The Norton Simon Museum plays Scrooge with 'Christ Blessing' work

The Norton Simon Museum plays Scrooge with 'Christ Blessing' work
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has lent its "Christ Blessing" painting to the Huntington exhibition. (Museum of Fine Arts / Boston)

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is famous for not lending works from its stellar permanent collection to other museums' exhibitions.

Case in point: The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in nearby San Marino is showing "Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting," a rare and exceptional look at how Northern European art had a profound influence in 15th century Italy. It's among the best exhibitions in an American museum this year.

But the Simon declined to lend Hans Memling's "Christ Blessing," an exquisite 1478 painting of Christ with one hand raised and the other resting on the bottom edge of the panel, as if the figure were a flesh-and-blood presence. The picture hits the sweet spot of the marvelous Huntington show, which features 29 panel paintings lent from various collections, including prominent art museums in the United States and Europe.

Why not lend? Apparently, just because.


“Works owned by the Norton Simon Art Foundation or the Norton Simon Foundation and that are on permanent view are never lent out,” came the reply from a museum spokesman to my inquiry, “except to organizations we have special loan agreements with, e.g., the Frick Collection and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.”

That response is known as boilerplate. The denial had nothing to do with the Memling, historical scholarship, artistic mission or public benefit. It had to do with following The Rule.

The decision to keep the Simon painting home, four short miles from the Huntington, was especially disappointing since Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, rather farther away, agreed to lend its superlative version of the Memling picture, painted three years later. To satisfy demand, Renaissance artists often executed more than one version when a painting was particularly successful and much admired.
The other versions invariably differ, since no artist remains static. For instance, color is significantly altered between Boston's and Pasadena's paintings. Seeing two versions of the same picture side-by-side would provide an unparalleled opportunity to chart the artist's development, while boldly illustrating the show's theme of the influence of Northern European art.

But for Memling's powerful "Christ Blessing," the Simon Museum hauled out the boilerplate and said no.

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The lost opportunity was further heightened last week when a third version of the Memling, mostly forgotten since the 19th century and largely unknown to scholars of Flemish painting, turned up in the Los Angeles collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who acquired it at auction not long ago.

They promptly loaned it to the Huntington for the remaining month of the show (closing Jan. 13). Thought to have been painted between 1480 and 1485, it went on view Friday in San Marino.

Seeing three versions of Memling's "Christ Blessing" side-by-side, never mind two, would have been nothing short of astounding. You know -- once in a lifetime, both for scholars and the generally curious. But it was not to be.

Why the intransigence on the part of the Simon? Maybe it has to do with that blanket policy of not lending without a special, pre-negotiated pact with another museum, "e.g. the Frick Collection and the National Gallery of Art." That gives the Pasadena institution a hard-core guarantee that it will get something valuable in return. Since the Simon doesn't do loan exhibitions, a museum down the road like the Huntington has nothing to offer.

Furthermore, if the Simon broke The Rule for the Memling, it wouldn't have any boilerplate to send to the next museum that came knocking for a loan. Isn't collegiality a wonderful thing?