Sunday, August 5, 2012

On View in Brief: Summer Loans to the Met, Including a Van Dyck Sold Last Year for $1.1 Million

Van Dyck, Portrait of a Carmelite Monk
It's the annual Invasion of the Briefly Loaned Old Masters, the season when private, mostly anonymous individuals send some of their finest paintings to the Metropolitan Museum.  Whether the owners are off on holiday or renovating their homes, they've decided to let the rest of us see these works on the walls of the Met.

Leading the way this year is a magnificent portrait sold as a Van Dyck last year at Sotheby's in London for more than $1.1 million.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the museum had annual exhibitions called something along the lines of "Paintings from Private Collections:  The Summer Show."  You can see references to them in auction house catalogue giving a work's exhibition history -- no doubt about it, a museum exhibit gives the work not just cachet but added value as well, though some lenders undoubtedly shuttle paintings to the Met for safety's sake and out of generosity.

Cavalori, Madonna and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John the Baptist
The museum no longer puts on these official summer shows, and it's also stopped making available a list of the summer loans and where the visitor could find them scattered about the museum, a practice that survived at least into the 1990s.

Now it takes a bit of sleuthing to discover them.  Here's a guide to this summer's highlights -- so far:

Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of a Carmelite Monk, 1617-1620.  The glint of light in the eyes, the visible brushstroke, the creamy flesh tones -- this work has all the marks that make 17th-century painting so splendid.  Add to these the awkward-looking ears and the bold blocks of color, and the painting looks remarkably modern.

Van Dyck has always been recognized as extremely precocious, and the dating of this work puts it when he was perhaps all of 20 years old and still in Rubens' workshop.  This portrait had in fact previously been attributed to Rubens.  Sotheby's, which sold the painting, has a nice video about the reattribution here.

Vasari, Pieta
Giorgio Vasari, Pieta, 1549.  The fame of Vasari's Lives of the Artists, the foundational history of Renaissance art and artists, obscures his importance as . . . an architect -- he designed the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Those familiar with his hack work as a painter may wonder how he could ever have ousted Bronzino as the Medici court artist.  His Pieta, a "recent rediscovery," as the label informs us, is unlikely to change anyone's mind -- it's displayed in the same gallery as the Met's Bronzino -- but it's an engaging and intimate work of classicism that, following a Gospel text, shows the sun and moon in the same night sky.

Mirabello Cavalori, Madonna and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John the Baptist, ca. 1570.  Cavalori is not a familiar name, but judging from this work it's perhaps a name to be reckoned with.  What makes this painting remarkable, aside from its being a noteworthy example of Florentine Mannerism, with its cool unnatural colors and twisting and elongated figures, is that a glance at St. John shows that he is hardly the "infant" of the title but more akin to the tweener St. Johns that Caravaggio would paint a couple of decades later.

Ribera, Sts. Peter and Paul
Fewer than a dozen works are attributed to Cavalori, and if the attributions are correct, the Met now has three of these rare works in one gallery, including a second loan from the same anonymous owner (who has, all told, parked four paintings at the Met, including the Vasari.)

Jusepe de Ribera, Sts. Peter and Paul, ca. 1613.  A European collector has loaned this work, thought to be an early one by the Spanish master and painted in Rome, where Ribera was absorbing all things Caravaggio.  It's displayed in one of the Met's Spanish galleries but could be more profitably shown next to Caravaggio's religious paintings about ten galleries away.

Delacroix, Christ at the Column
Eugene Delacroix, Christ at the Column, 1849.  This small painting has been loaned by longtime Met patron Wheelock Whitney III. Let's hope it lands at the Met permanently.  The museum has what might be euphemistically described as a tedious overabundance of Corots and Courbets.  If this work were donated, it would strengthen the Met's weak holdings in great French Romantic painters like Delacroix.

This year's lenders hardly rival in the number of works loaned the magnificent spoils of a New York collector who permitted seventeen paintings she owned to grace the museum's walls a few summers ago (there was reputedly an eighteenth work, but I never could find it), but in quality they aren't far behind.

Text and photos (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.