New York Review of Books
May 17, 2014
In 1909, Henry James wrote of seeing Paolo Veronese’s The Family of Darius before Alexander in London:
You may walk out of the noon-day dusk of Trafalgar Square in November, and in one of the chambers of the National Gallery see the family of Darius rustling and pleading and weeping at the feet of Alexander. Alexander is a beautiful young Venetian in crimson pantaloons, and the picture sends a glow into the cold London twilight. You may sit before it for an hour and dream you are floating to the water-gate of the Ducal Palace.Long regarded as among the greatest Venetian paintings, it has attracted the intense admiration of many writers, including Goethe, Hazlitt, and Ruskin, as well as James. Its acquisition by the National Gallery in 1857 was considered a triumph; Queen Victoria even made a special visit to the museum just to view the picture.
It is now one of the high points in the magnificent show about Veronese on view at the National Gallery, the first comprehensive exhibition of the painter in over twenty-five years. For much of the twentieth century Veronese was regarded more as a skilled purveyor of decorative finishes than as a profound master, and his reputation was in decline, but of late there are signs of renewed interest, which this show and its catalog will certainly do much to advance. Perhaps more than any other picture in the show, The Family of Darius before Alexander reveals his great strengths as a painter; it also makes clear why he can seem so foreign to common modern ideals of art and of the artist.