Previous Posts: January 2012

'Leonardo' - the last week...

January 31 2012

Image of 'Leonardo' - the last week...

Picture: BG

And the queues keep getting longer. Top tip if you have a ticket and are going in the morning; rather than join the queue for those with tickets (here on the left) just enter the gallery by the main entrance, and walk through to the Sainsbury Wing. You'll save yourself a whole heap of time...

More bad taste art history

January 31 2012

Image of More bad taste art history

Picture: An anonymous fridge, somewhere in south London

Following yesterday's excitement with Barbie (posed in various old master guises), and my call for more of the same, a reader writes:

A propos Barbie, do you know the Michelangelo David fridge magnet, with multiple alternative magnetic add-on bits of dress? I can't send photos, as I don't have that one, but I have the Bouguereau Venus, again with many alternative garbs - do you want photos of that?

Yes, yes we do! If you have anything similarly curious, send it in...

Adam de Colone & Adam de Colonia

January 31 2012

Image of Adam de Colone & Adam de Colonia

Picture: Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The noted Dutch art historian Rudi Ekkart has published an invaluable article in the latest Burlington Magazine on the artist Adam de Colone, the leading portrait painter in Scotland in the 1620s. He was previously thought to have been the son of James I's court artist Adrian Vanson. But Ekkart can now prove that Adam de Colone was not Vanson's son, but his brother-in-law (the younger brother of Vanson's wife, Susanna de Colonia), and that he is the same artist as Adam de Colonia, who was practicing in Rotterdam in the 1630s. Ekkart then goes onto make some plausible attributions to possible Dutch works by Adam de Colonia, whose distinctive style of drawing faces can be seen in the above portrait of James Erskine, 6th Earl of Buchan [Scottish National Portrait Gallery].

I don't want to steal too much of Ekkart's research from the Burlington, which can be subscribed to here. It's well worth getting a copy of the article, which is a fine example of good old-fashioned 'who painted what when' art history, of a type rarely seen these days. 

Update - oops, turns out this doesn't work at all. Read about Duncan Thomson's latest research here

A case of bad taste at Tate?

January 30 2012

Image of A case of bad taste at Tate?

Picture: BG

I was very surprised to see this image on the scaffolding outside Tate Britain this morning. Political anoraks will recognise it immediately as the famous Saatchi & Saatchi Tory poster of 1979, called 'Labour Isn't Working' [below]. The words have been photo-shopped out, as has the entrance to the 'Unemployment Office'. Given that Tate Britain is currently axing many key members of staff at the moment (including, oddly, some of the country's leading scholars), isn't it a little strange that they should decorate the gallery with one of the defining images of unemployment? Not exactly good for staff morale...

More on the Poussin attack

January 30 2012

There was an intriguing nugget of information buried in a recent Guardian piece on yet another strike by room warders at the National Gallery:

The PCS [Public & Commercial Services Union] claims that last year, when a man walked into the gallery and threw red paint over Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf, the assistant on duty was in the adjoining room. Had he been there, the union says, the attack "would not have happened".

The National disputes this version of events: it insists the assistant was shown on CCTV to have been in the doorway of the room during the attack.

I wonder which account is correct, the union's or the Gallery's. Given the layout of the galleries where the Poussin hangs, I presume the doorway in question was that between room 19 and room 20 (click here for the NG floorplan). The other possible doorway opens onto a much larger central gallery, 18, which would, one expects, have its own guard. If this scenario is correct, then it means a warder was practically adjacent to the painting when it was attacked.

Plum art world job available

January 30 2012

Image of Plum art world job available

Picture: SNPG

Here's a great opportunity for anyone interested in portraiture and history - the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery is looking for a new Director. The current director James Holloway, having overseen the epic restoration of the gallery, is stepping down. You will need:

Substantial and demonstrable experience in relevant roles in heritage or cultural institutions and a good working knowledge of a relevant subject area such as British/Scottish art and/or history

Outstanding people management skills and proven financial management, planning and budgeting experience.

A collaborative approach to team working with the ability to work across the NGS and to influence and network across a range of institutions and individuals, managing competing demands and devising creative solutions to problems.

Sounds like the dream job. Closing date 7th March 2012. Good luck!

'(Barbie) Girl with a Pearl Earring'

January 30 2012

A French artist has posed Barbie as famous Old Masters. If you can bear to look, there's nine more of these, including Barbie as the Mona Lisa. The mind boggles. Still, if somebody cares to send me Action Man in the guise of Michelangelo's David I'll put it up. Good luck removing those blue Y-fronts...

NY Old Master results: Sotheby's $62m - Christie's $38.7m

January 27 2012

Image of NY Old Master results: Sotheby's $62m - Christie's $38.7m

Picture: Sotheby's

Ouch. That's quite a score. 

Sotheby's top lot was the above Saint Jerome in the Wilderness by Fra Bartolommeo, which made $4.9m. 

I've got to write and give a lecture today on valuing Old Masters, at Sotheby's Institute - so I'll post a more detailed review of the week's sales later.

Spotmania - the winner is...

January 26 2012

Over 600 people have now signed up to take the 'Damien Hirst Complete Spot Challenge' (see all 11 Spot exhibitions around the world, get a free print) - but if you were one of them, and wanted to be the first, then too late: Valentine Uhovski, of website Art Ruby, has beaten you to it. 

Here is how Valentine described crossing the finishing line in London:

[...] the final cab ride to Davies [Street] with our driver Peter felt jittery. Maybe it was the realization that this undertaking (comprised of more miles in one week than you’d want to imagine) was ending after a twenty minute cab drive. At Mayfair, [...] we got our historic final stamp, posed for more photos, and then got to absorb the intimate, final spots show, filled with exhilarating, tiny (mostly circa 1996) fellas.

How did it feel to finally end this passage? Well, we crashed for the first time in 8 days at our nearby hotel at Oxford Street. But only for sixty minutes. Then we felt proud, relieved, spent, happy, hopeful and alert… while answering dozens of friends’ e-mails and updating the Twitter board. But art journey will continue tomorrow with more shows here in London…with absolutely no stamps on the line.

Meanwhile, The Art Newspaper's Christina Ruiz is taking a more sedate pace, and has so far got to Athens. There she described how only six Spot paintings are on display, and:

[...] Christina Papadopoulou, who is manning the desk, tells me some are for sale but declines to say which, if any, have sold. My guess is none of them have. There are of course major contemporary art collectors in Greece, not least Dakis Joannou and Dimitris Daskalopoulos, but if they liked Hirst’s spot paintings, they’d own one by now. This global spot extravaganza is designed to appeal to new collectors and they’re probably in short supply in Athens right now. Even those with money will balk at the perceived frippery of spending it on coloured spots as the economy goes down the toilet.

In our gallery, we mark sold pictures with a red spot. But I suppose marking sold Hirst Spots with a spot would just be taking the piss.

$1.4m drawing purchased by the Getty

January 26 2012

Image of $1.4m drawing purchased by the Getty

Picture: Sotheby's

ArtInfo reports that this Renaissance drawing attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo was bought yesterday at Sotheby's New York by the Getty Museum for $1.4m.

Hollywood meets art history

January 26 2012

Video: Sullivan Entertainment

A new film has been released which explores the scientific analysis of hidden masterpieces. There's a review by Judith Dobrzynski here, and more on the film's website here. Looks like it's worth ordering - not least to hear the great Donald Sutherland, who narrates the film, make nerdy terms like 'multi-spectral photography' and 'pigment analysis' sound enticingly exciting. 

$34m Old Master sale in New York

January 26 2012

Image of $34m Old Master sale in New York

Picture: Christie's

There was another strong Old Master sale at Christie's New York yesterday, making £34m in total. The same sale last year made $28m. Top of the pile was Giambattista Tiepolo's Arrival of Henry III at the Villa Contarini, which sold for $5.9m, against an estimate of $4-6m. Next up were: a Gerrit Dou making $3.3m (est $1-2m); a Rearing Stallion by Van Dyck at $2.5m (est.$2.5-$3.5m); a delightful Rubens study for The Assumption of the Virgin at $2.4m (est. $2-3m); and Elizabeth Taylor's Frans Hals [above] at $2.1m (est. $700k-$1m).

I can 'exclusively reveal', as they say in the papers, that the Hals will be heading to the UK soon, as part of a private collection. It is a fine portrait, once dismissed by Hals scholars, and probably something of a bargain. There can be no doubt that it is fully autograph, and in nice condition too. Van Dyck's Stallion may also be a bargain, for it sold in London in 2008 for just over £3m. The catalogue note for the picture stated that Christie's had a financial stake in the picture, either owning it 'whole or in part'. The belief is that last time it was offered for sale the eventual buyer would not pay. The picture is an interesting case of how an awkward and recent market history can influence value. 

All prices include buyer's premium.

New discovery - a portrait of the young James I & VI

January 25 2012

Image of New discovery - a portrait of the young James I & VI

Picture: Philip Mould

A quick note about a picture I've recently found; above is a portrait described in a minor auction house as a 'Portrait of a Young Girl'. Underneath the old varnish and dirt I found an original inscription identifying the sitter as 'Jacobus', King of Scotland, painted when aged 9. The face-type was recognisable from the well-known portrait of James aged 8 in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which is by Arnold Bronkhorst, then court artist in Edinburgh. Our portrait uses the same head type, but with a slightly more adult form of formal court dress.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the picture is what lies beneath it. When cleaning the portrait, I noticed a third ear emerging from James' forehead. An infra-red photograph of the picture, below, revealed that it had been painted on top of another, much earlier portrait of a saint. The so far anonymous saint is holding a chalice, and his hands can be seen clasped in prayer. The integral frame is original to the earlier picture; the portrait of James was painted straight on top of the saint, and within the existing frame. The picture of the saint looks Netherlandish, perhaps early sixteenth century, and by a good artist. One can speculate as to why the picture was over-painted, but it was probably something to do with the move against religious imagery in Reformation Scotland. And since the painting of the saint was made to a piece of good quality imported oak, it would have made sense to re-use it rather than destroy it.  

What is a 'nein-sager'?

January 24 2012

Readers may be interested in this view of connoisseurship from the art historian Max Friedlander (1867-1958), who divided connoisseurs into those who held an open mind on making attributions, whom he called the 'yes' men, and  those who as a rule rejected them, the 'no' men (or, in German, 'nein-sagers'):

As the 'No' man imagines that he stands above the 'Yes' man - and probably also to others to seem to stand higher - critics will always feel the impulse to attack genuine works in order to win the applause of the maliciously minded. The 'Yes' men have done more harm, but have also been of greater usefulness, than the rigorous 'no' men, who deserve no confidence if they never have proved their worth as 'Yes' men.

Only about half of Friedlander's attributions have stood the test of time (largely because he was a generalist, not a specialist, and felt able to attribute pictures to a whole range of artists) - but his basic analysis of the impulses of a connoisseur remains, sometimes, worryingly sound. 

Update - I found in Brian Sewell's autobiography an important anecdote about Friedlander: he himself admitted that only his attributions before 1933 should be taken seriously, for after that he often gave optimistic attributions to Jewish families trying to raise funds by selling art, or to Nazis who demanded certificates of him.

Test your connoisseurship

January 24 2012

Image of Test your connoisseurship

Picture: Darke Auction

Who painted this? 

Since I don't want you to think about it too long, click 'read on' below to find the answer. It is coming up for sale soon

Incidentally, is it really by him? Doesn't look much like his other works. 

Read More

Antonio Canova and the 'Brazil Butt Challenge'

January 24 2012

Image of Antonio Canova and the 'Brazil Butt Challenge'

Picture: Brynne Owlstone via

Following my recent post on a jet-lagged visit to New York (a visit to the Metropolitan Museum late at night and infomercials for the 'Brazil Butt Lift' early in the morning), a reader writes:

I'm an art student currently studying illustration in New York, and I quite enjoyed your post on the Metropolitan Museum. My friend and I were actually in the museum on the same night to sketch in the sculpture halls. The public spaces we're crammed into are usually so small that the Met is a welcome escape, and it's even been busier since the American Wing reopened a few weeks ago. Tragically, I don't think the gift shop sells Brazilian Butt Lifts (although Canova's Perseus With the Head of Medusa [above] looks like it's used one.)

I really enjoy your site, by the way. It fulfills my daily art-history-nerd quota.


New sculpture for the 'Fourth Plinth'

January 24 2012

Image of New sculpture for the 'Fourth Plinth'

Picture: James O jenkins, via

A reader has alerted me to the new 'Fourth Plinth' commission, by Scandinavian art duo 'Elmgreen and Dragset'. 'Powerless Structures' will be unveiled next month. Here's the blurb:

The child is elevated to the status of a historical hero in line with the iconography of the other statues in the square. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, however, the work celebrates the heroism of growing up and questions the tradition of monuments predicated on military victory or defeat. There is not yet a history to commemorate here – only a future to hope for.

I'm looking forward to seeing it - it looks like a nice piece of sculpture. Coincidentally, Will Self had a piece in The Guardian recently called 'Why I hate Trafalgar Square'*, in which the only thing he likes about the Square is the Fourth Plinth idea:

Of the recent Fourth Plinth sculptures only Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper Pregnant has gone any way towards bending the square's rectilinear rigidity. With its subversion of the conventionally standardised representations of the body the square specialises in, and its bright white marble – the albedo of which attracted a good proportion of the flying rats – Quinn's statue made a stab at the flinty heart of the Brit establishment.

Unfortunately it couldn't possibly penetrate far enough. What's needed are cafes all over the gaff, open-air and serving excellent espresso; top-notch strolling and – unlicensed – buskers; Horatio's nob chopped off halfway down; at least one of the lions upended; an open-air market; some good ethnic food stalls; and possibly a snake charmer or 20.

My favourite Fourth Plinth piece so far was Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo - a quite brilliant work which suited the scale of the Square perfectly. But I have a faint hope that the plinth will one day have a permanent statue of the Queen on it.  

* I thought only The Daily Mail began articles with 'Why I hate..'?

'The Wrong Leonardo'

January 24 2012

Image of 'The Wrong Leonardo'

Picture: Louvre/National Gallery, London

The art historian and former director of the Warburg Institute Charles Hope has an interesting review of the Leonardo exhibition in the New York Review of Books.* He has titled it 'The Wrong Leonardo', and the 'wrong' picture in this case is the National Gallery's version of the Madonna of the Rocks:

It is perhaps not surprising that in the catalog it is argued at length that the London version of The Virgin of the Rocks, which in the past has often been doubted, is “fully autograph,” like the one in the Louvre. But it is exceedingly unusual for any Renaissance artist to produce two almost identical versions of the same altarpiece, and it is certainly very surprising that Leonardo, who, by all accounts, only painted when he felt inclined to do so and was remarkably cavalier about the wishes of his patrons, should have done such a thing. I believe that the history of the commission, which is unusually well documented, cannot be reconciled with the claims made in the catalog.

Longstanding readers will know that I thought the Paris version is certainly 'better' than the London version of The Rocks, but I would still call both pictures 'Leonardo'. The only question in the London picture is the extent to which Leonardo was involved. Some say entirely; I'd say less than the Paris version, but that it is largely by Leonardo, and we can forgive him if he left parts of it to be completed by highly talented students acting under his supervision. This was normal artistic practice. Charles Hope, however, goes further:

Leonardo’s own involvement, if there was any at all, is likely to have been very limited. It seems entirely out of character that he should have made a copy of one of his own works, but on occasion he certainly allowed others to do so. In comparison with the Louvre version, there is a lack of individuality and inner life in the figures, which now have a strangely gray complexion. Although much of the modeling is of great delicacy and skill, it seems obvious, now that the two pictures can be seen together, that they are not by the same hand.

Like many, Hope doesn't like the Madonna Litta from St Petersburg, and rejects entirely the attribution to Leonardo. He also questions two other works catalogued as 'Leonardo' in the show; the Portrait of a Musician, and the newly discovered Salvator Mundi. On the latter, he writes:

Much more suspect, however, is a recently cleaned painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi from a private collection. This was recorded in a print of the mid-seventeenth century, and the composition is known in other versions. But even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull.

This seems to be yet another case of the Salvator Mundi producing entirely subjective responses. Many of those who have declared it to be either by or not by Leornardo have gone on to describe their reasoning in subjective terms. Here it is too 'dull'. Andrew Graham-Dixon said it lacked 'the spark of inner life and feeling'. Readers will know of other similar views. And I'm sorry, but it isn't good enough. Attributions cannot be made or dismissed on a viewer's own human response to a painting. One person's 'dull' picture can be another's 'magical' one. For example, Richard Dorment remarked that the Salvator Mundi's 'strangeness' made him doubt it - but this is the very same 'strangeness' which made Waldemar like it: 'The sheer strangeness of the image makes it feel Leonardo-esque. No normal painter would have attempted this.' So can we please have proper, evidence-based responses to Salvator Mundi; indeed, to any picture? 

* via Three Pipe Problem

A sleeper in New York

January 23 2012

Image of A sleeper in New York

Picture: BG

Blogging may be a little light today I'm afraid - I flew in from New York this morning, and I've a few things to sort out in the gallery. Enjoy, in the meantime, this engaging sleeper-ette I found in New York. It wasn't at an auction, but in my hotel. Hidden away in a back staircase was this female portrait labelled as being by Francis Cotes. It is in fact an early work by George Romney, perhaps from the 1760s. Curiously, the sitter was identified on the label as a 'Miss Romney'. I'll look into this further, and report back when I have more information.  

Update - Alex Kidson, compiler of the forthcoming Romney catalogue raisonne, has said he will include the picture. Result!

Awake in New York

January 22 2012

Image of Awake in New York

Picture: BG

Greetings from a snowy New York, where I 've come to view the Old Master sales at Sotheby's and Christie's. I flew in yesterday afternoon, and will leave later this evening (Sunday). My flight on Delta was suddenly cancelled with only a few hours warning on Friday evening, and, having spent over two fruitless hours on the phone trying to rebook, I eventually managed to get a flight via Paris by contacting the airline on Twitter. It's amazing what a rant in under 140 characters can achieve these days. The schedule is a little tight, but it gives me enough time view the sales, say a few hellos, and get back to the office for Monday morning.

It also means I can stay roughly on UK time, so here I am, awake and waiting for breakfast to begin. I've tried the telly, but it's only 'infomercials' at this time (my favourite so far, 'The Brazil Butt Lift - For the Butt of Your Dreams', $49.99), and replays of Newt Gingrich's victory speech after his win in the South Carolina primary last night. It seems he may now have the momentum to go on and win the nomination. Yikes.

Regular readers will know that when it comes to New York, I tend to take the view of Kenneth Clark - wonderful from afar, 'but up close it's another matter'. I know some readers in the city won't like that - but don't worry, I've always liked New Yorkers. My mother is American, and I've spent a lot of time here over the years, mainly in Washington, which is more my kind of city. I like a bit of space every now and then. Still, New York is one of the best cities in the world when it comes to the arts. The new Renaissance Portraits exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum is worth the trip alone at the moment (closes March 18th).

As a former arts policy wonk, I always like to see the differences between the way museums are run in London and New York. Here, since there is very little state support, museums tend to be more responsive to their visitor's needs. So if you want to go the Metropolitan late on a Saturday night, fine, it's open till 9pm, with restaurants and live music. As you can see above, it was busy when I went at about 7.30pm.

Wouldn't it be nice if all museums in major cities were open late in the evenings - not least so that the people who actually live and work there could spend more time in them. Otherwise museums tend to become the preserve of tourists. There was a nice atmosphere at the Met last night, a sense that people were really using the art as a means to unwind, as well as learn. A strangely high number of dating couples too. We should do more of this in London.

Now - I'm off to find bacon...

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