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Exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Explores Concepts of "Masterpiece"
Georges de La Tour. The Card-Sharp with Ace of Diamonds, 17th century. Oil on canvas. Musee du Louvre, Dept of Paintings. Photo: Gerard Blot. c. Reunion des Musees Nationaux/Art Resource, NY.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN.- This October the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) presents “The Louvre and the Masterpiece” which will explore how the definition of a “masterpiece,” as well as taste and connoisseurship, have changed over time. The exhibition, presented by U.S. Bank, will feature sixty-two works of art drawn from all eight of the Musée du Louvre’s collection areas, spanning 4,000 years. Paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, and drawings will reflect three major themes: the changing historical and cultural definitions of a masterpiece; authenticity and connoisseurship; and the evolution of taste and scholarship. “The Louvre and the Masterpiece” will be on view in Minneapolis from October 18, 2009, through January 10, 2010.

“We are thrilled to present such a magnificent group of works from the Louvre’s collections to Minnesota for the first time, and it is a great opportunity to explore what makes a work of art a masterpiece,” said Kaywin Feldman, Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The exhibition comprises three sections which coincide with three themes mentioned above.

What Is a Masterpiece?
“What Is a Masterpiece” explores the changing historical definitions of the concept of masterpiece through a selection of objects from the ancient Near East through the mid-19th-century. In the ancient world, a masterpiece was defined by an object’s owner and purpose. In contrast, medieval artists achieved technical mastery within specialized guilds. Notable objects in this section include two such inscribed works: a Limoges ciborium (c. A.D. 1200), a vessel used for holding communion hosts, and a Mamluk hammered bronze basin known as the Baptistery of Saint Louis, (c. late 13th—early 14th century). The Baptistery of Saint Louis was later used to baptize Louis XIII in 1610 and Napoleon III’s son in 1856.

The second section will introduce the idea of connoisseurship as a means of identifying works from the past as masterpieces. Displayed in pairs or groups, these objects will provide informative comparisons. The presentation will conclude with the famed Blue Head, a forgery from the Louvre’s collection. For years, the glass head was believed to be an Egyptian masterpiece (c. 1400 B.C.). Once displayed in the ancient Egyptian galleries, it was one of the most frequently reproduced works in the Louvre’s collections. After careful scientific analysis in 2001, it was confirmed to be a forgery.

Evolution of Taste and Knowledge
“Evolution of Taste and Knowledge” explores masterpieces that were either rediscovered or reattributed based on the changing knowledge and perceptions. Included will be ten paintings and sculptures by artists who are well known today but had been overlooked in previous eras. These include Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece, The Astronomer, which has never been seen in North America. Acquired by the Louvre in 1986, it once formed a pair with The Geographer, of 1669 – 9, now in Frankfurt. Together they illustrate Vermeer’s profound interest in scholarly inquiry. Vermeer’s paintings were well known and highly sought after during his lifetime, but because of his extremely limited output (around thirty-five paintings) he fell into obscurity—especially outside of Holland—in the decades following his death.

This section also features three focused installations. The first presents a Romanesque marble capital depicting the biblical story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the early Greek sculpture called the Lady of Auxerre. The second involves a suite of seven drawings by the Italian artists Michelangelo Buonarroti and Antonio Pisanello. The Louvre collected the Pisanello drawings in the nineteenth century, when they were thought to be rare works by Leonardo da Vinci. Research and new findings by curators determined that they were actually created by Pisanello, an extraordinarily gifted but lesser-known artist. Through this reattribution, an exceptional artist was discovered—or rediscovered—in modern times. This section concludes with a ravishing oil sketch by da Vinci.

Barye in Context
An in-depth examination of French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye’s life-sized bronze Lion and Serpent further elucidates the exhibition themes, such as the significance of technical mastery and the creative process, and the impact of the artist’s reputation. This presentation will include smaller models and studies based on Barye’s masterpiece.

Barye was well known for his realistic depiction of animals, especially those engaged in life-and-death struggles. Lion and Serpent was commissioned by King Louis-Philippe for the Tuileries Gardens, and was on display there from 1836 to 1911. With Lion and Serpent, Barye pushed the technical boundaries of cast-bronze sculpture by using only one bronze pour into a single mold. He reproduced the work hundreds of times in other sizes, which were then sold as collectible objects and used as diplomatic gifts from the French government.

The curator for “The Louvre and the Masterpiece” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is Matthew Welch, Assistant Director of Curatorial Affairs at the MIA.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts | Louvre | Kaywin Feldman | Matthew Welch | What Is a Masterpiece? | Connoisseurship | Evolution of Taste and Knowledge |

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