‘Early Modern’ portraits at Newcomb tell a fascinating story

The Newcomb Art Gallery might be underselling its new exhibition.

Described as the gallery’s “largest exhibition ever of Old Master art,” “Early Modern Faces: European Portraits 1480-1780” isn’t just the biggest collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings ever shown on the Tulane campus. It’s one of the largest exhibitions of its kind ever shown in New Orleans, period.

It also happens to be one of the best.

Featuring more than 90 paintings, prints, and etchings by a constellation of art historical superstars including Rembrandt, Goya and Van Dyck, this immensely satisfying show proves that an exhibition of this kind of art can be made broadly accessible to a general audience without sacrificing scholarly heft.

The exhibition, curated by Newcomb Associate Professor of Art History Anne Dunlop, is mostly comprised of works from Houston’s Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Blaffer, a daughter of one of the founders of Texaco, established a fund in the 1970s that was used to acquire an encyclopedic collection of artworks, which have been loaned to many other institutions over the years. Several pieces from the New Orleans Museum of Art round out the selection.

Dunlop said “Early Modern Faces” seeks to examine the “explosion” of portraiture in early modern Europe — roughly, the period between the end of the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. To get the most out of the exhibition, though, don’t worry too much about dates. Instead, pay attention to the sensible thematic groupings by which Dunlop has arranged the works in the show.

The “Beauty and Idealization” gallery, for example, presents a fascinating set of works that demonstrate how artists portrayed their subjects in their most flattering light in the days long before photo retouching and Instagram filters.

One work in particular — a spare and haunting study of a mature woman (possibly a former courtesan) by the Northern Italian painter Bartolomeo Veneto — also shows how the exhibition incorporates great pieces by more obscure artists alongside lesser-known works by major-name ones, such as the nearby portrait of a rosy-cheeked and sumptuously dressed young woman in the guise of St. Agnes by Venetian master Paolo Veronese.

Another section of the show looks at how portraiture was used to bolster the image and reputation of those holding royal or economic power. An awkwardly composed 16th-century triple portrait by an unknown English painter of the infamous Henry VIII with his daughter Mary and his court jester was likely commissioned to broadcast an allegiance to the Tudor dynasty. The artist produced it after his subjects’ deaths by copying three earlier portraits and combining them onto a single canvas, which helps explain the awkwardness.

In contrast, the adjacent portrait of France’s Louis XIV from NOMA’s collection looks almost natural, despite the Sun King’s idealized features and extravagantly decadent costume.

A gallery of “Sacred Faces” shows how the conventions of portraiture were used to depict subjects when no portraits made during their actual lifetimes exist. Witness Francisco de Zurbarán’s remarkably illusionistic painting of Christ’s burial shroud, which falls somewhere between an idealized devotional object and a “real” portrait of a real person.

And the full-lipped young man with the come-hither gaze in Simon Vouet’s portrait of Saint Sebastian may say more about the proclivities of the artist and his intended audience than it does about the historical saint himself.

While the paintings in “Early Modern Faces” may command your more immediate attention, the many smaller works in the show will reward close study as well. Along with a tiny but exquisite Rembrandt etching and a print from Goya’s acerbic “Los Caprichos” series, keep an eye out for the satirical images by William Hogarth that skewer the artistic conventions of his day.

And don’t miss the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, which includes an introductory essay by Dunlop along with engaging, in-depth entries for each painting written by students in her art history seminar at Tulane.

It’s a fittingly excellent publication for a top-notch show.