In 1964 Norton Simon purchased New York’s Duveen Brothers Gallery for $4 million (about $30 million in today’s money). That bought almost 800 art objects plus a building, library, and archive. Corporate raider that he was, Simon downsized Duveen, selling off works that didn’t interest him. It’s said that he recouped much of the $4 million in the sales. Of the original Duveen stock, about 130 artworks remain in the Norton Simon Museum collection. Two dozen are usually on view. The NSM’s “Lock, Stock and Barrel: Norton Simon’s Purchase of Duveen Brothers Gallery” is largely about the hundred-some Duveen works that aren’t normally on view. Many are on display here for the first time.
As with every other working gallery, the 1964 Duveen stock was a quality pyramid. At the apex was Gerard David’s The Coronation of the Virgin, top of post. This remains a tentpole of the NSM collection, worthy of the greatest things that Simon would later acquire.
Below that were solid, representative pieces by important artists. At bottom was a foundation of studio copies, trivia, dreck, wrecks, forgeries and conundra. Simon didn’t sell off all the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff. He may have hoped to find a prize in the Cracker Jacks.
Consider the painting that brought Simon to Duveen in the first place. It’s a Courtesan attributed to Giorgione (or Titian? or somebody not that famous?) Unfortunately Giorgione is at this point more a literary character (from Vasari) than an oeuvre. There are only about ten widely accepted Giorgiones on the planet. Even they involve some guesswork. The Simon Courtesan is at best on the fringes of that charmed circle. It lacks the magic of the atmospheric portrait in San Diego. Could it be established, once and for all, that the Courtesan was by Giorgione, it would be a coup for the Norton Simon Museum… less so for the artist. Perhaps we’ll never know.
Simon also got from Duveen a possible Carpaccio portrait and a threadbare Madonna that is likely to be an early work of Botticelli. These are regularly shown. Not so is a rogue’s gallery of Bellini, Titian, and Tintoretto wannabes. One is the alleged Tintoretto Venetian Nobelman. It appeared in the 1857 “Art Treasures of the United Kingdom Exhibition.” When it came into the Duveen collection, one connoisseur pronounced it “the most important portrait by Domenico Tintoretto.” To today’s eyes something about the face is suspiciously modern, and the gown and landscape are disappointing. No one has proven it’s not a Tintoretto, but so many scholars have given it thumbs down that it’s not been on view.
The middle tier of the Duveen pyramid includes paintings by Luini, Catena, Ribera, Rigaud, Largillière, and Fragonard; sculptures by Giambologna and Clodion; a group of Flemish Renaissance tapestries. There are also some surprising outliers. On view for the first time is a 14th-century fresco of Saint Anthony Abbot from Avignon; a Fontainebleau School painting of the Birth of Adonis; and a powder-blue silk Mantle of the Order of Carlos III of Spain dated c. 1804.
It’s possible to read the NSM show as a critique of connoisseurship. Look at how many ambitious attributions were wrong! Well, yes and no. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Duveen’s bargain basement had relatively few prizes. Connoisseurship and science come into play only in the undocumented and problematic cases. Not too many of these turn out to be diamonds in the rough.
New technologies have been successful in dating panel painting supports and terra-cotta sculptures. Above left is a fake Donatello scientifically dated to c. 1860 (the artist would have been 480 years young), and an intriguingly possible Luca della Robbia. The science says it’s from the mid-1400s. That would support Sir John Pope-Hennessy’s endorsement of it as a probable original. (The problem with connoisseurship is that the experts are usually right but you can’t tell when they’re wrong.)
The craziest conundrum of all must be a Crucifixion by… would you believe, Richard Parkes Bonington? It’s a Romantic-era reinvention of a Rubens oil sketch believed to have been owned by Delacroix. Bonington might have had a chance to copy it. It’s nothing like the landscape subjects Bonington is known for, precluding any confident attribution.
Another mystery guest, a c. 1770 Fête Champêtre, dominates the show’s third room. It’s four large and three smaller decorative panels of rococo-Chinoiserie tweeness. The Simon now identifies it as “Style of Jacques Lajoue,” and the label says the artist could have been French, Italian, Dutch, or German.
Were I to nominate one back-bench Duveen work worthy of regular display, I’d pick George Romney’s Lady Hamilton as “Medea,” c. 1786. Duveen pushed British portraits onto American collectors and was a primary supplier of Henry Huntington. It’s said that Huntington entertained friends with his hilarious imitation of Duveen. Simon sold off most of Duveen’s British stock because he saw little point in competing with the Huntington collection. He kept Medea, though. There are other Romney Hamiltons in greater Los Angeles, but nothing like this one. Almost as weird as a Fuseli, it looks forward to the wild hair of the Pre-Raphaelites.