Get to Know Sonia Del Re
Sonia Del Re, Associate Curator of European, American, and Asian Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery
Dr. Sonia Del Re is Associate Curator of European, American, and Asian Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery, and oversees a collection of about 15 000 works on paper. She has curated exhibitions across the country based on the national collection, including Beautiful Monsters: Beasts and Fantastic Creatures in Early European Prints; Storms and Bright Skies: Three Centuries of Dutch Landscapes; The Noble Art of the Carracci and their School; and Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé. She was coordinating curator for the recent exhibition M. C. Escher: The Mathemagician and is curator of Beauty's Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and Their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection, as well as editor of the exhibition catalogue.
Beauty's Awakening is based on Victorian works collected over more than thirty years by Saskatoon-based oral and maxillofacial surgeon Dr. Dennis T. Lanigan. Planning for the exhibition began in 2014, when Dr. Lanigan signalled his interest in making a large donation to the NGC. The exhibition features more than 120 works by well-known artists of the 19th century, including such leading lights as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Frederick Leighton. Reflecting the flair and diversity of Victorian draftsmanship — as seen through the eyes of a gifted collector — Beauty’s Awakening is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until January 3, 2016.
NGC Magazine: How did the exhibition originally come about?
Sonia Del Re: Dr. Lanigan has been donating works from his collection to the NGC since 1997. From 2003 on, he has made a yearly gift in support of the Gallery’s commitment to the conservation and display of Old Master drawings and prints. More recently, he pledged to transfer eighty of his best sheets to the national collection, so that our institution may become a centre for the study of Victorian art. To honour his generosity and to share this extraordinary gift with the Canadian public, as well as with fans and scholars of the Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries abroad, the NGC has put together a display of 115 drawings from the Lanigan Collection that have either been donated or promised to us.
NGCM: Were archival and/or research sources a problem at all?
SDR: Not really. During forty years of collecting British works from the Victorian era, Dr. Lanigan has become very knowledgeable in this field and has researched every work he purchased as much as possible, producing a detailed catalogue record for each as he went along. That’s the beauty of working with such a meticulous collector: in most instances, the works are already well documented. Occasionally, however, the artists are a bit more obscure, usually due to an untimely death, making it difficult to ascertain much about their work. But this, it turns out, is also one of the strengths of the Lanigan Collection, in that it includes a wide range of artists, giving us a panoramic overview of the Victorian art world.
NGCM: Was there any particular moment or discovery that stood out for you while developing the exhibition?
SDR: I was surprised to unearth so many intricate connections between the NGC’s history, the Victorian art world and the Lanigan Collection. I will talk about the different ways in which these three entities are interrelated during our tour. To give you a brief example, Lord Frederick Leighton — whose home, now the Leighton House Museum, will host our show after it closes in Ottawa — appears to have been the very first non-Canadian artist collected by the NGC. In fact, Leighton himself donated one of his paintings to us at the request of his friends and our founders, the Marquess of Lorne (our Governor General at the time) and his wife, Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria (after whom the Victorian era is named). This occurred in 1882, just two years after the foundation of the NGC. It also happens that Leighton was the very first British painter collected by Dr. Lanigan back in 1982, exactly one hundred years after the arrival at the NGC of the first work by Leighton.
Edward Burne-Jones, Study for the Slave in “The Wheel of Fortune” (c. 1875–83), black chalk with wet brush on laid paper, 29.8 × 16.1 cm. Lanigan Collection, Saskatoon. Promised gift to the National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC
NGCM: Do you have a favourite work or works in the exhibition?
SDR: I do! I’m always astonished by The Wheel of Fortune (1883), a small study of a male nude in black chalk produced by Edward Burne-Jones in preparation for his famous painting at the Musée d’Orsay. As one of the most successful Pre-Raphaelite painters, Burne-Jones had access to the best and most intriguing models. For the two male characters in this large canvas, he chose Antonio Corsi, an Italian émigré with a distinctive face and pleasing anatomy, who earned his livelihood posing for prosperous artists in London. His face and body appear on many 19th-century masterpieces of painting and sculpture. In fact, he posed for one of the National Gallery of Canada’s founders, Princess Louise, a trained sculptor.
Corsi notes in his records that, on a day spent sitting for the Princess, Queen Victoria herself visited the studio and chatted with him. In addition to his fascinating looks, Corsi was also favoured for his great ability to hold a pose for long periods — an excruciating task. This is evident in the study of him by Burne-Jones in Beauty’s Awakening, where he has one leg and one arm up in a somewhat contorted pose that is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s celebrated slave sculptures. As much as Corsi’s strength and intensity are on display in this sheet, Burne-Jones manages to convey the helplessness of the slave, tied to the wheel that the goddess Fortuna spins to bestow good or bad fortune.
NGCM: Do you have a favourite story or anecdote about any of the artists in the exhibition?
SDR: Indeed. The eccentric lives led by the Pre-Raphaelites were a hot topic of conversation while we were working on the exhibition catalogue. Most famously, Dante Gabriel Rossetti — one of the three founding members of the PRB (as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is known among specialists) — grew more peculiar with age, especially after his wife, artist and artists’ model, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, died of an overdose of laudanum, a potent opiate-based narcotic. In addition to other bizarre behaviour, he began collecting, so to speak, a whole menagerie of exotic animals, including kangaroos, peacocks, armadillos and a Canadian groundhog! Among his most beloved was a female wombat named Top, who was apparently allowed to sleep in the centrepiece of the dining table during meals. When she died, Rossetti had her stuffed and displayed in his home; a famous satirical self-portrait depicts him mourning over Top’s carcass. Eventually, and not unlike Siddal, Rossetti died of complications from addiction; it is said that his cocktail of choice was a mix of whisky and chloral, another hypnotic sedative. That said, as Beauty’s Awakening highlights, Rossetti was a virtuoso draughtsman, a true genius — or mad genius, perhaps.
NGCM: What other kinds of insights will you and Dr. Lanigan be sharing with visitors during your Meet the Experts tour?
SDR: The tour will be peppered with other colourful anecdotes and scandalous affairs, giving visitors a glimpse of the captivating social context in which the featured works were created. I’ll also explain the origin of the exhibition title Beauty’s Awakening and its significance in relation to the collecting history of the Gallery. For his part, Dr. Lanigan will describe his journey as a collector and answer questions from members of the public. So it won’t just be an intellectually stimulating tour, it will also be a rather personal and intimate experience. Dr. Lanigan and his wife normally live with these works in their home, so this will be the first time he’ll be reunited with these “old friends.”
NGCM: Is there anything else you’d like visitors to know in advance of the tour?
SDR: Given that the show encompasses all the major artists, movements, influences and subject matter of the era, the tour will paint a portrait of the Victorian art world. But for anyone interested in the broader subject of drawing, this show offers a fantastic overview of techniques and materials, from simple line drawings in graphite, ink and metalpoint on a variety of white papers, to more elaborate wash or chalk sketches on green or blue papers, to highly finished watercolours and gouaches that look like paintings. The different functions of drawings are thus emphasized, from preparatory studies and paintings, to presentation drawings made to be collected, exhibited and viewed as works of art in and of themselves.
As visitors exit the exhibition, I encourage them to take at least a brief look at a small, spontaneous ink sketch of Victorian Viewers at an Art Exhibition as a way to reflect upon their own viewing experience of the private collection of a Canadian citizen, that has now become part of our country’s national collection.
Beauty’s Awakening: Drawings by the Pre-Raphaelites and their Contemporaries from the Lanigan Collection is on view in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs galleries of the National Gallery until January 3, 2016.
Visitors can meet Dr. Sonia Del Re and Dr. Dennis Lanigan and tour Beauty’s Awakening with them as part of the Meet the Experts event on Friday, October 30, at 12:00 p.m. Please visit the exhibition website for information on other activities.