As The Three Graces can attest, the Metropolitan Museum is in an especially acquisitive mood these days. Despite much competition, its Department of European paintings has been especially fortunate, securing such prizes as The Lute Player by the rare 17th-century French Caravaggist, Valentin de Boulogne, a Portrait of Benedict XIV by Pierre Subleyras (cf my article on the subject) and Gaetano Gandolfi’s Head of a Bishop Saint, bought in January. But its most spectacular recent acquisition has yet to be formally announced: Xavier Salomon, the Chief Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, will be joining the department as a curator of Italian paintings later this year.
While the 31-year-old Mr. Solomon’s chief areas of expertise (Italian High Renaissance and Siecento painting) are close-to-identical with those of Department head Keith Christiansen, he is widely regarded as a young art historian of exceptional brilliance, and his appointment is regarded as something of a coup for the Met. Says one curator at a rival institution, “With someone that talented, you don’t worry about overlap. You want them on your team. The Met is the pinnacle of American museums, who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to be a curator there? You can only do so much at Dulwich. For one thing, it’s a fixed collection, so it can’t buy anything. What kind of fun is that? Sure, at the Met you have to do a lot of schmoozing with trustees and rich collectors, but you can buy pictures and build the collection. And if Salomon does well at the Met, he’d be next in line to succeed Keith once he retires."
Blessed with darkly handsome Anglo-Italian good looks and a warm and easy (one might describe it as de Montebellian) charm, Mr. Salomon’s resume is impressive. Born and raised in Rome, he studied in London at the Courtauld Institute earning his PhD with a dissertation on the Artistic Patronage of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini in Seventeenth Century Rome. From there he spent two years as the third Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Frick Collection where he organized (and wrote the catalogue for) the Frick’s spring 2006 exhibition “Veronese’ Allegories, Virtue, Love and Exploration in Renaissance Venice." Though containing but five pictures (two Allegories of Navigation in the Los Angeles County Museum, the Frick’s Wisdom and Strength and The Choice Between Virtue and Vice, plus the Met’s Mars and Venus United By Love), it was widely considered one of the most beautiful museum shows (of any size) of the year, and Mr. Salomon was noted as someone to watch.
At the conclusion of his Frick fellowship, Mr. Solomon spent a brief spell as a Curatorial Assistant at the National Gallery London (sighs a senior curator “We couldn’t keep him") before becoming chief curator at London’s Dulwich College Picture Gallery in early 2006. There he organized important exhibitions of Guido Reni’s pictures of St. Sebastian and the reconstruction of Veronese dismembered Petrobelli Altarpiece, identifying an unrecognized Head of St. Michael in the Blanton (Tex.) Museum of Art as the central fragment (of which the other three sections are at Dulwich and the National Gallery, Ottawa).
Most recently, Mr. Solomon came full-circle (of sorts), back to New York with the loan show of Dulwich Masterpieces at the Frick from March to May of this year. Says a senior curator, “He’s not a member of the radical ‘New Art History’ generation, thank God. His writings are uncompromisingly scholarly yet engaging and lively for the general reader, and he’s an uncommonly good lecturer -- put him on a podium and he’s magic. The audience loves him. The Met is so smart to have gone after him -- he’s that rare breed of art historian that practically died out thirty years ago."
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.