This weekend we’re checking out Men in Armor: El Greco and Pulzone Face to Face at the Frick Collection. After the show, we can grab sandwiches at Via Quadronno and head to the park for a picnic. Update: the "Face to Face" show closed on October 26th. To stay updated on what's going on right now, sign up for our #YourArtWeekend newsletter here.
THE ART /
For a show with only two paintings, there is a lot to see here. Two late Renaissance masters, El Greco and Scipione Pulzone. Two men in armor, Vincenzo Anastagi and Jacopo Boncompagni -- bearded, military, dark-haired Italian noblemen of the late 16th century, each wishing to convey his status, wealth and masculinity by posing for a portrait. Two paintings, side by side, on exhibition at the Frick in honor of the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death.
The text on the wall panel (and the short movie on loop in the Music Room) gives some historical context. In the mid-1570s, when these portraits were painted, Pulzone was the most popular portraitist in Rome. His sitter, Boncompagni (on the left below), was one of the most powerful noblemen in the city, son of Pope Gregory XIII and the commander of the Papal Army. El Greco was not the superstar, centuries-ahead-of-his-time painter we know him as today. He wasn’t even “El Greco” yet, but Domenikos Theotokopoulos, a talented immigrant from Crete hoping to rise through the ranks of the art world in Rome. His sitter, Vincenzo Anastagi (on the right below), was a middle-ranking nobleman, a knight who served under Boncompagni. It’s possible that El Greco took the job to get noticed by Boncompagni and Pulzone, to get closer to the inner circle of Roman nobility and artistic patronage.
But you don’t have to know anything about art history (or 16th century Italy, for that matter) to see how different these two paintings are. It’s right there in front of you. Pulzone’s work is almost unimaginably precise, from the painstakingly detailed armor of his subject to the tiny gold threads hanging from the curtain on the right side of the canvas. Pulzone was a master of realistic portraiture and his “Boncompagni” is practically a perfect representation of his subject -- it’s as if the canvas is just a window looking onto an actual person in actual, crazy-expensive armor.
El Greco’s portrait lacks the precision and verisimilitude of Pulzone’s. His goal was not to produce an exact copy of a retinal image, but to create, with paint on canvas, an image that makes us think and feel a particular way about his subject. A certain attitude comes across that is missing in Pulzone’s more refined painting. El Greco’s armor is practical, his background is simple, and his man is manly (look at those calves!). He is not perfect in the way his superior, Boncompagni, is. But he seems stronger, bolder and more modern. You could say the same about El Greco.
Looking at the two paintings next to each other, you start to remember why we look at paintings in the first place -- why these rich Italian men would pay to be painted, and why someone like Henry Clay Frick would hang “Vincenzo Anastagi” on his wall.
The show is up until October 26th, and admission is pay-what-you-wish on Sundays between 11 and 1.
WHAT TO DO AFTER /
Via Quadronno, a classic little spot that is perfect for panini and espresso, is close by on 73rd and Madison. If it’s one of those perfect fall New York afternoons, pick up your sandwiches and head over to the park for a post-museum picnic.
Artwork above: (Left) Scipione Pulzone (c. 1540/42–98), "Jacopo Boncompagni", 1574, Oil on canvas, 48 x 39 ⅛ inches, Private collection, courtesy of Jean-Luc Baroni Ltd. (Right) El Greco (1541–1614), "Vincenzo Anastagi", c. 1575. Oil on canvas. 74 x 49 ⅞ inches. The Frick Collection, New York.
Photo credit: photos of artwork by Michael Bodycomb, Frick exterior by Bowen Dunnan, Frick interior by "Now You Know by G" blog