European Splendour 1500–1800 has been many months in the making. The original idea came from Justine Olsen, Curator Decorative Arts, and subsequently she and I collaborated closely on it. Justine believed that the impact of the exhibition would be far greater if so-called ‘fine’ and ‘decorative’ arts from the permanent collection were integrated, and I fully concurred. People at the time didn’t feel the need to separate them, and nor should we today. In a Renaissance artist’s workshop, you would be likely to find not just paintings but designs for tapestries, while a commission for a painted cassone, or chest, could be just as important as one for an altarpiece. We realised, furthermore, that paintings and drawings on the walls needed three-dimensional decorative art – clocks, china, chairs, cabinets, and costumes – to fill gallery spaces and make sense of the era being showcased.
The meaning of splendour
Uppermost in our minds was the importance of ‘splendour’. What exactly does it mean? The original word comes from the Latin splendeo, meaning ‘to shine, be bright’, and was applied to objects. From early on, however, it was also used metaphorically, as scholar James Lindow notes, ‘to praise the polished or splendid character of individuals or classes of citizens, as well as define a particular style of living synonymous with magnificence’.1 Bright, beautiful objects, and their place in ‘splendid’ people’s lifestyles between 1500 and 1800, would thus be central to the exhibition.
Choosing splendid exhibits
Justine and I initially perused as many collection items as possible to make sure they matched the criteria above. Knowledge of what you’ve got must be the basis of any exhibition. Next, we devised plausible sub-themes, or handles. We both agreed that the foundations of the exhibition should be in religious art, given its cultural centrality in the 16th century (I had the hymn ‘Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour’ ringing in my head). Portraiture of splendid people was the obvious complement and sequel, and a sequence of galleries chronologically showcasing lifestyles of splendour could then follow. Having ‘Guns, Lace, and Fans’ at the heart of the exhibition reflected either our inspiration or desperation; let the visitor decide! Certain objects, splendid in themselves, could not fit our criteria: I reluctantly rejected Wenceslaus Hollar’s print The Peace of Westphalia, for example, as it would have been an orphan, without any obvious social or political connections with anything else on display. In turn, a few important collection items seemed too austere to qualify, but their relationship with other exhibits enabled us to display them without, we hope, straining our curatorial credibility. Indispensable in making Splendour look splendid were our design and object support teams. I suspect they had a great time with the purple and blue gallery walls and gilt graphics after the austere ‘white cube’ spaces that other curators usually require!
Beginning with a bang
Historical art needs to work harder than modern or contemporary to get people to ‘look here upon this picture and this’, to quote Hamlet. With Splendour, we reckon we’ve succeeded, using an early 19th-century copy of Raphael’s Madonna of the armchair (lent by the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui) to entice people into the spaces beyond. ‘To shine, to be bright’: yes, both the ‘Raphael’, originally painted by the Italian master in 1514, and the beautiful 15th-century Orphrey cross embroidery placed just beyond it excel in these defining qualities. When these works were made, religious art abounded, and the glory of God demanded splendour. The priest performing Mass was God’s special emissary whose cross, embroidered on his vestments, positively gleamed amidst the darkness of the place of worship. Although the Reformation is often associated in people’s minds with whitewashed Calvinist church walls and the iconoclastic destruction of ‘graven images’, religious history was not that simple. People still wanted and needed art that related to their faith. Protestantism migrated from the church to the home. Hence the 1640 embroidery depicting Christ in a very English-looking Holy Land, and the positively splendiferous silver-bound German devotional book of half a century later (lent by Alexander Turnbull Library), both key exhibits in ‘Sacred Splendour’. Other highlights include Rembrandt’s Christ healing the sick, with its Protestant emphasis on the human word. This contrasts with the far more supernatural Catholic etching by Rembrandt’s Italian contemporary and admirer, Castiglione, Nativity with God the Father and angels adoring the Christ Child.
Monarchs and more
It is not a big leap, either chronologically or even thematically, from ‘Sacred Splendour’ to ‘Powerful Portraits’. These sent compelling messages about social rank, power, and wealth, and in the form of mass-circulating prints like those on display, they reached a wide audience. In the early part of our period, the Divine Right of monarchs was predominant: this asserts that a monarch is not subject to earthly authority, but derives the right to rule from the will of God. While Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I personify the doctrine, it faced increasing challenges, and with the execution of Charles I, it came to a decisive end in Britain in the mid 17th century. Monarchical supremacy is also implicitly challenged in the three Flemish artists portrayed by or after Van Dyck. While perfectly loyal to their ruler, Philip VI, Justus Sustermans, Lucas Vorsterman, and Cornelis Saftleven were monarchs of their studios, and in these prints they look the part. In their attire and attitude, their status is certainly splendid, but casually so. The best word to describe their air is sprezzatura, which means ‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought’.2 Van Dyck’s informal, sketchy application of the etcher’s needle perfectly conveys this mood.
Guns, lace, fans
Every exhibition, especially a historical one like this, needs explanatory labels. They were particularly difficult to concoct for this segment: juxtaposing a hunting rifle and sporting art with lace and rococo fans was irresistible, and we knew that the small Toi Pepa gallery would make the best display space for them. But how on earth do you tie such disparate items together? Male and female domains? Tempting, but wrong – fans were feminine objects, for sure, but Elizabeth I was a keen hunter, while lace was unisex. The answer was to stress their diversity and yet make it clear that the same kind of (splendid) people enjoyed them. Whether hunting game on the estate or dancing the latest minuet, wealthy Europeans of the 17th and 18th centuries wore the finest fabrics and latest fashions, while refinement extended to accessories from firearms to fans. Unlike the present day, hunting was not complicated by fraught questions of cruelty to animals or class privilege. The thrill of the chase is exhilaratingly conveyed in Jacques Callot’s La grande chasse (The great stag hunt). The full-on panoramic composition, combining landscape, horses, humans, dogs, and stags, testifies to Callot’s pictorial abilities. You could easily visualise it as a large-scale tapestry or painting, but he has compressed the scene into a small print, less than 20 centimetres high.
Two great portraits
Exhibiting choice items of lace from the collection provided the perfect pretext for hanging alongside them two very fine portraits whose austerity might not, at first glance, have made them an ideal fit for Splendour. Both, however, wear lace: the young man in his starched ruff, and Mrs Devereux in her cap and cuffs. The former, an unidentified figure attributed to 16th-century Dutch artist Anthonis Mor, remains an enigma.3 Who is he? What is he thinking and feeling? We feel compelled to ask these questions as he stares, slightly disconcertingly, to our left. And while we will never know just who or what is engaging American-English painter J S Copley’s Mrs Humphrey Devereux, we sense her benign and intelligent presence. When the sitter’s son John Greenwood wrote to commission Copley, he stipulated that he wanted a subdued likeness: as far as his mother’s costume was concerned, ‘Gravity is my choice of Dress’. As Tony Mackle writes in Art at Te Papa, the outcome is ‘a splendid rendition of fabrics and textures’, with a ‘strong dynamic pose that holds the viewer’s attention’, indeed ‘a portrait of striking naturalness’.4 Copley’s achievement was confirmed when Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, commented that he was ‘at his height’ here. Endorsement from the most revered British painter of the period must have meant a lot to Copley – and art history has endorsed Reynolds’s judgement in turn.
Luxurious lifestyles and the role of trade
Three consecutive galleries take the visitor on a journey through the lifestyles of affluent society, covering the periods 1500–1700, 1700–1750, and 1750–1800. A theme that runs through the exhibition is the importance of trade: Russian furs for the hats, collars, and muffs worn by a splendid cast of characters, including two further Rembrandts and another Castiglione; Japanese lacquer for a fine late 17th-century cabinet and stand; China, of course, for her blue and white porcelain; and Caribbean mahogany for the corner cabinet and wine table at the end of the exhibition – the list of exotic imports goes on. Three major centres of trade are featured in topographic scenes: Ghent, Venice, and London, the last a view by Hollar of the Royal Exchange, the epicentre of capitalism both then and now.
French taste, British initiative
As the centuries progress, further themes emerge, one of which is British and French rivalry. In the eyes of her envious and admiring yet partly hostile neighbour across the Channel, France was the last word in artistic elegance and taste. And while France stagnated in the late 17th and 18th centuries, Britain’s economy boomed, and the living standards of her more open society exponentially improved. The expulsion of French Huguenots (Protestants) in 1685 allowed a highly skilled refugee population to set up trade in Britain. The quality of their silversmithing, seen in the toilet set on display, is legendary. Then there were French engravers resident in London, such as Bernard Baron, who could be counted on to apply rococo sophistication to the proudly English William Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-mode print series (note the ironically French title of the disastrous arranged marriage, with its aspirations to splendour, that he chronicles). Philippe Mercier, who inspired the paintings of two coquettish and splendidly dressed little girls on display, which personify the senses of hearing and taste, was another French expatriate. And it could just be that Sir Edward Hughes, that perfect exemplar of patriotic splendour, decked out in the uniform of an ‘Admiral of the Blue’, is holding his telescope with one wary eye on French fleet manoeuvres. In 1782, he was involved in a record-breaking five fiercely contested actions with his highly respected foe, Admiral Pierre André de Suffren, off the Indian coast. Naval history buffs, much like their counterparts in football, still dispute the England-France scoreline!
A return to order: neoclassicism
The Grand Tour was a particularly English phenomenon, acting as a cultural finishing school for upper-class young men in the 18th century. They sampled Europe’s classical and Renaissance art, architecture, and music, they mingled with elite society, they sometimes learned new languages, and they certainly appreciated wine, women, and song. The resident British population in the Grand Tour destination on everybody’s itinerary, Rome, was a key component in spearheading the final artistic style that we admire in Splendour: neoclassicism. Although there were important Italian, French, and German components, neoclassicism was an English-driven phenomenon. It involved reverence, as never before, for ancient Greece and Rome, not only aesthetically, but in the perceived culture and values of classical civilisation. Josiah Wedgwood’s ceramics are wonderful exemplars of neoclassicism, demonstrating how the decorative arts could be at the forefront of innovation. This is evident both stylistically and technically in his invention of jasperware, white stoneware that looks fine and delicate, yet which is hard and almost glass-like. This resemblance surely motivated Wedgwood to produce jasperware reproductions of the Portland Vase (now in the British Museum), a masterpiece of early Roman Empire glass and probably the most esteemed art object in the late 18th-century world.
Am I not a man and a brother?
Still more remarkable is the tiny jasperware medallion, Am I not a man and a brother? This is the emotional question asked by the kneeling, chained slave. Tellingly, the normal colour scheme is reversed, so the relief is black, and the background ‘body’ is white. The medallion reveals Wedgwood’s passionate opposition to slavery. Such was his conviction that he mass-produced and distributed the object at his own expense. Is it fair to call Wedgwood’s enlightened standpoint politically splendid? I think so, and I also hope the medal shows that Splendour is more than a self-indulgent celebration of elite consumerism, wealth, and status. It should cause us to consider the downside of the expanding world economy, its victims from slaves to silk-weavers. I hope visitors will leave the exhibition asking many questions about European art and history, having experienced art works from three momentous centuries. May the force of Splendour be with you!
- James Lindow, ‘Splendour’, in Marta Ajmar and Flora Dennis (eds), At home in Renaissance Italy, V&A Publishing, London, 2010, p. 306.
- Baldessare Castiglione, quoted in ‘Sprezzatura’, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprezzatura, accessed 23 September 2016.
- Go to http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/Object/44488">
- Tony Mackle, ‘John Singleton Copley’, in William McAloon (ed), Art at Te Papa, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2009, p. 42.
Mary Kisler, Angels & aristocrats: Early European art in New Zealand public collections, Godwit, Auckland, 2010.
William McAloon (ed), Art at Te Papa, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2009.
‘Pukerua Bay School Museum visit European Splendour’, www.blog.tepapa.govt.nz/2016/09/19/pukerua-bay-school-museum-visit-european-splendour, posted 19 September 2016.
Mark Stocker, ‘Wenceslaus Hollar: etching the 17th century’, www.blog.tepapa.govt.nz/2016/09/16/wenceslaus-hollar-etching-the-17th-century, posted 16 September 2016.