Friday, December 27, 2013

Hand To Mind: Drawing To Know

Leonardo At The Morgan
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Two Studies of Insectsca. 1480 and ca. 1503–5, 
pen and brown ink on paper,cut out and mounted on secondary sheet, 
 5.1 x 4.7 in. (129 x 118 mm)

© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15581 D.C.)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

The Biblioteca Reale*, Royal Library, in Turin, Italy, houses a renowned collection of books, manuscripts and drawings.  The library's Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) corpus is one of the best in the world, so the Leonardo loans from this institution present a unique opportunity to see exceptional works.  The exhibition, “Leonardo da Vinci:  Treasures From the Biblioteca Reale, Turin” is now at the Morgan Library & Museum.

The show is relatively small.  Fifteen drawings and a manuscript from Turin  are supplemented by the Morgan’s Designs for a Maritime Assault Mechanism and a Device for Bending Beams and its Codex Huygens**.   

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519),
Designs for a Maritime Assault Mechanism
and a Device for Bending Beams
, ca. 1487–90
pen and brown ink over black chalk on paper,
11.2 x 7.9 in. (284 x 201 mm)
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (1986.50) Gift of Otto Manley

Photo:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

Leonardo is represented by some dozen drawings and a manuscript.  Two of which have never before been seen in New York:  the Head of a Young Woman (Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’) and the Codex on the Flight of Birds.  Other works are by the artist’s followers.

Painter, sculptor, engineer, inventor, architect, musician, scientist, military expert, writer and draughtsman,  Leonardo possessed talent to spare.  One tale has it that when the artist was apprenticing with the Florentine painter-sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio he assisted in the master’s Baptism of Christ, presently in the Uffizi, Florence.  Leonardo painted the angel on the left in the painting.  It was so beautiful, legend has it, that when Verrocchio saw it, he gave up painting.  A Biblioteca Reale drawing of Leonardo’s angel’s head, attributed to Verrocchio’s workshop, is in the show.

Leonardo’s prodigious artistry was coupled with an insatiable curiosity.  He observed, inquired and learned ceaselessly.  For him, knowledge was achieved by looking closely at the world.  What he saw, he drew.  Thousands of Leonardo’s drawings survive both in loose sheets and in notebooks.  Flora, fauna, especially insects, birds, horses, and, above all, humans came under his gaze.  Drawing was the means to understanding.   Thoughts were worked out through the hand, so the drawings capture the mind’s processes.  Viewing them allows close contact with the artist while he is thinking as well as with the object he is making.  Seeing becomes an intimate experience. 

The exhibit is divided into two sections: Exploring Nature and Making Art.  The first presents the artist’s studies of horses, flying insects, and humans as he attempts to understand the movement of these bodies through the drawn line.  Two studies of dragonflies, done at different times but mounted on the same sheet, attest to the artist’s fixation on flying in his quest for making a flying machine.

Flight is explored extensively in the artist’s Codex on the Flight of Birds.  The manuscript is written in mirror script, a form of writing Leonardo used frequently in his commentaries.  The reverse style writing is read left to right, back to front.  Scholars still do not know why he wrote this way.  Since Leonardo was left handed, some have suggested, the particular script prevented his hand from smudging the ink as would have happened if he had wrote from left to right.  Another theory postulates that writing this way was due to a unusual language organization in the brain.  

 Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) Codex on the Flight of Birds, ca. 1505/6, 
Pen and brown ink on paper,
8.4 x 6.0 in. (213 x 153 mm)
Top:  left page  Bottom: right page
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (Cod. Varia 95)

The Codex has a few architectural renderings, diagrams and designs but most of the drawings are of birds.  In page margins, sketches of airborne avians are delineated under different wind conditions.  Birds fly up, down, around.  Leonardo records changes in their wing spans and flight angles as air currents, ingeniously represented by parallel lines, determine their positioning.  The results make clear that the artist learned through the recording of what he saw.  

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Francesco Melzi (1491/3–ca. 1570) 
Studies of the Hindquarters of a Horse, ca. 1508
red chalk and traces of black chalk on paper,
7.9 x 5.2 in. (201 x 133 mm)
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15582 D.C.)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

Take a look at his studies of horses.  Throughout his career, Leonardo took a special interest in them.  He drew them from different views, showing light falling on their musculature and revealing how muscles function.  It is known that Leonardo measured and studied a Sicilian horse owned by the son-in-law of Ludovico Sforza, the artist's Milan patron.  Horses’ hindquarters are rendered so realistically in one red chalk drawing, it appears as if the animals may move off the page.  This sheet's label informs that the upper left horse haunch and legs may have been revised by Francesco Melzi, one of Leonardo’s close friends and followers.  This writer does not know if Melzi was left-handed, but the hatching, parallel lines used to differentiate light and shadow on objects, is drawn from lower right to upper left.  Leonardo, a left-hander, drew this way.  Right-handed artists make these lines from lower left to upper right.  Try it.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Figure Studies, ca. 1505,
Pen and brown ink and black chalk on paper, 10 x 7.8 in. (254 x 197 mm)
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15577 D.C.)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

There are some delightfully sketched horses in diminutive scale on a sheet with figure studies.  One horse with rider is in full gallop - front legs forward, rear ones extended back.***  Another is in a trot; and, a riderless one, furthest on the right, rears up on hind legs.  Don’t miss the open mouth in the upper left corner in this same sheet and, in mid-page, the small nude figures each swinging a sword over his head. The large écorché (skinless) figures are in a variety of poses including those of a Hercules seen from the back.  The mythological figure appears in the same posture and point of view in an adjacent drawing of Hercules with the Nemean Lion

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) Three Views of a Bearded Man, ca. 1502, 
red chalk on paper, 4.4 x 11.2 in.  (111 x 284 mm)
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15573 D.C.)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

The second part of the show focuses on Leonardo’s portraits, drawings by the artist’s followers and the Morgan’s Codex Huygens.  The chalk study, Three Views of a Bearded Man, shows a slightly melancholy male head in profile, three-quarter and frontal view.  The sensitive handling of the sitter’s features and the use of red chalk, Leonardo's preferred medium for life studies, suggests the drawing portrays a specific individual.  One proposed identity is Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, who Leonardo worked for as a military architect and engineer between 1502 and 1503.  Cesare was reported to be a cruel sort of fellow but this rather introspective, thoughtful portrayal gives no hint of such behavior.  

Leonardo introduced the technique of drawing in red chalk on prepared ground.  The soft quality of chalk made modeling easier than other mediums such as metalpoint or pen and ink.  Chalk made possible soft, hazy contours and the gradually shading of tones into one another similar to the sfumato effect Leonardo created in his oil paintings.  The possibilities of chalk are effectively illustrated in many of the exhibit's drawings, particularly the bearded gentleman.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Head of a Young Woman
(Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’), 1480s, 
metalpoint heightened with white on buff prepared paper,
7.1 x 11.2 in. (181 x 159 mm)
© Biblioteca Reale, Turin (15572 D.C.)
Photo:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

Head of a Young Woman (Study for the Angel in the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’) is the star of the show.  She has been called one of the highest attainments in draughtsmanship. 

The woman is the model for the angel in the artist’s painting Virgin of the Rocks.  The painting which exists in two versions - one in the Louvre Museum and one in London’s National Gallery of Art.  The drawing is closest to the Louvre angel. 

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Detail of The Virgin of the Rocks
c. 1483-1486oil on canvas transferred from wood, 
78.4 x 48.0 in.  (199 x 122 cm)
Photo:  Artstor

The drawing is in metalpoint, a technique particularly characteristic of Florentine artists.  This is an extremely delicate method of drawing. Artists drew with a metal stylus on a prepared ground - usually the paper was painted with a white pigment mixed with water and a binder.  Marks made with the metal were not easily erased.  To remove, the ground they were on needed to be abraded.  When drawing in this method, pieces of metal were deposited on the ground surface.  Leonardo preferred to work in silverpoint, one of several types of metalpoints.  Silverpoint did not dull as fast as other metals and rendered precise details effectively. When employed, actually pieces of silver were left on the ground.  The silver first appears gray but oxidizes subsequently to a warm brown.  Metalpoint drawing is very subtle. Work in the medium is difficult to capture in photographic reproduction.  

Leonardo used white highlights to enhance the vividness of the drawing.  He applied it under the woman's eyes; on her left eye’s inner corner; on her nose tip; on her left nostril; on her lower lip; and in her diagonal facial creases from the corner of her nostrils to the corners of her lips.   Parallel lines define tones and shadows as light falls from the left.

Abstracted, loosely drawn lines about her face appear to be wayward strands of hair.  Between these strokes and the delineated face contours is space which gives the head volume and leaves the viewer with the sense of  depth recession.  She seems to turn in the implied expanse.  It is an extraordinary rendering.

As for the metalpoint medium, Leonardo worked in it early in his career.  He gave it up in favor of the more accommodating chalk.  He never stopped using pen and ink.  What about pencil?  Drawing in graphite was not an option.   Graphite pencils were not yet invented.   A non-round carpenter pencil was devised in the late sixteenth century but, pencils, as we know them, were not successfully made until the eighteenth century.

Carlo Urbino (ca. 1510/20–after 1585), Codex Huygens, 1570s,
pen and brown ink and black chalk on paper,
7.1 x 4.9 in. (180 x 125 mm)
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (2006:14), fol. 90
Photo:  Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

Pages from the Morgan’s Codex Huygens, a late sixteenth-century illustrated treatise on painting closely related to Leonardo's notes on the subject, rounds out the exhibition.  Some of the drawings are exact copies of Leonardo’s now lost originals.

One double page (two joined sheets) illustrates shadows cast by candle light.  It demonstrates pictorially how shadows appear larger as the object gets closer to the light source, in this case, a candle.  The illuminated taper also alludes to knowledge.  In the earlier part of the exhibit, one drawing, Musculature of the Leg, has a poem by Leonardo on its verso.  It relates how moths are attracted to candle light and is a metaphor for the continuous seeker of light/knowledge.  It reminds of Leonardo’s unceasing search to know - his own attraction to light.

Although the splendors of this show are well lit, the general gallery, I felt, is too low and made the exhibition layout difficult to follow.  Another issue is that the Codex Huygens pages are displayed near the center of two glass-topped tables.  Viewers must lean over the table in a rather awkward position in order to see them.  I could not help but wish they were closer to the table edge where the explanatory labels are located.   These are minor distractions in a remarkable show.  Works engage viewers and, at times, are so compelling in their beauty they take your breath away.   Visit the Morgan.

*At the present time, the Biblioteca Reale Web site,, is undergoing maintenance.
**The complete Codex Huygens can be seen in digital facsimile on the Morgan’s Web site, see Online Exhibitions, Leonardo da Vinci and the Codex Huygens.
***It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that Eadweard Muybridge invented stop-motion photography   and proved that all four feet of a horse were off the ground when the animal was in a trot or gallop.  Unlike Leonardo's and other artists' horse locomotion descriptions, in trot or gallop a horse's front and rear legs are curled under the body not extended before and behind.
Eadweard Muybridge, (1830-1904), Detail  of Bouquet with Rider,
ca. 1887,  collotype,
 7  x 16 3/8 in. (17.78 cm x 41.59 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California
Photograph:  Artstor 


Leonardo da Vinci:
Treasures From the Biblioteca Reale, Turin
October 25, 2013 through February 2, 2014

225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street, Manhattan
Tuesday through Thursday: 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., 
Friday: 10:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., 
Sunday: 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m
Closed Mondays and Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.  
Closes at 4:00 p.m. Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Paintings From the Dutch Golden Age

The Real And The Virtual

Waiting line at The Frick Collection for 
Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: 
Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

There is no substitute for seeing an actual work of art. Paintings, sculptures, drawings and other creations present a different experience in real life than in reproduction. Size, texture, coloration and placement impact the visual encounter. A sense of the physicality of the “thing”, at least at this time, cannot be achieved via photographic or virtual means. Yet, what has been seen or is to be seen can be enhanced through the virtual medium.  A case in point is the exhibition Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis now on view at The Frick Collection.

This small, exquisite show of fifteen seventeenth-century Dutch paintings enthralls. Each work rewards close observation and seeing becomes an activity that brings forth an almost tactile response.  

The Frick Collection's excellent Web site has an informative section on the exhibition. See There is nothing, however, like the real thing.  Witness the long lines and wait time to see the show.

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), The Goldfinch, 1654, 
oil on panel, 13 x 9 in. (33. 5 x 22.8 cm), 
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague 
Photo:  Courtesy of The Frick Collection

For this discourse, digital images must stand-in for the actual.  Take a look at Carel Fabritius' Goldfinch reproduced here.  A single bird is perched on the top rod of its feeding box against a white wall.  A delicate chain hangs from a loop encircling the finch's resting place. Painted fluidly in broad brush strokes, the color harmonies render this seed-eating songbird with extraordinary illusionism.  The textures of the work and subtle gradations of hues can only be enjoyed in real life.

Should a viewer's curiosity be aroused concerning the painting's history, meaning or the artist who created it, the web offers answers. Go to

The museum's material on The Goldfinch explains that the painting may have been a cover for an enclosed painting or part of a birdcage. The chain, possibly attached to the bird, would prevent it from fleeing. If so, the work may have some moralizing meaning concerning family life and flight.  Alternatively, the chain  may be attached to a small drinking cup within the feed box.  Goldfinches, a popular domestic pet in seventeenth-century Holland, were known to be able to perform a trick of getting their own water by pulling up a chain with a tiny cup attached from a water container.  No conclusion has been reached and the chain is still open for interpretation.

Readers unfamiliar with the artist learn that he was a student of Rembrandt whose influence can be seen in the skillful handling of paint.  Fabritius worked in Delft and died quite young in the same year the painting was finished.   In 1654, a gunpowder magazine blew up in Delft.  The big explosion left a good part of the city in ruins. Possibly a hundred people died including Fabritius whose studio was next to the magazine.  Most likely, The Goldfinch was one of the last works the artist made.  The painting is the center of a well-received eponymous novel by Donna Tartt which was published this year.  The exhibition includes another artwork on which a book was based, Johannes Vermeer's The Girl with a Pearl Earring.  The 1999 novel with the painting's title was written by Tracy Chevalier.       This best-selling fictional account of the artist, his model and the making of the painting sold over 2 million copies.   A movie (2003) and play (2008) were subsequently derived from the book.  Secondary artistic endeavors attest to the enduring fascination of these seventeenth-century works. 

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Portrait of an Elderly Man, 1667
1667, oil on canvas, 32.2 x 26.7 in. (81.9 x 67.7 cm),
Photo:  Courtesy of The Frick Collection

There are four paintings by Rembrandt in the show which allows visitors to survey this master’s early and late styles. The Portrait of an Elderly Man exemplifies the artist’s late period with its characteristic areas of rough broad brushstrokes and thickly laid on paint.  The canvas appears to pulsate as dense pushed and pulled colors contrast with loosely applied oils.  In this portrait, cheeks and collar are rendered viscously while wide loose strokes describe the man's dark garment in a manner so light that the underpainting is seen.

The sitter’s appearance suggests the subject may have been a close friend of Rembrandt's.  His posture is casual;  his collar is open; his jacket is unbuttoned; his hat is askew; and, stubble appears on his chin as if in need of a shave.  It’s as if he just stopped in for a chat and Rembrandt painted him.

The work entered the Mauritshuis collection in 1999.  It was purchased from an English private collection.  England normally does not allow such significant artworks to leave the country.  Since it was going to the Mauritshuis, export was permitted.  To know more, see

Jan Steen (1626-1679), Girl Eating Oysters, c. 1658-60, 
oil on panel (rounded at the top), 8.1 x 5.7 in. (20.5 x 14.5 cm), 
Photo:  Courtesy of The Frick Collection

If you want to have fun, seek out a painting by Jan Steen.  This prolific painter had a sense of humor and a joyous manner of representation.  He excelled in depictions of everyday life with an attention to details that was matched by a skillful technique. Although best known for his moralising genre paintings with references to Dutch proverbs and literature, Steen also painted portraits, mythological, religious, and historical scenes.  He is represented in this exhibit by two canvases:   "As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young", one of the artist's largest works and, Girl Eating Oysters, Steen's smallest canvas.  The former, painted in broad, painterly brushstrokes, warns against the influence of adult bad behavior on the young.  The latter, in which the artist uses a miniaturist-like style, depicts a seductress enticing the viewer to partake of her offerings.  She is putting salt on an oyster, edibles considered aphrodisiacs.  On the table before her is a blue-and-white Delft ceramic pitcher, a wine glass and a silver serving plate with a knife, a half-eaten roll, a mound of salt and a paper cone filled with peppercorns that spill out onto the tray.  In the background, two kitchen servants prepare more oysters.  Behind the woman is a bed with closed curtains.  There is no doubt that she is extending an invitation not only for food but also for herself.  

As the Girl Eating Oysters attracts, so does the show.  Still lifes, landscapes, biblical pictures, other portraits and everyday portrayals yield much to enjoy.  Take advantage while these paintings are here - go see them.  


The Frick Collection presents free lectures associated with exhibits. Many are webcast live and can be seen on the Frick's Web site or the museum's channel on  Past presentations may be viewed on the same sites.*  

The director of the Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker, gave the first lecture for this show.  She provided a good introduction to the collection's history and evolution. For the online video, go to Emilie Gordenker:  "Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis".

*For the museum's past lectures visit the Frick's Web site, main menu "Interact", drop down menu "Lectures"  or  proceed directly to

Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: 
Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From The Mauritshuis
October 22, 2013, through January 19, 2014
Time tickets are required to view this exhibition.

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.
Closed Mondays and holidays

Special Free Extended Viewing Hours For
Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: 
Masterpieces of Dutch Painting From The Mauritshuis 
Friday Evenings 
6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
First Friday Evening of Each Month Is Reserved For Members.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Raphael Visits New York 

St. Catherine of Alexandria

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto)
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood, 15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm), 
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In celebration of 2013 Year of Italian Culture in United States, a painting of St. Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael from the Galleria Nazionale della Marche, Urbino, Italy, is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute New York.

Installed in its own room, both the panel's recto and verso can be seen by moving around a centrally placed glass vitrine.  The back (verso) shows a marbled reflection and inscription.  More about this later.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), 
marble reflection and inscription (verso); 
St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),

The front (recto) has the image of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520),  
St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

Scholars date this panel to the early sixteenth century when Raphael was still working in Urbino, the city of his birth, as well as Città di Castello in the Umbria region of Italy. For those not familiar with Italian regions, Urbino is located in Italy’s Marche region, adjacent to Umbria.

The work's provenance is traced back to the collection of the painter Vicenzo Camuccini (1771 - 1841).  In 1856 a great portion of Camuccini’s painting collection was sold to the Duke of Northumberland.  His purchase primarily comprised paintings by Italian masters of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries.  The Duke took his acquisitions back home to Alnwick Castle

In 1955, the art historian Roberto Longhi attributed the St. Catherine of Alexandria to Raphael.  At the time, the painting was in the collection of Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi. The Count was a businessman, art collector and dealer. Longhi had been his art advisor from about 1920 until 1945. The Count died in 1955 and his collection was subsequently dispersed (1). The Saint Catherine was acquired by the art dealer Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd. of New York (2). It was subsequently sold to the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  After he died in 1989, his wife auctioned the Marcos collection.  In 1990, the Italian State purchased the Saint Catherine of Alexandria for the Galleria Nazionale of the region of Marche.

St. Catherine of Alexandria was a fourth century martyr.  She was the daughter of a king who publicly protested the emperor and refused to worship idols.  Catherine was tortured by beatings and imprisonment. An attempt to rip her apart on a spiked wheel failed when the wheel broke into pieces. She was finally beheaded.   The spiked wheel became her attribute.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Detail  of  St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),  
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm), 
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In the St. Catherine of Alexandria panel now on exhibit in New York, Raphael depicted the youthful saint holding the martyr’s palm frond.  A halo marks her holiness.  She is a blond beauty with exquisitely rendered hands and feet.  She faces to her right.  Her head is tilted down and eyes lowered as if deep in thought.

Catherine is richly attired as befits a noblewoman.  Her long-sleeved red dress is specked in gold.  Two slender gold bands adorn the edges of its sleeves.  The neckline and hem is trimmed in what appears  to be a deep green border.  The gown's belt is green as well as an overgarment wrapped about her shoulders and secured across the chest by two gold clasps.   Lastly, a voluminous pale golden yellow toga gently envelopes the figure.  Its curving folds echoed by the undulation of the fabric about her hair

She stands barefoot on a spiked wheel.  Her body twists in a classical contrapposto posture - weight mostly on her right foot, left knee slightly bent.  She forms an S-shaped curve. The green ground is undifferentiated.  The dark background is embellished with gold interlocking eight-pointed stars and crucifix forms.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Detail  of  St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),  
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm), 
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The small work is packed with meaning.  The palm branch in Christianity alludes to the victory of the spirit over flesh and to resurrection, the triumph over death through the union with  Christ.  The eight-pointed star is symbolic of regeneration, redemption as well as the representation of baptism.  It reflects Jesus’ resurrection on the eighth day and reminds that baptism unites the believer with this miracle.  The cross represents sacrifice and salvation.  Red, the color of blood, alludes to Christian martyrs.  Green denotes the victory of life over death.  Golden yellow signifies purity, an appropriate choice for a virgin martyr.  Bare feet  refers to humility and holiness.  The spiked wheel, of course, is the symbol of her martyrdom.
The placement of Catherine’s wheel was innovative.  It is usually depicted upright at the saint’s side.  Raphael used the typical placement in a later painting of St. Catherine of Alexandria in the National Gallery, London as well as in his  Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
St. Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1507, oil on poplar,
28.4 x 21.9 in. (72.2 x 55.7 cm),
National Gallery, London, U.K.
Photo:  Artstor

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, ca. 1504, oil and gold on wood,
Main panel, overall 67 7/8 x 67 7/8 in. (172.4 x 172.4 cm), 
painted surface 66 3/4 x 66 1/2 in. (169.5 x 168.9 cm),
Photo:  Artstor

By placing the instrument of torture on the ground, Raphael increased the impression of spatial depth,  allowing ample room for the figure’s three-dimensional pose.  At the same time, the wheel’s position acts as the figure’s pedestal raising this greatly admired saint to a higher level and emphasizing the triumph of the princess martyr.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Saint Mary Magdalene,
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),
Location unknown,
Photo:  Artstor (3)

A now lost Saint Mary Magdalene painting was the pendant to St. Catherine of Alexandria panel (3).  The Magdalene is almost the mirror image of the Catherine figure.  The figures are posed in the same posture but Magdalene faces her left and her head and gaze are raised.  Her hands are in the gesture of prayer.  

The position of the two saints and the works’ size strongly support the theory that the paintings were the side panels of a small triptych intended for private devotion.  An inscription on the back (verso) of the Saint Catherine of Alexandria provides further evidence for this conclusion.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), 
Detail of marble mirror and inscription (verso) of the the St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In a circle of blue on a marbleized mirror background, elegant gold capital letters read: BENEDI/CAT VIRG/O MARIA.  The invocation, figuratively “May the Virgin Be Blessed”, points to the likelihood that the triptych's central panel would have represented an image of the Virgin Mary, perhaps a Virgin and Child or a Holy Family.

The Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene may have been part of a group of paintings in the possession of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and his consort Elisabetta Gonzaga (3). When Raphael resided in Urbino, he completed works for the Duke and his wife.  The panels may have been belonged to a painting of the Virgin Mary described by Giorgio Varsari, the sixteenth-century Italian painter, architect, writer and historian.  Varsari wrote that when Raphael lived in Urbino, he made religious paintings including representations of the Madonna.  Specifically, the historian records that Raphael painted two panels of the Virgin Mary for Guidobaldo which were “...piccoli, ma bellissimi”.  Certainly, the Saint Catherine of Alexandria is small yet very beautiful and could have belonged to a triptych with an image of the Madonna in the center panel.  The connection of the Saint Catherine painting with the city of Urbino is further enhanced by the colors used in the inscription on the panel's back:  gold letters on a blue background.  These are the colors of the coat of arms of the city of Urbino.  In addition, Saints Mary Magdalene and Catherine, were among the saints most venerated in this area.  Thus, their appearance together on a work made in Urbino would be fitting.  

The Mary Magdalene and Catherine panels were together in the early twentieth century in Duke of Northumberland's collection at Alnwick Castle.  The panels were next documented in the Contini Bonacossi Collection, Florence, Italy and then with Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd., New York.  At this point, the whereabouts of  the Saint Mary Magdalene is unknown.  Perhaps, the painting will turn up one day.  Until then, you may want to be on the look out for it.

Two additional comments:

Raphael was known to have excelled in the particular technique of painting faux marble as executed in high quality on the back of the St. Catherine of Alexandria panel.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Detail of Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, ca. 1504, oil and gold on wood,
Main panel, overall 67 7/8 x 67 7/8 in. (172.4 x 172.4 cm), 
painted surface 66 3/4 x 66 1/2 in. (169.5 x 168.9 cm),
Photo:  Artstor

The gold speckled decoration of the Madonna’s mantle in Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is very similar to the Catherine's dress in the St. Catherine of Alexandria panel.

(1) Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) had bequeathed his art collection of some 1,000 works to the Italian state.  The Count's heirs, however, successfully contested the will.  The overwhelming majority of the collection was sold abroad.  What was left for the state is now part of the Uffizi Gallery and, presently may only be seen by appointment. Contini Bonacossi was found guilty of being a Nazi collaborator and fascist after World War II.  His bequest appears to be a gesture of amends.

(2) The Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel was in the  2009 exhibition, Raffaello e Urbino, that took place in Galleria Nazionale della Marche, Urbino, Italy.  The citation for the painting in the exhibition catalogue, edited by Lorenza Mochi Onori, entry 33, p. 170, states that the painting was acquired by the antiquarian, Spencer of New York after the  break up of the Bonacossi Collection.  I could not find any information about "Spencer of New York".  The exhibition catalogue probably refers to Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd, New York.  Spencer A. Samuels was a world-renowned art dealer and expert on old masters who died at age 85 in 1999.  The information concerning the Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene panels in Artstor, supplied by  by the Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., states that the Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene panels were formerly in the Contini Bonacossi Collection, Florence and later with Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd, New York.  
My thanks to Giorgio Civolani for his help in the translation of the Raffaello e Urbino exhibition catalogue entry for the Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel.

(3) I have reproduced below the Artstor black and white image of Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel for its clarity which far surpasses the color image from the  2013 Year of Italian Culture in United States Web site or my own photographic attempts.  The Artstor black and white image of Saint Mary Magdalene panel was the only image of this lost painting that I was able to find.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto), ca. 1507, oil on wood,
28.4 x 21.9 in. (72.2 x 55.7 cm),
National Gallery, London, U.K.
Photo:  Artstor

The black and white images and information associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene panels were supplied to Artstor by the Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  The   data for both panels attribute the work to Raphael and state that the location of both panels are unknown.  The dimensions of the panels were not furnished in the Artstor citations. I have assumed that the two paintings have the same dimensions and used the dimensions of the Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel for the label description of the Saint Mary Magdalene image. 

(3) See Raffaello e Urbino exhibition catalogue entry 33, p. 170 concerning this hypothesis.

St. Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael
October 1 to October 28, 2013 
Monday - Saturday,
10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m 

686 Park Avenue, New York, NY

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Focus On Design and Craftsmanship

Norway and the Decorative Arts

Trondheim, Norway 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

No other region is associated with craftsmanship and modern/contemporary design as much as Scandinavia. Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland boast top design firms. They manufacture goods characterized by simplicity, functionality and creative use of natural as well as innovative materials. Useful everyday objects turn into works of modern art. Ikea, Electrolux, Bang & Olufsen, Marimekko, George Jensen, Snohetta and Acne Studios are just some of the companies renowned for these skillful products. How did this come about? Why is one area so distinguished? The definitive answer is beyond this writer. A suggestion, however, may be postulated. Perhaps, these countries much more than others, used resources to support crafts as well as educate, influence and develop public taste toward an acuity for design. Good design became imprinted into the minds of the populace. What happened in Norway and the evolution of one applied arts museum will serve as an example. 

Norway became a wealthy country in the nineteenth century. Industrialization, textile manufacture, shipping, export trade in such goods as timber and fish bought economic prosperity. By 1870, Norway’s GNP per capita was well above the European average. The country’s first rail and telegraph lines opened in the mid-1850s. In 1877, coast-to-coast trains made eased travel between Oslo, the country’s capital and Trondheim, its third largest city. Rail linked Oslo to Bergen, the second largest city, in 1909.  Norway inaugurated a constitution in 1814. Parliamentary sessions began meeting regularly from the late 1860s. The country achieved independence from Sweden until 1905. Norwegian nationalism flourished. The West, however, was still looked at for cultural leadership.  Radical aesthetic changes were taking place in England, France, Holland and Germany.

In 1851, London’s Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, ushered in a century of popular world fairs.  These showcased the most advanced modern goods, objects and inventions. Paris’ Exposition Universelles followed in 1855, 1867, 1889 and 1900. Philadelphia hosted the first American international exposition in 1876. The hugely successful 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition was seen by over 27 million people. 

The nineteenth century also saw the rise of great public art museums seeking the comprehensive collecting of painting, sculpture and historical artifacts. Notably, few acquired decorative arts. Such objects were left to applied art museums. These institutions evolved in a desire to encourage industry and public awareness after London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was established in 1852; Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs was founded 1905; and, the United States’ Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum was started in 1896. 

In contrast to a one nation - one principal museum, Norway’s three major cities opened their own applied arts museums: the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, Oslo, 1876; the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art,* Bergen, 1877 and the National Museum of Decorative Arts in Trondheim, 1893. All three accumulated extensive collections. 

Today, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Oslo and Bergen’s West Norway Museum of Decorative Art* each hold some 35,000 objects. Trondheim’s National Museum of Decorative Arts has about 40,000 works. The latter is one of the country’s premier institutions and its holdings, some opined, is the best of its kind in the country. As such, a closer look at its history is revealing. 

The museum’s collecting pattern can be traced back to Jens Thiis who became director in 1895. He took charge of a museum with only a few hundred donated objects. Thiis, just 25 years old, was an art historian with innovative ideas. He wanted to collect the most advanced examples of contemporary design. To do this, he traveled widely in Western Europe. At first, he bought works in the international Arts and Crafts style but after attending the Paris’ Exposition Universalle in 1900, he focused on Art Nouveau. 

He commissioned the Belgian architect, painter and designer Henry van de Velde to create a room and furnishings in the museum specifically for displays. What he completed in 1907/1908 is a unique room.  It is one of the few remaining van de Velde rooms in existence. It has been recreated in the present museum where you can also see turn-of-the century artworks such as three prints by Edvard Munch that Thiis had acquired in 1902. 

Thiis' exhibition techniques were as pioneering as his purchases. Soon the museum was recognized as one of the most advanced museums in Northern Europe.   Contemporary applied art filled a whole floor. One room was dedicated to French designs, another to works from England with walls covered with modern wallpaper and curtain fabric by William Morris.  

Thiis wanted to illustrate how contemporary artists were influenced by Japan’s arts and crafts.  Consequently, a collection of Japanese Art began.  Two framed Japanese prints in the van de Velde room are samples of Thiis' buying activities. At present, the museum houses the only permanent Japanese Art exhibition in Norway with objects dating from the prehistoric Jomon period through the Edo era and beyond. 

Most of Thiis' planned museum workshops for a variety of crafts such as wood- and metalworking never were started. One, however, did open in 1898: a successful weaving studio and school which lasted nineteen years. 

In 1908 Thiis left Trondheim to become director of the Oslo’s National Gallery.** He was succeeded by Hans Dedekam in 1909. Dedekamly primarily purchased older objects and Norwegian folk art. Dedekam felt it was an education necessary to make the public aware of their cultural history. He wanted to arouse people's "sense of beauty." Local craftsmanship were encouraged and given temporary exhibitions. Dedekam had been recruited from Oslo’s Museum of Decorative Arts and Design.  In 1919 he returned there as director. 

Fredrik B. Wallen took over from Dedekam in 1920.  He remained director for twenty-five years. Wallen increased the museum's holdings in textiles, ceramics, glass, silver, enamel and tapestries. Craftspersons became actively involved with the museum. A glass-painting school started in 1935. During the War years, acquisitions were put on hold and the collection removed for safety. 

In 1946, Thorvald Krohn-Hansen became director and, like Thiis, wholeheartedly bought modern art and design. His special preference was for Scandinavian designs. In 1951, he engaged the Danish architect Finn Juhl to design a museum room to house the best selections of contemporary Scandinavian furnishings and crafts. The result was “Interior -52” still on view today.  To make room for new displays, the museum's folk art was sent to the Trøndelag Folk Museum.  Collected tapestries were kept.  

Jan-Lauritz Opstad became director in 1980. His particular interest is experimental contemporary crafts - objects that pushes the definition of what we call crafts. Opstad’s acquisitions have a distinct international profile and include pottery, furniture, printed fabrics, fiber-art, glass, costumes and modern jewelry. The latter is especially prominent. He has reached out to practicing artisans and promoted research in modern Norwegian crafts. 

In 1990, the museum’s buying power increased substantially when the government set up a National Fund for the acquisition of Norwegian Contemporary Crafts. This enabled the museum to devote most of its own resources to the purchase of international works. 

This past August, I had the privilege of spending several hours with Jan-Lauritz Opstad at the museum. As we walked through the galleries, he told me anecdotes about some pieces. Opstad explained that the museum acquired the majority of its holdings soon after they were made. Prices for acquisitions were usually not that high yet. He pointed out that the museum’s small size set limits on what could be displayed. Only about 2.5% of the museum's collection, approximately 1,000 objects, are on view.

Grete Prytz Kittelsen (1917 - 2010), Plate, 1954, 
blue enamel on silver, D: 27 1/2 in. (70 cm), 
Trondheim, Norway 
Photo: Hillary Ganton

I thought I would put him on the spot when I asked if he had one favorite work. He thought a few seconds and took me to see a blue enamel silver plate by Grete Prytz Kittelsen, the distinguished Norwegian enamel artist, designer and goldsmith. Its highly reflective surface and form made me think of some of Anish Kapoor’s sculptures. Looking closely at the plate, I discerned a multitude of engraved lines. The design added a sense of depth and variety to the vibrant blue hue. Opstad explained that the artist achieved this effect by using a dentist drill while moving her outstretched arm back and forth. He told me her reach determined the size of the plate. The piece, 27 1/2 inches (70 cm) in diameter, was too big to fire in the artist’s kiln. Kittelsen had to send it out to a manufacturer of bathroom items that had a kiln big enough to fire enamel onto tubs!

X Triennale in Milan Illustration, 1954,
Photo of Grand Prix Award Winning Plate,
Grete Prytz Kittelsen (1917 - 2010), Plate, 1954,
blue enamel on silver, D: 27 1/2 in. (70 cm)
Photo:  Web Image

The artist won Grand Prize in the 1954 Milan Triennial Exhibition of Decorative Arts for her enamel collection which included this plate. It was one of Opstad's acquisitions. The director’s selection did not seem surprising after I found out that his Ph.d. thesis topic was medieval Norwegian enamels. 

Nearby was a gallery called “Director’s Room”.  As the title suggests, Opstad was responsible for every purchase. It was filled with contemporary jewelry, decorative platters and sculpture-like objects which ranged in date from the 1980s to the early 21st century. The use of ceramic, glass, fiber and metal was often unconventional. American, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian and Finnish artists were represented. Like a proud father remembering things about his children, Opstad could recall everything about each piece from its inception, to what the artist had to say about it and how it was made. 

A new museum director began September 1.  For the first time in the museum’s history, a woman who is a craftsperson - jewelry designer - will be in charge. All past directors were art historians and male. After 33 years at the helm, Opstad looks forward to his next challenge. He will be cataloging the museum’s vast holdings. A task that is long overdue. 

Some caveats concerning a visit to the museum: Staffing restrictions have led to inconsistent labeling of objects. Texts are in Norwegian. English translations are infrequent. At times, non-speaking Norwegians may find it impossible to decipher what a work is. This is especially true for the earlier objects although these do not make up the bulk of the holdings. One tall wooden table will serve as an illustration. The piece, to me, looked like a printing press. A tall turning apparatus appeared to be a press screw that could push an attached square piece of wood down tightly on the object's top surface. I tried to interpret the Norwegian label.  Dates “1650-1700” were clear but the only words I could make sense of were “presse”, “Holland”.  I assumed it was a decorative printing press.  Wrong.  I asked Ostad about it.  He told me it was a linen press which imprinted patterns into linen.

Identification, however, is not necessary for appreciation. Museum visitors can still appreciate workmanship and beauty in objects with unknown purposes.

I return to my original hypothesis. Could the efforts of Norway’s design museums, repeated in cities across Scandinavia, have engendered a general populace innately attuned to good design? Could these institutions have affected a cultural proclivity for well-made goods? 

Think of it this way: Consider the comprehensive collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (founded 1870, opened 1876), the Art Institute of Chicago (1879) and the oldest public art museum in the United States, Hartford, Connecticut’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (1842). What if, concurrently, New York, Boston, Chicago and Hartford decided to establish museums strictly devoted to decorative arts? Would the sensitivities of the American public have changed? When you think of good design, would you think of the U.S.? 

Take what you will from this writer's above rumination. Hopefully, your thoughts will turn to change, innovation and how to go about transforming a culture.

*Consolidated in 2006 with four other museums to form one museum entity called the Art Museums of Bergen.
**Part of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design since 2003.

Munkegata 5, Trondheim, Norway 
Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday
10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.,  
Thursday  10:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m,  
               Sunday  12:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.                 
Closed Mondays  Hours change June 1st