First-ever Francesco De Mura retrospective enriches the Chazen’s season

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Cardinal Antonio Sersale peers from his portrait as if he were caught in mid-thought, his left hand toying with a cross of dark gemstones hanging from his neck. His mouth is firmly set. His eyes burn with an inner light, looking back at the viewer almost as if the good cardinal is anticipating a comment or question of some importance.

The stunning interplay of light and shadow, of color and content is the work of Francesco de Mura, the greatest artist you’ve never heard of.

In the Light of Naples: The Art of Francesco de Mura — a first-ever retrospective of more than 40 canvases and drawings by the Italian Baroque master — is on display through April 2 at the Chazen Museum of Art on the UW-Madison campus.

The “Portrait of Cardinal Antonio Sersale” (1756) is on loan from the Milwaukee Art Museum, one of 30 museums and private collections tapped for the exhibit. Other works came from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy, and others. The exhibition also features two paintings from the Chazen’s collection.

Working in the latter half of the 18th century, de Mura was the last in a line of Baroque artists that included Caravaggio, Bernini and Francesco Solimena, de Mura’s teacher. The artist’s work reflects the best techniques of his peers in the late Baroque’s Rococo period, while exhibiting a lightness of being that served as a bridge to the simpler, airier works of Neoclassicism, the period that followed.

Although prodigious in his output — he is credited with more than 400 paintings, drawings and frescos — de Mura until recently remained largely unknown to contemporary art historians, says exhibit curator Arthur Blumenthal, an expert in Italian Baroque art.

The Allied bombing of Naples during World War II destroyed nearly a third of de Mura’s work, Blumenthal says. The losses included the artist’s famous frescos at the abbey of Monte Cassino. Fortunately, the Chazen exhibition includes oil sketches of those lost frescos.

Much of de Mura’s other work already had been dispersed far and wide by the Pio Monte della Misericordia, the charitable organization to which the artist bequeathed his entire studio and 192 works of his art when he died in 1782.

Francesco de Mura
“The Trinity” by Francesco de Mura, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches, from the collection of Federico Castelluccio.

The exhibit traces the influence of the charity, which sold de Mura’s paintings to raise money to support its work. Four of the paintings sold are part of the Chazen exhibit.

Due to such circumstances, de Mura’s work largely escaped the art world’s critical eye, says Blumenthal, director emeritus of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. The museum owns de Mura’s “The Visitation,” the first of the artist’s work to attract the curator’s attention.

“I saw the painting and I loved it,” Blumenthal says. “I am an Italian Baroque specialist and I had never heard of de Mura, which was the raison d’etre for the show.”

Blumenthal brought the exhibit to the Chazen, one of several college art museums to host the show, because of his past association with the institution. Blumenthal, who turns 75 in May, served as the Chazen’s first curator from 1968 to 1974, when it was known as the Elvehjem Museum of Art.

After 50 years in the business, Blumenthal says the de Mura show will be the final exhibition of his career. The art historian has come full circle in his return to Madison and is happy he can introduce the works of a forgotten master to new generations of art lovers.

“De Mura was a wonderful colorist and created wonderful compositions,” Blumenthal says. “His brushwork and draftsmanship are fabulous and he could draw the human figure and its implied movement like no one else.”

De Mura worked in Naples surrounded by a burgeoning theatrical and opera scene, and those influences led him to create the almost theatrical staging in paintings such as “The Visitation.”

“The beauty of his work is hard to explain,” Blumenthal says. “But it’s amazing how accessible his work is to modern audiences. I am pleased that we are finally giving this richly deserving artist his due.”

In the Light of Naples: The Art of Francesco de Mura was organized and exhibited at the Rollins Museum before arriving in Madison. After the exhibit closes April 2, it will travel to the Frances Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

On Exhibit

In the Light of Naples: The Art of Francesco de Mura is on display at the University of Wisconsin’s Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., Madison, through April 2. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information, visit chazen.wisc.edu.