Porsche, Ferrari, and the Sun King

/ May 8, 2019

Regular visitors to the NCMA know that over the past six years the Museum has offered the opportunity for a fortunate soul to win a raffle for a fabulous Porsche. The winner of this year’s raffle will be able to drive away in a gorgeous 2019 Porsche 911 Carrera GT. This masterpiece of art, design, and horsepower is currently on view in the lobby of East Building. What you may not know is that we have recently placed a vintage Ferrari on view in West Building.

The Porsche sports a silver-espresso color scheme; the Ferrari features a much broader palette that includes Pozzuoli red, Burgundy ochre, realgar orange, and Verona green earth. The Ferrari was probably created in Genoa, approximately 95 miles from the present-day Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy. And I meant it when I described it as vintage: it was made about 1635, more than 300 years before Enzo Ferrari independently began creating in 1947 the sleek masterpieces that bear his name.

By now you may have figured out that one of these works—the Ferrari—is not a car but an Old Master painting. It is the work of Giovanni Andrea de’ Ferrari, one of the foremost Genoese painters of his day. It has recently emerged from an extensive treatment by the Museum’s Chief Conservator Bill Brown, who restored the painting to its original appearance and dimensions.

The painting shows Jesus speaking with a woman at a well, a story described in the gospel of John (4:13–26). Walking from Judea to Galilee, Jesus and his disciples passed through the region of Samaria. Weary from his journey, he paused to rest by a well while the disciples went into a village for provisions. At the well Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water. He asked her for a drink. This was a remarkable act, since during this period Jews almost never associated with Samaritans. Jesus used the encounter to teach her about his divine mission by comparing the water of the well with salvation: “Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again: But whoever drinks the water I give shall never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become in him a spring of water welling up into eternal life.” He then, for the first time, revealed himself as the promised Messiah.

The same story of the woman at the well is depicted in another work in the collection, on view in an adjacent gallery, painted by the French artist Pierre Mignard in 1681 for a formidable aristocrat, Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise (1615–88). Just how formidable a woman she was is revealed in an anecdote that concerns our painting.

While visiting Mlle. de Guise’s collection, Louis XIV—the “Sun King” and the most powerful European monarch of his day—was quite taken with the painting. According to one of his courtiers, “the king found it so beautiful that he could not help showing that he would very much like to own it.” Apparently, however, the duchess’s affection for Mignard’s painting was even stronger than her concern for incurring the king’s displeasure. Louis had to content himself with a much smaller (and inferior) replica he commissioned from Mignard in 1690, the year he elevated the artist to the positions of First Painter to the King and Director of the French Academy. The Sun King’s painting is today in the collection of the Louvre, while Mlle. de Guise’s pride and joy holds a place of honor in the NCMA’s French galleries.

The canvases eloquently display the two dominant aspects of 17th-century European painting. The dynamic, sensuous brushwork that distinguishes de’ Ferrari’s version represents one significant element of the baroque style that emerged at this time in Italy, particularly in Genoa. Mignard’s more restrained and rhetorical treatment of the theme displays the increasing influence of the more classical style promoted in the art academies of France and Rome, where he worked. By the middle of the 18th century, the neoclassical style would dominate European painting and sculpture for the next hundred years.

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