Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Museum acquires USCT battle flag for $196,800

Friday, June 14th, 2019

The battle flag of the 127th Regiment United States Colored Troops sold at auction yesterday for $160,000 hammer price, just above the low end of its pre-sale estimate. The total cost including buyer’s premium is $196,800. The winning bid was made by the Atlanta History Center, home of the newly restored Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama (which is up and running as of February, btw). This is the most the AHC has ever paid for a single object.

The Atlanta History Center is one of the largest museums in the country in terms of square footage, a 33-acre campus that features thousands of artifacts in the museum’s permanent collection, extensive gardens, the historic Swan House, Smith Family Farm and the Wood Family log cabin. Objects associated with the United States Colored Troops are extremely rare, and the museum has very few of them.

Objects specifically identified with soldiers or regiments of the United States Colored Troops are extraordinarily scarce.  Atlanta History Center Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones called this flag the definition of rare. “It’s an iconic knock-your-socks-off artifact,” Jones said. “Even an enlisted man’s USCT uniform wouldn’t be as historically significant as this flag.”

Black soldiers in the U.S. Army were issued the same uniforms and equipment as white soldiers, making collecting to interpret the USCT story a significant challenge. “So unless a soldier put his name on a piece of gear or it came down through the family, we will never know who used it,” Jones noted. […]

Among at least 11,000 Civil War objects in the Center’s collections are a dozen objects identified specifically with African American soldiers or regiments. These include a brass drum belonging to a drummer boy of the all-black 55th Massachusetts Regiment, a knapsack used at the Battle of Olustee, Florida, by a soldier in the 8th USCT, and a recently acquired canteen bearing the stenciled mark of the 15th U.S.C.T., which guarded railroad lines in Tennessee during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

The acquisition of the battle flag dovetails neatly into the Center’s long-term strategical goal of making the museum an inclusive representation of city’s demographics with a focus on attracting new members and visitors among non-white people under 50 years old who live inside the perimeter of metro Atlanta.

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Watch the Penn Museum sphinx move live!

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

The largest sphinx in the western hemisphere is on the move right now! The Penn Museum’s 25,000-pound sphinx from the reign of Rameses II is being moved to its new location in the Main Entrance Hall. This is the first time it has seen daylight since it was installed in the museum’s Lower Egypt Gallery in 1926.

See it all go down in real time in the video below.

Posted by Penn Museum on Wednesday, June 12, 2019

They’re using a system of air dollies to raise it just enough above the ground that it moves at a hover. There are four dollies under each corner that use pressurized air to lift the sphinx. The ramp is at a slight incline to enlist the aid of gravity while still keeping the rate of movement under close control.

The museum is undergoing a major transformation of its exhibition spaces, so you won’t be able to see the sphinx in its new home until the grand reopening on November 16th.

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The Benois Madonna’s Italian homecoming

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna and Child with Flowers, also known as the Benois Madonna, is back in Italy for the first time in 35 years. On loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death, it is at the Pinacoteca Comunale di Fabriano in Le Marche until June 30th and will be on display at the National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia from July 4th through August 4th.

Created between 1478 and 1480 when the artist was in his mid-20s, the painting is believed to be Leonardo’s first work fully independent of his master Andrea del Verrocchio. Leonardo had worked in Verocchio’s studio from the time he was 14 years old, starting out as a shop errand boy and working his way up to a full apprenticeship. Even though he received his qualification as a master from the artists’ guild in 1472 and opened his own studio shortly thereafter, Leonardo continued to collaborate with Verrocchio for years, creating works very much in his former master’s style.

With Madonna and Child with Flowers, Leonardo embraced a new style and eschewing the previous generation’s formal representations of the Mother of God as the serene Queen of Heaven, introduced Mary as a young mother at home playing with her baby. The warm, palpable love between them is a different kind of allegory, a highly relatable view of the bond of spiritual motherhood captured in one sweet moment. This was Leonardo coming into his own, investing a scene from daily life with the profundity and symbolism of genre painting. The little flower, for example, that Mary holds in her fingers while the infant Christ grabs at it, is a premonitory symbol of the Crucifixion.

The composition of happy mother, baby on her lap holding a flower, was immediately popular and preeminent artists of the era created their own versions. As famous as it was, the Madonna was lost for centuries. It wasn’t seen again in public until 1909 when it was exhibited by Russian architect Leon Benois. It had apparently left Italy in the 1790s, acquired by statesman and artillery general Alexey Ivanovich Korsakov who brought it to Russia. After his death in 1821, his son Nikolai tried to sell it at auction but failed to get the price he was hoping to get. Astrakhan merchant and art collector Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov waited patiently in the wings and finally got his mitts on it between 1823 and 1824.

Sapozhnikov had it removed from its original wood panel due its age and poor condition and transferred onto canvas. During the transfer process, an ink underdrawing was revealed. Sapozhnikov’s records indicate he never doubted its authorship, but the art historical community took a while to catch up. Its attribution was confirmed by the top authority in 1908 and since then the Benois Madonna has become firmly ensconced on the very, very short list of undisputed works by Leonardo.

It was acquired by the Hermitage Museum in 1914. Marija Aleksandrovna Sapožnikova Benois, Aleksandr Petrovic Sapozhnikov’s granddaughter and Leon’s wife, agreed they would sell it at a marked discount as long as the Hermitage agreed that it would always remain in Russia. The Hermitage only loans it out for very short trips very rarely.

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Massive panorama restored in public

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Saint Louis Art Museum conservators are restoring Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley in public view for museum visitors. The massive scroll of painted fabric is being unrolled sections at a time in the southwest corner of Sculpture Hall so that conservators can repair it while museum visitors look on and ask questions.

It is 7.5 feet high and 348 feet long, an example of the hugely fashionable trend for massive panoramas that were installed in custom-built rotundas or played in temporary venues. Painted in vivid colors and displayed with spotlights and live music, the panorama would scroll through 25 distinct scenes before a viewing audience. An advertisement for one of these shows in Pennsylvania in 1851 announces in a bewildering proliferation of fonts that erudite lectures on the “ANQUITIES & CUSTOMS OF THE UNHISTORIED INDIAN TRIBES” will accompany the unfurling of the panorama “with all the aboriginal monuments of a large extent of the Country” covering more than 15,000 feet of canvas.  It was so huge and so difficult to roll that the morning show would feature the trip down the Mississippi, and then afternoon would just run it backwards, narrating a trip up the river.

What is truly extraordinary about this piece is how thoroughly it covers archaeological discoveries, depicting the excavation of ancient mounds and dinosaur fossils. It shows the digging being done by black slaves, under the command of two white men, an accurate capture of how these mounds were sectioned in the mid-19th century. Other Native American archaeological sites dot the vast Mississippi Valley landscape.

The reason for this unusually specific viewpoint for a panorama is that the work was commissioned by physician and natural scientist Montroville Wilson Dickeson who, by his own account excavated more than 1,000 mounds from which he recovered more than 40,000 artifacts. His field drawings became the basis of the archaeology scenes in the panorama. Dickeson hired artist John J. Egan to create a compelling backdrop for his lectures whose exhibition would help fund further excavations.

Five panoramas of the Mississippi were made in the 1840s. Their great size and detailed depictions of the “Father of Waters” made them a hit with audiences, perhaps too much of a hit as none of them have survived. Egan’s later work is the only one of the trend to be extant. It too is endangered by its years of hard work. It was painted in distemper on cotton muslin and over time all the dismounting, mounting, scrolling and traveling damaged the textile and the paint.

When the museum acquired it in 1953, it was in bad condition. An ambitious program of restoration began in 2011. The old wooden rollers were replaced by metal drums and a motorized rolling system. Paint loss and damage to the muslin has been repaired on individual panels. Now the end of the long voyage down the Mississippi River is in sight, with only three remaining panels in the process of treatment.

Conservators will complete the extensive, nine-year project by treating and preserving the final three damaged scenes.  During this process, Museum visitors have the unique opportunity to observe and interact with the conservation team while they work. In addition, Museum docents, curators, and conservators will provide additional insights to visitors on scheduled weekdays in Sculpture Hall.

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“Forgotten Winchester” gets permanent display

Sunday, May 26th, 2019

Great Basin National Park has a new permanent exhibition dedicated to the “Forgotten Winchester,” the historic firearm found leaning against a Juniper tree by park archaeologist Eva Jensen in November of 2014. The Winchester Model 1873 Lever Action Rifle, already iconic as “the gun that won the West,” became a viral hit for its weather-beaten appearance and casual pose as if it were just hanging out for a minute waiting for its owner to return.

The park sent it to the Cody Firearms Museum in Cody, Wyoming where experts examined it. They were able to find its serial number in their extensive archive of Winchester records and identified it as having been made in February 1882.

Before beginning the conservation process, the Cody team needed to ascertain that the gun wasn’t loaded. First they employed the wooden dowel test: inserting a wooden dowel to measure the length of the barrel to the breach. The dowel encountered some kind of blockage, so curators took the rifle to the local hospital for an X-ray to find out what was inside.

There was no bullet inside the barrel. The blockage didn’t show up on the X-ray, so curators suspect it was compacted organic material. The X-ray did find there was a live cartridge inside the buttstock. The Winchester had a trapdoor and a little storage tunnel in the buttstock that was usually used to keep cleaning supplies. Experts were able to open the trapdoor and remove the cartridge. They found it was a .44-40 Winchester Center Fire round made between from 1887 and 1911 by the Union Metallic Cartridge Company.

The rifle was carefully disassembled so it could be conserved in the same awesomely weathered condition in which it was found. Corrosion was removed from the metal parts and the flaking wood bound with adhesive to keep it from further loss. The rifle was then put on public display briefly at the Cody Museum, at various gun shows and at Great Basin National Park’s Lehman Caves Visitor Center.

The new permanent Forgotten Winchester exhibition puts the rifle in a display case that positions it as it was when it was found with a life-sized image of the tree as the backdrop. The live round found in the buttstock is also on display.

The exhibit also highlights the role the Model 1873 — one of the most popular guns on the Western frontier — played in the history of the West.

“The exhibit is a showcase for visitors to discover the rifle’s mysterious story and become inspired to imagine, investigate and care about a piece of their American history,” said Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation. […]

“It has been a fun and inspiring project to work on with our park staff and our partners to complete this exhibit and give the Forgotten Winchester a permanent home,” Andler said.

The Juniper tree that was its home for so long alas is no longer with us. Just two years after the rifle was found, a wildfire burned the hillside above Strawberry Creek where the Forgotten Winchester had resided. Its comfy leaning tree was devastated in the conflagration. All that is left of it is a black stick. Had Eva Jensen’s keen powers of observation not spotted the rifle — which had weather to such a consistently grey color that it looked practically indistinguishable from the tree — than it would have burned to nothingness and nobody alive would have known it ever existed.

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Conserved Bacton Altar Cloth goes on display

Friday, May 17th, 2019

Bacton Altar Cloth, 16th century silk and embroidery textile believed to have been part of a gown worn by Queen Elizabeth I. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

After three years of study and conservation, the Bacton Altar Cloth is going on display at Hampton Court Palace. None of Elizabeth I’s clothing has survived, although a number of accessories have, so this cross-shaped piece is uniquely rare.

The embroidered silk textile was donated to  St Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, by Blanche Parry who was one of Elizabeth’s most loyal and dedicated ladies. She served the future queen starting during the reign of Henry VIII when Princess Elizabeth was a young girl and continued uninterrupted for 57 years, reached the exalted rank of Chief Gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth’s most honourable Privy Chamber and Keeper of Her Majesty’s jewels. The queen is known to have given Blanche clothes she longer wanted.

While there is no specific record of this particular textile being a royal hand-me-down, its materials and manufacture are so exquisite that it would have been literally illegal for a non-royal to wear such a garment. A monarchical provenance would also explain why Blanche considered the piece important enough to donate to her hometown church where her heart is also buried.

The altar cloth’s connection to Elizabeth I has been rumored for centuries. Recognizing its importance, in 1909, the church took it off the altar and placed it in a glass display case. In 2016, St. Faith’s asked Historic Royal Palaces to study the altar cloth.

On examining the textile, [Historic Royal Palaces curator Eleri] Lynn – an expert in Tudor court dress – was able to identify previously unseen features, studying the seams of the fabric to confirm it had once formed part of a skirt.

Following the exciting discovery, Historic Royal Palaces – the independent charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace – agreed to commence a conservation programme to stabilise the fragile fabric in the palace’s world-class textile studio. Further examination of the cloth by experts has added weight to Lynn’s theory that it might once have belonged to the Tudor Queen. Its creation from high-status silver chamblet silk, use of professional embroidery including real gold and silver thread, and distinct evidence of pattern-cutting all suggest that the item could have formed part of Elizabeth’s lavish wardrobe. The conservation team were also able to test the dyes within the fabric, discovering that it contained expensive Indigo and red dye sourced from Mexico – the kind of materials only available to a person a very high status.

The embroidery is truly spectacular, a profusion of flora (columbines, daffodils, roses, honeysuckle, oak leaves, acorns, mistletoe) and fauna (peacocks, other birds, frogs, dragonflies, butterflies, caterpillars, fish, dogs, dear, squirrels, a crocodile, a bear). There are also small wooden boats being rowed by tiny embroidered people.

Detail of the embroidery of the Bacton Altar Cloth from the back: the bear. ©Historic Royal Palaces/Courtesy of St Faith’s Church, Bacton.

The exhibition will delve further into the use of these motifs in the Tudor era. One of the most important works on display, and one of the most significant pieces of circumstantial evidence for the altar cloth having been part of one of Elizabeth’s gowns, is the Rainbow Portrait (c. 1600 – 02), attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. It depicts Elizabeth in an embroidered silk gown with very similar imagery. It is being loaned from Hatfield House for the exhibition and this is the first time it will be on display at Hampton Court Palace.

Accompanying the painting will be a selection of rare domestic print books dating from the Tudor period, which would have provided inspiration for many of the embroidered motifs fashionable during Elizabeth’s reign – including those found on the Bacton Altar Cloth – brought together for the first time with other stunning embroidery work from the period.

The Bacton Altar Cloth will be on display from October 12, 2019, until February 23, 2020.

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Giorgione masterpiece loaned to Wadsworth

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

An extremely rare masterpiece by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giorgione has gone on display at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, from May 15 to August 4, 2019. La Vecchia (The Old Lady), is an unusual portrait of an elderly woman who stares open-mouthed at the viewer, reminding them that they too, if they’re lucky enough to live, will share her fate. It is being loaned to the Wadsworth by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

La Vecchia is Giorgione’s poetic response to the natural phenomenon of aging,” says Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art of the Wadsworth. “It is a milestone in European portraiture in which Giorgione shows old age with implacable explicitness. It prompts us to confront our own mortality and the inevitable truth of growing old.”

The hyperrealistic portrayal of a haggard woman looking directly at us both attracts and repels at the same time. With her lips open as if about to speak, she gestures to herself. In her hand is a slip of paper inscribed with the words col tempo, “with time.” Painted more than 500 years ago, the unsparing naturalism and representation of the effects of aging
are unexpected, a striking departure from the more familiar, idealized portraits of the time. A recent conservation treatment, funded by [the Foundation for Italian Art and Culture], has removed discoloration and breathed new life into La Vecchia.

What little biographical information we have about Giorgione comes primarily from Vasari’s  Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari first introduces him in his chapter on Sebastiano del Piombo who began as a student of Giovanni Bellini but switched to Giorgione because the latter had “brought into Venice the newer manner, with its superior harmony and increased vividness of colouring.” Giorgione, who had himself had studied under Bellini, had such a profound influence on del Piombo’s style, Vasari states, that Sebastiano’s works were sometimes mistakenly believed to have been painted by Giorgione.

According to Vasari, Giorgione was born in 1477 (the date may or not be accurate) in Castelfranco Veneto, a small medieval town about 25 miles from Venice. Though of humble origins, Giorgione had fine manners, a love of literature and music (he was an excellent lute player) and was so dedicated to capturing nature that he always painted from life. He was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s keen grasp of anatomical realism coupled with the softness of color and shadows of his sfumato. Vasari compares Giorgione’s grasp of proportion, design and naturalism to Leonardo’s, saying his works “approached very closely to the excellence of his model.” His portraits were so life-like, Vasari says, that “the face appears to be real rather than painted.”

Giorgione’s talent was widely recognized in Renaissance Venice. He received multiple commissions for portraits, altarpieces and frescoes from the wealthiest and most important families. Sadly, his brilliant career was cut short. He was in his 30s when he died of plague in 1510. He died of plague, which Vasari says he caught from his inamorata.

Today only six paintings are indisputably attributed to him. Several of the ones Vasari mentioned are now known to have been painted by contemporaries like Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo. The only one in the United States, the Adoration of the Shepherds at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is of disputed authorship. The competing view is that it is an early work of Titian’s, and it’s a much more formal, less naturalistic scene than the portrait of La Vecchia. That’s why the Wadsworth exhibition is such a unique opportunity for people Stateside to view Giorgione’s work.

After experiencing Giorgione’ La Vecchia visitors will be invited to view the Wadsworth’s collection of Italian works of art including important Venetian Renaissance paintings by artists such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Bassano. A group of deluxe books designed for and published by the famed Aldus Manutius—Venice’s leading purveyor of ancient and modern texts, known for their elegant design—are on view adjacent the Giorgione, as is the museum’s Andrea Previtali, Madonna and Child with a Donor in a landscape (c. 1504–05).

“Rarely do we have such a prime opportunity to reconnect with our shared humanity and with the Renaissance,” says Thomas J. Loughman, Director and CEO of the Wadsworth. “La Vecchia is without parallel in America as a major allegorical portrait by Giorgione, and this recent conservation provides the perfect occasion to learn and appreciate the
ideas behind the painting afresh.”

Giorgione (c. 1477/78–c. 1510), La Vecchia, 1502–08. Oil on canvas, 26 3/4 x 23 1/4 in. (68 x 59 cm), Gallerie dell’Accademia, cat. 272, © G.A. VE Photo Archive, Courtesy of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities—Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

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Cracks in Viking Gokstad ship cause alarm

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

The largest preserved Viking ship in Norway, the Gokstad ship at Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, is cracking. Two large cracks have appeared and museum conservators are sounding the alarm that the ship needs a comprehensive change to its support infrastructure before disaster strikes.

“When 1,000-year-old ship planks begin to weaken, the situation is extremely serious,” said Håkon Glørstad, director of the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History that’s responsible for the Viking ships. “Wood that’s so old doesn’t have the same flexibility as modern wood and can totally collapse, quickly and without warning.”

Glørstad told newspaper Aftenposten on Monday that in its current location, “we can’t develop the overall support systems needed to secure the ship’s entire hull.” He said the current base is no longer adequate and the space around the ship too confined.

The bow and the stern are the most unstable parts of the ship. The rest of the hull is braced by a wood base and 12 additional supports. The bow didn’t get its own supports until last year when three were installed to help contain the shifts in movement that cause cracking. Last month supports were added to the stern.

The new supports have sensor technology that allow them to pull double-duty: keeping the ship as stable as possible and measuring its movements. The data revealed that the Gokstad ship is experiencing significant vertical and horizontal movements, enough to move the ship millimeters in both directions. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s huge in conservation terms and significantly above the limit of what a ship built in the 820s and buried for a thousand years can withstand.

Extra supports are only an emergency measure for the short-term. The Norwegian government has allocated funds to construct a new state-of-the-art building a hundred yards from the current one, but the grant hasn’t come through yet and construction can’t begin until it has. The most optimistic projection of when the new facility will be complete is 2025.

The Gokstad ship was unearthed in 1880 in Sandefjord, Vestfold, southeastern Norway. The mound where it was found was on a farm, and the sons of the owner began digging it out of the frozen ground looking for a royal treasure that was rumored to be buried there. Archaeologists were able to take over the job and unearthed the 9th century clinker-built ship, the remains of an adult man with cutting wounds indicating death in battle and highly significant grave goods although any gold, silver or weapons buried with him had been looted centuries earlier. It has been on display at the museum since 1932.

The other two Viking ships in the museum, the elaborately decorated Oseberg ship (discovered in 1903) and the Tune warship (the first Viking ship ever excavated, discovered in 1867), are more stable at the moment, but Oseberg’s enormous complement of wood artifacts have dangerously softened because of the alum treatment they received in 1904. Experts have been working non-stop since 2014 on saving them. The long-term condition, even survival, of the ships and their contents require that issues be addressed as they arise, not years in the future.

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Maurice Sendak: set & costume designer

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

Maurice Sendak became famous as an illustrator and author of children’s books, most notably the all-time classic 1963’s Where the Wild Things Are, but his artistic abilities and interests lent themselves to much larger formats. The most wonderful mural a children’s room ever had, hand-painted by Sendak for his close friends two years before the publication of Where the Wild Things Are made him a household name, hints at what he was capable on a grand scale. Now housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia’s South Philly branch, it is Sendak’s only known mural.

Almost 20 years would pass before he expanded beyond the dimensions of the page and began a second career as a designer of theatrical sets and costumes. Sendak was a great opera fan. In the late 1970s, he began creating designs for operas and ballets

A new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City opens this summer to explore this little-known aspect of Sendak’s extraordinary artistry. Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet exhibits 150 drawings from the Morgan’s collection of nearly 1,000 Sendak drawings focusing on his five most important stage productions: Mozart’s Magic Flute, Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and an opera based on Where the Wild Things Are. The works include early sketches and studies, storyboards, watercolors, and painted dioramas. The exhibition also includes earlier pieces on loan from The Maurice Sendak Foundation’s collection of 10,000 Sendak works, and some surviving props and costumes from the productions.

A selection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century works from the Morgan’s collection by artists who influenced Sendak will be displayed alongside his designs. Throughout his career, Sendak drew inspiration from his visits to the Morgan, particularly his encounters with the compositions of Mozart, and the drawings of William Blake and Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo. The Morgan’s diverse holdings of music manuscripts, autograph letters, printed books, and Old Master drawings mirrored Sendak’s own wide-ranging passion for music, art, and literature. […]

“Few people know that Maurice Sendak had a long and productive relationship with the Morgan. It is exciting to focus on his work as a theater designer, which is an often overlooked but important aspect of his career as an artist,” said Director of the museum, Colin B. Bailey. […]

“This exhibition will be a wonderful surprise to those who are familiar with Sendak primarily through his beloved books,” said Rachel Federman, Assistant Curator in the Modern and Contemporary Drawings Department and the curator of the exhibition. “His designs for opera and ballet have all the beauty, humor, and complexity of his picture books and illustrations, but they also put on full display his passion for art, art history, and music.”

The exhibition opens June 14th and runs through October 6th, 2019.

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Galle Chandelier restored sans goldfish

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

A magnificent gilded bronze chandelier with a uniquely whimsical design is the subject of a new exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The Galle Chandelier was made in 1818-9 by bronze caster and gilder Gérard-Jean Galle in Paris.  Acquired by the Getty in 1973, it has been on display at the Getty Center, one of the gems of its decorative arts collection, since 1997. Earlier this year it was removed for conservation and is now back on view in Flight of Fancy: The Galle Chandelier.

The new exhibition places the chandelier at eye-level so visitors can view the piece up close. On display along with it are images of some of the design details and prints and illustrations that explore Galle’s inspiration for the work. There are also be interactive video panels that will show a rendering of what the chandelier looked like with the candles lit.

Gérard-Jean Galle came from a family of casters and gilders. His father Claude was one of the premier producers of gilded bronze of his time, creating works for Marie Antoinette, among others. The son took over the family business after his father’s death in 1815, but expensive decorative ornaments weren’t in high demand in post-Napoleonic France. The restored Bourbon monarchy was constitutional now and keen to distance itself from the dizzying spending and ostentation of the Ancien Régime. While what was left of the old nobility did return, they did so in highly reduced circumstances, their ancient feudal powers gone and their lands worked by people they actually had to pay. The new money, businessmen and the professional class, didn’t have the same passion for festooning shiny gold geegaws in every possible nook and granny.

Galle’s skill and craftsmanship were certainly recognized. He won the silver medal at the 1819 Exposition des Produits de L’Industrie Française (Exhibition of French Products of Industry), but got little business from it. He tried the direct approach, writing a letter to Louis XVIII offering to sell  the works he had exhibited at the Exposition for a price that would be “modest for the government.” The government declined.

One of those objects was a chandelier that was either the twin of the one owned by the Getty or the very same. Galle called it a lustre à poisson (fish chandelier) and described it thus in the letter:

Fish chandelier: In the middle of a blue enameled globe scattered with stars is a circle with the signs of the zodiac and six griffins carrying candles … [below is a glass bowl fitted with] a plug intended for the removal of the water which one places in the bowl with small goldfish whose continuous movement will give agreeable recreation to the eye.

The idea of a live fish swimming in a bowl under a chandelier lit by 18 candles is certainly, uhh, innovative. I can’t imagine the fish would have had a good time of it. The globe design was a novelty as well. The gold zodiac symbols on the blue field remind me of the Montgolfier brothers’ historic hot air balloon which first took to the skies before King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette at Versailles in 1783.

Galle’s workshop stayed in business despite the royal refusal. He received a gold medal at the Exhibition of Products of French Industry in 1823 and finally did sale some of his pieces to Louis XVIII, earning the title fournisseur de sa majesté (supplier to his majesty), but it wasn’t enough to bring him any financial security. The Revolution of 1830 kneecapped his market yet again. He was forced to cut his workforce in half and the business ultimately went under. He died in poverty in 1846.

Flight of Fancy: The Galle Chandelier will run through April 19th, 2020.

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