The Life of an Object
At WCMA, we are constantly learning about our permanent collection. With more than 13,000 objects, there is always something for us to research. Objects accumulate new information over time and since we are charged with caring for works in our collection, we are responsible for tracking the “life of an object.” Information about a work of art changes as we learn more about an artist, the dating of a piece, its proper title, or the context in which it was made. With our museum reinstallation, Reflections on a Museum, we have created opportunities for new groupings of objects and in doing so have learned more about their histories.
Since April 2011, our galleries have been anchored by loans from the Yale University Art Gallery, as part of their Collection-Sharing Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Yale partnered with six college/university museums to generously lend areas of their own collection, and WCMA was one of the lucky chosen few. Recently, and rather regrettably, we said goodbye to these fifty loans that peppered our galleries as they returned home to Yale.
This past academic year, first-year graduate student in the history of art, John Witty III, worked at WCMA as an intern on a variety of projects that centered on the collection. He curated a wall of 17th-century prints in The Object of Art (one of our reinstallation exhibitions), researching a number of works and adding much to our curatorial files (the physical “home” of information for objects in the collection).
John was charged with curating two additional walls for this gallery that focused on patronage—the original iterations of which dealt with the support of the Christian church during the Italian Renaissance while the other was based on objects that the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, seen in a magnificent portrait by Frans Pourbus the Younger, might have displayed in a wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities.
To replace Yale’s objects, John re-conceptualized these walls by choosing several paintings in the WCMA collection that had previously been on view in this gallery and others that had not been on view in a while. In this installation he chose to focus one wall on the cultural exchange between 17th century Naples and Spain; the other wall deals with images of the Virgin and Child over time.
After doing some research, John got in touch with Smith College Professor of Art Craig Felton to see if he could help us determine whether WCMA’s painting of The Executioner by Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, 1591–1652) was actually by Ribera himself. Felton is a renowned expert on the work of Ribera and we are fortunate to have him just down the road at Smith.
The canvas was closely examined with a magnifying glass, flashlight, and Ultraviolet lamp. Ultimately, the conclusion was that the painting is most likely not by Ribera, but by a mid-17th century follower of the artist also based in Naples. Ribera was a popular artist and paintings with his signature were highly prized, so it is not surprising to find such works done after violent subjects that Ribera himself might have painted. The subject of this work is still a puzzle and not easily identifiable.
Felton also examined our painting of St. John the Evangelist Expelling Poison from the Cup (mid-17th century) attributed to Massimo Stanzione (Italian, 1585–1656). Felton placed this work in mid-17th century Italy, but the authorship is puzzling and the artist could not be determined.
We would very much like to thank Craig Felton for his time and expertise in assessing these works.
These paintings have just been installed in the galleries at WCMA, as part of their new lives. Come see them for yourself!
Curator of Special Projects