Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

St. Catherine of Alexandria (1599)
Caravaggio (1571-1610)

St. Catherine of Alexandria, by Caravaggio

A surprise here. Highly detailed, blue green cloak set as a sitting rug and a deep ripe cherry burgundy velvet skirt, all subtle, soft and van Eyck-like. Not his usual rough stuff.

The face, one of his regular models. Art historians usually find her to be a common lady of Rome. She was a famous prostitute, Fillide Melandroni from Siena – not just a streetwalker but a courtesan at the top of her profession.

The wheel of course is the rack on which this early Christian princess was tortured and martyred in Egypt under Roman Emperor Maxentius (306-312).

I am curious to see the actual work if the hands are rough and pink, which is usual for Caravaggio as opposed to Van Dyck who always but always had elegant model hands.

Catherine, 4th Century B.C., saint and virgin martyr. She was so clever she converted 50 pagan philosophers to Christianity in a debate in which they were supposed to have destroyed her faith. As a result they were burned at the stake and she was beheaded by Emperor Maxentius. He also tried to torture her by tying her to a wheel studded with iron spikes but a thunder bolt from heaven destroyed the wheel before it was used.

The Interior of the Burgomaster’s Council Chamber in the Amsterdam Town Hall with Visitors (1661-1670)
Pieter de Hooch (1629-1683)

The Interior of the Burgomaster’s Council Chamber in the Amsterdam Town Hall with Visitors, by Pieter de Hooch

This man was a competitor of Vermeer and some of his works used to be attributed to Vermeer.

One summary of his life by Robert Cumming, Art, A Field Guide, 2001, Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi: “He died insane, but little is known of his life. After 1665 portrayed rich interiors with a bogus view of pseudo-aristocratic life. His very late work is feeble.”

Well, I don’t know, Vermeer surely portrayed rich interiors.
This one is the crème de la crème, a grand hall with a staged curtain, before a kind of Caravaggio painting next to a wall covering worthy of Rothko above irregular patterns of a marble floor.

An open stage set with the performers all standing on their marked cue spots. The ultimate presentation of theatre.

Portrait of a Farmer
Paul Cézanne (1905-1946) — Room 33

Portrait of a Farmer, by Cezanne

Here the body is but part of the landscape, warm, the feel of summer.

He did more than one of these. This one has an unfinished face which reveals how he worked colour, flowing into color, form to frame colour, somehow in this ethereal mix, a sense of solidity.

Done at the very end of his life so you can see his final theories and his varied paint slaps and rough colours bathed in the sun.

Summer Clouds (1913)
Emile Nolde (1867-1956)

Summer Clouds, by Emile Nolde

German born, a wood carver, I am interested in some of his landscape paintings because they are of the same ilk as our Group of Seven, almost precisely the same in spirit, scene and painterly touch.

The Thyssen note discusses his widely spread travels to New Guinea, Russia, Siberia, Japan, reaching the Palan Islands and other South Sea islands. He returned to Germany and stayed there.

Then the entry says: “When the Nazis assumed power he was forced to resign as a member of the PreuBische Akademie der Künste, a post he had been appointed to two years earlier.

In 1937, 1,052 works by Nolde were recovered from the German museums and galleries and he was outlawed as one of the “degenerate” artists; he was forbidden to paint, exhibit and sell his paintings. His studio in Berlin was destroyed during one of the 1944 air raids.

Seems he must have been quite anti-Hitler.

Perchance I check Art, A Field Guide by Robert Cumming. Mr. Cumming is quite acerbic:

“His art hides a unique radical — regressive complexity (?), was interested in non-European ‘primitive’ art (he made a South Sea expedition in 1913) but he believed in racial purity and the concept of a master race … was a fully paid up Nazi and never understood why they rejected his art — perhaps he was (sadly) a curious case of arrested development artistically and politically?”

Mrs. Charles Russell (1908 — American)
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

Mrs. Charles Russell, by John Singer Sargent

A very successful portrait painter of the grand manner. He was born in Florence and lived primarily in Europe. He has a magnificent portrait of two girls with a large urn in the Boston Museum. Here, a sketch, flirtatious pose of a difficult woman. He revealed the nouveau riche, a spoiled clientele. But the dress, a stagey abstract sketch portrait, executed with assured fluid paint. All so ‘other world’ near jaded. One brush stroke, no re-working. He was a friend of Monet, an acolyte of the Frans Hals and Velasquez method. Look at her — all shimmer and elusive. A new tired nouveau riche.


The gown a rippled water reflection of an impressionist pattern. As light as the touch of a moth.

Velasquez is back alive, a clothed Rokeby Venus but not nearly as sexy.

Would you be happy if you were Mr. Russell? I think not but it must have reminded him of the difficult nature of his partner. Anyway the dress is lovely. But don’t ask her to go out for the groceries.

Singer’s Repose in the National Art Gallery of Washington is the ultimate reclining woman, ‘Louche’ comes to mind, the Oxford English Dictionary — “oblique not straightforward. Also dubious, shifty, disreputable.” Exactly!

His success was such that a funeral service was held at Westminster Abbey on April 24, 1925. For an American this is hard to top.

Portrait of Doge Francesco Venier (1554-1556)

Portrait of Doge Francesco Venier, by Titian

A doge, just another doge. They usually didn’t have long terms and there is a feeling of so many of them. The russet gold patterned robe with huge gold bauble buttons, with a cranberry red belt, gives the illusion of butterfly wings. But see the size of the sitter’s ringed left hand — huge. The picture of Venice on the left — clouds and sail. Then the face — a blotchy red nosed gimlet eyed hawk, eying the viewer with a doubting, yet piercing gaze.

After seeing this I discovered a Sebastiano Venier was the head Venetian in the huge naval victory of the Venetians over the dreaded Turks at Lepanto in 1571. I hoped it was the same man. No, perhaps Sebastiano was a descendant. Lepanto was the last great oared galley battle with soldiers hacking each other with anything at hand. The General Sebastiano was already in his seventies, led the charge firing bolts from his crossbow — he was getting on so a soldier had to crank the crossbow to a locked position then Sebastiano let her go. Eight thousand Christians dead, 30,000 Turks dead or wounded, 3,000 captured, 270 of 300 Turk ships destroyed or captured, 10 lost by the Venetian Holy Alliance.

If only this had been the man — what a story it would have been. Sebastiano was the Doge from 1577 to 1578.

Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1310-1311)
Ducio di Buoninsegna

Christ and the Samaritan Woman, by Ducio di Buoninsegna

Look at the architecture. Is it real? In 1310?

This artist along with Giotto broke away from the Byzantine stylized all gold stiff figures. Here for a first time is a setting of some actual spatial depth. The cobblestones, the pitcher on the head of the Samaritan woman. Now as a first there is a modulation of tones and elegant combination of colours in the architecture — art is moving towards a real telling of an actual story. Christ talking to the woman. He sitting almost relaxed, she listening. Her robe a subtle play of yellow set against the pale lime green of the architecture.

Emperor Charles V (1533)
Lucas Cranach (1472-1553)

Emperor Charles V, by Lucas Cranach

Emperor Charles V, Emperor of Rome, Hapsburg was a warrior emperor yet in real life no more than 5’3″ with a wildly promethean jaw. There is some doubt about his military capacity but the Italian cities fell to him without move than a whimper.

Titian painted him astride a horse, with a silver helmet in a pose of war.

He really looks like a bit of a dweeb.

His empire so large it was too much, too diverse. The Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, 1911, said: “Charles had abundance of good sense, but little creative genius and he was by nature conservative.” He was contrary to his military prowess “greedy for peace and quiet”.

Before Charles was 20 he had been engaged ten times with a view to political alliances. His son married Mary Tudor.

His aunt, Catherine, married Henry VIII. She the powerful wise queen who fell to Henry’s desire for a male heir. She stayed in England and was known as Catherine of Aragon.

He met with Luther at the Diet of Worms 1521.

At the head of his army Charles forced the Turks backwards down the Danube. In person he led troops crushing opponents in Ghent.

He tried after victory over the Lutheran states and the capture of the Electorate of Saxony at Mühlberg (see Titian in the Frick for this bulky mass of resentment) to create religious reconciliation between Lutherans and the Church — I can assure you this was not possible.

The Gonzaga of Mantua were part of the Hapsburg marriage policy.

In 1527, May 4th and a week thereafter, his 27,000 troops sacked Rome which was in a state of decline. Charles’ army, part German, part Spanish, climbed over the walls close to the Vatican and killed indiscriminately. Vincent Cronin at p. 93 describes it,

“…only the Swiss Guards stood firm and fell almost to a man. On that first day 8,000 people lost their lives; for six more days the streets were to run with blood, until 13,000 Romans lay dead.”

The Lutheran Germans led the looting and the brutal treatment of Cardinals and nuns. They destroyed much art and manuscripts in their hatred of the Roman church. They even tried to extract gold thread from Raphael’s tapestries.

Charles agreed to free Pope Clement for 400,000 ducats and several cities. “Clement called in the coiners to melt down many of the beautiful objects, chains, crosses, chalices, reliquaries — anything with gold. Having raised the first instalment of 150,000 ducats, Clement was allowed to flee.

For all his talent it became impossible to make imperial power a reality.

The Empire included South America which was one of his passions. Cortes was sent by him, and Peru and Chile were conquered. He strove to protect the natives and prevent slavery and supported the missionaries, the friends of the natives.

Portrait of a Robust Man (1425) — Robert de Masmines?
Robert Campin — Master of Flemalle (1375-1444) — 2nd Floor, Room 5

Portrait of a Robust Man, by Robert Campin

What a plump, Flemish turnip of a man, oddly unattractive yet perhaps not as bad as he looks. But he looks out and out brutish. Hair all wire brush. Bags under eyes really heavy. Cut of mouth — tough, no smooth talker this big hulk!

Who was he? Masmines, who held the Order of the Golden Fleece, was a distinguished Burgundian soldier in the service of Philip the Good (see van Eyck — the description of Philip the Good).

Some challenge the identity but virtually the same portrait appears in the Berlin Gemaldegalerie. In Berlin the same yet perhaps in the tiniest detail a tad different — an extra crease on the lower lip and the hair with a few more tousles on the top. So a copy yet not a copy. The same date — 1425.

Campin had as an apprentice the superstar, Rogier van der Weydan. Some art historians say this same man appears in van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross in the Prado. One of my “must sees”. The historians argue this man appears in the right hand part, a younger version. Well no one really knows about these artists — Campin, ver der Weyden — but van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross is dated 1435 so unless the fat man got thinner it can’t be him. Did they have diets in 1435?