(New York, November 10, 2004)—In what Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Philippe de Montebello described as "one of the great single acquisitions of the last half century," the Museum announced today the purchase of a rare and uniquely important early Renaissance masterpiece by the 14th-century Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna (active by 1278; died 1319). The painting, in tempera and gold on wood, shows the Madonna and Child behind a parapet. The work—the last known Duccio still in private hands—is known as the Stroganoff Madonna, after its first recorded owner, Count Grigorii Stroganoff, who died in Rome in 1910.
"Like our glorious diptych of the Crucifixion and Last Judgment by Jan van Eyck, or our Saint Jerome by Botticelli, this marvelous painting, small in size but immense in achievement and influence, will become one of the signature works at the Metropolitan Museum," said Mr. de Montebello. "Filling a gap in our Renaissance collection that even the Metropolitan had scant hopes of ever closing, the addition of the Duccio will enable visitors for the first time to follow the entire trajectory of European painting from its beginnings to the present. Moreover, the Duccio Madonna and Child is a work of sublime beauty. This was a unique opportunity not only to add a masterpiece to the Museum's holdings but to give its collections a new dimension."
Together with Giotto, Duccio is considered one of the two principal founders of Western European painting. His works are of extreme rarity: only a dozen or so are known, including his famous altarpiece, the Maestà in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena. In fact, most of the paintings by this artist in non-Italian museums are fragments from this great and complex altarpiece, which included almost 60 individual narrative scenes (it was cut apart in the 18th century and parts of it dispersed). However, unlike these, the Metropolitan's newly acquired painting is a complete and independent work, not a fragment of a larger one.
To purchase the painting, the Metropolitan Museum has committed a substantial portion of long-held funding earmarked for acquisitions, to be supplemented by targeted fundraising for the purchase of this work. Mr. de Montebello noted that the funding tapped for the purchase will not draw on funds raised and specifically set aside for either Museum operations or capital construction and maintenance.
Though well known to specialists from photographs, the Duccio work had not been seen publicly in more than two generations. At the monographic exhibition on the artist held in Siena last year, it was reproduced in color for the very first time, but the original was not lent. Rumors that it might enter the market began to circulate more than a year ago, but only in the last six months did its owners decide to sell the picture. Its acquisition by the Metropolitan brings into the public domain the last remaining available work by one of the giants of European art.
Painted circa 1300, the Stroganoff Madonna is the opening page of the most glorious chapter of Duccio's art, culminating in his great Maestà altarpiece (1308-1311), a milestone of Western art that is comparable only to Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
Commenting on Duccio's achievement, Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings, remarked: "In certain respects, we might say that Duccio was to Giotto what Matisse was to Picasso. Giotto is the master of the grand statement – grave, weighty figures acting out the human drama on a spatially cogent stage. Duccio is the great colorist. The space of his pictures is more perceptual than rational, and he explored a more lyrical, tender emotional range."
Scholars have drawn an analogy between Duccio's infusion of life into time-worn, Byzantine schemes, and the popular devotional poetry of the Franciscans, on the one hand, and the exalted love poetry of Dante, on the other. As in the writing of Dante and the painting of Giotto, religious subjects are treated in terms of human experience, thereby marking a fundamental change in Western culture.
"So profound is the change that animates Duccio's art during these years," said Mr. Christiansen, "that art historians understandably presume an external stimulus. This must have been a trip to Assisi, where Duccio studied the recently completed fresco cycle of the life of Saint Francis by Giotto and a large équippe of assistants. It has now been demonstrated that this celebrated fresco cycle was completed prior to 1295-96. What impressed Duccio were the illusionistic devices Giotto introduced to frame the individual scenes as well as his ability to create a cogent, pictorial space inhabited by figures possessing weight and density. It was an art that embraced the complex and varied world of human experience, rather than one based on codified types, as had been the case with medieval and Byzantine painting. Duccio responded by exploring in his own art this new world of sentiment and emotional response, but with a lyricism and sensitivity to color that became the basis of Sienese painting. This new, complex vision attains its first clear statement in the Stroganoff Madonna and Child, and it is for this reason that this small panel intended for private devotion is so revolutionary."
In his 1979 monograph on Duccio, British scholar John White characterized the Stroganoff painting as "the first, lonely forerunner of that long line of Italian Madonnas with a parapet which achieved its finest flowering almost two centuries later in Giovanni Bellini's splendid variations on the theme." This evaluation, based only on photographs (as the painting has been basically inaccessible for at least half a century), properly identifies the historical importance of one of the motifs, but says little about its sheer beauty and the deeply moving conception of the Mother and Child. Nor does it address the sculptural quality of the Virgin, with her magnificently realized drapery—less like the sculpture of Giovanni Pisano, with which Duccio's work is often compared, than classical sculpture.
The most eloquent appraisal of the picture came exactly a century ago from Mary Logan, wife of Bernard Berenson, when she saw the original in its public debut at the milestone 1904 exhibition of Sienese painting at the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena: "Perhaps the most perfect work [in the exhibition] is the little Madonna of Duccio belonging to Count Gregory Stroganoff…which, small though it is, offers so much majesty, dignity, and profound sentiment. Taken alone, it is worth all the other paintings exhibited under the name of Duccio."
The Duccio painting will be put on view in Gallery 3 of the Metropolitan Museum's European Paintings Galleries.
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