There are several reasons why a work of art owned by a museum is not on display: there is no room for it in already crowded galleries; the work is in some way too fragile to display; the artist or the subject are judged not of appeal in the moment; the work itself requires so much display space that it may be shown only very occasionally.
An example of this last reason is the Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ by James Tissot. The 350 watercolor paintings are somewhere in the bowels of the Brooklyn Museum and, to my knowledge, have rarely been brought together in their entirety. For a couple of months in 2009 and 2010, the museum did put on a show of 124 of the paintings, but now Tissot’s great series is in storage.
I wasn’t aware of this when my younger son and I went to the Museum in 2017, and, as I bought our tickets, I asked the woman at the desk where we could find the Tissot paintings.
“Oh, we don’t have that here,” she said.
She wore a cross on a chain, and she must have thought I was out of my mind to think I’d find such work in a museum she may well consider a den of iniquity. I decided to let it go since I knew every one of Tissot’s gouaches are there. . .and because I knew this is what museums do: acquire profligately, rather as the New York Yankees acquire ballplayers. If nothing else, they add prestige and are available for trades. (Baseball’s modern bondage, of course, is one in which the lowliest serf earns $4.41 million per annum.)
I wonder if when the museum directors acquired Tissot’s work in 1900 (with the financial support of Brooklyn’s citizenry) they expected this treasure would be displayed so rarely.
I frequent the Brooklyn Museum’s website, and I don’t believe I’ve ever come across one of Tissot’s paintings of Jesus that doesn’t bear this legend: MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view.
Whether it’s the Metropolitan Museum (The MET) in New York or the Prado in Madrid or the Louvre in Paris, however, I’m mostly okay with a hidden collection, because art needs above all a home where each work will be preserved – and in which security is ironclad. The tragedy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum robbery of 1990 proves that second point.
I have no standing at The MET. My wife and I are members and know some people who work there. But I’m in no position to call up Daniel Weiss, The MET’s president, and ask for the keys to the storage areas. The MET owns 2,000,000 works of art, of which 490,000 are available for viewing online. But in the museum’s exhibit space, only a fraction of the collection is displayed, as this chart from the New York Times  shows:
The MET has “105,000 square feet of on-site storage” – nearly 2.5 acres where its hidden art is kept. It brings to mind the scene at the end of Raiders of Lost Ark in which we see the priceless, crated-up Ark of the Covenant put into storage in an “undisclosed location.”
Museum objects may be a large bronze statue like Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais  (1884-95), which is on display at The MET, or The Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right  (1510-13), a drawing of Our Lady by Leonardo da Vinci, a stunning, finished study of Mary for Leonardo’s unfinished painting The Virgin, the Child Jesus, and Saint Anne (1501-19). The MET drawing is the epitome of a work that needs to “live” in a cool, dark space. So of course, it’s “Not on view.”
Leonardo was a genius, a true Renaissance man, a great artist although not the greatest painter. To my mind, the greatest was Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi). And his short, wild life suggests two other kinds of hidden art: as in the Gardner Museum fiasco, stolen art; and, perhaps, unrecognized or mislabeled art.
Among the works stolen from the Gardner is Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), now missing for thirty-two years. Where is it? Perhaps in the hands of a criminal collector, who’ll keep the painting in a private room in his house where he – and only he – can look at it. And which will, we hope, come to light again upon the idiot’s death.
More compelling to me is the possibility that there’s a Caravaggio hanging on the wall of a villa outside of Rome or Florence, owned by one of Italy’s antiche famiglie, or a Vermeer in an Amsterdam attic of an old Catholic family.
In fact, we’re in the midst of just such a possible rediscovery. A painting, tentatively titled Crowning of Thorns or Coronation with Thorns (above), was assumed to be Spanish and about to be auctioned in Spain with an asking price of about $1500, when some art experts said, “Hold on!”
A recent statement from the Madrid regional government tells the tale: “The information that has appeared over the past few months, together with the studies undertaken by experts, reinforces the theory that it is the work of Caravaggio.”
It’s now being called Ecce Homo and is valued at as much as $150 million, although the authentication process is ongoing.
How will they know? I’m no expert, but one strong clue will come when the painting is x-rayed. Caravaggio’s “process” was unique: he just painted. In other words, he didn’t sketch on the canvas first. He set up the scenes with live models and worked quickly. And he always sought drama. Were he a 21st-century artist, he might eschew painting for moviemaking.
Among his most cinematic images is the 1602 Taking of Christ (below) The apostle John, far left, flees, as Judas embraces the Lord and soldiers press in.
Oh, and the man holding the lantern (his head on the far right) is the ever-observing Caravaggio himself.
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