In Huntington exhibition, a Renaissance diptych finds its other half

The sweep of art history and the intimacy of a private moment of prayer will dovetail in a newly announced exhibition at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens that will open about a year from now.

“Face to Face: Flanders, Florence and Renaissance Painting” will run Sept. 28, 2013, to Jan. 13, 2014, and will be the first show mounted in the United States that examines how breakthroughs in the 1400s by Flemish painters – living in what are now parts of Belgium, France and the Netherlands – came to influence great artists in Italy.

The title refers not just to how Florentine painters came face to face with the methods and achievements of Flemish masters including Jan Van Eyck and Hans Memling, but to the show’s keynote works, a diptych by Rogier van der Weyden whose two seldom-reunited halves, painted on wood panels around 1460, will come together for the occasion.

The left half, which has hung at the Huntington since it opened in 1928, is an image of a lovely but pensive Madonna holding the infant Jesus, whose expression is very much like any baby absorbed in play. He’s seen undoing the gilded clasp of a lavishly bound book.



The right half, which has resided since 1841 at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, is a portrait of Philippe de Croy, a nobleman, soldier and book collector who commissioned the paintings on wood panels. They originally were joined by a hinge so they could open and close like a book.

De Croy is seen with his hands pressed in prayer, with a rosary between his palms. Catherine Hess, the Huntington’s chief curator of European art – and the exhibition’s co-curator with London-based art historian Paula Nuttall -- said it was a Flemish custom of the time for wealthy people to commission diptychs pairing their portrait with an image of religious devotion, then use them in their private prayers.

The Huntington lists its half of the dipytch as 19 1/2 inches high and 12 1/2 inches wide; the Antwerp museum, currently closed for a six-year renovation, gives slightly smaller dimensions for “Portrait of Philippe de Croy.”


De Croy would likely have opened the hinge and set the paintings on a table to create an instant altar, Hess said, or he might even have held them while praying.

That use distinguishes them from grand religious paintings in which the artist would paint the person who commissioned it into the scene, probably to impress others. It makes the diptych “kind of moving, whether you’re religious or not,” Hess said.

On a few occasions over the years, the Huntington has loaned the “Madonna and Child” section to exhibitions elsewhere, where it was reunited with “Portrait of Philippe de Croy.” This will be the first time they’ll be seen together on the West Coast.

The exhibition will include about 30 paintings and 10 illuminated manuscripts, with all but three of the paintings coming from elsewhere, including the Uffizi in Florence, Dublin’s National Gallery of Ireland, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Viewers will see the van der Weyden diptych first; after they’ve proceeded through the gallery the final pieces they’ll encounter will be a Florentine face-to-face pairing, “Portrait of a Man” and “Portrait of a Woman” by Domenico Ghirlandaio, who is believed to have briefly taught Michelangelo. The brightly colored portraits are both in the Huntington’s collection; painted around 1490, they’re believed to show a husband and wife.

Hess said “Face to Face” will be a more modest version of a “spectacular” 2008 exhibition at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence that was the first to explore the influence that 15th century Flemish painters had on their Italian peers.


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