CLEVELAND (March 21, 2017) – Significant recent acquisitions by the Cleveland Museum of Art include Alabama, an Abstract Expressionist masterpiece by African American artist Norman Lewis; a rare tempera painting of St. Matthew by William Blake; and a 16th-century drawing that served as a study for the altarpiece The Entombment, by Giovanni de’ Vecchi.
Norman Lewis’s Masterpiece, Alabama
Visually and emotionally arresting, the painting is a powerful abstract composition
Alabama represents a key contribution to Abstract Expressionism, the mid–20th-century movement devoted to communicating psychological and emotional impulses mostly through line, shape, color and texture. Produced during the 1960s, American painter Norman Lewis’s most original and admired works are the dozen or so canvases constituting his civil rights series, which provide a unique fusion of Abstract Expressionist aesthetics and social commentary. Energized by the civil rights movement, Lewis felt he could not ignore the significant transformations taking place in the country, and he searched for a way to align his interest in abstraction with current events. Alabama distinguishes itself as the masterpiece of the series.
The painting’s title references one of the most notoriously recalcitrant U.S. states in the struggle for African American civil rights. The composition consists of vigorous white and off-white brushwork applied in linear and curved strokes against a black background. The brushstrokes gather in number and intensity on the central lower third of the canvas, obliterating the background in places. Lewis’s choice to limit his palette to black and white suggests the loaded duality that characterized an era entrenched in racial conflict, and the arrangement of forms has prompted viewers to draw associations ranging from a conflagration to a nighttime Ku Klux Klan gathering.
Lewis was the only African American artist to exhibit alongside the founders of Abstract Expressionism. His career encompassed 13 solo exhibitions and participation in approximately 130 group shows. Yet despite his achievements, the artist did not attain sufficient fame to guarantee a place in the early histories of the movement, his race hampering his acceptance among the dominant circles of networking and patronage. Despite the limited attention paid to Lewis’s art in the decades after his death, interest has steadily increased during the past quarter century.
Alabama will be on view in the museum’s Abstract Expressionist gallery (227) beginning the evening of March 24.
William Blake’s St. Matthew
Ethereal, rare tempera painting is a superior example of the artist’s unique vision
Poet and painter William Blake, a highly original voice in British art, worked in a style defined by his spiritual visions. From childhood, Blake believed that he experienced direct communication with God, saints, angels and the deceased, whose revelations are reflected in the otherworldliness of his work. Inspired to create “portable fresco paintings” emulating those of the early Italian Renaissance, Blake devised his own method of painting in tempera on canvas. St. Matthew depicts an angel, bathed in golden light, presenting a scroll to the gospel writer, who accepts it with awe. Blake’s interpretation of evangelical inspiration differs from traditional depictions in medieval and old master paintings of St. Matthew in which an angel whispers into his ear while he transcribes a text. Blake’s angel delivers not dictation but rather a complete book to the dazzled saint.
St. Matthew was painted for Thomas Butts, a patron for whom Blake executed more than 135 biblical works, including 53 small temperas. St. Matthew belongs to a group of four paintings depicting the evangelists, of which two survive. While Blake’s tempera medium proved fragile, this exceedingly rare painting remains in good condition and is superior to nearly all the artist’s works in private hands as well as many of those in British and American museums. The Cleveland Museum of Art owns a watercolor and several prints by Blake, but St. Matthew is the first of his paintings to enter the collection.
The Entombment, by Giovanni de’ Vecchi
Spirited pen and ink sketch is a study for an altarpiece
This pen and ink with mauve wash drawing is a study by Giovanni de’ Vecchi for The Entombment, an altarpiece of 1596 that remains in the church for which it was painted, Santa Prassede in Rome. The composition focuses on Christ’s crucified body, carried by his devoted followers to the tomb. In the drawing, looping strokes and animated squiggles of the pen simultaneously evoke and dissolve the forms of the figures, which—as is typical of de’ Vecchi—are modeled using touches of purple-pink watercolor rather than the more usual dilute brown ink. Particularly noteworthy is the extent to which this sketch was a real working drawing, in which the artist appears to be “thinking” on paper as he experiments with alternative poses for several of the figures.
Giovanni de’ Vecchi was a distinguished painter active in the late 1500s. Born in the town of Borgo San Sepolcro in Tuscany, de’ Vecchi settled in Rome, where he practiced a Late Mannerist style characterized by an emotional intensity at odds with the coolly elegant artifice of works by most other artists of the period. This acquisition augments the Cleveland Museum of Art’s drawings collection by adding a work indisputably connected with a known painting by one of the most distinctive Italian artists of the late 16th century.
The Entombment, c. 1596. Giovanni de’ Vecchi (Italian, 1543–1615). Pen and brown ink, mauve wash, over traces of black chalk; squared in black chalk; 20.1 x 14.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art.
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