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James ‘Athenian’ Stuart,1713–1788: The Rediscovery of Antiquity November 30, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Americas.

In the middle of the 18th century, when European artists were just beginning to get interested in Hellenic art, an interest dovetailing with the Enlightenment’s promotion of ordered, rational ideals, James “Athenian” Stuart had beaten them to the punch.

The English designer, architect, and selfproclaimed “learned and curious person” had already traveled extensively throughout Greece, with artist Nicholas Revett, between 1751 and 1753. Stuart and Revett rigorously measured and accurately recorded, for the first time, ancient Greek temples, monuments, and ruins. Their modest goal was to uncover new decorative elements by tapping the “primary sources” of antiquity. Instead, they unwittingly sewed the seeds of a full-blown Greek revival in the applied arts.

Stuart, along with other 18th-century notables such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, was one of the first European advocates of ancient Greek art. His travels abroad made him one of the first artists to draw directly from Greek ruins, a fact that bestowed his images with an unassailable authenticity. In England, his designs for buildings, interiors, and furniture were some of the first instances of this newly acquired lexicon of Grecian decorative motifs used in daily practice. But unlike other historical persons who achieved landmark firsts, Stuart has remained relatively unknown.

Perhaps the exhibition “James ‘Athenian’ Stuart,1713–1788: The Rediscovery of Antiquity,” at the Bard Graduate Center, will spark the rediscovery of James Stuart.

Curated by the founder and director of the Bard Graduate Center, Susan Weber Soros, this exhibition exemplifies what the Bard Graduate Center does best. Though not without its flaws, the show reflects Bard’s roots as an educational institution. Shows at Bard are based on a belief in, and commitment to, elucidating historically important art and artists, regardless of their potential blockbuster status, in a way that is not only intellectually rigorous, but is always made accessible through detail-oriented installation. For the Stuart exhibition, this detail takes the form of numerous documentary photographs and videos that help flesh out Stuart’s own drawings, etchings, designs for buildings and interiors, furniture, vases, and even medals. More than 180 works, sprawled over three floors, are used to broaden the viewer’s understanding of James “Athenian” Stuart.

The work for which Stuart is perhaps best known is the three-volume “The Antiquities of Athens,” published in 1762, 1789, and 1795. These volumes, containing etchings Stuart made based on the piles of drawings he produced while in Greece with Revett, became a standard neoclassical design sourcebook in the 19th century. Eighteen of these on-site gouache drawings are on view here. The experience of the drawings is one part travelogue plus one part academic archaeology, adding up to an intimately personal, yet vicarious, Grand Tour.

From a “View of the Amphitheatre at Pola From the West” (1750s–60s) to a “View of the Gate of Athene Archegetis, Athens” (1750s–60s), these drawings depict the ruins against unbelievably crisp, blue skies, and often with groups of figures mingling among them, lending a sense of scale to the structures.

Relating less to the refined watercolors of Paul Sandby (1730–1809), Stuart’s drawings do feel more like the objective, literal records they were meant to be, rather than individualized works of art. His detailed attention to the native dress of his figures produces a kind of ethnographic record. Amazingly, some of these drawings are the only remaining images of ancient structures no longer standing, such as the Temple on the Ilissus River, destroyed by the Turks in 1778.

On view alongside these drawings are copies of the first volume of “The Antiquities of Athens,” one of which is shown closed to display the gold-tooled, red morocco leather presentation binding Stuart designed. This type of binding was a rarity, ahead of its time in the area of bookbinding for its use of neoclassical elements such as palmettes and anthemion.

Stuart’s accomplishments run deeper than his documentation of antiquarian architecture. He was a tastemaker, renowned in his time as a connoisseur of classical style whose objects, interiors, and buildings were based on the ideals of the Greek aesthetic. The large, elegantly proportioned copper “Plate warmer” (1760), designed for Kedleston Hall, feels like a summation of Stuart’s ideas, and at the time was one of the most ambitious gilt-metal objects attempted. A large pine-cone shaped body, resting on a base of three sphinxes, is decorated with a band of statuesque Greek youths. Their elongated bodies create a geometric dynamo stretching the eye upward, creating a sense of power and order, while their interlocked hands zigzag around the plate warmer’s volume.

His designs for the famed Spencer House (1758–66), one of the most important neoclassical interiors in England, include what is known as the Painted Room. Here, Stuart applied the first example of grotesche, decorative arabesque with interlaced garlands, popular as frescoes in ancient Rome, to both wall and ceiling, creating a perfectly pitched horror vacui of classical motifs.

Also on view are two furniture pieces from the suite Stuart designed for this room. Working with basic French shapes, he added gilt, animal-inspired legs and wings, and even lions’ heads, all based on ancient seating models, creating some of the first English neoclassical-style furniture.

Stuart was not as ambitious with his career as his well-known contemporary, Robert Adam. He apparently cared little about financial success and did not actively seek new commissions, content instead with the occasional support from fellow members of the Society of Dilettanti. Later in life, his hands became plagued with gout and he was accused of “Epicureanism”, polite code for being a drunk, both of which led to many unexecuted designs. He was, however, in the right place at the right time, for his radical ideas about mining the antique for new models were on the forefront of the Enlightenment’s cultural sea change banishing the vacuous gushings of rococo. Too bad for us he never fulfilled the potential of this new, stringent style.

Until February 11, at 18 W. 86th St. at Central Park West, 212-501-3000.

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