THE ARTFUL TRAVELER: A Big Apple Debut for Five Masterpieces
Five superb masterpieces that – notoriously – rarely travel and leave the tranquil galleries of the Norton Simon Foundation and Museum in California have made a once-in-your–lifetime cross-country trek to the Frick. At the opening of Masterpieces of European Painting from the Norton Simon Museum, Colin Bailey, chief curator of The Frick Collection in New York City, could barely contain his delight "at this huge gift to New York for three months." The five 16th and 17th century master works have never been seen in New York. What's more, not one of the five legendary painters in this unprecedented exhibition are represented in the Frick's permanent collection. Yet they look totally at home in the Frick's lofty Oval Room.
Pride of place goes to the Francisco de Zurbaran's Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose from 1633 (above).
Actually, they are citrons, not lemons, and they are so vividly painted you can almost feel their nubby texture and the coolness of the silver plate they sit on. The oranges are filled to the brim of a woven blond basket while another silver (perhaps pewter) dish holds a cup of water. All three items are on a highly polished table. An intense light defines the objects and casts subtle reflections on the dark table.
The oldest painting among the five is Jacopo Bassano's Flight Into Egypt (1544-45). Regardless of the title, the colors are Venetian and the flourishing, sunlit landscape is pure Italian, not an arid Egyptian desert. But the narrative is clear — Mary and Jesus are mounted on a donkey, led by Joseph, who follows an angel leading them to safety. Bassano didn't want his viewers to miss any of his religious themes, thus the painting is embedded with markers — a repentant sinner, a soldier drinking on his path to damnation, a fig branch (think Adam and Eve) growing out of a dead stump (think Resurrection and rebirth), and even a little dog in the corner of the painting, symbolizing fidelity.
The Holy Women at the Sepulchre, a 1611 painting by Peter Paul Rubens, is another biblical scene. While Henry Clay Frick never collected Rubens, Norton Simon owned six plus this scene of a group of women arriving at Christ's burial place. It makes you wonder what Frick, who loved Bellini, Fragonard, and Vermeer, (all painters who often avoided religious scenes) would think of these six women. Most scholars place the woman in lavender as Mary and the one whose back we see as the shoeless Mary Magdalen in a bold crimson dress — more Cinderella at the ball than modest maiden by the fireplace.
The 1660 Murillo, Birth of St. John the Baptist (above), is yet another religiously themed painting depicting the first bath of John the Baptist, coddled by a servant girl as his father looks on and his exhausted mother remains in bed. What's astounding here is the brilliant white of the baby's swaddling cloths. The child emits an unearthly radiance while the cloth he's wrapped in is laundry commercial "whiter than white." The painting, according to experts was meant to inspire hope (after all, John's father and mother were elderly and childless until he was born) in a time of plague.
Experts don't know the name of the guard dog depicted in Guercino's 1625 Aldrovandi Dog (below), but they can identify his owner. The dog's elegant tan leather collar bears the coat of arms of the Aldrovandi noble family. Apparently dog owner and painter were good friends and mastiffs were generally thought to be symbols of luxury and power. The aged mastiff, probably 10 or 12 years old, has scars on his cheeks, fashionably cropped ears, and a stern, sad face, though the painter lets us know that the prominent dog who dominates the scene is still a strong and valiant protector of his master's estate.
Apparently Norton Simon first bought this painting from a Zurich dealer in 1982, sold it back to the dealer for twice as much as he paid for it, missed seeing his favorite canine, and bought it a second time — for half of its original price – in 1984. Clearly, Simon was as astute in business as in art.
Masterpieces of European Painting from the Norton Simon Museum will be on view at The Frick Collection through May 10, 2009.