News & Views


Art Review: Titian’s “Flaying of Marsyas”

Print This Post Print This Post

December 12th, 2017

Titian–In the End:
From Wholesome Flesh to
Disintegrating Skin

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slides 1-5]

Artist riddle:
How many artists does it take to
complete a painting?
One to do the painting
and five to drag her away from the canvas
when it’s finished.

[slide 6]

When Tiziano Vecellio (Titian) died in 1576 at an advanced age the delimiters of which are as elusive today as form edges in his late paintings, among the detritus left in what was a very busy bottega (workshop), was a large canvas on which paint melted into the story of the Flaying of Marsyas, conflated with the one about Midas, whose life was also turned upside down for errantly judging a musical competition (Fig. 1). In the aftermath of the master’s death from “a fever” and almost simultaneously that of his oldest son and business partner Orazio from plague, the abandoned houseful of art on Birri Grande in Venice became fair game for burglars, who had first pick of the hoard. Before the end of the 1570s, the place along with all its contents had been sold by the surviving younger son Pomponio.

In 1909, after long silence, the Flaying of Marsyas appeared in the art historical record. Since that emergence into contemporary consciousness, the painting has garnered much speculation as to motive, meaning, method, etc. Occam’s razor rules here, starting with incontrovertible givens. Titian loved oil paint. He spent a lifetime applying it to surfaces, mostly canvas, in increasingly complex ways that gained him notice, nobility, remuneration and not a little notoriety, all of which he shaped and fashioned to good effect but that also left their imprint on him. The Flaying of Marsyas is the Prince of Painters’ personal meditation on the choices he made–and clearly continued to make–as the artist he was. By rendering with sumptuous color and brushwork the myths that declared the superiority of divine order and reason–embodied in Apollo and his lyre–over the unfettered sensuality of satyr Marsyas and his pipes, Titian challenged the admonishing message of his subject matter. In the longstanding competitive conversation with Michelangelo’s disegno, this colorito canvas seems to be the Venetian’s attempt to have the last word.

The painting depicts the price of challenging a god at his own artistic game. Oddly, for all the paint and real estate Titian devoted to the Marsyas tale, it was the one about Midas on which Ovid lavished more words, and the character with whom the painter seems to have identified most. Regardless of whether the immediate viewers of the canvas were thieves or discerning collectors, it must have been quite a shock to whoever came upon it for the first time. So revolutionary was the appearance of the Flaying of Marsyas, [slide 7] that they must have wondered what did the great artist have in mind and hand when he chose these stories and rendered them as he did. Even those familiar with Titian’s contemporary works, like the earthy Nymph and Shepherd (early 1570s, Fig. 2)–with its similarly vibrant brushstrokes but (style-wise) backwards-glancing sculpted figures and spatial recession–were confronted with a distinctively different order of painting. Certainly considering much earlier output like his smooth Venus of Urbino (1538, Fig. 3)–with its well-defined forms, perspectival floor and geometric divisions–might have made them wonder how its artist could possibly be responsible for the Flaying of Marsyas. Seizing on the idea of the later painting’s apparently unfinished state, more-or-less erudite viewers had a handy explanation, but Titian declared his part done when he painted his name on the rock in the lower right foreground, a nicety that hasn’t foreclosed debate.

[slide 8]
Titian rendered here not one but two stories about aesthetic discernment versus sensory pleasure, and the potential for unfavorable outcomes. What becomes of the artist who professes his own brand of art to be better than Nature’s, i.e., better than that of the gods? Tied to a tree on the central axis of the composition, the inverted Marsyas suffers under the knives of the partially kneeling golden-haired Apollo and above him, his Phrygian-capped assistant–their crooked elbows echoing each other like tiered chevrons. After Minerva discarded her newly invented pipes, Marsyas retrieved them and perfecting his technique, foolishly challenged the sun god to a musical duel. The god of light chose flaying as the penalty, the pain of which Ovid communicated far more dramatically than Titian did, as evident in the poet’s lines:
[slide 9]
‘No! no! He screamed,/’Why tear me from myself? Oh, I repent!/A pipe’s not worth the price!’ and as he screamed/Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him/Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,/Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering/And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,/And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs[…]”

[slide 10]
In the other poem, Midas–the only dissenter when all agreed Pan’s pipes inferior to Apollo’s lyre–inflamed the sun god’s ire at “ears so dull,” and suffered their transformation into those of an ass. “Disfigured and ashamed,” the Phrygian king wrapped his new appendages in a purple turban in an attempt to conceal them from his viewers.

Providing musical accompaniment on the Apollo side of the picture, a soloist has just completed a down bow on his lira da braccio, which visually addresses the syrinx hanging from the tree a few inches away, matching seven strings to seven pipes–a restatement of the duel between the instruments. On the other side, lined up diagonally from upper middle to lower right, a satyr enters the scene carrying a bucket, the crowned Midas sits with his hand over his mouth, and a boy holds the collar of a large, open-mouthed dog. A small dog licks up the blood flowing from the open wound of Marsyas–a bit of macabre humor for English speakers, as it is a lap dog.

The leaves in this natural setting, a mix of fiery red-orange and some version of green, echo the colors of the flesh, which are set off by the icy-blue sky, standing-flayer’s apron, bucket’s metal and Apollo’s opalescent drapery. [slide 11] Titian’s red accents ring the composition: Midas’s wrap, the blood-red strips of cloth attaching Marsyas’s left leg and–on the other side–his pipes to the tree, the musician’s garment, Apollo’s boot and [slide 12] the blood that drips down the front of the canvas as though applied to its surface, rather than following the form of the satyr’s arm (Fig. 4)–a self-aware passage that signals the image’s artifice and with it, Titian’s presence as creator/god.

[slide 13]
The composition has as its geometric center the navel of Marsyas, shifted now because of past alterations to the canvas size (Fig. 5). The navel’s central position and the strongly highlighted immediate surrounds guarantee its role as focal point to which relates all narrative action, reminiscent of the Umbilicus/Navel of the World–the axis mundi–mythological center of the world/universe made manifest in the Hellenistic symbol of the Omphalos stone. While it can’t be known whether Titian had these ideas in mind or was more simply, calling upon adolescent geometry lessons, the circular composition does reflect his deliberation on the power of the center. By assigning it to the area of the body associated with emotions, the artist directed attention to the satyr’s visceral nature.

As for the painting’s pictorial magic, technical investigations belie the impression that the Flaying of Marsyas was conceived and executed in a single sitting–or even several. [slide 14] A combination of x-rays from decades ago (Fig. 6), a published copy of an earlier version (Fig. 7) and extrapolation from a state-of-the-art, pre-conservation analysis of the elements of Titian’s Nymph and Satyr, revealed: that the painter applied pigment in complex layers according to intended color effect–in distinct sections–alternating impasto with glazes, a process that required in-between drying time and created Titian’s preferred relief-like surface; that he nonetheless worked the entire canvas at once; that he started with an underdrawing of thin, dark paint; that he exploited the canvas for its effect; and that the novelty of the old man’s style depended less on significant changes in ingredients than on his brilliant deployment of them. Perhaps apocryphal, when asked about his methods, Titian himself admitted, “svelaturetrenta o quaranta!” (“glazes–thirty or forty!”). As for the widely quoted possible eye-witness account reported by Marco Boschini–speaking through the mouth of artist Palma il Giovane–about Titian’s painting practice of “vigorous applied [color] with a loaded brush[…who] for final touches would blend the transitions from highlights to halftones with his fingers,” no fingerprints were found on Nymph and Satyr, a painting with many disappeared edges. The Flaying of Marsyas, then, was an important painting to its maker, who lavished on it much time and craft.

The copy’s agreement with evidence from the x-ray that Titian initially had a different idea about the activity and pose of the musician in the upper left, and that the child with the dog was a later replacement for the amphora in the lower right, lends credence to the existence of another version–copy or original–that predated the one left in the artist’s studio when he died. One such was recorded in a sale at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Thoughts of a flaying of Marsyas painting–and perhaps its application to the disegnocolorito debate–had obviously been marinating in Titian’s mind for some time, possibly for decades, indicating among other things that the subject itself was not necessarily pegged to the artist’s aging. As Titian neared the end of his life, however, the question of his legacy entered the picture. The myths’ long-standing presence in Titian’s thinking is further supported by his decision to invert Marsyas, an idea that seems to have sprung full grown from the brain of Raphael’s star pupil.

[slide 15]
Awash in antiquities as they were, sixteenth-century artists had a seemingly endless supply of new ideas for subjects and compositions, among them the contest between Apollo and Marsyas–and its prize. Of the motifs used to depict the popular narrative–on ancient sarcophagi (Fig. 8) and vases (Fig. 9), and as at least two types of sculpture-in-the-round of Marsyas tied to a tree in the exceedingly painful strappado position (Fig. 10)–none were known to upend the doomed satyr. During the 1520s and 1530s when Titian worked for Duke of Mantua Federico II Gonzaga, he had ample opportunity to rummage around the prince’s extensive collection of antiquities and while there, to browse that of court painter and architect Giulio Romano, with whom he developed at least a collegial relationship. Possibly among those marbles was a now-lost sarcophagus with the satyr inverted.

[slide 16]
Ideas must have been exchanged between the two artistic giants about compositions for a Flaying of Marsyas because by 1527, Giulio had sketched a scene of the punishment of Marsyas (Fig. 11), which was soon frescoed by him and assistants onto the wall of the Sala di Ovidio (Camera dei Metamorfosi) in Federico’s Palazzo del Te. (Fig. 12) [slide 17] Comparing the composition of the Flaying of Marsyas painting with that of the Apollo Flaying Marsyas drawing reveals how alike the artists’ thinking must have been. Although it’s been suggested that rather than making a copy of the drawing or being gifted one, that Titian sketched from the fresco, considering how high up on the wall the small fresco is, it’s unlikely he would have been able to see it well, even if he knew it was there. Because the drawing obviously precedes Titian’s painting, the assumption has been that the idea originated with Giulio and that proposed lost sarcophagus.

[slide 18]
An alternative hypothesis has Giulio standing in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican under the ceiling fresco designed by his mentor Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) and looking at Marsyas upside down, either from curiosity or by happenstance. [slide 19] (Figs. 14 and 15) The strappado-twisted arms of Marsyas in the drawing echo those in Raphael’s design, providing strong evidence that the ceiling painting was a convenient source of inspiration for Giulio. When he composed his own version, Titian wisely changed the position of those arms–such tension in arm muscles making no sense in a body hanging from its ankles. [slide 20] However the idea developed, not only did it appeal to Titian but it rapidly became a standard among other artists, who likewise corrected the arms–probably guided by other Giulio or Titian versions (Figs. 16, 17 and 18). When he elected to paint these myths of musical comparison (paragone), Titian entered a conversation already in progress, possibly doing so years before he painted the version that in his lifetime never left the studio.

[slide 21]
The significant ways in which Titian’s painting veers away from the drawings of Giulio and company provide clues to the Venetian’s intentions: Marsyas, strung up by his ankles, facing front, his genitals no longer the target of a flayer’s knife and his skin still mostly attached to his body; Apollo, dropped to one knee and wielding a knife; a musician, playing a lira da braccio taking the place of the man holding the victor’s lyre; the satyr with the bucket, looking at Apollo rather than out of the canvas; and joining the party with two dogs, a child implicating the viewer with his eye contact. Most significantly, instead of covering his eyes, Titian’s Midas–his ass’s ears lost in the shadowed space ringing his head–stares intently at the butchery unfolding before him, dispassionately regarding the face of Marsyas, who no longer opens his mouth in a scream [slide 22] (Figs. 19 and 20), but turns one eye toward the spectator in close-mouthed, strained silence. Where Giulio’s drawing mostly documents the denouement of a competition, Titian’s painting invites its audience to join the artist in reflecting on the contrasting positions, and hence significance, of flayer and victim.

[slide 23]
Giulio’s repeating diagonals from upper right to lower left (arm of bucket-bearer, tree, Marsyas and assistant flayer) create movement toward the left, counterbalanced by the stooped Apollo and the lyre-carrier behind him. Depth is indicated by the profile view of the sacrificial satyr who is turned in space, and by clear views of the legs that overlap each other or as in the case of the Phrygian butcher, disappear behind another form. Titian in contrast compressed his composition by suppressing those usual depth-defining disegno devices of: overlapping forms and distinctive edges, discriminating paint application and layering, and the atmospheric perspective that leads to infinity in landscape settings. [slide 24] His painting is all colorito–evident in a closeup photograph taken under ordinary inadequate museum lighting (Fig. 21), where to the left of the satyr’s right leg, background clouds merge with a patch of red cloth above and a hand grabbing a sliver of hide below. [slide 25] The blue and gold of sky and background trees assert themselves in competition with foreground figures that meet at the picture plane, like the musician atop Apollo’s back, the assistant flayer above the god’s head, and the bucket-carrier abutting Midas.

Compared to the other figures, the centrally-located body of Marsyas is massive, lending credence to observations that in constructing his composition, Titian channeled memories of Christ flanked by holy figures, or more generally the shallow space of sacre conversazioni (sacred conversations), where Madonna and child occupy center stage amid saints and donors bracketing them, and/or recalled archaic reliefs. Such conjecturing raises questions: What additional body of knowledge did Titian draw upon, if any, besides that of his craft? What personal meanings did he cram into this visually crowded canvas?

Clearly Titian knew the myths of Marsyas and Midas, though he conflated the two. How he came by this knowledge remains speculative, with some asserting that early artistic training–beginning at age ten–preempted any formal education, making it unlikely he ever learned to read Latin. That wouldn’t have constituted much of an impediment once he fell in with Venetian intellectual types like Pietro Aretino, Pietro Bembo, Daniele Barbaro and others whose portraits he painted–their conversations teeming with philosophical, literary and artistic content as they must have been. On the other hand, Titian has been characterized as a “cultivated man” who read classical literature–including poetry–and might have known Latin and even Greek, and who was familiar with the Renaissance current of Neo-Platonist and Pythagorean numerical theories, especially those related to music.

[slide 26]
More agreement exists, however, as to the role of Midas as stand-in for Titian, though not about whether it is a self-portrait (Fig. 22). Similarly, some have misread the king’s expression and pose as that of a melancholic, applying to it phrases like: “veiled in sorrow and profound gravity,” “tearfully falls silent,” “Saturnine melancholy,” and “grand and pensive mourner.” [slide 27] Comparing Titian’s Midas (Fig. 23) with the archetype of melancholy in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melancholia I (1514, Fig. 24), forces agreement with assessments of his stance as contemplative. The poses are just not the same.

[slide 28]
What might Titian as Midas have been thinking as he stared at the face of the sensual satyr (Fig. 25) under the knife of the god of divine order in the act of pulling away a slice of skin? [slide 29] With both his eyes and mouth wide open, Apollo seems to be singing (Fig. 26), perhaps in a duet with the musician playing on the Renaissance version of the ancient lyre–the instrument the sun god strummed to maintain the harmony of the spheres. If this was indeed the artist’s intention, it wouldn’t be the first time he subordinated the ear to the eye, setting a scene to music with his colorito.

[slide 30]
In a 1550s composition of a musician and nude woman (ca. 1550, Fig. 27), Titian explored more explicitly the relationship between music and sensuality (i.e., sex). His choice of a pipe organ for the ogling player, who has one hand on the keyboard and the other between his legs as he conjures up his Venus and Cupid in an erotically suggestive embrace, must surely relate to the nefarious reputation of wind instruments, associated as they were with vulgarity and phalluses. Unlike Apollo’s lyre, with its fixed tuning and illustrious Greek pedigree, the pipes of Marsyas–a goddess’s discard–had a structure that enabled a flexible tonal range, its lack of limits threatening to lead its devotees astray.

[slide 31]
In his Flaying of Marsyas, Titian played the open brushwork of Venetian colorito–the unfettered sensuality/sexuality embodied by the satyr’s syrinx–against the lines of Central Italian disegno–the contained order of Apollo’s harmonic strings. Indeed the artist was, quite literally, the poster child for the freewheeling style billed as improving on nature rather than slavishly mimicking it. In the impresa most likely chosen for him sometime before 1562 by close friend Aretino or writer M. Lodovico Dolce (Fig. 28), the painter is likened to a mother bear who licks her formless newborn into something resembling herself. The accompanying poem by Dolce leaves no doubt that Titian was known to have “[…]bested art, genius and nature.” The well-deserved inclusion of this impresa in an engraved anthology devoted to those of princes and other illustrious men of letters recognized Titian as a noble gentleman of refined intellect, placing his art alongside that of literature, seeming to link it with Apollo and his lyrical productions.

[slide 32]
In a picture constructed of riotous patches of color thoughtfully applied by design, inhabited by an unusual-for-Titian amount of bare male flesh, Midas contemplates the emotional response of Marsyas to his fate, with ample reason for identification. When the Phrygian king chose the sexy sound of pipes over a god’s heavenly instrument, he earned ass’s ears as a reward, though at least hung onto his skin. With this painting, the octogenarian painter (Fig. 29)–having already sustained losses to death of several loved ones and suffered some debilitating effects of aging–reflects on his own legacy. Decades earlier, well aware of Michelangelo’s celebrated disegno, Titian had chosen to go his own way, further developing the notorious open brushwork of his Venetian colorito. Would his gift be flayed after he was gone?

By choosing these myths, Titian seemed to bow to the inevitable triumph of the austere and rational over the luxuriant and sensual, watching it be cut to ribbons. Judging from the many philosophical readings (death by a thousand cuts) of this luscious compilation of pigment, and the avoidance of its near-erotic obsession with the flesh of both actors and canvas, if that’s what the old man feared would become of his art, his Flaying of Marsyas even as it pictures defeat, proclaims victory for colorito by its very existence.


For the full paper including footnotes and bibliography, contact the author at:


Art Review: Catalog Entry for Ribera painting

Print This Post Print This Post

July 23rd, 2017

Catalog Entry for
Jusepe de Ribera,
The Holy Family with
Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria

Jusepe de Ribera, The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria (1648, oil on canvas, 82½ x 60¾ in. [209.6 x 154.3 cm]).  New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria.  Jusepe de Ribera (Játiva [Valencia], Spain 1591 – 1652 Naples), Rome ca. 1606; Parma ca. 1611; Naples 1616–1652.  Signed and dated lower right on side of bench upon which Mary sits: “Jusepe de Ribera, español, accadamico [] F. 1648.”  Oil on canvas, 82½ x 60¾ in. (209.6 x 154.3 cm).  Restored in 1979.  Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1934, 34.73.

In a painting of the Holy Family, preceding the date of 1648, Jusepe de Ribera proudly affixed his signature as a Spaniard and Academy member to the end of the stone bench supporting Mary. Other than the secure facts of its dating and creator, little is known with certainty about the history and hence function of the work. A trail of information starts much later in its life with the murky circumstances of its acquisition in Genoa by a French art dealer. Much, however, can still be gleaned from its date, subject matter and physical characteristics.

Pictured on a canvas too large to be handled by one person and hence unlikely to have been intended for private individual devotion, the Virgin Mary holds the Christ child on her lap while Saint Catherine of Alexandria brushes her left cheek against the dorsal surface of the baby’s right hand. Mary’s mother Saint Anne proffers a rose to her daughter and Saint Joseph gazes at the viewer, as does the Madonna. A sewing basket in the lower right corner adds a note of tranquil domesticity, and the absence of mystical haloes renders the scene more conducive to viewers’ imagining themselves participating in the tender adoration of the child on his mother’s lap.

For the elderly participants who frame the central action, Ribera chose tenebristically dark colors, effectively keeping Anne and Joseph in the background. By bathing in bright light the two young women and baby, and clothing them in colorful garments, he brought them forward, directing the audience’s attention to the spiritual center of the composition.

Those viewers were likely to have been members of a wealthy family for whom the painting was created and guests who joined them in their private quarters, where the canvas would have been displayed. In keeping with the mid-sixteenth-century Council of Trent’s dictates, the subject matter chosen and the manner in which it was presented encouraged identification with, and emulation of, the holy personages depicted. Catherine would have provided an opportunity to meditate on her “admirable” qualities of “wisdom,” “eloquence,” “constancy,” “cleanness of chastity” and “privileged dignity.”

Primarily a holy family scene into which Ribera inserted Catherine, the painting presents an Alexandrian princess and Christian convert to whom Christ appeared when her faith was severely tested. Rather than the usual iconography of this saint’s mystical marriage to Christ–in which she is shown receiving a ring from the infant Jesus, here it’s the baby in a passive position, receiving Catherine’s tender adoration.

A popular source of saints’ stories, The Golden Legend left vague the exact content of Catherine’s visions, the second of which occurred during a twelve-day imprisonment without food. In her efforts to convert a ruling emperor to Christianity, Catherine so impressed him with erudite arguments that stumped fifty of his smartest philosophers, that he proposed marriage. When she explained that “He [Christ] is my God, my lover, my shepherd, and my one and only spouse,” the emperor became so enraged that he ordered her jailed. When starvation didn’t shake her faith, he sentenced her to be tortured to death across four spiked wheels, pieces of which later became the symbol of her martyrdom.

Those references to lover and spouse probably contributed to the subsequent myth of Catherine’s dream of the Christ child held by Mary, initially refusing to accept her as his servant because she was insufficiently beautiful, but much later–after Catherine spent time in the desert learning about the Christian faith from a hermit and then being baptized–Christ returned and placed a ring on the future martyr’s finger.

In a related version, also not in The Golden Legend but perhaps a product of the Counter-Reformation’s promotion of images as devotional aids, said hermit gifted Catherine with a picture of the Madonna and Child. Fervent prayers brought the Alexandrian princess a vision of the face of Christ turning toward her and later, when her faith had grown even stronger, Catherine envisioned Christ’s placing a ring on her finger. In a parallel fashion, Ribera created an image that invited similar spiritual engagement.

Techniques and Materials
The large oil-on-canvas painting has suffered damage. Before a 1979 restoration, there was a great deal of paint loss in the light-colored flesh tones. Additionally, what today looks like a well-preserved ultramarine cloak was back then a surface of disconnected flecks of paint before (one assumes) paint consolidation and in-painting. The canvas weave is evident below most of the paint, possibly a result of a relining in the early nineteenth century.

In this late work, Ribera combined the tenebristic effects of his earlier Roman style with a classical mode already apparent in the previous decade, perhaps inspired by contemporary artists Guido Reni, Domenichino, Lanfranco and Artemisia Gentileschi who–settling in Naples during those years–brought with them a classical way of painting. Likewise, the expansion of Ribera’s palette from muted earth colors to vibrant and varied hues might reflect the renewal of interest in Venetian art that spread across Italy during the 1630s.

The painting is imbued with a tenderness that suffuses the interactions among all the actors. Catherine’s intense and private adoration of the Christ child evokes in the baby enjoyment of, and fascination with, her behavior (evident by the slightly upturned left corner of his mouth). St. Anne smiles lovingly as she offers her daughter a rose that perhaps with its many equidistant thorns (curiously confined to only one side of the stem) prefigures the Passion with its crown of thorns. Mary and Joseph knowingly acknowledge visitors with ineffable stares that grasp and hold the viewer’s gaze on Catherine’s actions.

Evident from early on, Ribera’s determination to capture and convey affect evolved into an exceptional ability to paint deeply emotional sacred (and other) pictures well suited for the post-Tridentine precepts of his time. Whether patron-driven or expressive of a personal predisposition, that aspect of his work forever marked him as different from others. The Met’s Holy Family with Saints Anne and Catherine of Alexandria reflects the culture whence it springs but also the mastery of its creator.

Nothing is known about the painting before the nineteenth century when Jean Baptiste Pierre Le Brun acquired it, but sometime after around 1648 when it left the artist’s studio in Naples as an object of religious devotion, it became an object of art.

An unsigned typewritten note in its curatorial file suggests that after Napoleon’s invasion of Italy and his subsequent secularization of churches, the painting became available and ended up in a Genoese collection either as a purchase or spoil of war. It was picked up in Italy by Le Brun in 1807/08 with the intention of bringing it back to Paris to sell, either purchased from its Genoese owner or obtained illegally elsewhere and given a false provenance. Its exclusion from both Giacomo Brusco’s Description des beautes de Genes (1781) and Carlo Giuseppe Ratti’s Descrizione di Genova (1780) strongly suggests that the painting wasn’t commissioned for a Genoese church. A signed and dated work of this caliber was unlikely to have been missed by either writer.

Wherever and however it was acquired, it ended up in France where artist and art dealer Le Brun soon flipped it in an “unverified” Paris sale. By 1824 it resided in the collection of Sir Thomas Baring, a connoisseur and collector of fine art who served in the British government for many years. The painting remained in the Baring family until December 12, 1918, when it was sold at Christie’s in London, to P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., a well-established dealer and gallery founded in 1767.

Colnaghi held the painting till it came into the possession of Henry George Charles Lascelles, of royal heritage like the previous noncommercial owners. When the painting appeared on the market again in 1934 at Arnold Seligmann, Rey & Co., Inc. (New York and Paris), it was bought by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though Ribera spent his entire working life in Italy, because he was Spanish born this painting is displayed in a gallery of Spanish art.


For citations and bibliography, contact the author at:


Art Review: Museum Collections & Exhibitions

Print This Post Print This Post

July 11th, 2017

The Long and Short of Displaying Art:
Permanent Collections and Temporary Exhibitions

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

Permanent: Lasting or intended to last or remain unchanged indefinitely.
Temporary: Lasting for only a limited period of time; not permanent.

On a chilly, rainy September morning in 1978, the thirty-year-old artist found herself well positioned on a line that had grown exponentially behind her since she had arrived early enough to score a ticket for the King Tut show soon to open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fleeting entertainment during an otherwise long and dull wait on Fifth Avenue came in the form of then Governor Hugh Carey emerging from Central Park in running shorts, accompanied by a bodyguard. One had to wonder whether the office-attired chaperone was required to run alongside his charge as the latter enjoyed his morning jog.

On the last stop of its multi-city tour, the peripatetic Treasures of Tutankhamun had attracted crowds and money wherever it opened (Fig. 1), while repeated packing and unpacking had taken its toll on the objects, adding to the already high costs of the exhibition. Such was the power and some of the drawbacks of mounting these high-profile extravaganzas.

So it was that in 1977 when Philippe de Montebello took over the reins of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Thomas Hoving (the man whose name became synonymous with blockbusters like the aforementioned) that the new director, acknowledging his predecessor’s unmatchable contributions to the growth of the museum, staked out his own territory. Where Hoving had expanded The Met with new wings, programs and gallery reconfigurations, de Montebello would take advantage of a new management structure that gave to a president administrative functions and left him, the director:
“[…]to allow for a total concentration on the collections, the activities and programs related to them, and the gifted people charged with their preservation, exhibition and interpretation.”

In that statement, de Montebello reminded his audience of the core functions of a museum, adding:
“The Museum’s basic mission is not only to acquire and conserve great works of art but also to make them more intelligible by recreating their historical context for the visitor[…]to sharpen the aesthetic experience and engage the intellect as well.”
He hoped, too:
“[…]that the public will respond to imaginative presentations and reinstallations of permanently-held works of art with the same eagerness that it now responds to special exhibitions.”

Forty years later, museums seem to have given up on letting art speak for itself, becoming addicted to temporary exhibitions and their accompanying glitzy technology that at times overwhelms the objects. In order to increase attendance to levels necessary for sustaining burgeoning operating expenses of ever-expanding physical structures, some museums have temporarily permitted shows to silence permanent collections entirely.

When The Met Costume Institute’s Manus & Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology took over the Lehman wing, Impressionist and other paintings became inaccessible (Figs. 2 and 3). Likewise, the Costume Institute’s use of the Asian galleries for the display of fashion in the 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass eclipsed the art with discotheque lighting, adding music to further the effect (Figs. 4 and 5).

Museum goers have been enticed, too, with seemingly infinite variations of shows on celebrity artists like Caravaggio, Vermeer, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso, et al. Breaking from the pack, in the fall of 2016–determined to introduce a lesser-known artist to the viewing public–Keith Christiansen co-curated with Annick Lemoine, Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio (Fig. 6 and 7).

Showcasing an artist who for years had been of great interest to him, Christiansen resisted the pressure to include one of The Met’s Caravaggios since none of them would have been in the field of vision of Valentin or his Roman cohorts in the second decade of the seventeenth century. The curators couldn’t escape the opportunity, however, to add the name of the better-known artist to the show’s subtitle.

As curator and now chair of The Metropolitan Museum’s European Paintings Department, Christiansen has assembled many old masters exhibits but he has also been at least equally committed to the permanent collection, believing that a “museum redefines itself through its acquisitions and [thus] remakes with equal vigor its visitors’ experience of the great achievements of the past.”

Staying alert for any chance to fill collection gaps, Christiansen acted quickly in the summer of 2008 when learning of the availability of Valentin’s The Lute Player (ca. 1625-26, Fig. 6). Before the end of that year, the painting had become The Met’s only work by the artist. Perhaps the acquisition added fuel to the slow-burning fire of Christiansen’s desire to someday see as many as possible of his artist’s extant works brought together under one roof. In a dream come true, he and Lemoine successfully gathered forty-five of the known sixty, including all six belonging to the Louvre, providing scholars with a feast for their eyes and minds–one of the best justifications for taking the risks entailed in creating such shows.

After joining The Met’s family, Valentin’s Lute Player seems to have had some trouble getting comfortable. It settled for a time in a gallery with three Caravaggios, a location that celebrated Valentin’s Roman residency and Italian Baroque leanings (Fig. 7), but when last seen outside a special exhibition, the painting was living in a gallery with a distinctly French flavor (Fig. 8). Joining other seventeenth-century compatriots with ties to Italy (including Nicolas Poussin), Valentin ceased being acknowledged for his allegiance to Caravaggesque naturalism and dramatic lighting, and became instead identified by his country of origin.

Before appearing with its siblings in the large exhibition, The Lute Player found yet another purpose, appearing with Caravaggio’s Musician’s and Laurent de La Hyre’s Allegory of Music in a boutique show of Met-owned period instruments that were depicted in the three paintings (Fig. 9). The grouping of objects explored the possibility that knowledgeable viewers–then and now–might hear music when looking at the two-dimensional art. Not until the major retrospective would The Lute Player take its rightful place as a constituent of the Caravaggesque oeuvre of Valentin de Boulogne (Figs. 10 and 11).

The peregrinations of Valentin’s painting highlight the impermanence of collection displays and the holes left behind in the wake of special exhibitions that can empty a museum of all the holdings of one artist’s work. In the case of the Valentin de Boulogne show, visitors to the Louvre for several months did without and then when the exhibition relocated to Paris, those at The Met could do no more than take pictures of The Lute Player’s absence.

Encyclopedic museums like The Metropolitan, shelter within their walls thousands of objects, offering infinite possibilities for presentation, all of which express curators’ points of view, acknowledged or not. Each new regime brings with it fresh ideas and though altering so-called permanent installations is like turning an ocean liner, at The Met many did undergo major changes during the thirty-one years of Philippe de Montebello’s tenure as a “curator-director.”

Making good on his promise to recreate for the visitor some sense of the art’s original context, de Montebello supported gallery overhauls of Greek and Roman Art, Byzantine and Medieval Art, and Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia (which despite those heroic efforts gets called “Islamic” anyway). Although there were other reinstallations requiring extensive renovations, these three stand out as particularly effective recreations of original contexts.

Daylight streaming through skylights above Greek and Roman sculpture suggests the original outdoor settings of many of the exhibited works (Figs. 12 and 13). Brick arches–structures already existing under the great staircase–closely approximate the native crypt environments of the displayed objects (Figs. 14 and 15). New designs tooled with age-old techniques by a team of craftsmen imported from Morocco (Fig. 16), lend an air of authenticity and certainly fine craft to the new Islamic art milieu (Fig. 17).

Because of the extensive structural work involved in realizing the visions of de Montebello and his curators, and perhaps because of the popularity of the results, visitors of the future should expect to find these galleries as they are today. But since only change is here to stay, the reinstallations could go the way of the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture galleries, an area of The Met that has been likened to “a sort of cultural coral reef,” always growing and changing.

In the space of less than thirty years, this ocean liner made three sharp turns. The galleries as constructed for their 1979 debut (Fig. 18) represented a good idea at the time but eventually proved unwieldy. The most frequent visitor complaint was lack of direction. Nothing about the arrangement indicated an order to follow for optimum viewing. From a curatorial perspective, the staccato placement of the tripartite partitions made it impossible to show off the strength of a collection that had the depth to cover the walls of an entire gallery with paintings by a single artist.

There were enough other problems to warrant a redesign and so it was back to the drawing board in 1989, with de Montebello tasking then curator Gary Tinterow and the museum’s senior exhibition designer to come up with a plan. Not surprisingly, the hands-on director had more than a few suggestions. Happily, not only was sufficient funding forthcoming to realize them all, but Walter H. Annenberg and spouse decided to donate to The Met their collection of nineteenth-century French paintings.

The new space that opened in 1993 (Figs. 19 and 20) clarified for visitors both the nature of the art before them and the generosity of the donors behind the art’s presence. Written by Tinterow (with a foreward by the director), the special publication issued to commemorate the new galleries contains a paragraph that begins:
The idea governing the design[…]was to create rooms similar in scale and appearance to those for which the artists created their pictures: well-proportioned rooms articulated with baseboards, wainscoting, cornices, and coves.

He goes on to explain about seemingly neutral contemporary choices:
“A modern room[…]is not invisible: it colors our perception of things within it.” Surely those words flowed from the pen of de Montebello, for whom recreating context always takes center stage.

In 2007, The Metropolitan Museum again announced a reopening of the Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture galleries (Fig. 21). The coral reef had experienced yet another growth spurt.

Not quite as changeable as special exhibitions, but certainly not paragons of permanence, museum collections–in their potential for creative curating–don’t differ all that much from their briefer counterparts. A former Met associate director for exhibitions initially saw no huge disparities between temporary exhibitions and permanent installations. Both shared, for example, practical issues of traffic flow, pacing/rhythm and label content.

On closer examination, however, she noted the difficulties and expenses of securing, insuring, transporting and conserving art for special shows–no minor matters. Francis Haskell devoted the entire last chapter of his Ephemeral Museum to the dire consequences of cherry-picking artworks from permanent collections and amassing them in locations far from their homes.

In addition to the obvious danger of damage to art from otherwise unnecessary handling, there are risks involved with transportation of all kinds. When trains crash, planes go down and/or vehicles spontaneously combust, the presence of a courier affords no protection.

Less noticeable and seldom subject to comment is the hit that scholarship takes when exhibition catalogs masquerade as the latest word on an artist or collection, eating up publishing funds at the expense of more comprehensive research. Since no show can ever contain all of an artist’s work, as witness the huge but still incomplete one on Valentin de Boulogne, the accompanying publication must by its nature fall short of an all-encompassing monograph and catalogue raisonné. One wonders, too, whether the proliferation of typos in these hastily assembled books signals other errors as well.

Securing loans for an exhibition has created its own collection of problems, ensnaring museums in a tangle of demands for reciprocity. Where once a borrowing institution was expected to make a convincing scholarly case for its request, nowadays museums jeopardize their own prospects for future temporary acquisitions if they fail to deliver when asked, even for the skimpiest of reasons.

Despite the many risks and disadvantages inherent in maintaining a robust program of temporary exhibitions, gathering together in one place works of art that ordinarily reside in far-flung places and/or hide away in private collections can be exceptionally valuable–evident in the 2016-17 dual-venue and -title exhibit, Ribera: Maestro del dibujo (in Madrid at El Museo del Prado) and Between Heaven and Hell: The Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera (in Dallas at the Meadows Museum).

Rather than being the raison d’être for a publication, in a rare reversal the exhibitions followed the release of a long-awaited catalogue raisonné of Ribera’s drawings. The chronologically arranged first version of the show, mounted at the Prado by Gabriele Finaldi (the book’s editor), followed an approach inaccessible to catalogue-contributor Edward Payne for his Dallas iteration, where the limited availability of certain artworks called for a theme-based display.

Paintings and prints in addition to drawings graced the walls of each museum, with a core group appearing in both places, and adjustments made to accommodate lenders who were unwilling to expose to light their works on paper for longer than the three months span of one or another exhibit. Other variations seemed more a matter of philosophy than exigency, apparent in lighting, wall text and object labels, and placement of Ribera’s Apollo and Marsyas painting (1637, Fig. 25).

Taking pride of place in a publicity shot, at the end of a series of Prado open galleries (Fig. 22), the Capodimonte Museum’s star painting of the sun god relieving Marsyas of his skin, must have been greatly missed by tourists expecting to find it at home back in Naples during its six-month travels abroad. More modestly displayed at the Meadows in a dark room among torture drawings (Fig. 24), Ribera’s masterpiece struck up an incidental conversation with an Early Modern Spanish painting visiting from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (Fig. 23).

The tourist-attracting Prado had little to say on labels about each drawing, perhaps depending on interested viewers to seek out explanations in the book. In contrast at the university-based-Meadows, curator Payne filled category-explaining wall text and object labels with observant descriptions and analyses, reading like excerpts from an art history text. The protectively dim lighting and atmospheric dark walls at the smaller museum invited slow looking and quiet contemplation.

Yet it was at the Prado where one Ribera scholar enjoyed the greatest treat. Surprised by a juxtaposition unlikely ever to be seen again–as is often the case with many a temporary exhibition–she stood transfixed in front of a four-by-five-inch compositional sketch (Fig. 24) in which the tentative hand of the draftsman jotted down sketchy fragments of lines, conveying ideas under development for what would eventually be the six-foot-high painting catty-cornered to it, the Apollo and Marsyas (Fig. 25).


For citations and bibliography, contact the author at:


Art Historical Musings: An Artist, a Patron and a House

Print This Post Print This Post

July 9th, 2017

Possessing Strangeness:
Don Fernando Enríquez Afán de Ribera
and Jusepe de Ribera’s Bearded Lady

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

A most unusual painting (Fig. 1) hung among the portraits, landscapes and religious scenes decorating the walls of the room in the Casa de Pilatos (Fig. 2) where the Third Duke of Alcalá–don Fernando Enríquez Afán de Ribera–took meals with his family. Commissioned in 1631 and completed by February 11 of that year (though dated several weeks later), Jusepe de Ribera’s Magdalena Ventura with Husband and Child (The Bearded Woman) was hailed at the time of its creation by the Venetian ambassador to the royal court in Naples as “[…] a thing of wonder.”

Over six feet high, the startling image of what looks like a man in women’s clothing with a perfectly spherical bared breast, must have been an imposing presence in the palace dining room. Centrally located on the canvas, the object of wonder is flanked in the background shadows on her right by her husband, who turns his head slightly to look at his wife. With wide-open eyes, brows arched upwards and pulled together, arms pressed against his body, shoulders raised ever so slightly, he fidgets with his hat. Ribera, a master in portraying emotion through gesture and facial expression, here conveys a man’s apprehension about his wife as a target for the penetrating gaze of an artist.

Magdalena Ventura, with the raised, pushed out lower lip and knitted brows of angry contempt, resolutely looks straight ahead at the viewer. Broad-shouldered, symmetrical and echoing the impassivity of the nearby stone, she cradles her infant in large, masculine hands. The baby, swaddled in an orange-red blanket with white edging, looks impassively upwards, taking no notice of the proffered breast that looms over it. The three are posed in an undefined space devoid of furnishings, presented to the collector as specimens ready to be arranged among other, similar types of curiosities.

Magdalena’s lace-trimmed white apron and collar, the ring on her left forefinger and the decorative ornament on the child’s bonnet suggest the couple was of some means. This implausible-but-real family originated in a town in the Abruzzi, part of the viceroyalty of Naples, and according to the inscription on the stele pictured on the far right of the painting, moved to the capital city when Magdalena was fifty-two. As the story went, she suffered from a malady–peculiar to the southern latitudes–of excessive hair growth, which began for her at the age of thirty-seven and included the flourishing of a luxuriant black beard.

Having somehow learned of the proximity of this human rarity, Don Fernando went about acquiring her for his collection in the only way possible. He had her image captured on canvas. For his personal viewing, he placed her in one of the least public spaces in his palace in Seville, perhaps an indication of his attachment to the portrait and/or simply for the sake of propriety. Judging from many of the items listed in the 1637 inventory made after his death, the duke was quite fond of oddities of all kinds. In fact, a good case can be made for his having conceptualized his entire Casa de Pilatos as a cabinet of curiosities (Wünderkammer)–a setting where naturalia and artificialia could be flaunted. Possessing the hirsute mother of three must have been quite a triumph for him and perhaps the envy of his peers.

Both the subject of the painting and the duke’s collecting habits indicate his awareness of the proper pursuits for a man of his station. Born into a noble Sevillian family in 1583, the son of Fernando Enríquez de Ribera–a man who took for his own mentor Francisco de Medina, one of the great humanist scholars of the time, Don Fernando Third Duke of Alcalá (Fig. 3) could count in his ancestry the first kings of Castile and Leon. Left fatherless at the age of seven, the duke received an education reflective of that heritage and his father’s immersion in intellectual, literary and aesthetic pursuits.

His home, the Casa de Pilatos (Figs. 4 and 5), had its own grand history. Created in the late fifteenth century by the first Marquis of Tarifa Fadrique Enríquez de Ribera, stocked at its inception with books, paintings, tapestries, and souvenirs of the earliest inhabitant’s travels, the palace hosted as well the collection of antique sculpture and inscribed stones purchased by the Third Duke’s great-uncle Pedro Enríquez y Afán de Ribera during his tenure as viceroy of Naples (1559-71).

Following in the steps of his forebears, the Third Duke sought service to his king, Philip III, though not without encountering self-erected stumbling blocks along the way. Having lost his father early on and then four years later his grandfather (the First Duke of Alcalá), Fernando came into his inheritance of wealth and responsibilities before he was twenty, at which time he had already been married for four years. In exercising one of those hereditary duties, that of constable of Seville, he found himself brought up on charges of abuse. Two years later, he was again in trouble, facing steep fines after his servants assaulted a municipal officer whose lack of sufficient deference to Alcalá triggered the violent reaction.

Not surprising then that it was a while before Don Fernando earned his first major royal appointment, that of Viceroy to Catalonia in 1618, where his lack of political acumen made him a poor representative of the crown. After overseeing for three years a friction-plagued administration, he was recalled. In a 1622 letter, he described how the misery of his time in Barcelona had been relieved by the chance to look at art and examine manuscripts, and by little else.

Schooled in Latin, logic, philosophy and theology as a teenager, the young Alcalá demonstrated a keen interest in the liberal arts, learning to write music and play the guitar, and to draw and paint. It was documented that he was especially adept in coloring and though little by his hand has survived, the sketches that do–of archaeological subjects–testify to the accuracy of the reports. His easel of diverse inlaid woods, whether or not acquired at the outset of his artistic activities, was later kept in the camarín grande, a large space frequented by many visitors. The easel painted its user as a member of a special class of “cultivated Baroque gentleman” who participated actively in the study and practice of the liberal arts.

Don Fernando’s career as a connoisseur began in those early years, as did his role as sponsor of an Academy where Sevillian scholars and other intellectuals met to discuss literature and the arts. Common among the nobility throughout Spain, these gatherings were not formally organized like their counterparts in Italy and France. Instituted by his grandfather in 1589 and attended by Fernando despite his tender age, it met in the camarín grande–the gallery built by the First Duke to display antiquities, and later expanded by the Third Duke to accommodate his collection of small ancient and contemporary bronzes, classical busts, urns and an assortment of other objects that would come over time to constitute a major section of his cabinet of curiosities. Large enough to accommodate the four thousand books accumulated by the First Duke, which were later augmented by Don Fernando with a single purchase of another five thousand, a library that large would have been quite a resource for the visiting discussants.

Esteemed as “[…] one of the most cultivated nobles in Spain” by no less than Francisco Pacheco (author of Arte de la pintura and father-in-law to Diego Velázquez), Alcalá invested the good fortune of his inheritance in his palace, initiating in 1603 much needed repairs, along with new construction. As part of the renovation, Pacheco–Alcalá’s friend, advisor and artist–executed paintings for the ceilings (Figs. 6 and 7), the centerpiece of one of which was The Apotheosis of Hercules (1604, Fig. 8), designed to provide direction for a nobleman in need of a virtuous path.

The most noteworthy architectural additions (Figs. 4 and 5), the set of rooms on the upper floor between the patio overlooking the courtyard and the Jardín Grande (large garden), provided room for the duke’s collections to grow. Included here were the library and armory, reception room and cabinet of paintings–all essential ingredients for any Wünderkammer. Undoubtedly aware of the marvelous Sevillian museum of Gonzalo Argote de Molina (Pacheco authored that earlier collector’s biography), Alcalá might have felt both inspired by, and challenged to compete with, his compatriot.

Though relatively modest, Argote’s assemblage, begun in the middle of the sixteenth century and lasting till its dispersion sometime before 1586, was noteworthy for its stable of fine horses, armory filled with arms old and new, library of rare books, picture gallery of mythological scenes, and portraits commissioned from Alonso Sánchez Coello (Philip II’s painter). He also laid out within his cabinet a stash of stones, coins, antique gems, and what seemed to be a natural history museum of taxidermic animal heads and birds.

A major afficionado of hunting, Argote penned a book on the subject that included a description of the picture gallery in the royal hunting lodge, the Pardo Palace, taking note of what he called its “wonders of nature.” One of the objects within that category, a bearded woman by Antonis Mor, probably perished in the blaze that destroyed much of the place in 1604. Mor’s painting might have been known to Juan Sánchez Cotán (the Spanish still-life painter), whose Brígida del Río, la barbuda de Peñaranda (1560, Fig. 9) depicted a well-known curiosity of the late sixteenth century.

An experienced and accomplished collector like the Duke of Alcalá would have surely been familiar with the stories and accompanying pictures of the bearded woman of Peñaranda and with the Mor painting in the Pardo. An avid devotee of the strange, he would eventually commission his own version of the subject for the Casa de Pilatos, where it joined many, mostly art-related, objects later listed in an inventory drawn up in advance of the estate sale to be held in Genoa. The document catalogued the contents of the nine major areas of the house, including those in the camarín grande–the location of some eye-catching items.

Exemplary of a cabinet of curiosities, objects present in that scholarly arena embodied the zeitgeist of the seventeenth century, when the opening of trade routes to the transatlantic west and exotic Far East brought novel products of human and natural design to Spain, Italy and elsewhere, enticing those with the inclination and means to attempt to possess the world in a room. That seems to have been what Don Fernando sought to accomplish when he accrued during his travels unusual objects like feather pictures from the “Yndias” (Spanish colonies in the New World), a package (or quiver) of Indian arrows, an ivory horn in one piece (Fig. 10), an astronomical ring–perhaps an astrolabe (Figs. 11 and 12), glass vessels believed to have been used by the ancients to store the tears of mourners (Fig. 13), a nail from the Pantheon portico in Rome, two thin branches and a flask of water from the Jordan River, an iron tool for opening bars/grills, a large gunpowder horn (Fig. 14), and many spherical pieces (marbles come to mind) of agate, amethyst and different colored jasper, and so on and on.

The potential for acquiring such curiosities increased considerably when the Third Duke of Alcalá returned to the royal court in Madrid in late 1624. With a new king, Philip IV, a new and anti-Spanish pope, Urban VIII (née Maffeo Barberini), an existing vacancy for an ambassador to secure diplomatic relations between Spain and the Vatican, and the recommendation of the royal favorite Count-Duke of Olivares, Alcalá was sent to Rome in hopes that his intellectual prowess would impress the similarly endowed pontiff. The Third Duke was in Rome by the summer of 1625, making a favorable impression on Urban VIII, but not enough of one to fulfill his charge to win over the pope to Spain’s agenda. It wasn’t until 1629, therefore, that Olivares and Philip IV saw fit to grant the duke another assignment. When they did, it was to replace the Duke of Alba as Viceroy of Naples.

Naples was not unknown to Don Fernando. There–the third stop on his 1626 tour of Italy that began with Genoa and Venice during the year of his ambassadorship–he acquired what was perhaps his first painting by Ribera. Securely identified from documentation as Christ Being Prepared for the Cross (ca. 1626, Fig. 15), in the 1637 inventory it merited an unusually lengthy description, signaling the importance of this canvas by the hand of “R[iber] Valenc[ian]” to at least the auditor if not the late Alcalá himself. Perhaps its singularity related to its having been a diplomatic gift from the Duke of Alba, Viceroy of Naples from 1622-29 and eventual nemesis of Don Fernando.

Hanging in the small chapel of the Casa de Pilatos–the first of the nine main sections described in the death inventory, Christ Being Prepared for the Cross belonged to a category of work for which Ribera had developed a reputation: paintings small enough to be conveniently moved, and hence perfect for private collections and chapels. Another line of the artist’s production–compositions of half-length saints, apostles and secular notables with their relevant accessories, in undefined, tenebristic spaces (Figs. 16 and 17)–apparently also served well Don Fernando’s program of decoration for his palace, part of which was the theme of beggar philosopher, fitting for the erudito the duke styled himself to be. Numbering eight in all, four were commissioned from Ribera and hung in pairs in different rooms of the house (Figs. 18 and 19).

Analogously, when Alcalá considered securing a bearded lady for his Wünderkammer, he turned to Ribera, an artist known for his commitment to drawing and painting from life, and for his depictions of oddities like grotesques, and narratives of extreme human behavior. Surely this collector and artist were meant for each. Don Fernando’s “[…] interest in unusual human behavior” was noted by Brown and Kagan in their introduction to the 1637 inventory when they singled out a painting attributed to Alcalá’s private painter Diego de Rómulo of “[…] the ‘portrait of the buffoon who eats everything that is painted on his plate’ [iv. 23].”

Rómulo’s painting hung in the fourth room of the palace (as divided in the inventory), keeping company with a Gianbologna three-horned bull (probably a rhinoceros), landscapes, Venetian portraits, still lifes (another passion of Alcalá’s), a few saints, two more philosophers, a Gianbologna bronze on a mahogany table, and other furniture and sculpture. In the fifth room, where the duke ate, Ribera’s Bearded Woman held court with a large painting of a butcher shop and a canvas of Herod with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. Joining them in the dining room were–among others–pictures of religious subjects, paintings with attributions to Palma il Giovane and Albrecht Dürer, landscapes of ruins (reminders to Don Fernando of his visits to archaeological sites in Rome), portraits of emperors and a bare-breasted Venetian woman holding a bouquet of herbs, perhaps Flora.

Truly an eclectic selection, the contents of these rooms continued Don Fernando’s decorative agenda throughout the house into more private spaces, echoing the cabinets of curiosities of other Spanish nobles, who in their grand galleries brought together paintings, objets d’art, wonders of nature and marvels of human craft. These Wünderkammers, often indistinguishable from Kunstkammers, could grow to huge proportions and encompass a high degree of variety (Fig. 20).

A compendium of many of the grandest ones appeared in Vincente Carducho’s 1633 Diálogos de la Pintura, though it made no reference to Alcalá’s. Nonetheless, the kinds of objects encountered during the chronicler’s visits to these treasure troves were identical to many in the Third Duke’s death inventory.

The Wünderkammers Carducho did document could contain upwards of a thousand or more paintings within which were found some by great masters like Titian, Raphael, Leonardo and Bassano–all of whom were represented on select walls of Alcalá’s house along with notable artists Artemisia Gentileschi, Velázquez, Dűrer, Guido Reni, Perugino and Michelangelo, many in room three of the Casa de Pilatos, the corridor with the door to the loggia overlooking the garden. Two of Ribera’s philosophers (Figs. 16 and 17) lived there, too.

Other items Carducho encountered were sculptures, swords, knives, shields, carved and engraved rock crystals and ivory, escritoires and buffets, balls of jasper, clocks, mirrors, globes, spheres, relics, and mathematical and geometrical instruments. Versions of all of these once filled the galleries and gardens of the Casa de Pilatos, where objects proclaimed their fine craftsmanship, exotic origin, rarity, variegated mediums and materials, antiquity, and natural origins–all characteristic of a cabinet of curiosities.

In addition to the rooms already described, a small, private space adjoining the dining room–noteworthy for its maps–was followed by a seventh room described as small, “where the duke received visitors.” Within its walls sixty-two objects, many of high quality, vied for visitors’ attention. Catalogued were paintings like that identified by Pacheco as a famous one by Tintoretto, a large canvas by Andrea del Sarto (Fig. 21), a group of fourteen still lifes in golden frames, and a portrait of a cleric by Leonardo. Here, too, were quite a few desks, some of ebony and walnut (Fig. 22), sculptures of bronze, marble and black stone, several chairs and mirrors, and a cherry-wood box for chess pieces by then missing.

In this intimate space overlooking the garden–which functioned as a portal to the Casa de Pilatos, Don Fernando crammed an impressive selection of objects, again showcasing for visitors a pair of Ribera philosophers (Figs. 18 and 19). From here, the duke could guide his guests into his camerín grande where they would be greeted by souvenirs from his travels, scientific instruments, his collection of small bronzes–many by Gianbologna, eighteen pictures on paper of animals by Bassano, nine paintings of muses by Alonso Vázquez, a portfolio of prints and drawings (unfortunately none specified), a self-portrait of Titian and a copy of his Danaë, and so much more, adding up to a dizzying array of two hundred and fourteen fabulous objects.

From the small chapel filled with devotional images and the dining room with Ribera’s Bearded Lady, to chambers filled with paintings, sculptures and decorative objects, reaching a crescendo in the camerín grande with its mix of naturalia and artificialia, the Casa de Pilatos epitomized a seventeenth-century Wünderkammer. While the inventory says nothing about the manner in which the small exotic objects were displayed, by virtue of their inclusion among such illustrious pieces as old master paintings and bronze sculptures, curiosities like the nails from the Pantheon must have been shown in a way that communicated their value to the auditor, who made sure to inscribe them in the inventory. How exactly Don Fernando managed that, how he placed each piece within its respective room–in conversation with what other item–remains as yet and perhaps forever unknown. Perchance some yet undiscovered print or painting of the interior of a Spanish Baroque gentleman’s palace will prove the key to the mysteries still locked away in the Third Duke of Alcalá’s Wünderkammer.


For citations and bibliography, contact the author at:


Upcoming Presentation: CAA Annual Conference

Print This Post Print This Post

January 3rd, 2017

CAA 2017 Conference

On Thursday, February 16, 2017, Deborah Feller will be presenting her paper, “Bearing Witness: The Spectacle of Pain in the Drawings of Jusepe de Ribera” as part of a panel, Renaissance and Baroque Art Beyond the Frame, which will convene at 1:30pm.

The CAA (College Art Association) Annual Conference will meet this year in New York City from February 15-18 and will have events for both artists and art historians.  Anyone can attend and register online.


Art Review: William Kentridge, “9 Drawings for Projection”

Print This Post Print This Post

December 11th, 2016

[Note: To respect copyright concerns, the slide show that accompanies the following review is available only for private viewing. Interested readers should contact the writer:]

Moving Pictures:
The Moral Aesthetic of
William Kentridge

[slide 2]
“…a drawing is a membrane between the world coming toward us and our projected understanding of the world, a negotiation between ourselves and that which is outside…”
William Kentridge, 2014

Wandering into his father’s study when he was six years old, William Kentridge became curious about the contents of a large, flat, yellow box sitting on the desk.  Thinking it might contain chocolates, he lifted the lid to find not the expected treats, but photographs of victims of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the families of whom his father was representing in court (Fig. 2).

[slide 3]
In recounting the story in 2001, the artist described two of the images, “…a woman with her back blown off” and “someone with only half her head visible.”

Over a dozen years later, he told the story again, with added details and a description of several other pictures, including this sequence of two: “A man lies face downward, a dot and a dark stain in the center of his checkered jacket…the man rolled over…the whole chest disintegrated by the exit wound of the bullet,” and a third, “[a]nother chest…blown apart.”  The resulting jolt of “nonrecognition,” as the artist called it, eventually wore off, leaving in its wake a lifelong yearning to recapture the intense clarity of that childhood moment, before repeated exposures to pictures of “extraordinary adult violence” rendered them too familiar to elicit the same powerful reaction.

The theme of memory and its temporal degradation weaves through Kentridge’s oeuvre, a collection of stand-alone works on paper, drawings turned into animated films, multimedia installations, stage designs, theater productions, puppet shows–even a couple of operas, and a performance piece in which he took the role of narrator.  A prolific and versatile artist, Kentridge–who is white–grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the era of apartheid–a system of laws promulgated by the reigning Nationalist Party–aimed at consolidating white minority rule by exiling people of color to the outskirts of economic and social life.  The “brutal enforcement” of these laws increasingly separated Kentridge’s country from the rest of the world as foreign nations imposed sanctions and limited travel in mounting protest.

An exceptionally accessible and articulate artist, Kentridge has often ruminated publicly about the relationship between his life and his art. Yet in descriptions of his early brushes with the stark realities of apartheid (Fig. 3), his words fall short of the expressive power of his drawings, which render graphically far more dramatically the ravages wrought by the South African government and, indirectly, the profound impact on the artist of living among them for his first forty years.

[slide 4]

Acknowledging a preference for images over “language and logic,” Kentridge explained that among other reasons for his becoming an artist was his need to find a field “in which the construction of fictional authorities and imagined quotes would be a cause for celebration, rather than rustication and disgrace.”  More specifically, noting that his father’s being a lawyer “was not incidental to this narrative,” he wanted to construct a self “impervious to cross-examination.”  Art made it permissible for him to live with uncertainty, and his studio provided “a safe space for stupidity.”

As a young man, even as he reluctantly surrendered to the internal imperative to pursue art as a career, Kentridge wondered whether he had “the right to be an artist.”  With characteristic gravitas and a conceptualization of “art as a moral and philosophical calling,” he believed that to be an artist required “considerable self-examination and maturation.”  That he came from a long line of illustrious lawyers added to the difficulty of choosing such a divergent path, especially one for which he felt undeserving and unqualified.

By the time Kentridge committed to a life of art, he had already earned an undergraduate degree in politics and African studies, had taken courses in art, including printmaking–which he eventually taught–and had spent time working in theater.  Not quite ready to abandon acting for art, he spent a year in Paris studying mime and other theater arts, but quickly returned home to his first love, drawing.

[slide 5]
Over the years, Kentridge has sought to understand both his desire to draw and the images that emerge from his charcoal-smudged hands (Fig. 4), but for the most part he simply surrenders to a process that starts with an impulse rather than a well-formed concept.  He tracks his engagement with art to drawing lessons he took as a nine-year-old, where in answer to his teacher’s questions about what he wanted to draw and with what, his young self replied, “Landscape” and “Charcoal”–answers that a much older self still can’t explain.

Intuitive knowing has always characterized Kentridge’s studio practice, which begins with a desire to draw–usually joined by some vague notion of where he wants to go–and delivers meaning along the way.  He’s learned that “…things occur during the process that may modify, consolidate or shed doubts on what [he] know[s],” and likens the act of drawing to a mode of thought with the potential to provide new insights on life.

[slide 6]
When the impetus to draw fails to generate action,  Kentridge often paces around his studio for many minutes or hours (Fig. 5), waiting for “…the disconnected ideas and images to pull together,” despite experience having taught him that “…images or ideas will only clarify themselves in action–the charcoal on paper, the ink in the book.”  But still he’ll pace.

By allowing himself this “space for uncertainty,” Kentridge invites unconscious material onto the page–a byproduct of his process not entirely unknown to him.  What else could he be describing when he observes that “…parts of the world, and parts of us, are revealed, that we neither expressed nor knew, until we saw them–when we realized we always did know them.”  That’s exactly what happened with one of the drawings he developed for his film Felix in Exile.  To portray a body on the veld,

[slide 7]
Kentridge used a police photograph for reference.  Only much later did he recognize in his new picture the bloody bodies of the Sharpeville massacre victims that had shocked him as a child (Figs. 2 and 6).  A memory he was sure had lost its power lay dormant until an event reminiscent of the original trauma called it back.

Most artists can’t avoid intrusion of the autobiographical into their work, though the extent of its presence varies depending on their artistic practices. While not deliberately drawing attention to himself, Kentridge usually discovers after the fact–and willingly shares it with his listeners–the ways in which his personal history has melded–in his art–with stories of Johannesburg and its inhabitants.

[slide 8]
Although in the mid-1980s (when he resumed drawing with a passion) Kentridge was inspired by early French artists, later Impressionists, and more recent German Expressionists, he could not keep South Africa from insinuating itself into even these early graphic musings.  In the right panel of his triptych The Boating Party (1985, Fig. 7)–a riff on Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), the flaming tire falling from above directly references the “burning necklaces” used by authorities (and others) to sadistically torture and kill Blacks (Fig. 8).  In the center panel, the tabletop gallows from which hangs a noose requires no additional explanation.

[slide 9]
Future favorites also made their debuts in these early explorations on paper.  The nude man in the background who turns his back on the party-goers as he exits the scene (a la Velazquez’s Las Meninas) in the left panel of the three-paneled The Conservationists’ Ball (1985, Fig. 9) later became Kentridge’s never-clothed alter-ego Felix Teitlebaum.  The binoculars displayed prominently on the table, in the middle panel, foregrounds Kentridge’s future preoccupation with instruments of sight, and leads the eye to the rhinoceros on a serving stand behind it.  The hyena in the right panel further announces the African setting, as does the cheetah on the left.

Of art in the 1960s and 1970s, Kentridge recalled:

“Much of what was contemporary in Europe and America…seemed distant and incomprehensible to me..the impulses behind the work did not make the transcontinental jump to South Africa.  The art that seemed most immediate and local dated from the early twentieth century, when there still seemed to be hope for political struggle rather than a world exhausted by war and failure…one had to look backwards…”

The unique case that was South Africa demanded its own brand of art.  The boy in his grandfather’s car as it drove past a side street in Johannesburg, noticing a man lying in the gutter surrounded by four men kicking him in his body and head, had to “rearrange” his worldview to accommodate this new reality of adult violence.  The same boy, a little older, flipping through that grandfather’s gift book of great-artists’ landscape paintings, had to reconcile the idyllic beauty reproduced in it with the “barbed-wire fences [and] hill with stones and thorns” he encountered on country-picnic outings with his family.

With his heart belonging to both dramatic and graphic arts, and perhaps feeling moved to merge them in the service of potentiating each, in 1988 Kentridge began creating Drawings for Projection, a fifteen-year project that concluded as 9 Drawings for Projection.  Devoting time and energy to the graphic arts had never pulled this artist away from filmmaking and theater.  Nor would work on his new long-term project mean there were not to be other animated films emerging from his studio during those years.  Kentridge has always stayed busy.

Coming at the time that it did–during the last few years of apartheid and several more leading up to the first free elections and later establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 9 Drawings for Projection encapsulates the artist’s personal reflections on his country of birth, its immoral treatment of native Africans and its rapacious exploitation of its mineral resources.  Throughout, Kentridge mulls over witnessing, memory, personal responsibility, love and forgiveness.

[slide 10]
In the first film, Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1989), the artist introduced the dramatis personae for the series, one of which is the city itself (Figs. 10 and 11), about which Kentridge confessed,

“I have been unable to escape Johannesburg.  The four houses I have lived in, my school, studio, have all been within three kilometers of each other.  And in the end all my work is rooted in this rather desperate provincial city.”

Indeed, he is held as captive as Felix in Johannesburg (Fig. 12), simultaneously confounded and enthralled by a city the serendipity of birth made his.  The oddness of this hometown rests partially on a vein of gold–the mining of which has left hills of pulverized stone dotting the land–and the need over a century ago to put to work a surfeit of dangerously unemployed soldiers.  Kept occupied planting a million suburban trees, they created “the largest man-made forest in the world.”

From the first of these films until the last in 2003, Kentridge scattered much charcoal attempting to come to grips with an internal agitation that has never quite left him.  He wrestled with the dilemma of time’s inevitable absorption of the years of apartheid horrors and in the end could find no respite from misery in the middle of an unrelenting AIDS epidemic.

[slide 11]
Drawing on many years of visual material, including his own memories, Kentridge created Soho Eckstein (Fig. 13), only afterwards realizing–as is his way–that the unstoppable capitalist in a pin-striped suit had his origins in an old photograph of his paternal grandfather, sitting on a beach in full business attire.  Kentridge’s name for this hard-hearted entrepreneur–Eckstein means “cornerstone” in German–alludes to the intractability of South Africa, just as does the rock he inserts intermittently throughout the series.

The businessman’s foil, Felix Teitlebaum (Fig. 12)–whose surname derives from a Yiddish/Germanic word for “date palm” and given name resembles that of the artist’s mother’s,  Felicia (both associations inadvertent)–never acquires a wardrobe lest he get fixed in time by the specificity of fashion that a pin-striped suit somehow manages to avoid.  While Soho’s driving passion is acquisition, that of Felix is love, though mostly experienced as reverie and longing.

At the outset, needing Felix to have the same consistency of appearance and personality that the far easier-to-stereotype Soho does, Kentridge turned to the mirror.  With his dreamer taken from his own self-reflection, the draftsman–finding himself inextricably identified with his new character–“had to take responsibility for his actions,” a turn of events that enhanced the autobiographical potential of the film.

[slide 12]
The action opens with lover boy already ensconced in an affair with Mrs. Eckstein, a woman who never develops a name of her own as she moves in and then out of the illicit affair–and unfolds before the desolate Johannesburg landscape traversed by desperate Africans.  Kentridge graphically contrasted the needy tenderness of Felix (Fig. 16) with the greedy hardness of Soho (Fig. 17), although the vulnerable cloak of nakedness worn by the former doesn’t stop him from besting his fully-suited rival in an old-fashioned fist fight.

[slide 13]
The dark cloud of the violent reality of their milieu coalesces into a bookcase stacked with disembodied heads, overflowing onto the surrounding plain (Fig. 18).  A composition originally explored in the etching Casspirs Full of Love (1989, Fig. 19), the subject alludes to the theme of callous impenetrability.  Casspirs are mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that for decades were used to control the South African populace.  “Casspirs full of love” was a radio greeting sent by parents to their servicemen sons during 1974 military operations protecting the country’s borders against the newly liberated Portuguese colonies next door.  In the end, the bookcase and heads will disappear into the earth, leaving behind a ground unmarked by slaughter.

[slide 14]
In Monument (1990), the next film in the series, Soho aggrandizes himself by unveiling a commemorative statue dedicated to the black African worker.  Bent under the weight of an outsized burden, a flesh-and-blood man petrifies into the statue (Fig. 20), but the stone of his artificially constructed being soon yields to an irresistible urge to raise his head against the weight, lift his swollen eyelids and confront the not-so-innocent bystander.

Sensitive to the history accruing around him, Kentridge embodied within his work–not always intentionally–the story of South Africa’s slowly evolving deliverance from the black hole of apartheid.  Pivotal among the nine films, Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991) and Felix in Exile (1994) reflect the dramatic shifts effected by a 1989 change in the country’s administration, within a year of which freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  In 1994 free elections were held for the first time.

The release dates of these two films roughly coincided with those developments, capturing Kentridge’s hope for, and adjustment to, a newly imaginable world.  In Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old (1991), Felix and Mrs. Eckstein continue their affair against a backdrop of emboldened workers–chanting, carrying signs and parading through the bleak urban landscape.  Soho–torturing himself with erotic fantasies of his errant wife with her lover, humanized in his longing for her, presides over a collapsing empire and cries aloud for his eloped wife to “come home.”

[slide 15]
Early on in the film, Kentridge set a mining mountain and its barren location against the very modern cityscape of Johannesburg (Fig. 22), with its erect buildings in the background.  Later, when Soho’s monument to capitalism dissolves into dust in a scene all too evocative of the still-to-happen demise of the World Trade Towers (Fig. 23), it leaves behind a ghost of imperfectly erased charcoal (Fig. 24), expressive of Kentridge’s consternation over the mind’s ability to normalize absence even in the presence of cataclysmic events.

[slide 16]
Daring to conjure a new reality but still haunted by violent memories not so easily expunged, in Felix in Exile (1994) Kentridge conjures up Nandi, a land surveyor who uses a theodolite to bravely take the measure of her people’s losses.  Alone in a room sparsely furnished with chair, desk, bed, sink and fly-surrounded light bulb hanging from the ceiling, artist Felix rifles through his stash of drawings (Fig. 25), a window into the activities of his new beloved, Nandi.  Seeing through her eyes, quite literally in a mirror scene where each views the other from opposite ends of a double-sided scope, Felix must reckon now with the same carnage that she does (Fig. 26).

Through the power of animation, Kentridge transformed the remembered stills of the Sharpeville massacre into moving pictures of bodies bleeding on the veld.  A seismograph attempts to record the earth’s convulsed reaction but the line remains flat even after a bullet finds Nandi (Fig. 27) and the ground absorbs all traces of her life and violent death.  Throughout the film, a poignant native song cues the desired emotional response.

More redolent still of childhood memories of violence, History of the Main Complaint (1996) finds Soho in a hospital bed under intense internal scrutiny by doctors with their surveying instruments, and by his psyche through an eidetic nightmare that begins with a view through the windshield of a moving vehicle.

[slide 17]
A pair of eyes visible in the rear-view mirror registers the sudden appearance of a Black man lying on the road ahead (Fig. 28), being kicked in the face by two assailants, then subjected to body blows with a stick (Fig. 29), then kicked again and again in the head and body, each strike recording red crosses on related x-rays of torso and skull.  The latter of the two anatomical images soon morphs into Soho’s profile, glimpsed through the car window.  When night falls, taking visibility with it, Soho’s car hits one of a number of figures that dart out in front of him.  The sound of breaking glass wakes him with a start.  Despite the return of these repressed memories, the hospital patient magically mends and returns to his desk to conduct business as usual, albeit with noticeably less frenzy.

[slide 18]
No hint of Felix appears in the rest of the series as Soho becomes increasingly subdued, even self-reflective.  In Stereoscope (1999), amid bright-blue-on-black representations of communication devices and networks, besieged by lists of numbers and reminiscences of brutality (Figs. 30, 31 and 32), Soho is sometimes seen in a split screen that Kentridge left to the viewer to combine into “a true representation of the world,” effectively avoiding the daunting task of integrating disparate aspects of himself.

In its own way chronicling the challenges faced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the film ends with a block-lettered, blue-on-black “give,” soon joined by its partner “for,” to finally form “forgive,” repeated several times in that order of word appearance (Fig. 33).  In the end, Soho stands with eyes downcast and head bowed, watching water–a recurring motif in these films–cascade from first his breast pocket and then the others, till his sorrow floods the room and threatens to drown him (Fig. 34).

Tide Table (2003), the final film of the series, begins with pin-stripe-suited Soho, like Kentridge’s original reference photo for him, sitting on a beach (Fig. 35).  Children watched by their women caregivers, play in the sand and cavort in the water to the strains of upbeat music.  Within minutes, the tone darkens as these carefree activities come under the scrutiny of military men perched on the balconies of a nearby art deco resort, peering through binoculars.  The scene switches to an overcrowded hospital ward–a medical setting in complete contrast to the spacious private room Soho occupied in the History of the Main Complaint.

[slide 19]
For Kentridge, the AIDS epidemic in South Africa raised the question of “inappropriate mortality, of people dying very young…unnecessarily” because of “the inability of the society to deal with it.”  In vignettes of sick and dying men, the artist conveyed the sorrow of survivors (Figs. 37 and 38) yet still found his way back to up-tempo, wistful shots of a boy playing on the rocks and in the sand, and Soho at the water’s edge, skimming stones across the swells.  The film series ends as the tide takes with it memories of loved ones lost to AIDS, just as the land had consumed all traces of the country’s violent history.

Despite Kentridge’s expressed concern about the unreliability of memory and time’s inevitable dulling of initial shock and/or outrage (a clouding of clarity) in response to traumatic events, when realizing “some months or years later” the connection between the bodies he drew in Felix in Exile and the photographs of the Sharpeville massacre victims, he was “sure that, in a sense, it was trying to tame that horror of seeing those images.”  In using the third person “it” rather than first person “I,” Kentridge unintentionally demonstrated the power of the unconscious to keep unbearable memories at a safe remove.

In this series of nine films, the adult artist deliberately and repeatedly affirmed memory’s inevitable erosion, using the natural behavior of land and water as visual metaphors for the process.  But his child-artist self refused to abide by that precept, consistently ejecting onto the page violent memories that defiantly remained very much alive in the deep recesses of his brain, ready to be summoned by the slightest evocation of those original experiences.


Notes and references available upon request.

A special note of appreciation
for making the films available to the writer goes to:

Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Tel : 212-977-7160

William Kentridge’s art can be visited there.


Art Historical Musings: The Contemporary in Encyclopedic Museums

Print This Post Print This Post

August 25th, 2016

Courting the Contemporary
Art-Historical Museums Follow the Money

[To view the slide show in a separate tab, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

Enjoying the centuries-old paintings in the gently-lit exhibit on Japanese collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the visitor entering the rooms at the hairpin curve of the u-shaped circuit of galleries was confronted with a narrow, lightly curved, soaring piece of gleaming white metal on a thin, highly-polished, black stone plinth (Slide 2, Fig. 1).  In a space at the very end of her tour, contemporary paintings surrounded a glass sculpture of a deer (Slide 2, Fig. 2) affectionately called “Bubbles” because of its skin of varied-sized glass spheres.

Such incidents have become quite common in encyclopedic/universal art museums, where the primary focus on objects–from all over the world–with aesthetic and historic value has been slowly eroded by a pressing need to attract more people to guarantee enough income to keep this type of art venue alive.  Even a frozen-in-time institution like The Morgan Library and Museum splashed a detail of an Andy Warhol book jacket–decorated with a couple of flirtatious nude angels–on the cover of its Calendar of Events: Winter & Spring 2016 (Slide 3, Fig. 3) to trumpet its upcoming exhibit, Warhol by the Book–a departure from its usual, more staid fare.  In yet another incident of new art keeping company with old, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC situated Roy Lichtenstein’s classically toned painting Entablature on the wall above a quintessentially Canova reclining nude (Slide 3, Fig. 4).

Other manifestations of these contemporary times can be found on the websites of all museums–like that of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Slide 4, Fig. 5), where links to social media like Twitter and Facebook have become de rigueur, and redesigns of logos as part of rebranding campaigns–like the one undertaken by The Met in 2016 (Slide 4, Fig. 6)–attempt to alter perceptions by presenting a more with-it, though aesthetically flawed, veneer.

Museum education programs have morphed, too, into vehicles engineered to engage a more diverse audience.  In the face of this increasing proliferation of contemporary art, new approaches have been developed to help museum goers deal with incomprehensible objects that baffle and irritate them.  Traditional, information-based explanations have in some places yielded to Socratic questioning to elicit viewers’ responses to, and thoughts on, the art object.

When museums turn their spotlights on the contemporary in this way, they are responding to outside forces, primarily those of the marketplace.  Since at least the late eighties, when artists began departing from ordinary means of expression, (painting, drawing, sculpture, even video) and embarking on experiments with largely conceptual and otherwise unusual materials, new art has been edging out its competition.  Increased demand has turned contemporary art into big business, creating a veritable “asset class” of great interest not just to collectors but also to hedge fund managers, who buy low in quantity–driving up prices of little-known artists’ work–and then, after holding onto the objects for an average of two years, sell high–sometimes, in the process, flooding the market.

Growing numbers of collectors with major holdings of contemporary art, looking to place their work strategically–either through loans or outright donations, offer financial support to those institutions receptive to their artists.  Art-historical museums like The Met can’t afford to ignore such a large pool of prospective patrons, but when they invite them and their cohorts–galleries, dealers and auction houses–into their hallowed halls, they risk practicing “checkbook art history.”

When an encyclopedic museum that has historically limited its holdings to that of the past, acquires an art object of a certain age, the effect on the artwork’s market value will be little affected by the positive regard thus bestowed.  But when a piece created by a living artist enters a museum’s permanent collection, all of that artist’s production will increase in value, much to the advantage of the dealer/gallery who represents the artist and has sold it.

These and other dangers have not served as a deterrent to universal museums like The Met in New York–which plans to reconfigure and expand its current modern and contemporary wing, and in 2015 leased from the Whitney its vacated Breuer building (Slide 5, Fig. 7) to mount related exhibitions during that process–and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Slide 5, Fig. 8) in Arkansas–which announced in 2016 its intention to transform an old cheese factory into a display box for new art, explaining how it would become “one of the hottest destinations in the country” and be “huge for the younger generation, the millennials.”  The Met, however, was later forced to put its well-underway program on indefinite hold due to financial troubles, some of which have been ascribed to the outpouring of funds needed to cover the refurbishing and staffing of its new annex.

For boosting numbers, such architectural add-ons are good bets.  The results of a 2015 study found that “[m]useums that expanded between 2007 and 2014 saw their attendance rise significantly faster than museums that did not…,” although in time those gains became less dramatic.

This pressing need to bring in more visitors and hence more money originated in the early nineties when a stagnant economy forced the United States government to question its commitment to funding the arts.  The Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 provided fertile ground for the culture wars that ensued, when politicians like the mayor of New York railed against the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s cutting-edge exhibit Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection (Slide 6, Fig. 9), and the Corcoran cancelled its upcoming retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs, bordering on the pornographic (Slide 6, Fig. 10), had the potential to trigger a defunding backlash from the federal government.

Other economic pressures have accrued to art museums in the ensuing years.  Afficionados of contemporary art with large enough collections and deep enough pockets began at the beginning of the twenty-first century to build their own museums rather than target a favored museum as the final resting place for their beloved objects.  The alternative to donations–purchasing art outright–has become less of an option for museums, whose acquisition budgets can’t keep up with prices like that of Amadeo Modigliani’s Recumbent Nude, which sold at auction for $170.4 million (Slide 7, Fig. 11).

In their desperate competition for limited funds, art museums today are trapped in a maelstrom of inexorable growth.  Reduced government spending has led to greater reliance on corporate and individual funding, which requires museums to substantiate their worth with healthy attendance figures.  Nothing does that quite so well as blockbuster exhibitions, whose increased costs call for even more individual donor support.  To attract new patrons, museums have to appeal to their artistic tastes, now overwhelmingly contemporary, with reimagined and expanded old buildings and newly constructed minimalist ones that reflect their art.

Enlargement brings its own challenges.  Growing to resemble major corporations, museums have to meet the demands of their metamorphosis by expanding existing departments like administration, visitor services, development and membership, creating new ones like media relations and establishing novel positions like that of chief digital officer–the holder of which at The Met commands a staff of seventy–all of which costs money.  Increased overhead requires additional income, which calls for more fundraising efforts aimed at corporate sponsors and individual collectors, and forces museums to lure even more people through the door with ever more dramatic exhibitions for which new donors must be found, repeating the cycle ad nauseam.

These financial stresses have bred questionable practices.  Nonprofit museums now extract payments, which they call donations, from galleries whose artists they show, requesting anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 to help cover expenses.  They might also squeeze them for referrals of potential donors.  The larger the gallery, the more it can afford to cooperate, which apparently garners maximum benefits.  Almost a third of major one-person exhibits in the US between 2007 and 2013 went to artists represented by just five galleries, with the figure staggeringly greater for contemporary art museums like the Guggenheim (ninety percent) and the Museum of Modern Art (forty-five percent), a cautionary statistic for art-historical museums that insist on playing in this league.

Artists already represented by big-name galleries become widely known and hence more popular, enticing museums to use as a criterion for inclusion the fame factor.  In its press release about its Collectors Committee’s recent purchases, the National Gallery of Art proudly declared that it had acquired Janine Antoni’s chocolate-and-soap sculpted self-portraits, “Lick and Lather …, arguably her most famous work (Slide 8, Fig. 12).”  [Italics added for emphasis.]

The statement highlights the elusive nature of defining the artistic value of mainly conceptual, contemporary art.  Not only do curators find themselves in competition with sales-related departments like marketing and digital media services, but when they and other apologists for the new are asked to delineate criteria for it, they avoid answering the question.

Art seasoned by time can accrue value over the course of its existence simply by virtue of survival.  Too, historical criteria for its quality and importance will have already been established.  Not so with brand new works that have not been subjected to that test of time.  An art that indiscriminately encompasses every self-defined work as art invites a leveling of expectations and hence quality.

Scholars and other arts writers romantically obsessed with the latest artists and their productions often enjoy cozy relationships with their subjects, depending on them for information and explanations, a situation that impedes the objectivity that time and distance can bestow.  The risk is real that these so-called art historians will become “glorified publicist[s] or ventriloquist[s] for the artist.”  Because the living never remain as constant as the dead, specialists in this field might also find themselves sorting out conflicting responses.

This love affair with the contemporary finds expression in other museum activities.  One example is The Met, which for their rebranding intentions commissioned a design and marketing firm–whose website’s tag line proclaims “We are creative partners to ambitious leaders who want to design radically better businesses”–to construct for it a new logo (Slide 9, Fig. 13) and graphical identity.  The choice of consultant should not surprise anyone who has heard the director of The Met, Thomas Campbell, refer to the museum as a business.

The split between curatorial mission and corporate practices was nowhere more obvious than at a Met staff meeting regularly presided over by Director Campbell during which a representative of the design company presented its ideas to a roomful of curators and other staff in the fall of 2015.  A young student intern confided her shock at the way the woman spoke to the assemblage as if to grade-schoolers who needed simplified instructions to grasp her meaning.

Reactions to the new logo have been almost unanimously negative, including among guards who now display it on their jackets.  In focusing excessively on marketing and other business-like strategies, a museum like The Met risks losing status and public trust.  Several years before he became the former director of The Met, Philippe de Montebello cautioned: “How we market our museums tells much about how we view ourselves, and we should not expect our public to be unaffected by such attitudes.”

In devising strategies to gain new audiences, museums have again looked to business models, shifting from a “selling mode” that uses its wares–art objects–to attract visitors, to a “marketing mode” that researches (e.g., through focus groups) the needs, interests and character of prospective guests to more effectively lure then in.  Museum organizations’ statements reflect this change.  No longer placing emphasis on collection-related activities, they demonstrate a new concern with public service and education, even envisioning museums as instruments of “communal empowerment” and “social change.”

This evolution has not stopped there as museums have sought to become everything to everybody.  One need only look at the proliferation of concerts, dance performances (Slide 10, Fig. 14) and completely novel events like exercise routines (Slide 10, Fig. 15) that have become staples for many of them.  The need of visitors to have a good time, and not that of curators and their collections to inform, has turned the museum experience into one that seeks to provide “…social interaction…spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge,…[and] consumerist indulgence,” even happiness.

That’s in stark contrast to the original purpose of museums, which was to provide a place for experiencing art.  Today the museum not the art has become the destination–as in “let’s go to The Met” as opposed to “let’s go look at some Italian Baroque paintings and sculpture.”

Some of the events offered by these repositories of art have little to do with their contents, although they do have the potential to generate income, like the cash bar on the Great Hall balcony at The Met (Slide, 11, Fig. 16), which on MetFridays becomes a place to meet and hang out with friends (Slide 11, Fig. 17).  Much further south, when Tom Walton announced that Crystal Bridges would be converting an old factory into a space for contemporary art, he envisioned “a ‘kind of living room for the community,’ where art, music, performance and food would be on offer in unexpected ways.”

A contemporary museum like the Guggenheim can unapologetically develop events designed to gather “the ‘in-crowd’ of society” under its roof.  In the late nineties, the museum’s director of communications and sponsorship could unabashedly admit:
“We are in the entertainment business, and competing against other forms of entertainment out there.  We have a Guggenheim brand that has certain equities and properties…[I]f they are here for a party and happen to look at the art and come back again, that’s valuable to us.”
His was the time when many cultural institutions in New York City were beginning to entice new audiences with offerings of up-to-date music and high-styled fashion.

No one summed up this change in targeted audience better than the entrepreneurial former director of the Guggenheim in the 2001 press release on his museum’s partnership with the Venetian Resort Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia:
“…today the profile of a typical Las Vegas visitor increasingly approximates the profile of the visitors upon which every major museum in the world…depends, and to which they communicate.”
Contending with that kind of attitude, curators find themselves called upon to partner with, rather than guide, audiences through their collections.  One trend has museums mounting shows–virtually or on their walls–consisting solely of selections made by “citizen curators,” as if there were no special qualifications for assembling artwork into coherent and informative exhibitions (Slide 12, Fig. 18).

The success of all these schemes has brought crowding and noise to formerly quiet settings conducive to contemplation and extended viewing.  At The Met, the Costume Institute has become notorious for taking over galleries already filled with art, effectively shutting down entire viewing areas for months at a time.  The 2015 show China:Through the Looking Glass obliterated the Chinese galleries, turning them into rooms reminiscent of discotheques–loud music permeating darkened spaces illuminated with bright spotlighting (Slide 13, Fig. 19).

Curators now must consider crowd flow when they lay out galleries, especially for blockbusters–those temporary exhibitions devised to generate massive numbers.  In designing new museum spaces, architects have to choose between cavernous rooms to accommodate the hoards and intimate galleries to provide optimum viewing opportunities for visitors naturally inclined to look at the art.

Museums cannot, however, survive on their gate alone and in addition to relying on the support of individual donors, must also pursue government and corporate funding, contending with a new emphasis on educating children.  The study of art for its own sake no longer qualifies a museum’s existence but now must guarantee the acquisition of important academic and/or other life skills.

Providing enlightenment for both adults and young students about the works of art on display (e.g., their origins, materials, subject matter and former contexts) has been giving way to focusing on the viewers’ perceptions, paralleling the shift to indulging entertainment needs rather than offering up works of art as means of engagement.

The matter remains unsettled, however.  On one side are those who believe in the value of the old way (providing information), and worry about dumbing down museum education, meeting visitors at their current level of knowledge instead of challenging them with more sophisticated fare.  On the opposing side are those who would use art education to teach other skills, including how to look at the art itself–as though a masterpiece could not speak on its own to an untutored audience.

Singlehandedly, modern and contemporary art, now ubiquitous, could easily account for this sea change in approach.  One educator with many years experience observing audience response to new art, noted:
“…both modern and contemporary art can produce a great deal of angst, if not negativity…[Visitors] are confused and often hostile when confronted with, for example, an all black canvas.”
Naturally, he had to distract audience attention from the irritant, redirecting their gaze to their own feelings and thoughts.  After all, what can be said about an all black, or all white, or all red, canvas that isn’t purely conceptual, having nothing at all to do with the thing before one’s eyes?

In the end, visitors voted with their feet for the art that most appealed to them.  In a 2015 compilation of statistics from museums worldwide, art-historical museums monopolized the top five spots (Slide 14, Fig. 20), attesting to the type of museum experience the viewer still prefers.  Encyclopedic museums would do well to take stock of the treasures they already possess rather than looking elsewhere for solutions to their financial woes.

Like Glinda told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “…you’ve always had the power (Slide 15, Fig. 21).”  It’s time for art-historical museums to click those ruby slippers together and return home to what they alone know how to do so well.

[To get a copy of this paper with the endnotes, send your request to]


Altshuler, Bruce. “The Met gets a second chance to get contemporary art right.” The Art Newspaper, April 1, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016,

Bunzl, Matti. In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Crow, Kelly, Sara Germano and David Benoit. “New Masters of the Art Universe.” The Wall Street Journal Arts & Entertainment Section, January 23, 2014, accessed April 17, 2016,

Cuno, James, editor. Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Davidson, Justin. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Logo Is a Typographic Bus Crash.” Vulture, February 17, 2016, accessed May 5, 2016,

Fabrikant, Geraldine. “European Museums Are Shifting to American Way of Giving.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 15, 2016, accessed on March 16, 2016, european-museums-are-shifting-to-american-way-of-giving.html

Gamarekian, Barbara. “Corcoran, to Foil Dispute, Drops Mapplethorpe Show.” The New York Times Arts Section, June 14, 1989, accessed on May 1, 2016,

Goodnough, Abby. “Giuliani Threatens to Evict Museum Over Art Exhibit.” The New York Times Arts Section, September 24, 1999, accessed on May 1, 2016,

Halperin, Julia. “Almost one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists
represented by five galleries.” The Art Newspaper, April 2, 2015, accessed May 5, 2016, almost-one-third-of-solo-shows-in-us-museums-go-to-artists-represented-by-five-galleries/

____________. “Museums that expand get more visitors, our data analysis shows.” The Art Newspaper, March 31, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016,

Kallir, Jane. “Recent Acquisitions (And Some Thoughts on the Current Art Market).” Galerie St. Etienne Newsletter, July 21-October 16, 2015.

Kennedy, Randy. “Crystal Bridges Museum to Open New Space for Contemporary Art.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 29, 2016, accessed on March 30, 2016, crystal-bridges-museum-to-open-new-space-for-contemporary-art.html?_r=0.

Kirschbaum, Susan M. “Noticed; Dinner, Dancing and, Oh Yes, Art.” The New York Times Style Section, March 14, 1999, accessed on April 21, 2016,

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “David Copperfield Names as Architect to Redesign Metropolitan Museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art Wing and Adjacent Areas.” Press Release, March 11, 2015, accessed April 10, 2016,

__________________________. “Sree Sreenivasan Named the Metropolitan
Museum’s First Chief Digital Officer.” Press Release, June 20, 2013, accessed April 17, 2016,

Meyer, Richard. What was Contemporary Art? Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013.

de Montebello, Philippe. The Museum: An Imperfect Construct. Course at the Institute of Fine Arts, 2016.

The Morgan Library & Museum. Calendar of Events Winter & Spring, 2016

_________________________. Calendar of Events Spring & Summer, 2016.

Munro, Cait. “What Noteworthy New Artist Records Were Set at New York’s Fall Auctions?” artnet news, November 13, 2015, accessed April 17, 2016,

National Gallery of Art. “Janine Antoni, Sally Mann, Christina Ramberg, and Roger Brown Acquisitions Made Possible by the Collectors Committee Enter the National Gallery of Art’s Collection.” April 22, 2016, accessed May 5, 2016,

Pes, Javier, José da Silva and Emily Sharpe. “Visitor Figures 2015: Jeff Koons is the toast of Paris and Bilbao.” The Art Newspaper, March 31, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016, jeff-koons-is-the-toast-of-paris-and-bilbao/.

Pogrebin, Robin. “Art Galleries Face Pressure to Fund Museum Shows.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 7, 2016, accessed April 3, 2016,

_____________. Robin Pogrebin, “Met Plans a Gut Renovation of Its Modern Wing.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, May 19, 2014, accessed April 10, 2016, in-mets-future-a-redesigned-modern-art-wing.html?_r=0.

_____________. “Metropolitan Museum of Art Plans Job cuts and Restructuring.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, March 7, 2016, accessed April 21, 2016,

_____________. “NOTICED; Dinner, Dancing and, Oh Yes, Art.” The New York Times Style Section, March 14, 1999, accessed April 21, 2016,

_____________.“2 Art Worlds: Flush MoMA, Struggling Met.” The New York Times Arts Section, April 22, 2016, accessed April 22, 2016,

Rice, Danielle, and Philip Yenawine. “A Conversation on Object-Centered Learning in Art Museums.” Curator 45, no 4 (October 2002).

Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & its Discontents, January 22, 2016, accessed January 25, 2016, the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/.

Schulte, Erin. “Most Creative People: A Q&A With The Met’s Chief Digital Officer, Sree Sreenivasan.” Fast Company, April 7, 2014, accessed April 17, 2016,

Sutton, Benjamin. “Crunching the Numbers Behind the Boom in Private Art Museums.” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & it Discontents, January 21, 2016, accessed January 22, 2016, behind-the-boom-in-private-art-museums/.

Tomkins, Calvin. “The Met and the Now: The museum finally goes modern.” The New Yorker, January 25, 2016, 32-36.

Vogel, Carol. “Relentless Bidding, and Record Prices, for Contemporary Art at Christie’s Auction.” The New York Times Art & Design Section, November 14, 2012, accessed April 17, 2016,

Voon, Claire. “Report Advises Museums on How to Be More Inclusive and Maximize Happiness.” Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art & its Discontents, March 10, 2016, accessed March 3, 2016, 281215/report-advises-museums-on-how-to-be-more-inclusive-and-maximize-happiness/.

Weil, Stephen E. “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum” in Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2002.


Work in Progress: What You See…painting

Print This Post Print This Post

August 9th, 2016

Self-Portrait Advances

Work has begun on the imprimitúra for the self-portrait What You See…, a profile view obtained using two mirrors. Much remains to be done before colors can be added.


Art Review: Art Objects?

Print This Post Print This Post

June 30th, 2015

All That Glitters…
Art Museums Making It Art

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so.  But I know it when I see it…1

When Justice Potter Stewart penned those word in a 1964 concurring opinion on a case involving a motion picture, he had in mind pornography.  Today the statement could easily apply to a certain attitude held by many people toward art, unaware as they are of the vulnerability to manipulation of their belief.

Attempting to define the “kinds of material embraced within that shorthand description” art has been a favorite pastime of deep thinkers from at least as far back as Plato, with neuroscientists recently adding their voices to the cacophony.2  When creative types stepped outside accepted norms (as they are wont to do), they further complicated this age-old struggle to determine the nature of art.

The terminology problem achieved critical mass when in April 1917 Marcel Duchamp–pushing the limits of the Society of Independent Artists’ policy of accepting all proffered objects–presented to its hanging committee a urinal he purchased from the J. L. Mott Iron Works company, having affixed to it the signature “R. Mutt” and anointed it Fountain.3  In another sphere of activity but also during the early part of the twentieth century, a boom in archaeological digs coupled with a proliferation of publications for a general audience introduced yet another set of objects for consideration as art.4  Contemporaneously, indigenous works from Africa began to migrate from ethnic collections to art galleries,5 setting in motion a reevaluation of comparable items brought from analogous cultures elsewhere.

The legacy of these developments can be found today gracing the interiors of art museums, where (among other factors) a simple change in accompanying label can alter the meaning of an object on display.6

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Theaster Gates, In Case of Race Riot II (2011, wood, metal and hoses, 32 x 25 x 6 in [81.3 x 63.5 x 15.2 cm]). Brooklyn Museum, New York.

 Tucked away in a corner in the American Identities galleries of the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York on the wall of a section headed “Everyday Life/A Nation Divided,” behind a framed sheet of glass, a length of coiled hose invites associations with its primary purpose of extinguishing fires.  One could be forgiven for expecting the accompanying wall text to announce, “In case of fire, break glass.”

Instead, the explanatory label begins with a name–Theaster Gates, adds a title–In Case of Race Riot II, and includes a list of materials used in its assemblage.  The story of the piece follows.  The viewer is cued to consider the object a work of art by the box that frames it, the label that describes it, the spotlighting that illuminates it, and the art museum that placed it in the company of other similarly designated pieces.  The power of this image to evoke an emotional response in beholders is enhanced by any personal recollections of the civil rights events of the 1960s to which it refers.  Such reminiscences are encouraged by the declared theme of the gallery, “A Nation Divided.”

Clearly art museums do far more than simply collect and display artwork.  These structures have been variously described as: ritual spaces ”designed to induce in viewers an intense absorption with artistic spirits of the past;”7  “philosophical instruments” that “propose taxonomies of the world” and “encourage aesthetic engagement with their contents,”8 “optical instrument[s] for the refracting of society;”9 places for the “staging of objects relative to other objects in a plotting system that transforms juxtaposition and simple succession into an evolutionary narrative of influence and descent…a configured story culminating in our present;”10 guarantors of the “artificial longevity” of ultimately perishable commodities,11 which attempt to “contradict the irreversibility of time and its end result in death;”12 and–most relevant to this exploration–an institution with the purpose of teaching “the difference between pencils and works of art”13 or more generally, “works of art and mere real things.”14

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Marcel Duchamp, In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964 [prototype, 1915], wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52 in [132 cm] high).  Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Enter Marcel Duchamp with his readymades and insistence that “‘[a]n ordinary object’ can be ‘elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist,’”15 which is to say that intention trumps all.  Of course, minus the hallowed halls of art museums and related gallery spaces such pieces would lose the foils so essential to their argument.16

The heights of absurdity possible when artists (or art museums or the art market) become sole arbiters of an object’s artistic status found dramatic expression in 1998 when Alan Alda played Marc, an outraged skeptic in the Broadway production of Art.  When Marc’s longtime friend proudly displayed the latest (and very expensive) addition to his modern art collection–a totally white canvas, the ensuing conflict over the nature of art (which included a third pal as intermediary) threatened to derail a fifteen-year friendship.17  Such is the passion invoked by the question, “What is art?”

An alternative way of posing the question–“When is art?”18–underscores the importance of context.  One can designate as art a found, constructed, fabricated or handcrafted work, but its definitive determination as such seems to rely on its ultimate resting place.  Art museums display art.  Natural history museums house ethnographic collections and archaeological finds.  Design museums celebrate human’s ingenuity.  Large enough encyclopedic museums show it all.  Or so it would seem.

The visitor to a Surrealism exhibit, encountering Duchamp’s snow shovel suspended in the museum gallery, can’t see how it differs from the one that leans against the wall in a suburban garage.  Titled In Advance of the Broken Arm, the readymade proves that “a thing may function as a work of art at some times and not at others.”19

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing (c. 1940, rag-filled Bakelite and metal, 13¾ x 91/16 x 26⅜ in [35 x 23 x 67 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]). Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926, polished bronze, 6½ x 7½ x 11½ in [16.5 x 19.1 x 29.2 cm]).  Harvard Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s Design Museum in New York, ensconced in a vitrine (those ubiquitous glass cases that prepare visitors for an art experience), an oblate spheroid tapering to a point at one end, with the appearance of wood but actually composed of “the first entirely synthetic plastic,”20 rests on a base of metal that functions as a stand.  Relocated to the sculpture wing of a modern/contemporary art museum, this Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing from about 1940 would nestle comfortably up against the Jean Arps and Henry Moores.  But even more striking is its formal resemblance to the Constantin Brancusi Sleeping Muse II (c. 1926) that resides in the Harvard Art Museums.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Henry Dreyfuss, Design for Acratherm Gauge (1943, brush and gouache, graphite, pen and black ink on illustration board, 11 × 8½ in [27.9 × 21.6 cm]).  Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

This ambiguity is also evident on the first floor of the Cooper Hewitt amid an assemblage of aids to mobility and handling, where a framed gouache drawing by Henry Dreyfuss called Design for Acratherm Gauge presents the observer with a tour de force of trompe l’oeil effect.  This picture’s placement in a room with other useful instruments and its clear designation as a product of design attempt unsuccessfully to differentiate it from an artist’s finished work on paper.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878, oil on canvas mounted on canvas, 24⅛ x 18 in [61.3 x 45.7 cm]). Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Label for Walter Launt Palmer, Painting, Interior of Henry de Forest House.

Upstairs at the same design museum, great pains have been taken to ensure that visitors don’t mistake a bona fide artwork for an architect’s rendering of a domestic interior.  The first word on the label for Walter Launt Palmer’s painting of the Interior of Henry de Forest House (1878) is “painting.”

Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed on “Tools” floor of Cooper Hewitt. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, 9⅓ x 13⅓ x 15 ft [2.85 x 4.06 x 4.55 m]).  Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

Displayed in art gallery. Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe (2007, found tools and wire, dimensions vary). Collection of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, New York.

The Cooper Hewitt is filled with objects harboring this potential for dual identities.  A relative of Duchamp’s snow shovel (functional identity)/In Advance of the Broken Arm (art identity) appears in Damián Ortega’s Controller of the Universe (2007) as one element in a starburst of tools through the axis of which visitors can wander.  This central attraction of the design museum’s “Tools” floor makes a solo appearance in a room with white walls in a photo posted on the museum’s website.21  Reassembled to fit into an art gallery, this spatially condensed version transforms the viewers’ experience from active participation to passive contemplation of an esteemed work of art.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Unidentified (French) artist, Salt Cellar with the Episodes from the Life of Hercules and Salt Cellar with Allegorical Scenes (c. 1550, enamel on copper, 2⅞ x 3 in [7.3 x 7.6 cm]). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Likewise, stepping into the Harvard Art Museums–whose august exterior signals visitors to expect an elevated cultural experience, then ambling through acres of paintings, sculptures and less definable objects, and coming upon a vitrine with an array of utilitarian things of venerable pedigree, one is already well primed to see two attractive French salt cellars from about 1550 as works of art.  That impression gets considerable assistance from a painting on the wall immediately behind them–of Martin Luther (1546, from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder), and an additional boost from an identifying label that calls their maker an “Unidentified artist.”

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Egmont Arons, designer, Meat Slicer (c. 1935, steel, 12½ x 17 x 20½ in [31.8 x 43.2 x 52.1 cm]) and Edo Period, Japan, Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake) (18th to 19th century, iron and wood, 18 x 16 x 4½ in [45.7 x 40.6 x 11.4 cm]). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Less clear is the message communicated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art in its “Connecting Cultures” exhibit, a room hosting a hodgepodge of paintings, sculpture, ethnic objects and useful things from across millennia. Putting aside the impossibility of getting close enough to see some of them (placed on shelves that soar above eye level), one confronts a dilemma in a vitrine containing a twentieth-century American-made, shiny steel Meat Slicer and a two-hundred-year-old, dark-hued Edo period iron-and-wood Pothook Hanger (Jizai-Gake).

Visitors might be less inclined to regard the all-too-familiar deli appliance as art and feel similarly about the slicer’s neighbor, the large hook.  Situate the much older, exotic Japanese piece in the Asian wing of any art museum, hang it on a wall under spotlighting and affix to the display a typical artwork label, and responses will likely change.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“University Collections Gallery: African Art,” Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ample evidence of this “museum effect–the tendency to isolate something from its world, to offer it up for attentive looking and thus to transform it into art like our own”22 exists in the University Collections Gallery of African Art at the Harvard Art Museums.  There a select group of products from several countries in Africa, sparsely arranged in various shaped glass enclosures, hangs on the walls–a collection small enough in number for a single wall label to comfortably contain descriptions of all the pieces.

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood). Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Axe, Songya, Democratic Republic of Congo (1914 or earlier, iron, copper and wood).  Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A stunningly beautiful axe, with a wooden handle and complex wrought iron head, shares its glass box frame with a less ornate companion, emitting conflicting messages about its identity.  Everything about the setup, especially the segregation of the axes in their own display cases, emphasizes the uniqueness of each piece, connecting it with the art just seen in nearby galleries.

Shown in an exhibit hall at a natural history museum among many other examples of its type, these implements might be classified as artifacts, things that have “primarily the status of tools, of instruments or objects of use.”23  In a more inclusive definition, the dictionary describes them as “object[s] made by a human being, typically…of cultural or historical interest,”24 a category that can range from “sophisticated and culturally valuable the smallest everyday thing.”25

The pool of opinion on what qualifies something as art teems with dangerous life forms, but the variables of “complex abstract thinking,”26 embodiment of a thought and expression of meaning,27 and evocation of emotions28 that include aesthetic delight,29 serve to classify most of them.  While that last trait is both an unnecessary and insufficient determinant of artistic status, it can easily seduce observers into believing they are in the presence of real art (whatever that might be).  Art museums, intentionally or not, often cash in on that response.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

With barrier. Ai Weiwei, Untitled (2014, edition of 60, mixed media, primarily stainless steel).  Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

On a wall near the ticket counter at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a glittery silver city bike hangs behind a barrier, its artist Ai Weiwei having given it the noncommittal tag of Untitled.  In the list of materials provided by either him or the museum–“mixed media, primarily stainless steel”30–the word bicycle is conspicuously absence, perhaps in hopes of enticing some unsuspecting bike-riding enthusiast, smitten by the beauty of the artifact glowing before her, to perceive the object as a work of art by world-famous Chinese artist Ai (as the label, lighting, ribbon barrier and placement on an art museum wall encourage) and part with the asking price of $27,500, an amount designed to offset the cost of the artist’s now past exhibition, Ai Weiwei: According to What?

Tooling around the city mounted on this splendid bike might turn it back into a “mere real thing,” diminishing its monetary though not aesthetic value.  Hanging it back on a wall would restore its identity as art, the preference of any art collector (or curator).  But for the rider, whose delight derives from speeding along on wheels, immobilizing such an exquisitely crafted bicycle would rob it of its raison d’être and, incidentally, extinguish the pleasure of exhibiting a prized possession in an arena markedly different from the interior of any art museum.


1 Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), p. 197.

2 Anjan Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

3 Thierry de Duve, “‘This is Art’: Anatomy of a Sentence,” ArtForum, April 2014, 2.

4 Ably demonstrated in From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, an exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, February 12- June 7, 2015.

5 In 1914, Alfred Stieglitz mounted at his Gallery 291 “what he claimed to be the first exhibition anywhere to present African sculpture as fine art rather than ethnography.”  See Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.  Accessed March 15, 2015, exhibitions/modart_2.shtm.

6 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 140.

7 Carol Duncan, “The  Art Museum as Ritual,” Art Bulletin LXXVII, no. 1 (March 1995): 12.

8 Ivan Gaskell, “The Riddle of a Riddle,” Contemporary Aesthetics 6 (2008): 7.

9 Donald Preziosi, “Brain of the Earth’s Body: Museums and the Framing of Modernity,” in Museum Studies: An Anthology of Contexts, edited by Bettina Messias Carbonell (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004), 77.

10 Ibid., 78.

11 Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2008), 38.

12 Duncan, 12.

13 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (Spring 1977), 465.

14 Arthur C. Danto, “Artifact and Art,” in ART/artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections (New York: The Center for African Art, 1988), 23.

15 Museum of Modern Art, catalog entry for In Advance of the Broken Arm.  Accessed March 17, 2015. advance-of-the-broken-arm-august-1964-fourth-version-after-lost-original-of-november-1915.

16 Groys, “On the New.”

17 “Art (play),” Wikipedia.  Accessed March 19, 2015: Art_(play).

18 Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), 66.

19 Ibid.

20 Object label, Radio Compass Loop Antenna Housing, Smithsonian Design Museum, Cooper Hewitt, New York.

21 “Controller of the Universe, 2007,” Cooper Hewitt website.  Accessed March 19, 2015:

22 Svetlana Alpers, “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1991), 27.

23 Google definition.  Accessed March 19, 2015: search?q=define:+arbiters+&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=define:+artifact.

24 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 28.

25 Gaskell, “The Riddle of the Riddle,” 4.

26 Ibid.

27 Danto, “Artifact and Art,” 32.

28 Chatterjee, The  Aesthetic Brain, 131.

29 E. H. Gombrich, “The Museum: Past, Present and Future,” 450.

30 Object label, Ai Weiwei, Untitled, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.


Art Historical Musing: The Drawings of Annibale Carracci

Print This Post Print This Post

May 12th, 2015

Drawn to Perfection:
Annibale Carracci
Works on Paper

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

[slide 1:  Title]
[slide 2:  Self-Portrait [Autoritratto col cappello “a quatre’acque”] (April 17, 1593, oil on canvas, 9½ x 7? in [24 x 20 cm]).  Galleria Nazionale, Parma, Italy.]

Legend has it that when Annibale Carracci was a young boy returning to Bologna with his father from a trip to Cremona and they were set upon by robbers, the lad’s precocious ability to render in line what presented itself to his eye aided in the apprehension of the criminals.  The youthful Annibale sketched the culprits from memory so accurately that they were easily recognized and brought to justice quickly enough to ensure return of his father’s stolen money.1

While that and other stories that grew up around the famed artistic family of Carracci might well be apocryphal, the existence of these tales of artistic prowess do bear witness to the high regard in which the two brothers and their cousin were held, and in particular to Annibale’s prodigious drawing skills.  Born in 1560 in Bologna, the youngest of the triumvirate that included Agostino (his older brother by three years) and their older cousin Ludovico (born in 1555), Annibale was characterized by one of his early biographers as a scruffy, introverted, envious and financially naive prankster.2

Never one to be ashamed of his social standing, Annibale often chided the scholarly, upwardly-striving Agostino–who was far more educated than his younger brother–on the way he hobnobbed with courtiers and the like.  To put Agostino in his place, one day in Rome where they were working in the Palazzo Farnese, Annibale handed his pompous brother a letter while they were in the midst of a well-bred group that then eagerly awaited the unveiling of its contents.  Much to Agostino’s embarrassment, the opened missive contained a drawing of their parents: father in his spectacles threading a needle and mother holding a pair of scissors,3 a not-so-gentle reminder of the brothers’ humble origins.

For Annibale, drawing trumped speech when it came to personal expression, a stance he made quite clear in another face-off with his loquacious brother who was going on at length about the antique marvels he was discovering after his recent move to Rome to help out at the Farnese.  When Agostino made the mistake of taking to task the silent Annibale for not joining in the erudite conversation, accusing him of lacking appreciation for the ancient works, Annibale once again got the better of his older brother with charcoal.

Unbeknownst to Agostino until too late, on a nearby wall Annibale had begun a drawing designed to communicate his reverence for the Roman art he was discovering.  When done, he stepped aside to display a perfect rendering from memory of the Laocoön.  The onlookers praised the younger artist.  Agostino fell silent, and Annibale walked away triumphant–but not before laughingly admonishing his brother, “Poets paint with words; painters speak with works.”4

From very early on, reaching for a drawing implement had been Annibale Carracci’s first impulse and it continued to be throughout his life even into his last few years, when the heavy toll that illness took on his expressive abilities left him unable to do much else.  From the pleasurable exercise of sketching his surroundings to the serious study of posed studio models, this master draftsman always looked first to his teacher nature for whatever answers he needed, supplementing it with metaphorical (and sometimes actual) forays into the studios of other artists to draw from their work.  Not only did Annibale “speak with [his] works,” he also thought with them–evident in the many surviving pages of preliminary ideas for compositions that he hatched and developed, and often later discarded.  Ultimately, these various aspects of his drawing practice would coalesce into a full-size cartoon used for transferring his final design onto wall, canvas or copper plate.

[slide 3:  A Man Weighing Meat (c. 1582-83, red chalk on beige paper, 1015/16 x 61/16 in [278 x 170 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The Butcher Shop (1583, oil on canvas, 73 x 105 in [185 × 266 cm]).  Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, UK.]

By the time he drew A Man Weighing Meat (c. 1582-83), the twenty-something-year-old Annibale had already been drawing for many years, but now his interest in depicting everyday life found expression in genre paintings of a type unlike the pastoral idylls of his contemporaries.5  Here he has posed his model, probably a workshop apprentice,6 in the garb of a butcher and given him props–a balance (stadera) for weighing meat along with a stand-in for a slab of flesh–that find their way into The Butcher Shop (1583), one of his earliest known paintings.

The bare-elbow study to the right of the figure in the red-chalk drawing reflects a rethinking of the pose that will appear in the final composition; Annibale angled upward the forearm and rolled back the sleeve.  Highlighting the artist’s selection of an expedient rather than exact model, the character of the butcher shop worker in the painting differs from the assistant in the studio; he is older with a neatly trimmed beard, taller stature and somewhat slimmer build.  His hat, of a different style, sits back on his head rather than forward as in the drawing.

Early on in the absence of significant commissions for the Carracci shop, genre paintings, like small devotional pictures, provided a quick and relatively easy way for the three young men to churn out work that they could sell on the open market and that would also advertise their skills.7  For Annibale, who had been sketching from life for years, it provided a natural extension of his artistic interests, “demand[ing] little more than a direct and forthright approach to the visual material.”8

[slide 4:  A Domestic Scene (1582-1584, pen with brown and gray-black ink, brush with gray and brown wash, over black chalk, 12⅞ x 9¼ in [32.8 x 23.6 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

In a very different kind of scene as well as medium, Annibale assembled three figures and a cat around a fire.  A young woman, holding a cloth or garment, leans over the flame and looks back toward a young girl, vaguely indicated in line and wash, while a much younger child merges visually with his caretaker’s skirt.  A close look at the actual drawing revealed a lack of spontaneity in the manner in which the ink wash was applied, especially in the woman’s skirt, where Annibale–instead of drawing the brush down the form and guiding the pool of diluted ink–seems to have attempted to blend it as he would have done with oil paint, resulting in a somewhat overworked appearance and mild abrasion of the paper.  It would not be long before he began to produce far more accomplished ink drawings.

[slide 5:  The Virgin and Child Resting Outside a City Gate (n.d., pen and brown ink, brush with traces of brown wash, on light brown beige paper; traces of framing outlines in pen and brown ink,  7⅜ x 8½ in [18.8 x 21.6 cm]).  The  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]

A small, undated compositional sketch of The Virgin and Child Resting Outside a City Gate contrasts in ink handling with the earlier genre scene.  Here evenly spaced, parallel hatching designates shadow while sure lines pick out the landscape and architectural features.  Schematic rays of the sun–which reappear in a very late pen drawing9–disappear behind horizontal bands of clouds, and figures diminishing in size create a feeling of recession into space.  A discreetly contoured area of thinned ink on the shaded side of the Virgin’s head has been applied without any fuss, first a middle-value wash and then a much darker band in the deeper shadow on the periphery of the head–no attempt being made to blend the two.  The Virgin’s face, redolent with Correggio sweetness,10 also suggests a date later than the domestic scene.

Not only did Annibale borrow from the output of other artists, he thought deeply about the differences in their styles, forming definite opinions about their work, a fact that runs contrary to the impression of him given by his early biographers as someone uninterested in the theoretical aspects of art.  The postilles (marginal notes) in his copy of Vasari’s Lives demonstrate this awareness.  Lauding Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo, Annibale disparaged the “mannered tradition of Florentine painting,”11 noting too the uselessness of comparing Michelangelo with Titian.  “Titian’s things are not like Michelangelo’s; they may not be totally successful but they are more lifelike than Michelangelo’s; Titian was more of a ‘painter’…and if Raphael was superior in some parts to Titian, Titian nonetheless surpassed Raphael in many things.”12

Apparently no less contemplative than his scholarly brother or intellectual cousin, Annibale joined them both in their first major commission–two rooms in the Palazzo Fava in Bologna, secured through family connections and their willingness to work at a discounted rate, beginning the project about 1583.  The smaller room, which was to contain a frieze about the myth of Europa, was assigned to Annibale and Agostino, while Ludovico, the older and at that time accepted head of their workshop, tackled the larger one, which would tell the story of Jason and the golden fleece.  Before all the frescoes were completed, the brothers would join their cousin in the more important space.13

[slide 6:  The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, fresco).  Palazzo Fava, Bologna, Italy.
The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, pen and black ink with gray-brown wash over black chalk, squared twice in black and red chalk, 10 x 12⅜ in [25.4 x 31.5 cm]).  Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, Germany.]

Annibale’s small ink drawing squared twice for transfer that illustrates The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584) shows the composition in a well advanced state as probably presented to the patron, Count Filippo Fava.  On the verso containing one of the earliest studies, Annibale had inked figures in their respective perspectival planes, including the accompanying termine,14 those illusionistically painted statues that framed the fresco panels.

[slide 7:  The Meeting of Jason and King Aeëtes (c. 1584, pen and black ink with gray-brown wash over black chalk, squared twice in black and red chalk, 10 x 12⅜ in [25.4 x 31.5 cm]).  Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich, Germany.
Orpheus Holding a Lyre (before 1584, oiled black chalk over black chalk, heightened with white chalk, on gray-blue laid paper, mounted on wove paper, 16⅓ x 9⅓ in [41.5 x 23.8 cm]).  National Gallery of Art, Ontario, Canada.]

Following such compositional imaginings and before the construction of the modello for his client, the artist would research individual poses,15 using not just models from the studio but also from his recollections of previously observed persons and/or sculpture.  Annibale’s Orpheus Holding a Lyre (before 1584) shows how well stocked his pictorial memory bank already was.  Too general to have been a life study, it might also have been based on one already executed, or refer to some other two-dimensional image.

Lauded for his visual memory, Annibale was reported to have told a friend that “he never–except once, with certain bas-reliefs–had to record for purposes of future recall anything he had looked at carefully.”16  As a group, the Carracci made a regular practice of honing their ability to mentally retain what they had observed.  Upon returning home from life drawing sessions and before doing anything else, they would each pick up a scrap of paper and endeavor to commit to it what they had just recently seen, enlivening it with more animation than the original pose.17

[slide 8:  Polyphemus (early 1590s, black chalk with traces of white heightening on blue-gray paper, laid down, 1611/16 x13⅞ in [42.4 x 35.2 cm]).  Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Florence, Italy.]

Another good example of Annibale’s drawing from his internal image bank, the black-chalk drawing of Polyphemus for a later cycle of frescoes at the Palazzo Fava sets an almost caricatured head on a rippling mass of torqued muscle and bone, about to catapult the small boulder gripped by the one-eyed giant.  Pentimenti in the hand suggest final figural considerations in an image already close to the painted one, including reflections on the play of light and shadow to be used in the fresco.

[slide 9:  Sheet of Caricatures (c. 1595, ink on paper, 7⅞ x 5⅛ [20.1 x 13.9 cm]).  British Museum, London.]

Drawn to facial features, Annibale joined his cohorts in exaggerating them in a form of art that derives its name from theirs: caricature.  Playful by nature, known for their love of practical jokes,18 always looking to exploit drawing’s potential to distill essence from reality, the artists had fun deliberately distorting the appearance of certain individuals.  In a sheet of these faces, Annibale has sketched in the upper left an ordinary looking profile of a man and in the lower right has riffed on this, opening the eyes wider and hooking the nose more.  The receding mouth of the man is exaggerated in several of the profiles on the sheet.  Such exercises are to be distinguished from the creation of grotesques–products of the imagination.19

Quite opposite in emotional tone, Annibale’s portrait drawings have a quiet intensity, especially those of children, the models for which he drew from youngsters around the studio–“assistants and friends or relatives who frequented the Carracci shop and academy.”20  As with his other subjects, these young people furnished handy objects to study, though Annibale seems to have had a special affinity for the “serious and meditative”21 interiority that children often manifest in their quiet moments.

[slide 10:  Profile Portrait of a Boy (1584-1585), red chalk on ivory paper, 813/16 x 6⅜ in [22.4 x 16.2]).  Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, Florence, Italy.]

In the early red-chalk drawing Profile Portrait of a Boy (1584-1585), the artist has posed the lad in strict profile and taken considerable care to sculpt his form with light and shadow, gently blending strokes on the smooth-skinned cheek and distinctly denoting the direction of hair strands.  Annibale deftly reserved the ivory of the page for the glittering highlights of the hair and the prominent helix of the ear.

[slide 11:  Head of a Boy (c. 1585-1590, black chalk on reddish brown paper, laid down, 227/16 x 915/16 in [316 x 252 cm] including a 2 cm horizontal strip added at the top).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

A similarly finished portrayal, the black-chalk Head of a Boy (c. 1585-1590) captures the tension of the neck muscle as the child strains to look with wide-eyed concern at something on his right.  The down-turned corners of the mouth impart a melancholy mood, suggesting that whatever is outside the viewer’s field of vision might not be welcome.  As with the earlier portrait, here too Annibale is far less interested in the clothing than in the boy’s head.

[slide 12:  Head of a Smiling Young Man (c. 1590-92, black chalk on gray-blue paper with added strips at top and bottom, laid down, 153/16 x 97/16 in [358 x 240 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.
Madonna and Child in Glory with Six Saints (c. 1591-92, San Ludovico Altarpiece).  Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna, Italy.]

Identified as a preparatory sketch for a subsequent altarpiece,22 Head of a Smiling Young Man (c. 1590-92) has been so named because of its perceived happy expression.  Yet the face of Saint John the Baptist in the San Ludovico altarpiece, for which it is a study, tells a more complex story of the triumphant validation of miracle that the apparition of the Madonna and child provides, a look for which Annibale was searching in this particular drawing, one unlikely to have been taken from life.

[slide 13:  The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, red chalk heightened with white chalk on reddish brown paper, the lower left corner slightly cut, 163/16 x 113/16 in [411 x 284 cm]).  Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria.
The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, pen and brown ink on cream paper, laid down, the lower left corner cut and made up, 77/16 x 415/16 [188 x 126]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Portrait of the Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594, oil on canvas, [305/16 x 253/16 in 77 x 64 cm]).  Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Germany.]

For The Lutenist Mascheroni (c. 1593-1594), another preparatory drawing, Annibale picked up his red chalk again and using much the same approach as he did for the earlier Profile Portrait of a Boy, brought the picture to a high level of finish, perhaps to serve as an immediate model for the painting.23  That the eyes are similarly out of convergence in all three versions implies that Annibale deliberately arranged Mascheroni’s facial features to block eye contact with the viewer.  Posed stiffly, the disengaged lutenist reveals little about himself–a common feature of this artist’s portraits24–but a lot about Annibale’s own interpersonal style and his tendency to treat people as objects rather than subjects.

The studies of male nudes for the herms and ignudi that adorn the haunches of the Palazzo Farnese’s barrel vault, however, seem far more animated, exuding sensual energy.  When the newly appointed nineteen-year-old Cardinal Odoardo Farnese decided to decorate various rooms in his palazzo in Rome, he would have none other than the Carracci.25  Annibale as the first to become available, arrived in the antique city to begin work in November 1595,26 the beneficiary of what seemed like an unparalleled opportunity but one that ultimately led to disappointment, despair and death.

[slide 14:  Project for the Decoration of the Farnese Gallery (1597-98, red chalk with pen and brown ink on cream paper, 15 ¼ x 10⅜ in [38.8 x 26.4 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

After first completing the Camerino (the Cardinal’s study), Annibale was joined in 1597 by his brother Agostino to assist him with the much larger project of the ceiling of the Farnese gallery.27  After playing with various concepts in a series of ink drawings, Annibale settled on an illusionistic array of framed paintings covering two-dimensional architectural elements supported by herms, and a frieze of scenes framed by ignudi, eschewing a single point of view for the entire project.

[slide 15:  Palazzo Farnese Ceiling (fresco, 1597/98-1601).  Rome, Italy.]

When Agostino “pressed for a unified illusion based on one-point perspective,” Annibale mocked his brother’s idea by suggesting they install a sumptuous chair at the only spot in the huge room from which the paintings would be viewable in a way that made spatial sense to the onlooker.28  The result of the lead artist’s decision was a design that could be read from any place in the room, but one that would always include some upside-down images.

[slide 16:  Atlas Herm with Arms Raised (1598-99, black chalk heightened with white on gray-blue paper, 189/16 x 14¼ in [47.2 x 36.3 cm]).  Biblioteca Reale, Turin, Italy.]
Atlas Herm (1598-99, red chalk on cream paper, laid down, 13⅝ x 713/16 in [34.5 x 19.8 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.]

To create the three-dimensional architectural illusion of his intentions, Annibale had to turn flesh into stone.29  Atlas Herm with Arms Raised (1598-99), the end drawing result of one such attempt, shows how he enhanced an original male nude study by pumping up the muscles and juxtaposing bright highlights with lower-value black chalk to impart a marmoreal quality to the form.  Highly unusual for Annibale is the come-hither direct eye contact the herm makes with the beholder–originally the artist.  The turned-away head in the lower left might represent some second thoughts but in the fresco Annibale kept to his original idea.

In returning to red-chalk in a different Atlas Herm (1598-99), at a time when he favored black and white chalk on blue paper,30  Annibale might have wanted to take advantage of the medium’s potential for rendering the warmth of flesh.  In comparison with the Atlas Herm with Arms Raised, this herm would then represent an earlier stage in the transformation of the living model into a marble sculpture.

[slide 17:  A Seated Ignudi with a Garland (1598-99, black chalk heightened with white chalk on gray paper, 16¼ x 16⅛ in [41.2 x 41 cm]).  Musée du Louvre, Départment des Arts Graphiques, Paris, France.
Detail of Ignudi and Herms, Palazzo Farnese Ceiling (fresco, 1597/98-1601).  Rome, Italy.]

Inspired by Michelangelo’s male ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican,31 Annibale populated his Farnese vault with analogous figures.  Lightly sketched construction lines and first-thought contours in A Seated Ignudi with a Garland (1598-99) provide a window into the artist’s drawing process.  Among other changes, he reduced the size of the proper right lower leg, further accentuating the tapering of the massive torso toward the pelvis and legs.  In making that choice, Annibale further demonstrated his preference for design over accurate perspective.

[slide 18:  Study of a Recumbent Nude, Lying on his Side (n.d, black chalk with white and pink heightening, on gray-blue paper, 14½  x 19⅔ in [36.8 x 49.9 cm].  Royal Library, Windsor, England.
Study of a Recumbent Nude, Viewed from the Head (n.d., black chalk with white heightening on gray-blue paper, 8½ x 15½ [21.5 x 39.5 cm]).  Musée du Louvre,  Cabinet des Dessins, Paris, France.]

Very different in overall appearance are two black-chalk life studies executed during Annibale’s Roman sojourn,32 each a Study of a Recumbent Nude, one Lying on his Side and the other Viewed from the Head.  In the former, the artist has faithfully observed the unadorned truth of the effect of gravity on muscle and skin, particularly noticeable where the bones jut out along the uppermost contour of the rib cage, pelvis and greater trochanter.  Unlike in Annibale’s imaginative male nudes, here only the left biceps is rounded, accurate for a flexed position, the right one being flat as appropriate for extension.

Annibale was less satisfied with reality in Study of a Recumbent Nude, Viewed from the Head, thickening the left thigh considerably and, less so, the right arm.  This drawing might have started out as a life study and accrued revisions along the way, including a slight change in pose for better effect.  Both drawings bear witness to the artist’s intense absorption in the task at hand.

Content in the practice of his art, Annibale never adjusted to the rarified atmosphere and courtly trappings of the Palazzo Farnese, preferring instead the solitude of his room and the company of his students.  Minimally attentive to his physical presentation and melancholic in disposition, he actively avoided any unnecessary association with nobility.  On an evening stroll when caught carrying a knife, Annibale’s chosen silence about his service to the Cardinal led to time in jail.  Likewise, at another time on learning of an impending personal visit from the Pope’s nephew, he escaped through a side door.33

[slide 19:  An Execution (1600-03, pen and brown ink on dark cream paper, laid down, 7½ x 119/16 in [19 x 29.3 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.]

In Rome, Annibale’s idiosyncrasies stood out far more than they did in Bologna,34 causing no small distress to an already sensitive soul.  No wonder, then, that he would be drawn to the ritual of a public hanging, capturing the salient details with brown ink in An Execution (1600-03).  In the pictured narrative, as an audience peers over the back wall, exercising its communal responsibility in a purification rite designed to ensure the conversion and repentance of the condemned, a friar holds up a devotional image for the criminal to ponder as he is dragged up the ladder to the gallows,35 his fate foretold by the hanging corpse nearby.  Another instrument of death awaits employment on a table to the right.

For Annibale, life soon imitated the morbidity of a hanging when the payment he received for eight years of loyalty to the Farnese projects failed to meet his expectations and in fact, proved to be more of an insult than a reward.  The five hundred gold scudi brought on a saucer to the artist’s quarters, perhaps the result of the machinations of a sycophant at court, plunged Annibale into a depression from which he never recovered.36

In the summer of 1605, before tackling the Cardinal’s next project–the decoration of the great hall of the Palazzo Farnese–Annibale fled permanently from the court bustle, seeking seclusion in lodging behind the vineyards of the Farnesina across the Tiber.  Later he took up residence on the Quirinal Hill, where the open air and pleasant view could have been more conducive to recovery.37  By 1606 he was in yet another area of Rome some distance from the Palazzo.38

The nature of his illness was such that Annibale experienced intermittent periods of productivity during which he produced a few paintings, supervised and assisted with projects by his students–especially his favorite, Domenichino39 –and continued to draw.  He even began to experiment with a new technique, using a thick-nibbed pen (perhaps made of reed) and skipping any ink wash.40

[slide 20:  Danaë (1604-05, pen and brown ink on cream aper, laid down, upper right corner cut, 7⅝ x 10⅛ in [19.4 x 25.7 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Titian, Danaë (1545, oil on canvas, 47.2 × 67.7 in [120 × 172 cm]).  Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.]

After a hiatus of four years during which he had resigned from painting, Annibale resumed activity for a few years beginning in 1604,41 accepting a commission from Camillo Pamphilj to paint a Danaë.  Perhaps challenged by the presence of Titian’s painting of the same subject in the Palazzo Farnese,42 the artist borrowed the general idea from the Venetian painter of a reclining female nude, on a bed, in a landscape setting, along with the voluptuous form of her body, changing the pose of the princess and the position of Cupid to make the composition his own.  Manipulating the thick-nibbed pen to produce both fat and thin lines, Annibale has his Danaë (1604-5) eagerly reaching for the gold coins as they descend from above and come to rest on her left inner thigh.

[slide 21:  Self-Portrait on an Easel and Other Studies (c. 1604, pen and ocher-brown ink on cream paper, 9¾ x 7⅛ in [24.8 x 18.1 cm]).  Collection Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) (c. 1544, oil on wood, 34¾ x 25¼ in [88.3 x 64.1 cm]).  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.]
Self-Portrait on an Easel (c. 1604, oil on canvas).  The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.]

The period of relative inactivity was bracketed by two self-portrait drawings, the later one a meditation on portraiture in general and perhaps more specifically, on the artist’s own legacy.  In a picture related to the painting Self-Portrait on an Easel (1604),  Annibale has positioned a bearded, older man resembling Michelangelo to the right of his arrangement of images that strike poses similar to that of a portrait of this revered forebear (Ricciarelli’s oil on wood) that resided at the Palazzo Farnese from 1600 onward.43  In addition, a similar profile portrait of a seventy-one-year-old Michelangelo introduced a biography of him that had been circulating in Rome since 1553.44

Multiplying his own image, Annibale suggested mirrors, windows, picture frames and the interior of a studio inhabited by a painted canvas on an easel, accompanied by a small menagerie of household pets.  Again, inked lines vary in thickness, and darks are indicated by overlapping and hatched lines.  The self-portrait in the finished painting is all eyes, wide open, looking out at the viewer, while the mouth disappears into a blur of shadow, an apt representation of an artist not known for eloquence.

[slide 23:  Self-Portrait (c. 1600, pen and brown ink on buff paper, laid down on another sheet on which is drawn a decorative border in pen and black ink with gray wash over graphite, 5¼ x 4 [13.3 x 10.2 cm]).  The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.]

Although done about 1600, the earlier of the two self-portrait drawings from this period resonates well with Annibale’s last days.  Depicting himself leaning on the picture frame, the artist rendered his visage in fading brown ink, cast a shadow over eyes with lowered lids of sadness, turned down the corners of his mouth in a frown, and darkly superimposed over the top of the cartouche a suggestion of a skull.45

Both self-portraits portend death, undoubtedly reflecting Annibale’s deteriorating physical and mental condition.  On July 16, 1609, he “died miserably.”46  Since then writers have made much of Annibale’s melancholic disposition47 and its link to his ultimate demise.48  Most likely he died from tertiary syphilis.  In his biography of the artist, Bellori asserted that his “death…was hastened by amorous maladies of which he had not told his doctors”49 and in fact, the artist’s symptoms as described by Mancini50 and Agucchi51 conform to those of end-stage syphilis.52

Though the world lost a master draftsman when Annibale Carracci died prematurely at the age of forty-nine, it gained a treasure trove of drawings, cherished enough to survive the centuries.  Among those who looked to the Bolognese artist for inspiration was a certain Dutch painter living in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century.  The owner of a drawing of people swimming in a landscape penned by Annibale was none other than Rembrandt himself.  Unfortunately, the exact identity of the scene has yet to be determined.53


1 Giovanni Pietro Bellori, The Lives of Annibale & Agostino Carracci, trans. Catherine Enggass (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 7.
2 Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Malvasia’s  Life of the Carracci, Commentary and Translation, translated and annotated by Anne Summerscale (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press), 250–51, 254.
3 Ibid., 251.
4 Bellori, 16.
5 Donald Posner, Annibale Carracci: A Study in the Reform of Italian Painting Around 1590, Vol I (New York: Phaidon Publishers, 1971), 9.
6 Daniele Benati, et al, The Drawings of Annibale Carracci (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1999), 49.
7 Posner, 23.
8 Ibid., 24.
9 See Landscape with the Setting Sun (1605-09) in Benati, et al, 289.
10 The Metropolitan Museum of Art online object label.  Accessed April 9, 2015: search/338420?rpp=30&pg=1&ao=on&ft=annibale+carracci+drawings&pos=7&imgno=0&tabname=label.
11 John Gash, “Hannibal Carrats: The Fair Fraud Revealed,” Art History 13:2 (June 1990), 245.
12 Ibid.
13 Posner, 53-54.
14 Benati, et al, 58.
15 Benati, et al, 44-45.
16 Malvasia devoted many pages to describing Carracci pranks.  See 274-289.
17 Malvasia, 290.
18 Ibid., 267.
19 Posner, 66.
20 Ibid., 20.
21 Ibid., 21.
22 Benati, et al, 96.
23 Ibid., 25.
24 Posner, 21.
25 Gail Feigenbaum in Benati, et al, 109.
26 Posner, 78.
27 Feigenbaum in Benati, et al, 110.
28 Ibid, note 22.
29 Benati, et al, 190.
30 Ibid., 193.
31 Ibid., 194.
32 Carl Goldstein, Visual Fact over Verbal Fiction (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 98-100.
33 Bellori, 58-59.
34 Posner, 146.
35 Mitchell B. Merback, The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1999), 145.
36 Bellori, 52.
37 Malvasia, 222-223.
38 Kate Ganz in Benati, et al, 204.
39 Posner, 148.
40 Ganz in Benati, et al, 205.
41 Posner, 147.
42 Benati, et al, 278.
43 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, catalog entry for Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli), Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Accessed April 21, 2015.
44 Engraving by Giulio Bonasone, Bust Portrait of Michelangelo at Seventy-One, Facing Right (1546), used by Ascanio Condiri in his biography of Michelangelo, published in Rome 1553. On view April 23, 2015 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
45 Benati, et al, 143.
46 Malvasia, 226.
47 Bellori, 55.
48 Ganz in Benati, et al, 204.
49 Bellori, 63.
50 Rudolf and Margot Wittkower, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution (New York, Random House, 1963), 114.
51 Malvasia, 227.
51 Wikipedia, Tertiary Syphilis.  Accessed April 21, 2015. wiki/Syphilis#Tertiary.
52 Catherine Loisel Legrand in Benati, et al, 25.