Previous Posts: May 2018


May 28 2018

Image of Apologies...

Picture: BG

Sorry for the lack of news lately, it's been too hot and balmy to do anything other than be in the garden. We don't often get Mays like this in Scotland, so we're making the most of it. Above is a view down the Leader Valley in Berwickshire.

And I'm afraid there won't be much news tomorrow either, as I'm heading to London to carry on the campaign to abolish image reproduction fees. We're meeting one of the national museum directors tomorrow. But actually at the time of writing I'm not sure I'll make it, as I'm stuck in Edinburgh airport waiting for a much delayed Easyjet flight. And now the fog is coming in... 

I hope you've all had a good Bank Holiday weekend, or for US readers, a Memorial Day weekend.

Update - I finally got into London at 2.30am. But we had the meeting today - at the V&A with Tristram Hunt - which was 'full and frank', as they say in political parlance. But it was also encouraging and positive, and I hope to be able to bring you good news from the V&A on image fees in the not too distant future. 

Now I'm waiting in another airport for another delayed flight back home. The things I do for art history!

Tudor and Jacobean miniatures at the NPG

May 23 2018

Image of Tudor and Jacobean miniatures at the NPG

Picture: NPG

Excellent news - the National Portrait Gallery in London is mounting the first major exhibition in decades on Tudor and Jacobean miniatures. The portrait miniature is one of the few areas in which Britain can genuinely claim to have contributed to the evolution of art history. And it all started in the Tudor and Jacobean era. Says the NPG press release:

Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver, 21 February - 19 May 2019, is the first major exhibition on Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures in the UK for over 35 years. The exhibition will bring together key works from the National Portrait Gallery and major loans from public and private collections, including miniatures that haven’t been seen in public in the UK since the early 1980s, to showcase the careers of the most skilled artists of the period, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, miniature painting was regarded as an art form at which the English excelled above all others, and Hilliard and Oliver gained international fame and admiration. The exhibition will explore what these exquisite images reveal about identity, society and visual culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Termed ‘limnings’ at the time, with their roots in manuscript illumination, miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a means of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases and worn around the neck, pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Described by Hilliard as ‘a thing apart from all other painting or drawing’, miniature painting was regarded as a particularly refined and expressive art form, capturing, in the words of Hilliard, ‘these lovely graces, witty smilings, and these stolen glances which suddenly like lightning pass’, as well as the rich and elaborate costumes and jewellery of the time. These tiny portraits, many in exceptional condition, bring their sitters before us, four hundred years after they were painted, with astonishing freshness and vivacity. In the words of a later commentator, ‘The art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great ... that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties.’

Catharine MacLeod, Senior Curator of Seventeenth-Century Portraits and Curator of Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver says: “I am thrilled to be able to bring together the miniature masterpieces of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver in this major new exhibition. In addition to exploring the exquisite technique of the artists, portrait miniatures from this period express in a unique way many of the most distinctive and fascinating aspects of court life in this period: ostentatious secrecy, games of courtly love, arcane symbolism, a love of intricacy and decoration.”

If you can't wait till next February to see these early miniatures, then there's always the excellent galleries of portrait miniatures at the V&A, one of the wonders of British museums.

Mantegna discovery in Italy

May 22 2018

Image of Mantegna discovery in Italy

Picture: Academia Carrara &

A painting by Mantegna has been discovered in Italy, at the Accademia Carrara. The painting (left, above) was in the museum's store rooms, and thought to be a copy. But sharp eyed curators noticed that it was actually the top part of another painting by Mantegna, the Descent into Limbo (above right), which was once part of the Barbara Piasecka Johson collection. The crucial detail was part of a cross on the top of a rod held in the Piasecka Johnson painting, of which the tip can just be seen at the bottom of the Carrara painting. More here (in Italian), and you can zoom into the painting here, on the Academia Carrara's excellent website.

'Prized Possessions'

May 22 2018

Image of 'Prized Possessions'

Picture: National Trust

This looks like a good show - the first loan exhibition of works from the National Trust in over twenty years. 'Prized Possessions' opens at the Holburne museum in Bath on 25th May (till Sept 16th), and will then travel to the Mauritshuis, before coming back to the UK at Petworth House in West Sussex. Above is Pieter Saenredam's Interior of the Church of St Catherine, which normally hangs in Upton House in Warwickshire.

More here

'Canova's George Washington'

May 22 2018

Video: Frick

Here's a good video from the Frick Collection, on their new exhibition devoted to Antonio Canova's portrait of George Washington. The film tells us that Washington had been dead for 14 years before the commission. Which may explain why the sculpture looks more like Canova himself than Washington. 

The exhibition opens tomorrow, and runs until September 23rd. More here. Remember, children are not allowed.

Van Dyck before and after - Royal edition

May 22 2018

Image of Van Dyck before and after - Royal edition

Picture: Adam Busiakiewicz

Back in 2015, I reported on the rather sad news that the owners of Warwick Castle (the listed company, Merlin Entertainment) were flogging off some of the Old Masters that have hung in the castle for centuries, including a full-length Van Dyck of Henrietta Maria. The portrait was offered at Sotheby's in London, and now belongs to a private collector in the USA. The painting was originally, when painted by Van Dyck, a half-length and was added to in the 18th Century to make it into a full-length.

The present owner has now removed the additions, which might sound shocking but actually I think it was the right thing to do. The additions weren't especially competent, and in getting the proportions slightly wrong made the Queen look as is she was wearing stilts. We have to consider that had Van Dyck originally conceived the picture as a full-length, he would have adjusted the foreshortening to account for the fact that the Queen would have been viewed from a different height and perspective. There was a suggestion that Sir Joshua Reynolds had made the additions, but for what it's worth I wasn't persuaded by that myself.

Anyway, the picture is now on loan at the Yale Center for British Art (but not spelling) in the USA. On his blog, Adam Busiakiewicz - who used to work at Warwick Castle - sets out the picture's story.

Restitution news (ctd.)

May 22 2018

Image of Restitution news (ctd.)

Picture: CTV News

The Max Stern project in Canada has tracked down another painting, this time a Gerrit Claesz Bleter stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s. More here

'New Rembrandt discovery in Holland' (ctd.)

May 22 2018

Video: Reuters

Above is a short video by Reuters on Jan Six's Rembrandt discovery, including an interview with Jan himself. And here, on a Dutch TV chat show, you can see Jan unveiling the picture in front of a studio audience, and he gives a much longer and very revealing interview (with English subtitles). The host brandishes a copy of the Christie's catalogue in which the picture was described as 'Circle of Rembrandt' as Jan tells us how he went about researching the picture before the sale. He says two particularly interesting things: first, that he showed a photo to the leading Rembrandt scholar Ernst van der Wetering before the sale (I've always though that's cheating!); that van der Wetering had himself not been asked for an opinion by anyone else before the sale. Which is surprising.

Update - you can buy Jan's book on the discovery here. It sets out all the evidence behind the attribution. A wise move, for in this game there's no end of people determined to say you're wrong, merely on the basis of looking at a few photos on the internet. When it's a big discovery, the blinkers go on, and the knives come out.

Waldemar goes to America

May 21 2018

Video: BBC

The Great Waldemar has a new series on the BBC; "Big Sky, Big Dreams, Big Art: Made in the USA". It starts on Wednesday, 9pm on BBC4. I'll be watching! More here

'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

May 17 2018

Image of 'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

Picture: Titian's 'Pesaro Madonna', Frari Church, Venice, pre-conservation, via TAN

My May column for The Art Newspaper has gone online, here. My June column will be out in the printed edition shortly. 

New Rembrandt discovery in Holland

May 15 2018

Image of New Rembrandt discovery in Holland

Picture: NRC

Exciting news from Amsterdam; a newly attributed portrait by Rembrandt has been unveiled at the Hermitage museum. The painting was discovered by the art dealer, Jan Six, at auction in London in 2016. His hunch that it was by Rembrandt has been endorsed by subsequent research and conservation, and by a number of Rembrandt scholars, including Prof. Ernst van der Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project.

More here at NRC (in Dutch), and there's also an interview with Jan Six. Jan is, incidentally, a descendant of the Jan Six painted so memorably by Rembrandt. How wonderful that four centuries later, the name Jan Six can still be associated with heralding new paintings by Rembrandt.

The painting was offered in London as 'Circle of Rembrandt', with an estimate of £15,000-£20,000, and ultimately made £137,000. For what it's worth, I was one of the underbidders. Although I'm absolutely not a Rembrandt specialist, I thought on seeing the picture that it had an excellent chance of being by Rembrandt himself, painted in the early 1630s. The brilliantly painted collar in particular I thought was almost as good as a signature, and entirely consistent with the collar on the painting by Rembrandt of Philip Lucasz in the National Gallery, which was painted in 1635. What was interesting is that from the photos, the painting did not look that impressive. But in person, it was almost as one was looking at a different painting. That's a common connoisseurial challenge these days of course; photos so rarely do justice to good paintings.

As you can imagine, the days before the sale were rather tense ones in AHN towers. But when the sale came, we soon ran up against our limit. There's always a feeling in situations like this that if only you'd gone for one more bid, you might have got it. But in the NRC interview, Jan Six tells us he was able to bid significantly higher, so we'd never have got it. I am so pleased that the painting has now found its rightful status. Many congratulations on the excellent sleuthing Jan!

Modigliani's 'Nu Couché' makes $157m

May 15 2018

Video: Sotheby's

A full-length nude by Modigliani became the most expensive painting ever sold at Sotheby's tonight. But AHN wonders if there's not a wider story here, for the painting sold only to the pre-sale guarantor, at a hammer price of $139m. Before the sale, there was talk of the painting 'setting a new auction record' simply by virtue of having a record estimate of $150m. In the event, the painting didn't reach its low estimate. 

Now, it's worth pointing out that the painting made seven times what it last sold for in 2003. But it follows on from a Picasso last week - 'Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers' - which was also expected to soar away at Christie's in New York, but also sold to a pre-sale gurantor at the low estimate. Are both pictures a case of optimistic estimating? Or is there now a lack of oxygen up at the dizzying heights of the modern art market?

'The Art of Money'

May 14 2018

Image of 'The Art of Money'

Picture: BBC

There's a good new programme by John Wilson on BBC Radio 4 looking at some of the new money buying art these days, especially Middle Eastern oil money. It's available here

Incidentally, I spoke to someone involved in Middle Eastern governing circles about the purchase of the Salvator Mundi, and who was aware of when of and how the picture was bought. He said two things: first, that the Saudis really had nothing to do with the purchase, and second, that the story of the buyer and underbidder mistakenly bidding against each other was just made up. 

Art History sexism (ctd.)

May 14 2018

Image of Art History sexism (ctd.)

Picture: Getty Images via Artnet 

Regular readers will know that AHN takes a dim view of the 'stick a young woman in front of a painting' thing. Usually, auction houses are the worst culprits. On Artnet News, Julia Halperin and Ben Davis look at the phenomena, which shows no sign of abating:

[...] the really, really notable cliche of the “auction preview” genre is “women standing awkwardly near art for scale.” It’s seriously weird, and it is undying. There are a lot of questions that this genre invites: Can the women positioned at these angles actually see what they are looking at? Why in god’s name would a photographer ever ask one to sit down? Has there been a rapture just before each photo was taken that sucked up anyone who is not thin, white, and between the ages of 23 and 33?

More here

UK Heritage Lottery grants fall

May 14 2018

Image of UK Heritage Lottery grants fall

Picture: HLF

Bad news for UK museums; the Heritage Lottery Fund has significantly cut its annual grants, from £434m in 2016/17 to £305m last year. It seems far fewer people are buying National Lottery tickets. More here from Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper.

HLF grants were the staple diet for major museum fundraising campaigns, especially for acquisitions since 2010. Does this mean that what I called a 'golden age' for museum acquisitions in the UK is coming to an end?

'The New RA'

May 14 2018

Video: The Royal Academy

I'm looking forward to seeing the new galleries and rooms at the Royal Academy's Burlington Gardens extension. How wonderful to see a proper space devoted to the RA's own collection at last. More here on Charles Saumarez Smith's blog. 

'Own a piece of art history!'

May 8 2018

Image of 'Own a piece of art history!'

Picture: Ebay

Here's a weird one: a US museum has attempted to sell, via Ebay, the brushes used to restore Leonardo's Salvator Mundi. Here was the Ebay pitch made by the Columbia Museum of Art:

Own a piece of art history! These seven paintbrushes were used to restore Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which set a new record for the price of an artwork when it sold for $450 million in 2017. [...]

In 2014, Columbia Museum of Art Chief Curator Will South was discussing the restoration of this painting with his friend and colleague Dianne Modestini. He asked if she might be willing to donate the brushes she used to restore the painting to the Columbia Museum of Art. She was. These brushes are now up for auction to support the CMA's mission to celebrate outstanding artistic creativity through its collection, exhibitions, and programs, interacting in ways that engage the mind and enrich the spirit. 

Dr. South framed a photocopy image of the painting in a circa 1900 vintage carved wooden frame matted with archival, acid-free materials. One of the brushes is mounted with micro Velcro for easy removal below the photocopy. The remaining six brushes will be shipped in their box along with the framed brush and image along with a printout of emails that establish their provenance. The museum's curatorial team created a special wooden shipping crate to ship the frame and brushes to the buyer.

The sale was alas unsuccessful; no bids were lodged to meet the $1,000 reserve.

Update - a reader writes:

One would expect that Columbia Museum of Art would know that the 'circa 1900 vintage carved wooden frame' is actually plaster and therefore a rather less attractive offering

The Met Gala

May 8 2018

Video: Vogue

Last night's annual Metropolitan Museum Gala has dominated social media today. Whether you approve of disapprove of the fashion excesses on show here, it's worth pondering how far away British museums are from ever getting this much celebrity and media attention. They're light years away, caught in a web of their own earnestness. 

Michael Sittow exhibition

May 8 2018

Video: NGA

You've only a few days left to visit what looks to be a fascinating exhibition in Washington, 'Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe' (closes May 13th). Above is a talk by the National Gallery of Art's curator, John Hand, about Sittow's life. He tells us that only 13 works by Sittow are now considered autograph in the latest book on Sittow. Although there must be more out there somewhere; can an artist become as accomplished as Sittow with so little practice?

Update - thanks to those readers who have pointed out that the show will soon be Estonia. More here

'Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire'

May 8 2018

Video: National Gallery

I'm looking forward to the National Gallery in London's forthcoming exhibition on the American landscape artist, Thomas Cole. It opens 11th June. More here

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