2.15.17 — Gilding the Laurel

Pierre Gouthière played a role in the foundation of the Louvre. It was not the role he wanted.

In late 1797, the French Ministry of Finance ordered the sale of two alabaster vases “of mediocre quality” to help fund the museum. That description may not ring true today for gilded mounts that Gouthière had fashioned some twenty years before. The Frick goes so far as to claim that they “capture . . . blossoming laurel . . . as if cast from nature.” Yet the master gilder had seen his patrons dead, his finances in ruins, and his art a thing of the past.

It takes a leap into the past even to describe his art as nature. His subjects included the fantasy or exoticism of nymphs, dromedaries, African heads, and ambiguous gender along with leaves, snakes, door knobs, and ram’s heads. They grow so intricate as to all but dissolve into a weave of gold. Gouthière may have been gilding laurel, but he was surely also gilding the lily. He met standards of realism that Revolutionary France had begun to set side, in favor of Neoclassicism. A show of him as “Virtuoso Gilder at the French Court” brings that style to life through February 19.

It offers a welcome lesson or two, even for someone like me with little love of excess. The Frick has always held furniture and the decorative arts, although one might walk right past them on the way to paintings. A commission here once shared a room with the museum’s holdings of Jean Honoré Fragonard. As its first sampling of a living artist, it has invited Arlene Shechet into its portico gallery, to curate Rococo porcelain and her own. Now, though, it installs the gilding downstairs, in rooms more often dedicated to prints and drawings. It shows the gilder at work and on the make.

That first lesson comes with effective use of new media, from a museum that has often leapt ahead of others with its Web site. A video explains Gouthière’s craft, and a touch screen allows one to flip through the results. They introduce vocabulary like firedogs (or the public face of andirons), thyrsi (or the staff of ivy and pine that Bacchus carried), and dégraissage (or paring back, from an artist with no penchant for restraint). He had a hand every step of the way, from the creation of a wax mold for bronze to gilding and burnishing. For him, chasing meant cutting into metal with tool after tool—not just to shape it, but also for a wealth of detail. That intricacy only increases over the course of his career.

Gouthière did work from designs by architects and classical models, because he played well by the game. Born in 1732, he quickly took over a patron’s workshop and married the man’s widow. He went around the merchant who had secured him work from the future king of Poland, put down the silversmith with whom he had partnered, and became gilder to the king of France in his mid-thirties. Where the court divided between supporters of Marie Antoinette, such as Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and the king’s mistress, Gouthière succeeded with them both. Yet key patrons died soon after the revolution, stiffing him, and he hardly worked again until his death, bankrupt, in 1817.

He shows no sign of fatigue. The curator, Charlotte Vignon, opts for neither chronology nor theme. Like Gouthière, she pretty much piles it on. One can spot clearer masses early, but in time Greek porphyry, green marble, and Chinese porcelain must compete with fine leaves and chains. A dromedary’s hair rises like flames, as if from Gouthière’s sconces, incense burners, and firedogs. “Form follows function” is a distant dream away.

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1.20.17 — The Last Mannerist

With his Repentant Magdalene, Guido Cagnacci may have created the last Mannerist painting—and the craziest. Just for starters, where is the repentant Magdalene?

Oh, you can find her easily enough, but nowhere near the painting’s center. And yet you will have trouble turning away from just that, even in a painting wildly off-center. There an avenging angel strides forward, to the left, in an exaggerated contrapposto turn that might mark the ultimate triumph of the Renaissance or a bitter parody. Guido Cagnacci's Repentant Magdalene (Norton Simon Museum, c. 1660–1663)A garment spins away as if carried by his twist.

He is pummeling a devil that nonetheless levitates in front of him with its own splayed limbs and glossy flesh tones. Their axes of rotation, at right angles to one another, tear the painting that much further apart. What exactly are they doing, and is this even an angel? One wing rises so improbably that it could pass for a headdress. Light picks out their struggle between good and evil, but from a window barely up to the task of illumination. And then a whole other source of light tail off to the right, where two servants hasten to leave, with good reason. They also join in their own twist, like two sides of a single body, dark and light.

As for Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who encountered Jesus, she lies prostrate before them all. She also belongs to the Baroque after all, the period after the late Renaissance and Mannerism. Caravaggio helped create that era in the 1590s with his repentant Magdalene, lost in thought, her jewels fallen to the ground. A pool of light stands for a revelation, a greater naturalism, and a new inwardness—much as it would for Jan Vermeer. He also painted Mary finding her true nature, as her sister holds up a mirror. Cagnacci takes elements from both versions, without their newly personal and somber spirit.

His painting at the Frick, from shortly before his death in 1663, continues a series of fruitful exchanges with the Norton Simon in Pasadena. Here the loan of a single painting argues for Cagnacci’s importance, through January 22. You may not have heard of him, but then even his contemporaries had their doubts. He had a reputation for half-length figures, like his Cleopatra slumped in death. A second version adds not legs but half a dozen other bare-breasted women, swarming about her corpse like her inner demons set free. Patrons demanded four full-length figures this time out, and they got six.

Born in 1601, Cagnacci has every claim on the new century. His soft edges and softer flesh take him beyond Mannerism, thanks to Guercino and Guido Reni. So does the blue sky at right, approaching Nicolas Poussin. His life parallels that of Caravaggio as well. He spent much of it on the run, including several love affairs, and died in Vienna. Still, his wildness and excess seem out of another age.

Mary and Martha, too, point in every direction. Martha gestures to the allegory at left, but Mary fixes her gaze on her sister. So many jewels lie about that she could hardly have worn them all, with one last gold bracelet clutched tightly in her hands. She has also cast off an elaborate dress and slippers—leaving her all but nude even in shame. Nor is Cagnacci altogether on the side of the angels. He creates so luxuriant an interior that you, too, may wish to repent. And then he signs the painting, in one last boast, beneath Martha’s feet.

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9.30.16 — Behind the Lines

Perhaps you go to the Frick to escape this world. Perhaps you go to the Rococo, too, to escape this world, with all that period’s overindulgence and flights of fancy. Now, though, the museum returns to the very founder of the Rococo, Jean Antoine Watteau, only to find a world at war. Jean Antoine Watteau's Portal of Valenciennes (Frick Collection, c. 1710-1711)

The Frick still has the stately beauty of its Fifth Avenue mansion and a precious quiet even when it is full. (No children!) It has a collection that rewards contemplation rather than rushing from room to room. You may find echoes of yourself in a saint in contemplation of nature and divinity at that, thanks to Giovanni Bellini or to Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. For now, though, the Frick has Europe at war. And Watteau was there to witness it.

The War of the Spanish Succession has been called the first world war, although some might argue instead for the Sixty Years War during the Reformation. While the conflict largely skirted France, whose king was attempting to replace the king of Spain, Watteau had ample opportunity to go behind the lines, while still in his twenties. He could observe soldiers as not just agents of war but men. They could indulge in a moment to socialize or to themselves, in idleness or fitful sleep. The artist had little patience for images of valor anyway—like world leaders on horseback for Diego Velázquez in painting before him or Jacques-Louis David to come. In the process, he invented the moment to moment record of world events in art and photography today.

This being Watteau, it was always an extended moment. “Watteau’s Soldiers,” at the Frick through October 2, brings together four paintings and a dozen drawings, most from around 1710, to show him observing closely and reassembling his observations, without a compositional study in sight. The process helps account for his work’s enormous intimacy and sadness, grounded in empathy and realism. He combines two or three figures on a single sheet, at times the same man. Then he recombines them in oil, where their gazes cannot meet. The drawings seem accomplished and composed, the paintings a panorama of isolation and inaction.

The Frick has a special fondness for the Rococo along with more stately pleasures, as with “Watteau and His World” before. It has its period rooms for the period’s sillier side, with Jean Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher. And Watteau invented an era along with its antidote, starting with the freedom of his harlequins and women. Even his scenes of military life have the picturesque along with their frankness. One may associate Watteau, music, and theater, but of course drummers do accompany the troops, and this is a theater of war. One may not expect women in their company, dressed for a day in the country, but they were present, too.

In one painting the line of war lies beneath trees, with an eye across a grassy plain to smoke and fire far in the distance. In another the supply train has darkened, with broader areas of heavy color. Jean Antoine Watteau's Man Playing the Guitar (private collection/Morgan Library, 1717-1718)At times their actors interact, like a threesome that could almost be dancing or a procession on its way to safety or to hell. Just as often, though, they fall apart into a series of disparate stories—at ease, asleep, or maybe even dead. Their mix of dignity, helplessness, and reticence appears in the painted faces, with eyes as little more than points, and in the sketches, almost exclusively from the back. The show includes a Flemish precursor, Philips Wouwerman, and two followers, but there is no mistaking Watteau’s honesty and rapid gestures.

On paper they run to parallel strokes in red chalk, often with the addition of darker and narrower curves to lend clarity and weight. On canvas they may range within the space of an inch from detailed figure studies to something more like cartoons. In a painting from the Frick itself, The Portal of Valenciennes, the outline of a face and disheveled hair thrown up against a wall could be shrieking in horror or pain. In chalk, a man face down could well be crying, and a kneeling figure could be praying or awaiting the whip. Still, other men have arms akimbo, pipe in hand, or rifles to their side at obvious ease. They all belong to the pageantry of war that history may choose to forget.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.