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Judging by his Old Masters, Norton Simon had a better eye than J. Paul Getty

2 November 2021

This review of Italian Paintings in the Norton Simon Museum: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Nicholas Penny appeared in the September 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Collection catalogues are a law unto themselves and represent a very particular genre within art-historical writing. For one reason or another – which may well have something to do with a certain kind of institutional piety – they tend to encourage their authors to produce the scholarly equivalent of very dry sherry. His many admirers will not be surprised to discover that Nicholas Penny has set about his task in a very different and possibly demob-happy spirit. Indeed, it is tempting to discern a rather less reverential approach than that adopted in his various volumes for the National Gallery, of which he was until a few years ago the director.

Norton Simon (1907–93) was that rarest of creatures, a truly great private collector, and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is the public preservation of his passion. His love of art was anything but narrowly focussed, which means that for many visitors to the museum it will be the Impressionist pictures or the Asian sculptures that are the main draw. Nevertheless, the Old Master paintings, whether Italian or otherwise, represent a select but immensely distinguished group. Obviously, it helps to be immensely rich and well advised when making a collection, and it can always seem as if it would have been better to be born earlier; but the comparison between Norton Simon and J. Paul Getty (1892–1976), 15 years his senior, makes it almost embarrassingly plain that the former had a great eye and the latter did not.

Allegory of Virtue and Nobility (c. 1747–48), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770). Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.

Allegory of Virtue and Nobility (c. 1747–48), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. Photo: © Norton Simon Art Foundation

This catalogue will be followed by another by its author on the earlier Italian paintings in the collection. While these include a sublime early Raphael Madonna and much else besides, in a more general way Norton Simon was impressively immune to the lure of scalp hunting, and wisely bought the work rather than its label. As a result, the most haunting of the 45 paintings and tapestry cartoons (to which are added a tapestry and a sculpture) in the present volume is the Conversion of Mary Magdalene by Guido Cagnacci, who is by no means a household name.

Penny’s entry on it is exemplary in both senses of the word – not only a model of how to do it, but also characteristic of the order of service adopted throughout. That the number of entries is modest and the volume is lavish means the artists and their works can all be given their due, with Cagnacci being accorded 23 double-column pages, more than a hundred footnotes, nine comparative illustrations, an x-ray and four details, including a stunning close-up of the heroine’s discarded jewellery. All the entries are prefaced by biographies of their creators that bring their art to life (‘The young Tiepolo was a painter of tangled corpses, rearing stallions, outstretched arms with spread fingers, heroic statues viewed from below’), pass clear-sighted judgement upon it (Giuseppe Bernardino Bison’s religious paintings are ‘very poor’), chronicle the ups and downs in their respective reputations, and offer critical guidance on the art-historical literature devoted to them. The entries themselves start with the nuts and bolts (support, materials and technique, condition and conservation), followed by analysis of the work itself in terms of its authorship, its place within the artist’s oeuvre, iconography, and so on. They give unusually detailed consideration of its previous owners and its acquisition by Norton Simon, before concluding with its full known provenance, discussion of the frame (a particular passion of Penny’s), and not infrequently an illuminating appendix (in the case of the Cagnacci, this concerns a former owner and is entitled ‘The Duke of Portland’s disenchantment’).

The Suicide of Cleopatra (c. 1621), Guercino (1591–1666). Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.

The Suicide of Cleopatra (c. 1621), Guercino. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. Photo: © Norton Simon Art Foundation

One of the striking features of Norton Simon’s collecting – or at the very least of what ended up in the museum, for he was inveterately self-critical – is that he virtually never held on to a dud. In consequence, only two paintings here have question marks hanging over their attributions, a Borgianni and a Pellegrini, but – whoever they are by – they are powerful works. In the same vein, there are almost no demotions – one canvas is listed as ‘Imitator of Luca Giordano (formerly Luca Giordano)’ and an ex-Tanzio da Varallo is now ‘North Italian, perhaps Genoese’, while a copy of a Trevisani was previously called ‘Venetian School’. All in all, this is an incredibly impressive track record, given that most of the works in question were acquired between the 1960s and the 1980s, and the Old Master world has moved on apace since then. Better yet, the best of them – the Guido Reni Saint Cecilia, Guercino’s Suicide of Cleopatra (the cover star of this book) and his Aldrovandi Dog, and the best of the three Tiepolos, the Allegory of Virtue and Nobility – are absolute knock-outs.

Both in terms of their matter and their manner, the entries are absorbing. Penny never strays from the point, but does indulge in the odd sideways glance, which can result in such recondite wisdom as his comparison of the use of distinctions in social rank in the context of the sizes of canvases, and even Welsh roofing slates. He also takes no prisoners: a notable victim of his mockery is Rudolf Wittkower (for his put-down of Giovanni Francesco Romanelli), and he does not shy away from pointing out that not all the enthusiasms of the 12th Duke of Bedford were equally innocuous (according to Penny, he was ‘a stern evangelical, a committed pacifist, an admirer of Hitler, and an expert on parrots’). The prose ranges from the chatty (a Solimena child angel has ‘Disneyish eyes’) to the mandarin (the devoutly kissed toes of the bronze statue of Saint Peter in his eponymous basilica in Rome ‘have been much diminished by incessant osculation’). I caught him out in only one Homeric nod, in his assertion that the current prime minister’s first father-in-law, the late and much missed Willie Mostyn-Owen, worked for Sotheby’s as opposed to Christie’s.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (c. 1661–62), Guido Cagnacci (1601–63). Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (c. 1661–62), Guido Cagnacci. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. Photo: © Norton Simon Art Foundation

Italian Paintings in the Norton Simon Museum: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Nicholas Penny is published by Yale University Press.

From the September 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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