Sooke on Matisse
April 1 2014
Allow me to plug Alastair Sooke's new book on Henri Matisse, available here on Amazon. Well worth getting for your shelves.
New clues in hunt for missing Ghent Altarpiece panel
March 31 2014
Every now and then someone says they know the whereabouts of the missing panel, Just Judges, from Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, stolen in 1934. In January this year, for example, a retired police commissioner said he thought it was buried in a cemetery outside Brussels. And in 2008, an anonymous tip off led Ghent police to dig up part of a house, but to no avail. Now, however, a Belgian politician and historian, Paul De Ridder, says he knows that the picture belongs to a prominent Ghent family. He says he is respecting their anonymity for now, but hopes to bring public pressure on them to return the work. More here at Flanders News.
Wadsworth acquires Gentileschi self-portrait
March 28 2014
Picture: Wadsworth Atheneum
Regular readers may recall that I was surprised the above Self-Portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi failed to sell at Christie's most recent Old Master sale in New York. It's a fine picture, and I thought Christie's estimate of $3-$5m was very fair. So I'm pleased to see that the Wadsworth Atheneum bought the picture in an after-sale deal. Well done them and well done Christie's. More here.
Incidentally, did you know that the Atheneum was the first public art institution in the United States?
March 28 2014
The pictures in question were painted for the dining room of the Holyoke Centre, a modernist lump built by Harvard University in 1966. They did not hang there long, though. Rothko liked to mix his own paints, said Dr Stenger, and had no idea how his concoctions would react to the abundant sunlight the Holyoke was designed to admit.
The answer, it turned out, was not well. After just 15 years they had faded so badly that they were consigned to a darkened basement for their own protection. Worse, when Dr Stenger and his colleagues dug out photographs taken of them when they were new, the researchers were dismayed to find that the photographs were not light-fast either, and that they too had faded over the years.
Fortunately the emulsion used standard pigments. This meant a chemist could work out how it would have reacted to sunlight. That let the researchers work backwards to make a computer-generated image of the original photos, and thus of the original paintings. But what to do with this information?
Any restoration would have involved extensive repainting. A materially minded scientist might wonder why that should be a problem, as long as the result was faithful to the original. But the finer sensibilities of art historians are, apparently, offended by this approach. Such people regard simply slapping on a new coat of paint as unethical.
If you cannot change the paint, though, you can change the lighting instead. In 1986 Raymond Lafontaine, a Canadian art conserver, outlined how shining coloured light at a painting could counteract the effects of yellowish varnish overlying the image. Craft this optical illusion carefully and you can change the colours of a picture in a natural looking way.
In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos this was not easy. Each had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.
Rothko should have followed the young Thomas Lawrence's practice of writing, on the back of his pastel portraits, 'be pleased to keep from the sun and the light'.
Richard III? (ctd.)
March 28 2014
There was great excitement last year when the University of Leicester claimed it had found Richard III's body in a Leicester car park. There were immediate calls to re-bury the body in either York or Leicester cathedrals. At the time, I posted this sceptical view, and argued that:
If we want to be able to say, 'This is Richard III', with such conviction that we are able then to bury him with all the dignity the Church can muster, in a shrine in some exalted cathedral,* then we must be absolutely sure, beyond not just reasonable doubt but any doubt, that it is him. And we are not yet there.
We're still not there, not least because the University of Leicester has yet release of all the archaeological and DNA evidence. So I was interested to read today that two emminent experts, Martin Biddle, emeritus professor of medieval archaeology at Oxford, and Michael Hicks, head of history at Winchester University, have gone public with their doubts, in an interview with BBC History Magazine:
Speaking exclusively to BBC History Magazine, Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester, and Martin Biddle, archaeologist and director of the Winchester Research Unit, raised concerns about the DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and damage to the skeleton. Biddle also notes that the team of archaeologists from the University of Leicester is yet to make excavation field records publicly available.
Hicks (pictured below) said he is not convinced that the remains are those of the king. Instead, he argues, they could belong to a victim of any of the battles fought during the Wars of the Roses, of which the 1485 battle of Bosworth – at which Richard was killed – was the last significant example.
While the location of the grave in the former site of the Grey Friars priory matches information provided by John Rous, an associate of Richard’s, Hicks notes that “lots of other people who suffered similar wounds could have been buried in the choir of the church where the bones were found”.
He also queried the project’s use of radiocarbon dating, which dates the bones to the period of Richard’s death. “Such a technique is imprecise,” he said. “It will give you an era, but nothing more. In this case, it covers a period of 80 years.”
You may be wondering what the art historical point of all this is, and it's due to the claim, also made by the UoL, that Richard III's skull could be used to recreate 'what he really looked like'. And of this I'm sceptical too!
Brian asks 'Who was William Kent?'
March 28 2014
Picture: Standard, interior of Chiswick House, designed by Kent
Brian Sewell, on good form as ever, reviews the V&A's new exhibition on William Kent, architect and artist, and is not overly impressed. Concluding paragraph:
In this exhibition we see proof of Hogarth’s judgment that Kent was a “contemptible dauber”, and his draughtsmanship too is exposed as that of a hapless amateur; but to be fair to him, Kent should be judged only in his houses and palaces, not in the mean circumstances of a meagre exhibition in the V&A. Five minutes in one room of Houghton proves him to have been capable of the most accomplished “fusions of architectural convention, decoration and embellishment”.
The Grumpy Art Historian has been too, and is even less impressed:
[...] the exhibition is overall a failure. Partly that's because it's hard to curate an exhibition about architecture, and partly it's because the curation is just bad.
Handel is played in the background, the ultimate cliché of Georgian England. It might be merely thoughtless and unimaginative, but I suspect it's trying to engage an audience with something familiar. That's even worse, because it shies away from anything challenging in favour of a tedious Merchant Ivory country house ethos. I hate music in exhibitions because it imposes a mood, forcing us to experience it exactly as the curatorial apparatchiks want to make us experience it. It imposes emotion and closes down meaning.
Cheap looking backdrops hang behind the exhibits, and looped films of country house interiors play alongside original works of art. Lest you're tempted to dally, some of the more intricate drawings are hung behind four foot deep stands. The wall text is minimalist and you have to snake along a narrow corridor, making it difficult to linger or to go back for a second look. It's more like watching television rather than reading a book. A book might make an argument, but you can choose how you engage with it, reading at your own pace and pausing to consider. A documentary imposes a pace. It is totalising; sound and vision are used to tell a story, which we must passively consume.
Was Veronese the Ai Wei Wei of his day?
March 28 2014
Yes, says Jonathan Jones in this interesting piece on Veronese's greatest commission, the Feast in the House of Levi (above).
March 27 2014
There's a good video on the BBC News site here from correspondent Stephen Evans as he takes a look at some of Cornelius Gurlitt's allegedly Nazi-tainted collection.
Update - The Guardian reports that Gurlitt has changed his legal team, and seems to be adopting a new, more conciliatory stance over returning potentially looted works.
Tate must return looted Constable
March 26 2014
This is big news: the UK's Spoliation Advisory Panel has today ruled that Tate Britain must return a painting by Constable to the heirs of a Hungarian art collector, named by Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper as Baron Ferenc Hatvany. The picture, 'Beaching a Boat, Brighton', was deposited in a Budapest bank vault by Hatvany under a different name, and under a different title, when he was fleeing both the Nazi's (he was of Jewish descent) and then later the Soviets. Hatvany eventually died in Switzerland in 1958, but the picture, and the rest of his collection, was looted from the Budapest bank by German or Russian forces.
The Tate opposed the claim, and said, among other arguments, that the picture held no 'personal and emotional significance for the Claimants.' But the Spoliation panel has found against them, and appears to be critical of Tate's lack of research into the picture's provenance, which could have thrown up the looted art link earlier. This excerpt comes from page 12 of the ruling:
The Panel concludes, in the light of the evidence, that the Tate was under a moral obligation to pursue the possibility, that the Painting had been the object of spoliation during the war but notes the Tate’s submissions that its connection with the Collector was overlooked by two selling galleries, the Yale University Press catalogue raisonné of 1984 and by four institutions to which it was later lent.
The Panel also concludes that the Tate could have researched the Painting’s provenance on subsequent occasions as the opportunity arose, particularly after its mention in Mravik’s monograph in the English-language in 1998 (referred to in paragraph 29 above). Even if it is not reasonable of the Claimants to demand that the Tate’s experts should have consulted the catalogues of the Witt Library, there were other sources available that could have established the likelihood that the Painting had been spoliated during the war. It would not have been difficult to have made enquiries of the Hungarian Government, who had included the Painting on its official list of looted art from the late 1940s.
The panel then criticises Tate for seeming to withold evidence from the heirs which might have advanced their claim:
The Tate is equivocal in its response to the charge that it has withheld information from the Claimants. It argues that full legal disclosure of the kind customary in litigation is “not appropriate in the context of an application to the Panel”. It asserts that it had “provided the Claimants with all the material relating to the specific issues they had raised” but this makes it clear that there is material with which it has not provided them. If the Claimants wished to see it, they should surely have been able to do so. However, in the end, this issue is not of major importance. The documentation available to the Panel is sufficient for it to reach an informed conclusion and make the appropriate recommendation.
The panel then concludes that the painting must be returned:
Taking into account all the above circumstances, the Panel concludes that the moral strength of the Claimants’ case, and the moral obligation on the Tate, warrant a recommendation that Beaching a Boat, Brighton, by John Constable, should be returned by the Tate to the Claimants as they desire, in accordance with the provisions of The Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 and subject to the conditions outlined in paragraphs 54 and 55 above. The Panel recommends accordingly. In accordance with its earlier decisions the Panel considers that no reimbursement is due from the Claimants to the Tate for its expenditure as that is broadly balanced by income received and by the benefit that Tate and the public have derived from the work over the last four decades.
I haven't seen the painting in person, but I'd have thought it's worth at least £500,000, and probably much more. You can read the full ruling here.
Update: I wrote this story yesterday in a bit of a rush, and so missed this astonishing claim by Tate defending their failure to investigate the provenance earlier:
37.The Witt Library is an image resource and the Tate argues that it would not have occurred to anybody to use it as a research tool for provenance unless, like the Claimants’ representatives, they had already been alerted to the possible Holocaust connection of a particular item.
I can't quite believe anyone at Tate genuinely thinks this. Everybody knows the Witt is the place to go for initial provenance clues. It's usually the first place I look. The photos there invariably have information on previous owners.
Update II: further evidence of how rushed my original report was - I missed this equally astonishing aspect of the case, noticed by the Standard, that Tate tried to claim for years worth of insurance, storage and preservation fees!
More records added to 'Art World in Britain'
March 26 2014
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).
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.
Van Dyck update (ctd.)
March 26 2014
Picture: Philip Mould Ltd
So, with belated apologies for the rather sparse blogging recently, let me be the first to tell you about what I've been working on over the last week or so: a new deal to help the National Portrait Gallery's campaign to acquire Van Dyck's final Self-Portrait (above). The target price has now been reduced from £12.5m to £10m. Here's a statement from the NPG:
The Art Fund and the National Portrait Gallery are pleased to announce that the campaign to save Van Dyck’s self-portrait for the nation has received a significant boost. Following discussions between the owner of the painting, Alfred Bader, the art dealer Philip Mould, and the collector, James Stunt, the National Portrait Gallery now has the opportunity to purchase the work for £10 million.
This new offer gives the Save Van Dyck campaign, which has four months remaining and originally needed to raise £12.5 million, an improved chance of ensuring that the portrait remains on public display forever. The application process for an export licence has also now been halted.
To date the campaign has raised £3.6 million, with contributions already made by more than 8,000 members of the public. The campaign has until 20 July 2014 to raise the remaining funds.
Some explanatory quotes - here's one from Mr Stunt:
‘When I agreed to buy this great portrait I didn't expect the huge swell of public opinion and the strength of emotion its export would generate. In light of the people's passion to purchase the Van Dyck for the nation I have carefully reconsidered my position and have decided, with Dr Bader and Mr Mould's agreement, to withdraw from the process. I trust that my withdrawal, together with the reduced price at which the painting is now being offered, will see the appeal succeed and that Van Dyck's final self portrait will permanently hang in the National Portrait Gallery.’
Here's what my employer, Philip Mould, had to say:
‘Watching the public reaction to Van Dyck’s Self-portrait develop in this unprecedented way has been amazing, and, for this lover of British historical portraiture, reassuring. The picture has become an iconic focal point, and for many the thought of it going to the United States would be like losing a chunk of Stonehenge. I am delighted to be able to help the National Portrait Gallery’s campaign in this way.’
And here's what the Bader family had to say:
‘Alfred Bader CBE, an established philanthropist on both sides of the Atlantic, has been impressed by the public’s response to the painting, and the efforts that both the Art Fund and the National Portrait Gallery have made to keep the picture on public display. He very much hopes that the National Portrait Gallery is able to complete the rest of its fundraising challenge.’
And, for what it's worth, here's what I have to say. Regular readers will know that previously I've had to tread carefully (here and here, for example) when it came to the NPG's campaign. Van Dyck is my favourite artist, and I'd naturally like to see his final Self-Portrait stay in the UK and on public display. But my responsibilities towards our clients meant that I couldn't be as much of a cheerleader for the campaign as I'd liked. Now that Mr Stunt is no longer buying the picture, and Dr Baders and Philip Mould have agreed this new plan in favour of the NPG, however, all efforts can be focused on the Gallery's fundraising. I'm pleased with the outcome.
Update - here's The Guardian's take.
Update II - a reader writes:
Good luck!! I can understand why it might be less (or less widely) appealing than, say, the big Titians, but it really is a lovely painting, not to mention a jewel for the Portrait Gallery historically.
Turner on Climate Change?
March 25 2014
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.
More arts stuff on the BBC
March 25 2014
Good news today from the BBC - they're significantly increasing their arts output. This isn't just good news for your humble correspondent, who might if he's lucky get the odd presenting gig. A whole series of new programmes was announced, from a six-parter Simon Schama on British portraiture, in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, through to a segment on Holbein's Ambassadors on The One Show this evening. Top of the pile was a commitment to do a new 'Civilisation' (above), which, regular readers will know, is my favourite TV programme ever. It's not been decided who the presenter will be, but various high calibre names have been mentioned. My choice would be Neil MacGregor of the British Museum, an inspirational modern-day Kenneth Clark. His recent Radio 4 series 'A History of the World in 100 Objects' was excellent. More details of tony Hall's (the BBC Director General) speech here.
Update - here's former National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith's view on who should do it:
It’s a long time since I’ve been on the Today programme, two minutes of ephemeral fame, talking about Tony Hall’s proposal that the BBC should remake Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation ‘for the digital age’. Of course, the whole point of Civilisation is that it’s not about the digital age, because it’s about the message, not the medium. And nobody made the point that nowadays Kenneth Clark wouldn’t get the role: wrong voice, wrong class, wrong teeth, wrong views. My candidates, for what they’re worth, are Jessica Rawson, Lisa Jardine or Mary Beard.
Charles, now Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, has an excellent blog, which I've only just come across.
March 24 2014
Video: National Gallery
This is worth a click: National Gallery director Nicholas Penny discusses the changes brought about by cleaning Veronese's 'The Adoration of the Kings'.
At the Ashmolean...
March 24 2014
Picture: Ashmolean Museum
...they're restoring the original Grinling Gibbons frame for John Riley's portrait of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). The frame was carved in 1681-2, but the gilding now being removed was only added in 1729-30. I was lucky enough to see this work in progress some months ago. It's going to take an age, but will certainly be worth it.
New Titian drawing discovered
March 24 2014
The National Gallery of Scotland has been buying sleepers. Competition for your humble correspondent. Yesterday, the Gallery unveiled a newly discovered drawing by Titian (above). It was spotted by a sharp-eyed curator, Aidan Weston-Lewis, who saw the work in a Sotheby's sale catalogue. There, it was described as 'attributed to Jacopo Bassano'. The Gallery bought the drawing for just £30,000. More details here in The Scotsman.
Strangely enough, I saw the drawing on Saturday as part of the Gallery's new exhibition 'Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Art', which is worth visiting if you fancy a trip to Edinburgh. But if you can't, then here's the app.
Update - the Grumpy Art Historian isn't convinced.
March 24 2014
Picture: MA/Yorkshire Scultpure Park
Good news from those venerable fellows at the Public Catalogue Foundation. After photographing every publicly owned oil painting in the UK and putting it online with 'Your Paintings', they've decided that their next challenge should be 'Your Sculpture'. More here.
Obama's trip to the Rijksmuseum
March 24 2014
President Obama admired Rembrandt's Nightwatch today on a visit to the Rijksmuseum. Should make up for his annoying American art historians the other day.
Brian on Veronese
March 21 2014
The Great Brian is on excellent form in his review of the Veronese exhibition, which is well worth a read. Like me, he seems most impressed with Veronese's early works, such as the 1548 Conversion of Mary Magdalene, above. Of course, Brian can't help but question a few of the attributions, as he is wont to do. But you'd be hard pressed to find a better short essay on where Veronese fits into the canon.