates on Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669); the ArtWithHillary July 2019 blog post focused on Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

The year 2019 draws attention to the artists Rembrandt van Rijn and Leonardo da Vinci since it marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's death and the 500th anniversary of Leonardo's.  These artists continue to be meaningful after hundreds of years which attests to their talents and the appeal of the work they left behind.  For a discussion of Leonardo, see ArtwithHillary July 2019.  

Rembrandt, painter, draughtsman and printmaker, endowed his art with a deep sense of what it means to be a sentient being.  He captured life in all its aspects rendering portraits, historical narratives, biblical scenes and landscapes with a compelling realism.  Rembrandt communicates through the manipulation of paint the importance of feelings, relationships and the character of individuals.  For all who care about these things, Rembrandt matters.

Self-portraits, etched, drawn and painted, occupied the artist all his life.  They amount to about 70 works - approximately 10% of his entire output. Among them are some 40 paintings.  The question arises as to why so many?  By analyzing his own face and thus his own self, he was able to understand the innermost characteristics of others who sat before him.

Rembrandt's largest and, many hold, his greatest self-portrait is in the Frick Collection, New York.   Seated in a wooden armchair with thighs apart, the artist's figure almost completely fills the lower pictorial space.  His upright posture is not purely frontal.  His body is turned slightly toward the right.   He wears a costume made up of a collarless yellow-pleated robe over a white shirt. An ornamental scarf is draped about his neck along the sides of the robe's neckline. A red sash wound twice around his waist ends in what has been identified as a dried pomegranate pendant.  In his left hand he holds a silver-knobbed jointed rattan cane. On his head is a large black beret whose broad brim casts a shadow on the painter's forehead.  A fur cape hung from his shoulders completes his outfit.  Rembrandt looks straight out of the picture plane with an authoritative gaze.     

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Detail of Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Artstor

Rembrandt shows himself with sagging, blotchy skin and prominent age lines.Verisimilitude is achieved through dabs and drizzles of paint, glazes and layers of pigment that at times appear sculptural.  He could turn his brush around and use the point of his handle to gain desired effects.  A multiplicity of tones achieve a striking naturalism.  

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Detail of Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Artstor

The composition is triangular with highlights such as the specks of light in the artist's pupils, on his nose and the silver tip of the cane. Horizontal and diagonal lines such as the lower part of the red sash and the shadow cast by the cane on the back of Rembrandt's left hand animate the canvas.  This includes the slight turn of the artist's body. His hands, the tools of his trade, seem unusually large.  His right hand is more highly delineated than the left.  Thickness and thinness of the paint create a pulsating, life-like effect.  The means of painting are brought to the surface and the hand of the painter in the act of creation stands out.

Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Detail of Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

Some iconographic points:  The painter's garments are similar to the clothing of the Jupiter figure, king of the gods, in the painting Philemon and Baucis, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., signed and dated the same year as the Frick self-portrait.  It was Rembrandt's habit not to depict his characters in contemporary garb but rather to paint them in antique-like dress with items possibly taken from his own costume collection.  The rattan cane and pomegranate allude to abundance and riches - an imported wood and fruit not indigenous to Europe.  The cane also suggests a painter's maulstick, a stick which supports the hand holding the paintbrush. Employing these attributes along with the fur cape implies the artist's success.  The seated position with legs in front and thighs 1 to 2 feet apart is a pose of power, strength and confidence. Rembrandt's posture, cane, held like a royal scepter, his large beret crowning his head and clothing make the painter appear like a monarch. 

The oil is signed and dated 1658 on the front of the chair's left arm, beneath Rembrandt's left wrist.  Rembrandt was 52 years old, an advanced age considering the male life expectancy at this time was about 40.  This may, however, be distorted because of the high mortality rate for children. The period around 1658 was an unfortunate period for the artist.  He had seen all his worldly possessions auctioned off to pay his creditors and had to move out of his large house into a rented residence in another part of town.  There was more than financial woe.  His beloved wife, Saskia van Uylenburg (1612 -1642) who he married in 1634 died 8 years later at the age of 30 leaving Rembrandt with a 16 month old son Titus (1641 - 1668).  The couple's three other children had died in infancy. 

Geertje Dircx ((c. 1610 - 1615 - c. 1656) was hired as the child's nanny. She soon became Rembrandt's mistress.  Geertje was apparently very fond of Titus for she made a will leaving him her property.  Rembrandt gave Geertje some of Saskia's jewelry which did not go down well with his deceased wife's family.  By 1649 Rembrandt had switched his affection from Geertje to a young housemaid in his employ, Hendrickje Stoffels (1626 – 1663).  Hendrickje probably joined his staff about 1647.  Rembrandt, Geertje and Hendrickje were all likely living under the same roof for a period. Geertje did not move out until 1649. She quarreled with Rembrandt about financial support.  She sued him for "breach of promise" that is she had slept with Rembrandt who, Geertje claimed, had promised to marry her.  Even if the artist wanted to marry, he would not, because Saskia's will determined that if he remarried, his share of her estate would go to one of her sisters.  This was not a meager sum.  Rembrandt had offered Geertje a stipend before the lawsuit but the nanny did not think the offer adequate. She ultimately won a court settlement with a promise not to change her will in favor of Titus and not to sell any belongings Rembrandt had given her, some of which she had pawned to have means to live on.  A year later, she was showing unstable behavior. Rembrandt along with, it appears, some of Geertje's family members and neighbors, tried to have her sent to a house of correction, more of an asylum for the mentally ill. She was committed foaling 12 years but after 5 years a friend intervened on her behalf and she was released in 1655.  She took up her cause against Rembrandt once more suing him for wrongful imprisonment.  Geertje may have been ill by now and passed away about 1656.  She was listed among Rembrandt's many creditors the same year.  The painter owed her some of the promised maintenance allowance.  

Rembrandt was a notorious spendthrift.  He had, as they say, married well for Saskia's family came from a higher status than Rembrandt's. By the time of their marriage,  Rembrandt was a celebrated painter. He had moved from Leiden, the city of his birth, to the commercially thriving city of Amsterdam. He had lots of commissions. The wealthy lined up to have him paint their portraits.  In 1639 Rembrandt and Saskia moved into an expensive town house in the better part of the city.  Rembrandt needed to borrow money from the seller to obtain the home and still owed a major part of the debt when he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1656.  Rembrandt made much money but he spent more.  In fact, relatives of Saskia had accused the couple of squandering Saskia's inheritance from her parents.  Rembrandt's collecting habits were wide-ranging and costly. He purchased prints, drawings, paintings, costumes and more. His worldly possessions were sold at auction in 1657 and his home auctioned a year later. Even so, the sales did not yield enough funds to pay off his debts.  However, the records of these transactions allow us to know a great deal about what Rembrandt owned.  

Hendrickje and Titus formed a company in 1660 to trade in Rembrandt's art.  The painter in effect became an employee of his lover and son.  This protected him from creditors as well as allowing him to continue to market his work. The painter's guild had passed a ruling that prohibited any painter who filed for bankruptcy from selling his art and operating independently.  

As if monetary issues were not enough, in 1654, his common law wife Hendrickje was brought up on charges of "fornication with Rembrandt..." before the Council of the Reformed Church.  At that point she was pregnant with a daughter by Rembrandt, Cornelia (1654 - 1684).  She admitted "unwedded cohabitation" with the painter and was admonished.  As punishment, Hendrickje was banned from receiving communion.  Actually, documents indicate that after 1655 Rembrandt could have married without losing Saskia's inheritance. This had to do with Titus turning 14 and legally being able to make a will.  Rembrandt had Titus make him his heir and in so doing ensured  Saskia's legacy. 

A change of taste in painting styles in the mid-century may have had negative consequences on Rembrandt's income.  A manner of painting called  fijnschilder came into favor. These works were usually small in format, highly detailed and smoothly finished.  They were antithetical to Rembrandt's rough, tactile mode. Also, the classical style of the seventeenth-century French court captured its share of the art market. Although Rembrandt's saleability may have declined, he was esteemed and regarded as the great painter. As testament to the artist's continued high regard, in 1667 when Cosimo III de'Medici (1642 - 1723), soon to be Grand Duke of Tuscany (1671), visited Amsterdam, he made a point of meeting with Rembrandt.  Cosimo's compatriots called him Rembrandt pittore famoso.  

More sadness came to the artist.  Hendrickje died in 1662 most likely from plague.  Titus married in 1668 but died some 8 months later during another episode of the plague.  Titus' posthumous daughter was born in the early part of the following year.  Rembrandt was left to live with Cornelia and an old housekeeper.  He passed away a year after his son.

Spending some time before the Frick self-portrait, I fell into conversation with a woman next to me who seemed equally enthralled with the Rembrandt work.  She was an artist from Canberra, Australia.  She told me it was this Rembrandt self-portrait that she saw when she was 10 years old that made her want to become a painter.  The self-portrait fascinated her  and she felt showed her how great paintings were made.  For her, Rembrandt made clear his compositional format, handling of paint and highlights.  We chatted, marveling at particular passages of the oil such as the way Rembrandt chose to draw attention to his eyes by making the shadow cast by the brim of the beret stop just above the portrayed eyes. Thus, the glint of the pupils catches the spectator's attention and links to other highlights in the work.  We stepped back away from the canvas to better appreciate the painting's three-dimensionality.  More talk ensued.  The more we looked, the more we saw as the artist's painting made manifest the intangible qualities of the man.

Rembrandt's and Leonardo's genius live on.  Leonardo astounds with his unquenchable inquiring mind and Rembrandt with his scrutiny of the human soul. Please visit the Rembrandt self-portrait at the Frick Collection and the Leonardo St. Jerome at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


1 East 70th Street, Manhattan
Tuesday through Saturday, 
10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Sundays, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
First Fridays:  
On the first Friday of the month
(except January and September)
the museum is open until 9:00 p.m. 
Closed Mondays and holidays.
Check The Frick Collection Web site for holiday and limited hours schedule.


Leonardo da Vinci's St. Jerome
July 15, 2019 - October 6, 2019
1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Hours:  
Open Seven Days a Week
Sunday – Thursday 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1, and the first Monday in May. 


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Why Leonardo and Rembrandt Still Matter Today Part I

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness
begun ca. 1482-1485, reworked later by the artist, unfinished,
oil and tempera on walnut, 40.5 x 29 1/4 in. (103 x 74 cm) 
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, Monumenti e Gallerie Pontificie
 Photo:  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The year 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669).  That both men are revered some hundreds of years after their passing attests to their achievements.*

One, Leonardo, was a polymath and genius. He was not only a person who knew about many different subjects but also excelled in them. Painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, math, science and botany were just some of his fields of inquiry.  He seemed to have possessed infinite curiosity and inventiveness.  

The other, Rembrandt, painter, draughtsman and printmaker, endowed his art with a deep sense of the living, capturing life in all its aspects. He rendered portraits, historical narratives, biblical scenes and landscapes with a preternatural realism. No human emotion escaped his scrutiny nor was not painted, drawn or etched by him. His contemporaries considered him the foremost painter of their time.  He left a body of work that conveys what it means to be a sentient being.

The July 2019 ArtWithHillary blog post focuses on Leonardo; the August blog post will concentrate on Rembrandt.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art commemorates Leonardo's quincentenary with the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci's St. Jerome organized by Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, Curator  in the museum's Department of Drawings and Prints. Dr. Bambach is a Leonardo da Vinci specialist whose four-volume publication, Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered was released in the summer 2019.  The exhibit features the artist's unfinished painting Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness lent from the Vatican Museums.  The work represents a penitent Jerome kneeling before a cave-like setting with his right arm outstretched to the outer left edge of the panel.  In his right hand, he holds a stone.  It appears as if he were just about to beat himself in an act of religious discipline in penance.  He looks up toward a crucifix in the panel's upper-right corner - seen in profile is a sketched cross with the Christ figure next to which is a church. The body and tail of the saint's faithful lion take up the work's lower part. A landscape, which is the only part of the painting rendered in color, fills the painting's upper-left corner.  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Detail of  Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness
begun ca. 1482-1485, reworked later by the artist, unfinished,
oil and tempera on walnut, 40.5 x 29 1/4 in. (103 x 74 cm) 
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, Monumenti e Gallerie Pontificie
 Photo:  Artstor

Saint Jerome (347-420) was a fourth-century-early fifth-century priest, cardinal, theologian, historian, scholar, teacher and ascetic who is known for translating the Bible into Latin, the Vulgate Bible still in use today.  His writings included teachings on how to live a moral life with much focus on female devoutness and spiritual manner of living. He worked for Pope Damasus I (ca. 305-384; papacy 366-384) in Rome. He advised and taught a group of educated women on leading a monastic life.  Allegations that he had an improper relationship with one of these women led to the loss of his position. Afterward, he traveled to various holy places, retiring to a cave near Bethlehem to live the remainder of his life.   

In a letter to one of his female disciples, Saint Eustochium  (ca. 368-   ca. 419 or 420), Jerome described the tortures and temptations that he endured for Christ while doing penance in the desert.  Some visions aroused in him concupiscence which he countered with fasts and days and nights of beating his chest till his spirit was restored.  

As for his loyal lion, legend has it that a lion came to the monastery where Jerome lived.  His brethren ran away when they saw the beast but Jerome called them back to take care of the lion which had a thorn in its paw. Jerome took out the thorn and cured the lion's wound. Thereafter, the lion remained with the saint and is often depicted with him.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Detail of  Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness
begun ca. 1482-1485, reworked later by the artist, unfinished,
oil and tempera on walnut, 40.5 x 29 1/4 in. (103 x 74 cm) 
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, Monumenti e Gallerie Pontificie
 Photo:  Artstor

The Saint Jerome is not signed, but scholarly consensus attributes the work to Leonardo.  Detailed investigation of the panel's surface revealed the artist's fingerprints especially recognizable in the painting's upper-right landscape.  Leonardo used his fingers to spread pigments giving the area a hazy effect. At one point, probably in the early nineteenth century, the saint's head was sawn out and removed. Perhaps the owner felt it was more marketable than the incomplete whole. The two parts were found separately and reunited; the perimeter of the rectangular cut is discernible.  


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Detail of  Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness
begun ca. 1482-1485, reworked later by the artist, unfinished,
oil and tempera on walnut, 40.5 x 29 1/4 in. (103 x 74 cm) 
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, Monumenti e Gallerie Pontificie
 Photo:  Artstor

Why or for whom Leonardo painted the work is unknown.  It may have been commissioned as a private devotional image.  The person who ordered the painting may have become frustrated with the artist's notorious lateness in completing projects and cancelled the order.
What is known is that the painting remained with Leonardo who continued to work on it until his death.  

The panel is assigned to the painter's mid-career when he moved to Milan from his native Florence.  The picture is painted on walnut, a wood which Leonardo did not use until his Milan stay, previously employing poplar for his paintings' supports.  

Leonardo left his estate to his devoted pupil Francesco Melzi (1491-1570) and, it is believed, paintings to his student Andrea Salai (1480-1524). There are, however, no records of either inheriting the Saint Jerome. After Leonardo's death, the painting's history is lost until the mid-eighteenth century when it came into the possession of the Swiss artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) who was then living in Rome. Its next account follows her death.  Tradition has it that the work was found separately in two parts in two different shops by the French cardinal and diplomat Joseph Fesch (1763-1839), an uncle of Napoleon who had appointed him ambassador to Rome in 1803.  The painting became part of the Vatican Collections in 1856.  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Detail of  Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness
begun ca. 1482-1485, reworked later by the artist, unfinished,
oil and tempera on walnut, 40.5 x 29 1/4 in. (103 x 74 cm) 
Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, Monumenti e Gallerie Pontificie
 Photo:  Artstor

Representations of Saint Jerome usually portray him in his study engaged in theological writings or in the desert kneeling in prayer before a crucifix.  If he holds a stone, it is typically held in his hand which is down at his side or on his chest.  Physical movement is minimal even if the arm holding the stone is raised, it is not outstretched to pack the maximum wallop on his chest.  Leonardo's Saint Jerome in contrast contains motion.  The saint is in the act of a physical action - about to strike his chest - and, an inward emotional exertion as indicated by his beseeching facial expression.  

The brilliance of Leonardo's art is the ability to render simultaneously and seamlessly two distinct reactions.  The saint's body conveys the outward act of self-flagellation while his face informs of his inner emotive repentance.  Leonardo couples the means of atonement with mental agony.  

Some more points about the panel:  The sketch of the church in the upper-right may relate to church designs that Leonardo was working on or a reference to the monastery near Bethlehem where Jerome had stayed. The proportions of the saint's body reflect the artist's anatomical and proportional investigations.  The saint's head is similar to a head of Saint Jerome made in clay by the painter, sculptor and goldsmith Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) with whom Leonardo apprenticed.  The sculpture is now lost but known through copies and a painting of Saint Jerome by Verrocchio in the Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.  The three-dimensionality of Leonardo's St. Jerome figure suggests it was based on the Verrocchio sculptural prototype. The cave setting and upper-left landscape link the work to Leonardo's two versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, one in the Musée du Louvre, Paris; the other in the National Gallery, London.


Rembrandt Harmensz00n van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Self-Portrait, 1658,
oil on canvas, 52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in. (133.67 x 103.82 cm)
Photo: Michael Bodycomb

More to come about Rembrandt in the August 2019 ArtWithHillary.

*The July 2019 ArtWithHillary blog post focuses on Leonardo; the August blog post will concentrate on Rembrandt.

Leonardo da Vinci's St. Jerome
July 15, 2019 - October 6, 2019
1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan
Open Seven Days a Week
Sunday through Thursday 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1, and the first Monday in May. 

1 East 70th Street, Manhattan
Tuesday through Saturday, 
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Sundays, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays and holidays.
First Fridays:  on the first Friday of the month
 (except January and September) the museum is open until 9:00 p.m. 
Check The Frick Collection Web site for holiday and limited hours schedule.