A Fra Angelico Panel To Be Auctioned in Marseille

1. Fra Angelico (c. 1395/1400-1455) and Studio
Scenes of the Thebaid, c. 1430-1435
Tempera on Panel - 25.5 x 38.5 cm
Leclère Auction, Marseille on 27 october 2012
Photo : SVV Leclère

6/9/12 - Art market - Marseille - Works by Fra Angelico are rarely if almost never found on the art market. By chance, two have recently appeared in France. The first, Saint Dominic and Saint Francis of Assissi Receiving the Stigmata was listed as a national treasure in August 2009. Its export ban expired last February without it being purchased by the Louvre [1]

A second panel, by Fra Angelico and his studio (ill. 1), will come up for auction on 27 October in Marseille at Leclère’s. It was identified in 2001 by Michel Laclotte, who published it in 2005 in the proceedings of the colloquium Da Giotto a Botticelli - pittura fiorentina tra Gotico e Rinascimento [2]. This is a fragment from a painting cut up in the early 19th century probably by an unscrupulous art dealer, for which four other elements were already known, all belonging to museums [3].
The first one, a masterpiece of the Musée Thomas-Henry in Cherbourg, represents The Conversion of Saint Augustin ; the second, Saint Benedict in Ecstasy in the Desert, acquired at auction by the Duke d’Aumale resides at Chantilly ; the third, no doubt Gregory the Great Refusing the Pontifical Tiara belongs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art ; finally, the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp (currently closed for refurbishment) normally exhibits Saint Romuald Preventing the Emperor Otto III from Entering the Convent.

2. Fra Angelico (c. 1395/1400-1455) and Studio
Reconstitution of The Thebaid, c. 1430-1435
Tempera on Panel - 25.5 x 38.5 cm
Musée Condé, Musée Thomas-Henry
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten d’Anvers
Photo : Leclère et musées propriétaires

The panel for sale in Marseille was the central piece in the composition before it was cut up. According to Michel Laclotte, the work became a veritable puzzle which can now be reconstituted (ill. 2), despite the absence of the sixth and last fragment, perhaps still waiting to be rediscovered [4].
This work represents "different activities of everyday monastic life : work in the fields, spiritual assemblies next to the convent. It also presents the figures of the Three Dead and the Three Living, a vanitas (appearing for example in the fresco of The Triumph of Death, next to Buffalmacco’s Thebaid at the Camposanto in Pisa) [5]". Along with the scenes from the lives of Saint Augustin, Romuald, Gregory and Benedict, the original work, according to Michel Laclotte, was "a sort of Thebaid, around a convent near the sea." We should remember that a Thebaid is a representation of the lives of the Church Fathers in the desert.

Rediscovered in a collection residing in the Montpellier region, this panel still shows, despite a few unavoidably worn spots given the age of the work, some very beautiful areas - the convent for example - and subtle details such as the remarkable birds and colorful butterflies scattered around the composition.
The many mishaps of the panel which originally measured about 46 x 92 cm. partly illustrate the theme of the exhibition currently showing in Ajaccio : the rediscovery of Primitives at the turn of the 19th century and the underhanded practices of certain art dealers who separated the panels in polyptychs or cut up works. This fragment was in fact represented in the catalogue.
Although it has been granted an export permit, we can still hope that the panel will somehow remain in France and be acquired, why not, by a museum in the provinces...

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 14 septembre 2012


[1] Let us recall what the Commission des trésors nationaux said about it : "[...] this painting, which apparently did not undergo any significant alterations since it was originally produced, shows a fine state of conservation ; [...] this panel, which is extremely rare like the works painted during this period and which was held for a long time in a French collection, no doubt represents one of the only ones still held in private hands in France [...] ; it is important to keep [it] in the country as evidence of the early Italian Renaissance." We find it unfortunate that the Journal Officiel did not publish the fact that it was not purchased and was granted export authorization, in the same way as its listing ; more transparency is needed to save national treasures.

[2] Michel Laclotte, "Autour de Fra Angelico : deux puzzles", Da Giotto a Botticelli - pittura fiorentina tra Gotico e Rinascimento, Atti del convegno internazionale, Firenze, Università degli Studi e Museo di San Marco, pp. 187-200.

[3] We should point out that the auctioneers have published a small catalogue on the painting presenting a thorough study.

[4] However, this last piece may be permanently lost since it had practically no commercial value at the time (it probably did not represent a scene with figures).

[5] Michel Laclotte, op. cit.

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