February 12 through May 19, 2013
Piero della Francesca (1411/13–1492), Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, c. 1460–70, oil (and tempera?) on wood transferred to fabric on panel, © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Piero della Francesca was revered in his own time as a “monarch” of painting. Yet by the end of the sixteenth century his achievements had sunk into obscurity. During the nineteenth century, however, British and American collectors on the European Grand Tour rediscovered the master’s works and resurrected his reputation, and today Piero is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of the Italian Renaissance. The Frick was a beneficiary of this renewed interest and holds four of Piero’s paintings, more than any other institution outside of Europe. In February, the Frick will present the first exhibition in the United States dedicated to the artist, featuring its four panels together with works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; and the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. Together these seven paintings—all created for Borgo San Sepolcro, the city of Piero’s birth—demonstrate the richness of Piero’s oil technique and the monumentality of his compositions for which he is celebrated.
Over the course of a nearly sixty-year career, Piero worked in almost every major city across the Italian peninsula but is best remembered for the commissions he completed in and around Borgo San Sepolcro. Piero was born there sometime between 1411 and 1413 and trained locally, establishing connections in his hometown that lasted the rest of his life. In 1439 the young painter moved to Florence, where major refurbishments were underway at several of the city’s most important civic buildings. In the Hospital of Sant’Egidio, he worked on the foremost fresco cycle executed in Florence since Masaccio’s famed Brancacci Chapel of 1425–27. Distinguishing himself in that medium, Piero soon won a commission to fresco the entire choir of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo (a short distance from Borgo) with the story of The Legend of the True Cross. He completed this, his most famous work, around 1462. Piero’s skill attracted the attention of important patrons such as Pope Pius II in Rome and the Duke of Urbino, who commissioned some of Piero’s most important surviving paintings.
PIERO’S WORK SOUGHT BY AMERICAN COLLECTORS
Piero della Francesca, Saint John the Evangelist, 1454–69, oil and tempera on poplar panel, The Frick Collection; Michael Bodycomb
European and American collectors in the twentieth century sought out rare examples of Piero’s work and secured them with a combination of determination and wealth that is reminiscent of his fifteenth-century patrons. In 1936 The Frick Collection acquired Piero’s Saint John the Evangelist, above, from Knoedler and Company, which had discovered the picture in Vienna. Costing the museum $400,000, Saint John was the most expensive Renaissance painting in America at the time and reflected Piero’s status as an artist who was perceived as a founder of Italian painting. As the first Piero bought by a public institution in the United States, Saint John was introduced to America by sensational national headlines. For Helen Clay Frick, who served as the head of the museum’s acquisition committee and had already made at least one attempt to obtain a work by Piero for the Collection (including, in 1930, his Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels) (top), this acquisition was a long-awaited triumph. Saint John was joined in 1950 by An Augustinian Nun and An Augustinian Friar:
Piero della Francesca, An Augustinian Friar (Saint Leonard?), 1454–69, oil and tempera on poplar panel, The Frick Collection; photo: Michael Bodycomb
In 1961 Piero’s Crucifixion entered the Collection, the gift of Trustee John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had purchased the painting in 1924 for $375,000.
Collectively, the four Frick acquisitions marked the height of Piero’s popularity in America.
Isabella Stewart Gardner had initiated the vogue for Piero in the United States with her 1903 purchase of his magnificent fresco Hercules (now on public view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).
She was followed in 1913 by Singer sewing-machine heir Sterling Clark, who bought the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, an ambitious altarpiece executed on an intimate scale (top).
One year later, Robert and Philip Lehman acquired Saint Apollonia (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
THE SANT’AGOSTINO ALTARPIECE REENVISIONED
Hypothetical reconstruction of Piero’s altarpiece for the Church of Sant’Agostino, Borgo San Sepolcro, showing the position of seven of the altarpiece’s eight surviving panels. The eighth panel, Saint Apollonia, is not illustrated in this view as it was located on the side of the altarpiece.
The four Frick panels and Saint Apollonia were originally part of an altarpiece that Piero executed between 1454 and 1469 for the Church of Sant’Agostino in Borgo San Sepolcro—the most monumental work the artist created for that city. Described by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (1550) as a work that was “highly praised,” the massive polyptych stood over the church’s high altar for almost a hundred years, held aloft by two lateral piers. It was removed from Sant’Agostino shortly after 1555, probably when a group of nuns took over the church and its convent. Displaced from its position in the apse, the altarpiece was sawn into pieces and its gilt frame discarded. Local collectors who valued Piero’s artistic achievements preserved many of the panels. Today, however, only eight are known to survive: the Frick’s Saint John the Evangelist, An Augustinian Nun, An Augustinian Friar, and The Crucifixion;
Saint Augustine (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon);
Michael Archangel (The National Gallery, London);
Nicholas of Tolentino (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan); and Saint Apollonia (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) (above). We can only envision the original appearance of Piero’s Borgo masterpiece from its surviving fragments, reassembled in the hypothetical reconstruction shown above. Based on technical evidence and documents, this reconstruction illustrates the likely placement of seven of the eight surviving panels. The gray areas indicate the shape of panels that most likely formed part of this work, suggesting how the altarpiece probably looked.
Most spectacular of the surviving panels are the four saints who dominated the principal tier of the altarpiece (from left to right, Saint Augustine, Saint Michael Archangel, Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino). These originally flanked a central panel, now lost, that most likely depicted either the Virgin and Child Enthroned or the Coronation of the Virgin. The large saints in the main tier were surrounded by smaller figures and narrative scenes, including three of the Frick’s four paintings. While the fragility of certain panels made it almost impossible to reunite all eight, the exhibition brought together six of them. The panels depicting Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Augustine were integral to the first attempt by art historians to reconstruct the Sant’Agostino altarpiece. In 1941, Millard Meiss of Columbia University identified Saint John the Evangelist as part of the polyptych’s main tier. Prompted by this breakthrough discovery, Kenneth Clark, a professor at Oxford and the former director of London’s National Gallery, attributed a previously unidentified work in Portugal’s national collection to Piero and published Saint Augustine as a painting from the same complex. The panel will make its debut in America with the Frick exhibition.
The altarpiece takes its name from Saint Augustine (Sant’Agostino), a fifth-century bishop and one of the fathers of the church. In his painting, at right, Piero characterized Augustine as a man in later middle age with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. His brow furrowed in concentration, Augustine wears a richly decorated cope (a semi-circular brocaded cloak) over a long black habit. Elevated to the status of bishop during his lifetime, Augustine is shown wearing a pointed miter, his ceremonial emblem of office. Its gem-encrusted surfaces exemplify the wealth of material detail that embellishes this figure, including a translucent rock crystal staff, precious jewels, and lavishly embroidered robes. Piero conveyed the grandeur of Saint John the Evangelist more subtley. Barefoot and sunburnt, the saint gazes down with his attention focused, reading silently from a book. The gravitas of John’s appearance is emphasized by his magnificent drapery. His arms are wrapped in a rich vermillion cloak, the deep folds of which suggest the weight of the costly fabric. Beneath it he wears a blue-green robe, its hem is adorned with gilt embroidery punctuated by rubies and aquamarines set off by a delicate border of pearls.
IMPORTANT ALTARPIECE FROM THE CLARK SHOWN IN NEW CONTEXT
Completing the group wasone of the most important Renaissance works in America, Piero’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (above). This intact altarpiece encapsulates Piero’s singular ability to paint monumental figures of profound dignity and spiritual grandeur. As with his frescoes in Italy, which hardly ever travel, this large panel is rarely lent by its home institution. It has been presented in New York City only once since the Clark opened to the public nearly sixty years ago, making this a particularly exciting viewing opportunity. Removed from the artist’s native city nearly two hundred years ago, this masterpiece was returned to the context of Piero’s oeuvre when it joins his six other paintings in the exhibition.
The journeys of these paintings remind us of the distance that Piero’s reputation has traveled, the early twentieth-century collectors in America who introduced his talents to this country, and the unforgettable impressions that these collectors brought back from Italy of Piero’s most impressive frescoes. Unlike The Legend of the True Cross cycle that can never be moved from the Church of San Francesco, the paintings installed together in the Frick’s Oval Room will effectively re-create on an intimate scale the experience of visiting his Arezzo masterpiece. They will not reinvent but rather refine the encounter with Piero’s magisterial pictorial effects.
SUBSTANTIAL PUBLICATION ACCOMPANIES EXHIBITION
The accompanying catalogue provides the first sustained consideration of Piero as an artist whose identity was formed by the training and commissions that he received in San Sepolcro. Four essays, seven entries, and an appendix reveal the artist’s engagement with indigenous sources by examining the works through the lens of his native city and its traditions. The catalogue introduces each painting with the American collector who brought it to the United States and, in some cases, who made their own visits to San Sepolcro. An introductory essay, written by Guest Curator Nathaniel Silver, addresses the artist’s rediscovery by turn-of-the-century American private collectors. It is followed by an essay, also by Silver, that explores Piero’s lifetime dedication to his hometown and his creative engagement with its artistic traditions. Next, Machtelt Israëls, Guest Researcher, University of Amsterdam, addresses the form and construction of the artist’s altarpieces there. In the final essay, James Banker, Professor Emeritus, North Carolina State University, considers the painter’s local career in the second half of the fifteenth century and suggests a previously overlooked patron of his work. The entries that follow offer a detailed analysis of each individual work, including conclusions suggested by several new technical examinations. This section of the book also includes the Hercules fresco (not in the exhibition, but on permanent view at Boston’s Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum). Among the themes that emerge from these entries are Piero’s interest in the depiction of the human figure, his exploration of subtle lighting and sculptural effects, as well as the orchestration of these effects across larger unified compositions. The appendix features a vivid digital reconstruction that evokes the original setting of the altarpiece, a remarkable visual reference designed by Elena Squillantini, masters candidate, Università degli Studi di Firenze; and Giacomo Guazzini, doctoral candidate, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa. Published by The Frick Collection, it is available in softcover ($27.50; member price $24.75) and features 149 pages with 80 color illustrations. It is available in the Museum Shop, on the Web site (www.frick.org), and by phone at 212.547.6848.
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