Category: Research

Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene'

October 24 2014

Image of Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene'

Picture: Caffeinamagazine.it

In Italy, La Repubblica reports that noted Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has identified the above picture as Caravaggio's lost Penitent Magdalene, previously only known through copies. He is thought to have painted it shortly before he died. It's now in an Italian private collection. More details here (in Italian).

Update - the story has now made it into the English language press. Here's the Guardian.

A new Van Dyck attribution at the Scottish National Gallery

October 23 2014

Image of A new Van Dyck attribution at the Scottish National Gallery

Picture: Scottish National Gallery

I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the above picture has recently gone on display at the Scottish National Gallery here in Edinburgh as a work by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. It had previously been regarded as a studio work. The portrait shows Ambrogio Spinola (1569-1630), the great Italian-born general who commanded the Spanish Habsburg armies in the Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt.

There has long been a ‘Spinola’ gap in Van Dyck’s iconography. We know from an engraving by Lucas Vorsterman (above, example from Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) that Van Dyck did once paint Spinola at some point, and there is also a quick drawing by Van Dyck (below, Musée Atger, Montpellier). However, the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's works only lists portraits of Spinola in the 'A' section of catalogue, denoting that the original picture was presumed lost. 

The 2004 catalogue mentions many Van Dyck-like portraits of Spinola (as we might expect for such a famous sitter, Van Dyck’s original portrait was much copied). The most important of these include; a full-length studio variant in the Hebsacker Collection in Germany (above, apologies for the image quality) and a three-quarter length version formerly at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire (below). The latter was sold at Christie’s in 2001 as 'Van Dyck and Studio’. But personally, I suspect it is more ‘studio' than ‘Van Dyck' - it looks a little hard in the handling.*

I would also place in the same 'studio' category another full-length variant in a private collection in Madrid (below, and discussed here by Matias Diaz Padron of the Prado in 2008, who labels it ‘Van Dyck’ in full.) 

But I think we can be sure that the Edinburgh picture is in fact the missing original by Van Dyck. In the 2004 catalogue raisonné (see entry no.III.A.25), the picture was described as what 'would seem to be a studio variant' of the full-length in the Hebsacker Collection. The wording might suggest that the author of that section of the catalogue, Horst Vey, didn't actually see the Edinburgh painting in the flesh. But crucially, as Vey notes, the Edinburgh picture is the only version which accords with the drawing by Van Dyck; the sitter's left hand rests on a helmet placed on a table beside him. In the Hebsacker picture, the ex-Cornbury picture and the Madrid picture, Spinola rests his arm on his sword (and, one might say, a little awkwardly too).  

I went to see the picture in the Scottish National Gallery stores earlier this year, after I was kindly invited to do so by Dr Tico Seifert, the Gallery’s Senior Curator of Northern European Art. We’d been discussing the picture after I saw an image of it on the ever-valuable Your Paintings website (the picture is not listed on the Scottish National Gallery's own site), and wondered if this was a picture that had been unjustly downgraded at some point. A number of areas in the picture struck me as having great quality, in particular the head, the sitter’s left hand, and much of the armour. The head conveys all the human authority one would expect from a great portraitist - perhaps you can see from the images here how much more impressive the head is than the apparently studio versions. The armour is painted with great dextrousness, conveying an impression of finely wrought, hand-beaten metal. The hand is finely weighted, and painted with assured, wet-in-wet strokes. The technique is free and spirited, betraying all the confidence of an artist painting something for the first time, rather than a studio assistant making a copy or a variant. Under bright lights, we noticed a number of small changes, or pentimenti, which also argued for the picture being the first of its type (though these are not in themselves always evidence of autograph status – sometimes it’s just copyists making a bish). After further analysis, Dr Seifert (who has a track record of making discoveries in the Scottish National Gallery, see here) and the Scottish National Gallery became more and more confident that the picture is indeed by Van Dyck.

I suspect the reason the picture became doubted is because of its condition. It is a little abraded in places, especially the main body of the armour (which would have been painted with darker, softer pigments more vulnerable to ‘cleaning’). And the picture is also rendered slightly unreadable by a rather opaque old varnish. I can’t be sure at this stage, but it seems to me, even viewing the picture inside its frame, that it might well have been cut down from a full-length. Three things make me think this; the first is the abrupt ending of the sitter’s right hand; the second is evidence of significant disruption to the canvas along the bottom edge, as if that area was once either damaged and repaired, or resting on the cross-beam of an old, larger stretcher; the third reason is what appears at first to be the awkward rendering of the sitter’s armour at the bottom of the picture, over his thighs – the gap in the armour between the legs is facing too far around towards the left-hand side of the picture to properly match up with the torso. But this mis-alignment (which we wouldn’t expect to see in portrait Van Dyck began as a half-length) is understandable if we know that the picture would have originally been a full-length, according to the drawing, in which the sitter’s legs and feet are pointing more towards the viewer, while his body, head and arm are turned more towards the table. Any future conservation work carried out by the SNG would help determine this further.  

The picture must have been executed very soon after Van Dyck returned to the Netherlands from Italy, in late 1627, for on 3rd January 1628 Spinola left the Netherlands. As we might expect, the picture betrays elements of Van Dyck’s Italian-period style (with quite high-pitch, almost pastel-like colouring in the face) with the slightly glazier aspect of what we call his ‘second Antwerp’ period (the years 1627-1632, or thereabouts, being his second professional period in Antwerp before he left for London). The picture’s provenance is from the Palazzo Gentile in Genoa (which I think has Spinola connections), where Spinola headed to when he left the Netherlands. Previously, Van Dyck had painted both his son and daughter in Genoa.

* Probably Christie's were influenced by the then most recent catalogue raisonneé of Van Dyck's works, by Erik Larsen (pub.1988), but which was, er, somewhat inaccurate. 

Doing justice to Caravaggio

August 28 2014

Image of Doing justice to Caravaggio

Picture: Wikiart, Corsini Collection, Florence

Further to my comments below (here and here) on the 'justice' of getting the right attribution for Rembrandt, here's a great comment on the importance of connoisseurship from a new book on Caravaggio by Lorenzo Pericolo and David M. Stone:

In a sense, the methodology employed by [Met curator Keith] Christiansen in his attribution of the picture [Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, above] can be deemed “canonical,” that is, characteristic of an illustrious tradition of connoisseurship. And yet, this canonicity is about to become a literal rarity. The nonchalance with which mediocre paintings continue to be ascribed to Caravaggio is undoubtedly appalling. Stone describes the possible impact of this spreading amateurishness upon future scholarship in rightly alarmed terms: “my worry is that, as fewer and fewer scholars devote themselves to problems of connoisseurship, the stage is being set for future generations of students to take these exhibition catalogues off the shelves and write term papers—even dissertations—about pictures Caravaggio almost certainly did not paint.”

I find it astonishing that critics of connoisseurship say this doesn't matter. The new book is called, Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions, and you can read the introduction online here

'Could computers put art historians out of a job?'

August 19 2014

Image of 'Could computers put art historians out of a job?'

Picture: University of New Jersey

So asked yesterday's Daily Telegraph, which reported that:

Computer scientists have used the latest image processing techniques to analyse hundreds of works of art and unearth previously unconsidered sources of inspiration between artists.

Art can be analysed by looking at space, texture, form, shape, colour and tone, but also more mechanical aspects such as brushstrokes and even historical context. Traditionally this has been the role of art historians, but computers could soon be sufficiently advanced as to be able to take over, claim researchers at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

The story boils down to the fact that computers can recognise things in paintings. Researchers concluded that the above pictures by Van Gogh and Joan Miro had 'similar objects and scenery but different moods and style'. They soon realised that 'determining influence is always a subjective decision. We will not know if an artist was ever truly inspired by a work unless he or she has said so.’

So I think art historians are safe. This is the sort of story which reminds me of an episode from the old TV series The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan is confronted with a new 'wonder machine' which knows the answer to every question in the world, and which will render man redundant. But when McGoohan simply asks it 'why?', it explodes.

That said, I've always thought that computers should be able to practise some form of connoisseurship. It's probably just a question of loading enough high-res images.

You can read the original research paper here. Jamie Edwards at the University of Birmingham's art hitory blog Golovine has further thoughts here

Update - a reader writes:

The whole thing reminds me of what one of my professors said to me in undergrad "just because they look alike doesn't mean they're the same". And isn't that just where computers fail - in distinguishing between similar 'objects' and the numerous ways those combinations of objects are used to create meaning.

Regardless, computers can only truly generate data, so we still need historians to research, analyse, and interpret that data. Let alone disseminate it. If x-rays can't replace connoisseurship, then I hardly think algorithms can replace art historians. 

Although, if they were to be used as a means to supplement connoisseurship as you suggest, then I think they would be more successful if the focus was limited by a particular artist, historical era, or artistic genre in some way  so that they're not analyzing such wide stylistic swatches. I imagine that could get interesting, especially for your work looking for 'sleepers'.

Happy Birthday Sir Joshua!

July 16 2014

Image of Happy Birthday Sir Joshua!

Picture: Yale

I try to avoid 'on this day' things, but today being Sir Joshua Reynolds' birthday gives me a chance to recommend a new book on Reynolds by Professor Mark Hallett, formerly of York University and now Director of the invaluable Paul Mellon Centre in London. The book is, says the Yale site:

A deeply researched and elegantly written study on Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)—Georgian England’s most celebrated portraitist and the first president of the British Royal Academy of Arts—this lavishly illustrated volume explores all aspects of Reynolds’s portraiture. Mark Hallett provides detailed, compelling readings of Reynolds’s most celebrated and striking works, investigating the ways in which they were appreciated and understood in his own lifetime. Recovering the artist’s dynamic interaction with his sitters and patrons, and revealing the dramatic impact of his portraits within the burgeoning exhibition culture of late-18th-century London, Hallett also unearths the intimate relationship between Reynolds’s paintings and graphic art.  Reynolds: Portraiture in Action offers a new understanding of the artist’s career within the extremely competitive London art world and takes readers into the engrossing debates and controversies that captivated the city and its artists.

Update - it's also Andrea Del Sarto's birthday apparently.

Update II - and Corot's.

Update III - the Grumpy Art Historian has read the book, and loved it.

Update IV - Neil Jeffares loves it too. 

How long can the Boom last?

June 29 2014

Image of How long can the Boom last?

Picture: Sotheby's

Georgina Adam has been covering the art market for publications such as the Financial Times and The Art Newspaper for decades. So her new book on the extraordinary heights of the modern and contemporary art market, and how it relates to previous art market booms is well worth a read. You can order a copy of Big Bucks – The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Centuryhere. Here in the FT she summarizes her conclusions:

Everyone wants to know whether this market is a bubble and, if so, when it will burst? This seems unlikely to happen any time soon: the sheer amount of global wealth; the massive museum-building programmes; the positioning of art as an element of the celebrity and fashion worlds, and the seductive lifestyle the art world offers are all very attractive to the super-rich.

But I like to keep in mind what the Chinese say: “Trees can’t grow as high as the sky.” All markets are cyclical; the art market has had booms and busts before, for example, during the armed conflicts of the 20th century, in the 1970s and in 1990: each time mirroring the global economy.

There are parallels between this situation and the art market in England between 1860 and 1914, “the golden age of the living painter”, according to art historian Gerald Reitlinger. It was a time of rapid economic growth thanks to the technological revolution, and new patrons of art came from these manufacturing and trading fortunes.

The sometimes scandalous lives of Pre-Raphaelite artists and their circle were well publicised; advances in printing meant that 600,000 impressions were sold of Millais’ winsome child, “Cherry Ripe”. Contemporary artists were stars: Edwin Long’s florid “The Babylonian Marriage Market” (1875) sold in 1882 for £6,615 (almost £700,000 today) – then a record for a living English painter. It was bought by Thomas Holloway, a multimillionaire from sales of ointment and medicines. The art establishment was outraged, and in Holloway’s obituary the Art Journal sniffed: “Those whose productions he acquired may possibly have to regret the inflated prices which . . . their works assumed.”

Long’s prices did collapse, along with those of many Victorian artists. The first world war and the Great Depression would end that boom.

How will today’s art stars fare in the future? Major political upheavals or financial problems inevitably have an impact on investment and the art market cannot be immune. Almost all the huge prices are, however, being made as a growing pool of ultra-rich buyers battles for a small number of brand-name works. There is a vast hinterland of good art by creators whose names will never be widely known and whose works will never achieve such heights. The overall trend of the market is upwards, historically, but not for everyone, and not always.

Gainsborough's cough medicine

May 29 2014

Image of Gainsborough's cough medicine

Picture: Royal Academy

The latest Burlington Magazine has an article by Gainsborough scholar Hugh Belsey on some previously unpublished documents by the artist. The article isn't online (curses) but The Art Newspaper reports that one of them relates to Gainsborough's home-made cough medicine:

 “Take two calves’ feet, two quarts of spring water, two ounces of sugar candy, one ounce of hart’s horn shavings, and one quart of milk; put them into an earthen pan, and send them to the oven to be baked after the bread is taken out, and to remain all night in the oven.”

Yummy. The recipe was spotted by Chris Fletcher in the British Library.

Art Detective (ctd.)

May 22 2014

Image of Art Detective (ctd.)

Picture: National Museum of the Royal Navy

Some impressive sleuthing has already emerged from Art Detective, the new website designed to help solve various picture mysteries in the UK's national collection. The above unattributed picture was submitted to the site by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, who were keen to know the artist. User Toby Bettridge soon recognised that the picture was a study for a larger work, in the Imperial War Museum, by Arthur David McCormick (below), for a picture called 'Valve Testing: The Signal School, RN Barracks, Portsmouth'. Excellent! 

US National Gallery new online catalogue

May 22 2014

Image of US National Gallery new online catalogue

Picture: US National Gallery

More good online art history news from the USA - the US National Gallery has begun to put its authoritative, in depth catalogues online. Called Online Editions, the catalogues are in an easy to use format, with zoomable images and so on. The first offering is Arthur Wheelock's Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. Says the NG:

Available for the first time on the National Gallery of Art website, NGA Online Editions (œ) presents the most current, in-depth information on the Gallery’s collections by the world’s leading art historians along with rich capabilities for exploring that information. A customized reading environment and toolkit for managing text and images are intended both to provide scholars with a useful workspace for research and to encourage the study and appreciation of art.

NGA Online Editions launches with Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century by Gallery curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and will ultimately document more than 5,000 paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts in the nation's collection. Editions include an introduction by the curator, illustrated scholarly entries (each preceded by a short overview), artists' biographies, technical summaries, and a complement of rich media, educational materials, and appendices related to the featured collection. Formerly known as The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue (a printed series of authoritative volumes on the Gallery’s permanent collections), NGA Online Editions puts this same detailed information—and more—at the fingertips of students, scholars, and anyone eager to learn more about the treasures of the National Gallery of Art.

The Joseph Wright Institute

May 21 2014

Image of The Joseph Wright Institute

Picture: Derby Museum

Here's a Good Thing; a new research centre devoted to Joseph Wright of Derby, in the Derby Museum. The Joseph Wright Institute will (says the website):

[...] improve access to and raise awareness of Joseph Wright and his work, locally, nationally and internationally. It will offer research opportunities, produce exhibitions and publications as well as a programme of activities catering for all audiences including schools and families, university academics and casual visitors.

Comprising of the Joseph Wright Gallery containing the largest collection of Wright oil paintings in the world; The Study Centre with drawings, prints, letters and other supporting information relating to Wrights life and work; Exhibition space that will host temporary exhibitions of Wright’s work and placing Wright in context two exhibitions open in May as part of this launch “Wright Inspired”, looking at copies, fakes and work inspired by Wright and “Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond” an exhibition jointly developed with The Holbourne in Bath.

Where are the women in art? (ctd.)

May 21 2014

Image of Where are the women in art? (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould

Following my post yesterday on the question of women artists, I wonder if (plug alert) you would allow me to mention a recent, home-grown discovery of the above work by Mary Beale. It turned up in some rural sale recently, as 'English School'. Beale can be said to be Britain's first commercially successful female artist, and secured a quite a wide circle of patronage. She was encouraged by Sir Peter Lely, among others.

The above picture, a Penitent Magdalene, was mentioned by Beale's husband, Charles Beale, in a list of her paintings 'done from the life', and was painted in the early 1670s. The art historian George Vertue (praised be him) noted that the sitter was 'Moll Trioche - a yong woman'. Moll was doubtless related to Kate Trioche, who was one of Beale's models and assistants, and who is thought to appear in this painting at Tate Britain. 

The picture relates to two intriguing drawings at the British Museum, which are today attributed to Mary's son, Charles Jr. (also an artist), though previously the drawings were thought to be by Mary (personally, I think some of them still might be). One of the drawings seems to suggest that when sitting for this picture, Moll Trioche must have fallen asleep, for a little urchin is seen sticking something up her nose.  

More details on the picture can be found here on the Philip Mould website. 

PS - I see from the provenance of the Tate picture that was discovered by Philip in 1991. 

Update - Richard Stephens, creator and editor of pioneering site The Art World in Britain 1660-1735, sends this interesting information:

In the 17th & 18th century Britain there were plenty of women in the art trade, just not always as painters. Jacob Simon wrote a blog entry about female frame makers and gilders, which is here:

And you could make much the same points about picture dealing. In the early modern period it was not at all uncommon to find widows carrying on their late husbands' trade as picture sellers - their families still needed money to eat, after all. Working was hardly ever a matter of personal fulfilment like it is so often nowadays. Indeed, so far as the evidence allows for such a generalisation, I'd say it was even normal for women to sell pictures after theri husbands died and doubtless they played their part in the business while their husbands were still living. Some women dealers whose names spring to mind are Elizabeth Turner (d.1732/3), wife of Captain Henry Turner who was based at the Palace of Westminster in the early 18th century; Elizabeth Davis (died 1714), wife of engraver and dealer Edward Davis; Margaret Hay, wife of painter/dealer Andrew Hay; and the widow of copyist and picture seller Henry Peart (died 1700), who ended up selling her stock to the 1st Earl of Bristol in return for an annual pension. The Pearts were neighbours of the Beales in Pall Mall as you know.

In the records of the Painter Stainers company at this time one finds women-only workshops too, although it's never clear what trade they were carrying on.

'Building the Picture' online catalogue

April 27 2014

Image of 'Building the Picture' online catalogue

Picture: NG

Now this is impressive - the National Gallery's new exhibition, Building the Picture, has a comprehensive online catalogue. Well worth checking out here.

Building the Picture is all about the place of architecture in Renaissance paintings. Says the NG site:

This spring, the National Gallery presents the first exhibition in Britain to explore the role of architecture in Italian Renaissance painting of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting' aims to increase visitors' appreciation and understanding of some of the most beautiful and architectonic paintings by Italian masters such as Duccio, Botticelli, Crivelli and their contemporaries. Visitors will be encouraged to look in new ways at buildings depicted in paintings, and to investigate how artists invented imagined spaces that transcended the reality of bricks, mortar and marble.

The exhibition is the result of a research partnership between the National Gallery and the University of York, and offers a fresh interpretation of some of the National Gallery’s own Italian Renaissance collection. In addition, other masterpieces are featured – such as the Venetian master Sebastiano del Piombo's 'The Judgement of Solomon' (Kingston Lacy, The Bankes Collection, National Trust), on display in London for the first time in 30 years, and 'The Ruskin Madonna' by Andrea del Verrocchio (National Gallery of Scotland).

A new Raphael discovery!?

April 22 2014

Image of A new Raphael discovery!?

Picture: Cordoba University

Well, actually no... The Art Newspaper alerts us to claims by the University of Cordoba that it has discovered another version of Raphael's Madonna of Foligno [Vatican Museums]. The newly found work belongs to a private collector in Spain. Says TAN:

The Italian High Renaissance painter Raphael did not, it is generally believed, make copies of his own works. However, the University of Granada, in Southern Spain, says it has found an authentic copy of Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno (around 1511), which is displayed in the Vatican Museums (Room VIII). Luis Rodrigo Rodríguez Simón, a conservator and lecturer at the university, says that the rediscovered work has come to light in a private collection in Cordoba.

Known as The Madonna of Foligno, Small, the work was painted on a wooden panel and later transferred to canvas at the end of the 19th century: pages of a book printed in 1872 were pasted on to the reverse of the canvas. Simón says that the transfer was made in France.

So far so good. But here on the University's own website are more details, and some decent quality images.* And oh dear. Raphael it ain't. It looks like a later, not especially good copy. But no matter, we still have breathless 'scientific' evidence that it's not just another version of the Vatican picture, but the first version:

A researcher at the University of Granada has successfully attributed to the great Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, Raphael the famous Renaissance painter, a work belonging to a private collector in Cordoba, Spain. The painting, entitled the ‘Small Madonna of Foligno’, depicts a scene identical to that of the ‘Madonna of Foligno’ and was probably a preliminary version of Raphael’s painting, which is exhibited in the Vatican Pinacoteca.

Luis Rodrigo Rodríguez-Simón, lecturer in the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Granada, has identified and reliably attributed the work, hitherto by an unknown artist, following a minutely detailed study lasting several years.

He has conducted a technical, scientific study applying a series of advanced instrumental techniques and analytical methods: X-ray, infrared photography, infrared reflectography, fluorescence under ultraviolet light, analysis of paint layers, scanning electronic microscope linked to an Energy-dispersive X-ray microanalysis system, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and micro Raman spectroscopy.

I see this a lot nowadays - paintings presented with a long description detailing all the various tests a painting has been subjected to, as if the mere mention of these convoluted procedures is somehow evidence itself. But sadly it's usually just proof of the old saying, 'bullsh*t baffles brains'. We're clearly dealing here with over-enthusiastic interpretation of scientific 'tests', many of which have limited use. If only the boffins at Cordoba had asked a collection of Raphael experts to look at the picture first, they'd have saved themselves much time, and money.

*click 'save image' to download high-res versions. 

Sooke on Matisse

April 1 2014

Image of Sooke on Matisse

Picture: Amazon/Penguin

Allow me to plug Alastair Sooke's new book on Henri Matisse, available here on Amazon. Well worth getting for your shelves.

More records added to 'Art World in Britain'

March 26 2014

Image of More records added to 'Art World in Britain'

Picture: York.ac.uk

One of the most useful online art history resources, The Art World in Britain 1660-1735, just got even better, with the addition of a load of new primary sources. Here's what's new:

11,000 auction records have been published, bringing the total now online to 87,000 lots. Here are the main additions:

Three great collections

The library of Edward, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741) was 'the most choice and magnificent that were ever collected in this Kingdom'. His bound prints and illustrated books were sold by his widow in 1746 over 22 nights. The sale catalogue is the longest & most detailed of its kind from this period, by some way.

The South Sea Bubble triggered one of the greatest picture sales of the early 18th century, when the heavily-indebted Henry, 1st Duke of Portland (1682-1726) sold his paintings in 1722. One copy of the catalogue survives, in the Frick library. Its manuscript annotations, which list every buyer and price fetched, provide an invaluable snapshot of the major collectors and dealers of that moment.

The collection of old master drawings belonging to the Roman connoisseur Padre Resta was "the finest without doubt in Europe" according to John Talman. Resta sold almost 4000 sheets to the Whig Lord Chancellor, Baron Somers (1651-1716), which were auctioned in London in 1717.

Sales of artists, architects & a composer

Auction catalogues offer a window onto the careers, households and intellectual worlds of the vendors. In this update are the posthumous catalogues of architects Nicholas Hawksmoor (1740), William Kent (1749), Sir Christopher Wren (1749), and Leonard Wooddeson (1733); the painters John Robinson (1746), Louis Goupy (1748), Thomas Morland (1748), Joseph Vanhaecken (1751) and John Ellys (1760); the engraver John Dunstall (1693); and the composer George Frederick Handel (1760).

Auctioneer's copies

The Frick's Portland annotations are probably based on information from the auctioneer's office, given their completeness & the fact that the prices include the post-sale fee (by contrast, the Houlditch transcript of the Portland sale gives the hammer price only). Another catalogue published now - the heavily-annotated catalogue of the 1719 sale of the contents of the Duke of Ormonde's London house - appears to be the only auctioneer's working copy surviving from any sale before the foundation of Christie's.

The update has been added by the site's creator, Richard Stephens, and generously funded by the London-based dealer Lowell Libson. So hurrah to them.

Turner on Climate Change?

March 25 2014

Image of Turner on Climate Change?

Picture: atmos-chem-phys.net

Crikey, the scientists have been playing with Old Masters again. A new article in Atmosphere, Chemistry and Physics claims that paintings can be used to assess climate changes, and in particular aerosol optical depths (AODs, caused by things like ash and sand in the atmosphere). They've analysed a series of landscapes, from 1500 to 2000, including Turner's watercolour sketch 'Red Sky and Crescent Moon', above, and deduced that the levels AODs in the atmosphere throughout history can be determined in art. You and I, however, might think it's something to do with artistic interpretation. But A for effort, scientists!

Update - a reader sees wisdom in the scientist's approach:

It appears that what the scholarly study says is that the aerosol optical dispersion of particulates and visible  gases in renderings of sunsets by a range of artists and in many paintings made during the past five hundred years when compared at both high and low resolution are consistent within a narrow variation with scientific evidence regarding the visible effects of volcanic eruptions and Saharan dust storms on these substances in the atmosphere. 

Of great interest to us is the fact that eighty four percent of the paintings in the Tate sample were by J M W Turner and that this narrow sample produced results statistically nearly identical to those from a diverse sample from The National Gallery covering the study's full temporal and artistic range.

This has three implications-

First it further confirms scientific data regarding AODs,

Second it suggests that paintings might contain additional atmospheric information perhaps regarding climatic variations,

Third and principally,, it implies that painters painted what they saw rather than what they were imagining.

Connoisseurship conference

March 14 2014

Image of Connoisseurship conference

Picture: Paul Mellon Centre

Here are some more details about the forthcoming conference on connoisseurship I mentioned recently. The conference, to be held at the Paul Mellon Centre in London on Friday 2nd May, is to be called 'The Educated Eye? Connoisseurship Now'. Here's the blurb:

This one-day conference will address the issue of connoisseurship in relation to historic, modern and contemporary British art studies.  Speakers from different sphere - art dealers, museum curators, conservators, art journalists, and academics - will give personal 'position papers' based on their own professional perspectives and experiences of the role and relevance of connoisseurship in today's art world.  Issues to be explored include the question of the 'eye'; the value of technical knowledge and the role of conservation; the role of connoisseurship in the marketplace, including questions of attribution and market value; connoisseurship and collecting; connoisseurship and art theory; connoisseurship and art-historical scholarship; and connoisseurship's relevance to contemporary art.

See here for the full programme and list of speakers. I'll be giving a paper titled 'Why Connoisseurship Matters'.

Connoisseurship strikes back (ctd.)

March 6 2014

Image of Connoisseurship strikes back (ctd.)

Picture: AIA

Early last year I mentioned here the forthcoming Authentication in Art conference to held this May in The Hague. I noted then the apparent lack of any mention of the 'C-word' in the programme, but I'm pleased to see now that it features a great deal. The conference will be held over three days, and speakers include Prof. Martin Kemp. They kindly asked me to speak, but I decided against in the end. I see, by the way, that the fee for the conference is 700 Euros! Ooph.

Much cheaper, and more convenient for those in Blighty, will be a forthcoming one day conference on connoisseurship organised by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. 'Connoisseurship Now' takes place on Friday 2nd May. I will be giving a paper headed 'Why Connoisseurship Matters', and other speakers will include Dr Stephan Deuchar (director of the Art Fund and former director of Tate Britain), Hugo Chapman of the British Museum, and Dr Martin Myrone of Tate Britain. Should be fun. Book now!

PS - do you think connoisseurship matters? If so, do help me write my paper by telling me why... Equally, I'd like to hear from you if you don't think it matters.

Update - a reader writes:

The Mellon Centre event looks interesting... but it's nowhere to be seen on their website (even though they have stuff on events happening much later, in July). Do you think it's because they are themselves deeply ambivalent about connoisseurship?

Don't think so! I'll ask the PMC to put the details up soon.

The Grumpy Art Historian sends a link to some heartening E H Gombrich quotes he found recently in a short pamphlet called Art History and the Social Sciences. Among them this:

"[the basic skill of art history is] the ability to assign a date, place, and, if possible, a name on the evidence of style. I know no art historian who is not aware of the fact that this skill could not be practised in splendid isolation. The historian of art must be a historian, for without the ability to assess the historical evidence, inscriptions, documents, chronicles, and other primary sources the geographical and chronological distribution of styles could never have been mapped out in the first place."

A reader wonders if the word 'connoisseurship' itself is the problem:

I think there is a struggle to hand as the general run of art and art-history theorists believe that connoisseurship needs to be locked away in a cupboard (probably dark brown 18th century gothic revival) and not mentioned.

It’s an enormously important area and I wonder about finding another name for it so that ordinary folk don’t get frightened off... ?

I like the word myself personally. But I agree that in other senses the word 'connoisseur' has very snobbish connotations, especially when it comes to defining 'taste'. But this is in fact a corrupt use of the word, for when applied to the skill of working out an attribution it makes perfect sense, deriving as it does from the latin 'cognoscere', which means 'to get to know'. Connoisseurship, therefore, is simply 'getting to know' (say) the style of Van Dyck.

Another reader addresses the 'science' issue:

In your recent blog you asked for views on connoisseurship. Perhaps an obvious point but one which does not seem to be stressed much is that science i.e. proof of facts such as pigment identification, dendrology  etc.  can only really be used to prove unequivocally that a painting is not by a given artist. (I do not include fingerprints or handwriting in this which are subjective fields and, speaking as a  lawyer,I know how woeful the track record for these is.  ). Whilst science  may contribute towards a positive identification it is hard to see how it could ever do so unequivocally on its own. So long as positive identification is desired therefore connoisseurship will be essential. Or am I being simple minded?!

Absolutely not.

Another reader sends this further analysis:

Their isn't any certain recipe for attributing a work of art about which a doubt exists or should exist. Connoisseurship is a tool in authentication and attribution.  It isn't the only tool, but it is an essential one.

If one thinks of a hierarchy of authentication: first is a signed work with documents that show that it was by a particular artist, science that validates the materials, and a provenance that can trace this particular piece to the artist, which only leaves the possibility of intentional fraud by the owner who could have substituted a copy with the right materials for the original.

After that all of the tools of authentication must be applied to the work.

Provenance - documentation and historical support.

Scientific examination - of the pigments, canvas, wood, and other materials.

And then Connoisseurship.

In general, scientific data can only disprove an attribution.  It can only show that a work could not have been created by a particular artist or in an positive sense, that it might have been created by a particular artist.  Even a work on a piece of canvas cut from the same larger piece of canvas as a work by Vermeer could be (admittedly unlikely but still possible) by a contemporary, but for an artistic examination of the work itself.

If documentation is lacking and the work passes the other tests, and probably some which I have overlooked, connoisseurship is still necessary.

Two identical or similar works of the same vintage are often by two different artists and could pass other tests including provenance, both possibly having had the same original owner who wanted a copy, and ultimately it is style, brushwork, peculiarities of signature or other indicia (Strong noted how dates were indicated), and the other elements of connoisseurship that can attribute (provide an informed opinion regarding) the authorship.

Like science, connoisseruship isn't a proof of anything only a statement that a particular artist could have created, might have created, or is very likely to have created a work.  It can also suggest that there is evidence to disprove an attribution.

Then, when there is a individual work, aside from deliberate fraud which is a separate topic, there is the question of whose hand created it or which parts of it which, in the absence of other proof, requires connoisseurship.

But this still only an informed opinion.  A great difficulty with connoisseurship is assessing the agenda and qualifications of the expert.  There are both professional and financial pressures at work here.  And the expert is only a human.

Why consider connoisseurship, because the scientific  tools are also inconclusive, and C adds evidence to build an opinion.  The work, in general, must speak for itself.  Res ipsa loquitor.

Update II - an artist writes:

As a painter the bit I'm always troubled by is something that is rarely spoken about in the art world - some experts are colour blind and some others have no spacial awareness and that's why for many it's easier to talk about scientific analysis and provenance, without looking at the picture concerned and asking basic questions about why, what's achieved and how.  

Sometimes with a collector one can tell what their strengths and weaknesses are from the art they collect and that's true also with gallery owners who choose and put on exhibitions - I can think of several who I think might be colour blind! (I won't name anyone)  But 'experts' are opaque about their abilities / prejudices and preferences.  And frequently they are unable to either explain decisions or engage in debate about these decisions.  I can understand why they back off - especially if the other party has a financial incentive to prove a picture.      

I'd happily try to devise an exam in practical skills in which experts could demonstrate their understanding and sensitivity to line, colour, texture, composition, sculptural qualities and pattern.  Maybe a if an expert could analysis - for example which colours he/she can see in a shade of grey or do a quick sketch to demonstrate their understanding of the work they are looking at, this would inspire greater confidence in them.

Two new Gainsboroughs!

February 11 2014

Image of Two new Gainsboroughs!

Pictures: BBC/ Your Paintings

Thanks to those of you who wrote in about the latest episode of 'Fake or Fortune?' If you want to see it (if you live in the UK), the episode is still on iPlayer here. It was a rewarding programme to work on, and to have ended up with two new works by Gainsborough was a nice way to end the series. For those who didn't see it, we looked into two paintings found on the BBC Your Paintings website which had no firm attribution.

The first was an 'imaginary landscape' (above) described as by an imitator of Gainsborough, and the second was a portrait of Joseph Gape (top), which was catalogued simply as 'English School'. The landscape is in the Courtauld collection, while the portrait was in storage at the St Albans museum, but turned out to be on loan from the sitters' descendants. Both pictures were subsequently accepted by the compiler of the forthcoming catalogue raisonne of Gainsborough's portraits, Hugh Belsey. The Courtauld picture turned out to be a drawing, partly worked  up in colour by Gainsborough, but which had been finished off by another hand, most noticeably in areas such as the central part of the sky.

We didn't have time in the programme to fully explore the fascinating x-ray we took of the Gape portrait, so I've posted images of it below. The first one, as I mentioned in the show, demonstrates that originally the picture was a described oval, but had been cut down into an oval shape, and the arm extended by a later restorer. The second is a close up of the head, which reveals just how much overpaint remains on the face, especially around the eyes; they're much more expressive, to the extent that it's almost a different person. Also visible in x-ray is more of Gainsborough's signature technique, and it was gratifying to see this after my initial hunch that the much over-painted picture was indeed by Gainsborough. And interestingly, the x-ray revealed a different wig. The wig seen in the x-ray is of a slightly older fashion, and has been altered, probably just a few years after the portrait was painted, to show the latest type.

If you'll allow me to boast for a moment, 'Fake or Fortune?' has so far discovered (and had accepted by the relevant experts) works by Degas, Van Dyck, Turner (3), Vuillard, Constable (2), and now Gainsborough (2). We're now looking for stories for a fourth series, so if you have a secret Leonardo, please let me know. To read more about how we go about finding pictures like these, and how you can do it too, here's a new article on the BBC website.

Nuclear testing for fakes

February 11 2014

Image of Nuclear testing for fakes

Picture: Guggenheim Collection

Here's an interesting story; a questionable painting in the Guggenheim collection by Fernand Leger has been proved to be a fake by testing for faint signs of cold-war era nuclear bombs. These apparently proved that the painting must have been made after Leger's death. More here

 

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