An adoration of art
Holbein's Madonna, a sort of holy grail in the art world, tells a tale of those who ensured its safety. For the first time, the work is in the United States.
By TERRENCE PETTY, Associated Press
Published December 23, 2005
PORTLAND, Ore. - John Buchanan can hardly contain his enthusiasm as he gazes at a 16th century Madonna painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, hanging alone in all of its Renaissance glory on a wall in Oregon's Portland Art Museum.
It is the first time that the masterpiece The Madonna With Basel Mayor Jakob Meyer and His Family has left European soil. The museum's executive director gushes over how the Madonna's cloak hangs protectively over Meyer and his kin, about fine details in the carpet upon which the Meyers are kneeling, and over the way the painting famously weds the realistic Northern European style with the softer, Italian "sfumato" technique seen in paintings like the Mona Lisa.
"It is a transformative experience in every little detail. Mesmerizing," says Buchanan, a dapper 52-year-old in a blue suit.
Americans may well have been disappointed three years ago when the Hesse family's hopes of selling the Holbein painting to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles were blocked by German authorities because it is on a list of "nonexportable national treasures."
But America has the Holbein Madonna now - at least until March 19.
It is the star of a wonderful exhibition of 400 pieces of art on loan to the Portland Art Museum from the Hesse family, which has one of the largest and grandest private art collections in Germany. The exhibition is called "Hesse: A Princely German Collection."
Considering what it has been through, it's a miracle the Holbein painting is still in one piece.
During World War II, it was transported from Darmstadt east to Silesia to keep it safe. As Russian Red Army soldiers advanced through Silesia in February 1945, the painting was again loaded up and transported westward. En route, it narrowly escaped the firebombing of Dresden.
On a snowy night in December 1945, the 19-year-old Moritz of Hesse was sent by his uncle, Prince Ludwig, to retrieve the painting from Coburg Castle, accompanied by an American officer whose job was to find works of art that went missing during the war.
After removing the painting from Coburg Castle's dungeon, Moritz and the American officer packed it into an Army truck and headed for the Hesse family's Schloss Wolfsgarten palace. The truck caught fire. Fire extinguishers on jeeps that passed by didn't work.
"We finally suffocated the flames with sand and earth, and I was able to bring the family treasure to Schloss Wolfsgarten intact," Moritz, now the Landgrave of Hesse, wrote in a foreword to the exhibition catalog.
The Holbein painting is entwined with German and European history. So are all the art pieces on display at the Portland Art Museum, which were collected by the Hesse dynasty during five centuries.
Germany was once a hodgepodge of states and independent cities run by kings, princes, dukes and landgraves. After the Thirty Years War, the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia recognized more than 300 sovereign German states. The Hesse dynasty traces its roots to the 13th century. And over the following centuries it expanded its territories, influence and wealth through war, by building alliances, leasing its well-trained soldiers out to allies such as England, and by marrying into royalty in other countries.
The Portland exhibition starts in a breathtaking fashion: Parked in a foyer is an opulent coach built in the 18th century. The gilded carriage is so well-preserved that you half expect a Hessian prince with powdered wig to peek out its window.
There's no prince here. But Buchanan is standing in front of the carriage in a lordly fashion, talking about his trips to the Hesse family's castles where he chose objects for this show.
"I couldn't have the castle, so I took the carriage," he quips.
The carriage is just a taste of what's to come in the Hesse show.
Diamond tiaras once worn by princesses. Gilded drinking cups from the 1500s. Tiered table fountains from the 1600s that once poured wine from one level into water from another - possibly to keep the lid on drunkenness during court parties. Furniture. Candelabra. Jewelry.
And surveying all of this splendor, from portraits on the exhibition's walls, are the powerful and well-heeled ancestors of the collection's current owners.
A 16th century painting shows Landgrave Philipp I of Hesse, who is little known in modern times but was an important figure during the Protestant Reformation. He was the first German prince to introduce Martin Luther's reforms in his state and rally other princes to the Protestant cause.
Buchanan stops at a group of portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a German portraitist of the 1800s who became a favorite of Queen Victoria of England, of King Louis-Philippe of France and of aristocrats across Europe.
"These are my Winterhalter beauties," says Buchanan, his face beaming.
One of Winterhalter's masterpieces is here - a stunning portrait of Anna of Hesse, the second wife of Friedrich Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel.
In another portrait, an ailing Czarina Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, born Princess Maria of Hesse, looks sadly down at Buchanan.
Buchanan moves on into the next room.
Among Americans, Hesse is probably best known as the German region that leased its well-trained soldiers to England to fight against the American colonies. Hesse rented its troops to other countries as well, and their story is part of the exhibition.
A color etching from around 1783 shows four grenadiers of the Hesse-Hanau regiment - wearing tall bearskin hats, blue jackets and yellow trousers - who had been sent to America. Also in the etching is a black drummer boy. The text in the exhibition's catalog explains that Hessian troops in America employed blacks as "retinue servants," especially as drummers, and some of the drummers returned to Hesse with the soldiers.
The star of the show, the Holbein Madonna, is saved for the very last. It hangs from the wall of a room painted in green.
Stop a while and sit on the bench placed before it. Revel in its resilience.
[Last modified December 22, 2005, 09:27:09]
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