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Art Collectors' Council strengthens Huntington's European holdings
Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729 –1799), Scene of a Shipwreck, 1770. Oil on canvas, 18.5 × 26.4 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
SAN MARINO, CA.- At its 20th annual meeting earlier this month, the Art Collectors’ Council of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens voted to purchase a lead bust attributed to popular 18th-century London sculptor John Cheere (1709–1787); a pair of dramatic landscapes by Pierre-Jacques Volaire (1729–1799), a French painter who was active in Rome and Naples; and a British silver-mounted glass centerpiece designed with both Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts sensibilities by James Powel & Sons in 1906.

“We are absolutely thrilled about the acquisition of these beautiful and important works—rare finds all. Each one strengthens the European collection in significant and meaningful ways,” said Kevin Salatino, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Collections at The Huntington.

The new acquisitions will go on view May 28 alongside other recent acquisitions of European art in a special installation in the Huntington Art Gallery.

Roman General, ca. 1750, attributed to John Cheere
This previously unrecognized 18th-century British bust reproduces a famous ancient work now in the Museo Archeologico, Naples, called the Generale Romano (Roman general), a 2nd-century A.D. marble after a Hellenistic original. The ancient version of the Generale Romano was a regular stop in the second half of the 18th century among Europeans traveling on the Grand Tour (a custom among aristocratic young men of traveling to visit key cultural sites), and it captured the imagination of sculptors looking for exemplars to copy.

“Comparing this copy of the Generale Romano to other copies after the ancient marble bust is a fascinating exercise,” said Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art at The Huntington. “Typically, copies replicated the original with great fidelity, but the artist of our bust has stripped the subject of his cloak, rounded off the bottom of the work, and tipped the head up and away from the viewer. The result is an elegantly theatrical presentation. The expressive pose takes on a gutsy muscularity—all sinew, tendon, and bone.”

Experts examined the work before it went to market and believe that all evidence points to John Cheere as the bust’s sculptor. Cheere’s business in London thrived for 50 years, and in the 1740s and 1750s dominated the market for high-quality lead figures. Lead, a less expensive material than bronze, was commonly used for garden statuary. Cheere’s stock of lead subjects included other copies after famous antiquities such as the Borghese Gladiator and the Diana of Versailles. In addition to his regular production, he created commissioned pieces for special patrons. The Huntington’s new Roman General is likely one of those special commissions, and might have been for display in an aristocratic garden or architectural niche.

“The originality of its conception, not to mention the vigorous handling of the medium, shows the artist at the height of his talents,” said Hess.

Another important lead sculpture by the artist, a copy of Giambologna’s Samson and the Philistines, is in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art; the Los Angeles, County Museum of Art (LACMA) has two plaster sculptures by Cheere.

Roman General will enrich The Huntington’s display of works related to the Grand Tour, which currently includes Pompeo Batoni’s portrait of James Stopford and Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting of Vesuvius, but no sculpture until now.

View of Naples in Moonlight and Scene of a Shipwreck, 1770, Pierre-Jacques Volaire
The pair of paintings by Pierre-Jacques Volaire were created during the artist’s most productive period and together work to “contrast the calm with the horrific,” according to Hess.

In View of Naples in Moonlight, the juxtaposition of cool moonlight and warm fire allows the chilly reflective sea to provoke a sense of distant wonder while a sheltered bonfire draws the viewer to its warm and intimate protection. But in Scene of a Shipwreck, Volaire underscores the dramatic horror of the event by contrasting the blast of lightning from an angry storm with the storm’s pitiable victims. The light reflects off the limp figure of a dead or dying woman while silhouetting the terrorized figures that climb to safety at the painting’s lower left.

Born in 1729 into a family of artists in Toulon, France, Volaire became the assistant to Joseph Vernet. From his master, Volaire acquired a sharp sense of observation, a lively technique, and keen attention to design and lighting. Not content to copy his master’s formulas, Volaire developed a more sensational style that exploited the theatrical potential of dramatic depiction of light. The many eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in this period turned his attention to the theme of what he called “my favorite spectacle,” much like Joseph Wright of Derby’s declaration years later that Vesuvius erupting was “the most wonderful sight in nature.” These works provide a comparison with Wright’s painting Vesuvius from Portici (1774–76) already in The Huntington’s collections.

“This pair of paintings perfectly complement our Wright Vesuvius, while presenting more fully the 18th-century fascination with the concept of the sublime,” said Hess. Based on ancient aesthetic ideas, the notion of the sublime was defined by Edmund Burke in 1757 as “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling,” namely that “when danger or pain press too nearly…they are simply terrible; but at certain distances…they may be, and they are delightful.”

Silver-Mounted Glass Centerpiece, 1906, Harry Powell, designer; James Powell & Sons and Whitefriars Glassworks, London, maker
A graceful, undulating marriage of silver and glass executed by the Whitefriars Glassworks of renowned Arts & Crafts glassmakers James Powell & Sons, The Huntington’s new glass centerpiece was designed by Harry Powell, grandson of the works’ original founder. It reveals the hybrid nature of British design as Arts & Crafts historicism was giving way to “the new art” (Art Nouveau) around 1900.

Inspired by natural forms, Art Nouveau is known for its curvilinear “whiplash” lines and restless, twisting shapes. Powell’s centerpiece, with its fluid silver mounts and the rippling pulled green threads of the glass, represents the more restrained take on Art Nouveau that marks Powell’s work of this period as well as the attention to details of craftsmanship that derive from his firm’s roots in the Arts & Crafts movement.

Originally part of a 465-piece table service commissioned from Powell by Count Lionel Hirschel de Minerbi in 1906, the centerpiece is one of a pair. The other is now in the collection of the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. The art-loving Hirschel de Minerbi shad just purchased a famed 18th-century Venetian palazzo, was in the process of redecorating it in the latest style and remarked that he ordered the Powell service because he “wanted to have the best glass he could procure.” It is a testament to Powell’s skill as a glass designer that Minerbi chose to commission a British service over one more easily acquired in nearby Murano, the home of Venetian glass.

“The Huntington has strong holdings of British glass and silver from the 18th and early part of the 19th century,” said Melinda McCurdy, associate curator of British art at The Huntington, “but very little from the important period around 1900, when British design was so influential. This exquisite piece does much to fill that gap and will beautifully complement our other magnificent examples of decorative art from the period.”

The centerpiece will join the side chair designed by Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851–1942) that was purchased jointly with LACMA in 2009 (and is considered one of the first Art Nouveau designs anywhere), and a rare wood and inlay piano designed by Charles Robert Ashbee (1863–1942), purchased by the Art Collectors’ Council in 2007.

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