We live in an age of gigantism — giant egos, giant debt, giant skyscrapers, though the new ones look like a mile-high Twiggy, and giant art. I can live without them. The Winter Show, the antiques show at the Park Avenue Armory, celebrates the small, the precious, and the human-scaled. It’s the antidote to all things big, noisy, and aesthetically pushy. I visited on opening day — it runs until February 2 — and found a welcome salve in art that’s exquisite and intimate. I’ll focus on some of the small treasures I saw.
These dealers have passion. They’re deeply specialized, with a scholar’s knowledge leavened by warmth and accessibility. They’re confident and serious and live in the world of substance. It’s a classy show.
That’s not to say the work I saw lacks sparkle and gleam. Silver is a precious metal. Weight and size added to price but, practically, what we know as antique silver was used mostly for dining. Objects had to be small enough to be picked up, used, or passed. S. J. Shrubsole has a rare chocolate pot from 1703 fashioned to address the new English fancy for hot cocoa. Chocolate arrived in England in the 1680s, prompting the question: How did that sceptered isle survive without it? Then, a further question: Coffee and tea pots each had a distinctive shape, but how to distinguish the new brew on the block? Designers first borrowed porcelain ginger jars exported from China. The finial is removable for stirring. Silver from the time of Queen Anne was, well, a bit like Queen Anne, bulbous and plain but handsome. It mixes charm and dignity. The chocolate pot is no different. It’s $85,000.
Koopman’s pair of tea caddies from 1766 is another rarity. They come with their original box, made to match the caddies, and their original spoons. Engraved, high-fashion chinoiserie scenes decorate the body of the caddies. Both are topped with a cast flower-shaped finial. They put you in a frothy mood. The maker, Thomas Heming, was King George III’s official goldsmith at the time, but moonlighting was acceptable.
The caddies are a scant four inches tall. After paying $95,000, you’ll be giving up Lipton tea bags and splurging on the fancy stuff.
Spencer Marks, Ltd., has something I’ve seen only a few times. It’s a Tiffany table clock from 1880 made of mokume. It’s very fabulous. The silver for the Queen Anne chocolate pot was arduously hand-hammered over a mold to reach a hollow form. By the 1760s, a prefab sheet of silver started the caddies’ life, saving labor. Gilded Age American silver is tech-mad and experimental.
Mokume is a mix of metals and Japanese-inspired. Layers of silver, gold, copper, and a sheet of silver/gold alloy were soldered together in a thin sheet. The sheet was cut into three parts, which were soldered together, hammered, and rolled thin again. The silversmith repeated this cutting, layering, soldering, and hammering 36 times until the sheet was as luminous and irregularly patterned as the surface of the moon seen from the earth. The metal is always hot, so colors tend to bleed. New shades of red, black, green, yellow, and gray are sometimes delicate and sometimes striking. The maker then cut the sheet, applied it to the clock form, and created collages of metal for the basic parts of butterflies and dogwood blossoms, augmented by engraving, or just planes of abstract, mottled forms.
It’s very American — an amalgam of Japanese and English and French art-nouveau styles and American ingenuity for a final, over-the-top product. It’s $150,000 and a masterpiece.
You can drink your tea and feel like a lord, or you can sip what-you-will from the gold Cup of Montezuma. Offered by Thomas Heneage, the London antiquarian book dealer, this tiny totem, four inches tall and five ounces, was actually made in Peru by Inca craftsmen in the 15th century and it gravitated to Mexico. We don’t know if Montezuma owned it but do know it was an important ritual vessel. It’s a thin gold sheet hammered with the features of a man, probably a god, but, in any event, he looks like he didn’t tolerate sass. There are two ears of corn embossed on the back. Fermented maize was probably served in it during religious ceremonies.
It’s a survivor since most Inca and Aztec gold was melted and sent to Spain when the conquistadors came to town. The cup came to England before 1738. Price is on request, but I bet it’s steep.
The conquistadors were rude and crude, but sips of fermented maize often heralded the child-sacrifice part of the Aztec agenda. Calming these thoughts was Arthur Liverant’s sweet painted rocking chair made in New England between 1820 and 1840. It’s about 20 inches tall and a foot wide. Liverant is one of the great, old-time dealers in New England furniture.
The rocking chair is only $2,500. It owes its affordability to the disdain the market now feels toward brown furniture generally but specifically most American antiques made before 1900. More and more Americans know little about our history, and much of what they know is disparagement peddled via malpractice-worthy teaching. This trickles down to the marketplace.
Illuminated manuscripts, mostly from medieval and Renaissance times, are among the art world’s most exquisite media. Most are embedded in Bibles and prayer books, so they tend to be small and meant for contemplation by a single reader. Les Enluminures is one of the great dealers in these dazzling, bewitching little things.
Illuminated manuscripts give the overlarge in art not a slap in the face — too obvious — but the subtler cheetah spiked-knuckle, stun-gun treatment. They discreetly make the big stuff look vicious and gaudy.
The tiny Calcagni Book of Hours was finished on September 7, 1508, by Attavante degli Attavanti (1452–1520s), the most celebrated illumination in Renaissance Florence. Giorgio Vasari, the Mannerist-era author of the world’s first art-history survey, called Attavante the best illuminator of his age.
Books of Hours are breviaries, or a selection of prayers and psalms taken from long prayer books used by monks. They’re meant for laypeople. The Calcagni book illustrates three scenes: the Raising of Lazarus, King David in Prayer, and the Annunciation and Nativity. The detailed narrative scenes are framed by vermilion, emerald, and azure-colored borders packed with gold tendrils, cartouches, putti, and portraits of saints and prophets. It’s a bit less than four inches and a tad more than two inches closed. It’s $95,000.
Elle Shushan specializes in miniatures. She’s a connoisseur of the highest order, and her booth is always a beguiling treat. She’s passionate about these precious, hypnotic paintings, normally made on ivory or enamel by tiny brushes. Their detail is crisp and precise — there’s no room for sweeping brushstroke — and the smooth, reflective base gives them luminosity. Like illuminated manuscripts, they’re personal and intimate. They’re often set in a locket so the admirer could carry the likeness of the admired. The artists, such as Henry Bone (1779–1855), were usually specialists. Bone was the master enamel painter to William IV and Queen Victoria. His father was a miniaturist, too.
Shushan is offering Bone Jr.’s miniature portrait of Louisa Brunton, Countess of Craven, done in 1837. Brunton was an actress performing at Coventry Garden in 1807 when she caught herself an earl. She insisted then and until her death in 1860 that she was an “artiste” — Covent Garden “actresses” were presumed to be prostitutes until proven innocent. Bruton wears a stately blue dress covered by a diaphanous white lace shawl, her hair a riot of curls. I don’t know what kind of “artiste” she was, but she’s wall power.
It’s a variation of a miniature of Brunton done by S. J. Stump in 1807, when Brunton and the Earl of Craven married. In that miniature, probably a wedding present for her husband, Brunton left less to the imagination, with Ava Gardner–style décolletage suggesting she knew what made her aristocrat happy. A matron, countess, and widow by 1837, she wanted her young self presented more modestly. Shushan’s version is mounted in a frame topped by an earl’s coronet. It’s $17,500.
Thomas Colville is offering a fine painting by Emil Bisttram (1895–1976), whose family immigrated to America from Romania in 1906. Trained in New York art schools, Bisttram moved to Taos in New Mexico in 1930. His 1939 Abstract Composition packs a punch. Its style is dynamic symmetry, which seems a contradiction in terms. He paints lots of geometric parts that seem to move in formation. It’s circles, triangles, and lines with a touch of jazz.
Bisttram worked in encaustic, which is hot wax mixed with pigment. The medium dates to the Romans, disappeared for centuries, and then came back in style around 1900. It’s like tempera, creating a hard finish and passages of pure color unsullied by glazes and brushstroke flourish and, overall, a modern look consistent with geometric shapes. Bisttram knew the Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera well and painted big, bold murals for most of his career, but it’s his small work that’s most enigmatic. He was inspired by the Mexicans but also by local, Native American textiles.
Bisttram was deeply involved in Theosophy, a mix of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist beliefs. So was Hilma af Klint, the galactically overrated Swedish painter celebrated in a Guggenheim Museum exhibition last year. Karma took a wrong turn there, landing in a ditch. She was a good sign painter, but Bisttram is a better artist. With or without the dollop of Theosophy, Abstract Composition is a handsome thing and well-priced at $35,000. The Taos school is just getting discovered now. The painting’s not small, but at 24 by 18 inches, it’s smaller than af Klint’s goofy spreads.
Each year, displayed front and center as you enter, is an exhibition that The Winter Show draws from a prominent museum. This year’s is extraordinary. The Hispanic Society of America is one of the great public collections in the country. Its impressive beaux-arts palace-style home is on 155th Street and Broadway. Strange location, you might say, but in 1908 it was assumed that the newly developed and tony Upper West Side would simply continue in style northward. It instead remained Harlem, which has, to say the least, depressed visitorship and philanthropy, though I find the neighborhood fun, lively, and real.
In the not-too-big space at the Armory, I saw the best of Velázquez, Goya, Zurbarán, and Sorolla. The Hispanic Society is in the middle of a rebirth, raising money to fix its building and attract an audience. It kills me whenever I read about $10 million gifts going to the Met or MoMa. These are rich institutions with a deep donor base and locations made for tourism. At the blue-chip places, a high-seven-figure gift rents you a small gallery for 25 years; a low-end one will get you a bay of sinks in a new gender-diverse john.
For the Hispanic Society, with the greatest collection of the art of the Spanish world outside Spain, gifts of that magnitude are transformative. It’s money that truly makes a difference. It’s not giving that brings valor or sparkle, gets a headline in the high-society press, or puts a donor on Anna Wintour’s radar. It’s real, honest generosity.