"The Odyssey Continues: Masterworks from the New Orleans Museum of Art and from Private New Orleans Collections," Nov. 17, 2006-Feb. 9, 2007, at Wildenstein & Company, 19 East 64th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.
With or without a hefty year-end bonus in hand, art lovers now have a chance to spend a small sum for a good cause and see a great exhibition at the same time. For a modest $10, earmarked for the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), visitors to Wildenstein & Company on the Upper East Side can take in "The Odyssey Continues," an exhibition of approximately 100 European and American artworks, most from the museum collection. Another $45 will get you the catalogue -- which makes a nice holiday gift.
Of course, if you have a bonus, I’m sure the museum would be delighted if you could contribute more. The New Orleans Museum’s collections survived Hurricane Katrina, but the building and sculpture garden sustained an estimated at $6 million in damage. Revenue from the city as well as support from its beleaguered residents has been dramatically curtailed. NOMA and its director, E. John Bullard, have launched a $15 million Katrina Recovery Campaign. The show at Wildenstein is part of an effort to bring the museum operations back up to speed and to stabilize the institution’s finances.
Ranging from Old Masters to modern art, "The Odyssey Continues" is a terrific exhibition. Perfect for the season is Bernardo Luini’s large painting, Adoration of the Christ Child and the Annunciation to the Shepherds (ca. 1520-25), a two-part story that starts in the painting’s upper part and continues in the bottom foreground. Luini’s delicate rendering underlines the vulnerability of the Christ Child, which is also emphasized physically through the tender touch of Mary and symbolically through the lamb in the arms of a watching shepherd, a sign that the infant is the Lamb of God.
Turning to secular works, the imposing bearded man in Lorenzo Lotto’s portrait from a few years later seems all robust physique and shrewd eyes at first, but they are balanced by the graceful gesture of his right hand, emphasized by a swirl of drapery, and the fine linen handkerchief he holds in his left. The result is an exciting, complex picture.
A dreamy work by Charles Joseph Natoire, The Toilet of Psyche (1735-36), is a never-never land of creamy female flesh with just enough gauzy fabric to titillate. It’s a jolt to see a first-rate and bracing John Singleton Copley portrait of Colonel George Watson (1768) not far away.
Many of the works in the show are French, in keeping with New Orleans’s early rule by France. A particularly lovely loan from a private collection is Still Life of Flowers in a Vase on a Marble Shelf (ca.1800) by perhaps the most famous flower painter of all, Flemish-born but French School Pierre Joseph Redouté. Lush yet realistic, it even has a small butterfly.
Edgar Degas is represented by an early painting of his New Orleans first cousin and sister-in-law Estelle Musson De Gas (1872), plus a pencil drawing, and a bronze dancer. The show even has an excellent bronze bust of the artist in his old age by Paul Paulin.
Amid the 20th-century standouts is a small, exuberant 1948 Jackson Pollack abstraction on paper, one of his best. Equally impressive is a poignant nude by Pablo Picasso, his Woman in an Armchair (Jacqueline Roque Picasso) from 1960. It describes both the dark and light sides of her mind as well as her particular body. The woman is exposed in every way.
Presiding over all is Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s full-length state portrait of Marie Antoinette from around 1788. This glorious portrait, similar to a slightly different, earlier version in Versailles, is filled with richly painted passages. It has a still life that would have made Redouté proud, and the fabrics are especially fine.
I’m sure the queen had no idea that she would lose her life within years of the portrait, just as the New Orleans Museum had no idea a few years ago that its treasures would be making a quick visit to New York. Let’s appreciate these gems while we can and, at the same time, help the museum to display them back home soon.
The catalogue can be purchased online at www.wildenstein.com.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.