From The Easel:
Why do we still pay attention to Old Masters paintings? There are a handful of famous names – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velázquez, Michelangelo – toward whom adulation seems obligatory. Yet, walking the galleries of a major museum, you quickly realize there are many others. With their ornate gilded frames and often perplexing subjects, why should their works command modern attention? Indeed, why do museums continue to acquire them?
Keith Christiansen, a self-confessed addict of paintings by the Old Masters, is the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Recently Morgan Meis, Contributing Editor of The Easel, talked to Keith about the modern relevance of these works. Keith suggested framing the discussion around three (or is it four?) main works, all from the Met’s collection.
Morgan Meis: Keith, lets dive straight into the three works that you have nominated – Francesco Salviati, Diego Velázquez and Lorenzo Lotto. Starting first with Francesco Salviati. I am not so familiar with this artist or with the particular work you have suggested. Looking at the image, I can see there is skill, but am not sure what I am supposed to find beyond that.
Keith Christiansen: I fell in love with Old Master paintings during my junior year abroad in college and the travels in Europe that I took the following summer. Being a nerd, I spent most of my time in museums, and discovered that I fell in love with the works by artists I knew little or nothing about. You could say that I have been trying to make up for that ignorance ever since. What I have learned over my career is that these works tell stories, vivid stories that often seem to me to speak to our modern times.
So let’s begin with the portrait by Salviati. At the risk of upsetting your plans, I would like to approach it by introducing another painting by an artist who today enjoys more fame: Bronzino. And the reason I want to do this is because the Bronzino played a role in the Met acquiring the Salviati and it provides a context for appreciating what is so singular about Salviati’s work.
At the Met we have one of the great portraits by Bronzino, who was court painter for the Medici in Florence in the mid-16th century. I suppose that most people looking at this work would characterize the sitter as arrogant. I mean, look at his proud posture, with one arm akimbo, his aloof gaze, and the way the fingers of his right hand commandingly mark a place in the book that he is using as a kind of prop.