The exhibition also showcases a momentous reunion: It is the first time viewers in the Los Angeles area will be able to see The Huntington's prized "Virgin and Child" (ca. 1460) by Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden (ca. 1400-1464) displayed alongside its companion diptych panel, "Portrait of Philippe de Croÿ," on loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. The pairing of the two panels is just one of many instances in the show in which groupings of works offer revelation and dialogue.
Witnessing from the right is Philippe de Croÿ, a Burgundian nobleman who Paula recommended to us as "handsome." Philippe, who is believed to have been around 25 at the time he was painted, is rendered in a fastidious manner that is certainly a bit idealized. He is also -- like other early Flemish portraits -- somewhat lacking in emotional suggestion. Under the fine craquelure of the panel he resembles a finely molded doe-eyed doll with a distinctly aqualine nose. Seen in a 3/4 view Philippe's gaze acknowledges the presence of the Virgin but he is also poised to turn towards us and serve as a noble intermediary between sanctity and reality.
The pleasant shock of Memling's painting woke me up to the beauties of the rest of the work in the show. Although I am used to looking at contemporary art -- which often broadcasts its messages with great immediacy -- I found myself slowing down and scanning the 15th century works on view in their entirety hoping for more subtle moments. One thing that really struck me was the exhibition's portraits often contained images of landscapes and still lifes that hinted at the kinds of images that would emerge in later centuries as established genres.
For example I was very charmed by Gerard David's "Virgin with the Milk Soup." Apparently Flemish collectors were too as there are some seven versions of this image which carries iconographic suggestions of salvation and redemption. She is the serene prototype of the window-lit secular beauties that Vermeer would paint two centuries later.
In the show's final "face to face" a wealthy Florentine couple are immortalized in separate but matching frames. Painted in tempera by Domenico Ghirlandaio -- who once counted Michelangelo as one of his apprentices -- the panels display a solemnity and clarity that signals the unmistakable influence of Northern art. Seen up close they have the fine hatch marks that Italian masters used to achieve detail in tempera. In that respect Ghirlandaio was still a bit behind his Burgundian peers.
In the press release for "Face to Face" there is a quote from Michelangelo: he once said that Flemish paintings "will cause [the devout] to shed many tears." After seeing "Face to Face" you will have a broader sense of the power of Northern Renaissance art: and possibly you will leave the show with moist eyes as well.
"Face to Face: Flanders, Florence, and Renaissance Painting"
Sept. 28, 2013--Jan. 13, 2014
The Huntington: Library, Art Collection and Gardens
1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, California
The Huntington is open to the public Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission on weekdays: $20 adults, $15 seniors (65+), $12 students (ages 12-18 or with full-time student I.D.), $8 youth (ages 5-11), free for children under 5. Group rate, $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission on weekends: $23 adults, $18 seniors, $13 students, $8 youth, free for children under 5. Group rate, $14 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission is free to all visitors with advance tickets on the first Thursday of each month. Information: 626-405-2100 or huntington.org.