Museo de Arte de Ponce

John Everett Millais, The Escape of a Heretic, 1559, 1857 Museo De Arte De Ponce, Ponce, Puerto RicoThe Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, grew out of the passion of one collector. Inspired by a trip to Europe in 1950, Luis A. Ferré—engineer, pianist, philanthropist and future governor—set about acquiring old master and nineteenth-century art, unfashionable at the time. The Museo, which now has more than 3,000 objects, is currently closed for renovation and expansion. This summer, the Bruce Museum, in Greenwich, Connecticut, showcased sixty works in “Masterpieces of European Painting from Museo de Art de Ponce,” a traveling exhibition. The selection suggests the range of the Museo’s holdings, with examples from the Italian, Spanish, French, Flemish and Dutch schools, along with some German works, but the British Pre- Raphaelites are particularly strong. The great American collectors of the Gilded Age had already secured an impressive roster of first-tier old masters for institutions such as the Frick Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. Still, Ferré managed to acquire some very fine works, and the Museo has earned international respect. In 1962, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, a principal benefactor of the National Gallery, presented the Museo with one of the works on display at the Bruce, Jacopo di Cione’s Annunciation with Donor (c. 1375–80). The tempera-on-wood-panel painting is notable for the richly colored robes of the angel and Virgin—the lapis lazuli blue is striking—and the architecture of her throne and the curved space. Judith with the Head of Holofernes (c. 1520–37) by Lucas Cranach the Elder shows the Old Testament heroine in German court dress, jeweled from her headdress to the rings on her fingers.

Some of the most interesting work in the collection comes from the Baroque, such as Giovanni Battista Carriolo’s Mary Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross (c. 1620). A leader of the Neapolitan Caravaggesque school, Carriolo understood the inherent drama of deep shadow. His Magdalene, attractive but unglamourized, leans in quiet sorrow against the wooden beam, which is nearly swallowed in tenebrous darkness. The handling of the white, inky blue and rust drapery is very fine. One of the Carriolo’s rivals in Naples was the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera, whose retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago was a revelation. The Museo owns Ribera’s oval portrait St. Paul (c. 1630), a tight close-up focused on the saint’s penetrating gaze and raw-knuckled hand, clutching a sword. Francisco de Zurbarán’s Crucifixion (c. 1630) is even more austere. The pale body seems to float in space against the featureless black backdrop, while the realism of the agonized face and nailed feet seems hallucinatory. Bartolemé Esteban Murillo’s religious art is far gentler. His Immaculate Conception of the Mirror (1660–78), with the Virgin standing on a crescent moon and accompanied by tumbling clouds of cherubs, is a composition made overly familiar by saccharine imitations. Murillo’s exquisite palette and lively, refined figures capture the power of the image. Francisco de Goya’s Portrait of Martín Zapater (1790) is an excellent example of the genre. Zapater was a close friend, and the warmth between artist and subject is obvious. And Goya knows how to create simple formal shapes—note the blocky dark blue jacket—that draw attention to the intelligent face.

These works are indicative of the Museo’s respectable old master holdings and make a visit worthwhile. The extraordinary value of the collection, however, lies in the adventurous taste displayed in nineteenth-century art. The rise of modernism is largely ignored, at least in its mainstream art historical storyline. How the marvelous Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida remains so little known is simply a mystery. His Female Nude (1886) combines a homage to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus with riotously free-wheeling paint-handling in the surrounding drapery. Many of the other works in the collection belong to the style we loosely define as academic, although there is considerable range between Jean-Léon Gérôme’s classical-Orientalist Queen Rodope Observed by Gyges (1859) and Gustave Moreau’s symbolist Delilah (c. 1896), a femme fatale in a haunted palace of the imagination.

The Pre-Raphaelites form the most celebrated component of the Museo’s collection, beginning with one of their obsessively detailed landscapes, Thomas Seddon’s Léhon from Mont Parnesse, Brittany (1853) and John Everett Millais’s romantic dramatization of a scene from the Inquisition, The Escape of a Heretic, 1559 (1857). We see a similar fusion of realistic detail and choreographed drama in a handsome painting by the group’s mentor, Ford Madox Brown’s Jacob and Joseph’s Coat (1871). Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding member of the group with an intensely poetic style, led the second wave of Pre-Raphaelitism. His Roman Widow (1874), a hothouse beauty surrounded by lyres and roses, is not one of his best, but it points the way to the symbolist evolution of the movement. Artists such as Frederick Sandys, represented here by Ysoude with the Love Philter (1870), let the narrative dissolve into an emotionally, erotically charged nimbus around an iconic beauty. One of the stunners of the collection, Frederick Leighton’s Flaming June (1895), a fever dream of antiquity with a dozing girl wrapped in diaphanous orange drapery, is not in the exhibition. But another group of dreamers is, Edward Burne-Jones’s Briar Rose triptych (1871). The unusually wide format reinforces the low-cresting rhythm of the compositions. In The Prince Enters the Woods, the rescuing knight is the only upright figure; his companions have already succumbed to the spell. All wear black, reflective armor and are entangled in an undulating bower of thorns and flowers. The King and His Court shows the courtiers spread out across the throne-room floor, with a deep blue drapery backdrop that ripples like ocean waves. In The Sleeping Beauty, a similar forest green drape makes a bower for the sleeping princess and her handmaidens. In their clinging rose and ivory robes, they have the elegance of classical statuary, perhaps a sleeping Ariadne, but the fairy tale setting evokes a medieval romance. Burne-Jones’s linear energy suggests the magnetic power of beauty, which stirs the prince to heroism. But these women are not passive; they could be, like Hindu deities, dreaming whole worlds into existence.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 175-page, bilingual, full-color catalogue. “Masterpieces of European Painting from Museo de Arte de Ponce” began its United States itinerary at the Phoenix Art Museum. After the Bruce Museum appearance, it travels to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (October 4, 2009–January 10, 2010) and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, Tennessee (February 12–May 22, 2010). The Bruce Museum is located at One Museum Drive, Greenwich, Connecticut 06830. Telephone (203) 869-0376. On the web at www.brucemuseum.org

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2009, Volume 26, Number 4