Rarely viewed outside of their native Puerto Rico, this collection of masterworks reminds us that art and allegory can combine forces to both entertain and enthrall
left: Charles Melin, Assumption of the Virgin, ca. 1630, o/c, Collection Museo de Arte de Ponce, Foundacion Luis A. Fwrre, Inc., Ponce, Peurto Rico
“All things human hang by a slender thread; and that which seemed to stand strong suddenly falls and sinks in ruin.” -Ovid
Rarely do we experience the extraordinary resonance of Old Master works in the context of a traveling museum exhibition. Their power and drama is often stripped by slick installations. But Masterpieces of European Painting from Museo de Arte de Ponce feels right at home in the hushed, if not spatially constrained galleries of the Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT (from June 13 – September 6, 2009
Works by Lucas Cranach the Elder, (1472-1553), Peter Paul Rubens, (1577-1640), Francisco de Zurbaran, (1598-1664), Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Francisco Goya, (1746-1828), to the Academic work of Jean-Leon Gerome (1804-1924) and others, synchronize intellectually and physically with the space. As if a succession of worthy ancestors whose visages are enticingly lit, these 50 plus works span nearly 500 years of painting to reveal the tales of classical mythology, Biblical stories, Tennyson’s poetry and the minutiae of daily life.
Inspired by a European trip in 1950, Puerto Rican industrialist Luis Ferré acquired major examples of 14th through 20th c. Italian Baroque, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and – underrepresented here – British Schools of painting in a fevered period of collecting. Reubens specialist Julius Held, spurred Ferré’s connoisseurship, advising that: “The only thing that matters is that the picture – any picture, that is – is of high quality.” The result was the founding of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, designed by modernist, Edward Durrell Stone in 1962 and currently undergoing renovation.
The collection bears emblematic European themes to the west. Works such as Philippe de Champaigne’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple, c. 1648, executed in preparation for a Parisian high alter, becomes an icon of religiosity. Raimundo de Madrazo Y Garreta’s late 19th c. painting Woman Seated in the Garden exudes a lushness that invites one to “stick their nose in it” as noted by Executive Director Peter C. Sutton, who brought the exhibition to the Bruce Museum for its only Northeast venue.
Curator Cheryl Hartup and Associate Curator Richard Aste have culled works that demand inquiry or allow legibility and demonstrate painting styles that range from exactitude to gestural. Readily accessible is Ruben’s Head of the Oldest of the Three Kings (The Greek Magus) ca. 1620, depicting Caspar’s reverie. Luminosity reverberates from his upturned hands cupping a lustrous bowl to iterations of silken hair that frame his face like rings around an alabaster stone dropped into an unfathomable sea.
Narratives that are removed by time, exemplified by Pompeo Batoni’s Antiochus and Stratonice, and Francesco Furini’s Cephalus and Aurora force us to reach back into history. These ambassadors for Ovid’s message of transience in an un-ironic, florid, even frivolous time are enhanced here in a layering that is at once grounding and exhilarating
Collector, Luis Ferré was said to be reminded by his advisor, Julius Held that, “Art is not acquired from one school or another; nor should a museum be dedicated to that purpose. A museum and its art is there for the centuries.” This portion of the Ponce collection, to be on view in just a handful of cities in the U.S., serves as an example of the timeless quality that beauty and lessons from the past have to teach us today.
by Diane Dewey, Contributing Writer