With a collection comprising more than 11,000 objects focusing on European art from the 14th to 19th Century, Asian art, and Modern Art, Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum of Art showcases the vision and wealth of its namesake, American industrialist and native Californian, Norton Simon. Simon, an avid collector who died in 1993, had entered into an agreement twenty years earlier with the financially strapped Pasadena Museum of Modern Art to house his vast collection.
The museum’s Rembrandt collection totals more than three hundred prints, including portraiture, genre, stories from the Bible, and landscape. Due to the fragile nature of works on paper and their sensitivity to light, Rembrandt’s etchings are shown on a rotating basis in special exhibitions. The museum mounts temporary exhibitions that focus on a particular artist, an art movement or artistic period, or art that was created in a specific region or country, as well as having many notable works on permanent display.
Coming up in 2013: In celebration of October’s Hispanic and Latino Heritage Month, the exhibition running September 13 through November 4 will be devoted to Latino artists, including Diego Rivera, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Rufino Tamayo, José Luis Cuevas, and Ángel Bracho, as well as South Americans Roberto Matta (from Chile), Gego (also known as Gertrud Goldschmidt, from Venezuela), and Antonio Frasconi (from Uruguay). This will be followed in December by a Goya exhibition from the museum’s collection, and Goya’s Don Pedro, Duque de Osuna, on loan from the Frick Collection in New York.
Along with temporary exhibitions, the Norton Simon Museum has between 800-900 pieces on display at any one time. These pieces include a portrait by one of the most pioneering artists of the late 18th Century: Marie-Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, who was court painter–and confidante–to Queen Marie-Antoinette at a time when few women painted, yet alone made a living doing so. Trained by her father who died when she was 12, and mentored by his friends, Elisabeth Vigée began painting professionally in her teens, but her studio was seized, as she did not have the required license to paint. At age 21 she married a painter and art dealer, Pierre LeBrun, and determinedly applied to the Académie de Saint Luc. Her work was not without controversy for the period: In one of her self-portraits, she painted herself showing her teeth as she smiled, considered scandalous at the time. As well, rumors were spread that the finance minister, Calonne, was her lover, and that she had used her influence with the Queen and court to gain admittance into the Academie Royale.
Narrowly escaping Paris at the height of the French Revolution, Vigée-LeBrun brought her young daughter, Julie with her as she traveled across Europe, earning her way by painting nobility. She would divorce her wastrel, alcoholic husband in 1794 and gained increasing financial stability through her art. She spent six years in St. Petersburg at the court of Catherine the Great of Russia, and when her French citizenship was restored under the reign of Napoleon I, Vigée LeBrun returned to her homeland, where she stayed briefly before departing for London. She was much in demand there, painting Lady Sarah Hamilton, Lord Byron, and the Crown Prince among others.
Vigée-Lebrun died in Paris in 1842, having painted over 660 portraits and 220 landscapes in her travels, as well as publishing her memoirs, which beautifully record the transition from the 18th to the 19th century, much as her paintings reflect the changes through pose, dress, and expression. Theresa, Countess Kinsky, painted in Vienna in 1793, hangs at the Norton Simon Museum of Art.The story behind Countess Kinsky’s shy smile is quite sad: She was abandoned immediately after her arranged marriage when her new husband, Count Kinsky, leapt on his horse following the ceremony and headed back to his mistress.
The museum also houses an extensive collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, with seminal works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Diego Rivera on permanent view. A strong collection of Californian art from the 1950s through the 1970s includes works by Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, Larry Bell, Edward Ruscha and Ed Moses. Pop Art and Minimal Art are represented by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and Robert Irwin.
The Norton Simon Museum of Art was originally designed by architects Thornton Ladd and John Kelsey in 1964, and underwent a major interior renovation Frank Ghery in 1996 to 1999. The surrounding 79,000-square-foot gardens feature a pond, waterfalls and streams as well beautifully integrated sculptures, and include more than 180 species of plants.
Top image: © Norton Simon Art Foundation
Norton Simon Museum of Art
411 W. Colorado Boulevard
Pasadena, CA 91105-1825
Open Sunday through Monday, noon-6pm
Admission, $10 general; $7 seniors; free for those under 18 years old, and free for all visitors the first Friday of every month from 6pm to 9pm.