National Gallery of Art – the beginning

In the second of a series of blogs on the beginnings of museum collections, I decided to write about our nation’s museum – the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The museum and its founding collection was a gift of Pittsburgh industrialist and later Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.  It was in 1928, that Andrew Mellon first expressed interest in starting a national art museum, and in December 1936 he offered his personal art collection, now known as the Mellon Collection, as well as funds to build the museum. Sadly, he died in March 1937 just as the construction of the museum was starting. It was built however according to his vision.

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi (1478), NGA ID 1937.1.22

The Mellon Collection comprised of 125 paintings, 25 of which Mellon purchased from the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia) in 1931. The young, and poor, socialist government of the Soviet Union needed money which it raised by selling off priceless treasures to millionaires like Andrew Mellon, Calouste Gulbenkian (who founded the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon), and Marjorie Post (owner of General Foods, Inc.).

The works acquired by Mellon and gifted to the National Gallery included Rembrandts, Van Dyck, Reubens, Botticelli, Velazquez, Hals, and a Chardin. Quite unbelievable that Stalin’s government would have permitted this kind of a cultural drain – but it certainly has enriched our National Gallery beyond imagination!!

(Sources: National Gallery of Art, The Washington Post).

Mughal miniatures.. by Rembrandt?

I am fascinated by the cross-cultural exchanges that were starting to take place in the world in the 17th Century, and the manner in which they manifested themselves in contemporary art. The Dutch and East India companies were trading with Mughal India and other countries in the East and apart from the spices they also brought back Mughal miniatures.

In a previous blog post, East meets West – in 17th Century India, I talked about the influence of European art on Mughal miniatures during Jahangir’s reign as a result of trade and the presence of Jesuit missionaries in the region. On the flip side, the Mughal miniatures that were brought back by the traders from Agra to the Netherlands were of keen interest to many including the most famous artist of the era, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69). He made several ink etchings of Mughal miniatures on Japanese paper – of which 23 are known to survive.

While some were more or less exact renditions, albeit monochromatic, of the colorful miniatures, in others Rembrandt showed movement – something that is almost always missing from the static miniatures. He mainly focused on the people, their mannerisms, and costumes, and ignored the intense colors and vibrant floral background of the miniatures. Interestingly, the miniatures seemed to have an influence on his later works, which can be seen in Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656). The circular seating of the figures, the appearance of the bearded Abraham, the round plate and jug all seem inspired by the Mughal miniature Four Mullahs (1627-28) and his copy Four Orientals under a Tree (1656-61).

Rembrandt, Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656)

(Sources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rijksmuseum, The Frick Collection, British Museum, San Diego Museum of Art, The Getty Museum)

The Golden Age of Letter Writing

I am quite fascinated by the number of women in Dutch paintings of the mid-1600s that are either reading or writing a letter. It is of course one of the many consequences of the Dutch Golden maritime age that the men and women were separated for long periods of time, and this was how they kept in touch. What is interesting however is how many of the artists picked up the same subject.

I think the Dutch artists of the same era liked to present the same content – it seems to be the same pattern with still life paintings, oranges and lemons in paintings, followed by swirly peels of oranges and lemons in paintings – perhaps the patrons all wanted the same content in their paintings.

Apparently, it’s not just us curious to know what gossip was being shared in those handwritten letters – there were others who tried to peek into the letters.

I started looking for paintings of people sitting at their desks and reading or studying because it’s finals week and that’s what I should be doing – then I decided to find women (instead of men) at desks when I discovered how many Dutch 17th Century Dutch paintings showed women reading and writing letters!! Quite a circuitous route – but still interesting to think of all those women sitting at home writing letters, sending all sorts of family and local gossip to their husbands and boyfriends while they were away exploring the world for months on end.

I should be focused like her and study for my exams!!

Pieter Janssens Elinga, A Woman Reading a Letter and a Woman Sweeping (pre-1682)

(Images Courtesy: Google Arts and Culture, Rijksmuseum, The Frick Collection, The Wallace Collection, Dresden Art Museum, essentialvermeer.org, MET Museum)

11 November 1620

After sailing for eight weeks across the Atlantic, the Mayflower reached Plymouth Harbor.

…but at night the winde being contrary, we put round againe for the Bay of Cape Cod, and vpon the 11. of Nouember, we came to an anchor in the Bay, which is a good harbour and a pleafant Bay, circled round, except in the entrance which is about foure miles ouer from land to land, compaffed about to the very Sea with Okes, Pines, Iuniper, Saffafrasm and other fweet wood; it is a harbour wherein 1000 faile of Ships may fafely ride, there we relieued our felues with wood and water, and refrefhed our people, while our fhallop was fitted to coaft the Bay, to fearch for an inhabitation ; there was the greateft fhre of fowle that euer we faw.

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Edward Winslow
Ferris, Jean Leon Gerome, The Mayflower Compact 1620 (1899): Passengers of the Mayflower signing the “Mayflower Compact.” Seated at the head of the chest is John Carver, Edward Winslow is holding the inkpot for John Alden who is signing his name. Seated in the chair is Myles Standish. Others shown who signed the Compact are John Howland, William Bradford, Isaac Allerton, and Samuel (or Edward) Fuller. Off to one side is Mary Chilton – who, being a woman did not sign, but in a few days will be the first person to set foot on the Plymouth Rock.

This day before we came to harbour, obfeuring fome not well affected to vnitie and concord, but gaue fome appearbance of faction, it was thought good there fhould e an affociation and agreement, that we fhould combine together in one body, and to fubmit to fuch government and governors, as we fhould by common confent agree to make and chofe, and fet our hands to this that follows word for word.”

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Edward Winslow

What followed and was signed on 11 November 1620 by 41 male passengers of the Mayflower came to be known as the The Mayflower Compact. The original version of the signed document was lost. The earliest known text of the document is found in Mourt’s Relation (1622) which provides an account of Plymouth settlement written by Mayflower passengers Edward Winslow and William Bradford.

Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers

The breaking waves dashed high
On a stern and rock-bound coast,
And the woods against a stormy sky
Their giant branches tossed;

And the heavy night hung dark,
The hills and waters o'er,
When a band of exiles moored their bark
On the wild New England shore.

Not as the conqueror comes,
They, the true-hearted came;
Not with the roll of the stirring drums,
And the trumpet that sings of fame;

Not as the flying come,
In silence and in fear;
They shook the depths of the desert gloom
With their hymns of lofty cheer.

Amidst the storm they sang,
And the stars heard, and the sea;
And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang
To the anthem of the free.

The ocean eagle soared
From his nest by the white wave's foam;
And the rocking pines of the forest roared--
This was their welcome home.

There were men with hoary hair
Amidst the pilgrim band:
Why had they come to wither there,
Away from their childhood's land?

There was woman's fearless eye,
Lit by her deep love's truth;
There was manhood's brow, serenely high,
And the fiery heart of youth.

What sought they thus afar?
Bright jewels of the mine?
The wealth of seas, the spoils of war?
They sought a faith's pure shrine!

Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They have left unstained what there they found -- 
Freedom to worship God.

Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835)

The world’s too small for walls

What a difference a day can make. The morning of November 9, 1989 started like any other day for Berliners on both sides of the wall – but by the end of the day the barrier that stood between them had fallen. Today marks the 31st anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Two nights ago, as the long-awaited (US) election results were announced, the sombre mood of the nation changed in one moment and celebrations broke out across the country.

In the words of Willy Brandt (1913-1992), German politician, mayor of West Berlin, and 1971 Nobel Peace Prize winner, “Now we are in a situation where what belongs together, will grow back together.”

(Images Courtesy: Guardian, Time Magazine, US News & World Report).

Picture of the Month

While I was looking up info for the wartime evacuation of paintings, I came across the really fascinating start to the Picture of the Month concept that was initiated by the National Gallery in London during wartime. The Gallery had just purchased and exhibited a Rembrandt painting in an otherwise empty museum. Following this exhibition, on January 3, 1942, a Mr. Charles Wheeler wrote a letter to the editor of the Times newspaper.

“because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days we need more than ever to see beautiful things. Like many another one hungry for aesthetic refreshment, I would welcome the opportunity of seeing a few of the hundreds of the nation’s masterpieces now stored in a safe place. Would the trustees of the National Gallery consider whether it were not wise and well to risk one picture for exhibition each week? Arrangements could be made to transfer it quickly to a strong room in case of an alert. Music-lovers are not denied their Beethoven, but picture-lovers are denied their Rembrandts just at a time when such beauty is most potent for good.”

In response, the trustees decided to show one picture every three weeks instead of one a week because they, “felt that many people could not spare time to visit the gallery so often and might be disappointed at missing a favorite  picture.”

The first painting selected by the museum was Titian’s Nole me tangere. The picture with its biblical subject matter that invited contemplation and its themes of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, seemed like a perfect choice for a nation at war. The picture was selected on March 11, 1942 and was on display for three weeks.

Notice in the Times
Titian’s Noli me tangere (1514)
The next Picture was an El Greco which is now called Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple
El Greco, Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (1600)

I looked through many months of archives of the Times and could only find three more such notices.

Pieter de Hooch, Courtyard of a House in Delft
JMW Turner’s Frosty Morning: Sunrise was exhibited from August 5, 1942 for one month (source: Tate Gallery, maybe the painting moved there at some point in time)
John Constable, The Hay Wain (1821) was the picture of the month from Jan 15 to Feb 14, 1943

What fun I’ve had with the research for this blog!! As always, I am amazed at the power of art to bring joy and to heal.

(Sources: Times archives and the National Gallery, London).

Hide them in caves and cellars

On August 23, 1939, in preparation for the impending war, the National Gallery in London closed its doors to the public and took down all its paintings. In addition to sending children away from London, the treasures in its museums inlcuding 1000s of years’ worth of historical documents like the Magna Carta, and its large collection of paintings had to be sent away for safekeeping.

Canaletto’s The Feast Day of Saint Roch (1735) on the move

Initially the paintings were spread-out all over England, in aristocratic homes and museums far away from London. After the Battle of Dunkirk in the summer of 1940 it became clear the German bombers would soon be targeting the entire island, and the current locations of the paintings would not be safe enough. For a while, the idea of sending everything to Canada was floated, but Churchill shot down the idea with an emphatic, “Hide them in caves and cellars but not one picture shall leave this island.”

In the end, that’s precisely what happened – the museum director Kenneth Clark sent the paintings to a large unused slate mine in Wales called the Manod Caverns for safekeeping. It was here that they spent the remainder of the war under the care of Andrew Davies, the chief curator who relocated to the Wales to be close to the paintings.

In France too, the Louvre closed its doors, officially for repair work, for three days on August 25, 1939. In three days, just 10 days before the German invasion, the treasures from the Louvre were moved to countryside chateaus and aristocratic homes all over France for safekeeping. The museum director, Jacques Jaujard, moved the paintings including the Mona Lisa in complete secrecy, so that when the Nazis entered the Louvre, they found only frames lining the walls. The details of where each painting went are still secret.

Jacques Jaujard was able to accomplish the herculean task of quickly moving 4000 pieces of Louvre’s collections because he was experienced at hiding paintings – having done it previously during the Spanish civil war in 1936 for Madrid’s Museo del Prado when the paintings were disbursed all over Spain. They were moved again in 1939, this time with the assistance of New York’s MOMA, the Louvre, and the National and Tate Galleries in London. With the support of these museums, in February 1939, the entire contents of the Prado including Las Meninas were transported to the headquarters of the League of Nations in Geneva for safekeeping.

Emptying the Museo del Prado

The Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands too closed its doors on August 25, 1939 to empty the museum under the guidance of Henricus Petrus Baard. He had started as a volunteer at the museum, and in 1939 was the museum’s scientific assistant of history. The museum’s treasures were sent to villages across the Netherlands: suddenly little villages found themselves responsible for the safekeeping of Vermeers and Rembrandts. But once the bombs started dropping, the paintings were shifted to newly constructed bomb-proof bunkers near the North Sea. The Night Watch shifted bunkers at least five times during the war.

The Night Watch waits for the war to end.

None of the paintings that were transported and stored in mines and bunkers were damaged – each one returned to its rightful place at the end of the war. I think we owe an immense and unrepayable debt of gratitude to the museum directors and the people who helped to pack, transport, store, and care for these priceless treasures during the war.

(Images courtesy National Gallery (London), Musee de Louvre, Museo del Prado, Stedelijk Museum).

Chomolungma

The other day this occurred to me – why is the world’s tallest mountain, part of the South Asian Himalayan mountain range, bordered by Nepal and Tibet – called Everest?

It all started with British India and a survey by the British in the 1800s of the entire land mass of the subcontinent. At that time, the recorded highest mountain in the world was Kangchenjunga. The survey revealed a “stupendous snowy mass” about 140 miles from the Indian town of Darjeeling, which the surveyors called “Gamma.”  This was later renamed “Peak b” when it was discovered that the mountain was higher than Kangchenjunga, and then again renamed “Peak XV” when its height became known. A few more years passed while the British surveyors confirmed their math, and then finally in 1856 its height was disclosed to be 29,0002 feet. At the same time, it was given the name Mount Everest. The name was recommended by Andrew Waugh the Surveyor general of India – who succeeded Sir George Everest in this post. I suppose he could have proposed his own name and then we would have had Mount Waugh!!

In his defense, Sir Everest did not want his name to be used, he preferred that local names be used, but the explanation for sticking with Everest is that Tibet and Nepal were “closed” and local names were therefore unknown to the British. I’m hung up on the fact that something was “closed” to the British – wasn’t technically India closed too before they started the survey?

As it turns out, the mountain was included in the first known accurate European map of China made in 1734 by French geographer and cartographer Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville (1697 – 1782). The map, “Description Geographique de la Chine,” was compiled from information gathered by French Jesuits in China. And in this map, Mount Everest was marked “Chomolungma.”

The Tibetans call it “Goddess Mother of Mountains,” or Chomolungma. The Nepalese call the mountain Sagarmatha – which roughly translates to someone whose head touches the sky. In Sanskrit the mountain is called Devgiri – of abode of the Gods. All names show reverence for the mountain and aspire to something far higher than a British surveyor of the land.

The highest peak in the US is Denali. The mountain was renamed Mt. McKinley after a gold prospector scaled the mountain in 1896 and called it that in honor of presidential candidate William McKinley.  It was officially called Mt. McKinley from 1919 to 2015, when the Obama Administration restored the name to Denali.

16 September 1620

16 September 1620: Weighed anchor. Wind E.N.E., a fine gale. Laid course W.S.W. for northern coasts of Virginia.

400 years ago, on this day, after seeing multiple delays and making unplanned stops at various ports to repair Speedwell, the Mayflower sailed out of Plymouth alone into the Atlantic, and into the pages of history books.

She carried 102 people – a motley group Separatists and Strangers – people seeking opportunity in the New World, 74 men and 28 women, and 31 children.

Bernard Finnegan Gribble (1872-1962), Loading Up the Mayflower
The Mayflower carried with the following food supply - 
Breadstuff's, including,--
     Biscuits or ship-bread (in barrels).
     Oatmeal (in barrels or hogsheads).
     Rye meal (in hogsheads).
Butter (in firkins).
Cheese, "Hollands" and English (in boxes).
Eggs, pickled (in tubs).
Fish, "haberdyne" [or salt dried cod] (in boxes)
Smoked herring (in boxes).
Meats, including,--
     Beef, salt, or "corned" (in barrels).
           Dry-salted (in barrels).
           Smoked (in sacks).
           Dried neats'-tongues (inboxes).
     Pork, bacon, smoked (in sacks or boxes).
           Salt [" corned "] (in barrels).
           Hams and shoulders, smoked (in canvas sacks or hogsheads).
Salt (in bags and barrels).
Vegetables, including,--
     Beans (in bags and barrels).
     Cabbages (in sacks and barrels).
     Onions (in sacks).
     Turnips (in sacks).
     Parsnips (in sacks).
     Pease (in barrels), and
Vinegar (in hogsheads), while,--
Beer (in casks), brandy, "aqua vitae" (in pipes), and gin ["Hollands
"strong waters," or "schnapps"] (in pipes) were no small
 or unimportant part, from any point of view, of the provision supply.

(Source: Azel Ames, The May-Flower and Her Log).