Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2007
Thomas Loughman, ed. Fierce Reality: Italian Masters from Seventeenth Century Naples Exh. cat. Milan: Skira, 2006. 176 pp.; 52 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $30.00 (8876249745)
Exhibition schedule: Phoenix Art Museum, December 10, 2006–March 4, 2007
Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, ed. Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Treasures from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Exh. cat. Portland, OR: Portland Art Museum in association with Rijksmuseum, 2006. 144 pp.; 104 color ills.; 9 b/w ills. Cloth $29.95 (1883124239)
Exhibition schedule: Dayton Art Institute, September 30, 2006–January 7, 2007; Phoenix Art Museum, January 27–May 6, 2007; Portland Art Museum, May 26–September 16, 2007
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Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1615–21). Oil on canvas. 159 x 126 cm. Museo di Capodimonte. Courtesy Phoenix Art Museum.

This spring Phoenix, Arizona has become a center for Baroque art. Under the able leadership of James K. Ballinger, Director, and Thomas J. Loughman, Curator of European Art, the Phoenix Art Museum is hosting two major exhibitions of European seventeenth-century art, and for one of these, Phoenix is its sole venue. In the last decade, the museum has organized other major Baroque exhibitions, most notably in 1999 with Copper as Canvas: Two Centuries of Masterpiece Painting on Copper, 1525–1775; but scheduling two concurrent shows on seventeenth-century art—one focusing on the Mediterranean city of Naples, the other on the Dutch Republic—offers museum visitors a rare opportunity to think broadly about art of this period, while studying works that have rarely, if ever, been seen outside of Europe. The Phoenix Art Museum is to be commended for committing so much gallery space to Old Master topics, when there is frequently pressure to appeal to the broadest possible public by selecting familiar artists for monographic exhibitions or focusing on modern and contemporary art.

Fierce Reality: Italian Masters from Seventeenth Century Naples explores the evolution of Neapolitan art from the compelling realism—in scenes of city life, still life, and landscape—of the Carravaggisti in the opening years of the seventeenth century to the exuberant style of Luca Giordano and the triumphant, grandiose manner of the early eighteenth-century Rococo. A teeming metropolis, the second largest European city after Paris, Naple’s population tripled over the course of the seventeenth century, creating an enormous demand for art. This exhibition includes fifty-one paintings by both native and foreign-born artists, almost all drawn from Neapolitan museums, most notably the Museo di Capodimonte. The general public as well as specialists in the field will profit from this exhibition, especially since a survey of Neapolitan art has not been seen in the United States since the 1980s.

Fierce Reality includes canonical works like Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, and paintings by such major masters as Luca Giordano, Giovanni Lanfranco, Salvatore Rosa, and Jusepe de Ribera. Although his works are not exhibited here, Caravaggio’s presence is nevertheless felt, since he so profoundly affected Neapolitan art. Caravaggio twice briefly visited Naples, and his influence underlies the finest works in the exhibition. Ribera’s Saint Andrew, shown naturalistically as an elderly man with leathery skin, dirty fingernails, sunburned hands, and powerful arms, gazes up at a luminous heavenly light as he quietly accepts his martyrdom. A different aspect of Caravaggio’s art is embraced by Francesco Guarino, who shocks the viewer with his Saint Agatha, a beautiful woman whose seductive glance and elegant hand contrasts with the bloodied white cloth that she holds against her mutilated chest. By contrast, Carlo Sellitto’s Cecilia creates a hushed mood, with its large empty darkness above, four angels who dimly emerge from the shadows below, the innocent young saint who plays her organ at center stage, and the exquisite gracefulness of the foreground angel, his face lost in shadow as he strikes a dance-like pose. In this exhibition, it is often the little-known and long-neglected works that are the most compelling, and the organizers are to be commended for their intelligent and sensitive selection of works that deviate from the obvious, popular, and predictable. Little-known but remarkable works include Aniello Falcone’s threatening Schoolmistress, an unusual scene of Adam and Eve Mourning the Body of Abel by Battistello, and Bernardo Cavallino’s joyous Singer. A scene of a courthouse seems to summarize the contradictions of seventeenth-century Naples. The piazza before the tribunal is filled with elegant carriages, lawyers, and magistrates, as well as boys throwing rocks, an artist’s stall, destitute beggars, and a debtor being publicly shamed. The paintings in the exhibition are spectacular, revealing what Nicola Spinosa aptly terms in the catalogue the “painterly intensity and extraordinary communicative power” of Neapolitan painting (36).

The catalogue includes two essays illustrated with comparative images, one by Spinosa that surveys Neapolitan art of the Baroque era, and another, by Giuseppe Galasso, that provides a thorough and fascinating study of the political, economic, and intellectual life of the city. All the paintings are reproduced in color, sometimes also in detail, and discussed in catalogue entries written by Loughman and a team of Neapolitan scholars that list relevant bibliography and discuss the artist’s biography and style, along with the painting’s subject, dating, and patronage. The longer essays are at times awkwardly translated and would have benefited from footnotes and a map, but the catalogue is invaluable for anyone with an interest in Italian Baroque painting.

The second exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Treasures from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, presents a cross-section of seventeenth-century Dutch art. While the Rijksmuseum is undergoing major renovations, portions of its collection are on loan to museums in Europe, Asia, and the United States. The show in Phoenix, which comprises ninety paintings, prints, drawings, ceramics, and goldsmith works, is significant in part because it represents the single largest loan from the Rijksmuseum to the United States. It is not simply the size and breadth of the exhibition that are impressive, but also the high quality of its works. Exquisite objects, such as a nautilus cup in a gilded silver mount, join fourteen works by Rembrandt and paintings by such renowned artists as Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Gerard Ter Borch, and Hendrick Ter Brugghen.

The exhibition opens with a room of religious art and images of churches. Other sections focus on topographical views of Amsterdam, landscape, still life, works on paper by Rembrandt, genre painting, and portraits of the elite. Like the Neapolitan show, it is not the intellectual conceptualization of the exhibition that excites the viewer but rather its visual rewards. Gerrit Houckgeest carefully observes the colored light reflected from a stained glass window onto a white column. Paulus Potter sensitively describes the bone structure and variations in hide of the cattle in his Hilly Landscape (1651). The quizzical expression of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661) draws us in, but only a close examination reveals the multitude of pigments on his loaded brush.

The catalogue opens with a brief essay by Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, who traces the history of collecting Dutch art in the United States. She focuses on the development of the collections in Dayton, Portland, and Phoenix—the venues of the exhibition—and a few Dutch paintings from these museums are illustrated. A second, longer essay by Ruud Priem synthesizes current research and is organized according to the same principles as the exhibition. No map or footnotes are included, but a “suggested reading” list concludes the catalogue. Each work is illustrated in color, some in detail, and each is discussed in the context of the artist’s life and his or her place in the development of Dutch art. Geared for a general audience, these essays sometimes make unsupportable claims. Although Priem argues that “painting provides us with a window to a world just as it existed four hundred years ago” (17), he later contradicts this by noting that compositions were created from multiple drawings in the studio, genre paintings were constructed to express a moralizing viewpoint, and portraits of wealthy merchants were adjusted so as to suggest that they were really aristocrats. Similarly, Priem claims that “the high average quality of the works . . . makes the phenomenon of Dutch painting unique” (19), but the paintings produced in trecento Siena or fifteenth-century Flanders are equally of “high average quality.”

The two concurrent exhibitions at the Phoenix Art Museum present an interesting comparison. The Neapolitan show consists solely of paintings, whereas its Dutch counterpart adopts the successful strategy of the recent exhibition At Home in Renaissance Italy at the Victoria and Albert Museum, by integrating material culture and fine arts. Both exhibitions survey the art production of a single European region in the seventeenth century, and both begin with the followers of Caravaggio, the critical figure of early seventeenth-century European art. Both Naples and the Netherlands began as outposts of the Spanish empire. In fact, in his essay Galasso observes that the Neapolitan middle class looked to the Dutch Republic as a model for how to free themselves from Spanish domination (31). By the end of the Baroque era, however, Holland had become an economic leader, whereas Naples had been reduced to a poorer and more marginalized player on the European stage (32).

In fact, commerce is a subtext of both exhibitions. Cultural exchange was international in seventeenth-century Europe. Ribera moved from Valencia to northern Italy, to Rome, and then to Naples. Matthias Stomer, featured in the Neapolitan show, was active in Belgium and the Netherlands, before spending four years in Naples. A group of Dutch artists, including Jan Asselijn, visited Rome and then painted Italianate landscapes. Many works also show evidence of the effects of early capitalism. In Naples, Micco Spadaro painted an uprising by the poorest classes of society. And against a backdrop of ships in the commercial port of Amsterdam, Ludolf Backhuysen contrasted the colorful, expensive garments and elegant greyhound of a wealthy couple with the torn, monochrome clothes and stray dog of fishermen seated nearby.

By seeing the two exhibitions simultaneously, it becomes clear that the Dutch works excelled in global exchange. Their ceramics competed with those from China. A North Netherlandish silversmith transformed a nautilus shell from the Indonesian coast into a drinking cup. Dutch still-life paintings include products from around the world. But Dutch art betrays a sense of unease concerning wealth, which is less apparent in the Neapolitan paintings. A gilded Tabernacle contrasts the Virgin, Child, and instruments of the Passion with a pile of coins. Whereas Rembrandt portrays Jan Six as an intellectual reading one book while a pile of additional books lies nearby, Jan Davidz de Heem represents the vanities of this world through a still life of books. One of the proper uses of money is represented as well: Rembrandt portrays a man giving alms to a needy family of beggars.

Economics affects today’s art world as well. Whereas no additional charge is required to view Fierce Reality, the purchase of a ticket is needed to enter Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. With so little public funding for the arts, this exhibition is designed as a blockbuster show. In order to draw crowds, its title focuses on Rembrandt, although he represents only a small portion of the show. Indeed, Dutch art is much better known in the United States than Neapolitan painting, and the Dutch had a greater influence on American culture. But as the introduction to the Rembrandt catalogue suggests, twenty-first century Americans also feel comfortable with the seventeenth-century Dutch, a middle-class society of merchants who were focused on global commerce. There is much to learn about history and culture from both these shows, which challenge us to explore our own attitudes toward wealth and commerce while offering us an abundance of visual riches. Thanks to the Phoenix Art Museum, Baroque art is flowering in the desert.

Diane Wolfthal
Professor, School of Art, Arizona State University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.