‘Masters of Venice’ at de Young Museum in San Francisco

The origin of the de Young Museum’s current exhibition, “Masters of Venice: Renaissance Painters of Passion and Power,” is the one-time global maritime power and center of commerce. Venice was immensely rich during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and its nobility spent lavishly on arts, music and architecture.

Over the years, masterpieces created in Venice were purchased by major collectors and museums. Perhaps the most prominent museum specializing in Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoretto, Mantegna, Palma, Bordone and Bassano is Vienna’s famed Kunsthistorisches Museum — a depository for generations of Habsburg art-collecting emperors and archdukes.

Vienna’s treasures now are on loan to the de Young, the only stopping place for “Masters of Venice.” As before, with Tutankhamen and French Impressionists, Fine Arts Museums Director John E. Buchanan Jr. and President Dede Wilsey have found a golden opportunity for The City to act as a temporary “storehouse” for a collection whose home is being renovated.

The collection in Vienna takes up the museum’s first floor, called the Gemäldegalerie, or picture gallery. Fifty paintings from there have been installed in the de Young by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, director of the Gemäldegalerie, and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco curator Lynn Federle Orr.

There is a curious contrast between a large photo reproduction at the entrance to the exhibit and the show itself. The enlargement of “Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Gallery in Brussels” pictures a jam-packed gallery, including some works that are part of the exhibition. But at the de Young, Orr’s arrangement displays the paintings on pastel walls in luxurious open spaces.

Among the most striking works are Tintoretto’s 1560 “Portrait of a Man in Gold-Trimmed Armor”; Giorgione’s 1508 “The Three Philosophers” and 1500 “Sleeping Venus”; Titian’s 1560 “Danáe”; and Mantegna’s 1457-1459 “Saint Sebastian.”

The impressive Tintoretto, revealing a wealth of history and information in its details, deserves careful examination. In the painting is a reference to a series of Roman emperors’ portraits, painted by Titian decades before Tintoretto.

Behind the young man in armor are three columns, and a window through which a red galley is visible heading out to sea; pride in Venice’s navy shows up in unexpected places.

Works in the exhibit also illustrate the glory of the Venetian painters’ pioneering use of oil on canvas. The artists adopted a new method of execution, spreading the paint in a broad, gestural manner. Individual brushstrokes remain distinct, serving more to suggest the movement of the artist’s hand than to describe forms, surfaces and textures.


Masters of Venice

Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays except until 8:45 p.m. Fridays; exhibit closes Feb. 12

Tickets: $10 to $20

Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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