New York Times
ART REVIEW | 'EUROPEAN BRONZES FROM THE QUENTIN COLLECTION'
Struggling in Exquisite Bronze
By GRACE GLUECK
Street-smart Hercules! When he wrestled with Antaeus, the Libyan giant whose mother was the Earth itself, he hoisted him in the air. Why? Because he knew that the giant's strength depended entirely on contact with his mother; when no part of his body touched her, he was helpless. And so Hercules was able to crush the monster, known for killing everyone else he had wrestled with.
The Quentin Collection
Detail of "Hercules and Antaeus,'' a 16th-century bronze from Italy.
A lively enactment of this remarkable feat occurs in a bronze statuette made by an unknown Northern Italian sculptor in the early 16th century. The action is portrayed with exquisite care: the strained faces and the powerful musculature of the protagonists are brilliantly modeled, and in such detail that you can see Antaeus's tongue as it cleaves agonizingly to the roof of his mouth. And yet the sculpture is a mere 10 inches high.
Inspired by a marble fragment of an ancient work familiar in 15th-century Rome, "Hercules and Antaeus'' is one of many highlights in "European Bronzes From the Quentin Collection,'' the Frick Collection's show of some 35 small statuettes dating from the late 15th to the mid-18th centuries. The collection is owned by the Quentin Foundation of New York, whose president, Claudia Quentin, the daughter of an Argentine industrialist, assembled the works over some 30 years.
Over the last few decades, there has been a revival of interest in the collection and technical exploration of these small-scale bronzes from the Renaissance. They were originally inspired by mythological themes or classical marble statuary, often reconstructed in innovative ways, and they were eagerly pursued by royalty, papal nobility and other well-heeled connoisseurs.
Growing proficiency in multiple casting soon made the statuettes - some by very well-known artists - available to a wider circle. Because they brought the ancient world alive again, the craving for them spread through Europe. Artists became known for their masterly modeling, subtle surfacing and polished finishing of the small works. In princely homes they were kept, with other precious material, in rooms known as studioli or kunstkammers (art cabinets).
The earliest production center for the statuettes was Italy, a hotbed for the discovery of ancient sculptures on which many of them were modeled. Italian Renaissance artists who produced this work included Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi, known as Antico; Andrea Riccio; Benvenuto Cellini; the Flemish immigrant Jean Boulogne, known as Giambologna; and Antonio Susini. Willem van Tetrode of the Netherlands and Barthelemy Prieur of France are also on the roster.
Besides the anonymous "Hercules and Antaeus,'' works in the Quentin collection include those by well-known names, including Giambologna (1529-1608). On view is one of his best-known statuettes, a magnificent version of "Mars,'' cast before 1577, and said to be the finest of the many castings of this work. It was one of his most popular figures, frequently given by the Medici court as a gift to other powers.
And small wonder. It sent a message. A powerfully developed nude figure of the god of war (about 15 inches tall), it shows him stopping in his forceful stride to swing his body and sword arm backward for attack. His free arm plunges forward to balance his movement, his hand is poised in a downward gesture that seems to warn the enemy "go no further.'' By depicting Mars ready to strike, Giambologna was conveying the capability that leaders had to wage or prevent war.
Aside from its persuasive theme, the statuette displays Giambologna's skills at depicting the nuances of body language, the rhythm of muscle movements and the intensity of facial expression. This marriage of imagination and technical virtuosity was what made him great.
But the finesse of workmanship associated with Giambologna's studio was largely attributed to his assistant, Antonio Susini, who worked with the master from about 1580 until 1600, when he left to open his own workshop. Even then, he continued his collaboration with Giambologna, and many of his statuettes were castings of Giambologna models.
Three such works by Susini are here, among them an endearing rendition of Morgante, the rotund dwarf who was court jester to the Medicis and one of the best-known characters of 16th-century Italy. Nude and holding a wine cup, the bearded and mustachioed roly-poly is one of the smallest works in the show, less than 4 inches tall.
A very different - and taller - character by Susini out of Giambologna is the slim, elegantly sensuous "Venus Drying Herself,'' a bronze more than a foot high, cast by the traditional lost-wax method. Its fine, crisp details and sensuous surface is burnished by fine wire brushing. Inspired by a marble statue that Giangiorgio II Cesarini, an Italian noble, had made for his palace in Rome, Venus is much better articulated in the statuette, as she delicately leans over to apply towels to her breasts and legs.
Among other outstanding works in the collection is a Hercules attributed to Van Tetrode (a k a Guglielmo Fiammingo), who worked in Florence and Rome. Unusual in that it's made of painted terra cotta rather than bronze, this Hercules is a wonderfully lifelike nude, 17 inches high but positively Terminatoresque. Holding a broken club in one hand, the other hand cockily poised on its hip, he has the wearied, even cynical face of a man much tried by life.
Vulcan, depicted in ripe and productive old age, stands next to his anvil as befits the blacksmith deity. Although the pair could have been made as models for large-scale sculptures, they are finished works in themselves by virtue of their careful portraiture and distinctively differentiated bodies.
Venus, Vulcan, Mars, Hercules, Mercury, Cupid, Vulcan, Jesus, St. John, nymphs, fauns, satyrs, animals, minor deities and simple folk; in short, the whole ancient and Renaissance cosmology, were subjects for these statuettes. One of the virtues of this show, handsomely installed by Denise Allen, associate curator at the Frick, is that most of the works are displayed free-standing, without vitrines, so they can be examined from every angle. Though untouchable, they are made vitally accessible to feeling with the eyes.
Remarkable Bronzes from the Fitzwilliam Museum in NY