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Curator’s Thoughts: Sotheby’s Sale (Episode 2)

 

Luca della Robbia (Italian, 1399-1482), Madonna and Child, ca. 1450, tin-glazed terracotta (18½ x 15¾ in.). Photo credit: Sothebys.com.

 

There were a number of items in Sotheby’s January 28 sale that caught my attention because of their association with Hyde pieces. The first was Lot 2, Luca della Robbi’s terracotta relief, Madonna and Child. Luca (1399-1482) founded a multi-generational family workshop that was famous for its terracotta sculptures covered in a gleaming, pure, white glaze—its formula, a closely-guarded family secret—that made the fired clay pieces impermeable to the elements and gave them the appearance of much more expensive marble. The reliefs were cast in molds, allowing for a degree of mass-production that expanded the clientele for such fine works of art to include the successful merchant and banking class of Renaissance Italy’s major cities.

Luca della Robbia (Italian, 1399-1482), Madonna of the Lilies, ca. 1450-1460, tin-glazed terracotta (20 1/4 × 16 1/8 in.) The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, Gift of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.99. Photography by Michael Fredericks.

 

Like The Hyde’s Madonna of the Lilies, the Sotheby’s relief was intended for the domestic market. It was undoubtedly used in the home as the focus of private, family devotion to the Virgin and Christ Child, and indeed, Sotheby’s expert Giancarlo Gentilini proposes that the relief was commissioned by Bosio I, Count of Santa Fiora in Tuscany for this wife Cecilia, sometime between 1439 and 1451.

It is striking how intimate the viewer’s relationship with the Madonna and Christ Child is, more so than in our terracotta. So high is the relief carving, the divine pair actually breaks out of their tightly constrained space into our world. The sculpture affirms the Christian belief that God was incarnate in Christ, here the robust child, tenderly held in his mother’s arms. His divinity and her purity are expressed through the terracotta’s unblemished white glaze.

Surprisingly, the two reliefs “met” once. They were both included in an exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1938 that was curated by William Valentiner, the museum’s director and Mrs. Hyde’s art advisor. Both sculptures have been praised by experts as being “autograph;” that is, they are so fine in their execution, even though other examples survive, that the hand of the master, Luca, has been discerned over that of his workshop assistants.

Lot 14, Sano di Pietro, Nativity.

Sano di Pietro (Italian, 1405-1481), Nativity, tempera and gold ground on panel (20 5/8 by 15 7/8 in.). Photo credit: Sothebys.com.

 

There is a clear resemblance between the form of Virgin Mary’s head in this depiction of the Nativity and that of the Archangel Gabriel’s in The Hyde’s panel that formed one half of an Annunciation scene.

Sano di Pietro (Italian, 1405 – 1481), Angel of the Annunciation, ca. 1450, tempera and gilding on panel (14 1/2 × 13 1/2 in.); The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, Bequest of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.44. Photo credit: Mclaughlinphoto.com.

 

Sano di Pietro (1405-1481) was a leading painter in Siena in the first part of the fifteenth century. In the Sotheyb’s panel, we have the chance to examine his use of color and composition in constructing narrative scenes. The primary storyline, Christ’s birth in a stable, dominates the foreground. The secondary narrative, the annunciation to the shepherds, occurs in the middle distance. The principal figures, including the ox and ass, are modeled with evenly modulated light. They have a sense of early Renaissance volume and weight lacking in the rather flimsy Gothic architecture of the stable. A brightly colored choir of angels watches over the Christ Child, and God sends down the dove of the Holy Spirit in a shaft of divine light to illuminate the newborn, who lies in an aureole of straw and light that signals His divinity.

There is some debate as to whether this panel was part of a small chapel altarpiece or intended for use in a domestic setting. Last year, a student from Florence wrote to The Hyde asking for particular information about our panel. She thought she might know the altarpiece from which our Angel came. The piecing together of dismembered altarpieces, often by studying physical elements such as the thickness of the panel and the pattern of growth rings, is an emerging field of research. It educates art historians in the more practical and physical aspects of art production. I have tried to follow up, but, as of yet, still await news of her findings.

Lots 15.  Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel.

Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1444-1510), Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel, n.d., tempera on panel (23 x 15 ½ in.). Photo credit: Sothebys.com.

 

This is the auction item that everyone is talking about. It sold for $80M (with commissions, etc., it came to $92,184,000). There was little drama in the sale itself. The opening bid was $70M. The sale ended five bids later, in increments of $2M, at $80M. With commissions and fees, the work topped out at over $92M, the most ever spent for a Florentine Renaissance Master.

As in the della Robbia discussed above, the artist uses the architectural framing within the piece to push the figure forward. Through the illusion of a finger extending beyond the painted lower ledge, Botticelli suggests that the young man is real and actually standing in the viewer’s space. Elegance is the watchword for this painting. It is present in Botticelli’s use of line and form and in the artist’s self-assurance and that bestowed upon the figure and character of the sitter. These are qualities that we can sense in The Hyde’s small predella panel depicting the Annunciation.

Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1444-1510), Annunciation, ca. 1492, tempera on panel (7 x 10 9/16 in.). The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, Gift of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.10. Photography by Joseph Levy.

 

Mary reacts in a graceful and demure manner as Gabriel glides in to the loggia where she was reading her devotional book. The angel’s robes flutter, perhaps a little fussily. Where our sadly abraded panel gives only a hint of Botticelli’s command of delicate shades and tones, the remarkably well-preserved Sotheby’s portrait gives ample evidence of Botticelli’s mastery of tempera painting.

The roundel the young man holds is a very peculiar detail. It is a separate work of art by the Sienese artist Bartolomeo Bulgarini from roughly a century earlier, and it has been pieced into Botticelli’s panel. Quite what Botticelli meant to signify by this is debated by scholars.  Was he suggesting a genealogical link between the two, a shared character trait, or perhaps a strong devotion by the young man to the unidentified saint?

School of Haarlem (Dutch, 1600-1699), Portrait of a young man holding his gloves and wearing a tall hat, his arm akimbo, oil on panel, an oval, (10 by 7 ½ in.). Photo credit: Sothebys.com.

 

I was curious about the next lot, rather cautiously identified by Sotheby’s as “School of Haarlem, Portrait of a Young Man Holding his Gloves, circa 1615.” I thought immediately of the small oval portrait in Hyde House dining room that we now attribute to the Circle of Frans Hals.

Circle of Frans Hals, (Dutch, 1580-1666), Portrait of the Artist’s Son, ca. 1630, oil on panel (7 7/16 × 6 1/2 in.). The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, Bequest of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.21. Photography by Michael Fredericks.

 

Like ours, the Sotheby’s painting was once thought to be by Frans Hals himself. Hals (1580-1666) is famous for portraits that both in the manner of their execution and in the personality of their sitters, are full of dash and swagger. In the catalogue entry, Sotheby’s favored an attribution to a contemporary of Hals, Willem Buytewech (1591-1624). The market didn’t agree. Bidding started at $30,000 for this small oval work that measures 10 x 7½ inches. It finally came to a stop after helter-skelter bidding at $390,600 (with fees)! There were plenty of bidders, who evidently thought this to be by Frans Hals. Would someone care to reconsider our painting? Like the Sotheby’s piece, the Hyde portrait was authenticated as a Hals by William Valentiner, but subsequently downgraded by several scholars, among them Seymour Slive, who reattributed the Sotheby’s work to Buytewech.

Hubert Robert (French, 1733-1808), View of a Garden with a Large Fountain and View of a Walled Garden Courtyard, n.d., oil on canvas (99¼ x  56¼ in.). Photo credit: Sotheby’s.com

 

It was a detail in Lot 39, the eponymous fountain in Hubert Robert’s View of a Garden with a Large Fountain, that caught my attention. It recalled to mind the vertical jet fountain in The Hyde’s drawing, Château in the Bois de Boulogne, ca. 1780.

Hubert Robert (French, 1733-1808), Château in the Bois de Boulogne, ca. 1780, graphite on paper (9 3/16 x 15 3/4 in.). The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, Bequest of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.103. Photography by Steven Sloman.

 

Such powerful vertical jets of water first became popular in French garden design at Versailles, where they symbolized the power of the Sun King. By the eighteenth-century, pleasure rather than power was the primary objective of art, architecture, and garden design. Robert was popular among the French aristocratic elite for painting large-scale decorative schemes for their grand houses. He often depicted pleasure gardens, bucolic scenes, and romantic ruins. In 1778, the painter was appointed designer of the king’s gardens. In the  Sotheby’s piece the vertical jet of water makes a suitable compositional focal point in a panel that measure 8’ 3” in height.

A similar jet fountain appears in a decorative room panel signed and dated by Robert in 1773, executed for the financier Jean-François Bergeret de Frouville. Exhibited at the Salon of 1775, it was entitled The Portico of a Country Mansion, near Florence, and is now in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Hubert Robert (French, 1733-1808), The Portico of a Country Mansion, near Florence, 1773, oil on canvas (80 3/4 x 48 1/4 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Lucy Work Hewitt, 1934, 35.40.2. Photo credit: Metmuseum.org.

 

In our drawing, Robert drew a actual fountain, one that dominated the parterre behind the Château de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne, on the outskirts of Paris. The château was built by the Comte d’Artois, the brother of Louis XVI. Marie Antoinette had bet him that he could not build his little pleasure palace within three months. Designed by the architect Francois-Joseph Belanger (1744-1818) in the Neoclassical Style, the party house was constructed in just 63 days. Robert decorated its salle de bains with six panels that depicted the Italian countryside, classical buildings, and various forms of entertainment, like dancing, swinging, and bathing. These panels, too, now reside at the Met.

Jacopo Robusti, called Jacopo Tintoretto (Italian, 1518-1594), Portrait of a Bearded Man, 1560s, oil on canvas (23 3/8 x 18 in.). Photo credit: Sothebys.com.

 

Jacopo Robusti, called Jacopo Tintoretto (Italian, 1518-1594), Portrait of the Doge Alvise Mocenigo, ca. 1570, oil on canvas (21 1/2 x 15 1/2″); The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, Gift of Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, 1971.49.

 

I have taken this last work out of turn, but I thought I would end with a comparison of hipster beards. Lot. 23 was Jacopo Tintoretto’s, Portrait of a Bearded Man. It was probably painted within a decade of The Hyde’s Portrait of the Doge Alvise Mocentigo (ca. 1570). The two share many traits. They are both portraits of self-possessed, wealthy men. Their dark somber clothing signals that. They dress according to the dictates of the style-setter for courtiers, Baldasare Castiglione (1478-1529), who wrote that “the most agreeable color is black, and if not black, then at least something fairly dark.” Presented at only bust length, their torsos turned slightly away from the viewer but engaging directly with their eyes, these portraits convey a sense of intimacy and dialogue. The sitter’s face emerges from a dark background, its features modeled in warm lighting.

There are no known preparatory drawings by Tintoretto for portraits. He seems to have worked directly on the canvas before him. This would have appealed to his primarily male sitters because it undoubtedly reduced the number and length of sittings. As a side note, while it was acceptable for a man to sit or his portrait in a painter’s studio, it was not for a woman. Inconveniently for the portraitist and patron, the painter had to set up his easel and paint with oils in a female sitter’s house. Thus, the cost of a woman’s portrait was often more expensive. The conservative taste of the Venetian elite ensured that the compositional characteristics of this portrait had not changed in a generation. Where Tintoretto excelled was in the mastery and boldness of his brushstrokes and the accompanying speediness of execution. Notice, particularly in the Sotheby’s painting, the freedom and liveliness of the white brushstrokes with which he defines the shirt collar, distinguishes between the sitter’s beard and dark clothing, and spatially locates the different elements of the body within the otherwise ill-distinguished depth of the painting. Patrons valued Tintoretto’s masterly touches with the brush, the contrasts between areas of thickly applied paint and those where it is so thinly applied that one can discern the weave of the canvas. Working with accepted conventions, Tintoretto was able to convey something of what made his bearded male sitter unique.

There is always something of the wishful shopper, when I flip through a sales catalogue. But I am always excited when I discover something that relates to a work in our collection, and I ultimately never cease to marvel at the judicious purchases made by Louis and Charlotte Hyde.