February 20, 2012

The New Life of "Washington Crossing The Delaware"

In honor of Presidents' Day and the 280th birthday of America's first Commander in Chief, and to celebrate the new American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I'd like to take a look at a spectacular work of art that depicts a pivotal event in the nation's history.

George Washington is revered in history not only for his sound leadership as the first President of the newly established United States of America, but also for his brave command during the American Revolutionary War.  It is to commemorate one of the most daring and dangerous episodes in this war that the painting in question was created and the result is as majestic and impressive as the man and his legend deserves.

I am talking, of course, about "Washington Crossing the Delaware" as interpreted in gigantic scale by the German/American artist Emanuel Leutze in 1851.  Leutze's portrayal of the General and his men braving the ice choked waters of the Delaware River en route to attacking, and ultimately defeating, the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night of 1776, is a testament to the heroics inspired by the future President.  It is a big picture in every way.  Physically, the canvas measures an astounding 149 x 255 inches making the people and the event seem larger than life.  Graphically it is a tour de force where the viewer can almost feel the bitter cold of the ice and wind but is stirred by the fervor and bravery of the warriors.  Never mind the fact that the crossing actually occurred in the dead of night and no soldier could have survived in such a flimsy and overloaded vessel.  And George Washington himself, appearing invincible as he stood in the bow, was probably holding on for dear life as he was tossed about on the choppy, frigid, water!

Despite these discrepancies, the painting is impressive and it was sold to a New York collector for the princely sum of $10,000 shortly after its completion.  At the time, it was trimmed in a massive gilded frame designed by the artist to compliment his work.  After four decades, the painting was auctioned to a new owner who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it went on display in April of 1897 and remained the Met's property despite being moved around and even lent out to other institutions.  Now here comes the mystery.  Somewhere, somehow in the peregrinations of this painting, it became separated from its ornate custom frame and was displayed in a very uninspired gilded border that was no match for a work of this magnificence.

Fast forward to the 21st Century when the Metropolitan Museum begins a major renovation of its American Wing.  This was the impetus needed to take a good look at the centerpiece of the collection and take the opportunity to bring it back to the grandeur it deserved.  First a thorough cleaning from the conservation department and the icing on the cake - a new frame created to replicate the one lost.  In a collaboration with Manhattan based framer extraordinaire Eli Wilner, the Met and Wilner's master carver studied old installation photos that showed the painting in its original frame and recreated it exactly.  The result is magnificent.  1,400 lbs of wood in 9 sections laminated together and covered with 12,500 sheets of gold, have been carved with shields, stars, acanthus leaves and berries and crowned with an eagle holding arrows, flags and a ribbon with the inscription "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of countrymen". 

The Met re-opened its New American Wing in January of 2012 to much acclaim.  One of the stars of the show is the popular favorite "Washington Crossing the Delaware" once again resplendent and dominating Gallery 760 where it hangs.  Never mind that the sun was not shining nor the icebergs flowing on the Delaware River that cold night in 1776 - no one expected General Washington to succeed with this campaign either!  Emanuel Leutze's glorious rendition continues to inspire!

February 19, 2012

"Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting" at The Frick

 One of my very favorite places in the City of New York is the small but sumptuous Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street.  Housed in the former mansion of industrial magnate Henry Clay Frick, the museum boasts an unparalleled collection of European paintings and sculpture, decorations and furniture displayed almost as it was when Mr. Frick and his family were in residence.

Mr. Frick was blessed with both good taste and the wherewithal to indulge it.  His home became a showplace of masterpieces by Constable, Fragonard, della Francesca, Gainsborough, El Greco, Hals, Rembrandt, Turner, Van Dyck, Vermeer, Whistler and many others.  I have been visiting The Frick for nearly thirty years and am happy to say that the experience has been consistently wonderful.  I look forward to seeing the fanciful Boucher Room with its series of paintings of The Arts and Sciences adorning the walls, I love the masculine oak paneled Living Hall with the marvelous Bellini oil of "St Francis in the Desert" and Holbein's portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, and I am delighted with the brand new Portico Gallery, the first new gallery in 35 years created quite simply and effectively by enclosing the garden portico with glass and presto - a beautiful venue for displaying sculpture and porcelain while retaining the original spirit of the architecture.

While tradition and constancy are hallmarks of The Frick, the institution is by no means a dinosaur!  The directors know that they have to bring patrons back for repeat visits and to this end from time to time they mount special exhibitions relating to the permanent collection.  Often these shows are presented on the lower level in two little galleries suitable for smaller format works.  But for a limited time and for a very special reason, this winter's limited engagement is installed in the elegant East Gallery.  In an exhibit five years in the making, The Frick, in collaboration with some very important national and international institutions, presents "Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting" a look at the French painter Pierre Auguste Renoir's commitment to the large-scale format.

Inspired by "The Promenade", purchased by Henry Clay Frick in 1914 and part of the museum's permanent collection, the curators assembled nine paintings all in the vertical, full length format that Renoir explored from the mid-1870's to mid-1880's, the period in which Impressionism really began to bloom.  The result is a blockbuster exhibition!  To stand in the center of that beautiful gallery literally surrounded by the best of the best - nine big, bold and beautiful paintings by a master of the aesthetic is stunning to say the least.

It was interesting to read that Renoir had apprenticed with a manufacturer of blinds for export to missionary churches and painted full length images of the Madonna and Child in imitation of stained glass windows.  This, coupled with his early experience painting murals on walls of caf├ęs, gave him an excellent grounding in grand scale canvas'.  Add to that proficiency his keen observation of fashion and social mores and you have life-size portrayals that capture much more than initially meets the eye.  For instance, the clothing worn by each of the three men in the "Dancing Couples" trilogy, very clearly depicts his position in society, and the fact that in "Dance at Bougival" neither the man nor the woman is wearing gloves and actually touching hands is a scandal indeed!

I thoroughly enjoyed this concise but impactive exhibition and judging by the line of people queued up to get in to the museum, I am not alone!  "Renoir, Impressionism, and Full-Length Painting" is on view until May 13th.

February 10, 2012

A Quick Trip to London

Sometimes quick trips that come up without much warning are much more fun than ones that have long been planned for.  So when the opportunity to go to London for a long weekend presented itself I didn't have to be persuaded that it would be a good idea.

Of course, I hadn't anticipated that I would be there for the snow event of the season - a whopping two inches of the white stuff that managed to curtail half of the flight activity at Heathrow Airport and was the talk of the town!  The reality is that no one seems to have salt or a snow shovel so the sidewalks and streets quickly became a slushy, slippery mess, but the sight of Green Park covered in a blanket of snow on a Sunday morning was magical indeed.

Even though I missed the Super Bowl the year the New York Giants were playing, I felt fortunate to be in England on the actual day of Queen Elizabeth II's sixty year anniversary as monarch.  Born and raised in Canada, I grew up singing "God Save the Queen" every morning in school and am an unapologetic fan of the monarchy.  Of course, my example has always been this Queen who continues to serve her country and subjects indefatigably with as much devotion in her Diamond Jubilee year as when she assumed the throne in 1952.  Accession Day 2012 was an appropriately sober preamble to the festivities scheduled throughout the Commonwealth culminating with The Central Weekend, June 2-5, in London.

Unfortunately it was an odd between-exhibitions season for the London museums.  I just missed the blockbuster "Leonardo da Vinci:  Painter at the Court of Milan" at the National Gallery and was not quite in time for "Abstract Masterpieces in Parallel" at The Courtauld Institute of Art.  I was able to see the re-creation of the Russian avant-garde monument "Tatlin's Tower" still standing in the courtyard of the Royal Academy (see above) although the installation was supposed to have been dismantled at the end of January.  And I was also able to visit the hugely popular exhibition celebrating England's most beloved living artist, David Hockney, also at the Royal Academy.

"David Hockney RA:  A Bigger Picture" focus' on the artist's depiction of landscapes with an emphasis on very recent works.  Although born in West Yorkshire and very much a British artist, Hockney is also adored by Americans for the years spent in California and New York.  The time spent in the United States inspired both early and later landscapes, the Grand Canyon (see above) and Yosemite respectively, both painted in a massive scale appropriate to the vistas.

Now in his mid seventies, Hockney has returned to his roots but with a decidedly 21st Century slant.  His most recent works are studies of his local surroundings - the trees and forests of Woldgate, East Yorkshire - drawn by the artist on his iPad then printed and mounted on stretchers like paintings (see above).  The repeating images are fascinating and allow a complete study of the subject with an immediacy that painstaking drawing and painting cannot.  A massive 32 canvas oil created especially for this exhibition anchors the gallery and provides a deeply personal view of Hockney's private landscape.

Other highlights of this whirlwind visit would have to include a fabulous couple of hours at the National Gallery viewing masterpieces from the 13th to the early 20th Centuries, the solemn high mass in the beautiful Victorian space of St. Paul's Knightsbridge, a small but excellent exhibition entitled "Arp is Art" at the Luxembourg Dayan Gallery on Savile Row, attending the evening Impressionist and Modern Art Auction featuring paintings from Elizabeth Taylor's collection at Christies, St. James's, and shopping the after Christmas sales in Mayfair!  It has been a fun few days here in London and a nice break from the February doldrums.  Cheerio!