“A lot of these older works are by artists many people have never heard of,” said Arnold L. Lehman, director of the museum. “Yet there are many contemporary black artists looking back at their predecessors.”
The institution has set a three-year goal for the project, aiming to raise $500,000 for a dedicated purchase fund. It has already received $100,000 from Saundra Williams-Cornwell, a trustee, and her husband, W. Don Cornwell, as well as $100,000 more promised by the Cornwells as a matching grant. Another trustee, Charlynn Goins, and her husband, Warren, have promised a gift of a painting: “Dream of Arcadia After Thomas Cole,” an 1852 landscape by Robert S. Duncanson.
“Forty-five percent of our audience are people of color,” Mr. Lehman said. “While we are doing this from a curatorial point of view, it does reflect what our visitors expect when they come to the museum.”
Since the 1940s the Brooklyn Museum has been a showcase for African-American art, starting with its landmark exhibition “The Negro Artist Comes of Age.” It has also organized several monographic exhibitions by artists like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Martin Puryear and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Mr. Lehman said that while there were no planned exhibitions of this work right now, the curators were working on developing a program of shows.
RESTORED MADONNA GLOWS
Keith Christiansen remembers all the times he stood in front of “Madonna and Child,” a painting by the Italian Renaissance master Filippino Lippi, and thought, “What a dull, disappointing picture.”
Yet Mr. Christiansen, chairman of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, saw clues that suggested otherwise. The Strozzi family coat of arms — in the shape of three crescents — appears on the painting twice, once on a column capital to the left of the Madonna’s head, and another time right above her, decorating the stonework, which suggests that “Madonna and Child” was commissioned by that super-rich ruling Florentine family. (The Strozzis had commissioned the artist many times; their chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is decorated with Filippino frescos, so it was assumed that “Madonna and Child” was commissioned by the same family.)
When the painting entered the Met’s collection in 1949, however, its surface was so dark that it seemed drab and quite ordinary, Mr. Christiansen said. The provenance showed that from 1923 to 1928 “Madonna and Child” had been owned by Joseph Duveen, the notorious art dealer who was known to send paintings like this to a restorer to make them more saleable.
In this case, that meant darkening the surface with varnishes so that the work would fit a preconceived idea of what collectors in those days thought an old master painting should look like. The results did not wear well. The layers of varnish and toning applied to “Madonna and Child” in the early 1920s became darker and duller over time.
Recently, when the Met received a request from the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome to borrow “Madonna and Child” for an exhibition of Flippino’s work there next year, Mr. Christiansen asked Michael Gallagher, the Met’s chief conservator, and Karen Thomas, associate conservator, to take a look.
The conservators first had the painting X-rayed to make sure that the surface varnish and toning did not disguise extensive paint loss or severe abrasions. Once it was confirmed that “Madonna and Child” was in stable condition, Ms. Thomas went to work, carefully removing the added layers. As the painting’s rich tones began appearing, workers in the museum’s conservation studio started to gather and watch.
“We were hovering like vultures,” Mr. Gallagher recalled. “As the layers easily came off, the transformation was dramatic.”
Mr. Christiansen said the painting didn’t just become brighter; details in the background, like a black servant fishing or a woman pouring water, suddenly became clearer too. And the Madonna, who had looked “brainless” before the cleaning, “actually has a refined, delicate expression,” Mr. Christiansen said.
The metamorphosis is so startling that Mr. Christiansen now considers “Madonna and Child” among the Met’s most important Italian Renaissance paintings. He is planning a small exhibition in mid-January around the painting and other works from the Strozzi family in the museum’s collection.
GIFT TO ATLANTA MUSEUM
The West Foundation — whose founders, Charles and Marjorie West, have amassed an extensive collection of American paintings and sculptures in Atlanta — is giving 90 works to the High Museum of Art there. The art, which is worth more than $50 million, has been on loan to the institution for more than 20 years and includes landscape paintings by Frederic Edwin Church and Jasper Cropsey; portraits by Rembrandt Peale and William Sidney Mount; and sculptures by Hiram Powers and Chauncey Bradley Ives.
“This gift of American art puts us in the top five or six institutions in this country,” said Michael E. Shapiro, director of the High. “Until now we never had this kind of work in our collection.”
The foundation gave four of its Hudson River School paintings in honor of Gudmund Vigtel, the High’s longtime director, who retired in 1991. It was Mr. Vigtel, Mr. Shapiro said, who had originally advised Mr. West, working closely with him during the years he was forming the collection.
Starting next Friday, the gift will be on view in the permanent-collection galleries. “This is a huge leap forward in one fell swoop,” Mr. Shapiro said.