The New York Sun, Weekend Edition, October 14-16 2005

From Homer to the Present

It happens that your correspondent once had the privilege of making the acquaintance of Harvard classics professor John Finley, who has been said to have a personal acquaintance with Homer himself. So it was with no small amount of interest that the Knickerbocker stopped by the opening of the Dahesh Museum’s “The Legacy of Homer: Four Centuries of Art From the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts,” a remarkable show in a museum that, in the year of its 10th anniversary, has emerged as one of the gems of New York.

“The Legacy of Homer” was mounted in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum, which is staging a companion exhibition. While musicians strolled around the Dahesh’s elegant new premises playing lutes, and a man dressed as Odysseus posed for pictures with guests, we found ourselves face to face with Peter Trippi, the high-spirited director of the Dahesh who is on a mission to illuminate for a New York public the glories of the art produced by the painters who studied in the art schools of 19th-century Europe.

It was the bequest of the collection of a Lebanese writer and connoisseur, Salim Moussa Achi, who used the pen name Dr. Dahesh, that formed the foundation of the museum. And it’s one of those bequests that is having a growing impact. One individual we encountered was James Cooper, director of the Newington-Cropsey Cultural Studies Center and publisher of one of the most remarkable magazines in the city, American Arts Quarterly. He was growling about the Modernists and praising the beauty of the classical canvases in the show. We found ourselves transfixed, en route to the Homeric part of the show, by a little painting of figures on a staircase by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It’s about 3 inches wide and a foot high. Your correspondent encountered two keepers of the academic flame in New York drawing and painting circles, Andrea J. Smith and Judith Pond Kudlow, who are, respectively, director and dean of the Harlem Studio of Art, whose brochure carries on its cover the quotation of Leonardo de Vinci, “Those who fall in love with practice without science is like a sailor who enters a ship without a helm or compass, and who never can be certain whither he is going.” Their studio is one of the seats in which these traditions are passed to a new generation of painters.

It was wonderful to walk past canvases of Jacques-Louis David or Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux from the Homeric show and watch two modern masters remark on the achievements of an earlier academy. Dinner was upstairs from the show at the restaurant connected with the museum, Café Opaline, where one of the trustees of the Dahesh, Amira Zahid, an elegant and cheerful lady, spoke of the “exciting yet rough beginnings” of the museum during which, she said, “the skepticism of the press” was counterbalanced by immediate recognition from art professionals around the world as well as from the public.” Quoth she: “Academic art is back, the people have spoken, history has been corrected.” She said that the next decade of the Dahesh “is now entrusted to its public.”

She did not quote this wry little limerick that I once heard, but I will:

A painter awoke in old Troy
Blinked and exclaimed, ‘Oh boy!’
Hand me my brushes
And pose in the thrushes
For art that none can alloy

by Gary Sharpiro