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Two shows, two big personalities at the Walters

The 15th-century painter Carlo Crivelli had genius, technique and an instinct for pulling in an audience that would rival a carnival barker's.

So why don't more people know his name?

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That's the conundrum posed by "A Renaissance Original: Carlo Crivelli," opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum. The 14 extravagantly gilded religious artworks on display — on loan from institutions in Poland, Germany, Boston and New York — argue eloquently that Crivelli should be as familiar a figure to art lovers as Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian.

"Madonna and Child Enthroned with Donor," Carlo Crivelli. 1470.
"Madonna and Child Enthroned with Donor," Carlo Crivelli. 1470. (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection,)

"Look at this flowing, beautiful drapery studied from life," says Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of Renaissance and Baroque art, stopping in front of a depiction of the angel Gabriel, his cloak billowing in the breeze. "Leonardo da Vinci was working at the same time, and he would have been proud to have made this."

In addition to "A Renaissance Original," the Walters opens another exhibit Sunday that showcases another big personality from the past: "Madame de Pompadour, Patron and Printmaker."

Though French King Louis XV's chief mistress, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, is known primarily as a patron of the arts. This exhibition includes a first-edition set of etchings she created that were long thought lost.

The marquise was trying to revive the art of cameo and intaglio engravings carved on semiprecious stones, and the etchings amount to a catalog of her commissions. In addition to the prints, the show includes an intaglio ordered by Pompadour, other ancient gems and a collection of her porcelain.

"She had a talented hand," curator Susan Wager says. "She thought about representation and replication, and the relationship between media in a very sophisticated way."

Plate 61 from Madame de Pompadour's "Suite of Prints" - Chien; Portrait of Madame de Pompadour’s Dog. ca. 1758. The cameo portrait of Madame de Pompadour’s pet spaniel is lost; this print is our only record of what the gem looked like.
Plate 61 from Madame de Pompadour's "Suite of Prints" - Chien; Portrait of Madame de Pompadour’s Dog. ca. 1758. The cameo portrait of Madame de Pompadour’s pet spaniel is lost; this print is our only record of what the gem looked like. (Ariel Tabritha, Kimber Wiegand/The Walters Art Museum)

Wager describes Pompadour as a gifted amateur. But Crivelli was the real deal, and Spicer thinks he'd be a household name if only he'd been born west of Italy's Apennine Mountains, and near the vibrant cultural centers of Florence or Siena.

Instead, Crivelli grew up in Venice. Though the city later became artistically influential, he never worked there and was banished from the city in the 1450s or 1460s for having an affair with a married woman. For the rest of his life, he worked in smaller cities and towns up and down Italy's east coast.

It's only been in the past decade, Spicer says, that Renaissance scholars have broadened their focus to the paintings and sculptures created in the smaller cultural centers of eastern Italy.

For instance, the show includes four of the six panels that Crivelli created around 1470 for the magnificent altarpiece in the town of Porto San Giorgio.

To describe the artworks as "opulent" doesn't begin to convey their impact. Crivelli lavished more gold on his canvases that can be found in the average Swiss bank.

The artworks are full of the realistic details so prized in the Renaissance. For instance, viewers who look closely at a scarlet cloth unfolded on the edge of a parapet will see the remains of a crisp center crease.

"In the Renaissance, there was a big demand from the worshippers for more proof," Spicer says. "It wasn't assumed that the priesthood had all the answers. Crivelli created images that came to life so the laity could say, 'OK, this is part of my world.' When the details seem familiar, you're more likely to be convinced."

For instance, viewers gawking at "Saint George Slaying the Dragon" may wonder why the horse's bright red-bridle seems to leap out at them. What's more, the crown in "Madonna and Child Enthroned With Donor" looks three-dimensional.

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That's because it is.

"Saint George Slaying the Dragon from the Porto San Giorgio Altarpiece," Carlo Crivelli. 1470.
"Saint George Slaying the Dragon from the Porto San Giorgio Altarpiece," Carlo Crivelli. 1470. (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)

Using the technique of pastiglia, Crivelli built up images from a thick mixture called gesso and then applied colored paint and gold leaf. At times, the effect is subtle, as when just a thin rim of a saint's halo is raised. At other times, viewers may feel as though they're about to be whapped in the face by a studded leather strap flying through the air.

Spicer points out that Crivelli wasn't above catering to the tastes of his artistically conservative audience, even if it meant sacrificing historic accuracy.

For example, she says, St. George could never have risen in his stirrups before walloping that dragon, though that's how he's depicted. Stirrups weren't invented until about 300 years later after the event shown in the painting — and, she says, Crivelli knew it.

But the thing that really makes Spicer, er, breathe fire, is that red-and-white striped lance.

"That's a Renaissance lance," Spicer says, and then repeats it for emphasis. "A Renaissance lance. It's big, thick and heavy, you can hardly maneuver it, and it was meant to push other heavily armored soldiers off their horses.

"St. George would have used a Roman lance, which is essentially a spear with a longer shaft. It's light, it's got a very, very serious pointed end and it's easily maneuvered.

"That," Spicer concludes, "is what you need to slay a dragon."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Both opening Sunday, "A Renaissance Original: Carlo Crivelli" runs through May 22 and "Madame de Pompadour, Patron and Printmaker" runs through May 29 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Free. A panel discussion about the Crivelli exhibit is at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $10; members admitted free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.

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