Passion for Perfection: The Straus Collection of Renaissance Art     

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


Passion for Perfection: The Straus Collection of Renaissance Art     
In an act of utmost generosity, Edith A. and Percy S. Straus donated their renowned collection of the finest works of Renaissance art to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1941. Their philanthropy was unprecedented in the annals of the still very young museum and constituted a turning point not only for the institution but also for Houston as a cultural center. With a true passion for perfection, Percy Straus, who was chairman of Macy’s department store, consulted the most-renowned scholars of the day before acquiring these masterworks by Italian and Northern Renaissance artists. The collection was displayed in the Straus's elegant Park Avenue apartment, supplemented by a few later French and English works.

The Straus family with works of art that would later be included in the gift to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

The Paintings
The Straus Collection comprises some of the most beautiful late medieval and early Renaissance paintings at the MFAH. The collection is particularly strong in Italian works by well-known masters such as Fra Angelico, Giovanni di Paolo, and Sano di Pietro. Two anonymous artists have been named after their works now in the Straus Collection: Master of the Straus Madonna and Master of the Sienese Straus Madonna. The Northern artists include Lucas Cranach the Younger, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Memling, and Rogier van der Weyden.

This exceptionally fine depiction of the Virgin and Child was created by an anonymous master from Siena, who is named after the work—Master of the Sienese Straus Madonna. He adhered to the traditional use of the gold ground to denote the heavenly sphere occupied by the figures.

The rich patterns of the luxurious textiles were achieved by a technique known as sgraffito, in which the paint layer is incised and scraped away to reveal the gold ground below. Tempera, a medium consisting of pigments mixed with water and egg yolk, was commonly used in Italy before the introduction of oil paint in the 15th century.

The anonymous Florentine painter of this signature work—Master of the Straus Madonna—was named after the Straus Collection by Richard Offner, a renowned scholar of early Italian art and a close adviser to Percy Straus.

In a wonderful state of preservation and acknowledged as the artist's masterpiece, this Virgin and Child is distinguished for the superb patterning of the gold ground, striking combination of rich colors, and overall lyrical expression. The modeling of the figures demonstrates an awareness of early Renaissance developments in painting the human figure as a volume in space.

The magnificent frame is largely original. The inner colonnettes, however, may be later additions.

Fra Angelico (c. 1395–1455), one of the greatest masters of the Florentine Renaissance, took up Holy Orders in the Dominican convent in Fiesole, outside Florence, sometime between 1417 and 1425. So famous and beloved were his paintings that he became known as Beato Angelico (the “Blessed Angelico”).

This small work, probably part of a larger altarpiece, depicts an episode from the life of Saint Anthony Abbot (c. 251–356), who is regarded as the founder of monasticism. Anthony, a hermit, was troubled by vivid hallucinations, such as the devil tempting him with luxuries like the huge mass of gold depicted here.

This painting depicts the Old Testament encounter between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (I Kings 10:1–13). She traveled with a large retinue and a rich tribute of spices, gold, and precious stones to test the wisdom of the Israelite king.

The work was originally used as a ceremonial salver (serving tray), commissioned to commemorate a birth. The practice of giving such paintings as gifts was common in the humanist courts of Italy during the 15th century.

This exquisite narrative panel, probably part of a more-extensive wall decoration for a bedchamber or study, was painted by Bernardino Fungai (1460–1516). Documentation shows that in 1482 Fungai—a native of Siena—was a pupil of Benvenuto di Giovanni, with whom Fungai worked on frescoes for the cathedral of Siena.

The story depicted here may be based on an obscure myth that recounts the sacrifice and rescue of the woman beloved by Enalus, a figure associated with the cult of Poseidon or Neptune, whose youthful representation is central to the panel.

The fluid waves of this young woman’s blond hair, and the sinuous coil of her translucent head scarf, call to mind the work of Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), one of the most beloved Renaissance masters.

In this painting, Botticelli's talented follower, Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1466–1524), renders the sitter in a profile view typical of early Renaissance portraiture. By sensitively capturing the play of light and shadow over her eyes and mouth, the artist gives them a sensuous beauty. Although her garments identify her as a wealthy Florentine, her name remains a mystery.

Bartolomeo Veneto (active by 1502–died 1531) specialized in half-length portraits of young men dressed in the fashion of the day. Seen in front of a vivid red curtain, this anonymous sitter wears a brilliantly white shirt that contrasts with the expensive, fur-trimmed black coat.

The knob of the dagger in his left hand echoes the gold in the trim of the jacket. The hat badge depicting a winged ox, the symbol of Saint Luke, may refer to the young man's name, or to his affiliation with a particular association or group.

Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1399–1464) is generally considered one of the two greatest Netherlandish artists of the 15th century, along with Jan van Eyck (active by 1422–died 1441). This tender representation of the embracing Virgin and Child evokes van der Weyden's superlative drawing skills, his feel for design, and his unrivaled handling of oil paint. The rendering of the Christ Child turning toward Mary and pressing his cheek to hers is typical of the artist’s ability to convey, with startling realism, the emotional reactions of his figures.

Infrared reflectography reveals that a number of changes were made to the composition as it was painted, especially in the Virgin's cloak and the positioning of her hands. These "pentimenti" suggest that Rogier van der Weyden painted the work himself.

In this close-up, you can see in detail the tender motion of the Christ Child pressing his cheek to his mother's. Note how her cheek is pushed down at the edge of her lips.

This tour-de-force print is the largest engraving that Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) ever produced and is superb in its craftsmanship, richness of detail, and poetic treatment of nature. The work depicts the legendary Roman general Placidus. While on a hunt, the pagan general encountered a stag with an image between its antlers of Christ on the cross. Placidus fell off his horse and was inspired to convert to Christianity, adopting the name Saint Eustace.

Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586) grew up in the extremely successful workshop of his father, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553). The younger Cranach emulated his father’s style so closely that it is often difficult to distinguish their work. But Max Friedländer, who was the foremost authority on Northern painting and who advised Percy Straus, recognized this oil painting as a work by the son.

Characteristically, while remaining faithful to his father’s idealized figures of Adam and Eve, Lucas Cranach the Younger preferred a lighter, more delicately handled landscape.

This drawing is fully finished, indicating that it was not made in preparation for the painting, but for some other purpose. The inscription at the bottom confirms the drawing as a work by Lucas Cranach the Younger, son of Lucas the Elder, who is also known for being the painter of the Elector of Saxony.

Hans Memling (1430/40–1494) painted this portrait in oil, a technique that had only recently been developed. Binding pigments with oil—usually linseed oil—allowed for a much more subtle blending of colors. It also allowed the artist to use thinner layers than had been possible in the older tempera technique, where egg yolk and water act as emollients. This new development enabled painters to depict the natural world in much greater detail and with a heightened sense of naturalism.

A companion painting of the sitter's husband can be found in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The two portraits likely formed a diptych consisting of two panels hinged and facing one another, like the pages of a book.

Renaissance Bronzes
Many humanist scholars and their aristocratic patrons collected and prized small bronzes inspired by antique sculptures. These exquisite works, often small enough to be held in one hand, were generally kept in the collectors' studies, to aid the contemplation of ancient texts newly translated from Latin or Greek, or simply to be admired for their own beauty. 

Antonio Susini (active 1580–1624) was the chief assistant to Giambologna (1529–1608), the most celebrated sculptor in Florence after Michelangelo’s death in 1564. This beautiful bronze, with its stylized drapery, was long attributed to Giambologna, but a detailed posthumous inventory of the works in the collection of Susini’s patron Jacopo Salviati lists the bronze as having been designed and cast by Susini. The work is a testament to Susuini's artistic and technical proficiency and was probably made around 1600 when Susini opened his own workshop.

Antico, famous for his sensitive interpretation of antique statuary, shows Hercules resting on his club after the moment of victory. In "Hercules resting after the Battle with the Nemean Lion" the hero's idealized nude body with its elegantly elongated legs stands with crossed feet over the dead lion, whose mane is rendered in marvelous detail. Note how the lion’s head overlaps the frame at right, adding a sense of three-dimensionality to the plaque.

This idealized head of a young boy is identified as John the Baptist by the fringed shirt he wears, alluding to the saint's later life in the desert.

Satyrs are mythological creatures—half goat, half man—and renowned for their crude behavior. This satyr, with his hands bound behind his back, is seated on a pedestal ornamented with a sphinxlike creature.

The intricate carving of this figure suggests that, despite its small size, the work was an important commission. Originally it would have been the central sculpture of a Trinity: this figure of God the Father supporting a cross, with the crucified Christ and a figure of the Holy Spirit, represented by a dove, descending from above. Because medieval religious practice focused on closeness to God, small sculptures like this one became hugely popular and were used for private devotion in the home.

Credits: Story

● Helga Aurisch, curator, European art, MFAH
● Michelle Packer, curatorial intern, MFAH
● Dena Woodall, associate curator, prints and drawings, MFAH

● Matt Lawson, digital assets administrator, MFAH

● Straus Historical Society
● Maryan Ainsworth, curator, European paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photography of Straus family courtesy of the Straus Historical Society

MFAH object photography by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Infrared reflectogram by Matthew Golden, conservation imaging specialist, MFAH

Credits: All media
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