Michelangelo’s statue of his frenemy Pope Julius II, who is patron of the Sistine Chapel and other projects, is destroyed by a mob. The tie a rope around its neck and pull the 10,000 pound statue from its pedestal. It smashes into pieces, but not before it leaves a crater in the ground. Alfonso d’Este, an enemy of Julius, melts it into cannon–an ignominious end!
In an extraordinary memo, General Dwight Eisenhower clearly and directly charges each soldier with the responsibility of protecting the world’s cultural treasures:
To: All Commanders
Today we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilization which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments so far as war allows.
If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the building must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase “military necessity” is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.
It is a responsibility of higher commanders to determine through A.M.G. Officers the locations of historical monuments whether they be immediately ahead of our front lines or in areas occupied by us. This information passed to lower echelons through normal channels places the responsibility of all Commanders of complying with the spirit of this letter.
Impressionist painter Frédéric Bazille dies on the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian War. He is fighting with the Zouaves, a light infantry regiment, and has been frustrated at the lack of action. Today, in a minor battle, his officer is injured and Bazille takes command. He leads an assault on the Prussians, is struck twice while retreating, and dies in the snow. Some of his friends, such as Édouard Manet, don’t learn of his death for three months.
Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan, sends all of the bronze that Leonardo has collected for casting a statue of a horse to his father-in-law, who makes it into cannon.
November 17, 1946
Arshile Gorky writes to his friend Vartoosh Mooradian:
This summer I completed a lot of drawings — 292 of them. Never have I been able to do so much work, and they are good too.”
This productive summer is one of the bright spots of Gorky’s year. His unlucky streak begins with a fire in his studio in January, caused by a stove he’s installed only the month before. The fire ruins almost all of his work. Two months later, he undergoes a colostomy for rectal cancer, and goes to his in-laws’ house in Virginia to recuperate. He draws the landscape in the fields during the day, and scenes by the fireplace each night.
Winslow Homer’s The Army of the Potomac-A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty a wood engraving based on a painting, is published in Harper’s Weekly.
November 15, 1887
Georgia O’Keeffe is born.
November 15, 1989
The composer Leonard Bernstein declines a National Medal of Arts, awarded to him by the White House, in protest of the NEA rescinding a grant for an art exhibition on AIDS. As a gay man and AIDS activist, Bernstein says he cannot stand by without making a statement, especially as the NEA is responsible both for recommending him to the White House and for revoking the grant money.
November 15, 2007
A woman who vandalizes a painting by kissing it with red lipstick is sentenced in court for the crime. The painting is a panel of the Cy Twombly triptych Phaedrus, of which she says:
It was just a kiss, a loving gesture…I thought the artist would understand…. It was an artistic act provoked by the power of Art.”
Her sentence is to pay €1,000 to the painting’s owner, €500 to the Avignon gallery that showed it, and €1 to Twombly.
Joseph Cornell writes a letter to an employee named Iris Barry at MoMA’s Film Library. He’s a very polite correspondent:
Dear Miss Barry,
Between the increasing activity of the Film Library and an injury I sustained on my vacation a few weeks ago, it hasn’t been very convenient for me to speak to you about the film of mine left at Deluxe last March. I believe that Jay Leyda said that you had viewed these items and had liked the primitive French Indian subject and one of the Pearl Whites. I am wondering if you could let me know (when you have a breathing spell) of your decision, if any, to keep two of these three subjects…”
November 3, 1943
Nazi records with today’s date state that in the last three weeks, 100 trucks, fully loaded with artwork, have left the abbey of Monte Cassino outside of Rome. They are all headed for Rome and “points north” [i.e., Germany], and all of the cargo is intended to be birthday presents for Reichsmarschall Herman Goring.
November 3, 1954
Henri Matisse dies. He works up until the end, completing his last work, a design for a stained glass window, just a few days before his death.
His daughter Marguerite Duthuit gives an interview almost six years later about trying to break the news to his longtime friend and rival, Picasso:
When Matisse died, we informed him [Picasso] immediately. They were very friendly, intimate. You would have thought he’d come to the phone to tell us how this sad news affected him.
After a long wait, we were told, “M. Picassso is having lunch, he cannot be disturbed.”
We were expecting a telegram, a phone call. Nothing. Thinking no-one had given him the message, we called back. It was the same thing.
And when we tried to speak to him a third time, we were told: “M. Picasso has nothing to say about Matisse, since he is dead.”
Could he really have said that? Or could someone have replied unbeknownst to him, to spare him intense emotion?
The manuscript from the trial of Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist shows that Artemisia’s studio assistant gives testimony against the victim, his boss…while being tortured.
Nicolo Bedino, who ground and mixed colors for Artemisia, is stripped naked and hung from a rope while testifying that he had delivered letters from her to several men. This evidence is used to imply that she was a loose woman, and that it isn’t a case of rape at all.
The trial of art forger Han van Meegeren begins in Amsterdam. He becomes one of the world’s best art forgers ever, deciding that he has something to prove after art teachers and critics call his work unoriginal and uninspired. One of his forged Vermeers is hailed as one of the finest “Vermeers” ever.
His forgery is discovered after World War II when when a forged piece (believed to be authentic) is discovered in Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring’s private art collection. Dutch authorities charge Han with giving away Dutch cultural property and arrest him as a Nazi conspirator. Han decides to admit to the forgery, a lesser crime, rather than be sentenced to death for treason.
My bad mood is vanishing thanks to hard work. I’ve embarked on a modern subject — a barricade. And if I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.”
October 21, 1959
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opens on Fifth Avenue in the stunning spiral building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s one of my favorite buildings because it’s so weird. It’s the first American museum to be built from scratch, rather than converted from a private residence.
Fun fact: Ellsworth Kelly recalls a not-yet-famous Andy Warhol, dressed in a suit for the opening reception. Not only does Andy eavesdrop on a private conversation, but he hears others discuss plans to go to an after-party at a gay leather bar, then stuns everyone by inviting himself along.
Radio Rome provides this bit of Fascist propaganda:
The first ships left Sicily for London today with precious works of art, some of which will go to the British Museum and some to private collections”.
The idea is to create suspicion surrounding Americans interested in artworks (i.e., the Museum and Fine Arts Archives Program, AKA the Monuments Men). Given that American bombs have devastated Palermo just months earlier, feelings are already running high. A healthy dose of national pride doesn’t hurt either…what red-blooded Italian/Sicilian wants to see his or her cultural treasures going to private collectors in London, for pete’s sake??
October 15, 1951
Lee Krasner has her first solo show at Betty Parsons Gallery.
During World War II, it’s common to lodge Allied soldiers in cultural institutions. While many of them are emptied of their portable treasures, stationery pieces like frescoes, mosaics, even hidden artworks, remain. For example, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, provides bunking quarters, as well as a pharmaceutical ward where flammable alcohol is stacked up next to priceless frescoes. One of the duties of the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program (MFAA, but more commonly called Venus Fixers or Monuments Men) is to ensure that soldiers aren’t improperly billeted in cultural institutions.
Amid concerns about whether soldiers would be respectful enough of their surroundings, or treat them like “saloons”, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall cables General Eisenhower to say:
protection of artistic and historic monuments in Italy is subject of great concern to many institutions and societies”.
Marsden Hartley’s lover, Karl von Freyburg, dies in World War I; his death inspires Hartley to paint Portrait of a German Officer.
October 7, 2012
Art vandal Wlodzimierz Umaniec uses indelible, dripping ink to scribble his name and a slogan (“12 a potential piece of yellowism”) on Rothko’s 1958 painting Black On Maroon at the Tate in London. Wlodzimierz, who compares himself to Marcel Duchamp and claims he improved the work and its value, goes to jail for two years. Despite initial doubts that the piece could be saved, conservation experts work some real magic and the painting, one of the Seagram murals, goes back on display about two years later, to the delight of the Tate and Rothko’s family.
The damage to the work is especially wrenching because the painting has a special place in art history. Rothko personally donates the painting to the Tate, and it arrives at the museum on the day Rothko commits suicide.
Louis XII of France invades Milan, and allows his archers to shoot target practice at Leonardo’s 25 foot clay model for an equestrian statue. For shame!
The Duke of Milan commissions the statue in 1482 (that’s 17 years ago–see how slow Leonardo is?); he and Leonardo intend it to be the largest statue in the world. Leonardo studies horses and prepares extensively, but the destruction of the model is the end of the line for his participation.
Centuries later, an American revives the project and several versions of a horse are created and displayed in Milan, Pennsylvania and in a portable format that travels with various Leonardo exhibitions. That seems less impressive to me, so I’ll show Leonardo’s original preparatory sketches.
October 6, 1623
King Philip IV of Spain names Velazquez as painter royal to the Spanish court. His job is to execute royal portraits and decorate the royal houses, with a monthly salary of 20 ducats.