'The Girl with the Fake Pearl Earring'.

December 16 2014

Image of 'The Girl with the Fake Pearl Earring'.

Picture: Mauritshuis

A professor of Theoretical Astronomy, Vincent Icke, says the earring on Vermeer's famous subject is from Poundland, or whatever the 17th Century Dutch equivalent was. Guilderland I suppose. Says the Mauritshuis website:

In the December issue of popular science magazine New Scientist, Icke, a professor of Theoretical Astronomy at the University of Leiden, states that the pearl on the ear of the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, could not have been a real pearl. The way in which a pearl would reflect the light does not match the reflection of the light in the painting, says Icke.

The article by Vincent Icke confirms what we at the Mauritshuis have been thinking and writing about Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring for some time now. In fact, it's one of the most fun facts about this painting. Just like the fact that it was purchased in 1881 by the previous owner at an auction for 2.30 guilders. At the museum, the caption for the painting also mentions the unrealistic size of the pearl. Vincent Icke reaches the same conclusion, but through a very different understanding and research. The Mauritshuis has taken note of his findings with great interest. This illustrates what makes seventeenth-century paintings so interesting to look at: nothing is what it seems.

The Mauritshuis has written previously about the jewel in the ear of Vermeer's girl, saying it was not a true pearl. Indeed, just like the turban, the "pearl" was no daily outfit for Dutch girls in the seventeenth century. Quentin Buvelot (Mauritshuis chief curator) described the painting together with fellow curator Ariane van Suchtelen in the catalogue for an exhibition on highlights of the Mauritshuis in Bologna earlier this year. They then wrote: "Some of the most salient features of Vermeer's painting include the girl's headpiece and the pearl in her ear. The headpiece consists of yellow fabric, with blue fabric on top of it, knotted around her forehead. The yellow-green jacket is painted in such a loose style that it isn't clear which material it's made from. It is probably wool fabric. This garment is often seen as part of the girl's exotic costume, but it is indeed a contemporary jacket. The low-set sleeve and small pleats are typical of the fashion in the 1660s, when this painting was made. The pearl on the girl's ear is remarkably large. Whereas most pearls nowadays come from farms, in the seventeenth century, they were natural ones. Pearls were formed in oyster-like sea mussels. Large pearls were rare and ended up in the hands of the richest people on the planet. In the seventeenth century, cheaper glass pearls, usually from Venice, were also quite common. They were made from glass, which was lacquered to give it a matt finish. Maybe the girl is wearing such a handcrafted 'pearl'."

I think we can generally assume that most of those whopping pearls we see in 17th Century portraits - at least the English ones with which I'm familiar - were 'fake' (sometimes made out of compressed fish scales), or indeed simply artistic creations.

Tate Archive goes online

December 16 2014

Image of Tate Archive goes online

Picture: Tate - Graham Sutherland, sketchbook colour study for the Path in Wood theme. (circa 1957-1959)

From Culture24:

One of the richest and most comprehensive digital art and archival resources in Europe and the world’s largest archive of British Art - Tate Archive - is being made available online for a worldwide audience.

Sketchbooks, drawings, family photographs, personal letters and intimate diaries from artists including Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Jacob Epstein, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson will be available on the free archive, which has been supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund with a grant of £2 million.

Highlights of the project, which will be released in stages, include Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture records compiled by the artist throughout her life. They featuring original photographs, handwritten notes and details of exhibitions, giving a comprehensive record of her sculptures from 1925-1975.

Diary entries include tender love letters with intimate sketches sent by Paul Nash to his wife detailing their early life together as well as his service as a soldier and war artist during the First World War. 

A good move. Obviously, the less said about the bits of the archive they chucked out, the better.

Chartres' 'Black Madonna'

December 16 2014

Image of Chartres' 'Black Madonna'

Picture: New York Review of Books

They've been busy 'restoring' the interior of Chartres Cathedral, one of the great architectural wonders of the world. The restoration seems to consist of painting the limestone walls various gaudy colours, with fake marbelling to boot, and many, including Martin Filler in the New York Review of Books, are agog. One casualty of the restoration is the cathedral's well known 'Black Madonna', which is now, er, no longer black. The close up below shows how the Madonna used to look, with its patina caused by centuries of dirt and candle smoke.

Incroyable...

More on the restoration here at ArtWatch.

Update - a reader writes:

My wife and I would like to add a very loud ''hear hear'' to Martin Filler's article.  We used go out of our way to stop-over in Chartres whilst driving to and from our house in the south-west in France. Even for a confirmed atheist such as myself, the cathedral interior was the most spiritual and awe-inspiring building that I have ever experienced and it truly became an inspirational place of pilgrimage for us. We were shocked and heart-broken, indeed out-raged, when we visited last year to find that the French had wilfully embarked on this catastrophic campaign of so-called restoration. The result is that now we sadly have no wish to return, as we prefer to retain the memories of this Gothic masterpiece when it still retained the accretions of centuries which were responsible for so much of its mystical character.

Perhaps we can now expect the French state to countenance the cleaning of the Mona Lisa?

Update II - there are some good 'before 'n after' photos here at ArchDaily. The 'restored' bits look like something from the wedding cake shop.

Update III - the 'restoration' at Chartres is the work of the Monuments Historique division at France's Culture Ministry - the same people responsible for this boneheaded scheme to build on top of an ancient Roman site. People of France - what is going on?

Leonardo to Louvre Abu Dhabi

December 16 2014

Image of Leonardo to Louvre Abu Dhabi

Picture: Louvre

Details have been released of the 300 works of art from French museums which are going on loan to Louvre Abu Dhabi. Reports the LA Times:

Among the items to be loaned are Da Vinci's "La Belle Ferroniere" ("Portrait of an Unknown Woman") from the Louvre in Paris; Claude Monet's "Gare Saint-Lazare" from the Musee d'Orsay; a self-portrait by Van Gogh, also from the Musee d'Orsay; and Matisse's "Still Life With Magnolia" from the Centre Pompidou.

The Chateau de Versailles will be lending the famous "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" painting by Jacques-Louis David.

The loans are of course in effect being rented, with reports that 'Louvre Abu Dhabi' is paying €500m alone for the branding rights. 

National Gallery acquires Corots

December 16 2014

Image of National Gallery acquires Corots

Picture: NG

The National Gallery has acquired Corot's The Four Times of Day, with help from the Art Fund. The pictures have been on loan to the NG for many years. Says the NG's press release:

The only decorative cycle on public display in the UK by one of the most influential artists in the development of landscape painting and a key inspiration to the Impressionists, will remain on view for future generations to enjoy after being purchased by the National Gallery with the support of the Art Fund.

The Four Times of Day (about 1858), by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, has a long association with the UK. The four paintings, representing Morning (pictured left), Noon, Evening and Night, were acquired by artist Frederic, Lord Leighton in 1865 and were among the earliest Corot works to be acquired by a British collector. Lord Leighton displayed them as the focal point of his London home, where they provided inspiration for his fellow Victorian artists. After his death, the paintings spent more than a century in the same family collection and have been on loan to the National Gallery since 1997. The pictures were acquired for Lord Wantage at Christie’s in 1896 and their sale to the nation was negotiated by Christie’s.

Corot painted the four large panels, which trace the deepening light of the sky from sunrise to star-studded night, to decorate the Fontainebleau studio of his friend and fellow painter Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps. He completed the cycle in a single week prompting Decamps to exclaim, 'Not so fast, don’t hurry so; there is still enough soup for a few days more.' Decamps apparently spent hours in contemplation of the panels, filled with dismay at their quality, technique and effect compared to his own work.

A long time ago, I went round the National Gallery late at night with a trustee (trustees get the 'Freedom of the Gallery', which means they can go when they like) and also the then owner of The Four Times of Day, the late 'Larch' Lloyd. As we stood in front of them I thought what a great ambition it would be to own a work of art good enough to lend to the National Gallery. I'm still working on that...

I wrote about the late night trip here before

Constable's kingfisher found

December 15 2014

Image of Constable's kingfisher found

Picture: Mail

Restorers cleaning John Constable's The Mill Stream have found a kingfisher streaking over the water. Previously it was obscured by dirt and old varnish. More here

The painting belongs to Christchurch Museum in Ipswich. I'd love to be able to link to something on their homepage explaining more about the news, but, as is so often the case, the museum's almost non existent digital footprint means it isn't able to capitalise on the publicity windfall. 

Stolen Gauguin and Bonnard found in Italy (ctd.)

December 15 2014

Image of Stolen Gauguin and Bonnard found in Italy (ctd.)

Picture: Gauguin

I reported earlier in the year on a Gauguin and Bonnard discovered in Italy, which turned out to have been stolen in London in 1970. Now, the Italian authorities have decided that the current owner, a former Fiat worker identified only as 'Nicolo' who bought them for about £19 in an auction in Italy in 1975, can keep the works, after UK police said that nobody had come forward to claim the works. Reports the Telegraph:

The paintings were originally owned by Mathilda Marks, an heiress to the Marks and Spencer empire, but were stolen by con men from the flat she shared with her American husband in Chester Terrace, near Regent's Park in London, in 1970.

The thieves smuggled the paintings by train through France, intending to enter Italy, but panicked while waiting to cross the border and left them on a train heading towards Turin.

They were found by railway inspectors and languished for years in a dusty lost property office before being put up for auction by Italy's national railway network in 1975.

The Fiat worker, who regularly attended the railway auctions as a hobby, bought the two masterpieces for 45,000 lire – just £19 in today's money.

Whilst I wouldn't wish to deny 'Nicolo' his windfall, it seems to me that this outcome only serves to legitimise art theft, if it's seen that there are no longer any 'victims', and enough time passes between the crime and the art being discovered. In the UK, if you die intestate and without heirs, the state gets your estate. Wouldn't it be better if the UK government had put in a claim for the paintings, and allocated them to a museum?

Update - a reader writes:

Yes, but the estate would only go to the Crown (State) if the intestate was domiciled in England or Wales for which we do not have the facts.

Meanwhile, in Tashkent...

December 15 2014

Image of Meanwhile, in Tashkent...

Picture: Guardian

The Guardian reports that employees of the Usbek State Arts Museum have been flogging off originals these last fifteen years, and replacing them with copies. Crafty. Among the illegal sales were:

25 originals by European artists, including the Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor Lorenzo di Credi.

I wonder if anything's happened to that 'Veronese' they discovered in the vaults a few years back. 

Art history ads (ctd.)

December 14 2014

Image of Art history ads (ctd.)

Picture: BG

I'm not usually in the habit of taking photographs in public lavatories - really I'm not. But I saw this in a service station the other day, dear readers, and thought of you. Can it be that apart from inventing flying machines, crossbows, and parachutes, Leonardo also came up with the toilet roll dispenser?

I suspect not, for Leonardo would surely have managed to fix that annoying thing where, when you pull on the roll in a public lav, it immediately breaks after only one sheet, so you have to rummage around in the holder to try and find the end of the roll, and pull it out again.

Update - the Leonardo Dispensing Solutions website is well worth a visit.

Update II - a reader sends proof that Leonardo also invented the doll:

Update III - another toilet sleuthing reader writes:

This is really sad but......  last year  at work we received shiny new Leonardo Dispensing Solutions loo roll holders.  Now my daughter is a facilities manager and gets highly excited about such things so I made a mental note to tell her.

After work a friend and I went to the cinema in the same city and visited the ladies before the film began. Imagine my excitement when I noticed that the same loo roll holders were there. But no - on closer examination, these holders were called.......   DA VINCI. 

I googled it for you and there's a whole world of products:       

Versatwin dispenser     

The Da Vinci versatwin toilet roll system is the smallest and most versatile toilet tissue system on offer. Its compact size and large capacity of 250 metres of paper makes it an attractive, neat and efficient solution for even the smallest washroom. The dispensers control usage by allowing access to only one roll at a time. Only when the first roll is depleted can the second be accessed. This allows for efficient replenishment and ensures that the product need never run out.£29.95 (inc VAT £35.94)   each

Update IV - another reader alerts us to Da Vinci surgical appliances.

Re-framing Titian (ctd.)

December 14 2014

Image of Re-framing Titian (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

I mentioned recently the National Gallery's fundraising attempt to buy a new frame for one of their Titians (the new frame is on the right). There was a very interesting piece on this on Radio 4's 'Front Row' last week, in which the National Gallery's head of framing, Peter Schade, speaks about the campaign, and, more interestingly, about his work at the National Gallery in general. You can listen to the piece here at about 21 minutes in. 

The appeal is now at 64%. The total is £27,000. I still think that's a shockingly expensive price.

How they fixed that Monet

December 14 2014

Image of How they fixed that Monet

Picture: National Gallery of Ireland/HUH

There's a brief account here, with photos, on how the National Gallery or Ireland went about fixing the Monet some fellow punched a large hole in recently. 

Bellottos on the block

December 14 2014

Image of Bellottos on the block

Picture: Arts Council

Two important paintings by Bernardo Bellotto of the Fortress of Konigstein have been put on the Arts Council's 'Notification of Intention to Sell' page, which a price tag of £20,500,000. This means that the owner, identified to me by readers as the Earl of Derby, has had to notify the Treasury that he intends to sell paintings that have until now been conditionally exempt from death duties - that is, death tax was not paid on them, but deferred until a sale is made, on condition that the pictures are sometimes put on public display. The 'notification' gives any potentially interested museums a heads up for fundraising. 

'Stuart Little', art sleuth (ctd.)

December 14 2014

Image of 'Stuart Little', art sleuth (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

The picture by Robert Bereny discovered in the background of a Stuart Little film has sold at auction in Hungary for €229,500. More here

'Fairly dismal'

December 14 2014

Image of 'Fairly dismal'

Picture: Bernheimer

Penetrating the PR hype to find out how dealers and art fairs are really doing is always hard, so I was interested to see the below snippet on Frieze Masters from seasoned art market watcher Colin Gleadell of The Telegraph:

After a fairly dismal performance at the Frieze Masters fair in October, where few Old Masters paintings were sold, the Old Master market picked up its heels at the London auctions last week.

That does tie in with what I've heard. More of Colin's views on London's recent Old Master auction week here

Christie's 'Game Changers'

December 14 2014

Video: Christie's

Here's a good video from Christie's on their new theme of 'Game Changers' in art history. Sometimes these auction house videos can be a bit estate-agenty, with many unjustified superlatives. But here Christie's specialist Alexis Ashot reveals himself as something of a telly natural, and says many spot-on things about Titian's Flaying of Marsius.

Penis painting

December 14 2014

Image of Penis painting

Picture: Daily Dot/Copenhagen Post

So there's this bloke, right, who paints with his penis, and he's painted a picture of Kim Kardashian's butt with it. Says Uwe Max Jensen, a Dane:

“My penis is an organ. I need it to reproduce, and for sex and joy... but I can also use it in my art, and that’s joyful for me on more levels.”

Jensen said he “painted” the portrait of Kardashian in about 8 to 10 hours. His natural gifts, he said, came in handy. "If one is ill-equipped, it is difficult to reproduce the small details,” he told the Copenhagen Post. “But if one is well-endowed, it is easier to produce a better painting."

More here. Now I'm no penis painting connoisseur, but I'd say, judging by the detail he's been able to achieve in Kim Kardashian's face, below, that old Uwe Max is in fact pretty tiny, and more Uwe Min.

Anyway, there's an art historical angle here - really - for did you know that the English 18th Century portraitist John Astley also painted with his old chap? Used to whip it out as a party piece. The contemporary satirist Anthony Pasquin wrote of him:

“He thought that every advantage in civil society was compounded in women and wine: and, acting up to this principal of bliss, he gave his body to Euphrosyne, and his intellects to madness. He was as ostentatious as a peacock, and as amorous as the Persian Sophi; he would never stir abroad without his bag and his sword; and, when the beauties of Ierne sat to him for their portraits, he would affect to neglect the necessary implements of his art, and use his naked sword as a moll-stick. He had a haram and a bath at the top of his house, replete with every enticement and blandishment to awaken desire; and he thus lived, jocund and thoughtless, until his nerves were unstrung by age; when his spirits decayed with his animal powers, and he sighed and drooped into eternity!”

All this sniggering talk reminds me of the Flemish 16th Century engraver, Hiernymous Cock. 

Right, that's enough smut. Apologies to anyone offended.

'The flowers are all wrong'

December 10 2014

Image of 'The flowers are all wrong'

Picture: Guardian/Louvre/National Gallery

Good story in The Guardian about some new views on the attribution of Leonardo's 'Madonna of the Rocks' in the National Gallery. The attribution to Leonardo is questioned on the basis of the flowers being 'wrong', and also the geology:

“The botany in the Louvre version is perfect, showing plants that would have thrived in a moist, dark grotto,” says Ann Pizzorusso, a geologist and Renaissance art historian. “But the plants in the London version are inaccurate. Some don’t exist in nature, and others portray flowers with the wrong number of petals.”

She concludes: “It seems unlikely the same person could have portrayed rock formations so accurately in the Louvre work and so incongruously in the National Gallery one – especially considering Leonardo’s faithfulness to nature. There is absolutely nothing in his body of work that is not true to nature.

Her conclusions are supported by John Grimshaw, a leading horticulturalist, who is struck by the realism of the Louvre painting, unlike the National Gallery version. In the French painting, he can easily identify iris, polemonium and aquilegia. He says: “There’s a very recognisable iris, a Jacob’s Ladder, a nice little palm tree, all sorts of well-observed bits of vegetation there – and proper plants.”

In my review of the Leonardo exhibition in London in 2012 I wrote about the relative weaknesses of the London picture compared to the Paris one, but based purely on a visual reading of the two paintings hung close together. So I find these latest observations very interesting. I can well believe that the plants in the London version might have been painted by someone without Leonardo's attention to detail.

Update - a reader who I know has a good 'eye' writes:

This argument against the NG painting sounds quite plausible.

It might be condition, but the Louvre Christ child's profile is better too - the hint that the face is turned away a fraction, exactly the sort of thing that rarely translates into copies. 

Was Duchamp's urinal a fraud?

December 10 2014

Image of Was Duchamp's urinal a fraud?

Picture: TAN

There's a fascinating story in The Art Newspaper by Julian Spalding and Glyn Thompson looking into the origins of Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal, exhibited in New York to great consernation in 1917. Spalding and Thompson ask if the urinal was actually submitted by someone else entirely, namely a poet called Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927).

It's well worth reading the whole piece, but the condensed version of the story goes like this:

The extraordinary fact that has emerged from the painstaking ­studies of William Camfield, Kirk Varnedoe and Hector Obalk is that Duchamp could not have done what he said he did late in life. Irene Gammel and Glyn Thompson have revealed the truth of his much earlier private account that he did not submit the urinal to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917. Nevertheless, Duchamp’s late, fictional story is still taught in every class and recited in every book.

Duchamp maintained that he bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works in New York, signed it with the pseudonym R. Mutt, and submitted it to the Independents exhibition, calling it Fountain. The ­urinal was rejected despite the objection of Duchamp’s rich friend Walter Arensberg, who argued that the ­society must honour its own rule and hang everything submitted. The ­urinal was a work of art, he claimed, because an artist had chosen it. 

[...]

Scholars have long since proved that Duchamp could not have bought the urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works because Mott didn’t sell that particular model. Most tellingly, on 11 April 1917, just two days after the board had rejected it, Duchamp wrote to his sister, a nurse in war-torn Paris, telling her that “one of my female friends under a masculine pseudonym, Richard Mutt, sent in a porcelain urinal as a sculpture”. The explosive contents of this letter did not enter the public domain until 1983 when the missive was published in the Archives of American Art Journal. [...]

The literary historian Irene Gammel was the first to discover who Duchamp’s “female friend” was. She was born Else Plötz in Germany in 1874, the daughter of a builder and local politician who philandered freely and beat her mother. [...]

In October 1917, the painter George Biddle described her room in New York filled with “odd bits of ­ironware, automobile tiles… ash cans, every conceivable horror, which to her tortured yet highly sensitive ­perception, became objects of formal beauty… it had to me quite as much authenticity as, for instance, Brancusi’s studio in Paris.”

Elsa was a poet of found objects, but she didn’t leave them as they were—she transformed them into works of art.

Elsa exploded in fury when the US declared war on her motherland, on Good Friday, 6 April 1917. Her ­target was the Society of Indepen­dent Artists, whose representatives had consistently cold-shouldered her. We believe she submitted an upside-down urinal, signed R. Mutt in a script similar to the one she sometimes used for her poems. [...]

If Duchamp did not submit the urinal, why would he pretend later that he did? After Elsa died in 1927, forgotten and in abject poverty, Duchamp began to let his name be associated with the urinal, and by 1950, four years after the death of Alfred Stieglitz, who photographed the original Fountain, he began to assume its authorship.

After he reluctantly abandoned his ambition to become a professional chess champion in 1933, Duchamp started to rebuild his artistic career by repackaging his early work. The problem was that there was not much of it. Only one of his original Readymades still existed, forgotten, in a drawer in Walter Arensberg’s desk. It is from this period, beginning in 1936, that replicas of the “lost” Readymades began to appear. Elsa’s urinal plugged a hole, but to make it his own Duchamp turned it into an attack on art itself.

Extraordinary if true. Maybe this is an old tale easily dismissed. I don't know. But I love the idea that one of the founding 'facts' of modern art theory, and much of its attendant 'guff', might be based on a lie.

Tweet of the Day

December 10 2014

Pooh$ticks

December 10 2014

Image of Pooh$ticks

Picture: Sotheby's

The original E.H. Shepard drawing of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin playing 'poohsticks' sold for £314,500 at Sotheby's yesterday. That's a new record for any book illiustration at auction.

What a lovely thing.

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