It’s the first time the Wadsworth Atheneum, America’s oldest art museum, has lent out its top 60 paintings to a traveling collection. Lucky for Santa Barbara art lovers, the “Renaissance to Rococo” is currently making its last stop at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, from Feb. 11 to May 28. With brilliant grand-scale paintings and detailed small-canvas works, the crash course in art history serves up a platter of artistic goodies from the 1490s to the 1790s. Covering the three centuries that encompass the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo periods, the collection bursts with such names as Tintoretto, Caravaggio and Claude Lorrain.
The visual storytelling breaks the exhibit into religious, mythological, landscape, portraiture, still-life and genre painting, each posting a roster of old-world masters from Italy, Spain, France, England and the Netherlands. The overpowering religious canvases catch your eye as you stroll through popular themes ranging from the mystic marriage of St. Catherine to the flight into Egypt. Caravaggio’s debut religious painting, “The Ecstasy of Saint Francis” highlights the museum’s north wall and demonstrates his mastery of light-dark effects. Sticking with the saints, Zurbaran’s 17th-century “St. Serapion,” with its stark contrast of white robes against a dim background, further showcases the exhibit’s concentration on illumination.
Giordano’s colossal mythological scenes express classical stories with vibrant colors in the Academic Tradition, a guiding technique for many 17th-century artists. The curators cleverly set his “Abduction of Europa” against “Abduction of Helen of Troy,” inviting you to ponder the opposing diagonal compositions and strong sense of movement.
The painstakingly detailed images of “The Square of Saint Mark’s and the Piazetta, Venice” diverge from the loose brushstrokes of the exhibit’s many landscape scenes. Flemish artists, with their focus on accurate detail, dominate the portraiture, with the exception of Italian Salvator Rosa’s haunting yet intriguing, “Portrait of Lucrezia.” You wonder whether you should be frightened or mystified at Lucrezia’s seductive glance.
Masterful still-life paintings of yellow flowers and red and orange fruits pose as symbolic allegories of vanity and the fleeting aspect of time. Ribera builds on Caravaggio’s achievements and the vanitas theme in his portrait of a peasant, which is the first piece in the gallery’s section of genre paintings. Here, the images of downtrodden peasants working the fields by the Le Nain brothers parallels the confused expressions of the upper class in “[[A]] Quarrel Over a Board Game,” painted by Traversi more than 100 years later. Both display the challenges of life in their respective social classes. Of course, the collection would not be complete without a Goya. His “Gossiping Women” displays his understanding of the female body as it beautifully represents the painting traditions of Spain.
With an exhibit so excellently executed, the Museum of Art has proven worthy of America’s top collections and Europe’s greatest masters. The separation of art genres and gentle flow lend a peaceful and awe-inspiring air to the display. Including 60 paintings, the show gives a complete sampling of the periods without overwhelming the viewer. The clarity and order of the exhibit allows even the youngest Santa Barbara residents to understand and enjoy the paintings, whether they capture the kidnapping of Helen of Troy or the rolling hills of Lorrain’s countryside. And it doesn’t hurt that they’ll probably recognize the big names too.