Saturday, December 11, 2010

Theseus Gem

The black agate intaglio of a youth set in rose gold ring.
gem measures 23 x 15 mm.

Dear Reader,
Yet another gem has entered my life, found with an antique jewelry dealer in NYC. It is an image of a heroic youth wearing what I first took to be a lion skin as a helmet as Alexander had in his coins, carved into black agate, and set in a Victorian rose gold ring engraved on the back with initials and the date, "July 23rd, 1880".

View of the back showing the inscription.

It was assumed by the dealer, and myself, that the gem has to be 18th, 19th Century, given the ring, the hard polish of the surface, and the extended oval with a lot of negative space around the carving, more than is typical in ancient gems. However what grabbed my attention as the quality of the carving and image; it is very direct and unfussy in execution and yet fierce. The large open eyes, bulging Scopaic brow reminiscent of Alexander the Great's images, the hair which springs up from the forehead, and the unpolished carved areas of the skin and hair, and the polish of the animal skin remind me of the best of ancient intaglio carvings. Usually the Neo-Classical copyists did not get the spirit of ancient work right, they are usually fussier and finer in detail than ancient work, showing off their mastery of the craft.

Another photo showing the intaglio in reflected light.

When I first saw the gem I assumed the skin on the head was the typical lion skin, known from images of Hercules who slew the Nemean lion and wore it as a helmet, and adopted by Alexander the Great in his portraits portraits and coins. Mithradates also adopted the lion skin to identify himself with Alexander and by extension Hercules. However upon closer examination once I got the gem home I realized that this was no lion skin but improbably, the head of a skinned bull with little horns and the legs tied around the neck with hoofs at the ends like a bow. Thinking that this might be an 18th Century carving inspired perhaps by an Ancient Greek Coin of some Hellenistic ruler who adopted a variation of the animal skin helmet, I searched my coin catalogues in vain. But not being a numismatist, my library is limited so I sent an email of the gem to a friend who is a coin and gem collector/dealer, Hadrien Rambach. He replied in minutes telling me that it was an image of Theseus wearing the skin of the bull of Marathon, and was after a gem in St. Petersburg. Thankfully the gem collection of the Hermitage is online, and I was able to find it see below.

(Image from the Hermitage website, of their gem.)
Head of Theseus, Ancient Rome.
Workshop of Hylloes, 1st Century BC to 1st Century A.D.
Cornelian, intaglio 2.7 x 2cm
Source of Entry: Collection of the Duke or Orleans, 1787

While beautiful, the St. Petersburg gem is not as finely carved as mine, the hair and animal skin are not as finely detailed, the carving of the face not as well resolved. However it is inscribed with the initials of Lorenzo de Medici, who once owned it, an incredible provenance. If this gem did not have that inscription and was brought to me, I would wonder about its antiquity given the not very accomplished carving.

A little about the subject; Theseus is the hero who is the mythological founder of Athens, and follows the example of Hercules in that he accomplished a series of exploits paralleling the labors of Hercules. Son of Aethra, a princess of a small city near Athens, he had two fathers, her husband Aegeus the king of Athens, and Poseidon, and as such Theseus had both mortal and immortal qualities. Aegeus took up with Medea when she abondoned Jason of the Argonauts, and he left Aethra in her familial kingdom with her son Theseus. He left his sandals and sword under a huge rock, telling Aethra that when their son was grown strong enough to move the rock himself, that they would prove his royal birth. When Theseus was old and strong enough, he moved the rock and took the sword and wore the sandals traveling to Athens and having adventures along the way. When he arrived at Athens, Aegeus did not recognize him, but his sorcerous wife Medea did and feared for the succession of her own son who she hoped would inherit the throne. So she convinced Aegeus to send Theseus to capture the Marathonian Bull on Crete, a terrible beast she hoped would kill him in the attempt. Of course Theseus accomplished the feat, and after sacrificing the bull is on this gem depicted wearing it as Hercules did the lion skin. One of my favorite parts of the myth is when Theseus returns to Athens and Medea recognizes who he is but his father does not, she convinces the king that this powerful youth was dangerous and serves him a cup of poisoned wine. Just as Theseus takes the cup, the father recognizes his sword and sandals, realizes this is his lost son and knocks the cup out of Theseus's hand saving him. I am not sure what happens to Medea, but rest assured, she does not die, merely flees. For her power, ruthlessness and ability to get away with things I admire her. She kills her own brothers to aid Jason's escape, kills her own children by Jason when he takes up with another princess and kills the princess and her father with a dress that bursts into flames, escapes in a chariot drawn by flying dragons, and next we see her as the wife of the King of Athens. What a fascinating mythological figure, I wonder what her real symbology and origin is.

The connoisseurship of ancient gems is very difficult, in that they were highly sought after from the Renaissance until the 20th Century, and widely imitated and emulated by some of the greatest glyptich artists who ever lived. In the early to mid 19th Century engraved and carved gems, cameos and intaglios, could be as valuable as houses to give you an idea of relative value. A contemporary engraved portrait intaglio had the same value as a painted one by Gainsborough or Romney bemoaned Lorenz Natter, (the same Natter who carved the Hostilianus gem in a former post on my blog), in his book "Traite de la methode antique de graver en pierres fines", printed in London in 1754. (According to The Romans of Seals and Engraved Gems, by Beth Benton Sutherland published my Macmillan 1965.) After the Paniatowski scandal and the doubt it created, the interest in gem engraving waned. The scandal was that his princely collection of carved gems was sold at Christie's London in 1839 as ancient, and it turned out to be that they were all commissioned by the prince, i.e., not ancient, really fakes if they were passed off as such. For the past one hundred years gem engraving has not been valued as an art form, although some exceptional older gems get high prices.

To sum up the case against this gem being ancient; the long oval of the stone and larger negative areas around the carving than most ancient gems have, and the bright hard polish of the flat areas. In favor of possibly being ancient; the carving style which is right on for ancient, and possibly the scratches and nicks on the stone's surface and edges, which seem incongruous given that the ring itself is in very good condition. The stone does sit up over the gold setting and is more exposed to damage, so that might account for the damages to it. I will just have to continue to research the gem and will relate back any findings. If not ancient it may be possible find out who engraved it, it is by one of the very best artists in the media, whatever period it was done.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Story of a gem; Discovery, disappointment and the joy of learning

Dear Reader,
I live to find things, and frequently my hunches are proven correct, many times there is no way to fully prove a piece, and then sometimes I am just wrong. This story is a case of being wrong on my initial hopes, but surprisingly, I am very happy as I have learned a great deal and still own yet another precious piece of history.

The story starts with a visit to a friend on 47th St. in NYC, in the jewelry district. My friend is a dealer in antique jewelry and frequently he has pieces with engraved gems. This day he showed me a beautiful engraved imperial Roman portrait in chalcedony, set in a Georgian gold ring. The assumption he made was that the gem was also 18th Century, but when I looked at it I thought it might be ancient, and bought it. (see below)

Intaglio of a Roman Emperor, carved in blue chalcedony, set in a gold ring.
The gem measures 2.25 cm long.

The gem seen in transmitted light from the back.

You can see in the photos above the incredible quality of the carving. At first because of this high quality, I assumed it had to be Julio-Claudian, a period which represents the apex of gem engraving in antiquity. However the chopped military hair cut is not typical of imperial portraits of the time, the Julio-Claudian emperors sported long locks with distinctive arrangements which differed emperor to emperor and is one of their identifying attributes. However the profile is very close to that of Caligula, and he had a military upbringing so I thought perhaps it was him. However a gem enthusiast who got in touch with me at this time and to whom I sent images of the gem to, pointed out that not only was the hair style wrong, but so was the cloak with its prominent button completely wrong for a 1st Century date. He presumed it therefor to be an 18th century forgery. Then, in a subsequent correspondence he made the leap in thought to the 3rd Century AD and identified the subject as Gordian III, in which case the hair and cloak all were exactly correct. We at this point assumed the gem to be ancient as an 18th Century engraver would not do a gem carving of this quality of an obscure late emperor of little note. So it had to be ancient!

Certainly the coin portraits of Gordian III look a lot like the intaglio, although there is something about it which is not quite identical, which I attributed to the different media. See below:

A gold coin of Gordian III, which corresponds in all respects to my gem, the wreath, cloak and profile. The face is not identical though but very close, at least the profile is.

Needless to say I was thrilled and sent photos to Max Bernheimer of Christies who has a great interest in ancient gems and jewelry. After a first excitement and highish estimate, he asked about its history. I had none for it, the jewelry dealer I purchased it from had got it from two men whose collection of jewelry he bought. They were all over place in terms of taste and quality and this fine piece was not typical of their collection and there was no history as to where they got it from. But I told Max that obviously the gem had a history, it was set in a Georgian ring, but that my library was inadequate to fully research it.

The ring from the side showing the multi layered bezel setting and decoration of the shoulder.
It is clearly an 18th Century setting.

It turned out that Max does have a good library, a day later I got an email with good/bad news. The gem is from the Marlborough Collection, and earlier the Bessborough Collection, going back to the mid 18th Century. This is the most distinguished provenance you could hope for with a gem. The bad news, it is from a series of 40 late emperors carved my Natter to complement the Bessborough Collection which he cataloged as well. Based on gems and engravings, every effort was made to make the gems identifiable and true to Roman types. At first I was disbelieving, happy to have a piece with such a illustrious history, but disappointed my gem was thought not be ancient. My first thought, was who said it was 18th Century? However prompted by Max's revelation, I found the Beazley Archive, which has the entire collection illustrated online in impressions and photos of the gems. And there I found the impression of my gem, marked as by Natter, and described as lost.

The online image on the Beazley Archive website of the wax impression of the gem, described as being of Hostilianus, and whereabouts unknown.

Seeing it online was quite a surprise, and I better understood how Max knew that it was in the Marlborough collection but the identification as Hostilianus surprised me, and also I wondered why it was thought to be by Natter. The Marlborough collection, started by the 3rd Duke of Marlborough in the early 18th Century was greatly increased and developed by the 4th Duke whose acquisitions brought it up to 800 gems. The Dukes bought individual gems, but also acquired entire collections, most notably the Arundel collection created in the 17th Century and then the Bessborough collection which had been published in a catalog written by Laurent Natter in 1761. After the 4th Duke died in 1817, his collection of gems was sold by his family en bloc in 1875 to David Bromilow, who then sold it piecemeal in 1899 at an auction at Christie's London. The gems were dispersed and most lost to scholarship. The Beazley Archive under John Boardman's direction is attempting to relocate the lost gems, out of 800 only about 300 have known whereabouts. To have found one quite by accident is very exciting.

A silver coin of Hostilianus from 250 A.D. Image taken from the Auktionshaus H.D. Rauch, Vienna website.

I guess the coin of Hostilianus looks something like the gem, but he was usually depicted with a radiate crown, not just a laurel wreath. It is not as close a resemblance as it is to the coins of Gordian III.

Once I started looking at the documentation on the Beazley Archive website I learned that Natter described my gem as being of Hostilianus and it was part of a suite of 40 intaglio portraits of later Roman Emperors commissioned to fill out and complement the Earl of Bessborough's collection. It is thought that he carved the suite of himself, although I wonder about that, there is some variety stylistically within the group and it would be a great deal of work to carve so many really fine gems. It is not clear from the catalog that he carved them himself, what is clear is that they were carved for Bessborough, and are therefor all 18th Century.

What I find remarkable about this is how well documented this gem is. See below the scanned copy of the original catalog written by Natter in 1761 of the Bessborough collection.

This is the title page of Natter's catalog.

And here it is, Natter's description of the suite of Roman Emperors, translated here by a friend:

"Series of the Roman emperors from the Second Triumvirate to Valerian.

I shall observe merely that these portraits have all been copied from the best medals and the best ancient engravings; the connoisseurs will easily note the resemblance; in order to further elevate the quality of this collection, the types of gemstones have been varied as much as possible."

My gem is the so called Hostilien, number 38 clearly marked as being in Chalcedony.

Above the catalog description from the 1899 Christies sale. The suite of 40 emperors was sold in bloc, and subsequently dispersed. Interestingly and a clincher is that in the description it is stated that the settings were marked with figures corresponding to the list; on the side of the bezel of the ring is a slightly rubbed 38, clearly marking it as the Hostilianus above.

While initially disappointed to learn that my gem is not ancient, I am thrilled to have something from the Marlborough collection and to have identified a gem thought to be lost that has been actively sought by scholars for years. It is also extremely rare, and rare for me personally to be able to truly get a full understanding of an object. So many objects are unchronicled and one feels that one is guessing; here I now have full knowledge and can see the evidence with my own eyes. This is a thrill for me, and reward in itself.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Natural History Museum, New York; is it the worst run museum in the City?

Hall of Northwest Coast Indians

In my newly kindled interest in Northwest Coast American Indian Art, I went to see the great collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It truly has a great collection, of not only Indian material, but an incredible pre-Columbian Collection, both from meso-America and South America. But, aside from some updated displays in the South American section, the other areas are conspicuously neglected. I have been going to this museum for 30 years now, and these areas have never been redone, light bulbs are out, the lighting is terrible and sepulchral, it is nearly impossible to see the great objects of art. And harder still to photograph, but thanks to the miracles of the newest iphone, I was able to take passable images.

I was inspired to re-visit the Northwest Coast Indian collections by my bracelet. While I found nothing quite like what I have, they have a lot of great, if unappreciated objects. One frustrating thing is that they have amazing totem poles and carved wooden columns probably from lodges, but not one of them has any identifying labels to tell you where they were from, who made them, or when. It is as if they are just decoration, when in fact they are extremely rare and important works of art, a collection like this could not be created today, the material is simply not there.
Below are some of the highlights.

These carved bone or whale tooth objects were worn by shaman as talismans, objects that relate their spirit stories and give them power to communicate with the spirits. Each is quite individual, different one from the other. Frequently human figures are featured, but always subject to animal forces, the lowest one has an enormous bird beast swallowing a small human, the mid figure has two fishmen wrestling over what appears to be a doughnut but is actually a mouth of some other beast. The top one has a human cowering between two enormous animal figures, almost Munch like.

Two more of these bone or ivory objects. The one of the left is particularly dense, the human figure is surrounded by power animals. The right one looks like an owl, made of other birds with an animal head on the bottom.

One of the totem poles, or perhaps a column from the interior of one of their lodges. No information is available on where, what or who of these, but they are fantastic. I love the way one animal has the other in its mouth, a chain of life. In the Northwest Coast Indian culture, it is not about one animal eating another, as much as transmitting power one to and from the other. Not that one animal was not eating the other but here for example a killer whale is shown with a seal in its mouth, with a bear biting his tail. Bears don't and can't eat killer whales but both are powerful creatures so in this culture I think this indicates one power leading into the other.

Better image of the killer whale, with a seal in its mouth, its tail in the mouth of a bear.

Another great pole, one figure on top of the other, and incredibly well carved.

A closer view of the pole above. I love the tiny human figure suspended upside down from the mouth of the giant bear, with another human held by another bear above.

The box above is beautiful, but the real gem of this case is the head-dress ornament of carved wood depicting a frog held gently in the hands of a human. The frog is being presented, supported and held, and wielded almost like a weapon, I imagine power radiating from the focused forward gaze of the frog. This is not an animal in panic, he is fully in command of his situation.

And of course the Pre-Columbian collections of the museum are the best of their kind in New York and probably one of the best in this country. Sadly, they were set up in the 60's, and no one has updated them since. The lighting is attrocious, and what few lights they have, many of the bulbs are out, as they were in this case with a series of spectacular Veracruz yokes in basaltic stone. They date to the 5th to 7th Centuries A.D., from one of the great cultures of Meso-America. Used or based on yokes used in the ritual ball game that was the focus of much of their religious ritual, these yokes show the interest in wrapping the object in the creature, here a frog around the piece, much as in Northwest Coast Indian art, and that of Archaic China.

Another beautiful Veracruz yoke in basalt, and another frog, this one however embellished by complicated patterns that are hard to decipher, and perhaps are yet other creatures or divine beings.

A detail of the yoke above, showing the complexity of the patterns of which this frog is composed of. In the dim light of the museum, and bad placement of the yoke in the case, it is almost impossible to make out what is represented.

While I love the collections of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, I am frustrated by the terrible manner in which so much of it is presented. It is a throwback to another era, when the art of "primitive" peoples were considered as ethnographic curiousities not worthy of a "real" art museum. Thus they are treated like so many stuffed birds or dead animals or fossils that the rest of the museum is filled with. And those are better lit than the great works of art of these collections. And it has been this way since I have been going to the museum. Yet, no end of money has been raised by the Museum, they built that huge monument to the big bang, the planetarium, which is beautiful and educational, but couldn't they find a few dollars to spruce up what should be considered some of their greatest treasures. Or they should transfer these collections to an art museum that would give the objects the respect they deserve.

The question for my readers, is this one of the worst run museums in New York and the country? Certainly not the world, many third world countries have museums equally ill displayed and lit, but poverty excuses them. But in New York? What is their excuse, except for directors who have no interest in art, with neither the ability to recognize great things nor respect for their own collections.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Haida silver bracelet

I was just in Montreal, which I will post about soon, and bought a silver bracelet by a Haida artist named John Brent Bennett. I have always admired Northwest Coast American Indian art, but don't know much about it. I respond to its highly stylized images, and the great skill and sophistication of much of the objects from those cultures. I have seen other bracelets, and so when I was in Montreal, I went to the Canadian Guild of Crafts on Sherbrooke St., quite close to the Musee Des Beaux Arts. And there were just three engraved bracelets by this Haida artist, and I chose this one because it had the most identifiable features. On wearing it, I have learned a lot about Haida art, and finally have been able to decipher the imagery. And now I understand why I love Northwest Coast Indian art; it is part of a shamanic culture that extends the rim of the Pacific Culture. You find echoes in its imagery from thousands of years and miles apart. It is no accident this, but a product of a way of looking at the world, and communing with it and the spirit world as well as a sustained tradition and contacts that account for these similarities.

Three quarters side view, showing the face with part of the side. What we are looking at is an exploded body of an animal, I think here a badger, or bear, but not sure which. The face is clear enough, the claw is apparent, less obvious is the entire arm, and the rear leg which are also done in the same stylized manner. Once you see it, you see it, before, it was just a bunch of shapes tucked together.

The other side view, you can here make out the foreleg and the rear leg with claws that curl around the bracelet.

Now you might wonder why I would post about what at first glance might appear to be a tourist trinket. Some points to be made; this is hand engraved, and deeply so, by someone highly skilled with tremendous vision and understanding of his cultural traditions. He has captured the essence of a beast in what appears first to be pure pattern. This is an example of shamanic art at its best. I had not thought such traditions could be kept alive in our modern world, I think I may be wrong. Below are the other traditions and objects that this seemingly minor object relates to in my mind.

This basalt yoke is from Veracruz Mexico dating to the 5th to 7th Century A.D., which sold at Sotheby's New York in May of 2005. (Image found on google on It is carved with a stylized image of a frog who is stretched over both sides of the yoke. I see a strong similarity and it is not an accident, both are New World cultures and even if separated by time and space, they belong to the same cultural milieu. The images are not only about spirit animals, the one a shaman would transform into in his trances, but also apotropaic, the object was animate and would ward off evil.

This is a photo of a section of an Archaic Chinese bronze vessel, showing the classic Shang Dynasty toatie mask, which is an exploded monster figure stretched out across the surface of the vessel.

Here, from another google search as was the image above, is a diagrammed taotie mask, with the parts labeled. The same diagrammatic depiction as on my Haida bracelet.

The visual similarity between these archaic chinese toatie masks, my Haida bracelet and the pre-Columbian yoke is not coincidence, despite there being thousands of miles and years apart. As said before, they were all shamanic cultures, where the shaman was taking drugs going into a trance to commune with the spirit world. While not much is known about the more ancient religions, we do know a lot about that of the Haida and other Northwest Coast American Indians, as they are still with us and much tradition has been passed down. They are essentially animist, seeing spirit in all living things, animals being seen as prey and spirits that must be respected and appealed to for their own prosperity and protection. Who is to say we cannot work backwards taking the visual similarities and think that the ancient Chinese also saw the natural world in a similar manner? Or the pre-Columbians?
Such are the musings I have on what some might regard as a tourist trinket.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Worcester Art Museum

Courtyard of the Worcester Art Museum

I just went to Boston to go to the museums and had dinner with a friend. While I love the museums in Boston, for the research I was doing, it was not particularly productive. But it is always good to see great art, which there is plenty of between the Museum of Fine Arts, the Gardner Museum, and Harvard's Sackler Art Galleries. As I was about to leave Boston I thought, why don't I visit Worcester, where I have never been, to visit its renowned museum. A quick map search showed me how to get there, and after a quick visit to Harvard, off I went to Worcester. I was rewarded by seeing some great things, the Worcester Art Museum is well worth a visit. It is not small, but not large, sort of a good size, and has some very distinguished things. American Paintings are not my thing, but they do have a very choice collection of them. This post is my picking just a few things that struck me, this is hardly meant to be comprehensive.

Another view of the courtyard, showing the justly famous mosaic from Antioch, the largest ancient Roman mosaic in this country. Dating the the Third Century A.D., it depicts animals threes, hunting, with a foliate border. On the floor of the central courtyard, it is under an enormous mural by a contemporary artist, juxtaposing the classical with the modern. I did not pay much attention the painting, while well done, it just did not capture my attention.

Chapter House, from the Benedictine priory of St. John Le Bas-Nueil.
West Central France, Limestone, 1150-1190

Off the Antioch Mosaic courtyard is this lovely room with columns and vaulted ceilings, something like what you see at the Cloisters in New York. I personally love period rooms and this is a great example of medieval architecture.

Limestone statue of Hetepheres,
Egyptian, Old Kingdom, early 5th Dynasty, ca 2440 B.C.

This extraordinary torso, epitomizes the spare elegance of early Egyptian sculpture. Here the slim female form is revealed under her thin dress with subtle modulations of the surface. You see here the human form at its most pared down, yet naturalistic depiction, something the Egyptians mastered. You see this form in Southeast Asian sculpture, and other early formative periods, but the Egyptians did this first. Being nearly life-size, this is among the finest Egyptian sculptures in America despite is fragmentary condition.

This capital is incorrectly identified in the museums label which describes it as being carved of marble, Roman, First Century A.D. Instead it is in fact limestone, and I think it is Greek from Taranto, and dating to the Fourth Century B.C. Quite a difference in rarity and importance since large scale architectural elements from Taranto are nearly unknown, I had never seen one before, so was surprised and happy to see this. Also a bit surprised that the museum so misunderstands it.

Marble statue of Hygieia, Roman, 2nd Century A.D.

This marble statue is quite beautiful, and well preserved, and while lacking its head and lower arms is nonetheless quite intact for an ancient sculpture. Also being life size or just over life size, it is quite impressive with its beautifully detailed drapery revealing the voluptuous form underneath. A very good example of Classical sculpture at its best.

Marble portrait of Caligula, Roman, First Century A.D.

This remarkably intact and beautiful head is one of the best surviving portraits of Caligula, who for his fearsome reputation to us today, inspired some of the best Roman imperial portraits ever. Truly a beautiful idealized portrait, and a world class object. The surfaces are nearly perfectly preserved, the slight but beautiful traces of burial encrustation, the relatively free carving of the hair, and sensitive carving of the face, along with its completeness set this head apart.

Bronze portrait bust of a woman. Roman, 2nd Century A.D.

This is another remarkable portrait, both for its completeness, its material bronze, and quality. Most ancient bronze sculpture was melted down by later peoples for the making of weapons, coinage etc. And then there are the vicissitudes of time and environment destroying bronze through corrosion. So to have a complete, intact, beautiful portrait of a young woman is quite rare. On the label it says this is possibly a daughter of Marcus Aurelius, which would fit the age and style of the bust, but one hardly needs to know who this is to appreciate its beauty.

Granite statue of Shiva, Indian, Chola Period, 10th Century A.D.

This belongs to a small group of very beautiful, complete statues of the seated god Shiva, here with four faces, which are one of my favorite expressions of Indian Art. I first took notice of the type when Sotheby's was selling off the Albright Knox collection, and when I paid attention to the type, I have found only two others, one in the Metropolitan Museum in NY, and another one in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. To the list I now have to add this one in Worcester. What is remarkable about this group is their consistency, while there are slight differences, they are all about the same size, and are uniformly beautifully carved. One thing I like about these figures and is common to the sculpture of the Chola period, is the slim waist and erect posture giving the figure an energetic feel. Another world class object.

Limestone Stela, from State of Campeche, Mexico.
Maya, Late Classic, ca 850 A.D.

Unbeknownst to me, Worcester has a very fine Pre-Columbian collection, of which this is the star. A very rare thing, a complete stela of monumental size, this hardly exists in museums in this country. Even the Natural History Museum in New York and the Peabody at Harvard have only plaster casts of such monumental works, so to find this in Worcester was a surprise to me.

Portrait of an Ecclesiastic.
Atributed to Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio.
Italian, Florentine School, 1483-1561
Oil on wood panel.

And of course the Worcester Art Museum has great paintings, lots of them, in the tradition of an encyclopedic museum of European art, as any aspiring city such as Worcester in the early 20th Century had to have. I have a fondness for the beautifully painted portraits of the 15th to early 16th Century, and this is truly a great one. Despite the uncertainty of the identity of the subject, or even the artist, what is undeniable is the beauty and skill of the painting itself.

Portrait of a Young Noblewoman.
Unknown artist of the School of Madrid.
Spanish, 17th Century, Oil on canvas.

This impressive, large and beautiful painting is of a type that I particularly respond to, women of high rank in these stiff taffeta dresses encrusted with borders of gold, pearls and gems. This portrait is the red sister to the green taffeta dressed Archduchess in the Clark Institute in Williamstown Mass. Here the painter is unknown, the subject also, however, her youth, beauty and almost modern face, combined with the dramatic dress make for a striking work of art.

Portrait of Samson Vryling Stoddard Wilder, by John Vanderlyn
American, 1775-1852, oil on canvas.

Just a beautiful portrait of a handsome young man, who can resist that? It was painted in 1808-1812, when the painter and sitter were living in Paris, and you can see how the painter was influenced by the technically polished work of David and Ingres.

Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. James Dunlop
by Sir Thomas Lawrence, ca 1825
oil on canvas

Sir Thomas Lawrence was one of the most accomplished portrait painters of his day, his masterful brushstrokes speak to his tremendous skill at applying paint to canvas without being fussy but very exact and yet romantic. This is a particularly beautiful portrait of a lucky, prosperous, and apparently happily in love couple.

There is much much more in this gem of a museum, it is well worth a detour to see it. I have known about it for years, but never gotten to Worcester. My next post will be about another odd gem in this town, the Higgins Armory. Worcester is surprisingly rich in art.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

King Tut!

Small gold coffinette which contained some of the kings organs.
You can see the projections behind it, and get a sense of the theatrical
nature of much of the exhibition. Still a beautiful, masterfully made object.

King Tut is back in New York, not at an art Museum, it has become so commercialized that they are holding the exhibition near Times Square in what they call, "The Discovery Center", which until this exhibition, I had never heard of before. While having fairly modest expectations I felt I had to go, it is a rare opportunity to see things from his tomb. I arrived around 11am, just as all the school kids were arriving in enormous buses. A large crowd was milling about and waiting. It turns out they were being ushered in as groups, and I went and paid my $31. for a ticket. Pretty steep. I then waited as groups were allowed in to pace the crowds in the exhibition. I feared that this did not bode well for my viewing experience, I expected to be jostled and to barely be able to see things at my own pace. Fortunately, once we watched the obligatory silly video about meeting King Tut, once inside, I had no competition for looking as much as I wanted. It turns out that most people are really not interested in looking at things closely, so I could go from piece to piece as I wanted with hardly anyone else looking at them. And it is a treasure trove of major Egyptian artifacts. While there is actually very little from King Tut himself, there are a number of masterpieces from his ancestors. The exhibition putatively attempts to put King Tutankamun in context, with objects from his immediate predecessors. One advantage of an exhibition like this is that it allows one to really see things, that when in Cairo are lost in the huge number of art objects demanding your attention. Unfortunately they did not allow photography, so I had to crib images from the web, and could not get all the ones I wanted. But this will suffice to hopefully induce you to see the exhibit yourself, it is well worth it.

Yellow sandstone head of Nefertiti.

This beautiful head is one of my favorite of the portrait heads of Nefertiti. Incredibly sensuous with the soft polish of the yellow quartzite, it combines a realistic quality with the abstracted perfection of a deity, which is what she became during the Amarna period. Originally the eyebrows and eyes were inlaid, and the hair or headdress finished in another material. This head alone is worth paying the price of admission.

Alabaster container with painted decoration and dyed red ivory details.

This beautiful container has a lion with his tongue lolling out, painted in black with scenes of the king hunting with four negro heads supporting it symbolizing the kings suzerainty over the empire as they portray the traditional enemies of the Egyptians. It is a beautiful, complicated, incredibly well executed object, and once again, you are able to really see it in isolation whereas in Cairo, it competes with the abundant treasures from that tomb.

Coffin of Tjuya, wood covered in gold plate and inlaid with glass and stone.

This coffin belongs to one of the parents of Queen Tiy, the consort of Amenhotep III, one of the greatest rulers Egypt ever had and the grandfather of King Tutankamun. While I have known of this coffin for many years, and even saw it in Cairo, it was so eclisped by King Tut's that I did not really give it the time it deserved. Here in this exhibition, it shines as it deserves to for it is truly beautiful, sublime and masterfully made.

Here is a detail of the face of Tjuya, you can see just how beautiful it is. I was very happy to truly see this great coffin and pay my respects to the one for whom it was made.

Gold covered funeral mask for Tjuya, with traces of fabric which originally wrapped the entire mummy. Again, beautiful in person, here it looks a little silly I know.

Small serpentine head of Queen Tiye.

This small, it is only just over 2 inches tall, head is a masterpiece, not only exquisitely carved with minute detail, it also captures the commanding presence of one of Egyptian histories great personalities, the Chief Queen of Amenhotep III. The daughter of commoners, her father was wealthy landowner who rose to high position during the reign of Amenhotep III. Despite her non royal blood, she nonetheless rose to greatness at her kings side. Almost alone among queens, Tiye is represented on the same gargantuan scale as her husband in many important monuments. No subservient supporting role for her, she appears as the kings equal in many monuments. The 18th Dynasty is notable for its strong women, from Queen Hatshepsut who ruled as Pharaoh herself, to Queen Tiye and Queen Nefertiti.

Alabaster head from one of Tut's canopic jars.

About as fine an image of the King as exists this stopper for a canopic jar is justly famous.

Royal isignia, gold, lapis, carnelian and glass inlays.

The boy kings royal isignia, the Ureaus, with the vulture head symbolizing Nekhbet, and the cobra head and serpent representing Uadhet, the goddesses respectively of Upper and Lower Egypt, the great divide, the two kingdoms united under the rule of the Pharaoh.
This is a remarkable object, I think one of the few to survive from antiquity, the actual royal isignia worn by the king as part of his regalia at important functions. No doubt he had many other crowns, this was sort of an everyday marker of his divine status, worn alone or under another crown. As a child the image of the Ureaus, the two heads, vulture and cobra, looking forward above the face of the king, protecting him from harm, both spiritual and physical. Pretty powerful imagery and magic. Found on the kings head, under all the wrappings and the funerary mask.

Obsidian glass head from a composite statue of King Amenhotep II.
It is about life size, this image is the best I could find online.

Represented in the postage stamp size image above is an object that I have wanted to see for decades, one of the only obsidian heads from Egypt. Like the yellow quartzite head of Nefertiti, this comes from a composite statue, where the face, and exposed skin areas were in precious stones, the crown, body and garments in other materials. Obsidian boulders big enough to make this are not common, and the carving of it is masterful. The surface has a matte finish so it looks almost like wood, only on the break on the side do you see the glassy nature of the material. It is another rarely seen object of absolutely top quality, another reason to see this particular exhibition.