This Week in Photos

First of all, do you have any idea how much taller I am than Yolima?

She fits in my pocket!

There was a flurry of activity in the North Gallery today. Make way for the new painting gallery! The times they are a’changin — and Colin couldn’t be happier:

Remember, when you are going through a strenuous period of change it is important to stay loose. Colin and I paused today for a curatorial hammie stretch — a crucial component of proper objects handling.

And, last but not least, a puzzler! See if you can find Colin in my acid-free box fort and win a special prize:

Happy Memorial Day! See you on Tuesday…

No Rest for the Leery

If you’ve ever wondered what my game face looks like, you’re in luck, because here it is in full effect. Times in my life when I’ve needed my game face include (but are not limited to): the first time I mistakenly called a Scottish person “British”; the time I couldn’t find a place to sleep in the Czech Republic and had to spend a [mostly terrifying] night in the Usti train station; and, most recently, in the moments leading up to the proper handling of our extremely valuable collection of ancient Chinese bronzes.

There is always a moment in museum work when the full weight of responsibility threatens to crush you dead. The combined force of the thousands of years this object has endured presses right through your fingers, and the terra cotta tomb figures lean in and whisper don’t slip up, you idiot.

That moment is countered by the rush of nerdy excitement you feel when you lift the first piece [and feel how heavy it is!] — when you think about the final time this bronze vessel was used as it was intended, before it was buried and left undisturbed for thousands of years, and how different the world must have been. As we were moving from the gallery to storage, Colin remarked, “the last person to drink out of this was probably about to be sacrificed.” I’ve been thinking about that all day.

The piece I was most nervous to move? This one:

Chinese, circa 1046 – 771 B.C.
Ceremonial Fang Ding, early Western Zhou dynasty
Bronze inlaid with black pigment
10.75 in. (27.5 cm) high
Collection of Florence K. Sloane, 1950
1950.0001.01(50-G-1)

Excavated in 1929 near the city of Luoyang in North-Eastern China, this dramatic tetrapod fang ding is one of the finest examples of its kind in the United States. Carbon dating and an inscription on the interior of the vessel confirm it was made during the early Western Zhou dynasty.

Meaning “square tripod,” the fang ding form is found throughout ancient Chinese civilization, including pottery versions from the Neolithic Period (c. 5000–2000 B.C) and bronzes from the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 B.C). The ding often held sacrificial offerings during religious ceremonies and was buried with its owner for use in the afterlife (mingqi). This early Western Zhou ding was most likely used for ceremonial preparation of food.

Cast in bronze and decorated with elaborate zoomorphic designs in bas and high relief, the Sloane ding accords with early Western Zhou design conventions. Each slender leg is topped by a gruesome taotie mask, representing the ancient Chinese god of greed and power. Zhou leaders relied on the mystical force of the taotie in battle and believed the god served a dual purpose: terrifying the enemy and protecting Zhou warriors. The inclusion of taotie on a ceremonial vessel was thought to endow the bearer with significant power and ward off enemies.

Provenance:

Florence K. Sloane purchased this exquisite bronze vessel in 1950 from T.L. Yuan, then the Director of the National Library in Peking (Beijing), China. The ding was hand-delivered to The Hermitage by Mr. Yuan in late May or early June of 1950. At the time of purchase the ding was purported to be Chou (another name for Zhou) dynasty, circa 1045-256 B.C.

In the same year, Mr. A.G. Wenley – Director of the Freer Gallery and a close friend and advisor of Mrs. Sloane – purchased a similar ding from Mr. Yuan. Mrs. Sloane promptly sent her ding to the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. for purposes of research and comparison. Upon further examination of both vessels, Mr. Wenley advised Mrs. Sloane in writing that neither were legitimate Chou dynasty bronzes and were perhaps modern reproductions. Despite Mr. Wenley’s discouraging letter, Mrs. Sloane kept the ding at the center of her collection. That Mrs. Sloane kept the vessel is testament to her fine eye and cultivated taste. Indeed, later research quickly proved Mr. Wenley’s initial supposition was incorrect.

Mrs. Sloane’s son Edward Knapp Sloane took over as director of The Hermitage in 1953 following his mother’s death. In 1957, Mr. Wenley wrote Mr. Sloane concerning a hunch he had about the supposedly counterfeit ding. In a letter dated April 16, Mr. Wenley posits that the Hermitage ding is part of a celebrated group of three bronze dings unearthed at Louyang in 1925. He writes:

There can be no doubt about it that your bronze is the fourth of a set said to have been found in Loyang [sic] in 1929. However, all the Chinese books report the discovery of only three, and give rubbings of the inscriptions of three. In none of these three are the characters of the inscription disposed in the same way as yours, and I can only surmise that at the time of the find yours was spirited away by some person or persons unknown! Another one with the characters of the inscription disposed similarly to that in the Freer is presumably in the national collection in Formosa. Where the fourth is I do not know, but there must be a fourth similar one since its particular inscription lacks one character which occurs in all the others.

Mr. Wenley points to the inscription on the interior of the ding as “irrefutable proof” that it is indeed one of four similar vessels uncovered at the Louyang sight in 1929. With the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid-1960s, claims such as Mr. Wenley’s became possible to prove. The case of the Sloane fang ding was solved in 1997 when carbon dating proved it was authentic vessel, probably used for food presentation, and that it was made circa 1046-771 B.C. during the early Western Zhou dynasty.

The Gallery Guides Were Folded With Care…

[... In hopes that donors soon would be there!] Look at all those happy faces folding gallery guides.

Come see us at the MOBA opening tonight from 6PM – 8PM. Conservators Mark Lewis (Paintings), Valinda Carroll (Paper), and Stephen Marder (Architecture) will be there to answer all your questions.

I can also promise cheeses of all shapes and sizes, arranged artfully on a plate.

Getting this exhibit together has been a serious team effort, and I can honestly say that it has been a joy. Many, many heartfelt thanks to Kate, Colin, Melissa, and Matt for their enthusiasm and extended good cheer.

Expect a full run-down here on the blog for those of you unable to join us.

MOBA Finishing Touches

Internet, meet Yolima, our Curator of Gardens. She is from Colombia and has no trouble keeping us on task. She oversaw the finishing touches today, and I am happy to report that we are ready for tomorrow’s opening (6 PM!)

[Funny story: we have a lot of geese at the Hermitage; they waddle around the gardens and are generally the bane of Yolima's existence. One time I told her I was going to feed them bread (knowing it would get a rise out of her) and she looked at me with the scariest eyes I have ever seen and said, "I KILL YOU" -- a simple threat which has since become a museum catchphrase. Left your dishes in the sink? I KILL YOU. Didn't recycle your paper? I KILL YOU, etc.]

Anyways, sorry for the long tangent but I feel that story bears repeating. Here is the item of the day:

Julia in Yellow
Helen M. Turner
1928
Oil on canvas

The subject of this portrait is Turner’s longtime muse, Julia Polk. The daughter of a friend at Cragsmoor – Turner’s summer home in upstate New York – Julia figures prominently in many of Turner’s finest paintings including Alice in Wonderland, currently on loan to the Dixon Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee. Like many of Turner’s portraits, Julia in Yellow conveys a tangible vitality.  While she may not be heavily animated, her posture and facial expression suggests a sense of affable quiet.  There is a definite reality to Turner’s style of impressionism that is more inviting than typical period pieces.  She does not, however, allow this realism to take over the painting. Instead, vibrant explosions of orange and red materialize into blossoming flowers, while the background colors thaw and gently trickle down the canvas blurring out any distinct veracity.  It is a characteristic of Turner that makes her style so unique and engaging.

Conservation Needs:
Examination and solvent tests, surface clean to remove dust and grime, re-varnish surface, corrective reframing and installation of a backing board, surface clean frame, photography and written documentation

Conservation Cost:
$850

Right Now at the Herm

The Curatorial Department presents: the sassiest mannequin ever manufactured anywhere. But why are her arms out like that? Check it –

So she can display Mrs. Sloane’s Art Nouveau opera cape!

The Art Nouveau movement (1890-1914) is characterized by its organic, curvilinear motifs and stylized floral forms inspired by the natural world. As a reaction to the sober academic art of the 19th century (such as L’Art Pompier), the movement redefined modern society and its relationship with art. Artists began to work in all mediums, from textiles to architecture, and the concept of ‘wearable art’ became intensely popular amongst the fashionable elite. Mrs. Sloane’s opera cape exemplifies the Art Nouveau movement and is an especially fine relic of an important age in American art.

Conservation cost: $1685

Have I mentioned that we are recreating Mrs. Sloane’s Dressing Room as part of MOBA? I feel like it’s the only thing I’ve talked about for the past six weeks. It’s been a herculean effort getting everyone on board with my harebrained scheme, but as the layers combine I’m starting to like it a whole lot:

We rehung the drapery and the light fixture using the original hardware. The Dressing table and doors were carefully (carefully) and lovingly (lovingly) carried upstairs by Tom, Colin, and Frank. I like seeing Colin with a broom in his hand. Get to work, son!

The rest of the room is dressed with items stashed in Mrs. Sloane’s closets. Those are real hat boxes, folks. The two dresses featured in this room deserve a post of their own.

The recreation is still incomplete, but we’re all pretty jazzed about the results thus far. We should have everything wrapped up tomorrow, just in time for Wednesday’s opening.

Friday: Cave of the Storm Nymphs

Sir Edward J. Poynter (1836 – 1919)
English, 1902
The Cave of the Storm Nymphs
Oil on Canvas

The Cave of the Storm Nymphs depicts the moment from Homer’s Odyssey when three alluring sirens successfully lure Odysseus’ vessel into their fatal trap.  As the ship breaks apart, the seductive figures writhe in a state of triumphant ecstasy.  This version of the scene was painted in 1902 as a study for a larger canvas, now in the private collection of Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Conservation Needs: Examination and solvent tests, consolidate any loose or flaking paint with an appropriate adhesive, surface clean to remove dust and grime, fill and tone losses, re-varnish surface, corrective reframing and installation of a backing board, surface clean frame, recast sections of frame, install new casting and finish to match original surface, photography and written documentation

Total Adoption Cost:

Painting: $2800

Frame: $1200

UPDATE: The Hermitage has received a number of inquiries regarding this painting since it was featured on Antiques Roadshow in November 2010. Our version is the very one Grant Ford dreamt of finding. We have been in contact with him in the past few months. Please check back here for additional photos and information on this important painting.

If you are interested in adopting the cost of conserving this masterpiece, please contact Lauren Northup, Curator of Collections, at ln [at] thfm.org

Thursday: Portuguese Fisher Girl

I’m kicking off the MOBA preview today with one of my favorites by Charles Hawthorne.

I might be biased, but I think it looks pretty spectacular in its new [temporary] home. This painting has long hung in a dark corner of the Morning Room; a corner so dark that I once lost an intern in it for three whole days. Also, once we hung the painting upstairs (under good light), Colin said, “I never knew there was a SHIP in the background.” What can I say? The Hermitage is full of surprises.

Charles Hawthorne
American (1872-1930)
Portuguese Fisher Girl, 1927
Oil on canvas

While Hawthorne’s contributions to the canvas were significant, many of his contemporaries would argue that his gift for teaching was his greatest achievement.  Those who were privileged to study under Hawthorne were never short on their praise of the artist’s ability to inspire, and as a result  he is often called an “artist’s artist.”  Hawthorne’s work is included in the permanent collection of the Boston MFA, the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Portuguese Fisher Girl is not so much aesthetically charged as it is provocative.  The underlying theme is made aware to the viewer, but not fully conveyed.  Hawthorne plays the part of a tactician whose sole purpose is to manipulate the ability of tones and colors to depict reality, and the quiet result of his efforts is powerfully represented in the subject’s face.

Conservation Need: Examination and solvent tests, surface cleaning to remove dust and grime, re-varnish surface, corrective reframing and installation of a backing board, surface clean frame, photography and written documentation.

Conservation Cost: $1800