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Frick presents first U.S. exhibition on Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca
Piero della Francesca (1411/13–1492), The Crucifixion, 1454–1469. Oil and tempera on poplar panel, thinned and cradled, 14.7 x 16.2 cm. The Frick Collection, New York.

NEW YORK, NY.- Piero della Francesca was revered in his own time as a “monarch” of painting. Yet by the end of the sixteenth century his achievements had sunk into obscurity. During the nineteenth century, however, British and American collectors on the European Grand Tour rediscovered the master’s works and resurrected his reputation, and today Piero is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of the Italian Renaissance. The Frick was a beneficiary of this renewed interest and holds four of Piero’s paintings, more than any other institution outside of Europe. In February, the Frick will present the first exhibition in the United States dedicated to the artist, featuring its four panels together with works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts; and the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon. Together these seven paintings—all created for Borgo San Sepolcro, the city of Piero’s birth—demonstrate the richness of Piero’s oil technique and the monumentality of his compositions for which he is celebrated. The exhibition was organized by Nathaniel Silver, Guest Curator and former Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, The Frick Collection. Support for the exhibition is generously provided by Mrs. Henry Clay Frick II, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Hester Diamond, the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Robert Lehman Foundation. The accompanying catalogue has been underwritten by The Christian Humann Foundation and a gift from an anonymous donor in memory of Charles Ryskamp.

Over the course of a nearly sixty-year career, Piero worked in almost every major city across the Italian peninsula but is best remembered for the commissions he completed in and around Borgo San Sepolcro. Piero was born there sometime between 1411 and 1413 and trained locally, establishing connections in his hometown that lasted the rest of his life. In 1439 the young painter moved to Florence, where major refurbishments were underway at several of the city’s most important civic buildings. In the Hospital of Sant’Egidio, he worked on the foremost fresco cycle executed in Florence since Masaccio’s famed Brancacci Chapel of 1425–27. Distinguishing himself in that medium, Piero soon won a commission to fresco the entire choir of the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo (a short distance from Borgo) with the story of The Legend of the True Cross. He completed this, his most famous work, around 1462. Piero’s skill attracted the attention of important patrons such as Pope Pius II in Rome and the Duke of Urbino, who commissioned some of Piero’s most important surviving paintings.

European and American collectors in the twentieth century sought out rare examples of Piero’s work and secured them with a combination of determination and wealth that is reminiscent of his fifteenth-century patrons. In 1936 The Frick Collection acquired Piero’s Saint John the Evangelist, at left, from Knoedler and Company, which had discovered the picture in Vienna. Costing the museum $400,000, Saint John was the most expensive Renaissance painting in America at the time and reflected Piero’s status as an artist who was perceived as a founder of Italian painting. As the first Piero bought by a public institution in the United States, Saint John was introduced to America by sensational national headlines. For Helen Clay Frick, who served as the head of the museum’s acquisition committee and had already made at least one attempt to obtain a work by Piero for the Collection (including, in 1930, his Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels), this acquisition was a long-awaited triumph. Saint John was joined in 1950 by An Augustinian Nun and An Augustinian Friar. In 1961 Piero’s Crucifixion entered the Collection, the gift of Trustee John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had purchased the painting in 1924 for $375,000.

Collectively, the four Frick acquisitions marked the height of Piero’s popularity in America. Isabella Stewart Gardner had initiated the vogue for Piero in the United States with her 1903 purchase of his magnificent fresco Hercules (now on public view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston). She was followed in 1913 by Singer sewing-machine heir Sterling Clark, who bought the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, an ambitious altarpiece executed on an intimate scale. One year later, Robert and Philip Lehman acquired Saint Apollonia (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

The four Frick panels and Saint Apollonia were originally part of an altarpiece that Piero executed between 1454 and 1469 for the Church of Sant’Agostino in Borgo San Sepolcro—the most monumental work the artist created for that city. Described by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (1550) as a work that was “highly praised,” the massive polyptych stood over the church’s high altar for almost a hundred years, held aloft by two lateral piers. It was removed from Sant’Agostino shortly after 1555, probably when a group of nuns took over the church and its convent. Displaced from its position in the apse, the altarpiece was sawn into pieces and its gilt frame discarded. Local collectors who valued Piero’s artistic achievements preserved many of the panels. Today, however, only eight are known to survive: the Frick’s Saint John the Evangelist, An Augustinian Nun, An Augustinian Friar, and The Crucifixion; Saint Augustine (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon); Michael Archangel (The National Gallery, London); Nicholas of Tolentino (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan); and Saint Apollonia (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). We can only envision the original appearance of Piero’s Borgo masterpiece from its surviving fragments, reassembled in the hypothetical reconstruction. Based on technical evidence and documents, this reconstruction illustrates the likely placement of seven of the eight surviving panels. The gray areas indicate the shape of panels that most likely formed part of this work, suggesting how the altarpiece probably looked.

Most spectacular of the surviving panels are the four saints who dominated the principal tier of the altarpiece (from left to right, Saint Augustine, Saint Michael Archangel, Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino). These originally flanked a central panel, now lost, that most likely depicted either the Virgin and Child Enthroned or the Coronation of the Virgin. The large saints in the main tier were surrounded by smaller figures and narrative scenes, including three of the Frick’s four paintings. While the fragility of certain panels makes it almost impossible to reunite all eight, the exhibition will bring together six of them. The panels depicting Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Augustine were integral to the first attempt by art historians to reconstruct the Sant’Agostino altarpiece. In 1941, Millard Meiss of Columbia University identified Saint John the Evangelist as part of the polyptych’s main tier. Prompted by this breakthrough discovery, Kenneth Clark, a professor at Oxford and the former director of London’s National Gallery, attributed a previously unidentified work in Portugal’s national collection to Piero and published Saint Augustine as a painting from the same complex. The panel will make its debut in America with the Frick exhibition.

The altarpiece takes its name from Saint Augustine (Sant’Agostino), a fifth-century bishop and one of the fathers of the church. In his painting, at right, Piero characterized Augustine as a man in later middle age with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard. His brow furrowed in concentration, Augustine wears a richly decorated cope (a semi-circular brocaded cloak) over a long black habit. Elevated to the status of bishop during his lifetime, Augustine is shown wearing a pointed miter, his ceremonial emblem of office. Its gem-encrusted surfaces exemplify the wealth of material detail that embellishes this figure, including a translucent rock crystal staff, precious jewels, and lavishly embroidered robes. Piero conveyed the grandeur of Saint John the Evangelist more subtley. Barefoot and sunburnt, the saint gazes down with his attention focused, reading silently from a book. The gravitas of John’s appearance is emphasized by his magnificent drapery. His arms are wrapped in a rich vermillion cloak, the deep folds of which suggest the weight of the costly fabric. Beneath it he wears a blue-green robe, its hem is adorned with gilt embroidery punctuated by rubies and aquamarines set off by a delicate border of pearls.

Completing the group will be one of the most important Renaissance works in America, Piero’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. This intact altarpiece encapsulates Piero’s singular ability to paint monumental figures of profound dignity and spiritual grandeur. As with his frescoes in Italy, which hardly ever travel, this large panel is rarely lent by its home institution. It has been presented in New York City only once since the Clark opened to the public nearly sixty years ago, making this a particularly exciting viewing opportunity. Removed from the artist’s native city nearly two hundred years ago, this masterpiece will be returned to the context of Piero’s oeuvre when it joins his six other paintings in the exhibition.

The journeys of these paintings remind us of the distance that Piero’s reputation has traveled, the early twentieth-century collectors in America who introduced his talents to this country, and the unforgettable impressions that these collectors brought back from Italy of Piero’s most impressive frescoes. Unlike The Legend of the True Cross cycle that can never be moved from the Church of San Francesco, the paintings installed together in the Frick’s Oval Room will effectively re-create on an intimate scale the experience of visiting his Arezzo masterpiece. They will not reinvent but rather refine the encounter with Piero’s magisterial pictorial effects.

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