"Medieval to Monet: French Paintings in the Wadsworth Atheneum"
October 19 - January 27, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford, thewadsworth.org
Eric M. Zafran has been studying works of art, orchestrating exhibitions, writing catalogs, and buying art for the Wadsworth Atheneum over 15 years. After publishing the first survey of the museum's French paintings and preparing to hang most of them in a group for the first time, the indefatigable curator is retiring.
Now he is eager to organize thousands of opera CDs while listening to them in a beachfront condo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
But Zafran's final achievement was scoring an exceedingly rare acquisition last week for the Atheneum's internationally-lauded collection of Old Master pictures: a monumental painting by Giovanni Francesco Bezzi, who is known as Il Nosadella, in what must be its original frame, and both are in superb condition.
"It's a miracle it survives," he said. Only 15 pictures by the Italian Mannerist exist, and "Thyetes and Aerope," based on classical mythology, is Nosadella's only known secular painting. It depicts an adulterous dare made by a woman to her brother-in-law.
Experts in the field are applauding, with one writing, "The Nosadella is very much in the tradition of the imagination and originality with which Chick Austin built the collection for which the Atheneum is so celebrated."
This triumph brings a satisfying circular close to Zafran's Hartford career. Having worked with him as the Atheneum's publicist from 1998 to 2007, I know.
Zafran came to the museum in 1997 at the invitation of then-director Peter C. Sutton. (They were colleagues at Boston's MFA). Meanwhile the Italian government was demanding that the Atheneum return the "Bath of Bathsheba" by Jacopo Zucchi. Sexy and gorgeously painted, it was the museum's sole Italian Mannerist painting. In 1998 Sutton negotiated a short-term loan of Italian masterworks in exchange. Zafran's difficult task since then has been to fill that gap. There were others, too.
"Shopping is a major part of the job," Zafran said as we walked through "Medieval to Monet" and approached Vigée Le Brun's portrait of the Duchesse de Polignac, resting in its frame on carpet-padded blocks on the floor and leaning against the wall. It is among the 10 paintings and three sculptures in the show that Zafran bought to strengthen the Atheneum's French holdings. (The museum has endowments for acquisitions which cannot be tapped for other purposes.)
In that job, serendipity comes into play. We had just admired "The Astronomy Lesson of the Duchesse du Maine" by François de Troy and a celestial globe like that in the painting, fashioned of intricately painted papier-mâché, both found in 2010 at the world's foremost art and antiques fair in the Netherlands.
"This was one of those amazing days — I saw it at Maastricht," Zafran said of the de Troy. "I reserved it and walked down the hall and found a dealer with a globe nearly identical to the one on the table [in the painting]....For teaching and historical purposes, we had to get that."
Telling the multiple stories contained in a work of art is one of his talents. Because Zafran's curiosity and aesthetic interests are vast, and his admiration of and affection for the museum's collections and their history are equally immense, he has delved more broadly into the Atheneum's collections — and has written more about them — than anyone.
While showing me the Nosadella last week, which is on public view amid the Old Masters, he was surprisingly pleased to see a small group of youthful-looking adults examining paintings behind us and to hear a woman with henna-dyed pigtails and punk attire exclaim, "It's better than cable!"
Zafran quickly turned, asking her, "Can she quote you?"
Courtney Smith, 41, originally from Glastonbury, was visiting from Seattle.
"This is where we used to come for culture! This is the place," she said, beaming.