Renaissance Gems at The Frick

December 03, 2012 | by —stacey goergen
| Pursuits

“His paintings were treated as these rare precious gems, and if you found one you spent the family fortune trying to buy it,” explains Nathaniel Silver, guest curator of “Piero della Francesca in America” opening at The Frick Collection on February 12. Recognized as one of the great masters of the early Italian Renaissance, Piero della Francesca has fewer than 30 surviving works and only 12 outside of Italy. Largely unknown to American collectors until Isabella Stewart Gardner’s 1903 purchase of the fresco figure Hercules, Silver illustrates how interest in the artist exploded after this acquisition.

“He is almost a cult figure,” observes Silver. “Part of it is his rarity. An enormous amount of what he painted doesn’t survive, so if you could find one to purchase and could afford it, you were incredibly lucky.”

During the following 50 years, four collectors brought six additional della Francesca paintings to the United States at great cost—all six are included in the Frick’s installation. The first monographic exhibition dedicated to della Francesca in this country, it is a groundbreaking opportunity to look at the work of this celebrated 15th century artist.

Della Francesca was born between the years 1411 and 1413 in the small town of Borgo Santo Sepolcro (now known as Sansepolcro) in eastern Tuscany. Art historians have pieced together a biography chronicling his contracts with the most prominent patrons throughout the Italian peninsula. His works were primarily frescos that fell prey to changing stylistic preferences and architectural modifications but documents attest his commissions for the pope and prominent Renaissance patrons including the Duke of Urbino, the Lord of Rimini, and the Duke of Ferrara.

In 1454, a third party commissioned the artist to make a large-scale polyptych for Augustinian monks’ high altar in Sansepolcro. The Sant’Agostino altarpiece was structured as a large center panel flanked on each side by two segments depicting saints, surrounded by a number of smaller representations.

“One of the incredible and tragic things about this altarpiece was that 100 years after it was painted, the Augustinians left their church,” notes Silver. “At that point the altarpiece was dismantled with saws and hammers. You can imagine it on a pair of sawhorses, in the sacristy of a church, with someone physically cutting the pieces apart.” Only eight fragments survive; The Frick Collection owns four, but they were able to gather an additional two for the exhibition.

Helen Clay Frick, the daughter of Henry, pursued della Francesca works for decades before procuring the first part of the altarpiece, Saint John the Evangelist in 1936—a purchase that created a media sensation and headlines in New York. The collection has continued to grow through donations and several expansions. As recently as 2011, the Portico Gallery was unveiled to exhibit decorative arts and sculpture. Frick was active in expanding her father’s legacy, and she encouraged the 1950 acquisitions of Augustinian Friar and Augustinian Nun. John D. Rockefeller Jr. donated the fourth work, The Crucifixion, to the Frick in 1961. Two additional works from the altarpiece are on loan: Saint Augustine from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon and Saint Apollonia from Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art.

In addition to the six pieces from this altarpiece, the Frick is presenting Virgin and Child Enthroned with Attendant Angels (c. 1470s). On loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, it is considered one of the most important Renaissance works in America, after being purchased by Robert Sterling Clark in 1913.

Remaining closely associated with Sansepolcro, della Francesca was celebrated as an artist, mathematician, and writer. Art historians point to his pioneering use of oil paint, dexterity with light and color, and ability to execute figures with quiet stillness rendering them simultaneously present and otherworldly. His theoretical and geometric abilities were highly sophisticated. A number of della Francesca’s surviving works, including those in this exhibition, were preserved in his hometown. As early as the 17th century, a prominent Sansepolcro family, the Ducci, decorated their walls with panels from the dismantled Sant’Agostino altarpiece.

Art history distilled as a discipline during the 19th century, and interest in della Francesca expanded. Venturing to Urbino and Rimini, visitors studied his work, and soon they traveled further to Sansepolcro. English travelers mirrored this pilgrimage in the second half of the 19th century, and Americans followed. Silver notes that this migration is tracked in a register signed by visitors to Hercules in Sansepolcro from 1890 to 1908—the year it was brought to the US.

Della Francesca’s reputation with art historians and collectors solidified in the early 20th century. In 1925, the celebrated British author Aldous Huxley described his pilgrimage to Sansepolcro in a widely read essay. He asserted that della Francesca’s The Resurrection (1450-1463) was “the best picture in the world.” “Piero della Francesca in America” is on display February 2 through May 19 at The Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St., 212-288-0700

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