Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) was a painter who delighted in highly charged storytelling, grandiose architecture, sumptuous fabrics, and occasionally daring improprieties (he was hauled before the Inquisition for including buffoons, drunken guests, and dwarves in his 1573 tableau The Feast in the House of Levi). He was also extremely popular among American collectors during and after the Gilded Age, including John Ringling, one of the founding brothers of the circus empire, who acquired Veronese’s jewel-toned Rest on the Flight into Egypt (ca. 1572) for his fledgling museum of art in Sarasota, Florida, in 1925.
That massive canvas, nearly eight feet tall, became the starting point for “Paolo Veronese: A Master and His Workshop in Renaissance Venice,” an overview of Veronese’s long and prolific career, at the John and Mable Ringling Museum (through April 14). It was organized by Virginia Brilliant, associate curator for European art, who arrived at the museum in 2008 and was charged with curating shows inspired by its impressive collection of Old Masters. As she points out, “It’s the first comprehensive survey of Veronese since the 1988 show at the National Gallery in Washington. He’s long overdue for a look and for an introduction to American audiences.”
Ringling acquired Rest on the Flight into Egypt even as the museum was being built in tandem with the collection. “He was ever the showman,” Brilliant says, “and he had spent so much of his time developing Sarasota as a resort. I think he believed an art museum might add another layer of attraction, which would set it apart from the east coast of Florida and make it more of a cultural destination.”
One of the reasons Americans found Veronese accessible, Brilliant says, was because his paintings are not overtly religious. Many collectors, such as Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, were building their houses in the Venetian style, and Veronese “became one of those standard artists. You had to have a Veronese, and so many wonderful paintings made it to America, like the ones in the Frick” (two allegories that can’t travel because of the terms of the founder’s bequest).
The number of Veronese’s drawings and paintings in American collections, including several examples from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., allowed Brilliant and her chief collaborator, Frederick Ilchman, curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to assemble a show that tells “the whole story of how these masterpieces went from the artist’s very first doodles, his first ideas for a composition, and how he worked those up into very highly finished drawings” and from there to paintings. The handsomely illustrated 288-page hardbound catalogue from La Scala publishers includes 17 essays on individual works, patronage, American collectors, portraiture, and other subjects written by Brilliant, Ilchman, David Rosand, and other experts.
Henry James called Veronese the “happiest painter” of the Renaissance, one who enjoyed a reputation for vivid color and the creation of a festive mood even when his subject wasn’t a celebration. As Brilliant points out, even potentially bloody scenes were often treated with a light touch. The curator says she has been questioned about the assailant in The Martyrdom and Last Communion of Saint Lucy (ca. 1582), a picture on loan from the National Gallery: “‘Is he groping her?’ And I have to say, ‘No, he’s stabbing her.’ At first you think it’s a happy, sexy picture, but it’s not.”
Because Veronese is so often dismissed as a decorative painter, Brilliant and her colleagues included examples of actual Venetian fabrics from the period, of which the MFA in Boston has an exemplary collection. “There’s a piece of lace that looks like it was just snatched off the bed of Venus in one of the pictures,” she says. “We wanted to show that these are real things that people had and could use.” In Veronese’s hands, “they were an advertisement for the Venetian luxury lifestyle.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.