Story posted October 28, 2005
A cassone panel from the Bowdoin College Museum of Art's collections - a work recently attributed to Fra Angelico - is included in a landmark Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition running through January 29, 2006, in New York City.
The Met's exhibition, "Fra Angelico," marks the first American retrospective devoted to the work of the great Italian Renaissance artist (1390/5-1455). It's also the first comprehensive presentation of the artist's work assembled anywhere in the world in half a century. The New York Times calls it "the exhibition of a lifetime" (art review "Renaissance Radiance, Gilded in Gothic," October 28, 2005, registration required).
Bowdoin has loaned Scenes from Boccaccio's "Il ninfale fiesolano" ("The Nymphs of Fiesole") c. 1415-1420, tempera on panel, for the exhibition. The piece is referenced in the Times review: "The show begins with a clumsy yet surprisingly coherent bacchanal-like scene that Angelico painted while he was a teenager."
The panel has been newly attributed to Fra Angelico by the exhibition's curator, leading scholar Laurence Kanter, Curator-in-Charge of the Robert Lehman Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of Early European Art at the Yale University Art Gallery. Previously the panel was attributed to the 15th-century artists the Master of the Griggs Crucifixion and, later, Giovanni Toscani.
"Even before the attribution to Fra Angelico we knew this was a beautiful painting, rich in narrative and visual detail," says Katy Kline, director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. "We hope that this beloved painter's earliest and only secular work will bring attention to the Bowdoin College Museum and its many other treasures."
The cassone panel is from a wooden decorated chest, analogous to a hope chest used to store household goods. Such chests are typically decorated with scenes that provide moral instruction to a young, married couple.
"The panel...moves almost cinematically from left to right," describes the Museum of Art's latest newsletter. "The young Africo spies on the bevy of nymphs who are being lectured by Diana; he is then visited by the temptress Venus in a dream; he encounters his elderly parents who fail to dissuade him from his lustful purposes; he disguises himself as a nymph to enter the pool and embrace the startled object of his affections."
"Is it just a coincidence that the story of Africo, prey to the carnal temptations of adolescence, was chosen by the adolescent Fra Angelico before he became a Dominican friar?" the Art Museum's newsletter asks.
Laurence Kanter had first seen the panel during an earlier visit to Bowdoin when he was examining some of the Art Museum's older frames. Intrigued, Kanter returned to Bowdoin three years ago to examine the panel closely. Due to the way the forms were given volume and the way space was depicted in the painting, Kanter concluded after careful study that the work was by Fra Angelico.
Early paintings are always up for re-attribution, according to Kline, because they are not signed. And it's not unusual for attributions to be questioned. Indeed, this new attribution to Fra Angelico will not be universally accepted, at least right away.
"This will generate a lot of debate among scholars," notes Kline. "Laurence Kanter's catalog for the Met exhibition will launch the dialogue."
Bowdoin acquired the panel in 1961 as a gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, when the remarkable art collection of the late self-made millionaire and benefactor was being disbursed. While the bulk of the important works went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, 23 college and university and smaller municipal galleries received pieces from the collection, as well.
This summer, conservationist Dianne Dwyer Modestini of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts completed a meticulous cleaning of the panel in preparation for the Met's exhibition. (Such cleaning entails removing varnish and over-painting.)