Sunday, December 28, 2014

Auction Sales of 2014

Last year when I wrote about the annual round-up of highest art sales at auction, I had listed what was then the top 5 highest prices ever paid at auction for works of art because some new records had been made in the ranks. Those top 5 listings have not changed this year, and Picasso, Warhol, and Bacon still dominate the art market, even if works by them did not break new records in modern and contemporary art. You can read articles about the top sales in the Huffington Post and ARTnews. But the biggest news in this world was that Christie's reached an all-time single-night sale total of $852.9m for its modern and contemporary sale in New York in November. ("The Old Masters are dead; long live the Mod/Con!"--or so it would seem!) The work of other modern artists continue to break records, including new high sales for early modernist painter/sculptor Amedeo Modigliani and, one of the surprises, Cy Twombly, whose untitled 1970 "blackboard"-like work sold for $69.6m. (I am a fan of Modigliani, but Twombly still baffles me.) Joining the top sales of the year were paintings by Ab Ex painters Newman and Rothko, which is not very surprising.

For me, however, the top sales of the year that were most interesting are the four I've listed here, in chronological order of when they were created.
1) J.M.W. Turner's Rome, from Mount Aventine, 1835, broke the record for this important British landscape painter. It was one of a dozen or so paintings by him still held in a private collection, and sold earlier this month in London for £30.3m ($47.4m). The image above shows the magnificent Italian landscape painting held by two art handlers at Sotheby's London (photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images).
2) Edouard Manet's Printimps (Spring), 1881 (right), broke the record for Manet's work as well, selling for $65.1m in New York. Of all the sales that took place this year, only this work was acquired by a museum rather than a private collector, with the Getty bringing another fantastic Manet into their collection.
3) Georgia O'Keeffe's Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1, 1932, sold for a record $44.4m in November, breaking the record not only for this significant American modernist painter, but setting  a a new bar as the highest price ever paid at auction for a work of art by a woman artist.
4) Alberto Giacometti's Chariot, 1950, sold for $101m. The bronze sculpture of an attenuated woman's figure attached to chariot wheels is not a record, as another work by Giacometti, about which I blogged in the past, still beats it, but this came very close.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Neville & Bagge and The Netherlands Apartments

I moved into my current studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Summer 2013. It is a condo building at present, and I rent my apartment from the owner. The picture you see here is a shot of the outside of the building, called The Netherlands. It is a lovely building with 12 floors and roof access, a beautiful marble foyer for a  rather grand entrance, and doormen, porters, and a superintendent who are all really great guys. I truly have enjoyed living here for the past year and a half. Interestingly, though, about 6 months ago, I discovered that my living in this building was, perhaps, kismet. I was having a conversation in the basement laundry room with my neighbor PC, whom I was actually just meeting at that time. He has been a resident here for a few decades, and knew much about the building's changes over time. At some point in the conversation, he mentioned that it was designed by Neville & Bagge. "Wait," I interrupted him, "did you just say Neville & Bagge?" He confirmed he had. I was dumbfounded. I knew Neville & Bagge had designed rowhouses in NYC around the turn of the 20th century, but I did not know they had designed apartment buildings. PC asked why this interested me so much, and I replied, "Because Bagge of Neville & Bagge was my great-uncle!"

Indeed, this is quite true. My great-uncle was George Arthur Bagge, the older brother of my great-grandmother Jessie Bagge Ambrose (whose daughter Martha was my grandmother, and whose daughter Kathleen was my mother!). I have actually blogged about my great-grandmother in a post about census records, but having now heard this news about the building in which I was living, I got very excited to learn more, knowing one day soon I would write a blog post about all this. That day has finally arrived. (This post may have a sequel, as PC has been waiting anxiously for me to write this, and I suspect he may have more information to share about our building!)

I began my research by consulting architectural historian Christopher Gray's incredibly helpful website for his Office for Metropolitan History Building Permits Database, 1900-1986. I confirmed that Neville & Bagge did indeed design this building. They applied for a new building permit from the City in 1908. The owner was Harry Schiff, who lived at 320 W. 113th St., while Neville & Bagge's office address was given as 217 W. 125th St. To give some sense of meaning to the location of their architectural office, they were in Harlem just down the street from where the famous Apollo Theater would be built. (The theater itself did not open until 1914 and it was originally a burlesque theater, not becoming the Apollo until the 1930s, when it then gave rise to famed musicians of the Harlem Renaissance; read more here.) Construction of The Netherlands began that year and was completed in 1909. One of the earliest advertisements I could find for the building was published in The New York Times on August 29, 1909. The building at that time had 36 apartments, 3 to each floor, and it was described in the advertisement as follows:
This new 12 story fireproof, sound-proof building, has one of the finest locations in Manhattan. Every apartment commands a sweeping view of the Drive [i.e. Riverside Drive], the Hudson and the Palisades on the opposite shore. . . . The apartments are desirably planned and the rooms are unusually large. Perfect light and ventilation prevail throughout. Cabinet hard woods have been used exclusively in the finish. Halls five feet wide, parquet floors; telephones, shower baths, combination wall safes, cedar lined closets, call bells and annunciators, electric wall switches, mail chute, filtering plant and vacuum cleaning apparatus, in addition to the many other improvements.
Rents started at $2,000. I pay almost that much per month for my studio now, which is not unheard of for NYC apartments today, but in 1909 that price got you an 8- or 9-room apartment. We are so accustomed to thinking about rents per month that I actually thought at first $2,000 was the monthly rental in 1909, but one of my neighbors did an historical cost analysis, and we have since determined that was the rent amount per year for an 8- or 9-room apartment. That means the monthly rate would have been on average $167! Times definitely have changed.

PC gave me the image you see here, which shows the 1909 plan for a typical floor of 3 different apartment layouts at The Netherlands. Each apartment had either 3 or 4 bedrooms--and a maid's room! My studio today has been created from one of the bedroom/bathroom/maid's quarters that once was part of the apartment next door. My studio looks out onto what was then called the "court." I confess that natural lighting in my apartment is abysmal, in part because I am on a lower floor and facing only the light shaft. But considering the quality of lighting, it is fascinating to look back at the description above and notice how they comment on the "sweeping view" and "perfect light and ventilation" that were marketing features for the property at the time (not to mention the modern amenities). Many of the larger apartments do still have windows on the outside walls, but it is worth noting that they cited views of Riverside Drive as part of the benefit of living in this building. That feature clearly was short-lived, because just a few years later, a new building went up next door, and it completely blocked views of Riverside Drive and the Hudson River from the west. (And if you want to know more about that building, just read this listing for the William Randolph Hearst penthouse...just a mere $31m.)

The continuing history of The Netherlands has other interesting tidbits that I have discovered. Owner Schiff went on to develop a number of other buildings in the area (e.g. the Cleburne Building on West End and 105th St., originally the site of the mansion owned by Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus, who perished on the Titanic). Schiff ultimately sold his interest in The Netherlands. According to a July 16, 1920 article in the Times, the building was sold to The Netherlands Holding Co., a co-operative comprised of the tenants who lived there, headed by Russell R. Kittell. But the co-op clearly didn't last and presumably reverted back to private ownership. On January 1, 1943, an article in the Times reported that the building had been sold by then-owner Frederick Brown to an undisclosed buyer, and they note that the building had 68 apartments and "was altered some time ago by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company into small suites," probably producing many of the layouts as they still exist today (such as my studio). I have not yet traced many individuals from the past who have lived here, but I am still searching. I did find through newspaper searcher that the German-born artist Anton Schutz (1894-1977) lived here around 1930. Also, in August 1921, Mrs. Mae Jordan, ex-wife of a physician named Dr. William Rosenbaum, was found dead of an apparent suicide in her apartment on the 7th floor of the building. Sadly, she appears to have been broke following her divorce, while her husband lived comfortably up the street in the still-ritzy Belnord Apartment.

Few people know much about the architects who designed The Netherlands, Neville & Bagge, in part because the majority of records and designs from their firm, sadly, no longer seem to exist. Nevertheless, we know that they designed numerous buildings in NYC, including about 15 in my neighborhood alone, as well as many others in the Morningside Heights (near Columbia University) neighborhood. Columbia architectural historian and Professor of Historic Preservation Andrew S. Dolkart has written about Neville & Bagge's work in these parts of the City, citing for instance a number of five-story rowhouses they designed along Riverside Drive, all in the neo-Renaissance style fashionable among the upper middle classes when they were built in the 1890s. In his book Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, he writes: "Although Neville & Bagge was one of the most prolific firms active in New York at the turn of the century, almost nothing is known about either Thomas P. Neville or his partner George A. Bagge." Dolkart goes on to note that architects such as they were often criticized in professional journals at the time for their lack of education and training, but he points out that they were "proficient in producing well-planned and well-appointed dwellings at the reasonable costs expected by developers" (279), which explains their success at the time. It pleases me to know, then, that I can fill in some of the gaps and provide information, possibly for the first time, about Neville & Bagge.

The architect George Arthur Bagge was born in Manchester, England, on October 16, 1867, and died in the Bronx, New York on January 20, 1958. He was one of 8 children born to George Bagge (1836-ca.1910) and Mary Smith (1842-ca.1910). His father was a joiner and bricklayer from Norfolk who gradually made his way north for work and ended up in Lancashire where he married and had his family. (In a strange twist, however, my great-grandmother Jessie was the only one of their children to be born in Chiswick, near London, during a brief residential stay there.) The family all appear in the 1881 census living in Levenshulme, Lancashire, but later that year and into 1882 they made their way in groups across the Atlantic to settle in the United States. Surprisingly, George Arthur Bagge traveled alone at the age of 11 on the Arizona, arriving in NYC on the June 5, 1882. His father and sister Jessie already were established there, and his mother and siblings would arrive later that year. By 1883 the Bagge family was living at 228 E. 110th St. and father George was working as a carpenter. On October 28, 1892, father George was naturalized with his family, but his son George Arthur contended in a later passport application that he had been naturalized on October 17, 1890.

The image you see here is a detail from the 1900 census showing Bagge's family. On November 16, 1887, George Arthur Bagge married Mary E. C. Willoughby (1869-1954), the daughter of Jeremiah and Margaret Wood Willoughby, and they had three children: Frank (1889-?), George Arthur (1892-1976), and Edward Jared (1894-1977). It is uncertain where or when Bagge received his architectural training, but it is likely that he moved into this profession through his family connections (note: his brother-in-law, my great-grandfather Thomas Ambrose, was a mason). I have found evidence of a few Atlantic crossings for Bagge, in the mid-1890s, 1900, and 1920, and we know he did visit various European countries where, presumably, he advanced his study from direct observation of Beaux-Arts architectural designs. Dolkart claims that Neville & Bagge was established in 1892, and this is supported by the fact that this is the earliest this name appears in the New York City Directory, with their office listed as being on W. 125th St. From 1892 until at least through the 1900 census, Bagge and his family lived on what was then 2187 Seventh Ave., now known as Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., the extension of Seventh Ave. north of Central Park. This address was just a few blocks away from his architectural firm. (As an aside, Bagge's nephew John Edwin Eaton, the son of his oldest sister who remained in England, emigrated in 1905 to the United States to work in the firm as well, clearly a sign of Neville & Bagge's growing success. You can read more about J. E. Eaton in a this earlier blog post.)

Bagge's partner, Thomas P. Neville, was born in 1874 in New York, the son of Irish immigrants Thomas and Ann Neville. The 1900 census shows Neville living with his parents and his occupation is listed as an architect. Hence, this clearly is the man who was Bagge's partner. However, considering that Neville would have been only 18 years old when Neville & Bagge began, it seems very strange that the younger partner would be the primary feature in the firm's name. Upon closer examination of the 1900 census, however, one discovers that Thomas Neville, Sr. listed his occupation as a builder. Hence, the partnership between Bagge and Neville was, then, based not just on architectural design but construction as well. Thomas P. Neville and George Arthur Bagge may have been the architects, but Thomas Neville Sr. presumably built their rowhouses and apartment buildings.

According to Gray's online database for new permits issued after 1900, Neville & Bagge requested permits for 401 house and building projects between the years 1900 and 1917 (note: that doesn't necessarily mean that they built that many, but received permits to do so). After 1917, there are no more permits under that company name, and little is known about what became of the Nevilles. One does find after 1921, however, 29 building permits issued in Manhattan to "Geo. A. Bagge & Sons," and indeed his sons joined their father as architects too. Bagge and his family had moved to the Bronx by 1905, and by 1920 he and his wife were living in Mt. Vernon, NY. After that, we know when and where Bagge and his wife died, but I have yet to trace where they were buried. I also have not had success tracing his descendants. It is hoped that one day perhaps someone will read this post and know who and where those descendants might be. Perhaps then we will discover an archive of architectural drawings and records for Neville & Bagge, including much more information about The Netherlands apartment building, which opened 105 years ago.

Works Cited:
Andrew S. Dolkart, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development (New York: Columbia UP, 1998).
Christopher Gray, Office for Metropolitan History, "Manhattan NB Database 1900-1986," accessed May 11, 2014,
Census data from the National Archives, provided by
Articles cited from issues of The New York Times.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Art Exhibitions of 2014

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a few hours so I could finally see a number of exhibitions they have on at present. I confess I felt rather nostalgic walking through the galleries, remembering fondly my 7 years of having worked there, reinforced by lunch with my curatorial friend JD and coffee with my former library colleagues and friends CD & SP. The current exhibitions are all excellent. The Renaissance tapestry show of the work of Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst will blow your mind when you turn the corner and see all the gorgeous tapestries installed down a long corridor. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire is luxurious and fascinating for what could be a morbid topic. The room-installation of Thomas Hart Benton's 1930-31 mural America Today is amazing--you can almost hear jazz playing as the characters sway from one American scene to another. But the greatest part of my day was the exhibition on the Venetian sculptor Tullio Lombardo's Adam, seen here, fully restored. In 2002 the pedestal for the sculpture collapsed and, horrifyingly, the ca.1490-95 sculpture shattered. After 12 painstaking years of intensive study, and utilizing new technologies, the object conservators were able to restore this life-sized statue to near-perfect condition. The sculpture is an exquisite piece, clearly an influence on Michelangelo's David, and important as an early idealized male nude sculpture in Renaissance art. The videos on the website and in the gallery amaze you to see how they successfully conserved and restored the sculpture.

This year the best exhibitions for me were all on sculpture. In addition to the Adam just mentioned, the Met put on two excellent sculpture exhibitions. One was on the works of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), who reinvigorated French sculpture during the Second Empire with a Baroque-style energy that excited and scandalized people of the day. Running earlier in the year at the Met was another sculpture exhibition, The American West in Bronze, 1850-1925, an excellent show that aesthetically changed one's mind about works you once might have considered to be little more than living room kitsch. At Columbia's Wallach Art Gallery, a great sculpture show was put on about Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973), about which I blogged here. Finally, at the Yale Center for British Art, the long-awaited Victorian sculpture exhibition there brought together about 130 works that changed one's mindset about what defines sculpture and how it can be made. The show also demonstrated the power of the curatorial eye with a fine selection of finely-crafted statues, reliefs, and decorative objects in an array of media. The first work one encountered in the exhibition, as seen in my photo here, exemplifies the surprises of the show. This is a Minton ceramic elephant measuring 84 inches in height, part of a pair, that was first exhibited at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. I have a review of this exhibition being published in the spring, so I will share more when it comes out, but for now, here is what I wrote about this gorgeous majolica elephant: "The elephant reveals a high degree of craftsmanship that demonstrates the successful union of man and industry, but it also has a deeper meaning. Displayed as part of a cultural parade, its empty howdah decorated in Mughal textile designs and awaiting a royal occupant, the tamed elephant represents the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown: India and all its riches. This work in the foyer thus foreshadowed others in the galleries of Sculpture Victorious: masterpieces of human and industrial design, and socio-political symbols of the British Empire."

If I had to choose my favorite exhibition of the year, however, it would be, without a doubt, Kara Walker's sugar-sculpture installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn: A Subtlety: or, the Marvelous Sugar Baby. Walker is one of my favorite contemporary artists, and in this work she went beyond anything she had done before. Commissioned by Creative Time as a temporary installation, before the building was scheduled to be demolished, Walker designed a massive, sugar-coated, sphinx-like creature with the body and facial features of an "Aunt Jemima" type, to remind visitors of the intricate ties between the West's love of sugar and its intertwined history of slavery. The work was powerful and had lines of people waiting to get in. A group of friends of mine all went together to see it in June, and we were mesmerized. There are numerous images online that people took, so I'm only sharing here one I took to show the scale of the sculpture in the warehouse and the diminutive nature of the people around it. As time passed, the sugar gradually changed color, and the surrounding molasses "little black Sambo" boys melted and fell apart. After you were in the warehouse a while, the smell of the sugar and molasses became so sickeningly sweet you had to leave and get fresh air. This was all part of the artist's intent, to create a temporal, multi-sensory sculptural environment. When the show closed, most of the sculpture was destroyed (what had not disintegrated on its own already), although there is at present at Sikkema Jenkins an after-show that exhibits her sketches and designs, and an arm Walker kept as her own personal souvenir. This sculptural installation was truly a tour de force of artistic achievement, for the artist and the audience.

Aside from sculpture exhibitions, one major art exhibition highlight for me was Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at the Asia Society. This historical monastery and its Buddhist treasures was constructed in the 12th century but destroyed during China's Cultural Revolution. The installation included discovered and recovered treasures alongside historical photos, but the most amazing part of this exhibition was having the opportunity to witness the monks make a sand mandala. This was an ongoing event for 5 days with 5 monks. You would expect it to be solemn, quiet, and peaceful. On the contrary, the monks were very engaging with visitors, including taking photos with them. They often laughed too, but then quickly would return to their back-breaking, eye-straining work of constructing this mandala. The most amazing moments were when they would help one another, knowing that one had more expertise than another, and they could share in the responsibility of building this sand mandala together. Their humanity made this a very spiritual experience. You can watch a great time-lapse video of them making the sand mandala here.

Other exhibitions from this year worth noting included:
** Pre-Raphaelite Legacy at the Met Museum, a small but groundbreaking show for them to finally acknowledge the accomplishments of these Victorian artists;
** Beauty's Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America at The New-York Historical Society, about which I blogged here;
** At the Guggenheim Museum, the fantastic multi-media exhibition on Futurism, Italy's modernist art movement, and the riveting photographs of African-American feminist artist Carrie Mae Weems;
** Florine Stettheimer at the Lenbachhaus in Munich (although I guess technically I have only seen it "in process" and will have to wait until early January to see the final, full exhibition!);
** And my dear friend and colleague Meera Thompson at Atlantic Gallery.

I would be remiss if I forget to mention my own two small, curated exhibitions--15 Minutes: Andy Warhol's Photographic Legacy and Off the Grid: Beyond the Noise--both of which I thought were rather well done...if I may say so myself.

UPDATE (12/14/14): One of the blockbuster exhibitions of the year, that previously had opened in London and is now on here in NYC is Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Everyone I know who has seen it loves the show, and it has been on my "must see" list, but I dread going to MOMA because of the crowds so I wasn't sure what to expect. Fortunately, AA and I decided to make the trek there today and it actually wasn't as bad of a crowd as I anticipated. The exhibition is very good, demonstrating well how Matisse used paper cut-outs and collage as a form of painting unto itself. It is a smart show about materiality, color, composition, and artistic technique. We also had a chance to pop into the Robert Gober exhibition. He is one of those contemporary artists I typically don't appreciate much, but this retrospective helped change my mind a bit with his theme-and-variation sculptural objects and large-scale installation spaces. It was all rather tongue-in-cheek and clever, I must say, so I do have a better appreciation for Gober now.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Books of 2014

Once Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself anxiously awaiting the latest "100 Notable Books of" article from the editors of The New York Times Book Review, and the 2014 edition was released online yesterday. I find it interesting to compare it to similar lists, such as those issued by Amazon and the Huffington Post. Two interesting fiction titles stand out and they have now gone on my "to read" list: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the latter of these two also appearing in the NYT's list for the top 5 novels of the year. As I've noted in my recurring posts on this topic, I rarely have read anything on the list once it's published, but I'm pleasantly surprised to say that I did read as soon as it came out Sarah Waters's new novel The Paying Guests, which made it on the list for this year. Taking place in early 1920s suburban London, it is a lesbian love story, but packed with fascinating social history and a surprising twist involving murder. There are a few things on the non-fiction side of the NYT list that intrigue me, but nothing I feel the need to run out and purchase. Hermione Lee's biography of the novelist/biographer Penelope Fitzgerald, however, has me wondering why I have never read anything by her before (her meaning Fitzgerald).

Regular bklynbiblio readers know that I use this annual list to recount my own reading over the course of the year. (See, randomly, posts for 2013 and 2009, or even my recent post on "Top 10 Read Novels: 2010-2013.") This year I've read to date 19 books. One of the strange events in my reading life this year was purchasing a Kindle, so I've embarked on reading a couple of books that way. I'm not sold on it yet, though. I like holding books, and find that tangibility helps make reading for me something active rather than passive. Art books are also still nowhere in the realm of easy reading on electronic devices because of the legal and technical limitations in reproducing works of art in color. I was pleased to have read a few good art books this year, however. I loved Edmund de Waal's Hare with Amber Eyes about his family's netsuke collection (see my review here), and my recent visit to Munich inspired me to buy and read the book you see here, about one of my favorite modernists, Franz Marc, who found the spiritual in painting animals, was a founder of the Blaue Reiter group, and died tragically at a young age fighting for Germany during World War I. Currently I am reading two art books, both part of the Oxford art history series. One is Portraiture by Shearer West, an overview on the history and different ways of looking at portraiture, with the chapter I am in now on gender and portraiture promising to be one of the more interesting. The second is Matthew Craske's Art in Europe 1700-1830, a socio-economic history of art at the time, which I am slowly moving through. 

One year ago, when I posted about the 2013 list, I was reading Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement, which had been on the NYT list that year. It was quite a heart-wrenching tale and definitely among her better books. I had the opportunity to hear her speak and meet her at a book signing at the Asia Society, which was a treat. I told her that her book The Hundred Secret Senses was among my favorites, and she said, "Oh, I guess I should reread that!" Also from the NYT 2013 list, I read this year David Leavitt's The Two Hotel Francforts, which was interesting but not great, and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, which was an incredibly clever book that I truly enjoyed. Atkinson's story is about an Englishwoman named Ursula who is born in 1911 and proceeds to die as an infant, then is reborn in a new version of that same life. She continues to be reborn and make decisions that alter things for her and others around her as the chapters unfold. It was a fascinating take on the idea of whether one would choose the same paths in life if given the opportunity to do it all over again. Elsewhere in fiction, I continued my discovery of Barbara Pym by reading her novel A Quartet in Autumn, about the invisibility of seniors in the modern world. I also read Jane Austen's Emma this year, which I have to confess was not as engaging as I had hoped, possibly because I'm still blindsided by George Eliot's Middlemarch read last year. Another favorite novel I read this year was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Although written for young adults, it was a profound take on loss and grief, and hatred and love. The narrator is Death, and it tells the story of a young girl who endures much during Germany in World War II, but also discovers the power of reading and writing as a way of helping herself and others. The film version is well-done too, but the book has greater pathos. Of course I sneak in during the year a couple of mysteries by Ruth Rendell, and I am currently reading, in addition to the two art history books above, Agatha Christie's final Hercule Poirot murder mystery Curtain. This is the end of a long saga for me in which I have been reading all of Christie's mysteries in the order they were published, so perhaps I will say more about that in another post.

Monday, December 1, 2014

MWA XXXI: Duccio's Madonna

Duccio di Buoninsegna (died 1318) is one of those significant artists about whom we know very little, but whose artistic sensibility changed the development of Western art. He lived and worked during a time when named individuality in the creation and attribution of Christian art was only just coming into acceptance. He lived at the dawn of what we now think of as the Renaissance, a time when ideas of humanism and the rediscovery of classicism challenged the stylistic representations crafted previously by medieval artisans. His contemporaries included the writers Boccaccio and Dante, and in painting he was rivaled only by Giotto. While Duccio was from Siena, Giotto was from Florence, and although tourists today think of these two cities as must-see sights when visiting Tuscany, at the time they were rival city-states. Art historians today name these two men as the "grandfathers" of Renaissance art. Giotto's art is typically more linear and narrative, but Duccio's paintings are characterized by more humanistic emotion. This is evident in the work you see here by Duccio, Madonna and Child, which has been dated to ca. 1290-1300 with scientific analysis and stylistic comparisons against other works attributed to him.

This work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is rather diminutive in size, measuring about the size of a sheet of paper, and painted in tempera and gold on a wood panel. Unlike related works at this time, suggesting it should be part of an altarpiece, this panel in fact was intended to be an individual devotional piece. There is in fact evidence of candles burning the bottom edge, reinforcing its ecclesiastical intent. The gold surface and the subject of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child suggest the influence of Byzantine art and religious icons on Duccio. Gold, then as now, was not cheap, so the use of it suggests it likely was a commission from a wealthy, private donor. The gold would have reflected candlelight and made for a serene object for personal devotion. This emphasis on gold is, perhaps, appropriate considering the painting's afterlife. This small work cost the Met a reported $45 million when they purchased it in a private sale in 2004. It was (and still is) the most money that museum ever spent on an acquisition. When one considers other works of art in recent years that have sold for record high prices, such as $135m for a Klimt and $250m for a Cézannethe Met's purchase seems rather minimal, but at the time it was shocking news. It was quickly reported on in the press, The New York Times breaking the news in a November 2004 article by Carol Vogel, followed by Michael Kimmelman's assessment of its worth as a work of art the day, appearing the day before it was first shown to the public on December 21, 2004. Perhaps not surprisingly, the painting was declared a fake in 2006 by Columbia Professor James Beck, who said the museum should get its money back. Few, however, believed his assertions, and this masterpiece is still recognized as one of the Met's most important acquisitions.

Ultimately, it is irrelevant what the painting is worth, or even if it is genuinely by a specific man named Duccio. What is most beautiful about the painting is how it transcends its religious context and shows a very human scene. The infant Jesus reaches up toward his mother's face and moves aside her veil to gaze into her eyes, a sign of recognition and awareness that arguably only an infant and his/her mother can understand. Rather than smile, however, Mary is sad, symbolically aware of the suffering her son will endure when he is crucified at a later age. But her sadness transcends the Biblical story. Her face reveals a sense of sadness that every mother understands, the awareness that this innocence of childhood is the beginning of an adult experience. The innocence she holds in her arms is, indeed, very, very brief. That humanistic touch and that existential awareness make this painting a profound work of art.