Critic’s Notebook: A Dutch Treasure Trove Returns to New Amsterdam



“Portrait of a Gentleman in a Gray Hat and Cloak,” by Domenico Puligo. (Florence, 1492-1527) Credit Robert Simon Fine Art

Though he’s far less famous than his Florentine buddy Andrea Del Sarto, the early 16th-century painter Domenico Puligo figures prominently in “The Lives of the Artists,” the foundational book of Renaissance art history. A three-quarter-length portrait is a biographical mystery: out of a coal-black background, an anonymous gentleman in a soft hat and gray mantle looks suspiciously off to the side. Subtle, and bracingly beautiful, it must have been done just before 1527, when Puligo died of the plague at age 35.



“King David,” by Jusepe de Ribera. Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

Like so many painters in Rome in the early 17th century, the Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera was besotted with Caravaggio’s lifelike modeling and dramatic chiaroscuro. A painting of King David, attributed recently to Ribera and on the stand of this Paris gallery, is a choice example of Caravaggesque religious painting: the biblical hero, his eyes locked beatifically on the sky, appears in a shaft of light. The wet-on-wet brush strokes in David’s fur trim, and the buttery flesh of his hand, give this painting all the naturalistic drama Met visitors recently saw in the art of his fellow Roman bad boy, Valentin de Boulogne.


Furniture, porcelain, and other decorative arts have a prominent place at TEFAF, and among the most extraordinary objects here is a 17th-century table whose intricate floral surface is formed from dozens of colored stones, painstakingly cut and inlaid like marquetry. In this pietra dura table, in the booth of a Paris dealership, strips of yellow chalcedony frame flowers, fruit, and songbirds crafted out of agate and lapis lazuli. (A twin to this table lives at the Schloss Schönbrunn, the Hapsburg palace in Vienna.) Check out the pomegranate in the center; the red stones that represent its seeds lie beneath the surface, visible through a translucent overlay.



Tapestry depicting the Ball Game from the story of Gombaut and Macée, Flemish, Bruges, circa 1600-1635. Credit Mullany

Tapestry isn’t often thought of as a transgressive art form, but the naughtiest and most hilarious work at TEFAF this year is a woven wall hanging, completed in Bruges around 1600 and offered by this London gallery, that depicts shepherds and maidens getting very frisky in a verdant garden. One couple kisses under a bush, another flirts while playing a ballgame, and a third indulges in a little light sadomasochism amid frolicking sheep. Wildly blunt captions in Middle French up the ante. “It’s not good manners,” says the woman in the grass, “to spank a girl you won’t marry.”



Trouvelot Etienne Leopold’s “The Planet Mars.” Credit Shapero Rare Books

The recent vogue for science in contemporary art is nothing new; back in the 1870s, the Harvard-based artist Étiénne Léopold Trouvelot made use of new heavyweight telescopes to create striking images of comets, auroras, star clusters and meteor showers. The large chromolithographs, published in New York in 1881, galvanized American interest in astronomy, although Trouvelot’s views of the planets and celestial phenomena could be more impressionistic than scientific: Mars appears as a whorled marble in a sea of black; Jupiter’s northern hemisphere is stained by a red beauty mark; and Saturn sits nestled in its rings.

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