Nicolas Poussin, The Sacrament of Ordination (detail), oil on canvas, c. 1636-40
The Kimbell Art Museum has acquired a major painting by the 17th century French master, Nicolas Poussin. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it was once part of a famous set, and the Kimbell has a bargain on its hands.
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The Sacrament of Ordination is a portrait of Jesus handing the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter and the Apostles. It was one of an ambitious set of masterpieces Nicolas Poussin painted in the 1630s — so famous that Poussin painted a second version several years later. The set depicted all seven Catholic sacraments, including baptism, penance and the ordaining of priests. After months of secret negotiations, the Kimbell acquired the painting for $24.3 million from the Duke of Rutland — something of a coup for the Fort Worth museum.
Eric Lee is the Kimbell’s director.
Lee: “Poussin doesn’t have as much name recognition with the general public as a van Gogh. But without Poussin, you would not have a Jacques-Louis David. You would not have an Ingres. You would not have Degas, you would not have Cezanne. He is often called the father of French painting, and it’s a very accurate description. Cezanne’s most famous quote is, “I’d like to re-do Poussin by nature,” and the kind of Poussin that Cezanne was thinking about is exactly the type of painting we bought.”
The Ordination joins the Kimbell’s other Poussin, his Venus and Adonis from 1628. That work is from Poussin’s early Italian style, a very sensual depiction of carnal love.
Lee: “This painting is from his later, more classicizing style, and we thought it was important to have his career represented in depth.”
In fact, three years after acquiring Venus and Adonis in 1985, the Kimbell presented the exhibition, Early Poussin in Rome, which featured 35 other paintings and 60 drawings, all from the period when the artist was enormously influenced by ‘Venetian Renaissance’ painters, notably Titian. Lee calls Early Poussin one of the Kimbell’s landmark shows.
In contrast to the warm, liquid, fleshy tones of Poussin’s younger work, The Ordination shows the influence of the neo-classic, anti-Baroque painters who were Poussin’s friends in Rome, including Claude Lorraine, as well as his chief Italian patron, Cassiano dal Pozzo, a leading antiquarian and secretary to Cardinal Francesco Barberini. Pozzo commissioned the seven Sacraments. Poussin’s paintings took on narrative clarity, and in The Ordination, he positions Jesus and his disciples in a row in front of hills and trees, almost as if they were statues or figures on a classic frieze. Lee cites the similar arrangement in Cezanne’s great paintings of bathers.
In 1785, the fourth Duke of Rutland acquired the seven Sacraments — after Pope Benedict XIV had prevented them from leaving Rome when Sir Robert Walpole tried to buy them. Sir Joshua Reynolds had advised the duke on the purchase (“a great object of art … perhaps greater than any we have at present in this nation”), and even helped clean them and arranged for new frames. Except for the past seven years when they were on loan to the National Gallery, London, the paintings have been in the Rutland family estate, Belvoir Castle (left). But Penance was destroyed in a fire at Belvoir in 1816, and Baptism was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1939.
In 2007, the 11th Duke of Rutland announced he would sell all five of the remaining Sacraments, but in something of a repeat of Pope Benedict’s move, a public outcry over the paintings leaving the country made him change his mind. The National Gallery even tried to raise the money to buy all five — for about $160 million — but failed. Last December, the duke put The Ordination up for auction at Christie’s to pay for work on Belvoir. But The Ordination failed to garner the expected price, between $24 and $31 million. The Kimbell did not bid on it.
Lee: “It’s a painting that probably should not have been put up for auction to begin with. It should have been sold privately. This is a painting that would require an export license and at that point, an export license had not been granted. It also wasn’t the right time for us. But we watched the painting, and we felt that after the sale, the time was right and we couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass us.”
A license was granted in August — with the provision that the painting could not leave if someone in-country would pay the same price (or more) for it. No one did. Buying the painting privately also means the Kimbell avoided the auction house commission, which would have added several million dollars to the final price.
Considering that Jackson Pollocks and Warhols have sold for more than $100 million, the Kimbell has a bargain.
The Ordination goes on display– for free– at the Kimbell next Wednesday.