Stories from the Print Collection of Drs. Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Many of the rich holdings of Old Master and Early Modern works on paper in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, arrived thanks to the generosity of Drs. Marjorie G. (born 1917) and Evan C. Horning (1916–1993), two biochemists who shared a passion for collecting art, especially prints. What started as a leisure pursuit has had a major impact beyond the Hornings’ private collection: The doctors’ first gift to the MFAH more than 40 years ago helped to establish what is today the Museum’s department of prints and drawings. Their legacy continues to enrich the collection through purchases made possible by gifts and funds. Truly a Renaissance couple, these two scientists not only made substantial contributions to advance the field of biochemistry, but also had a profound impact upon the cultural offerings of the city of Houston and beyond.
Each print in this section illustrates a scene from a larger story, vividly relaying its own chapter through rich visual imagery and striking composition. Two prints depict scenes from the New Testament, and another work illustrates a mythological tale from the life of Hercules.
The "Nouveau Testament" etchings are small—less than 3x4 inches—but are highly detailed and compellingly dramatic. Although its subject is religious, "The Conversion of Saint Paul" is as theatrical as some of Callot’s secular prints of pageantry. Callot shows the exact moment of revelation at its most dramatic: Clouds break as men and horses scatter, emphasizing the power the vision would have on Paul, who was to become an important apostle of Christ.
Although this may appear to be a scene of attempted seduction, the temptress’s perfume might instead allude to enlightenment: Perfumes were associated with the scent of God and were thought to encourage religious sense. Perhaps the temptress’s offer is not herself, but rather easy access to religious understanding by means of the mystical fragrance.
A peculiar story that does not appear in any accounts of Aristotle’s life, the subject of this print may result from conflict between two intellectual movements in 15th-century Germany: the Via Antiqua, who followed Aristotle's belief that humans were able to prove things only through prior universal knowledge from a greater power; and the Via Moderna, who emphasized logic and scientific research as a means to proof and understanding.
In this print, the Master aligns himself with the Via Moderna movement, lampooning Aristotle by reducing the revered scholar to a frivolous plaything ruled by desire for a woman’s attention. The message becomes clear: It is dangerous to follow too closely the writings of the ancients, for even they were mere humans.
When the time came for the ceremony, five of the virgins were prepared with their lamps and the oil needed for the lights to shine. The other five, however, neglected to bring lamp oil and were denied a share from the prepared virgins. Rejected and crestfallen, the “foolish” virgins without lamp oil were excluded from the festivities. The parable thus teaches the importance of readiness, with an underlying lesson on the need for preparedness of the spirit for the eventual return of God to Earth.
The busy processional in the background is also a group of star singers, named for the large paper star they carried on a pole, seen here illuminating the velvety darkness by a kings’ candle. Some in the group wear paper crowns, meant to mock King Herod, who was hostile toward God after the birth of Christ.
Images of monkeys behaving or dressed as nobility were intended to be amusing, but also functioned as subtle commentary on the social structure of the Netherlands during the period. Commoners, who could elevate their social status through work, government positions, and land ownership, aspired to become like the nobility, and engaged in elite social behaviors in order to do so. Their aspiration may be the real subject of this print.
While the rotund, bound sow rests, a family prepares for the animal’s slaughter, which will provide sustenance for the winter ahead. A man gathers utensils in a basket, and a boy plays with an inflated pig’s bladder, an item commonly used as a child’s toy. The animal’s grim future is clear. Perhaps intended as a memento mori, or a reminder of mortality, Rembrandt’s print subtly reminds the viewer of the brevity of life.
"A Renaissance Couple: Stories from the Print Collection of Drs. Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston" was organized by Claire Spadafora, the 2015-2016 Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Interpretation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). The Hog (Le cochon), 1643. Etching on laid paper, state II/III. Plate: 5 3/4 × 7 1/4 in. (14.6 × 18.4 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning 74.282
Jan van Somer (Dutch, c. 1645–after 1699), possibly published by John Smith (English, 1652–1743). The Owl, the Monkey and the Cat, mid–late 17th century, possibly 1668–167. Mezzotint on white laid paper, proof before lettering. Plate: 5 7/8 × 7 7/16 in. (14.9 × 18.9 cm) Sheet: 5 3/4 × 7 9/16 in. (14.6 × 19.2 cm). Gift of Dr. Marjorie G. Horning, 2013.587.
Jan van de Velde II (Dutch, c. 1593–1641), after Pieter de Molijn (Dutch, 1595–1661), published by Claes Jansz. Visscher the Younger (Dutch, 1586–1652). The Star of the Kings, A Night Piece, c. 1630. Engraving on cream laid paper, state II/IV. Plate: 8 × 7 1/4 in. (20.2 × 18.4 cm) Sheet: 8 1/16 × 7 3/8 in. (20.5 × 18.4 cm) Frame (outer): 16 3/4 × 14 7/8 in. (42.5 × 37.8 cm). Gift of Dr. Marjorie G. Horning, 2013.588
Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528). Christ in Limbo from The Small Engraved Passion, 1512. Engraving on laid paper. Plate: 4 5/8 × 3 in. (11.7 × 7.6 cm) Sheet: 4 5/8 × 3 in. (11.7 × 7.6 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 75.582.5.
Hans Sebald Beham (German, 1500–1550). Hercules Slaying the Hydra, from The Labors of Hercules, 1545. Engraving on laid paper. Plate/Sheet: 2 1/16 × 3 1/16 in. (5.2 × 7.8 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 83.306.
Jacques Callot (French, 1592–1635). The Conversion of St. Paul from The New Testament, 1635. Etching on laid paper. Plate: 2 11/16 × 3 7/16 in. (6.8 × 8.7 cm) Sheet: 3 1/16 × 3 7/8 in. (7.7 × 9.9 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 78.241.11.
Master of the Housebook (South German, active c. 1465–1500). Aristotle and Phyllis, 1500s. Drypoint on laid paper. Plate: 6 1/16 × 6 1/16 in. (15.4 × 15.4 cm) Sheet: 9 15/16 × 7 15/16 in. (25.3 × 20.2 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 91.1919.
Lucas Huygensz. van Leyden (Dutch, 1489/94–1533). The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1509. Engraving on laid paper. Plate: 7 3/16 × 5 3/4 in. (18.3 × 14.6 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 74.270.
Martin Schongauer (German, 1445/50–1491). The Fifth Foolish Virgin, from the series Wise and Foolish Virgins, c. 1490. Engraving on laid paper. Plate/Sheet: 4 9/16 × 2 1/2 in. (11.6 × 6.4 cm). Gift of Marjorie G. and Evan C. Horning, 92.95.
Gascoigne, Bamber. "How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Ink-Jet." Thames and Hudson, 1986.
Suzuki, Sarah. "What Is a Print? Selections from the Museum of Modern Art." The Museum of Modern Art, 2011.