European Art at Dartmouth: Highlights from the Collection of the Hood Museum of Art

Posted on January 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, winter 2009
T. Barton Thurber, Curator of European Art

The study of European art has long been an integral component of the curriculum at Dartmouth College. The collection to support this mission grew gradually throughout the nineteenth century, but the introduction of art history courses in 1905 led to a significant expansion of the College's holdings. A dramatic increase in gifts and acquisitions occurred after the 1985 opening of the Hood Museum of Art, which now houses several thousand European objects dating from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century.

Twenty-three and a half years ago, the museum's holdings included many fine examples of European art assembled since the founding of the College, especially an extraordinary array of prints and some noteworthy pre-twentieth-century objects. Yet old master and early modern paintings, sculptures, and drawings were in truth rarely purchased before the museum's establishment. With the support of alumni and friends, the museum began to receive financial support for the acquisition of distinctive works of art, which were supplemented with other notable gifts. As a result, the collection has obtained a number of significant objects illustrating key aspects of the history of European art. At this point, in addition to an established commitment to incorporate the study of art as an integral component of the curriculum, Dartmouth now has the ability to represent some of the great trends of the European pictorial tradition.

Two of the most recent acquisitions featured in the current exhibition are Nicolas-René Jollain's (1732–1804) Belisarius Begging for Alms of 1767 and François-Joseph Navez's (1787–1869) Self-Portrait of about 1826. These paintings reflect a profound period of social and cultural transformation in France and Belgium in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Belisarius Begging for Alms was produced at a time of an extraordinary revival of themes from classical history coupled with a new emphasis on deeper individual and collective moral significance. In particular, tragic figures caught the artistic imagination, including the great general Belisarius (about 505–565), who came to prominence when Jean-François Marmontel (1723– 1799) published his popular novel, Bélisaire. This tale of unmerited misfortune and ingratitude, set in classical times, was based on an apocryphal story of the fate of Belisarius, who, after winning back much of Italy for Emperor Justinian (about 482–565) in the mid-sixth century, was disgraced on a trumped-up charge, blinded, imprisoned, and— after being released—left destitute. This is one of only two depictions of Belisarius executed between 1767 and 1800 that show him living as a beggar along with his devoted family at the moment when he was recognized by a former officer. The only other version of this scene was painted by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) in 1781, a natural sequel to the work of Jollain, who had helped to establish a return to the foundations of classicism.

In the Self-Portrait, Navez turned to the established tradition of representing himself as a means of exploring issues of individual identity, social status, and technical virtuosity. Since the fifteenth century and the rise of the mirror as an artistic device, artists have used themselves as models. At their best, such works stand as uniquely individual expressions of the artist's persona at a particular point in time. At their most functional, they are useful studies of different poses and expressions. Regardless of intent, artists throughout the history of European art since the Renaissance have attempted to explore their own identities through portraying themselves on canvas or paper and, more rarely, in sculpture. In Navez's self-portrait, he combines the outward, viewer-directed gaze and the painter's twist with a drawing tool in hand. He appears as a solemn, slightly brooding figure, who—perhaps in response to the increasingly critical reviews during this period of his career—portrays himself against a neutral background as a well-dressed, self-confident, and proud artist.

These acquisitions considerably enhance the museum's ability to respond to the growing needs of larger and more diverse student and public audiences by promoting understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts. Such purchases and gifts would not be possible without the support of alumni and friends. Chief among those who have made the most significant donations toward increasing the scope and quality of the European collection since the opening of the Hood Museum of Art are Jean and Adolph Weil Jr., Class of 1935, Florence and Lansing Porter Moore, Class of 1937, Jane and W. David Dance, Class of 1940, Barbara Dau Southwell, Class of 1978, and David Southwell, Tuck 1988. Their generosity has laid a solid foundation for the future development of European art at Dartmouth.

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Written January 01, 2009 by Kristin Swan