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This Fall at the NGA

Judith Leyster was one of the prominent women painters largely lost to history until the rediscovery undertaken by art historians in recent years. Born in 1609, Leyster is the subject of a small exhibit organized by the National Gallery of Art, which owns her most famous painting, the self-portrait from the 1630s that everyone who has taken an art history survey in the last twenty years has had to study. Sandwiched into two rooms in the museum's Dutch and Flemish galleries -- placing Leyster squarely between Rembrandt and Vermeer -- the exhibit puts the NGA's two Leysters (well, one of them is promised to the NGA, the exquisite little Young Boy in Profile) among eight other canvases lent by other museums and collections.

Judith Leyster, The Last Drop, c. 1630-1631, oil on canvas (overall: 89 x 73.7 cm / 35 1/16 x 29 in.), Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917
The prevalence of frivolity (A Game of Tric-Trac), sexuality (The Proposition), and entertainment of the senses, especially through music (the underlit lutenist of Serenade and the gorgeous Young Flute Player from Stockholm) in her work has led to a hypothesis that Leyster studied with Frans Hals. At the very least their work has many similarities of subject and tone, and Hals is represented in the show with three small portraits. The smiling, drunken revelers of Leyster's Merry Company (1630-31, from a private collection) are shown in a much more serious light in that work's supposed companion piece, The Last Drop (from the same period, now owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Here we see two of the three revelers in the left foreground of the former painting, identified by the same clothing and physical attributes. Now they are at the end of their binge, smoking and drinking the last of their liquor, oblivious to the skeletal figure of death at their elbows, holding up an hourglass down to its last grains of sand. The third figure from Merry Company, the violinist in blue, ended up instead on the canvas in progress on Leyster's easel in that famous self-portrait, painted over what she originally planned to depict there, a portrait of a young woman, possibly herself in a different guise.

The exhibit is rounded out with a few works by Leyster's husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, whose career appears to have eclipsed Leyster's after their marriage in 1636. The selection of works on musical subjects by both artists shows how important music was in their household. Leyster appears to be singing from a book in her lap in her own painting The Concert (the wall text at one point speculates that she is only keeping time with her hand), and husband and wife play on a lute and cittern in their wedding portrait The Duet (Molenaer's group portrait Family Making Music -- not in the exhibit -- paints an even more vivid picture of the importance of art and music in their household). One of the best parts of the exhibit is the inclusion of actual historical instruments, which are not only beautiful to look at but show just how knowledgeable the artists were in their depiction of instruments.

The Library of Congress has lent some superb examples from its extraordinary flute collection, the Folger Shakespeare Library lent a lute, and local violinist Risa Browder even lent a 17th-century Flemish violin. I was most taken by the tiny pochette, also on loan from the Library of Congress, included only because such an instrument, known in the Netherlands as a clopscheen, was inventoried among Molenaer's belongings at the time of his death. The instrument was a miniature violin -- just four strings with a fairly limited range, here displayed with its leather case -- used by dancing masters to play dance tunes while they taught choreography. Some of the choreographers I studied in my dissertation actually composed the ballet music for royal ballets in 17th-century France around this time, and it is believed they improvised melodies on these instruments that were later written down.

Through November 29.

Follower of Tullio Lombardo, Saint Sebastian, c. 1510
(marble; overall: 51 x 40 x 4.4 cm / 20 1/16 x 15 3/4 x 1 3/4 in.)
Church of Santi Apostoli, Venice
Another mini-exhibit, An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture, has taken over a couple rooms in the Italian painting galleries and is well worth a visit. Tullio was the best sculptor of the Venetian school in the High Renaissance, known for both exceptional realism and emotional extremes, and this is the first exhibit ever devoted to him in the United States (!). One of the striking pieces in the exhibit is credited to a follower of Tullio, a relief bust of Saint Sebastian, that one might compare in its neo-Platonic detachment to Michelangelo's Pietà. It shows Sebastian against the trunk of a tree, the traditional pose of his torment, but there are no signs of arrows, wounds, or blood. The only indication of the young man's agony is the pained expression on his face, the parted lips and row of hidden teeth, the pupil-less stare upward, and especially the knitted brow, which is remarkable to see rendered in marble.

A couple examples of Tullio's reliefs, including some stunning "double portraits" (perhaps not intended to be specific people), draws attention to the question of viewer position in these works. The signature on one of these "double portraits" seems to suggest that the intended vantage point was below the sculpture, with the signature approximately at eye level. If you crouch down before them as they are shown at the NGA, it does seem that the realism and emotional impact are optimal seen from that angle. The show's curator, Alison Luchs, also notes, however, that details on the tops of the heads of the same reliefs are so fine that it seems unlikely that a view from above was not also somehow intended. You have to love an aesthetic mystery!

Through October 31.

The big show at the NGA at the moment, The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain, is a blockbuster, to be sure. Anyone who studies the period covered, the era from the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I (1508) to King Philip IV (1665), should see it, as it offers the chance to see portraits of these emperors and kings, in armor, alongside the actual surviving pieces of armor, all of it precious and beautifully decorated. There are also some interesting pieces that illuminate how these imperial scions in Austria and Spain used artistic objects to support the legitimacy of their claims to power. While I can appreciate the importance of the show, for whatever reason, I spent the least time there.

Through November 29.

1 comment:

Mark Barry said...

One stop shopping at the NGA, I missed the previews but the Leyster looks great-always loved the self-portrait.