Sunday, October 19, 2014

Really, Sebastian? Really?

Titan's Venus of Urbino

Today's Globe features an essay from critic Sebastian Smee (sorry, it might be behind a pay wall) on the greatest art in New England - which is unfortunately burdened with a boomer-rock-band title ("Simply the Best"). Smee's list of the 50 finest works residing in our region, though orthodox, is certainly solid (mine wouldn't be much different). But he does make one mind-boggling claim about halfway through his piece:

The Shepherds of the Portinari Altarpiece
" . . . I want to remind people how incredibly blessed we are in this part of the world when it comes to great painting. The list here is as good, I believe, as a comparable list would be almost anywhere else in the world.  Only Paris, New York, and London might have an edge, and that is by no means certain."


Really, Sebastian - really?  Paris, New York and London might have an edge?

I mean, sure, "Go Sox!" But - really? You're going to put the MFA, Gardner, Yale and Harvard up against the Louvre and d'Orsay? Or the Tates, the National Gallery, and everything else in London? Ditto the Met, Frick, MOMA and the Guggenheim, et al., in New York?

Okay - why not! But I just got back from Florence - as Hub Review readers know - which is a little bit smaller than London, Paris or New York. And here's my list of the greatest paintings I saw there, in alphabetical order by artist:

Botticelli - The Birth of Venus, La Primavera
Caravaggio - Sacrifice of Isaac, Bacchus, Medusa
da Vinci - The Annunciation, Adoration of the Magi
della Francesca - Portraits of the Duke & Duchess of Urbino
Fabriano - Adoration of the Magi
Gentileschi - Judith and Holofernes
Giotto - Ognissanti Madonna
Uccello - Battle of San Romano
Lippi - Madonna and Child with Two Angels

Raphael's Madonna del Granduca
Michelangelo - Donni Tondo
Raphael - Madonna of the Goldfinch
Rubens - Portrait of Isabella Brandt
Titian - Venus of Urbino
van der Goes - Portinari Altarpiece
van der Weyden - Lamentation of Christ
Velazquez - Self-Portrait
Verrocchio - Baptism of Christ

Oops, those twenty are actually all in one gallery - the Uffizi.

And I hate to say it, but at least half of them are better than anything we have in New England (although the very greatest we have here belongs in their company). 

Meanwhile, over at the Palazzo Pitti, there are-

Raphael - Madonna del Granduca (at left), Madonna della SeggiolaPortrait of Agnolo Doni, Woman with a Veil
Titian - Christ the Redeemer
van Dyck - Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio
Verrocchio - Saint Jerome

And there are incredible frescoes all over town:

Fra Angelico - the frescoes of San Marco monastery
Ghirlandaio - Life of St. Francis, Santa Trinita
Giotto - the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels, Basilica di Santa Croce
Gozzoli - Procession of the Magi, the Medici Palace
Masaccio - the Brancacci Chapel (with Lippi), and the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella
Pontormo - The Deposition from the Cross, Santa Felicita (detail below)

Pontormo, Deposition from the Cross

Again, all of these are as good as, and most are better (or just more important) than, anything we have in New England. 

Some of the sculpture in Florence.
And I haven't even mentioned the sculpture.

So let's get real, shall we?  Or do I need to catalogue the Louvre, too?  Seriously.  

Of course I love New England, and the MFA and our other museums. We are truly lucky to have an abundance of great art at our collective doorstep.

I'll go a little further: the case Smee could have (and should have) made is that here in New England - through a constellation of several great institutions - we have access to one of the broadest art collections in the world. Between the old masters in the Gardner and the impressionists and Americans at the MFA and Clark, and the modernists and random gems scattered elsewhere, there is a remarkable breadth of high art on display in New England. Few regions anywhere could match our range: there are wonderful samples of almost every period of "Western" art available, along with major collections of Asian art. And if you do throw in New York (which is only a brief train ride away), we're in art heaven.

Of course Paris and London could still have an edge.

But Florence sure doesn't.

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