Cabinet of Curiosities

October 14, 2011

By Mary Jo Gibson

Again a busy week has passed, and I have saved the best of my research for this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  The Cabinet photo above is from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, by Melchior Baumgartner, the silver smithing provided by Johann Spitzmacher, and the mosaics were produced in Florence, Italy.


Adapting the Eye: An Archive of the British in India, 1770-1830

A new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art provides a unique window to the high art and popular culture of British India during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Unique items include albums, scrapbooks, prints and paintings, with talents ranging from professional and amateur artists.  Many pieces are displayed for the first time, selected from the Center’s extensive holdings, as well as the Tate Britain, the British Library and Yale University Art Center.  The East India Company’s Resident in Poona between 1785 and 1798 was Charles Warre Malet, and his remarkable and little-known archive illustrates the complex intersection of culture and power, demonstrating the collecting practices and artistic patronage in India during this period.

Malet’s task in India was to broker a treaty between the British and the Maratha rulers against Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore.  After successfully concluding negotiations, he commissioned the nine foot painting by James Wales celebrating the treaty.  The archive reveals the complex relationships between British Company soldiers and Indian artists.  Gangaram Chintaman Tambat, a highly accomplished artisan drew on both indigenous and European artistic conventions, and is a pivotal figure in this cultural interchange.  Not being the stereotypical passive “Company” artist, pressed into service by British colonialists and forced to radically change his working practices to accommodate European tastes, Gangaram retained a distinctive independent artistic identity.  The drawings and manuscripts in the archive suggest that a intricate process of two-way exchange was taking place between the Indian and British artists working for Malet.

While engaged in their political purpose, these artists and their patron were also immersed in collecting, sketching and publishing information depicting their locale.  The Center’s archive, which includes more than one hundred works on paper by British and Indian artists as well as manuscript materials, depicted landscapes, architectural sites, flora and fauna, scenes from daily life and diplomatic ceremonial events.   These works provide a window into central India during a critical historical moment. Several of these images are now available on the Center’s Facebook page, incorporating the new form of museum exhibition.


The Fifteen Mysteries and the Virgin of the Rosary
Goswijn van der Weyden, 1515-20

Depicted in this miniature altarpiece, measuring 9 inches by 21 inches, are the fifteen mysteries associated with the Virgin’s life: five joyful, five sorrowful and five glorious.  The scene at the base relates a popular legend of the day, portraying a miracle that saved a man from his captors.  Commissioned by the lords of Ravensteyn, the picture includes a topographical view of Coudenberg Palace belonging to the dukes of Brabant in Brussels.


Pietro Peruginoa>

The Alte Pinakothek is celebrating their 175th jubilee and the Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen is staging its first exhibition of Pietro Perugino, one of the most successful artists of the Italian Renaissance.  Born around 1450 in Perugia or Citta della Pieve in Umbria, the artist spent his first years as an apprentice.  Gaining experience as a painter and sculptor, Andrea del Verrocchio’s circle in the art center of Florence had a profound impact on him.  Generally underestimated today, contemporaries heralded Perugino as the best painter of his generation.  Prominent patrons courted his attention, popes, cardinals, dukes and wealthy merchants were among his clientele.  He managed a workshop with astute business acumen, dealing with a surprising number of major commissions for the church and municipalities in Umbria and Tuscany.

In 1480, Perugino was called upon to paint the Sistine Chapel with three colleagues from Florence.  This prestigious commission from Pope Sixtus IV secured the Umbrian master’s place as one of the leading artists of his time.  The altarpiece in Munich depicting the vision of St. Bernard, originally intended for a family chapel in the Cistercian church Santa Maria Maddalena di Cestello in Florence, marks the beginning of his mature work.

The exhibition brings together the works of Perugino that are scattered around the globe, loans from Stockholm, St. Petersburg, London, Florence and Frankfurt with subjects as St. Sebastian, Apollo and the shepherd Daphnis; possibly painted around 1490 for Lorenzo the Magnificent, head of the Medici banking family that ruled Florence.


Vermeer’s Women

The Fitzwilliam Museum explores the intimate beauty of Vermeer’s exquisite scenes of 17th century Dutch women in their homes.  The Lacemaker (1669-70) one of the Musee du Louvre’s most famous works, rarely seen outside of Paris, is now on loan to the UK for the first time.  Twenty-eight masterpieces from the Dutch “golden age” evoke the private realms inhabited almost exclusively by women, glimpsed in domestic tasks, at their toilette or immersed in pleasurable pastimes such as music making, reading, or writing letters.


William Morris

William Morris was the single most influential designer of the nineteenth century, and still remains one of the best known of all British artisans.  This is due to his extraordinary talent as a pattern designer, a colorful and inspiring life story and his forceful intellect and personality.  Morris was much more than a creator of exquisite art; he was a fervent socialist, scholar, translator and publisher, environmental campaigner, writer and poet.

Trained at Exeter College, Oxford, he was inspired by medieval design.  He set out to transform the traditions of craftsmanship that had been lost during the industrial revolution of England.  He encouraged hand crafted items, which in turn would enable workers to achieve satisfaction and pleasure in their work.  A prolific creator of patterns, Morris devoted much time to developing and perfecting ranges of textiles which were reproductions of early 19th century prints.

Exhausted by his emotional experiences, Morris died in 1896 and is buried in St. George’s Churchyard in Kelmscott.  Morris’ cause of death was remarked by a doctor of the day,  ‘the disease is simply having done more work than most ten men.’


Claude Lorrain
Enchanted Landscape
Ashmolean Museum

Claude Gellee, also known as Claude Lorrain was born in 1600 in the Duchy of Lorraine.  As a young man he traveled to Italy and was apprenticed in Naples and Rome, where he settled for the rest of his life. He soon became a well known painter of landscapes and seascapes.  Many of his paintings set characters from classical myth or the Bible deep in European landscapes.  The scenery of his great compositions was based on his studies of ancient ruins and the rolling country of the Tiber Vallery and the Roman Campagna.

By uniting ‘pairs’ of Claude’s paintings to make a comprehensive survey of his work in different media, the exhibition brings new research to bear on his working methods, revealing an unconventional side to the artist which has previously been little known.  As a guard against forgeries, he made copies of his paintings in a book, the Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth) which contained 200 drawings at the time of his death.

The first artist to paint in pairs, with approximately half his compositions made as companion pieces.  Unlike his contemporaries who had academic training, Claude’s style and artistic process were unique to him.  He worked frequently with existing materials progressing from one painting to another through a process of variation and combination.  His sketching excursions provided him with a stock of motifs, including trees, hills, rivers and antique ruins, which became constant accessories in his paintings.  Figure groups were shifted from one composition to another.  Landscapes, like stage scenery, were taken out for reuse with a different set of characters.  Elsewhere he would cut compositions in two or enlarge them with separate sheets.  Occasionally he would pick up a discarded study and add detail, making a finished work of art, often with peculiar results.

The Enchanted Landscape will display some of Claude’s greatest masterpieces, works which have made his art familiar and well-loved.  Placing these beside his graphic art and exploring his singular methods of work, the exhibition aims to expose an unexplored dimension to one of the famous names of western art.


Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art has made available on line its extensive collection of art.  The European Painting and Sculpture section alone has over 65,000 images to peruse at your leisure.  A surprise in their permanent collection is The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew by Caravaggio, 1606-07.

Sentenced to death for his missionary activity in Greece, Andrew asked to be martyred like Christ.  While on the cross, Andrew preached to an enormous crowd, and when his executioners tried to remove him, a mysterious force paralyzed them.  Upon finishing a prayer, a dazzling light enveloped Andrew and he died.  In an unusual interpretation, Caravaggio presents the event as intimate and private, rather than as a public spectacle.  If you enjoy this work by Caravaggio, you may like my previous blog entries on the life of this colorful artisan.


May this week’s Cabinet of Curiosities give you new inspiration to explore these museums and the wonders they have to offer the virtual tourist. I leave you with the Japanese God of Thunder from the Freer Sackler online collection. I look forward to a new Museum Monday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the long promised trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Museum looks to be shaping up for October 22nd, with a blog post the following Monday. As always, please feel free to share any comments or suggestions in the space provided below.




Filed under October

6 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Mary Jo, I can not thank you enough for sharing your research here.
    I wish that I could tag along on your travels to these rich destinations. Though, after viewing this aftermath of your research, I am truly curious of your WIP that the research is for. Please do tell, or tell again.

  2. Hi Ondi, thanks for your comment. My WIP is the story of a poisoner during the reign of Louis XIV. He was an historical figure I have tracked from his beginnings in Italy, to Sweden, Paris,England and then back to Italy where he married into the nobility then retired/disappeared from the historical record. My attention to the WIP has been sporadic this past year, but your question and the coming winter will bring him back from the dusty corner of my office where he has been waiting patiently.

  3. I love the Enchanted Landscapes. Great visions to inspire the writing mind. Thanks, Mary Jo!

  4. Pingback: Blog Treasures 10-15 « Gene Lempp's Blog

  5. Thank you Gene! Glad you enjoy my little bits of the web.

  6. Pingback: Blog Treasures 10-22 « Gene Lempp's Blog

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