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Elegance and Wonder

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Elegance and Wonder: Masterpieces of European Art from the Jordan...
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Elegance and Wonder

Elegance and Wonder: Masterpieces of European Art from the Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Collection and works from VMFA’s permanent collection are shown together to highlight how certain pairings can spark dialogue about the purpose, meaning and importance an artwork can have on the narrative of art history.

Related Stories & Collections

Overview

Exhibited both online and in the VMFA European Galleries as a long term loan and special exhibition, Elegance and Wonder: Masterpieces of European Art from the Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Collection features paintings and decorative art objects that include religious and mythological figures, landscapes and still lifes, East Asian inspirations on European Rococo artists, and compositions from the Grand Tour. 

 Throughout the galleries, a limited number of works from the VMFA collection are displayed with objects from the Saunders collection. This story highlights those pairings to demonstrate how this collection is illustrative of one of the most multidimensional periods of European history. 

Ruben’s Sketches for the Decor of the King of Spain’s Torre de la Parada

(Left) The Abduction of Dejanira by Nessus, 1636, Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), oil on panel. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Collection, L2020.6.31. (Right) Pallas and Arachne, 1636-1637, Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), oil on wood. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 58.18.

 

In 1636, the representative master of European Baroque painting Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) agreed to create a decorative ensemble of mythological paintings for King Philip IV of Spain’s hunting lodge, Torre della Parada. Most of the scenes for this interior space illustrated episodes from the Roman post Ovid’s Metamorphoses, of 8AD. Each composition represented Ovid’s playful interpretations of myths featuring humans who were transformed into plants, animals, or other entities, united by the more general theme of passion. Although the narrative poem was the most prevalent source of inspiration for mythological scenes in art during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, Rubens’s versions of the tales reveal an originality and an ardor that rival his greatest achievements.

This myth begins as Hercules and Dejanira, his newly wedded wife, encounter a turbulent river that they must cross. Nessus, a centaur who lives nearby, offers to carry Dejanira on his strong back while Hercules swims across. As Hercules reaches the far shore, he hears Dejanira begging for rescue. In this oil sketch, Nessus, in keeping with the lustful reputation of centaurs, is attempting to kidnap the young bride, who turns to look at him with a startled expression. Soon after, a poisoned arrow flies from Hercules’s bow, killing the centaur and preserving his wife’s virtue. Beginning with myths, epics, and images in ancient Greece, centaurs have frequently symbolized the uncontrolled passion and treachery of barbarians in contrast to the civilized behavior of enlightened humans. 

In Greek mythology, the mortal Arachne was widely renowned for her mastery of the art of weaving. She foolishly challenged the Roman goddess Pallas Minerva to a weaving contest, and Pallas rose to the challenge with a tapestry illustrating the dreadful fates suffered by mortals who dared to challenge the gods. Arachne’s submission presented scenes exposing the destructive passions and treachery of the gods. The tapestry in the background of this painting provides a glimpse at one of these scenes: the abduction of the Phoenician princess Europa by the god Jupiter, who has transformed himself into a beautiful white bull. Driven by envy, Pallas scrutinized Arachne’s work, but could not find a single flaw. In the foreground of the painting, the enraged goddess batters Arachne without mercy, which caused the terrified mortal to hang herself in despair. The tale ends with Pallas transforming Arachne into a spider doomed forever to weave pale, silvery webs. 

Louis-Léopold Boilly’s Genre Scenes

(Left) The Unburdened Musician, c. 1789‒1793, Louis-Léopold Boilly (French, 1761-1845), oil on canvas, The Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Collection, L2020.6.3. (Right) The Electric Spark, ca. 1791, Louis-Léopold Boilly (French, 1761-1845), oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund, 73.31.

 

Boilly’s charming domestic scene captures the persistence of the theatrical character of bourgeois culture during the earliest period of the French Revolution. The viewer is invited to witness an intimate and humorous episode from the daily life of a young musician. Seated, he leans on a pianoforte with his eyes closed and his hand pressed to his forehead, as though overcome by the distress of creative exhaustion. A young woman has entered through the doorway. She smiles affectionately, apparently amused by her lover’s melodramatic temperament, as she attempts to slip a bound volume from beneath his arm. Scenes of messengers, servants, or lovers intruding into a private space constitute a touchstone of Dutch genre painting, although the drama that played out between the anonymous figures in those paintings usually had heavily moralistic overtones. In contrast, this lady’s attempt to ease her lover’s anguish embodies the lighthearted pleasure and playful eroticism that defined Boilly’s own epoch.

Boilly’s smoothly painted genre scenes captured the spirit of middle-class Parisian life, often with witty, sensual undercurrents. In this painting, a young couple visits an alchemist, at the right, who sits with his assistant amid the tools of his ancient profession. Surprisingly, he is turning the wheel of a recent invention, an electrostatic generator, which is attached to the statue of Cupid drawing his bow. When the young woman touches the tip of the arrow, she will receive an electric shock. Electrical demonstrations were highly popular entertainments in the Age of Enlightenment, as natural philosophers looked for rational explanations of the natural world. The couple depicted here resembles the man and woman in The Unburdened Musician, another of Boilly’s paintings on display in this gallery, and the women even wear the same dress. This obvious similarity suggests that Boilly conceived the two works as episodes within a united narrative, thereby situating this painting from VMFA’s permanent collection within the same series as the one from the Saunders Collection.

The Kushan-period sculptural production of Gandhara was stylistically very different from that of Mathura. The impassive and idealized countenance of this Gandharan figure contrasts with the warmth and inner vitality of the Mathura faces. Working in stucco, a type of plaster, the sculptor formed the face with molds and then fashioned the hair by hand. This head would then have been attached to a body made of a simple concrete and covered with stucco. The entire image was probably tinted with bright colors.

Theatrics of Social Life in the Age of Enlightenment

(Left) A Serenade Near a Fountain, ca. 1725, Jaques de Lajoue (French, 1687-1761), oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Collection, L2020.6.68. (Right) The Gazer (Le Lorgneur), ca. 1716, Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684-1721), oil on panel. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 55.22.

 

Colorful, lush, and bursting with fantasy and wit, the art of Jacques de Lajoue perfectly embodies what came to be known as the Rococo picturesque genre in early 18th-century France. The artist was a decorator as well as a painter, and inventive depictions of dreamlike park and garden scenes like this one were immensely fashionable as decorative panels. Lajoue’s paintings and decors were intended to surround his aristocratic patrons with the creations of his fantastic imagination. He often incorporated surprising interactions between the painting’s human characters and the inanimate figures that decorated sculpture or architecture in the composition. This work features two actors of the commedia dell’arte (a popular form of improvised theater using stock characters and situations) serenading a lone woman, each man apparently hoping to seduce her with his talent. This trivial scene of everyday desires occupies only a small portion of the canvas. Clearly, Lajoue preferred to devote considerable space to the lavishly ornate and monumentally sized fountain. Although the woman’s reaction is not visible to the viewer, the sculpted nymphs that laze upon the fountain appear completely enamored with the performance. 

Jean-Antoine Watteau’s colorful palette, sketch-like brushwork, and wistful tableaus were so different from the academic paintings usually accepted by the French Academy that it created a new term, fete galante, to describe his works. This new genre offered tantalizing, dreamlike glimpses into the amorous amusements of elegantly attired French aristocrats, usually set within a garden or park.

In this idyllic scene, a young man in a striped, shimmering costume strums a guitar as he gazes at a young woman toying with a fan. Behind them, the flute player leans toward the woman but keeps his eyes on his fellow player. Watteau frequently included stock characters from popular theater productions in his scenes, which sometimes leaves viewers wondering whether these figures are actors playing aristocrats or aristocrats emulating actors. The woman and two male performers in Serenade near a Fountain, a painting by Jacques de Lajoue also on this wall, were probably inspired by the trio of figures in this work.


Francisco Guardi: Reflections of Venice

Francesco Guardi 1712-1793) was the only artist to rival Canaletto (1697-1768) as Venice’s most accomplished vedutista, or cityscape painter, in the second half of the 18th century. Although his earliest vedute were heavily influenced by the precise architectural draftsmanship and sunny weather in paintings by Canaletto, by the 1760s, Guardi was elaborating on a distinctive pictorial technique comprising glazes, fluid brushstrokes, and tiny dots of precisely applied pigments. This innovative approach to the vedute tradition attracted a steady patronage, especially from many international tourists passing through Northern Italy. 

Piazza San Marco, 1775–85, Francesco Guardi (Italian, 1712–1793), oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C . Williams Fund, 53.36

The Piazza San Marco (or Saint Mark’s Square) had been Venice’s political and religious center since before the Middle Ages. The painter’s east-facing perspective includes the monuments that enclose the square on three sides. Its eastern end is dominated by Saint Mark’s Basilica, a cathedral church built in the Byzantine period to serve as the state sanctuary and site of official religious and civic ceremonies. The basilica was attached to the Doge’s Palace, depicted to its right. Obscuring the gothic-style facade of the palace is the freestanding tower of the campanile, a bell tower that had stood in the piazza since the 12th century. The three-story arcades of the Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove (the old and new procuracies, respectively) extend along the north and south sides of the square. These were the offices and residences of high officers of state in the days of the republic. Fashionably dressed members of the city’s upper class stroll around the square, enjoying the fine weather of a late afternoon. This seat of Venice’s ruling elite contrasts with the mixing of social classes in Guardi’s canal views 

Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s Depictions of Antiquity

(Left) Roman Palace Burning, 1767, Pierre-Jacques Volaire (French, 1729-ca. 1790), oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Jordan and Thomas A. Saunders III Collection, L2020.6.36. (Right) The Eruption of Vesuvius, ca. 1780, Pierre-Jacques Volaire (French, 1729-ca. 1790), oil on canvas. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Bequest of Dr. Bernard Samuels in memory of his mother, Kathleen Boone Samuels, 60.39.11.

 

The volcano Vesuvius, which destroyed the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in 79 AD, was active again throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and excited intense interest. Artists throughout Europe travelled to southern Italy to observe and paint this marvel. Some recorded the eruptions to illustrate the principles of the new science of geology, while others simply painted picturesque scenes of this sublime natural event. The elegant onlookers in the foreground are mostly tourists rather than scientists.

This dramatic painting was completed during Volaire’s fifth and final year living in Rome and is the French artist’s first depiction of a large-scale conflagration. Themes of catastrophe and natural disaster would become central to his art after he moved to Naples later that year, where he witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the legendary volcano that had violently eradicated the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the first century. The event had been widely anticipated and attracted tourists from across Europe, and the expectation of the spectacle likely influenced Volaire’s choice of subject for Roman Palace Burning. The nighttime scene combines contemporary motifs with a blend of elements of real and imaginary architecture. On the left appears the terrace of the early 18th-century Port of Ripa Grande, while the circular tower and the colonnade engulfed by intensely luminous flames evoke the ancient Roman temples of Romulus and Saturn. This alarming capriccio (imaginary scene) allegorically connects the burning of Rome by Emperor Nero in 64 ad with the economic crisis that occurred under the reign of Pope Clement XIII beginning in 1758.