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Art Collection Curatorial European

From the Collection–Miss Frances Lee by Francis Cotes

Francis Cotes (English, 1726-1770), Portrait of Miss Frances Lee, 1769. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William D. Vogel M1964.5. Photo by Larry Sanders.

The Milwaukee Art Museum has in its collection a beautiful portrait by Francis Cotes, one of the highlights of the Museum’s Gallery of 18th century English and Italian Works (gallery #7, main level).

Cotes’ story is an interesting one.  Francis Cotes’ (English, 1726–1770) fame as a portrait painter in eighteenth-century England was surpassed only by that of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough—and many feel that if he had not died so early in his career at age 44, his name would not have faded into obscurity.

Cotes was particularly talented in working with pastel, evident even in his oil paintings which use bright yet delicate colors and contrasting textures.  Examples of pastels by Cotes are at the Cleveland Museum of Art and in The Frick Collection.  Some oil paintings by Cotes are in the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the National Museum of Wales.

Cotes was particularly successful with likenesses of children, since they have an unaffected immediacy lacking in the more formal, decoratively detailed society portraits.  Portraits of children can be found at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Speed Museum of Art.

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Art Collection Curatorial European

From the Collection—Portrait by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein

In 1988, the Milwaukee Art Museum purchased a painting by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein, one of the most important German portraitists of the early 19th century. Up until that point, most of the paintings in the Museum’s German collection were from the second half of the 19th century, so this was a significant acquisition.  You can find it on the bright blue wall in Gallery 9.

The portrait is a fantastic example of German neoclassical style blended with Biedermeier attention to detail. The upper-class gentleman, dressed expensively and with his jewelry prominently displayed, sits comfortably in an elaborately carved chair. The chair, with a griffin as the armrest, is gilded and upholstered in dark blue—an interpretation of ancient Roman furniture. Behind him is a gilded desk with marble top, again a quote from the ancient world, and a window with a luxurious dark red velvet curtain pulled up to show a city in the distance. The sitter is well-educated, shown by the books spread out on the table and the roll of paper with writing in his hand. He also wears the Maltese Cross on his jacket.

The question is, who is this man?

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Art Curatorial

From the Collection—Caspar David Friedrich

Although the Milwaukee Art Museum has a fantastic collection of German art, one of the things I wish we had is a painting by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840).

Friedrich is one of the most important German artists from the Romantic period of the early 19th century, and his paintings are showstoppers. A deeply religious man from the Protestant North, Friedrich believed that both landscape and human creativity revealed God’s truth and beauty.

Combine this sentiment with artistic talent, and you have powerful and fascinating paintings rich in symbols and atmospheric effects. Here you can see some examples of Friedrich’s paintings at a Boston College website.

But, as I said, for the time being the Museum’s permanent collection doesn’t include a painting by Friedrich. There is no need to entirely despair, however, because we do have two works on paper by Friedrich. One of them, The Woman with the Raven at the Abyss, is on view right now in the exhibition Framing a Decade (on view in the Koss Gallery through April 3, 2011). This work alone is worth a visit to the show, but there are so many wonderful things included in the exhibition (and all of them in our Collection!) that you will walk away amazed. Although he had a lengthy career, Friedrich’s printmaking output was limited to eighteen etchings and four woodcuts. The designs for the woodcuts were cut into the blocks by Friedrich’s younger brother, Christian Friedrich, who was a cabinet-maker.

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Art Curatorial

Gothic Ivories Project

It’s always exciting to be contacted by colleagues at other museums about objects in the Museum’s permanent collection.  It helps us find out more information about what we have!

In early 2010, I was contacted by Dr. Catherine Yvard, the project manager for the Gothic Ivories Project at the Courtauld Institute in London.

The goal of the project was to produce an electronic catalogue of images and information about sculptures in ivory made in Europe between 1200 and 1530, as well as modern imitations.  This database, which required the cooperation of many different institutions around the world, would give researches a powerful tool.

The last comprehensive survey of Gothic ivories was published in 1924, so you can see that an updated catalogue is overdue!

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Ancient Mediterranean Art Art Collection Curatorial

From the Collection: Ancient Greek Vases

Niobid Painter Athens, Greece, active ca. 470–ca. 445 BC, Hydria (Water Jar), ca. 460 BC (detail).
Niobid Painter Athens, Greece, active ca. 470–ca. 445 BC, Hydria (Water Jar), ca. 460 BC (detail).

The Milwaukee Art Museum may have a small collection of ancient Mediterranean art, but we have some great pieces!

Take, for instance, our two ancient Greek Hydria.  Walk into Gallery 1, and you will see them in the free-standing case on the right. 

What is so exciting about Greek vases?  Well, for one thing, they are some of the only artwork that we have remaining from this important ancient civilization.  In particular, their decorations are the only hint that we have of what ancient Greek painting looked like.  Practically all ancient painting has been destroyed due to its fragility.  Greek vases survived because they were put into tombs and sanctuaries as offerings.  In fact, the accident of their survival has made them more important to us than to the Greeks, who for the most part did not seem them as great art and used them as everyday objects.

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Art Curatorial

From the Collection— Neapolitan Crèche (Nativity Scene)

It’s that time of year again!  The Museum’s Neapolitan crèche is on view in the galleries for the holiday season. You’ll find it in Gallery 4 of the Collection Galleries, with European art.

The origin of the popular Christmas tradition of re-staging the Nativity scene is usually credited to Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. The custom reached its artistic height in eighteenth-century Naples.  Nobles and aristocrats vied to outdo each other in presenting theatrical crèche (or presepio) displays with elaborate figures clothed in luxurious costumes.  In addition to the Holy Family, the scenes would include angels, putti, shepherds, the Magi, and a host of barnyard animals.  The most elaborate scenes would include daily life in Naples, such as the market, resulting in a lively scene mixing the sacred and the secular that could fill entire rooms. 

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Art Curatorial

My Favorite Portrait Miniatures

I can’t believe that we’re already at the last week of the exhibition Intimate Images of Love and Loss: Portrait Miniatures.  Once the show closes this Sunday, October 31, these incredible, tiny masterpieces go back into Museum storage.

In a world before photography, portrait miniatures were the wallet photographs or their day. Made to be held, worn, and hung on the wall of the home as a type of “family album,” the small-scale portraits afford us an extremely personal glimpse into the past.  Here are a few of my favorites: