A Great Year for Significant Acquisitions
In 2010, the Birmingham Museum of Art added strength and depth to our collection with substantial acquisitions of sculpture, paintings, and decorative arts. Among the new acquisitions are a 15th century marble relief from outstanding Florentine sculptor Mino da Fiesole, and a striking landscape by one of the most important African-American painters of the 19th Century, Robert S. Duncanson.
Those acquisitions were highlights in a year that also saw the Museum collection growing with the addition of an Italian sixteenth century bust of Doge Leonardo Loredan, a fascinating assortment of Danish ceramics, and an important painting by Charles Alston, a member of the Spiral Collective of African-American artists in the 1960s.
PROFILE OF A YOUNG WOMAN
Thanks to an exceedingly generous bequest from the late Nina Miglionico, a longtime Birmingham citizen, politician, and attorney, the Museum has acquired an exquisite Renaissance marble relief carved by the outstanding Florentine sculptor Mino da Fiesole (1429-1484) of a young woman in classical Roman dress.
“The bequest was a complete surprise to the Museum, to our obvious delight and immense appreciation,” said Jeannine O’Grody, Ph.D., Chief Curator and Curator of European Art. “It allowed us to purchase an extraordinary object that is now the centerpiece of the fifteenth-century gallery. The impact of Miss Nina’s generosity has had a transformative effect on our Italian collection."
The relief, one of two works Miglionico’s bequest has secured,* also speaks volumes about Miss Nina herself, according to those who knew her. “The elegant and idealized representation of the woman in the piece reminded me of Miss Nina's determination and self-confidence,” said attorney Sam Rumore, a long-time friend and law partner of Miglionico.
*The other acquisition was a majolica plate from ca. 1589/90 depicting the Emperor Julius Caesar offering food and wine to the Roman people. It was produced in the Workshop of Antonio Patanazzi, probably based on a drawing by the artist Taddeo Zuccaro (1529-66).
The relief is a work of considerable importance. When it was presented for sale in New York last year, The New York Times called it “a standout,” and a “wonder,” noting that the relief “is real and ideal in equal parts.” BMA Director Gail Andrews called the relief “glorious,” adding that “the significance of this addition to our collection of Renaissance art cannot be overstated.”
The treatment of the subject matter is evidence of the artist’s engagement with the antiquities of Rome. Mino worked primarily in that city and Florence, although his many commissions around Tuscany and as far south as Naples testify to the esteem with which he was held. He particularly excelled in relief carving and in portraiture. Mino’s subtle carving of the woman’s delicate features gives the impression of fullness that is difficult to achieve and atypical in a relief. Scholars continue to debate whether the subject is an idealized portrait of an actual person or a generic type.
Miss Nina herself was unique in the history of Birmingham. Born in 1914, Miglionico was the first woman elected to the Birmingham City Council where she served for 22 years (1963-1985) including four years (1978-1981) as council president.
In her exceptional civic career, she became one of the first women admitted to the Alabama Bar Association; served as president of the National Association of Women Lawyers (1958-1959); and was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Miss Nina was a dedicated public servant who fought for civil rights, education, and women’s issues.
She is remembered at the Museum as a regular visitor who relished looking intently at art. "Those of us who were fortunate enough to know Miss Nina knew her dignity, wisdom, courage and respect for humanity," said Gail Andrews, director of the Museum. "As a frequent visitor and long-time member of the Museum of Art we also knew her belief in the power of art. This appreciation for, as she often said, "what makes us human" lives through her actions and now through this beautiful sculpture made possible by her generous bequest."
A DREAM OF ITALY
Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), one of the most significant African-American artists of the nineteenth century, painted A Dream of Italy in 1865, the same year as Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, the anchor of the Museum’s American collection. Recently, Duncanson’s work has been displayed in the Museum’s exhibition, A Masterpiece in Our Midst, along with the work of contemporaries including Thomas Cole.
Duncanson’s work brings a new element to the Museum’s already-strong holdings of landscapes and Italian subject matter, according to Graham C. Boettcher, Ph.D., The William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art. “I have been looking to acquire a significant example of Duncanson’s work ever since I arrived at the Museum in 2006,” Boettcher said.
“Everything that came up at auction was either minor or had condition issues, and I didn’t want to add something to the collection that wasn’t his very best work. I nearly fell over when I saw A Dream of Italy in a New York gallery. It has been in private hands for the past twenty-five years and I never dreamed it would be available for purchase.”
Duncanson, the descendant of former slaves from Virginia, was born in Fayette, New York. In 1828, the family moved to Monroe, Michigan, where Robert, along with his brothers, were apprenticed in the family business of house painting, decorating, and carpentry. Around 1840, Duncanson relocated to Cincinnati to pursue a career as an artist. At that time, Cincinnati—known as the “Athens of the West”—offered a vibrant cultural environment, as well as one of largest communities of “free colored persons” in the country. It was also home to an active community of white abolitionists, many of whom would become Duncanson’s patrons.
After a slow start, Duncanson eventually began receiving commissions for portraits, but found his greatest success when he turned his attention to landscape painting. In 1853, Duncanson traveled to Italy with two other Cincinnati artists, William Louis Sonntag and John Tait. When he returned home the following year, Duncanson began a series of romanticized landscapes based on his time in Italy. Duncanson continued to enjoy critical success, and in 1861, one critic hailed him as “the best landscape painter in the West.”
In 1863, owing to the growing racial strife stirred by the Civil War, Duncanson moved to Montreal, where he remained until after the war. In Canada, as one contemporary reviewer noted, Duncanson’s “color did not prevent his association with other artists and his entrance into good society.” A Dream of Italy is among the most significant works Duncanson painted during his exile. Given the turmoil in Duncanson’s native land at the time he painted this, it is difficult not to read A Dream of Italy as the artist’s longing for a place of peace and serenity.