In a pioneering move, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is currently hosting the first-ever exhibition dedicated to works by the last great painter of the Baroque period, Francesco de Mura. “In the Light of Naples: The Art of Francesco de Mura” was organized by the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College. It is a traveling exhibition, and Vassar’s own Art Center is the only venue in the Northeast where it will be visiting. It will be on view on campus from April 21 through July 2.
On Friday, April 21, curator Arthur Blumenthal delivered an opening lecture on the show, taking the audience through the impact and significance of the works on display, his own journey in acquiring them and the ascension and declension of de Mura’s career. “An artist who was highly regarded during his lifetime but quickly forgotten with his death,” according to Director of the Loeb James Mundy, de Mura and his work have been vastly undervalued. There have been neither any exhibitions nor any books on him—he has only occasionally been included within exhibitions on the Baroque era or on the 18th century— yet he was one of the great masters of illusionistic ceiling painting. “He had a mastery of the [illusionistic effect of making the] ceiling disappear, so that one felt like they were being pulled into heaven,” Mundy mused. “Yet his material is not seen very often. Even large museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, have not done exhibitions on him. So, the material is definitely ripe for revival.”
“Part of the reason de Mura is so unknown despite being one of the major figures of Rococo,” he continued, “is that a third of his career was destroyed.”
He produced a lot of murals, most of them concentrated in his hometown of Naples. As a result, when the American and British Allies bombed Naples during World War II, many of the churches and other landmarks that he had frescoed were demolished, and his work was lost.
“He was unfortunately a victim of the circumstances, and now what remains is largely easel-sized painting, which shall be displayed in the exhibition,” remarked Mundy. Along the same lines, Blumenthal related, “[The loss of de Mura’s work was] the greatest artistic disaster of the war.
Given these circumstances, Blumenthal’s de Mura exhibition, a decade-long project in his curatorial career, is an immense accomplishment. His speech was fascinating, reminiscent of the ART 105-106 lectures in its reverential illumination of masterful artwork.
Blumenthal traced de Mura’s career from his beginnings as a 12-year-old apprentice to the grand Baroque artist Solimena up to his emergence as the richest man in Naples, and finally to the decline of his bright career.
Blumenthal semi-joked, “Why isn’t he more famous? Some say his master lived too long, overshadowing him. Others say de Mura himself lived too long, such that his work became irrelevant about a decade before he died.”
De Mura’s work appeared to have beautiful detail and extremely skillful use of light and shadow. Blumenthal drew contrasts between de Mura’s work and Solimena’s, emphasizing de Mura’s stylistic independence, as he favored brighter colors, simpler architectural settings and more open spaces than his mentor. Blumenthal spoke of his experience visiting the Church of the Nunziatella in Naples, whose apse and altar had been painted by de Mura: “While still very close to Solimena’s style, this pastel-colored fresco also represents a break from his master. It is light, airy, luminous and delicate, quite unlike the darker, more somber compositions of Solimena.”
Blumenthal explained that since almost all of de Mura’s most famous works are either unmovable frescoes in Naples or were lost in the war, the exhibition cannot display them. However, the show does feature preliminary drawings of his famous frescoes, granting valuable insight into his creative process. In addition, the slides on the screen all depicted the works we would be seeing right after the lecture, as well as the final works whose preliminary paintings we would be exposed to, thus serving as an educational teaser.
Blumenthal wrapped up the lecture by relating the remarkable impact and significance of this show: “In this exhibition, we Americans are making up in some small measure for our destruction of his works during World War II. And today, finally de Mura is receiving his due, finally. After 233 years, he will become known for the brilliant artist that he was.”
A reception followed the lecture, allowing us to finally absorb this seemingly unknown artist’s incredible and distinctive work.
A well-known work is his “Self Portrait,” an oil on canvas work painted at the pinnacle of his fame, where he presents himself as an imposing aristocrat, posing elaborately with his hand on his hip and a rather haughty expression on his face.
Mundy commented on why this painting is one of his favorites from the exhibition: “This is a man who worked with his hands and in trade during the Renaissance period. Yet by the end of the Baroque era, he had the opportunity to present himself as this grand bewigged gentleman, with his gilded dresser and his fancy gold vest and this flamboyant, flowing sash that doesn’t serve any purpose,” he laughed. “It looks like he’s started believing his own press clippings and propaganda.”
Finally, an incredible result of this exhibition is that it has inspired Italy, the country that the artist is originally from, to organize its own Francesco de Mura show. With this far-reaching influence, it is an absolute delight that Vassar is the designated location in the Northeast for this exhibition’s tour. This exhibition is free and open to the public, a wonderful opportunity for those who appreciate and value late Baroque art.