Previous Posts: November 2022

'New wing' for the National Portrait Gallery

November 29 2022

Image of 'New wing' for the National Portrait Gallery

Picture: The Guardian

The National Portrait Gallery in London has been given a generous and significant £10m donation by the Blavatnik Foundation. The news stories said this will mean a 'new wing', called the Blavatnik Wing, to open with the rest of the newly refurbished Gallery in 2023. But as far as I can see it means the existing first floor will be renamed 'The Blavatnik Wing'. But if renaming galleries is what we need to do to get these kinds of mega donations, so be it. 

I was interested to see in The Guardian that they have what they say is a photograph (above) of the new first floor galleries - and happily it looks not too dissimilar to how it used to look. Phew! Just a little less of the 1970s brown...

The other development announced by the NPG was the acquisition of a patch of land outside the new entrance, which they will use as a ticket booth. I hope that works (will most people still expect to buy their tickets inside?), for it'll mean more space inside for art and visitor circulation. 

Restoring Michelangelo's 'Epifania'

November 29 2022

Image of Restoring Michelangelo's 'Epifania'

Picture: The Guardian

I'm glad to see the British Museum has embarked on a programme of conservation for their large Michelangelo cartoon, 'Epifania', so that it can go back on display in 2024. The drawing is one of only two surviving Michelangelo cartoons, and should by rights be almost as famous in Britain as Leonardo's 'Burlington Cartoon' in the National Gallery. More here

Sleeper alert

November 29 2022

Image of Sleeper alert

Picture: Christie's

This copy of Leonardo's Salvator Mundi made over €1m at Christie's online Old Master sale in Paris yesterday. The estimate was just €10k-15k. For a few glorious hours I was in the lead. But that was three days ago... 

I was bidding because I thought it was an earlier copy than 1600, as Christie's had catalogued it. How much earlier is of course now the €1m question. I'll be writing more about the picture, and how it fits into the Salvator Mundi production line, in next month's The Art Newspaper. 

Sleeper alert

November 26 2022

Image of Sleeper alert

Pictures: via Auction Radar

The Twitter account Auction Radar points to two huge prices for the above pictures: the panel on the left was offered as School of Ambrogio Lorenzetti at €10/15k, and made €590k. The 'Moses' on the right was offered as Bolognese School at €5k, and also made €590k. 

Job opportunity

November 26 2022

Image of Job opportunity

Picture: Codart

Three job opportunities, in fact; the Rijksmuseum is looking for new curators of 17th, 19th and 20th Century art. Deadline 4th December. More here

Titian's Venus & Adonis at Sotheby's

November 23 2022

Video: Sotheby's

Here's a video from Sotheby's on the £8m-£12m Venus & Adonis they have in their Old Master sale. You'll be able to see which market they're focusing on from how often the word 'contemporary' crops up.  

Jail for Just Stop Oil protestor

November 22 2022

Image of Jail for Just Stop Oil protestor

Picture: Guardian

A Just Stop Oil protestor who glued himself to a Van Gogh frame at the Courtauld Gallery has been jailed for three weeks. Louis McKechnie (above left) was jailed for three weeks, while his co-defendant Emily Brocklebank was given a suspended sentence. The Courtauld Gallery said the frame sustained about £2,000 worth of damage. The court case saw a curious attempted defence, that the protest had boosted the painting's value. From The Guardian:

A lawyer for the activists, who are part of a group waging disruptive protests until the government agrees to halt all new oil and gas projects, had asked a curator for the gallery if the action may have increased the value of the painting.

“Say the institute was to sell it on in 20 to 30 years, is it possible its value would now increase?” Francesca Cociani, defending, asked Karen Serres, a curator at the gallery.

Serres, who was the sole witness in the trial, replied: “Absolutely not,” adding that a work so famous as one by Van Gogh would not increase in value as a result.

Such works, which were owned by a trust which held items displayed at the gallery, could also not be sold and were intended for public display, she added.

The verdict and sentence probably gives us an idea of what will happen when the more high profile case of the National Gallery Van Gogh protest comes to court. I was interviewed on Radio 4's Front Row about the protests, along with The Art Newspaper's Louisa Buck, available here

New Gainsborough's House museum

November 22 2022

Image of New Gainsborough's House museum

Picture: BBC

The new extension to Gainsborough's House Museum in Sudbury opened yesterday. It makes it the largest art gallery in Suffolk, and looks to be a really exciting addition to the area. I was hoping to be able to point you to some video or pictures of the interior on the museum's website, but it hasn't been updated yet. More here on the BBC. 

Forgery suspect arrested

November 22 2022

Image of Forgery suspect arrested

Picture: TAN

The sometime art dealer Giuliano Ruffini, who has been suspected in involvement in a string of allegedly forged Old Master paintings, has been arrested in Italy. Vincent Noce has more in The Art Newspaper, here.  

London Old Master sales

November 21 2022

Image of London Old Master sales

Picture: Sotheby's

The London Old Master sale catalogues have gone online. Or rather, the Evening Sale catalogues have. For some reason, they only seem nowadays to put the Day Sale catalogues online just a couple of weeks before the sale. Which doesn't seem to me to be very conducive to buyers!

Anyway, at Sotheby's, they have a Venus and Adonis (above) by Titian and his workshop, estimated at £8m-£12m. It used to belong to Prince Eugene of Savoy. There are a number of fine Still Lifes, including a £1m-£1.5m Jan Davidsz. de Heem. The picture I'd most like to buy if I could is an oil sketch, Study for the White Horse, by John Constable, which once belonged to his daughter (£250k-£350k). 

Christie's sale has a newly identified Portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger, and his workshop, at £1m-£1.5m. Another 'and Studio' work is Rubens' portrait of Isabella Clara Eugenia, estimated at £400k-£600k. This appeared about a year ago as just 'Studio' of Rubens, but was withdrawn on the day of the sale, just as I was about to bid for it. Another reappearance is Van Dyck's Portrait of Henrietta Maria, estimated at £2m-£4m; it was offered at Sotheby's in 2015 at a lower estimate of £1.5m and didn't sell, but then it was subsumed within a larger canvas, having had some legs added in the 18th Century, to make it into a full length. The legs were a bit too long, so it wasn't an entirely happy result. But then, were the additions part of the painting's history? I suppose if you bought it, you can do what you like with it. Maybe the legs are still around somewhere. There's another Van Dyck in the sale, also newly identified; a crucifixion. I've seen it, and though it's catalogued as 'Van Dyck and Studio' it seems largely autograph to me, and I think a bit of a bargain at £150k-£250k. 

At Bonhams, they have a newly identified Gericault, a study for his famous Wounded Cuirassier. This seems quite reasonably estimated at £30,000-£50,000.  

Update - on the very day of my moan about the Day Sales, Sotheby's sale goes online. I like the Romney sketch of Emma Hamilton, here, and the two still lifes by Anna Ruysch here and here. Anna was the sister of Rachel Ruysch, and not much is known about her. Indeed, both of these were previously considered to be by Rachel, but have now been given to Anna. The are estimated respectively at £50k-£70k and £30k-£50k. Back in 1962, when considered to be by Rachel, the pair made £2,800.   

Nottingham Castle to close

November 21 2022

Image of Nottingham Castle to close

Picture: ArtUK

More distressing regional museum news; Nottingham Castle Trust is to go into liquidation, and will close. The Castle houses the City's main art collection, as hung in the Long Gallery, above. The Castle only reopened last year, after a £30m refurbishment. It seems there are some longstanding management issues, and the collections are still the property of the city council. But there's obviously uncertainty now over where they can be displayed. It's more evidence of the coming crisis for regional UK museum funding. More here

National Gallery Sainsbury Wing extension (ctd.)

November 20 2022

Image of National Gallery Sainsbury Wing extension (ctd.)

Picture: BG

There have been some developments with regard to the National Gallery's plans to renovate the Sainsbury Wing entrance (as part of plans to make it the Gallery's main entrance). After some criticism (such as from a group of eight former Presidents of RIBA) the plans for the lobby were altered, here. The current President of RIBA has hit back at his predecessors, and supports the plans, here. The original donors have backed the changes too. 

Discussions over the architectural merits of the changes seem to me to be missing the fundamental point - that the National Gallery doesn't need to spend £35m for a new entrance. Part of the justification for the project has been congestion at the Gallery's entrances, given the number of visitors. The National Gallery has been saying to critics of the project that visitor numbers are nearly back at their pre-Covid level. But this is not the case. 

The above graph shows monthly National Gallery visitor numbers from pre Covid to this September. They come from DCMS, but the graph is mine. As you can see, visitor numbers are about 50% what they were. the temptation is to blame this on a slow recovery from the pandemic. But I think there might be a more fundamental shift in the Gallery's visitor profile as a result of Brexit. Remember, before Brexit (or rather, before the end of the Brexit transition period) overseas visitors made up more than 70% of the Gallery's visitor numbers. It's easy to see how travel restrictions (especially for school and student groups) can have a significant impact on this figure.

If this reduction in visitor numbers holds, then the main argument for the new extension is redundant. The existing entrances will be more than adequate, and for some time. Then, if the Gallery does have £35m to spend, the discussion turns to how else it might more effectively spend it. Especially at a time when so many regional galleries are facing closure for sums which, by comparison, are trivial. 

Moreover, anyone who has recently tried to visit the Gallery will be able to suggest to the management how they could improve the visitor entrance experience without spending £35m. At the moment, it's a horrible mess. You can no longer enter at the Annenberg Court entrance, this is now exit only. The original, main entrance at the centre of the Gallery facing Trafalgar Square is for some reason closed entirely, both for entry and exit. Instead, you have to enter via the Sainsbury Wing, and go through a bag check first. This involves being shouted at - as I was - by four different people, and following a rather pointless line marked out by barrier ropes. It's frankly very grim, and as far as I can see, entirely unnecessary. Then there are significant room closures when you finally get in, including of course the whole of the Sainsbury Wing, which has been closed and decanted despite planning permission not having been granted yet. I'm sorry to say I left the Gallery the other day thinking I've never known it to be in such a dissatisfactory state, in terms of visitor experience. 

£10m for 'only' Shakespeare portrait

November 20 2022

Regular readers will know I despair at how the press can be so credulous at seemingly any news of a new art discovery involving Shakespeare. The latest, reported as being "the only signed and dated image of William Shakespeare created during his lifetime", is to go on sale with an asking price of £10m. Despite there being no direct evidence it is Shakespeare. The 'signed and dated' part refers to the signature of Robert Peake, who painted the above portrait of someone, who is not Shakespeare. The painting is being offered in 'a private treaty sale', and was unveiled in a London hotel. All of which should raise red flags, but instead had the press queueing up to take photos. Such is the appetite for news (and clicks). Examples here, and here.

Vermeer or not Vermeer?

November 20 2022

Video: NGA

I mentioned in September that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC would be revealing further news about the attribution of one of their disputed Vermeer paintings, Girl with a Flute, in their exhibition, 'Secrets of Vermeer'. In the above video, NGA curator Betsy Wieseman, sets out with great clarity why technical analysis has led the Gallery to believe the picture was not painted by Vermeer, but by someone working within his studio in his materials and style. So the picture has now been downgraded (a daft word, but an easy one to use) from 'attributed to Vermeer' to 'Studio of Vermeer'.

However, the plot thickens with news that the Rijksmuseum has decided to catalogue the painting as by Vermeer - sans doute - in its forthcoming exhibition on Vermeer to open next year. Speaking to The Guardian, Rijksmuseum director Taco Dibbits says:

“They have been doing great research at the National Gallery, Washington on their four Vermeers, and we have, during the pandemic and in research ahead of the exhibition, been able to do research on 10 Vermeers,” said Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum director. “We have discussed the technical findings with Washington and our view of Vermeer based on these technical findings is a more inclusive one than that of Washington.”

Dibbits was diplomatic about the difference of opinion. The National Gallery’s findings will be cited in the exhibition’s catalogue, he said.

“Attribution is not a hard science but we feel that Vermeer is such an innovative artist who took so many directions in his art that we feel that for us as yet the painting is by Vermeer”, Dibbits said. “We keep it within the oeuvre. We differ in view. It is something we have discussed at length. We are all happy with it.” It didn’t seem to be a source of irritation. “No. Not at all.”

I'm no Vermeer expert (but the perk of having your own blog means you can have an opinion nonetheless) yet I'm inclined to be more in the Rijksmuseum's camp. First, as the disagreement over the picture's 'quality' shows, such views are subjective; one gallery's dubious passages (and a sign of a studio assistant not quite up to Vermeer's standard) are another's sign of brilliance (and a sign that this mystery assistant was as good as Vermeer himself). Secondly, before we attribute pictures to someone within Vermeer's studio, I'd want more evidence that he did in fact have studio assistants, which might be considered unusual since he wasn't in the business of selling his own pictures at anything like the rate of contemporary professional artists who did employ assistants.

The Rijksmuseum show opens next year, 10th February. 

'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

November 20 2022

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

Picture: TAN

My latest Diary pieces for The Art Newspaper cover the Van Gogh soup protesters, and some impertinent advice to the new King, Charles III, about the Royal Collection. 

New Van Dyck book

November 20 2022

Image of New Van Dyck book

Picture: Yale

I've been meaning to note the publication of an excellent new book on Van Dyck, by the Met curator Adam Eaker; "Van Dyck and the Making of English Portraiture". The publishers say:

As a courtier, figure of fashion, and object of erotic fascination, Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) transformed the professional identities available to English artists. By making his portrait sittings into a form of courtly spectacle, Van Dyck inspired poets and playwrights at the same time that he offended guardians of traditional hierarchies. A self-consciously Van Dyckian lineage of artists, many of them women, extends from his lifetime to the end of the eighteenth century and beyond.

Recovering the often surprising responses of both writers and painters to Van Dyck’s portraits, this book provides an alternative perspective on English art’s historical self-consciousness. Built around a series of close readings of artworks and texts ranging from poems and plays to early biographies and studio gossip, it traces the reception of Van Dyck’s art on the part of artists like Mary Beale, William Hogarth, and Richard and Maria Cosway to bestow a historical specificity on the frequent claim that Van Dyck founded an English school of portraiture.

I make a brief appearance as 'a partisan of the artist' when discussing the question of whether Van Dyck flattered his sitters. Such as Adam's objectivity, I'm not sure he means it as a complement, but I'm glad to be in print as one of Van Dyck's flag wavers. You can order the book here

The Tudors at The Met

November 20 2022

Video: The Met

There's a new exhibition on the Tudors at the Met in New York. Above is a video of the virtual opening. There's a very good website on the exhibition here. The show runs till January 8th, 2023. 

A Renoir? Artificial intelligence says yes (probably)

November 20 2022

Image of A Renoir? Artificial intelligence says yes (probably)

Picture: Guardian

I recently went to a conference organised by the Art Loss Register on authenticity in art, and whether science and artificial intelligence can do better than existing connoisseurship. Naturally, I made the case for connoisseurship (after, as ever, the examples of a few bad connoisseurs were used to tarnish connoisseurship in general), but my conclusion was that we need to worry less about worrying about authenticity itself. Not that it isn't important whether, say, Leonardo da Vinci painted the Salvator Mundi - it really is - but that we should accept we can't be entirely certain. In the past, an attribution, whether given by science or connoisseurship, has tended to say 'this is a Leonardo' with an implied probability of 100%, when it should probably be more like 80-90%. This is especially the case for major artists who employed studio assistants. 

Anyway, one of the speakers at the conference was Carina Popovici. CEO of Art Recognition, a new firm based in Switzerland offering certificates of authenticity based on the verdict of a computer programme, or as we must call it now, Artificial Intelligence. I'm in no doubt AI can help with attributions, but am wary of systems which imply they can determine who painted what based simply on an uploaded iPhone photo. If I was to declaim on an attribution based just on a phone photo, I'd rightly be criticised. A recent example of Art Recognition's decision, on the above disputed Renoir (the Wildenstein Institute says 'non', AI says 80% yes), is covered by Linda Geddes in The Guardian here

New Rembrandt at the Bredius Museum?

November 20 2022

Image of New Rembrandt at the Bredius Museum?

Picture: Museum Bredius

Some very interesting Rembrandt news from The Hague; scholars have decided that a Crucifixion in the Museum Bredius is indeed by Rembrandt, and not a copy as has been believed. The picture, in oil on panel, was first published by Abraham Bredius as a Rembrandt in 1931. Bredius was then the leading scholar on all things Rembrandt, and indeed most subsequent Rembrandt catalogues have maintained his numbering of Rembrandt's pictures. He accepted about 650 works as genuine Rembrandts.

Since then, the Bredius Museum (the museum held Bredius' own collection from 1990) has accepted the opinion of more recent Rembrandt scholarship that the picture was not by Rembrandt. For example, Horst Gerson, who effectively took over from Bredius as the leading Rembrandt scholar, wrote in his updated version of Bredius' catalogue in 1969 that he deemed it to be 'a crude imitation, vaguely based on Rembrandt'.

But now the Dutch art historian and writer of a new Rembrandt catalogue raisonne, Jeroen Giltaij, has decided the picture is a Rembrandt, and is quoted in The Guardian:

“I looked at this work again and again. At the brush strokes. They are brilliant,” Giltaij told Agence France-Presse. “Just a few broad brush strokes” convinced him the sketch was indeed the genuine article, he said.

The artwork was first bought by the museum’s original curator, Abraham Bredius, in 1921. He too was convinced the sketch was an original Rembrandt. But over the years, art experts dismissed it as a “crude imitation”.

Giltaij re-examined the sketch for his Big Book of Rembrandt Paintings, which features all 684 works by the Dutch master.

“When I was looking at it, I thought Bredius was right. I think this is indeed a Rembrandt,” he said.

One of the main arguments by art experts for the sketch being an imitation was the seeming lack of detail in the brush strokes.

“You have to remember, this is an oil sketch. Rembrandt is usually very precise and refined, but this is very rough,” Giltaij said. “The reason is the oil sketch is a preparatory sketch for another painting. He wants to show the composition, a rough idea of what the actual painting could look like,” he said.

The Rijksmuseum has been asked to study the findings, and have said:

 “Regarding the use of materials, the researchers at the Rijksmuseum however did not find anything to contradict an attribution to Rembrandt,”

I haven't seen the picture but for what it's worth the case certainly looks plausible to me. What I find most interesting about this story is that if the picture is once again accepted back into Rembrandt's oeuvre, it undermines a central tenet of Rembrandt scholarship over the last forty or so years; that Rembrandt didn't really use oil sketches, and that his pictures emerged more or less fully formed. I've always found this a puzzling view of how an artist like Rembrandt might have painted. But it has been used by some Rembrandt scholars, most notably the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), to downgrade a number of sketchy early works. Regular readers will know that I've always been of the view that a total of about 350 works (which is roughly the number finally accepted by the late, great Ernst van der Wetering) is significantly too low for an artist of Rembrandt's abilities and longevity. It works out as not much more than one painting every two months of his working career. Perhaps we might now see Rembrandt's oeuvre rise. Of course, if this does happen it will be controversial. But it shouldn't be any more controversial than the dramatic - and unjust - shrinking of Rembrandt's oeuvre down to about 250 works by the RRP in the 1980s. 

Apologies (ctd.)

November 20 2022

I'm sorry for the radio silence. I've had quite a few things on. I'll post some catch up stories shortly. Some of them you'll doubtless be familiar with! 

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