Let’s put the fanfare where it belongs, at the beginning. This is a small, exquisite, and intelligent show, accompanied by a catalogue that is a pleasure to hold in one’s hands and to embrace with one’s eyes. It’s also at the Huntington which is an artwork in itself.
The premise here is that the paintings of such 15th century Flemish masters as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and the slightly later Hans Memling, had a crucial impact on the development of Italian and specifically Florentine art.
The influential banking firm run by the Medici family, which reached its apogee during the late 1400s in the person of Lorenzo the Magnificent, had established a branch in Bruges in 1439. Bruges, now in Belgium, was a center of commerce, and with a wealthy merchant class came an interest in acquiring culture and works of art. Informed patrons and perceptive collectors recognized talent, and commissioned portraits – since we were still a few centuries away from the Brownie Instamatic camera.
Apparently, this is the first time that an exhibition has been mounted in the United States that examines Flanders-Florentine cross-pollination, although the connection has not gone unremarked in Europe. In 2002, this writer was in Bruges to see “The Age of Van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting, 1430-1530,” which included a number of the same works we can see today, an hour’s jaunt up the 110, and the catalogue for that show also contained an important contribution by Paula Nuttall, who wrote most of the book for the current exhibition, and who also co-curated it with the Huntington’s own Catherine Hess.
As the title of the 2002 show makes clear, Jan van Eyck was the era’s shining star. His portraits were so true to life that, it was claimed, they lacked only a voice (the 2002 catalogue says they lacked only breath), and while Van Eyck is not represented in this show, his peers are, and many of them display a similar degree of talent that must have stunned the noble families of Florence, who knew pictorial gold when they saw it.
One artist well represented here is Memling, who “produced so many paintings for the Italians that he can almost be considered the unofficial painter to their community,” Nuttall writes. What this means is that for diplomats, bankers, merchants, and other well-to-do visitors from Italy, “His independent portraits were especially desirable as ‘take-home’ pieces: small, portable, fashionable, refined in execution, souvenirs of time spent in the glamorous city of Bruges.” Equally as important,” she adds, “these works would have invited the admiration – and envy – of family and friends.”
That “Face to Face” is here and not, say, in Chicago or Boston, is due largely to Arabella Huntington, the responsible party for acquiring Rogier van der Weyden’s “Virgin and Child” (c.1460) as well as two works highly relevant to this exhibition, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Man” and “Portrait of a Woman” (both c.1490). Furthermore, Van der Weyden’s masterpiece is displayed alongside its original panel companion, “Portrait of Philippe de Croÿ,” borrowed for the occasion from its home in Antwerp. While it’s not the first time the pair has been reunited, it’s a big deal, in layman’s parlance.
Although, as noted, the show is not large, it is carefully thought-out and presented in five thematic sections, the first exploring the diptych as object. Often these facing portraits depicted a Holy Figure on one side and a portrait of the donor (the one commissioning the picture) on the other. These works could be opened like a book and stood upright, but were usually closed when not in use to protect the images’ sacred aura. Often the reverse of the portraits were illustrated, occasionally with the donor’s coat of arms (their company logo, if you will).
Other themes include the face of Christ, depicted realistically (if not accurately); portraits of donors rendered in detail – and this is where the Flemish masters showed the Italians what’s what; landscapes (at this stage just peeking out from behind the portraits, and not yet coming into their own); and lastly the still-life, usually the objects within the framework of the portrait (again, with an emphasis on realism). For example, Memling’s distant landscapes, inserted behind the figures he portrayed, were duly noted and taken up by such Italian masters as Leonardo da Vinci and the Divine Raphael. The show even points out that parts of some backgrounds by Memlings and others – windmills, trees, meandering streams, and so on – were directly quoted in works by the Italians.
While Italy was the epicenter of artistic excellence during the Renaissance, now we know that its fabled painters had a little boost of inspiration from behind the scenes, and far to the north.
Face to Face: Flanders, Florence, and Renaissance Painting is on view through Jan. 13 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Hours, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 12 noon to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission, $20 adults on weekdays; $23 adults on weekends; with lesser entrance fees for seniors, students, and youths 5 to 11 (Under 5? You’re in like Flint!). Call (626) 405-2100 or go to huntington.org.