The painting landed in Minneapolis like a pope: Titian’s The Temptation of Christ, purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Art in late 1925. A Titian. There were less than a dozen Titians in America at the time. Now we—a 10-year-old museum in a part of the country that was a forested frontier just a couple generations earlier—had gone out and got one.
Mia exhibited it within days of its arrival. Posted it in front of a funereal dark, plush curtain surrounded with ferns—typical exhibition design in those days and the same way it was displayed at the New York gallery we bought it from, where its purchase was announced on engraved cards. No doubt a cloth was pulled from the frame as flashbulbs popped. There might have been Champagne.
Literal unveilings of individual important pictures were a big deal then, especially in places like Minneapolis, which didn’t have many important pictures. They were classy events. Exclusive. There was no Internet or social media, of course. You could unveil a painting and almost everyone in the room would be seeing it for the very first time.
The city was flattered, humbled, reverent. Gaga for Titian. Stoked by front-page news of the painting’s arrival—how it was carted around New York by armed guards, taken in a taxi to a sealed express train car, and raced across the country—they went to Titian lectures and special Titian showings for members. They bought Titian photographs and postcards, 50 dollars’ worth in the first afternoon the painting was shown, a considerable sum as the postcards went for five cents.
The emergence of the painting, after centuries in private European collections, was national news, too. Christmas was near. A syndicated story in heartland newspapers showed an image of the painting next to other depictions of Jesus, with the suggestion that the picture had “revived in art and religious worlds a spirited discussion over the correct depiction by painters of Christ’s features and personality.” The argument: since Jesus appeared much the same in European artworks going back centuries, that must be how he actually looked. Minnesota’s painting was one more piece of evidence.
But the painting, and its display, may have said more about us than anything else. It cost a fortune, of course. It was reportedly one of the largest art purchases by an American museum at the time. It was a statement. “The Temptation of Christ,” the museum announced, “which will be first shown to the public Sunday, December thirtieth, symbolizes an ideal. In that respect it stands for more than the purchase of a hundred less popular pictures. The Institute displays this painting to Minneapolis and its many visitors as evidence of the standard to which the museum aspires, and of the qualities which all ages admire.”
Among the intelligentsia of New York, it was seen differently. The New York gallery’s exhibition of the painting, a short time after the sale and before it sped to Minneapolis, was written up in the New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town, an irreverent round-up of local arts and society happenings. “Going around early we find art in her shift and sometimes before she has had her morning coffee. Thus we came upon Titian before the palms and ferns were set. Only the spotlight had been adjusted and the elegant plush curtains. The formula for the sophisticate is easy to follow. But we plead to seriousness and deny any spitball in the eye of reverence—we merely do not cringe before Titian.”