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Birthday Surprises — Watteau Turns 325 Today

Posted in anniversaries, Art Market, exhibitions by Editor on October 10, 2009

On this, the 325th birthday of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), it’s worth recalling the circumstances surrounding the recent discovery and sale of La Surprise, which is, incidentally, included in the Watteau, Music, and Theater exhibition now on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From ArtDaily.org, 9 July 2008:

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Jean-Antoine Watteau, “La Surprise,” oil on panel, 14.1/2 x 11.1/2 inches, ca. 1718

LONDON A recently rediscovered masterpiece by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) sold at Christie’s auction of Important Old Master and British Pictures this evening for £12,361,250 / $24,376,385 / €15,513,369, a world record price for any French Old Master painting sold at auction. La Surprise had been missing for almost 200 years, presumed to have been destroyed, and was previously known only by a copy in the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace and through a contemporary engraving. It was found in the corner of a drawing room in a British country house during a Christie’s valuation last year.

Richard Knight, International Director of Christie’s Old Master Department and Paul Raison, Director and Head of Old Master Pictures at Christie’s, London: “We are thrilled to have realised a record price for La Surprise by Jean-Antoine Watteau, who is recognised as one of the most influential artists in the history of European art. It was extremely exciting to have rediscovered the painting last year, its whereabouts having been a mystery for almost 200 years, and it has been a great honour to have shown the picture to the public for the first time in over two centuries during pre-sale exhibitions in London, Paris, New York and St Petersburg. This is not only one of the most extraordinary rediscoveries of recent years, but also the most expensive French Old Master painting ever sold at auction, and we are pleased to have welcomed international interest from a number of collectors and institutions at this evening’s sale” . . .

La Surprise by Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was painted circa 1718 and was first owned by Nicolas Henin (1691-1724), an Advisor to the French King who was one of Watteau’s best and most constant friends. It is likely that the work was painted for Henin together with its pendant L’Accord Parfait, now in the Los Angeles Museum of Art. The legendary connoisseur and collector Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) noted in his Abecedario of 1746 that La Surprise is “one of [Watteau’s] most beautiful paintings.” On Nicolas Henin’s death in 1724, the two paintings went to the artist’s friend and biographer Jean de Jullienne (1686–1766) who had them engraved and published in the Recueil Jullienne, and who seems to have split the pair and sold them before 1756. La Surprise next appears in the celebrated collection of Ange-Laurent de La Live de Jully (1725-1779), who is recognised as assembling the first serious art collection dedicated to the encyclopedic display of French painting. The catalogue of his collection was published in 1764 and describes La Surprise as executed “with a piquant touch and richly tinted with the color of Rubens.” The picture had left the collection by 1770 and amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution, it is not recorded until it appears in a Lady Murray’s probate valuation of 1848, by whom it was bequeathed to the family of the vendors at this evening’s auction. The painting’s attribution and significance had remained lost until its rediscovery last year. . .

Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) was born in the Flemish town of Valenciennes, which had passed to France from Spanish rule just six years earlier, and left for Paris in about 1702. He was to be influenced by Flemish art throughout his career, and was often considered a Flemish painter by his contemporaries. In Paris, he worked with Claude Gillot (1673-1722) and became fascinated by theatre costume and stage design, before moving to the workshop of Claude Audran III, curator of the Palais du Luxembourg where Watteau was introduced to Rubens’s magnificent and inspirational canvases painted for Queen Marie de Medici. The work of Rubens was to influence Watteau throughout his career as he revitalised the Baroque style and became a pioneer of Rococo art. Watteau was frail and subject to ill health throughout his life and in 1720, he travelled to London to visit Dr. Richard Mead, a celebrated physician, in the hope of medical relief. Unfortunately, the climate and air quality in the city hindered any progress and he returned to France where he died in 1721 at the age of 37.

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Happy Birthday, Dr. Johnson

Posted in anniversaries by Editor on September 18, 2009

Though he was actually born on 7 September 1709, Samuel Johnson himself came to think of September 18 as his birthday after England accepted the Gregorian calendar reforms in 1752. The tercentenary has been widely celebrated throughout the year with a spate of conferences and exhibitions.

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Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the Eighteenth Century

Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, 23 May — 21 September 2009

Joshus Reynolds, "Portrait of Samuel Johnson" (Huntington Library)

Joshua Reynolds, "Portrait of Samuel Johnson" (Huntington Library)

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)—one of the greatest moralists, poets, biographers, critics, essayists, and correspondents of all time—so dominated literary and intellectual life in the last half of the 18th century that the era is frequently referred to as the “Age of Johnson.”  As a conversationalist and writer he was so insightful and adept in the use of language that only Shakespeare and the Bible are quoted more often.

Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the 18th Century, tells the story of Johnson’s life and achievements through a display of rare books, manuscripts, and portraits drawn from The Huntington’s holdings and from the Loren and Frances Rothschild Collection.  The exhibition is curated by noted Johnson scholar O. M. “Skip” Brack, professor emeritus of English at Arizona State University.

One of the earliest English authors to make his living solely by his writings, Johnson spent his early years, after arriving in London in 1737, writing mostly for the Grub Street booksellers. Needing a large project that would produce a steady income, he accepted a commission to write an English dictionary. On April 15, 1755, after Johnson had labored over it for nine years, a consortium of London booksellers published, in two large volumes, A Dictionary of the English Language: In which the Words are Deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers. This colossal achievement  brought Johnson fame not only in England but across Europe.

A first edition of the Dictionary in its original binding will be one of the highlights of the exhibition.  Other treasures to be displayed are the famous “Blinking Sam” portrait of Johnson by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, a portion of one of Johnson’s diaries, and a number of personal letters.

Johnson’s prolific output  as a writer included his famous poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), more than 200 essays for his twice-weekly publication, The Rambler (1750–52), and the allegorical fable Rasselas: The Prince of Abyssinia (1759). His edition of Shakespeare (1765) and the Lives of the Poets (1779–81) secured his fame as a literary critic and biographer.

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An Immortal Friend: Dr. Johnson and the Royal Academy

Royal Academy of Arts (Library Print Room), London, 28 April — 2 October 2009

This display explores both private and public aspects of Samuel Johnson’s close friendship with the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Joshua Reynolds. It includes not only rarely seen memorabilia, evoking in particular their shared addiction to tea, but also illustrates, through a selection of prints, books and documents from the RA Library and Archive, the crucial contribution that Johnson and his literary circle made to raising the intellectual status of the newly fledged institution.

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samjohndictnryPeople tend to have their favorite entries from The Dictionary. My latest encounter with the edition compiled by Jack Lynch impressed me with the following:

abecedarian — n.s. [from the names of a, b, c, the three first letters of the alphabet.] He that teaches or learns the alphabet, or first rudiments of literature.

centuriator — n.s. [from century.] A name given to historians, who distinguish times by centuries; which is generally the method of ecclesiastical history.

fancysick — adj. [fancy and sick.] One whose imagination is unsound; one whose distemper is in his own mind.

tonguepad — n.s. [tongue and pad.] A great talker.

In addition to the wide array of terms to express derision of one sort or the other, it’s also intriguing to see the fluidity of meanings within the same word as a term moves between praise and scorn.

wiseacre — n.s. [It was antiently written wiseegger, as the Dutch wiseggher, a soothsayer.] 1. A wise, or sententious man. Obsolete. 2. A fool; a dunce.

connoisseur — n.s. [French.] A judge; a critick: it is often used of a pretended critick.

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For additional information, see the websites of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield and Dr. Johnson’s House in London. Pat Rogers’s entry on Johnson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is available here.

-Craig Hanson

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Thomas Wright’s Menagerie & Gervase Jackson-Stops

Posted in anniversaries, catalogues, exhibitions, on site by Editor on September 12, 2009
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Thomas Wright, The Menagerie, Horton Park, Northamptonshire, 1750s (Photo: Bruno de Hamel, "Architectural Digest: Chateaux and Villas," 1982)

Earlier in the week, An Aesthete’s Lament included a posting on The Menagerie, the Grade II listed building acquired by Gervase Jackson-Stops (1947-95) in the 1970s. After a three-year studentship at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Jackson-Stops joined the National Trust, first as a research assistant and then (starting in 1975) as an architectural advisor. It’s difficult to overstate his importance for the organization. As noted in numerous obituaries — including those from the Society of Antiquaries of London, The Independent, and Architectural History (available through JStor) — he played important roles in the Trust’s acquisition of Canons Ashby House, Kedleston Hall, and Fountains Abbey. His commitments to restoration were evinced not only at Stowe but also at his personal labor of love, The Menagerie.

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Horton Hall, destroyed 1936

This mid-eighteenth-century banqueting house, by Thomas Wright (1711-86), at Horton Park, Northamptonshire is actually just one of just thirteen listed buildings attached to the property (the main house, Horton Hall, was destroyed in the 1930s). The Horton Park Conservation Group (HPCG) was founded in 2008 to campaign for the ongoing conservation of the park and these structures. The park is likely to receive increased attention over the next two years as Wright’s three-hundredth birthday approaches.

The Menagerie appears in Paige Rense, Architectural Digest: Chateaux and Villas (Knapp, 1982); Timothy Mowl and Claire Hickman, Historic Gardens of England: Northamptonshire (History Press, 2008), and Chippy Irvine, The English Room (Bullfinch Press, 2001). For details regarding visits, see The Menagerie website.

6e5b328167d010e5932793056514141414c3441Finally, no evocation of Jackson-Stops is complete without mention of his role in organizing the seminal Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (1985-86). For his work on the show, he received the Presidential Award for Design in 1986 and was made an Officer of the British Empire (O.B.E.) — all before turning 40! A full list of publications, including dozens of contributions for Country Life, can be found at the end of the obituary compiled by Oliver Garnett and Tim Knox for Architectural History 39 (1996): 222-35.

[The photograph of The Menagerie comes from An Aesthete’s Lament; the print of Horton Hall comes from the website of the Horton Park Conservation Group. Thanks to both.]

Joyeux anniversaire

Posted in anniversaries by Editor on August 30, 2009
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Jacques-Louis David, "Self-Portrait," oil on canvas, 32 x 26 inches, 1794 (Paris: Louvre)

Jacques-Louis David turns 261 today. Born in Paris on 30 August 1748, he died in Brussels in 1825 at age 77. Of the artist’s Self-Portrait from 1794, Philippe Bordes notes that

the only source of information concerning this painting is a recollection by David’s pupil Pierre-Maximilien Delafontaine, who accompanied him to prison on 2 August 1794: ‘It was in the Hôtel des Fermes [the prison] that he made a portrait of himself from the mirror I brought to him. This portrait was given by him a few years later to Isabey, the miniature painter and his pupil. He is represented dressed in a greatcoat, the costume of the period’. . . Worth noting is that David did not want to keep this work associated with his close call with the guillotine and his year in prison and that never again would he execute a self-portrait.

See Bordes, Jacques-Louis David: Empire to Exile (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), p. 16. For the quotation, see Daniel Wildenstein and Guy Wildenstein, Documents complémentaires au catalogue de l’oeuvre de Louis David (Paris, 1973), p. 114; Bordes also also points the reader to Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, “Les oeuvres de David en prison: art engagé après Thermidor,” La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France 39 (1989): 310-21.

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On Haydn’s Trail: Eszterháza Palace, Hungary

Posted in anniversaries, on site by yonanm on July 27, 2009

By MICHAEL YONAN

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Thomas Hardy, "Portrait of Joseph Haydn," 1791 (London: Royal College of Music) – click on the image for more information

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of composer Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), a musical titan and key figure in the modern development of the string quartet and symphony. Musical significance aside, Haydn’s biography is a compelling one. Born into humble circumstances in the eastern Austrian village of Rohrau, he accomplished an internationally significant career without the benefit of birthright or privilege. Nor, for that matter, was he a shooting star: His career developed slowly over decades, and for much of it he lived and worked in relative isolation, a fact he himself credited with stimulating his creative impulses. From 1766 to 1790 he was resident at Eszterháza, the summer palace of the Esterházy noble family located in the village of Fertöd, 7 kilometers from the Austrian border in western Hungary. Seeing this palace has been a decade-long desire of mine, not just because I love Haydn’s music, but also because its architecture is grand enough to have earned it the epithet “The Hungarian Versailles.” In June I finally made it there, fittingly enough in the Haydn anniversary year.

Eszterháza Palace, from the courtyard

Eszterháza Palace, from the courtyard

Though not far from Vienna, Eszterháza is hard to reach without a car. Train access to Fertöd is nonexistent, and anyone wishing to brave the rural Hungarian bus system is bolder than I. Comparisons to Versailles notwithstanding, the building’s obvious inspiration is Schönbrunn, the Habsburg summer palace in Vienna, a legacy one notices in the bright yellow used for the palace’s exterior color.

Visiting this palace, I was reminded of the great difficulties facing cultural sites in former communist nations like Hungary. Whereas Austria approached the Haydn celebratory year with multiple aggressive tourist-centered advertising campaigns, at Eszterhaza, probably the most important extant building associated with Haydn, there was little visible indication of 2009’s importance. One small exhibition devoted to Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy (1714–1790), was on display, but it contained few artifacts of the composer and in fact barely mentioned him! Lack of resources is certainly the reason for this.

Detail from Ceremonial Hall, Eszterháza

Detail from Ceremonial Hall, Eszterháza

The palace’s greatest glories for me were its rococo rooms. One enters the grounds via a large square forecourt, notable for its curved corner facades, and walks past sculptures glorifying the Esterházy family’s conquests over the Ottomans. Inside, visitors are treated to a breathtaking succession of rooms treating varied subjects through intelligently designed rococo ornamental programs. The most impressive to me was the Ceremonial Hall, a large two-storied space at the palace’s center that was the site for large festivities. Here, the polychrome rocaille boiserie amazed with its elegant beauty and complex melding of forms. The room’s tonalities are built upon a white and pink base, with gold and silver ornamental filigree, and the decoration likewise featured putti, emblems, and multicolored flowers. The color scheme reminded me of certain Sèvres porcelains. Each ceiling corner featured a differently colored standard–orangey red, blue, green, and yellow—and overhead hung a Tiepolo-like ceiling painting.

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Detail from first-floor salon, Eszterháza

On the ground floor, a semi-open garden space contained more rococo rooms, here in matte textures and featuring horticultural themes. There were frescoes too, one particularly funny one depicting putti twisting a garland of flowers into an ‘E’, for Esterházy of course. In several of the palace’s apartments, the prince’s artists created amazing chinoiserie frescoes modeled obviously on prints by Lajoue and Audran. Not all of the palace’s rooms have retained their original decoration, and the degree of repainting and alteration is an open question. The grounds certainly are much simplified over their likely eighteenth-century appearance. The tours were available in Hungarian only (!), but even with some sleuthing in the palace bookstore and elsewhere, it became clear that this building’s decorative history desperately needs additional study.

Chinoiserie wall decoration, Prince's apartments, Eszterháza

Chinoiserie wall decoration, Prince's apartments, Eszterháza

Ironically, in this place that was so central to Haydn’s activities, I found few traces of him and little official recognition of his accomplishments. But I did glean a vital sense of setting, and I understood how the dichotomies of a place like this could be conducive to creativity. Eszterháza is distant yet chic, quiet yet busy, and filled with abundant beauty both artistic and natural. Some lovely things came out of this obscure Hungarian place, and I am delighted to have finally seen it for myself.

♦ HECAA Member, Michael Yonan, is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He’s a great fan, as well as a scholar, of Central European rococo
palaces. Email:
YonanM@missouri.edu
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Lunar Landscapes, Part II

Posted in anniversaries, today in light of the 18th century by Editor on July 20, 2009

In connection with the previous lunar posting, Michael Yonan notes the fascinating series of paintings in the Vatican Collection by Donato Creti. Commissioned by Luigi Marsili in 1711, the eight pictures depict landscapes by Creti with heavenly bodies rendered by the miniaturist Manzini — largely as the forms would have appeared with the aid of eighteenth-century telescopes. In a 1992 article Christopher Johns addresses the paintings “as a cultural bribe to Clement XI, works of art that give unique testimony to the significance of Newtonianism to astronomical observation in Italy and to the intimate relationship between early eighteenth-century art and science.” See Johns, “Art and Science in Eighteenth-Century Bologna: Donato Creti’s Astronomical Landscape Paintings,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 55 (1992): 578-89. The article also includes the lovely drawing by Creti, “The Astronomers,” now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

One Small Step, One Giant Leap

Posted in anniversaries, today in light of the 18th century by Editor on July 19, 2009

Principal Inhabitants of the MoonScaramouche: “You must know, Madam, your Father (my Master, the Doctor) is a little Whimsical, Romantick, or Don Quick-sottish . . . Lunatick we may call him without breaking the Decorum of good Manners; for he is always travelling to the moon.”
-Aphra Behn, The Emperor of the Moon (1687)

On the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, a selection of lunar images from the eighteenth century seems in order. And as often is the case with this crucial century, we see important foundations established (and some from the sixteenth century reinforced). From Aphra Behn’s use of the moon as a potent source of satire for the Royal Society – recently explored by Al Coppola in “Retraining the Virtuoso’s Gaze: Behn’s Emperor of the Moon, the Royal Society, and the Spectacles of Science and Politics,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 41 (Summer 2008) – to William Hogarth’s Principal Inhabitants of the Moon, the celestial orb proved a useful foil for assessing life as experienced in more local terms.

RussellMoon52085_061By the end of the century, however, John Russell (Royal Academician and Painter to George III) would fix his entirely serious and scrupulous gaze to the heavens. Along with a series of drawings, he produced a handsome lunar globe and a striking pastel, measuring 5ft across. Both are now found at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, which possesses the major collection of work relating to Russell’s lunar observations. For details, see the museum’s website, which contains especially useful information from a 2007 exhibition dedicated to the subject, “Moonscope.”

Others that come to mind?