The January sale of Old Masters in New York reflects on both the Academic and the dark, poetic faces of the Italian Baroque. It includes a beautiful, early Virgin Annunciate by Annibale Carracci, which is touched with the sweet naturalism that characterizes his early work and whose nervous, flickering brushwork reflects an interest in late Venetian Renaissance art. The Carracci Virgin is complemented by an exquisite canvas by his great admirer and artistic successor, Carlo Maratti. This Tobias and the Angel was owned by the prominent New York dealer, Durlacher, whose director Kirk Askew was a pioneering evangelist for an appreciation of the Baroque in the 1920s. It was he who persuaded the legendary museum director Chick Austin to include it in his Exhibition of Italian Painting of the Seicento and Settecento in 1930 at the Wadsworth Athenaeum. It was later owned by another dealer and famous advocate of the Baroque, Roddie Thesiger, director of Colnaghi in the 1970s.
Of all the so-called movements in the history of Italian art, the Baroque has perhaps experienced the most violent vicissitudes of fashion. Its most famous exponents include the Carracci family, Caravaggio, Domenichino, Guido Reni – whose magnificent Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia will be a highlight of the January sale – Guercino, Salvator Rosa and Maratti. Its virtues have been trumpeted by writers as various as Reynolds, Ruskin (in his youth), Waagen and the Sitwells, while its ‘excesses’ have been criticized by the likes of Roger Fry, Winkelmann – who coined the term as an insult – Ruskin (in his maturity) and more recently artists such as Frank Stella. A masterpiece by Domenichino, the Saint John the Evangelist, was regarded by many as his finest single-figure painting and in 1804 Napoleon’s brother, Lucian Bonaparte, reputedly offered 7,000 scudi for it. In 1899, in the wake of Ruskin’s and others’ sustained attacks on the perceived overblown rhetoric of Seicento painting, Martin Colnaghi was able to acquire it for a derisory 70 guineas. In 2009, at the depth of the financial crisis, it was sold for £9.2 million to an American private collector. Its export was denied and it now hangs, on loan, at the National Gallery, London.
That sale was a timely reminder, not only of the inconstancy of fashion, which perhaps affects art no less than hemlines, but also of the return of an appreciation of the Italian Baroque. What makes this all the more interesting is that Domenichino is the epitome of, since Ruskin, the most indigestible of Baroque painters. Following in a tradition which stems from late Raphael, later taken up by Annibale Carracci and the ‘divine’ Reni through to its final great exponent Maratti, this important vein is, on the surface, an entirely different aesthetic from the revolutionary realism of Caravaggio and his followers which became the more acceptable face of the Baroque in the 20th and 21st centuries. It has been claimed that the explicitly rapturous, Catholic message of so many Baroque paintings is a hurdle for today’s audience. This was not the case for such great collectors as Barbara Piasecka Johnson, who was most active in the 1970s and the 1980s, nor was it the case for the many collectors who competed this July to own some of the great paintings she had acquired which her estate sold, including a masterpiece by the Neapolitan Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, a brooding Riberesque Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Luca Giordano, and a deeply devotional portrayal of the early Christian martyr, Saint Praxedis by Johannes Vermeer after a prototype by the Florentine Felice Ficherelli. I discussed this phenomenon with two of the American museum curators most closely associated with bringing Baroque art to their museums and thence to a wider audience, Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, New York and Patrice Marandel, the Robert H. Ahmanson Chief Curator of European Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Both advise private collectors and both have acquired numerous Baroque paintings for their own institutions. “There are still people,” says Marandel, “in fact a lot of people, who respond to Baroque paintings. I am having fun putting things up on Facebook, and I am getting an amazing response, especially from artists who look at Old Master paintings. It doesn’t die when you put it on your wall. It’s never dead. These people are really passionate. It’s not just a bank transaction.” Keith Christiansen corroborates the interest in this field but points to three types of paintings for which there is a particular appetite. “The simply great works of art like the Domenichino, pictures which are intrinsically beautiful which you could see in any type of interior” – he cited as an example the Gandolfi Diana and Callisto, which sold for $4.1 million in 2010. The upcoming sale includes an heroic large-scale Aeneas and Anchises by Gaetano Gandolfi – “and those with a naturalistic edge which can be related to Caravaggio.” Speaking of whom, Marandel adds, “people really like artists with big bios. What is less exciting than Poussin’s life? Caravaggio’s… it’s like a script for a movie.” “People buy what appeals,” says Christiansen “and have the money to do so.” This image-driven appetite may explain the extraordinary success at auction of paintings by relatively unknown Baroque artists such as Cavarozzi or Pulzone, but that notwithstanding Christiansen, Marandel and new collectors in the field clearly see buying opportunities in this area. “The Met continues to buy Baroque paintings because you get incredible value for your money,” Christiansen says. Marandel expressed the same idea a different way, “I am going to have a horrible time [getting interest in Baroque art] because it’s not expensive enough. I’m having difficulty because the market is truly behind.” Private collector Dick Hedreen agrees. “Because I am looking at modern masters and seeing the extraordinarily high prices in that area Baroque art seems very fairly priced.”
Today’s collector of Baroque art is educated and has a trained eye. Dick Hedreen is one of the most interesting, having begun as a collector of Abstract Expressionism, Color Field art, Pop art and Francis Bacon. He continues to add to his superb collection of modern masters but has increasingly been drawn to Old Masters, in particular the Baroque. His interest defies categorization. He is instead drawn exclusively to quality. He says, “there was a period in the 16th and 17th centuries when there was an extraordinarily skilled group of artists...you can’t miss the quality of their work.” Hedreen is, moreover, influenced by the work of curators such as Christiansen and Marandel who organize significant exhibitions which excite new collectors. It was in the wake of seeing the Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he decided to find an Orazio for himself.
Eventually he found and bought privately an exquisite small work by Gentileschi painted on marble.
The darker side of the Baroque is represented in the sale with a magnificent Liberation of St. Peter by Salvator Rosa. Almost certainly acquired by Lord Chesterfield directly from the artist in the 17th century, this fierce, dramatic painting illustrates Rosa’s statement: “I do not paint to enrich myself, but purely for my own satisfaction, [so that] it is necessary to allow me to be carried away by the transports of enthusiasm and use my brushes only when I feel myself rapt.” Is it this sense of the artist’s spontaneous inspiration underpinned by a deeply understood knowledge of what makes a painting work that appeals to today’s audience, just as the Baroque ‘Old Masters’ appealed to contemporary artists including Cy Twombly and the Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline? At a time when the hope for stability in a post-Cold War world is now called into question, perhaps we are open to the same need for reassurance that the classical tradition of the Carracci and Maratti delivered in the turbulence of the 17th century or perhaps, instead, we are moved by the wild, nocturnal dramas conjured up by the likes of Rosa and the Caravaggesque artists who preceded him.
At a time, also, when many of the great artists – from Bacon to Freud, even de Kooning and Twombly –worked in a more figural idiom, maybe a generation whose taste was formed by that aesthetic also find themselves surprisingly responsive to the great artists of the Seicento. Marandel suggests “people look at the 17th century thinking about the 20th century. They look at art through Guernica. This is something they really understand.” Hedreen describes how a portrait by Pontormo “faces down the gallery and looks at a 1975 de Kooning. I think they really speak to each other.” Whatever the reasons, recent events in the marketplace have shown that there is a renaissance in the taste for the Baroque.