'Late Rembrandt' - the reviews

October 15 2014

Image of 'Late Rembrandt' - the reviews

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery's new show gets five starts from everyone so far, as well as dollops of over-exuberance. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, here, says:

Rembrandt is so high in the ranking of great artists that our amassed reverence has sunk like syrup into the brown and gold surfaces of his paintings.

There he is in the first room of this startling exhibition, gazing back from his self-portraits, a sage and infinitely gentle soul: Rembrandt the master. Then the curators pull a hidden lever and the floor disappears.

This brilliant, brave blockbuster reveals the true Rembrandt – a man at the end of his tether. It is a shocking and cathartic journey through the tragedy of his fall. By exposing that, it reveals his ultimate triumph. It is like seeing a great actor play King Lear and Prospero as a double bill.

Ben Luke in The Evening Standard (does this mean no Brian Sewell? We hope not) says:

It opens with the artistic equivalent of a punch to the solar plexus. Spotlit in the gloom are a cluster of Rembrandt's self portraits, among the greatest portraits ever made — there's no pussyfooting around with context, just a room of Rembrandt's eyes meeting yours, in masterpieces of such moving humanity that it's enough to make you sink to your knees.

Mark Hudson in The Telegraph says:

This is an exhibition that makes you realise there is still validity in the old idea of the universal masterpiece. I counted 10, maybe 11, along with perhaps 20 paintings that are merely superb and a few more that look like generic Rembrandt. As to which paintings fall into which category, you can make your own mind up, because if you have any feeling for Rembrandt, for painting or for art of any sort, you must see this show. When it comes to the great themes of human existence, there is still no one above Rembrandt. 

Karen Wright in The Independent gives it also gives the show 5 stars, though it's not clear if she's actually seen it. 

Sooke on Rembrandt 'Selfies'

October 15 2014

Video: Telegraph

Good video here from Alistair Sooke on Rembrandt's Kenwood House Self-Portrait. 

Update - a reader writes:

Excellent and interesting video from  Alistair Sooke on the Kenwood House Rembrandt self-portrait but why on earth did we need the intensely irritating violin playing in the background? Is this an attempt to distract us from the greatness of the art in case it is too much for us?

Gurlitt hoard - Berne accepts

October 15 2014

Image of Gurlitt hoard - Berne accepts

Picture: Jewish Voice

The Jewish Voice reports that the Berne Art Museum, to which Cornelius Gurlitt left his entire collection, will accept the donation - but only for pieces for which restitution claims can be entirely ruled out. More details here

Rembrandt takes a giant leap

October 10 2014

Image of Rembrandt takes a giant leap

Pictures: Metropolitan Museum New York, above, National Gallery, London, below. 

It's all kicking off for Rembrandt folks. First, we have the opening next week of the National Gallery's enticing-looking 'Late Rembrandt' show. And secondly, and perhaps most excitingly of all, on Wednesday we have the launch of Volume 6 of the Rembrandt Research Project's (RRP) catalogue raisonné, or 'Corpus', of his works.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing the final conclusions of Ernst van der Wetering (the great Rembrandt scholar de nos jours) in Volume 6, which will be the last publication from the RRP. News reports (see here in the Wall Street Journal) tell us he has re-attributed 70 works to Rembrandt, including the 'Auctioneer' (above) at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Regular readers may remember (*boast alert*) that I've been keen on this picture before (for example here). I've never understood why it was downgraded. It's a perfectly fine, signed late Rembrandt, the only 'weakness' of which is that it has some condition issues (such as an old, vicious re-lining, which, in flattening all the impasto, has robbed the paint surface of some of its Rembrandtian joie de vivre).

Bizarrely, the Auctioneer was downgraded in the 1980s on the basis of x-rays, which, said some Met curators, revealed un-Rembrandt-ian strokes beneath the paint layers. Of course, there weren't that many Rembrandt x-rays to compare it with in those days; it was a good example of how people like to over-interpret things like x-ray and Infra-red. 

Perhaps even more bizarrely, the Metropolitan Museum rejects van de Wetering's view, and maintains that the Auctioneer is not a Rembrandt. As regular readers will know, the National Gallery in London has also rejected van de Wetering's recent opinion that their 'Old Man in an Armchair' (below) is by Rembrandt (which, I believe, it is). So clearly these two major museums believe they know more about Rembrandt than van de Wetering. 

I'd say both pictures are a classic example of how Rembrandt scholarship has consumed itself with doubt over the last fifty years. Picture after picture has been wrongly rejected, until eventually nobody really knew what a Rembrandt looked like anymore. Since both the Auctioneer and Old Man in an Armchair will be entirely absent from the National Gallery's 'Late Rembrandt' exhibition - even, I presume, from the catalogue - we must wonder if we'll really be getting a complete view of Rembrandt's late career.

Anyway, if you want to know more about all this, I've written an article on the fluctuating number of Rembrandts for this weekend's Financial Times. You can read the piece online here (it's free, though you may need to register), or you can listen to my podcast here

In other Rembrandt news, the publishers of the RRP have, brilliantly, and with the help of the venerable RKD in Holland, put volumes 1 to 5 online - you can read them here. How amazing is that? Volumes 1-3 were written before Ernst's palace coup (in 1993), and although they contain much valuable information, be wary that many of the attributions are wildly wrong. Such is the state of Rembrandt connoisseurship.

All this Rembrandt excitement was too much for me yesterday. I'd already filed my FT piece on Tuesday, and so had to hastily redo parts in light of van de Wetering's announcement that he was adding 70 pictures to Rembrandt's oeuvre. Fortunately, we just managed to stop the page going to press, and I had 25 minutes to do a quick re-write. Art history news doesn't usually move this fast...

We must wait till next week for the full list of new attributions, however. I'm hoping that 'Man with a Golden Helmet' [Berlin Gemaldegalerie] gets upgraded.

By the way, Van de Wetering's latest publication brings the RRP's total number of Rembrandts to 340. This is a significant increase on the less than 250 pictures the RRP in its earlier incarnation (before van de Wetering took over) said Rembrandt painted. But I still think it's too low. 

'National Gallery - the Movie'

October 9 2014

Video: via YouTube

The US film maker Frederick Wiseman has made a three hour documentary about the National Gallery. No idea where it's on generally, but above is the trailer, and it's showing in London during the BFI London Film Festival. And here is the BBC's Tom Brook on the film.

'Rembrandt - the Late Works'

October 9 2014

Video: National Gallery

Here's the exhibition trailer. Do you agree with the conclusion: 'these really are the finest works of Rembrandt's career'?

The oldest art in the world?

October 9 2014

Video: Nature

The journal Nature says that new dating of some paintings in a cave in Indonesia reveals that they are in fact the oldest known art in the world. More here

Meanwhile, in France...

October 8 2014

Video: France TV

A little off the beaten path this, but I learn from La Tribune de l'Art that in France they have actually rebuilt, on top of a well known and well preserved archaeological site, the Temple of Mercury at Puy de Dome. As you can see from the above video, they have used hundreds of tonnes of stone, used drills, concrete and JCBs. How could such vandalism ever have been allowed? C'est incroyable.

More images here. The site used to look like this:

It now looks like this:

Debate - 'What is Connoisseurship?'

October 8 2014

Image of Debate - 'What is Connoisseurship?'

Picture: IoD

There's another connoisseurship debate coming up in London soon, at the annual Battle of Ideas run by the Institute of Ideas. It will take place at the Barbican Centre on Sunday 19th October at 10am - details here

The speaker line up looks excellent: Prof. Martin Kemp, the great Leonardo scholar, Dr Martin Myrone, lead curator at Tate Britain, Dr. Michael Savage aka The Grumpy Art Historian (who is an investment banker), and Prof. Sarah Wilson, Historian of Modern and Contemporary Art from the Courtauld. The convenor is Angus Kennedy, who recently wrote Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination. I was asked to speak, but alas could not attend (I'm mostly changing nappies these days).

For a primer on the debate, see mine and Martin Myrone's articles on connoisseurship in The Art Newspaper here and here. There's also film of Martin and I discussing the wider issues at the recent Paul Mellon Centre conference on connoisseurship here (I'm amazed to see that over 2,700 people have now watched this).

It looks as if there will be videos up after the event.

Photography in the Uffizi

October 8 2014

Image of Photography in the Uffizi

Picture: ArtTrav.com

I learn from ArtTrav.com that photography is also allowed in the Uffizi gallery. For few examples see here. There are even - gasp - some selfies!

Update - a reader writes:

On the Uffizi photos, the government passed a law recently mandating that all museums allow photography. Exactly the kind of dirigiste authoritarian barbarism we've come to dread from the country that leaves Pompeii to crumble....

New owner for The Art Newspaper

October 8 2014

Image of New owner for The Art Newspaper

Picture: TAN

The indispensable Art Newspaper has a new owner - she is the Russian engineer and collector Inna Bazhenova, above, who has been publisher of the Russian version of TAN since 2012. The paper has been sold by Umberto Allemandi, who founded it 1983. Jane Morris will continue to be the editor. More here

Disclaimer; I sometimes write for it!

38 Churchill paintings 'offered to the nation'

October 8 2014

Image of 38 Churchill paintings 'offered to the nation'

Picture: BBC

38 paintings by Winston Churchill are being 'offered to the nation' after the recent death of the great man's daughter, Mary Soames. Most of them are on public display already, in places such as Chartwell and the Houses of Parliament. The story is here on the BBC. 

Of course, 'offer' is a slightly misleading term, for the pictures are actually being offered to the government's through the Acceptance in Lieu (AIL) scheme. This allows a deceased's estate to in effect sell cultural works to the government in settlement of death duties. The scheme is an excellent one, and has safeguarded many treasures for the nation over the decades. 

But there is no charitable element in operation here on behalf of the Soames estate. In fact, it could be argued that securing a bulk deal with the government represents better value for money for the Soames estate than selling them all at once at auction. I'm only pointing this out because it is unusual for an AIL offer to be made so publicly, when the decision to actually accept them is some considerable time away (next year it seems). This may though have something to do with the fact that Sotheby's are promoting a forthcoming sale of Churchill items also from Mary Soames' estate. 

It will be for the Acceptance in Lieu advisory board to recommend whether all the pictures be taken as payment of death duties. Questions it might ask include, does the nation really require all 38 of the paintings? Is there an overwhelming sense that the 38 are part of a single cohesive group - ie, they were all painted at a particular time, or in a particular place - and should they be kept together, even though they are not currently on display together? We don't yet know the value the pictures are being offered to the AIL scheme at, but the key point here is that the scheme has a finite limit in the amount of tax it can write off in a single year. At the moment it is set at £40m, which includes the government's new Cultural Giving Scheme. So the AIL panel will need to weigh up whether they should acquire all the paintings, and then perhaps miss out on helping acquire other treasures during the year, or to perhaps only choose some. You can see here on Your Paintings that the nation already owns 190 paintings by Churchill. 

Miniature Mozart for sale

October 8 2014

Image of Miniature Mozart for sale

Picture: Guardian/Sotheby's

A portrait miniature of Mozart is being offered by Sotheby's on 20th November, reports the Guardian. It may fetch up to £300,000, say Sotheby's.

Apologies (blame Rembrandt edition)

October 6 2014

Image of Apologies (blame Rembrandt edition)

Picture: Royal Academy of Arts, Sweden

Sorry for the lack of posts at the end of last week. I've been writing a piece on Rembrandt for the FT, as a preview for the National Gallery's forthcoming 'Late Rembrandt' show, and it has taken me longer than expected. I didn't fully realise until now how chaotic Rembrandt scholarship has become. Will Rembrandt's oeuvre ever recover from the art historical predations of the last half century? I doubt it, but here's hoping. 

Anyway, the National Gallery has today announced a new, last-minute loan for their exhibition; Rembrandt's The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (about 1661–2), which is being lent by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden. It has never been seen in the UK before. 

Here's the National's press release:

The unprecedented last minute loan of The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (about 1661–2) to this landmark exhibition, sponsored by Shell, that opens in just 10 days time (15 October, runs until 18 January 2015) will be the first time the painting has ever been to the UK. 

Owned by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden, the painting has only left Sweden twice in that time, in 1925 and 1969 (on both occasions for showings at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Betsy Wieseman, Curator of Rembrandt: The Late Works, says, “The extraordinary circumstances of the commissioning and early history of this painting are perhaps the most eloquent statement of Rembrandt’s position in Amsterdam artistic circles in the early 1660s, one of the central questions addressed in the exhibition. That is just one reason why I am absolutely thrilled it is coming to London.”

Measuring an imposing 196 x 309 cm, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis is the only surviving portion of a painting Rembrandt made for the Town Hall (now Royal Palace) in Amsterdam (“This may just be the most heartbreaking fragment in the entire history of painting“ – Simon Schama, The Power of Art). Begun in 1648, the Town Hall was a proud expression of the power and wealth of the city and its people. The interior decorations were chosen to illustrate noble virtues; the story of the Batavians’ struggle to overthrow their Roman oppressors was considered symbolic of the Dutch Republic’s recent liberation from Spanish rule.

Rembrandt’s monumental canvas was hanging in the Town Hall by the summer of 1662, but was removed in the autumn of that year and cut down to its present size, presumably by Rembrandt himself. Nothing further is known of the painting’s whereabouts until 1734, when it was sold at auction in Amsterdam to a merchant from Estonia. His descendant donated the painting to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden, in 1798. It has been on display at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm since 1866.

Susanna Slöör, Permanent Secretary, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden said “The Royal Academy is thrilled and very proud to contribute to the understanding of Rembrandt’s late works by a loan of Claudius Civilis, the most prominent painting in a Swedish collection, to be shown in this fabulous context to a world audience. We are very grateful for this cooperation and look forward to a lasting relation with the National Gallery to enhance knowledge and interest in this extraordinary painting.”

In Trafalgar Square, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis will have a central position in the section of the exhibition devoted to Rembrandt’s extraordinary use of light.  It will be shown together with Rembrandt’s sketch for the work (on loan from the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich), which is the only surviving record of the painting’s original composition and format. 

Betsy Wieseman again “The raw savagery of the figures and the clandestine nature of their meeting are brilliantly expressed by means of Rembrandt’s broad brushwork, and the odd and dazzling effects of the light cast by the lamp hidden by the figure in the immediate foreground. The juxtaposition of the two works – drawing and painting - will enable the visitor to imagine how, in Rembrandt’s vision; the scene’s unearthly glow would have been dramatically amplified by situating the huddled conspirators within a dark and cavernous setting. We are extremely honoured that the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Sweden, has permitted us to include this important painting in our exhibition.”

PS - there's an important update to my post below on Leonardo's 'Lady with an Ermine'.

Update - this isn't the only overseas Rembrandt loan in London at the moment. A reader alerts me to the Rijksmuseum's loan of a c.1630 Rembrandt to Kenwood House: Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem. More details here

Lord King to be new National Gallery chairman?

October 1 2014

Image of Lord King to be new National Gallery chairman?

Picture: Investmentinsider.eu

Interesting to note that the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has been appointed a trustee of the National Gallery. He has already served as a trustee once before, between 2005/9. Given that the NG is looking for a new chairman, I wonder if such a high-profile appointment means Lord King might fill that role. The post of chairman is elected from within the trustees themselves. 

Earlier in the year, DCMS asked me to be on the interviewing panel for the appointment of a National Gallery trustee. I think I'd have said then that Lord King would be an excellent choice. Congratulations to him. Being a trustee gives you one of the great perks in British life - Freedom of the Gallery. This means you can go round the gallery any time you like, day or night, 365 days of the year. 

'Secrets of Leonardo revealed'?

October 1 2014

Video: BBC. Images: Copyright Pascal Cotte

There was a slew of stories in the press yesterday on the 'secrets' revealed by new analysis of Leonardo's Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, better known as the 'Lady with an Ermine'. Above is the BBC news piece. Here is the Guardian's report. And here is the LA Times.

Pascal Cotte (seen below, with a model recreating Cecilia's pose), co-founder of Lumiere Technology in Paris, has analysed the picture using a 'layer amplification method', or 'LAM' which, he says, allows us to peel back the layers of Leonardo's painting to reveal how he made it.

Cotte says, in a new book 'Lumiere on the Lady with an Ermine' (available here on Amazon), that Leonardo painted the picture in three seperate stages. First, the portrait was made without an ermine, with the sitter's right hand as shown below.

Then the ermine was added, but with a more slender form:

And finally, the bulkier ermine was painted on top of the first ermine, and that is the picture we see today:

The famous Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp seems to accept the results wholeheartedly, and says that they:

[...] tell us a lot more about the way Leonardo’s mind worked when he was doing a painting.

“We know that he fiddled around a good deal at the beginning, but now we know that he kept fiddling around all the time and it helps explain why he had so much difficulty finishing paintings."

But unfortunately, it seems to me that this is yet another example of the over-interpretation of technical analysis, in this case mainly various forms of multi-spectral photography.* Regular readers will know that I have been sounding warning signs about this for some time (see an earlier example here over Rubens' portrait of Van Dyck). We must be wary of too much messing around with things like Photoshop.

First, I must state that Cotte's work is a valuable contribution to art history, and his technology can yield some fascinating results. He featured on an early episode of 'Fake or Fortune?', and his work with Professor Kemp on the so-called 'Bella Principessa' - the newly discovered drawing which Kemp attributed to Leonardo (but which has so far failed to find favour with the majority of other Leonardo scholars) - raised many interesting questions that were perhaps unfairly tarnished by Peter Paul Biro's 'Leonardo fingerprint' controversy (see the Cotte/Kemp Principessa book here, and further AHN on the matter here).

And Cotte's analysis in the case of 'Lady with an Ermine' does indeed reveal some interesting facts about Leonardo's approach to the painting. We can see in the image below, for example, that Leonardo made a number of changes to the dress, including in the detail on the sitter's left arm - the intricate scroll pattern appears beneath the red layer we see in the finished painting, and echoes that seen on her right arm.

Another interesting detail is the obvious change in the outline of the ermine, as seen below, which is a classic example of the sort of artistic change, or pentimento, we can now see easily with modern IR photography.

However, Cotte's central thesis, that the ermine was an after-thought, is not, it seems to me, actually evident in the images he has published. For example, Cotte says that the four ghostly shapes below are evidence that the sitter's right hand was originally perched on her left wrist, just below where the ermine sits in the finished picture:

In this image below he has highlighted the 'fingers' in purple: 

But these shapes, noticeable only by enhancement, could really be anything; something in the make up of the panel, a variation in the application of ground layer, or a more minor change relating to another area, and so on. The shapes are not nearly obvious enough for us to deduce that it was once a hand.

In fact, here below is a zoomed out image of the same area - taken from another of Cotte's scans - and it seems to me that in fact a whole different shape can be seen there, just above the 'fingers' identified by Cotte. These too look like they could have been fingers - but Cotte makes nothing of them in relation to the hand,  even though they appear to be the same consistency and type of form, and says instead they are part of the tail of the first ermine:

In the image below I have (very inexpertly) pointed out the area I'm talking about with a red arrow. Cotte's 'fingers' are pointed out with the purple arrow:

The point is, it's possible to look at scans like this and imagine all sorts of shapes and features, be they fingers or imagine tails. In any case, can we really believe that Leonardo, the master of almost lyrical anatomy, would ever have concieved such an awkward pose?  

I am equally unpersuaded by the idea that there were two different ermines, one thinner and another that we see now. Again, there is not enough evidence to prove that the ermine was originally the oddly shaped creature Cotte claims it to be. I don't believe Leonardo would paint such a thing - it looks like one of those draught excluders you get in Poundland.

I am truly sorry to rain on Pascal Cotte's parade like this - especially after he has kindly shared his press images with me. Of course, you can all feel free to ignore everything I've said here. But there is an important point to be made about interpreting the technical analysis of paintings, which is a science in its relative infancy.

In these cases, I always mention the cautionary tale of the certain yellow pigment - I forget which - that scientists assured us was not invented till the 18th Century, leading to the rejection of a number of pictures as later copies. Only recently was it discovered that this pigment had in fact been around in the 17th Century, and that the rejected pictures weren't 'wrong' after all. The point is, those undertaking the technical analysis of pictures have not yet built up a deep enough body of evidence to enable to us to say with certainty, 'this pigment only dates to this date', or, 'this is what a Leonardo pentimento of a hand looks like'. To make such conclusions, we must first test far more paintings, so that we can build up a truly reliable database of yellow pigments, or scan every Leonardo painting to be sure what one of his hidden hand, if we can discern such things, really looks like. Leaping to conclusions from such a small sample size would not be acceptable in any other science.

We, that is the public, art historians and the media, are in danger of placing far too much faith in the analysis of difficult-to-read images by scientists who may not be familiar with all the vagaries of how artists worked. It's curious that while many art historians denigrate one form of connoisseurship - that is, the close analysis of a picture's surface to learn who painted what, when, and how - they seem happy to accept unquestioningly a different and far harder form of connoisseurship; the analysis of what lies beneath a painting. It's also curious that we seem happy to outsource this art historical analysis to scientists, who may be very qualified to take the sort of photos Cotte has taken, but are no more qualified to analyse them the man in the street. But then there is a general perception that science, being a binary discipline, must be right. I would argue that, when it comes to pictures, it isn't. At least, not yet. 

Update - a reader writes:

To me the ghostly image you point out with the red arrow looks just like an eagle (in profile, looking right). Do you see it too?

Nope.

Another reader reminds me that Brian Sewell doubted whether Leonardo painted Lady with an Ermine.

Update II - And because I was quite pleased with it at the time, here, in case anyone's interested, is my review of the National Gallery's exhibition on Leonardo's Milan works, in which the Lady with an Ermine was shown.

Update III - another reader writes:

It is well established that Leonardo fiddled with his paintings and completed them slowly

The significant changes in the ermine were accompanied by changes in the dress and elsewhere and are logical to imply a robust duke.   The x-ray and infrared images add to the understanding of his process and the scientific analysis reveals are some of these changes

But one must view the less clear images as suggestive and  with the same uncertainty as unclear images of alien ships and imaginary creatures. They are subject to interpretation and the objects might exist but require further confirmation.

Update IV - Pascal Cotte has kindly been in touch. He has asked me to point out that I have not read his book, in which he goes into everything in great detail. I'm more than happy to do so.

He also makes the following points:

The  L.A.M. technique provides images from deep inside the layers of paint. So it is easy - by comparison - to check if we are wrong or not. I can demonstrate easily if what we see exists or not, thus eliminating 90% of the risk of over-interpretation.

The risk of over-interpretation still exists but it is very limited. An incorrect assumption (e.g. over-interpretation, for example) cannot readily endure because it will clash with dozens of details that one can see in the other LAM images. 

It is the strength of this technique that it does not give only one image, as do the infrared or X-rays, but thousands of them. You have failed to differentiate my method from older ones.

In other words, Cotte's own cameras and computers tell him that there is only a 10% chance he is wrong. Obviously, I disagree entirely. In fact, I'd say there is about a 10% chance he is right.

M. Cotte also says:

I agree with you that the 4 fingers are not enough on their own to demonstrate that there was no ermine at the beginning of the picture. The hypothesis is based not only on this picture, but on many many others elements, demonstrations, etc. developed in my book. I

n fact, in your article, without knowing it, you demonstrate that I'm right about the hypothesis without the ermine. You draw attention to the discoveries of the nice interlaces revealed by the L.A.M. and you write "We can see in the image below, for example, that Leonardo made a number of changes to the dress, including in the detail on the sitter's left arm - the intricate scroll pattern appears beneath the red layer we see in the finished painting, and echoes that seen on her right arm."  These "scroll patterns" are interlaces. If you work with an expert in costume who knows precisely the fashion at this time (as I am working with Elisabetta Gnignera) you understand that the position of this interlaces involves putting her left arm in a very different position, which is totally incompatible with the presence of an ermine (or anything else) in the actual position.

This last statement, I'm afraid, makes no sense at all. The alteration to the dress in the sitter's left arm, is a cosmetic one - the 'interlaces' have been painted over. Perhaps Leonardo found them too visually distracting. This relatively minor alteration cannot then be interpreted as evidence that the arm cannot have originally held anything else, no matter what a costume historian might say.

To follow up this point, I asked M. Cotte if he had detected evidence of these 'interlaces' behind the ermine and behind the sitter's right hand. If the ermine was not originally included, and if the hand was in the lower position Cotte claims, then we should surely be able to see the 'interlaces' going all the way across the sitter's chest on the collar of her dress, and also all the way down the edge of her chest on the left hand side of the picture, as seen in the first reconstruction image above. Since M. Cotte's cameras detected evidence of the 'interlaces' underneath the (apparently quite thick) red paint on the sitter's left arm, we should expect to see them similarly revealed in other areas. But alas it appears that there is in fact no evidence of these 'interlaces'. Which seems to me pretty clear proof that the picture was not painted in the manner M. Cotte claims. 

Finally, M. Cotte adds:

As mentioned in the beginning of my book I constituted a  "Reading Committee" with 18 people, Conservators, Art Historians, Scientists, Restorers, Experts. Because doubt is the engine of all sciences. I approached this study with humility by seeking the advice and recommendations of many well informed experts. Each detail, each shape, each drawing, each pentimenti was analysed carefully by people who are highly experience in analytical techniques. Dr. Janusz Walek, the chief Conservator of the Lady with an Ermine in Krakow, who knows the painting better than anyone, totally agrees with my findings. Dr. David Bull who studied this painting in detail when it was exhibited in Washington and wrote the most serious scientific publication about it, has also agreed with the discoveries. 

I'm a little alarmed that two such influential conservators, who one would expect to know their way around a painting, really believe all this.  

* Note - not infra-red, as I mistakenly said earlier.

How much for an attribution?

October 1 2014

Image of How much for an attribution?

Picture: New York Times, a fake Pollock sold by Knoedler

Over on Apollo's site, there's a summary by Lily Le Brun of the Knoedler fakes story which has been rumbling on since 2011, with this intriguing fact I'd so far missed:

In April a lawsuit was filed against a former curator at the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland for knowingly participating in the Knoedler fraud ‘either intentionally or with wilful blindness or reckless disregard for the truth’ – on the grounds that he was paid a $300,000 consulting fee by Knoedler to help sell a $7.2 million ‘Rothko’, and that he received $150,000 from the buyer.

That's a pretty extraordinary fee for authenticating a picture. Any curator or scholar who took that amount, or even a tenth of it, must know that it's nothing less than a bribe.

'Cameron's royal gaffe on the Queen's Van Dyck'

September 30 2014

Image of 'Cameron's royal gaffe on the Queen's Van Dyck'

Picture: Evening Standard

There's a story in the London Evening Standard today, which states that the David Cameron, made 'a gaffe' in revealing details of a conversation with the Queen at Chequers, the UK Prime Minister's country retreat. Says the Standard:

On Monday last week, Mr Cameron invited some 20 MPs to his country retreat, including some of his fiercest critics, to thrash out a plan for “English votes for English laws” following the referendum.

During a tour, he showed them Anthony van Dyck’s painting A Family Group, and recounted a conversation that took place when the Queen and Prince Philip made a visit to Chequers in February — their first in almost two decades.

According to Mr Cameron, Her Majesty commented that she had the original of the painting at Windsor Castle. But the Premier then told how, in a toe-curlingly awkward moment, the curator at Chequers interjected to correct the Queen, pointing out the version she was looking at was the original and that her painting at Windsor was the copy.

While the story delighted guests, it appears to once again breach protocol which demands private conversations with the Queen are not discussed.

Which is all very amusing, except for the fact that the Queen (who knows her art) was absolutely right. The two group portraits by Van Dyck that would match the description given here of 'A Family Group' are the so-called 'Great Piece' of Charles I and Henrietta Maria with Charles II and Princess Mary and The Five Eldest Children of Charles I, and both are in the Royal Collection. Chequers has a copy of part of the former (with just Henrietta Maria and Princess Mary) and a full-scale copy of the latter. These are both listed in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné as copies.

You can see the Chequers copies on Your Paintings here and here. For some reason, the Your Paintings site incorrectly describes the portrait of Henrietta Maria and Princess Mary as by 'Van Dyck'.

If the curator at Chequers really did not know that Van Dyck's original was indeed in the Royal Collection, they should be sent to the Tower. 

There are two genuine Van Dycks at Chequers, small head and shoulders portraits of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, which you can see on Your Paintings here and here

Update - AHN's reaction to the Standard story has been picked up by the media, including the Telegraph here, the Express here and The Times here. But the PM has today given a barnstorming conference speech, with tax cuts to boot, so this Van Dyck business will be very swiftly forgotten. 

Update II - a reader writes:

Would that Her Majesty still had the power to send a curator to The Tower and have a PM (who made him a Premier) exiled (to Scotland) for indiscretion.

Update III - a reader adds:

The Cameron Van Dyke story puts one in mind of Alan Bennett's "A Question of Attribution."  Her Majesty likes facts.

Sargent exhibition at NPG London & Met, NY

September 30 2014

Image of Sargent exhibition at NPG London & Met, NY

Picture: NPG

This looks exciting; the National Portrait Gallery, London, will have an exhibition on John Singer Sargent next year, which will then go onto the Met in New York. Guest curated by Richard Ormond CBE, who wrote the excellent four-volume Sargent catalogue raisonné, the show will:

[...] explore the artist as a painter at the forefront of contemporary movements in the arts, music, literature and theatre, revealing the depth of his appreciation of culture and his close friendships with many of the leading artists, actors and writers of the time.

The exhibition will be in London between 12 Feb - 25 May, and the at the Met in New York 29 June - 4 October. More details here.  

What is 'prosopography'?

September 30 2014

Image of What is 'prosopography'?

Picture: Neil Jeffares/ National Archives

King of all things pastel, Neil Jeffares (consult his online Dictionary of pastellists before 1800 here) is a pre-eminent prosopographist, and explains what it is in this entry on his blog:

[..] archival research into the lives of the artists and the worlds they worked in.

You and I might think that's mainly what art history is all about, but no; as Neil explains, too many art historians are instead focused on:

the often dry theoretical discussions pursued in universities: these are characterised by abstract theories couched in ludicrous vocabulary, and are necessarily governed by the whimsical vogues that infect the institutions where such work is conducted.

Anyway, to see an important and indeed rather moving example of Neil's dedicated prosopography, I urge you to read his latest piece of research on the English seventeenth century pastellist Edmund Ashfield, here, in which he describes his quest to find out more about this previously elusive artist.

In this extract, Neil describes the eureka moment when he found a crucial line of text, above, hiding in an enormous document at the National Archives in Kew:

Unindexed, it consisted of twenty-five enormous sheets of vellum (double sided, each with up to 7–8000 words), folded to make photography impossible and so large that to read them (and comply with the National Archives handling rules) required bodily contortions that may have inspired Mats Ek’s choreography: at least Michelangelo had a scaffold. And try as I might I could find nowhere in the affidavit of her guardian’s son the statement I hoped to find. But as I was very close to giving up going through the rest of the bundle, I came across the statement made by the defendant, Sir Henry Goodricke, in which he does indeed refer to Eleanor’s first husband as “Mr Edmond Ashfield, the Plaintiff’s Father, who was by Trade a Painter…& had no visible Estate of his owne”.

Neil's main conclusion is that Ashfield died earlier than we thought, in 1679, and that therefore a group of c.1690 miniatures previously thought to be by him at the V&A (see one example here) must be by someone else.

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