Jan Van Eyck, Mary, part of the Deesis composition, detail
of The Ghent Altarpiece in St. Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium, c. 1430
photo source: Wikipedia
The Monuments Men is a true story about saving cultural artifacts in war. George Clooney has done a great job acting and directing this film which has an important message about art, what it means for us and the efforts some would go to save culture. One woman who played a huge part in saving art is shown and Cate Blanchett played that role with depth and finesse. An all-star cast doesn’t guarantee good reviews, but I often disagree with movie reviewers. Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin star in the movie, too.
Tourists in front of the Ghent Altarpiece in recent times. A film, The Monuments Men,
explores its theft and recovery in World War II. Photo source: daydreamtourist.com
The star monument is Jan Van Eyck’s The Ghent Altarpiece, an example of one of the earliest oil paintings. (If students had seen the movie, they would have known it on a test, but the film was released only 5 days earlier and we had a snowstorm) In fact, the last missing part of the Ghent Altarpiece, was the panel of Mary, mother of Jesus from a Deesis grouping (an iconographic type western painters adopted from the eastern Orthodox Church). She is exquisitely beautiful and radiant. Van Eyck’s ability to visualize heavenly splendor and beauty in paint is astounding. I appreciate the film for showing how big the altarpiece actually is, and how a polyptych, of many panels, needed to be broken up into its parts to be moved. Actually, I wonder if Van Eyck and the patrons knew that using the polyptych format, rather than just a three-part triptych, would have its advantages in the time of war. Actually that painting has been the victim of crime 13 times and stolen 7 times, including the times of the Reformation, Napoleon and World War I.
Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, the last work to be
recovered, is under glass at the Church of Our Lady
in Bruges. Photo source:Wikipedia
The other star monument is Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, a free-standing sculpture the artist did shortly after The Pieta. It was the last and most precious piece to be found. The film makes an important point about the British man who insisted on protecting it during the war. I’m honored to have seen both monuments in their current homes and thank the determined people who sacrificed so much to do this for posterity. (I also love that the movie gives goes into the Hospital of Sint-Jans in Bruges and gives good views of the medieval cities of Bruges and Ghent, even in the night time. Thanks for acknowledging to what these places represent to earlier European culture.
Much of the film is about uncovering the mysteries, as well as anticipating the need for protection. It has both comic and tragic elements, as we watch injury and death and the dangers that common to all war. Not all paintings were saved, however. Some works ended up in Russia after the war and are still there. Picassos and Max Ernst paintings, even in German hands, were determined to be decadent and burned. The movie showed a Raphael portrait of a young man that has never been found.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, c. 1490, is a
portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, and an early work of Leonardo. It’s
in the Czarytorski Museum in Krakow Photo source: Wikipedia
Among the paintings captured by the Nazis, saved and uncovered by the rescue team of Americans, French and English were: a Rembrandt portrait, a Renoir, a Van Gogh, Manet’s In the Conservatory and Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine which had been taken from Krakow, Poland. Most of these paintings were shown to be hidden in underground mines. I’ve checked a little bit into the history of each of these and found that the Leonardo had been hidden in a castle in Bavaria. The Nazis stole the Manet from a museum in Berlin, and it’s not clear to me why they would do that unless it was planned to be in Hitler’s own museum.
The movie may have intentional inaccuracies. It also looked like a poor replica of Leonardo’s Ginevre de’ Benci was in the movie, and I am not sure if that could be accurate. That painting, as far as I know, already had been in the Mellon Collection that became part of the National Gallery.
There is much more to the story, I know, because Italy was allied with Nazis during most of the war and those works of art needed to be protected, too. At the point of action where the movie had started, most of the works in France had already been protected. The Monuments Men deals mostly with works in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Robert Edsel wrote the book that is the basis for the movie. I certainly hope to read it now, as well as another followup book he published last year, Saving Italy.
Edouard Manet, In the Conservatory, 1879, Altes Museum Berlin Photo: Wikipedia
Since 1993, Martin Schongauer’s 10″ x 13″ drawing of Peonies has been in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles..
A painting of peonies came up for auction in 1990 under the vague label of Northern Italian. However, a museum curator at the Albertina in Vienna recognized it as an important drawing from about 1472-73 by Martin Schongauer, an artist who lived in Alsace on the French-German border. The drawing, now in the Getty Museum, is a study for the flowers in Madonna of the Rosary, 1473, painted by Schongauer for a church in Colmar (now in France). Albrecht Durer traveled to Colmar to visit Schongauer in 1491, but the great Alsatian master had died by the time 21-year old Durer arrived. Martin’s brothers met with him and gave him some of the master’s drawings. This drawing may have been one of the drawings owned by Durer; the same Viennese curator recognized a flower similar to one of the peonies in a Durer painting of 1501.
In 2007, a pastel drawing came up on the auction market and it was labeled as 19th century German. An astute Canadian collector who bought it had other ideas and sought expert opinion. Most experts now attribute this drawing to Leonardo da Vinci, and it is called La Bella Principessa. The sitter may be the 13-year old daughter of the Duke of Milan, Bianca Sforza. Interestingly, a fingerprint on the paper matches a fingerprint in Leonardo’s unfinished painting of St. Jerome. The technique is ink with black, white and red chalk on yellow vellum to give the flesh tones. Leonardo is said to have learned the pastel technique from a French artist.
A badly damaged painting supposedly by a student of Leonardo sold for 45 British pounds in 1958. Only in the past year has it been cleaned and recognized as an authentic Leonardo da Vinci. Called the Salvator Mundi, it was recently part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London. In the frontal image, Jesus holds a glass globe and stares directly at the viewer while using the blessed gesture. His calm face is full of compassion and kindness. The penetrating sense of life in this image is clearly palpable, as revealed after its cleaning. It has Leonardo’s recognizable sfumato, the smoky quality which gives a dark softness to the shadows. It has the iconic and mysterious qualities reminiscent of as the Mona Lisa. Cleaning revealed this Salvator Mundi to be an authentic
Leonardo da Vinci dating to c. 1500
Martin Kemp, Leonardo expert in England, has identified the rock crystal orb to show the crystalline cosmos in Jesus’s hand as something only Leonardo could have painted with accuracy. Leonardo was quite the geologist and Kemp compared the painted example to crystal orbs in the geology collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Therefore, the painting could not have been done by a follower. The last time a painting was discovered to be by Leonardo was 100 years ago.
Only the master Leonardo, who intimately studied nature,
could have portrayed this rock crystal so accurately
Even more remarkable is the fact that a lost painting by Leonardo’s young rival, Michelangelo appeared in 2009. This Temptation of St. Anthony is now in the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth. Michelangelo painted this oil and tempera when he was only about 13 years old. The first writer of art history in 1570, Giorgio Vasari described a painting that copied an engraving by Martin Schongauer.
The fact that the two greatest artistic prodigies born in Europe during the 1470s, Albrecht Durer and the divine Michelangelo, admired Martin Schongauer, speaks to that master’s incredible reputation as an artist in the 15th century. He died young, but his contribution to later art cannot be overlooked. Although Schongauer’s travels probably took him only to the center of Europe: Alsace, Burgundy, Flanders and the Rhineland, his prints gave him a reputation throughout Italy, France, Spain and even England. Italians called him Bel Martino. Perhaps he was born around 1448, a few years before another great observer of nature, Leonardo da Vinci. His drawings inspired the great drawings of nature by Durer, namely The Rabbit and Large Piece of Turf.
St Anthony Torment by the Demons, c. 1487, was painted by Michelangelo when he was only 13. The panel, 18 x 12 inches, is warped as happens to many panels over time.
The Torment of Saint Anthony is a small panel painting which was recently discovered to have been painted by Michelangelo in 1487/88. Intensive cleaning in 2008/9 led experts to believe that Michelangelo painted it when he was 12 or 13 years of age. Only four easel paintings by Michelangelo are known, and this one of is in North America, at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum.
Michelangelo’s St. Anthony looks remarkably calm despite the demons who are scratching him
St. Anthony was an early Christian of the 4th century who lived as a hermit for many years. According to his biographer, the rigorous asceticism practiced by St Anthony in the Egyptian desert allowed him to float in the air, where he was attacked by devils trying to beat him to the ground. Anthony defeated these demons on more than one occasion, but not without a big struggle. It is not at all surprising that a young Michelangelo would have been attracted to this subject, because the artist always seemed to be battling his own internal demons, as the poetry he wrote and certain sculptures of slaves he made later in life would suggest.
Schongauer’s masterly engraving, St. Anthony Tormented by Demons, c. 1480, gave inspiration to the young Michelangelo
Michelangelo copied an engraving by a French-German artist, Martin Schongauer, who was Europe’s greatest practitioner of printmaking at that time. Schongauer used a vivid imagination and great technical ability to show light, shadow and texture. These beasts are composite creatures of fanciful reptiles, fish and flying monsters, who scratch, pull and club the holy man. Schongauer left the landscape minimal, a small edge of rocks in the lower right-hand corner which describe the mountain he lived on in isolation. Saint Anthony seems to be suspended in the air, in a radiating, circular composition. Schongauer used short dots or stipples to get his deepest shadows into the small metal plate used for engraving.
We don’t know the date of Schongauer’s engraving–perhaps about 1480–but we know that his prints traveled throughout Europe. Michelangelo’s biographers said that he made a painting after a Schongauer print when he was 13, and this new attribution fulfills that void in our knowledge. This connection also shows the important role of prints in spreading artistic ideas and iconography, with the engraving passed into Italy from Germany.I have seen the Schongauer original in the print room of the National Gallery and its details are incredible. No wonder the young genius was impressed.
Although Michelangelo borrowed many details from the great German engraver, he went to the fish market to observe. According to the Kimball Art Museum, Michelangelo scraped away lines of paint in the body of the fish-like creature, revealing the primer beneath the paint in the parallel lines of hatching.
When Michelangelo copied Schongauer, he was equally adept at detail. He straightened Saint Anthony’s head, gave him a shorter beard and added an interesting landscape background. The brown-gray foreground is rocky and craggy, and in pristine detail. Critics of the Michelangelo attribution do not like the background. The painting has a high viewpoint just like St. Anthony who lived on a mountain near the Nile when the demons attacked and lifted him. So this landscape is a bird’s eye view of river, hills and sky with a low horizon line. Using aerial perspective, it gets more and more indistinct as it goes back into space and turns nearly white as it hits the horizon. The cool colors of the background and the low horizon line allow the figures to come forward and stand out with warm colors. This setting may be more reminiscent of the Arno in Florence than the Nile River, but European artists of the time were not familiar with the desert.
Photos above and right were taken by the Kimball to AP. This demon was painted in tempera and oil with magnificent detail. Color changes and the meticulous line technique are visible. His mouth is ferocious.