Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Inspiring Places...The Frick Collection

Lady Hamilton as 'Nature' by George Romney

The Frick Collection in New York city is an oasis of beauty and peace for everyone who visits. Housed in the elegant Gilded Age mansion that once belonged to Henry Clay Frick, this small museum offers a lovely setting to view art as well as a comfortable place to feel in touch with history. Every time I am in New York I visit the Frick and am always happy to return. There are certain paintings that I love and check in with during my visit. In addition to its fabulous permanent collection, the Frick also has fascinating exhibitions.

One of my favorite paintings is the portrait (above) of Emma Hamilton by George Romney. I have been interested in it since I read "The Volcano Lover" by Susan Sontag. That book told the story of Emma Hamilton, Sir William Hamilton and Admiral Nelson. Emma was the muse of George Romney. She started out as the daughter of a blacksmith and went on to marry Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples. She had a scandalous affair with the great naval hero Admiral Nelson. She was an 18th-century superstar and this painting shows her in the early days as a young, unaffected teenager at the outset of her career.

When I went to the Frick's website, I learned some interesting information about this painting. Emma was 17 years old when she posed for this portrait commissioned by her lover the Hon. Charles Greville. She was a beautiful young woman and Greville hoped to make some money by selling Romney's paintings of her. However he eventually grew tired of Emma and asked his 62-year old uncle Sir William Hamilton to take her off his hands. Hamilton did more that that; he married her. He took her to Naples where she became a sensation due to her beauty and talent for assuming "attitudes," romantic posturing achieved with shawls and classical draperies in which she became a living work of art. In Naples Emma met Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson with whom she had a notorious love affair which continued until his death in 1805. Though she inherited money from both her husband and her lover, her extravagance led her into debt and she died in poverty.

"St. Francis in the Desert" by Bellini

I also loved the exhibition a few years ago of Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert." The exhibition was about the research that the Frick undertook in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum into some the great mysteries surrounding this painting and its meaning. They used infrared technology to create the first complete image of the underdrawing that guided the artist's hand. I was impressed by the level of study and analysis that went into the process. The exhibition reminded me that museums are not just static institutions displaying works of art but vibrant institutions of learning where continual study and research keep the art alive, meaningful and relevant. It was inspiring to learn what goes on behind the scenes of our greatest museums.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein

Ever since I read Hilary Mantel's books on Thomas Cromwell this painting by Hans Holbein has taken on new life for me. I now check in with it each time I visit the Frick. It sits across the fireplace from a portrait of Cromwell's mortal enemy Thomas More. In fact, they hang face to face. We know from Mantel's book that Cromwell was a ruthless man. This painting shows his intensity in his face as well as his body language. He looks like a successful man, always on the alert and ready for anything. He is prepared to do the business of the king.

"Winter" by Francois Boucher

And for sheer delight and beauty these panels representing the "Four Seasons" by Francois Boucher always knock me out. They are simply stunning. "Winter" is my favorite. From the website I learned that Boucher made the panels for one of the homes of his major patron Madame de Pompadour and that they were probably intended for over door decorations. The subject of each painting is love. "Winter" depicts a snowy scene with a young man dressed in a Russian costume pushing the heroine in an elaborate Rococo sleigh. She wears a billowing fur trimmed gown and a little fur necklace, though her chest is exposed to the elements. She looks out at the viewer with a coy expression on her face. According to the information on the website, this combination of luxury and seduction is typical of Boucher.

On Sunday the NY Times had a fabulous article on an outreach program at the Frick that really excited me. Students at the Ghetto Film School in the South Bronx are participating in a yearlong collaboration with the Frick. The program draws on the museum's collection to inspire the storytelling abilities of young people while simultaneously building fine arts into the school's curriculum. The students go to the museum on Mondays, when it is closed, for discussions with its curator on art by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Fragonard and others. The students then write scripts inspired by the art or the setting. They choose one script to make into a film and do the filming at the Frick. What a dynamic way to get young people involved in the art world and bring art to the schools. Go here to read more. You'll be surprised at the paintings that inspired the winning script. Wouldn't it be wonderful if more museums did this kind of thing? 

Monday, January 4, 2016

New Year, Old Book

Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday season. The week between Christmas and New Year's is always a good one for browsing through books received as gifts. Or those bought as Christmas presents for yourself, which is what happened in the case of my favorite. It is a lovely old English edition of Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. The book was published in England in two volumes and this is the second one, covering the years between 1912-1941. It is subtitled "Mrs. Woolf." I bought this biography back in the early seventies when it was first published. I read it from cover to cover and probably owe my passion for Virginia Woolf and her writing to this book. My original copy is pretty tattered from all the reading and underlining and not particularly attractive. I was thrilled when I found this gorgeous edition published in England in 1973 by the Hogarth Press. And that photo is so beautiful and expressive.

Here is a little background on why this book was so important at the time. Shortly before his death Leonard Woolf invited Virginia's nephew Quentin Bell to write her biography and gave him access to all her private documents including the diaries which she kept for most of her life. In addition he had access to important archives, letters, memoirs, and unpublished works of fiction by Virginia Woolf that no one else had seen. Because of all this new material, and of course Quentin Bell's excellent writing, the book was groundbreaking and gave the first realistic portrait of this remarkable woman.

As I looked through the book I was reminded of some of the milestone events in her life. They still take my breath away. Here are a few...

1912 -- The young and beautiful Virginia Stephen gets engaged to and marries Leonard Woolf. Just back from civil service in India, Leonard arrived in London at the age of 32. He was one of Thoby Stephen's closest friends and classmates from Cambridge and a member of the Apostles, the exclusive intellectual club at Cambridge. Bloomsbury friends and family such as Lytton Strachey and Vanessa Bell had long thought Leonard a good match for Virginia and strongly encouraged the engagement. In their opinion, he seemed to be the only person worthy of her as well as the only person equipped to love and care for this brilliant and fragile young woman.

1915 -- The publication of her first book "The Voyage Out." It received good reviews and was called  an original work of genius.

1917 -- She and Leonard buy a printing press and start the Hogarth Press. Their first publication was a book of two stories: "The Mark on the Wall" by Virginia and "Three Jews" by Leonard. Although it began as a hobby to relieve Virginia's stress, the Hogarth Press became a very successful business and published many renowned British authors such as T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Vita Sackville-West.

1919 -- They buy Monks House in Sussex in order to have a country retreat near Virginia's sister Vanessa. Leonard designed a garden for Virginia and, as she earned more money from her books, they turned Monks House into a comfortable home. Both she and Vanessa hosted some of the most famous writers and artists of the time at their neighboring country retreats.

1922 -- Virginia meets Vita Sackville-West for the first time and is swept off her feet by this larger than life personality. She was fascinated by Vita's aristocratic background and spent time at Vita's ancestral childhood home Knole House. (Imagine Downton Abbey but bigger) This grand country house and estate would provide the inspiration for Virginia's later novel "Orlando." The novel was Virginia's gift to Vita who was unable to inherit Knole because she was a woman. Their friendship/affair had a huge impact on Virginia's life.

1925 - 1928 -- Virginia writes her three famous novels: "Mrs. Dalloway," "To the Lighthouse," and "The Waves." These books are considered her masterpieces. They put her on the map as one of the great modernists and, in many people's opinion, the most innovative writer of the twentieth-century. She became a literary celebrity and took part in the exciting arts and social scene that was happening in London in the twenties. She was even photographed for Vogue magazine.

1928 -- "Orlando" is published and becomes a turning point in Virginia's career as a successful novelist. It sold twice as many copies in the first six months as "To the Lighthouse" sold in its first year. She was finally making money and her brilliance was widely acknowledged. These were probably her happiest and most productive years.

1928 -- Virginia is a celebrity when she goes to Cambridge to read to the women's colleges two papers that will become "A Room of One's Own." This famous feminist book includes the line: "A woman must have money and a room of one's own if she is to write fiction."

Sometimes finding a beautiful copy of an old book can give it new life. This lovely edition made me go back and revisit a biography from long ago and the visit was definitely worthwhile.

By the way, did you watch the first episode of the final season of Downton Abbey last night?
There were Bloomsbury references! Edith shows her London flat to Rosamund and mentions writers she has met there such as Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. This was the exact year that "Mrs. Dalloway" was published. Love finding these connections!

Wishing you a year of old and new books!