Saucy Fragonard pair together again after 25 years

Two paintings by French rococo master Jean-Honoré Fragonard will be on display together for the first time in 25 years in an exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw were created as a matched pair when Fragonard was still a student in the atelier of François Boucher. Like almost all of his works, the two paintings are not dated. We know they were done after he began to study under Boucher in 1750 and before 1752 when the young Fragonard won the prestigious Prix de Rome. He was just 18-20 years old, therefore, when he painted these works that already display the characteristic playfulness and thinly veiled eroticism that would make him famous.

The paintings are thought to have been commissioned by Baron Louis-Guillaume Baillet de Saint-Julien, a writer, amateur artist and avid collector. It is certain that the pair were in his collection when it was sold in 1784 after the Baron’s death. Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw sold as a pair for 500 livres to the leading art dealer of the time: Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, grand-nephew of painter Charles Le Brun and husband of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, official portrait painter of Queen Marie Antoinette. Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun was a pioneer in his field. He actually invented the saleroom lit by overhead lighting, now a staple of art galleries and museums.

The pair then moved through the hands of various other dealers and collectors, including Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild in Vienna and Baron Maurice de Rothschild in Pregny-Chambésy, Switzerland, always staying together. In 1954 they were sold again by Baron Maurice three years before his death. This time, they did not survive as a couple. They were sold separately. Blind Man’s Bluff was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art with funds from the Libbey Endowment, a gift from glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey, founder of the Toledo Museum of Art and president from its founding in 1901 until his death in 1925. The See-Saw was bought by Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, heir to a great naval construction and oil fortune which he spent building a world-class art collection. It was on display at his private museum in the 17th century palace Villa Favorita on the banks of Lake Lugano in Switzerland, and when those works were transferred to Spain to become the permanent collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid starting in the late 1980s, The See-Saw went with them.

Divided by an ocean, the two Fragonards rarely caught a glimpse of each other. They’ve come together three times since their separation: in London in 1968, Paris in 1987 and New York in 1988. Now, thanks to a loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, they’ll be together again in Toledo.

“They’re risqué, they’re provocative—and the artist intended these canvases to be seen together,” said Lawrence W. Nichols, William Hutton senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900. “So to reunite these two very important paintings by one of the most significant French artists of the 18th century is quite an exciting opportunity.”

They may not seem all that risqué to our jaded eyes, but even though the only actual glimpse of slightly naughty flesh is the leg of the woman on the see-saw, the erotic imagery was clear to its original audience.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, artists and authors used blind-man’s bluff as a symbol of the folly of marriage, where one took one’s chances in choosing a mate. In Fragonard’s portrayal, however, because only one couple plays the game, neither the ultimate partner nor the final outcome is in doubt. As the youth tickles his blindfolded beloved on the cheek with a piece of straw, an infant, in the role of a classical cupid or putto, brushes her hand with the end of a stick to distract her from the object of her desire. Reaching out to locate her lover, the woman steals a glance from underneath her blindfold and catches the viewer’s gaze with a knowing look—she is the one in control of the situation.

The setting for this courtship game is a terrace surrounded by a low wall—a reference to the enclosed garden, traditional symbol of virginity. Leaning against the wall is a gate that has fallen off its posts. The sexual symbolism of the gate—not only open but broken off—would have been obvious to eighteenth-century viewers.

Blind Man’s Bluff and The See-Saw will be on display at the Toledo Museum of Art from January 24th through May 4th, 2014.

A view that hasn’t been seen in 500 years

What you’re looking at here is the beautiful prospect from a lancet window in the north wall of Mingary Castle, a window that was sealed in the late 15th or early 16th century and has now been reopened for the first time in 500 years. Built on a promontory on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the northwest coast of Scotland in the 13th century, Mingary Castle was a stronghold commanding the Sound of Mull, an important part of the great western shipping lane at a time when the Viking/Gaelic rulers of western Scotland ran fleets of galleys for trade, travel and war. Since the ships hugged the coast to avoid Atlantic storms, coastal castles dominated seagoing traffic.

It’s not certain who first built the castle. Clan MacDougall is one possible candidate, but by the time the window was sealed, Mingary Castle was the seat of Clan MacIain, one of the most powerful septs (vassal branches) of Clan MacDonald. Although technically they were vassals of kings of Norway and Scotland at various times, in practice they ran their territories independently as Lords of the Isles. Mingary was one of a chain of strategically important castles in the MacDonald fiefdom.

It was a new threat from the landward side that caused the MacIains to block up the north windows. The slender pointed arch windows, used to fire arrows and crossbow bolts onto attackers, were in walls that ranged in thickness from 60 centimeters (ca. 1’12”) to 80 centimeters (2’7″). This was the thinnest the castle walls got and since they faced land, they were particular susceptible to recently-invented cannons that packed enough punch to pierce much thicker masonry walls. To fix this weak spot, the MacIains had stonemasons fill in the windows and the chambers where defenders wielded their weapons. They did a most thorough job of it, too.

The castle fell out of MacIain and MacDonald control in the early 17th century. The Campbell family, Earls of Argyll, took the castle and held it so effectively that they destroyed Clan MacDonald when they attempted to retake the castle by besieging it. In the early 18th century the Mingary estate was sold to Alexander Murray; 50 years later it was sold to James Riddell whose family owned it until 1848. All of these post-MacIain owners made modifications and additions to the castle, keeping it in livable condition without destroying the original structure from the 1200s. After 1848, the estate was still used by locals, but the castle increasingly deteriorated until the interior was too dangerous to inhabit.

The estate was purchased by Donald Houston 20 years or so ago. He has restored many of the structures on the property, and is now restoring the castle itself with the goal of keeping the walls from crumbling and making the castle inhabitable as a residence for humans again. Because of its relative remoteness and the long centuries of occupation, Mingary Castle is the best preserved 13th century castle in Scotland. It’s therefore of great historical significance to the country.

Mr. Houston has founded the Mingary Preservation Trust, a charitable organization that is raising the £2 million ($3,300,000) needed to restore the castle. (If you’d like to contribute, click here to donate or, if you’d prefer to get a piece of the castle itself, you can adopt your very own stone.)

Part of the restoration project was the reopening of the north wall chambers and lancet windows. On Thursday, January 16th, workmen broke through the incredibly hard infill that blocked off the left top window, gingerly removed the stones and opened it to expose a beautiful view last seen by human eyeballs 500 years ago.

Jon Haylett, a local historian who has been overseeing the excavation said: “There was a real sense of excitement that we could, for the first time in 500 years, look out at a view which was last seen when members of Clan MacIain held Mingary Castle.

“Looking out of the window was an eerie experience, realising that the last person to see that view was probably a stonemason, some half a millennium ago.

“Next to me, doing the clearing, were two modern stonemasons from Ashley-Thomson, the building restoration firm, and I think they were equally moved.”

They were hoping to find organic material or some artifacts embedded in the fill that would help narrow down when the windows were sealed, but so far all the attending archaeologist has found are some tiny bone fragments, probably the detritus of a meal left behind by the masons who last worked there half a millennium ago. They did find an interesting architectural element: a groove around the inside of the window, probably used to hold a shutter or wooden board to close the window when necessary.

Now the restoration team is digging across to the double lancet windows on the right. You can read all about their progress and enjoy the exceptional photographic documentation of the restoration on the marvelous Mingary Castle blog authored by Jon Haylett.

Richard III team members alight in the US

I’m excited to report that two members of the team who excavated and analyzed the remains of King Richard III in September of 2012 will be coming to the US in February for public lectures. This is the first chance we norms in the US have had to hear from the horses’ mouths about the extraordinary discovery that riveted the world.

The first stop will be Washington, D.C. where they will be giving a talk on the discovery on February 5th, 2014. The lecture is being offered by the Folger Shakespeare Theatre as part of a program devoted to the Bard’s tragedy Richard III. A new staging of the play will be accompanied by Q&As with the performers, talks by the literary director and local poets. The University of Leicester’s Greyfriars Project will be represented by geneticist Dr. Turi King and fieldwork director Matthew Morris, two of the co-authors of the first paper published on the excavation.

Their lecture, entitled Finding Richard, will cover the archaeological excavation (Matthew Morris’ bailiwick) and the DNA analysis (Dr. King’s expertise) that established a genetic link between Michael Ibsen, direct descendant down the female line of Richard’s sister Anne of York, an unnamed second female-line descendant and the skeleton found under the Leicester council parking lot.

The lecture will be held at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation 212 East Capitol Street on Wednesday, February 5th at 7:30pm. Tickets cost $25 for regular people and $20 for members of the Folger Shakespeare Theatre. You can book over the phone at (202) 544-7077 or online here.

After that, Turi King and Matthew Morris will join professors in history, humanities, forensic pathology and English at St. Louis University for a full day colloquium on Saturday, February 8th. The discussion will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the university’s Il Monastero on 3050 Olive Street. It is open to the general public and free of charge.

Jealous of the fine folks of St. Louis who, as if having a kickass arch on the west bank of the Mississippi River weren’t enough, now get to enjoy a day of Richard III nerdery with two pivotal figures from the Greyfriars team? Well don’t be, because the whole thing will be streamed live over the internet! :boogie: 😎 :boogie:

Bookmark this website, mark your calendar, set your alarm clock to wake you up before 10:00 AM Central Time (11:00 AM EST), get breakfast, lunch, beverages and possibly some sort of vessel to hold your waste, then settle down in front of your computer for a luxurious six hours of nothing but Richard III.

Lost work by 17th c. playwright Lope de Vega found

Syracuse University Spanish professor Alejandro García-Reidy has discovered a copy of a lost play by Spanish Golden Age playwright and poet Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio. Lope de Vega is like Spain’s Shakespeare, only he was far, far more prolific. By his own tally, Lope de Vega wrote about 1,800 plays (although he is generally thought to have been exaggerating with the real number closer to 1,500), plus 3,000 sonnets, three novels, four novellas and nine epic poems, an oeuvre so impressive that it inspired his contemporary Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, to dub him a “Monster of Nature.”

Only approximately 300 of his plays have survived, a small fraction of the total. The rediscovery of one of the works that hasn’t been seen in centuries, therefore, is a find of great significance to the literary and cultural history of Spain and modern theater. The newly found play is called Mujeres y criados (Women and Servants), a comedy written in 1614. We knew it existed because Lope de Vega included it on a list of his plays published in the 1618 edition of El peregrino en su patria (The Pilgrim in his Own Country), but it was never published in any of the collections of his works. It was therefore believed to be lost and has not been included in modern catalogs of his works.

This particular version of the play wasn’t published either. It’s a manuscript copied in 1631 by Pedro de Valdés, director of a theatrical company that staged Lope de Vega’s plays. Later the 56-sheet quarto was bound and acquired by the Library of Osuna, a town in the province of Seville, southern Spain. The Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE) bought the Osuna Library in 1886 and absorbed its book collection. García-Reidy found the volume at the BNE in 2010 while researching Spanish theater of the 16th and 17th centuries. He spent the next three years analyzing the manuscript and ensuring the attribution to Lope de Vega was accurate.

Stylistic analysis and documentary evidence support the attribution. A document from 1614 notes that a theatrical troupe purchased a comedy by Lope de Vega called Women and Servants. When García-Reidy checked the catalogs of the playwright’s work, there was no title by that name. However, he noticed the National Library had an unattributed manuscript entitled Women and Servants, so he checked it out. He found that the play matched the meter characteristic of the author’s work from the period of 1613-1614 and the subject matter covered themes, like the subversion of social hierarchies and conventions, that are common in his plays.

Women and Servants is an urban comedy of considerable quality, according to García-Reidy. That’s meaningful because Lope de Vega was known to have sacrificed quality to achieve his insane output. His work in this period is considered his best. He was at the peak of his abilities and popularity when he wrote this play.

The story takes place in Madrid and stars two sisters, Violante and Luciana, and their lovers, Claridán and Teodoro, one a waiter and the other the secretary of Count Próspero. These two couples, whose love for each other remains secret, find their relationships put to a test with the appearance of two new suitors: Count Próspero himself, who chases after Luciana, and the rich Don Pedro, who courts Violante with the approval of her father. This initial scene leads to a game of hide-and-seek and confused identities in which Luciana must intervene to stay close to her lover. These entanglements give way to several very comical scenes, and the house in which they occur becomes a place where all actors are at the mercy of the tricks played by the two women and their lovers.

García-Reidy thinks this play will work for audiences today because it combines vaudeville-like comedy, sharp wit, dominant female characters and the satire of societal convention. His assessment will be put to the test soon since the Fundación Siglo de Oro theater company has agreed to put on the play this fall. The company specializes in updating historical theater for modern audiences and they have collaborated with researchers to stage Lope de Vega works before.

The play will be presented officially with a public reading by Fundación Siglo de Oro actors within the next few months, but the entire manuscript has been digitized and can be downloaded in pdf form on the BNE website.

Diana regilded

Last summer, the Philadelphia Museum of Art announced a major restoration project to clean, conserve and regild the statue of Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that graces the top of the museum’s Great Stair Hall. The 13-foot statue of the Huntress drawing her bow was made in 1893 to top the tower of architect Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. Standing on one foot on a spherical base, Diana was originally a weather vane, turning with the wind atop her tower; only later was she riveted to her base for her own safety. She was the tallest point in the city in her day, and shone so brightly that she could be seen from New Jersey.

Sadly, her fate was tied to that of the building which was demolished in 1925 to make way for the New York Life Insurance Building. New York Life put her in storage hoping she would find a new home in the city, but every attempt to keep her in New York failed and in 1932 she was adopted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

(New York did come to regret its callous rejection of its once-iconic golden lady. In 1967, with the city in the process of building the fourth and last iteration of Madison Square Garden over the graveyard of yet another demolished Beaux Arts masterpiece, the original Penn Station, New York mayor John Lindsay asked Philadelphia mayor James Tate if they could have Diana back to put her inside the new Garden. Tate declined, pointing out that “when no one wanted this poor little orphan girl, Philadelphia took her in, gave her a palatial home and created a beautiful image for her with a worldwide reputation.”)

After three decades exposed to the elements and seven years in storage, Diana needed some work when she got to Philadelphia. She was in decent condition overall, but her surface was darkened by corrosion and everything but a few traces of the original gilding was gone. In the midst of the Great Depression, the museum had neither the means nor the inclination to regild her. Decades later, in the mid-1980s, the museum did consider regilding Diana, but the time and funding wasn’t there. There was no immediate conservation need since the statue was structurally sound.

Thanks to the financial support of Bank of America’s Global Art Conservation Project, in 2013 Diana finally got a full makeover. The focus of the project was first and foremost to analyze and document the statue’s surface and structure. The armature, including the weather vane mechanism which still exists inside the spherical base, was examined for condition and to learn more about how Diana was built. Traces of gilding were examined by a scanning electron microscope to determine the exact composition and color of the original gold. The whole statue was X-rayed and subjected to ultrasonic thickness testing to assess the condition of the molded copper sheets Saint-Gaudens soldered and riveted together.

One the initial observations and tests were complete, conservators cleaned the corrosion, revealing the lovely copper color and the joins. The statue was then primed with a corrosion inhibiting paint containing zinc chromate which left the surface an alarming canary yellow. Thankfully that phase didn’t last long. The statue was then painstakingly covered with 180 square feet of 23.4-karat red gold leaf. Because Saint-Gaudens disliked the use of very bright gold at eye level, the gilding was toned down to match his original intent.

The process took five months. In November, the scaffolding came down and Diana was revealed in her freshly gilded splendor. Behold the shiny:

Visitors to the museum during the restoration got to observe it happening in real time, and the whole process was filmed and shown on screens in the museum. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s conservation page has two videos illustrating the restoration process. I hope many more will follow because those two are straight awesome.

In this one you see conservators sampling traces of the original gilding, doing cleaning tests before removing the corrosion over the whole statue, doing a boroscopic (self-lit remote camera) examination of interior, opening the ball and removing the bow and arrow.

This video features the steam cleaning done after the acidic cleanser removed the corrosion, the X-ray imaging and ultrasonic thickness testing, and the scanning electron microscope analysis of the gold traces.