Monday, August 8, 2011

This past Friday I went to The Frick Collection -- on my short list of favorite museums in New York -- to see 'In a New Light: Bellini's St. Francis in the Desert' (pictured at right, and sometimes also referred to as 'The Ecstasy of St. Francis'). It had been a while since I'd seen the painting, and I welcomed this opportunity to see it specially set apart and "in a new light."

The reason for the renewed attention is a recent technical investigation, by both the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that "addressed some longstanding questions about the picture's meaning," to quote from the exhibition's text. The museum staff has done a terrific job with several multimedia presentations and a short film about the unprecedented technical examination (that included infrared reflectography, X-radiography, surface examination, and paint analysis) and about the significance of this truly amazing painting.

In the film, Colin Bailey, Associate Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick, informs us that Henry Clay Frick acquired the painting in 1915, and that it is "one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in any museum in America." I was especially interested to learn that the village in the background is "probably the very first naturalistic townscape or cityscape ever painted in Western art." (The village is likely not, by the way, meant to be an accurate portrayal of Assisi.)

One of the amazing things to me about this painting is what you see when you really look at it. I had no idea there was so much flora and fauna in the picture, and this Sunday 14th the Frick is offering a drawing class, 'Bellini and Botany," that focuses on the plants seen in the picture (for anyone over the age of 10).

This special exhibition closes on the 28th of August, and is well worth an extra effort to see!

Also on view is a tiny but exquisite dossier exhibit called 'Turkish Taste at the Court of Marie-Antoinette.' Next to the gift shop, in a narrow room painted light blue, are a pair of console tables that Frick acquired in 1914 and wall panels that illustrate the taste for turquerie in France. As I noted in my Istanbul book, the word 'Franks' was an Ottoman word that initially referred to the French, but later was the word used to refer to all Europeans. The Ottoman Empire sought to emulate France in its last century, but the admiration went in the other direction as well: "for hundreds of years," according to the Frick's exhibition text, "the taste for turquerie was evident in French fashion, literature, theater and opera, painting, architecture, and interior decoration."

Three interiors a la turque were created for Louis XVI's younger brother, the comte d'Artois, and Marie-Antoinette had boudoirs turcs made for her apartments at Versailles. Included in this exhibit is a pair of firedogs (used as a decorative facade for the metal support that holds burning wood in a fireplace) made of gilded bronze and featuring seated dromedaries -- these were from Marie-Antoinette's boudoir turc at Fontainebleau. The pair of small console tables are made of gilded and painted beech and walnut with marble tabletops, and there is a row of crossed crescents at the top of the tables (a traditional symbol of Turkey) and the support figures represent African boys wearing turbans -- probably African slaves or eunuchs who oversaw the harem in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

These are interesting, but I was really wowed by two door panels that are from the cabinet turc of the comte d'Artois, "the most sophisticated Turkish room at the court of Marie-Antoinette." Attributed to brothers Jean-Simeon Rousseau de la Rottiere (1747-1820) and Jules-Hugues Rousseau (1743-1806), these are in a wonderful and warm palette of deep yellow, light blue, red, etc. and were in the south wing of the Chateau de Versailles. The room was the private retreat and library of the future Charles X, and its decor featured costly mirrors and fabrics, all now sadly lost, that evoked a very sumptuous Ottoman Empire.

The Rousseau brothers were named designers and sculptors to the comte d'Artois in 1774 and in 1780 they were official painters and decorators to Marie-Antoinette. According to the Frick's research, they "had specialized in the design and execution of Turkish wall panels since 1776, stating the following year that they 'were particularly au fait of this genre etranger."

'Turkish Taste' is supported by Koc Holding (there's a squiggly line under the c in Koc), Turkey's largest industrial and services group and a major supporter of art, culture, the environment, and health; the Koc family retains a majority stake in the company. The exhibit closes September 11th, and is yet another (great) reason to visit The Frick.

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