Old Western European Art from the Collection of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź

December 16th, 2003 - March 14th, 2004

The current exhibition is the largest of all previous shows of works by European modern masters of the 15th-18th centuries from the collection of Muzeum Sztuki [Museum of Art] in Łódź. It includes 74 painting and graphics exhibits from the hitherto independent Department of Old Foreign Art. The exhibition is meant to be a continuation of a presentation held two years ago, called European Art of the 19th and the Beginning of the 20th Centuries. From the Collection of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. Therefore it is, in a way, the second part of this presentation of the collection of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź — an institution, which is not usually associated with works of old masters.
This collection has not been given form by any homogenous collector’s tradition. The paintings are often rooted in many different and distant cultural domains of Europe. While the pre-war collection of modern art may be considered a certain whole, to which additions were regularly made after WW II, the art of old masters is a collection of rather random character and uneven artistic level. Those works reflect tastes of the inhabitants of Łódź at the end of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th centuries. Many of them decorated interiors of residences of Łódź factory owners, like the Biedermanns, the Geyers, and others. Some paintings became a part of the collection when their personal effects were secured (the so-called post-manorial property was later shipped to museums from artwork depositories). Other works were presented to the museum after the war; some, though few, were bought. Among some very valuable works of highest artistic standards, we will also find here many paintings and graphics that were important only from the local perspective. This rather incoherent, but historically justified nature of the collection, which partly results from the specific character of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, visibly marks our current exhibition. Moreover, absence of certain works lost during the war is painfully obvious. For instance, works by Gentile de Fabriano, Jacob Jordaens, Frans Francken the Younger, Willem Key, Pieter van Lint, Cornelis Saftleven, Adriaen van de Velde, Marteen van Heemskerck, and others were lost. Most of them belonged to a collection presented to the museum in 1939 by a Łódź manufacturer, the honorary consul of the Kingdom of Denmark in Łódź — Karol Rajmund Eisert.
Our knowledge of those exhibits has grown significantly since that time. The catalogue of the current exhibition is thus another attempt to present works from the Łódź collection to the public, verify old judgments and present the current state of our knowledge of the paintings and graphic works in question. The graphic art collection is exhibited and reproduced for the first time ever. It is worth to point out how the methodological approach of art history towards the works has changed, and how museums present their collections in a different manner nowadays. It seems that works that do not belong to the widely conceived “masterpiece” category are treated with growing respect today. Museums have lately become interested in less known exhibits, which for many various reasons deserve not only scholarly attention.
Our exhibition presents paintings and graphic works which came into being during four centuries — in the period ranging from the 15th to the end of the 18th centuries. A relatively small but valuable set of works by old masters belongs to the little known part of the collection of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, an establishment usually associated with modernist and contemporary art.
A valuable painting, the oldest of all at the exhibition and at the same time one of the oldest in the Łódź collection, is the portrait of the doge Michele Steno, painted on a wooden board in the first quarter of the 15th century. The next century is represented by merely three works (also portraits) — a small copperplate by Marcantonio Raimondi, Portrait of a Man by an unknown Venetian painter from the second half of the 16th century, and the Portrait of Frederick III the Wise, the Saxon elector, by an imitator of Lucas Cranach the Elder. Most of the works created in the 17th and 18th centuries represent, therefore, various aspects of baroque art.
A multifarious set of still-lives of different painting schools — including artists from Naples (Giuseppe Recco, Giovanni Battista Ruoppolo), Dutch and Flemish artists (Frans Snijders, Simon Verelst, Nicolaes Verendael, Johann Georg de Hamilton), and painters from France (like Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay) — reveals many different attitudes towards nature. Those paintings are specific painting treatises on various pleasures of life, and in some instances — symbolic riddles the artist constructed for his contemporaries, as well as present-day viewers.
A relatively large set of the 17th-century Dutch portraits seems very interesting. A meticulous Portrait of a Lady in a Dark Dress with a Ruff from the Delft school, painted in the spirit of middle-class realism, dates from the first half of the 17th century. Portrait of a Young Man with Greenery in the Background by Dirck Dickszoon Santvoort dates back to the middle of the 17th century (it was painted in 1649). The changes, which took place in the art of portrait-painting in the second half of the century, are adequately represented by the works of Aleijda Wolfsen, Reynier de la Haye and Nicolaes Maes from 1676. All of them prove the popularity of the courtly convention, which stressed the principle of effectiveness. Exquisitely dressed figures, surrounded by stylized, expensive draperies, are shown standing with a park in the background and sculptures still farther in the back. Models were shown in a completely different manner, however, in the works of later Italian portrait painters (like Giuseppe Nogari or Pietro Antonio Rotari).
Among the paintings of Dutch masters, Daniel de Blieck’s Interior of a Church with its intriguing atmosphere undoubtedly deserves special attention.
The world of the 18th-century Italian beggar’s opera is introduced by two interesting works by painters from Lombardy — Giacomo Francesco Cipper called il Todeschini and Giacomo Antonio Ceruti called Pitocchetto, who represent two successive generations of artists of the end of the 17th and the first half of the 18th centuries. Problems of painting tackled by Cipper in his Scuffle were later analyzed in Ceruti’s Young Beggar, a painting filled with poetry of everyday life.
Landscapes are few. Furthermore, they are not fully autonomous as representatives of the genre. Both the work from the circle of Salvatore Rosa and two landscapes by Norbert Josef Karl Grundy contain certain additional elements — in the former, of scenic, and in the latter, of biblical character. Two 18th-century paintings by Andrea Locatelli also belong to this category. Their fantastic landscapes with ruins form the stage for mythological scenes that take place among the pillars. The border between landscape and genre painting is marked by two pastoral scenes (compare Michiel Carree and Philipp Peter Roos called Rosa da Tivoli).
Among the works which refer to sublime topics from the very top of the hierarchy of painting genres — biblical or mythological stories — one should mention works by Italian painters, Jacopo Amigoni, Marcantonio Franceschino, Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari, and the Rape of Europe by a painter associated with the Roman school of the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries.
Special place is occupied by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert’s Jacob Despairing over Joseph’s Bloodied Robes, which is the first dated painting by this famous pre-Rembrandtist painter.
A separate part of the exhibition forms a spacious cabinet of graphics, where 40 selected graphic works are presented. Next to reproductive graphics, in most cases graphic reproductions of paintings (like etchings by Domenico Cune, Gaspar Duchange, Girolamo Ferroni, Jacques Philippe Le Bas, Valentin Lefebvre, Jan Punt, Andreas Schmutzer), original prints are also exhibited.
It is worth to have a look at four etchings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi from the series Vedute di Roma; William Hogarth’s social satire Sleeping Congregation, a work by Adriaen van Ostade, Alexander the Great in Apelles’s Workshop by Salvatore Rosa and Interior of a Cave with Sculptures of Pan and Fame in the Gardens of Villa Pratolino by Stefano della Bella.
Prints by Martin Bernigerth, Charles Clément Bervico or Jean Daullé, among others, make up an unusual gallery of rulers of modern Europe.
Works by Laurens Barata, Johann Christoph Dietzsch, Adam and Gabriel Perelle, Caspar Philips and Anthonie Waterloo present landscapes which are partly realistic, based on the observation of the world, and partly fantastic, created in the imagination of the artist — in the stillness of a workshop.
We should also mention Jacob Matham’s St. Sebastian, whose power of expression is exceptional.
The collection of old foreign art of Muzeum Sztuki does not allow us to present a true panorama of the achievements of European art or a comprehensive overview of painting schools and artistic circles of the times. Those works create an incomplete picture and enable us to present but some selected phenomena and problems.
However, it seems possible — and the arrangement of the exhibition confirms this — to distinguish among them two painting traditions and to draw a specific, though sometimes imperfect, axis of symmetry, running along two parallels across Europe. The juxtaposition of such geographical notions as the North and the South evokes various associations among politicians, economists, historians, and art historians. The artistic history of Europe seen from the perspective of relations between the North and the South is food for thought and reveals its various combinations: of Imperium Romanum and Imperium Barbaricum, the dual nature of “the Holy Roman Empire” (German countries — Italian countries), the Italian Renaissance and the North-European “autumn of the Middle Ages”, the Catholic South and the Protestant North, early capitalism and the later “economy of welfare”. The nature and meaning of cooperation and strong bonds, as well as of contrasts and conflicts in those parts of Europe have always influenced various spheres of human activity, from antiquity to the present day. Modern art also seems to be two-fold in a specific way. This parallel, known in the history of art for a long time now, may surely lead to simplifications, but it also has a cognitive dimension. That is why in the same room two 16th-century portraits hang next to each other — one by a Venetian, the other by a German painter. What conclusions can be drawn from the fact that in another room Frans Snijders’ painting hangs next to a work by Giuseppe Recco? How is the collision of two different worlds visible in the works by Laurens Baratta, Michiel Carree or Philippo Peter Rosa called Rosa da Tivoli? Which two worlds come into contact in the paintings by Jacopo Amigoni or Jean-Baptiste Beline de Fontenay? — let me leave these questions unanswered.

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