Julian Opie on the Old Masters

March 15 2015

Image of Julian Opie on the Old Masters

Pictures: NPG, self-portrait by Julian Opie, 'Julian with T-shirt'. Below, Philip Mould Ltd.

There was a fascinating article in the Sunday Times recently by Julian Opie, talking about his love of Old Masters, why he collects them, and how they inform his own art. It's rare to hear contemporary artists talking about their predecessors with such flair and insight.

Here, with his permission, is the full piece, which is well worth reading:

I am not a historian, a critic or a writer. I am a fan, an artist myself and I suppose a collector. I collect a lot of different kinds of art, contemporary, ancient, Japanese and 17th and 18th century European. I get interested in things because they seem to jump out at me. It can be because the thing relates to what I am making or  because it shows me what I could make. The object can be from anywhere and from any time, I recently bought a painting on buffalo hide by mid 19th C Pawnee Native Americans.

Having noticed British painting some years back I moved from the early 17th Century forwards and eventually arrived at Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney and Ramsay. They were the giants of the late 18th Century each with their own style and particular brilliance. All artists learn from previous art and refer to previous art. I may be high up on that particular scale. 

Walking down Dover street in Mayfair my wife and I spotted a small, dark painting leaning against the wall in my favourite Old Master gallery. Sometimes I see an art work and the day seems to stop. Other things, normal things are forgotten and there is only the fact of looking at the thing. I love the feeling, of being totally focused and engaged and enthusiastic. Other paintings remain paintings but I seem to enter the space of some works. I don't care really when the work was made or by whom. I don't care what or who it is of. Well, I do read about the period and learn all I can finding out about other artists in the process. I want to stare at the artwork and if possible to have it. After some negotiations ( the painting was reserved by someone else) I bought Mr Bradyll [above] and have looked at it almost every day since then. It is particularly vivid as it’s painted thickly and fast on a wooden board and thus has faded less than much of Reynold’s work.

I had always admired Reynolds even as a student when I only knew of him in a general sense as an old master. There is a melancholic and gentle quality to his work. The slightly deathly mood ( enhanced by the tendency of his skin colours to fade to pale) is offset by a vivid, powerful sense of presence. Like many 18th Century works the compositions are elegant and balanced and there is a piercing sincerity and fresh energy and optimism to the paintings. 

These days we usually see good paintings in museums and museums tend to focus on the interesting and the grand. It's hard for them to write about yet another portrait of an aristocrat done in oil paint. There are thousands of them, all the same set size and although I can tell a lot of them apart they look remarkably similar on the surface. In the case of Reynolds this bias is a shame. His best works are the workaday portraits commissioned to be hung in people's homes. There is an energetic modesty and sense of sureness and purpose to these works. Reynolds helped to set up and then directed the first public English gallery where artists could exhibit their work, the Royal Academy. This was part of a whole move away from artist as commissioned portraitist, the end of a golden age and the end of my interest in English painting really. The mythological later works of Reynolds are pompous and stiff and dated but a huge number of his hundreds of commissioned portraits are still glowingly intense and alive. 

Like most British portrait painters Reynolds came from the tradition of Dutch portraiture introduced by Van Dyke, Cornelius Johnson and others in the early 17th Century. Reynolds travelled to Italy to learn from earlier Italian late Renaissance painters like Raphael and Titian. He then applied the techniques and compositions to his busy London studio practice. Daily sessions of portrait sittings undertaken to order. Paintings then often sent by cart to drapery painters such as the brilliant Van Aken who did all the top artist’s drapery. For a set price and at a set size you could have a head or a three quarter length or a fabulous full length portrait. You could get more than one copy. It was a service and artists knew what their job was. 

Reynolds experimented and borrowed and imitated. He played with props and poses and above all lighting and painting technique. Dappled light and shadows falling across complicated drapery gave glamour and depth and life. He often used gracious garden settings or exciting wild skies as backdrops as did his contemporaries, to add a sense of depth, place, narrative and an almost cinematic realism. Towards the end of his career these became somewhat overblown or sentimental with young girls hugging smiling sheep and young men dashing through arcadian woods with bows and arrows - by this stage I have lost interest.

A lot of emphasis is often put on the fame or glamour of the sitter and although there can be amusing stories to be told and although the whole complex system of portraiture, wealth, propaganda, society and patronage is important it’s not really what interests me.I do like to know about the role of art and artists and understand the changing way in which artists can work and exhibit but in the end I love to gaze at paintings and see what they do to my eyes and mind. Art can open up the past and bring you directly into the minds and views of other periods almost like time travel. 

The amazing sense of presence in the best of the artists of this time was a pinnacle of a shared purpose and set of techniques. Now we have no idea what we are supposed to be doing as artists, which is a freedom and of course confusing. Reynolds holds all this richness at the end of the golden Age of Enlightenment in late 18th Century London just before most British art fell into the sentimentality, corruption and slick academic tedium of the 19th C.

Disclaimer: I sold Julian the Reynolds he refers to, when I used to work for Philip Mould. And I'm lucky enough to own something of Julian's too, a French landscape. It is one of my favourite pictures.

Update - I meant to say that, as Julian hints above, the reason the Reynolds portrait works so well is because it is in really excellent condition. Just imagine how different our perception of Reynolds would be if all his pictures had survived in such good state.

'hopelessly excessive'

March 15 2015

Image of 'hopelessly excessive'

Picture: Guardian

I got a lot of grief from some in the contemporary art world when I expressed amazement at the prices currently achieved (in the Financial Times) by some artists. So it's interesting to hear similar thoughts from none other than Gerhard Richter, who calls todays prices 'hopelessly excessive'. The Guardian reports:

Gerhard Richter, the world-famous German painter, has expressed his incredulity at the astronomical sums paid for his works, calling the art market “hopelessly excessive” and saying that prices are rarely a reflection on quality.

Richter, 83, told the German daily Die Zeit he had watched the outcome of a recent auction at Sotheby’s in London with horror after an anonymous buyer paid £30.4m (€41m, $46.5m) for his 1986 oil-on-canvas, Abstraktes Bild.

We artists get next to nothing from such an auction. Except for a small morsel, all the profit goes to the seller

“The records keep being broken and every time my initial reaction is one of horror even if it’s actually welcome news. But there is something really shocking about the amount,” Richter said.

He said he believed people who paid so much money for his paintings were foolish and foresaw that prices for his art would crash “when the art market corrects itself”, as he was convinced it would.

Seen as the leader of the New European Painting movement which emerged in the second half of the 20th century, Richter made a name for himself with “photo-paintings” that replicate photographs and are then “blurred” with a squeegee or a brush.

The price paid for Abstraktes Bild amounted to a staggering 5,000-fold increase on the price he had originally sold it for, he said.

He told the weekly newspaper that he understood as much about the art market as he did “about Chinese or physics”, and said contrary to a common perception he hardly benefited at all from such sales.

“We artists get next to nothing from such an auction. Except for a small morsel, all the profit goes to the seller,” he said.

Note to Old Master dealers

March 15 2015

There was a piece in The Art Newspaper recently about the state of the Old Master market, and in particular the place of dealers within it. I was quoted as giving some dealers a bit of a bash, for continuing to practice art dealing as it used to be done 30 or 40 years ago, and wondering why business wasn't so good any more. I stand by the bash.

The trouble is, a number of dealers have got in touch to express surprise at what I said. So I just want to make a few things clear. 

Here's the relevant part of the TAN piece:

The British art historian, broadcaster and former dealer Bendor Grosvenor strongly disagrees that the Old Master market is in retreat. He puts the blame for its supposed decline on the dealers and the ease with which collectors can access prices online. “The old retail-style operation, which is how many of the ‘established’ dealers began, is finished,” he says. Dealers can no longer buy a work at auction, then turn around and sell it with a nice mark-up. “Within 30 seconds, a potential buyer can walk out of your gallery and find out what you paid for a picture and often won’t come back,” he says. “The new collectors—for they indeed exist—aren’t going into those upstairs galleries you have to press a buzzer to get into, or visiting faraway Maastricht or browsing dealers’ websites to buy art any more. Like it or not, to these collectors, direct buying at auction offers an excitement and a belief that what one is buying is good value, and very few dealers can compete with that.”

First, I haven't totally given up the dealing thing. More on that soon. 

Second, I don't blame 'the dealers' for the supposed decline. Instead, I criticise some dealers for damning the market unnecessarily. My comments to TAN were actually given in support of the Old Master market, after I had been cheesed off by some long-standing dealers cotinually saying the market was dead. It isn't, and I was trying to say that dealers should adapt to the needs of newer collectors, who, whether we like it or not, prefer to buy at auction. 

And finally, and most importantly, the key word in the final sentence in the TAN piece is 'belief'. But even that slightly misinterprets what I said. Here's the quote I actually gave for the article:

Buying at auction is now seen so differently; it’s exciting, it’s almost cool, and it’s perceived as being good value (though there’s much to be said about that aspect of it). The thing is, it’s a process very few dealers can compete against.

So I'm sorry to my colleagues in the art world if they got the impression from TAN that I was damning them all. That's not what I meant.

For what it's worth, here's the entirety of my email to TAN, from which the quotes were taken:

The market is changing, there’s no doubt about that, as indeed is taste. Taste changes all the time. But I’d wager most of the dealers you spoke to are those who aren’t aware of how the business is changing too. 

Put simply, the old retail-style operation, which is how many of the 'established’ dealers began, is bust, kaput, finished. Even in the last ten/fifteen years or so you could get away with buying a picture at Christie’s, then walking over the road to your gallery in St James or whatever snippy part of Manhattan Old Master dealers occupy, and stick in the window with mark up. But that doesn’t work any more. Now, within thirty seconds, a potential buyer can walk out of your gallery and find out what you paid for a picture. And usually, once they’ve figured out your margin, they don’t walk back… 

But still dealers keep the same gallery spaces, go to the same fairs, market themselves in the same way, and wonder what the hell happened to all their clients, and why there are no new ones. 

The ‘new’ collectors (for they indeed exist) aren’t going to go into those upstairs galleries you have to press a buzzer to get into, or those fairs in faraway Maastricht, or browse dealer’s often pretty rubbish websites, to buy art anymore. Their whole manner of buying stuff – any stuff – is very different. 

I suppose it’s true that, when it comes to the auction houses, it’s a case of ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ [in regard to the auction houses saying that, in contrast to some dealers' reports, the Old Master market was actually doing very well] But there’s no denying that the auction houses have taken a sizeable, and growing chunk of the clientele that used to go to, or would be expected to go to, dealers. Buying at auction is now seen so differently; it’s exciting, it’s almost cool, and it’s perceived as being good value (though there’s much to be said about that aspect of it). The thing is, it’s a process very few dealers can compete against.  

And someone new is buying art from the auction houses. That Chinese collector who bought a Vermeer last year for £6m exists, I saw him. As I suppose does the one who paid millions for a Rembrandt, and who are the people buying Stubbs for close on £20m? They exist too. And you’ve only to look at the market for pre-Raphaelites to see how a sector of the art market can be transformed by just a handful of collectors competing for works. 

If it were the case the nobody was visiting the Louvre, or the National Gallery in London, neither of which contain much modern or contemporary art, then I’d believe people when they say ‘nobody’s interested in Old Masters’ any more. But people are queuing to get into those galleries as never before. 

There is a way of selling even middle market pictures successfully, and (thought this sounds a boast) I know how to do it. I know others that can do it too. It’s true, there’s not many of them. Often, it’s all a question of context and presentation – you’d be amazed at how few people can genuinely make an Old Master painting interesting or exciting. Then there’s the whole other question of expertise, and who collectors are willing to trust (these days, mainly the auction houses).

Brueghel discoveries

March 13 2015

Image of Brueghel discoveries

Picture: Hampel

At Hampel Auctions in Germany they have an extraordinary record of offering apparently previously unknown works by members of the Brueghel family, which come to sale in remarkably good condition - in fact, almost as good as new. Here's the latest

$10m Van Gogh drawing unveiled at TEFAF

March 13 2015

Image of $10m Van Gogh drawing unveiled at TEFAF

Picture: Guardian/Dickinson

A newly authenticated drawing by Van Gogh has gone on display at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) at Maastricht, with a price tag of around $10m. The work is being offered by Simon Dickinson. Reports Dalya Alberge in The Guardian:

A landscape by Vincent van Gogh is to be exhibited for the first time in more than 100 years following the discovery of crucial evidence that firmly traces back its history directly to the artist.

The significance of two handwritten numbers scribbled almost imperceptibly on the back had been overlooked until now. They have been found to correspond precisely with those on two separate lists of Van Gogh’s works drawn up by Johanna, wife of the artist’s brother, Theo.

Johanna, who was widowed in 1891 – months after Vincent’s death – singlehandedly generated interest in his art. She brought it to the attention of critics and dealers, organising exhibitions, although she obviously could never have envisaged the millions that his works would fetch today.

Le Moulin d’Alphonse Daudet à Fontvieille, which depicts vivid green grapevines leading up to a windmill with broken wings in the distance, is a work on paper that he created with graphite, reed pen and ink and watercolour shortly after he reached Arles, in the south of France.

If you're also exhibiting at TEFAF, good luck!

Reynolds exhibition at the Wallace Collection

March 13 2015

Image of Reynolds exhibition at the Wallace Collection

Picture: Wallace Collection

There's what looks like a great new exhibition at the Wallace Collection on Joshua Reynolds. The approach is refreshingly old-fashioned, for it looks at what Reynolds did, and how he did it:

This exhibition offers a snapshot of Joshua Reynolds’s creative process, and reveals discoveries made during a four-year research project into the outstanding collection of his works at the Wallace Collection. We have selected not only significant portraits but lesser known ‘fancy pictures’ and a rare history painting, all of which will be shown side by side. Among the works on display will be famous pictures such as Nelly O’Brien, Mrs Abington as Miss Prue and Reynolds’s own Self Portrait Shading the Eyes.

By focusing on the themes of experimentation and innovation, we trace Reynolds’s working practice in two ways: on the material level, through his use of pigments and media; and on a conceptual level, through his development of composition and narrative.  What emerges is a vision of Reynolds as a pioneering painter, highly original in his approaches to pictorial composition. This drive to innovation is exemplified in his ambitious allusions to the great masters of the past, such as Titian and Rembrandt and his obsessive tendency to rework and revise his images as he painted.

The exhibition is co-curated by Mark Hallett, who recently published a fine book on Reynolds. Reviews here in The Guardian and The Independent

Selfie sticks banned

March 13 2015

Image of Selfie sticks banned

Picture: Brooklyn Museum

There's been a lot of hoo ha in the press about museums 'banning' selfie sticks. The National Gallery in London was the latest to impose a ban. A broadcaster asked me, as an advocate of allowing photography in museums, to go on the news saying selfie-sticks should be permitted. But obviously they should not be allowed at all, just as you're not allowed to wander around museums waving an umbrella in the air. This story is about plain old common sense, nothing else. 

€100k Michelangelo ransom

March 13 2015

Image of €100k Michelangelo ransom

Picture: arttattler.com (this is not the stolen letter)

Two letters by Michelangelo which were stolen from the Vatican archive in 1997 have re-surfaced, with the Vatican receiving a €100k ransom demand. More here

Brian: The Return

March 12 2015

Image of Brian: The Return

Picture: Times

Good news - the Great Brian is back writing once more. Here he is on fine form on the British Museum's latest exhibition on the ancient greeks. 


March 12 2015

Video: NBC San Diego

In San Diego, a fellow claiming to have a 'newly discovered' Jackson Pollock for sale at $160m invited the local news affiliate to his hotel room for a bit of publicity (above). The picture was apparently donated to a thrift store by the artist many years ago (sounds similar to the plot of that play, Bakersfield Mist). The mystery owners have had the picture 'authenticated' by... a computer programme, which said that there was a '93% chance' it was by Pollock.

More here.

Caveat emptor...

Update - here's the sales brochure. The picture is described as 'Pollock.. .style'

'Salvator Mundi' at heart of art fraud case?

March 11 2015

Image of 'Salvator Mundi' at heart of art fraud case?

Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art/Tim Nighswander

I learn via Marion Maneker's Art Market Monitor that the newly discovered Leonardo 'Salvator Mundi' (above) is at the centre of an art fraud case that is causing consternation among the contemporary set.

Pepper everything you read here with the word 'allegedly', but the story is this: Yves Bouvier (who runs and owns a series of 'freeports' around the world where art can be stored without incurring various taxes) has been accussed of fraud by the Russian collector Dmitri Rybolovlev; M. Bouvier was apparently meant to be buying works for Mr. Rybolovlev for a fixed 2% commission; but Mr Rybolovlev was none too pleased to discover that he had apparently been paying far more for some pictures than he had been led to believe was necessary.

One of the pictures in question is the Salvator Mundi. Le Temps in Switzerland reports that Mr Rybolovlev paid $127.5m, but read elsewhere that the painting had been sold through Sotheby's private treaty department in New York for '$75m-$80m'.

Until now, there has been no confirmation about Salvator Mundi buyer's identity.* It's great to know, amidst all the hand-wringing about the dying Old Master market (as most recently discussed here in The Art Newspaper), that Russian oligarchs are buying Leonardos... 

* boast: AHN was the first to report that the painting had been sold.

Van Gogh paintings: 'turning white'

March 11 2015

Image of Van Gogh paintings: 'turning white'

Picture: PRI.org

Public Radio International reports that Van Goghs paintings are slowly becoming whiter. The reason why, scientists in Belgium have deduced, is the 'red lead' he used, also called plumbonacrite:

plumbonacrite is suspected to be one of the first synthetically-made paints known to man, and van Gogh was a particular fan of the stuff. In many of his paintings he used bold colors — including the red hue — which apparently degrades like a Gobstopper candy when exposed to light.

More here

Test your Connoisseurship

March 11 2015

Image of Test your Connoisseurship

Picture: BG

This one is classed as 'Fiendish'. Good luck!

Update - the answer is Goya, El Medico, in the Scottish National Gallery.

Well done to those of you who got it. But! Some of you confessed to cheating, by uploading the image to Google image search. I thought I would handily get around this problem by taking a photo of the painting myself. But those fellows at Google are so dashedly clever, that their image search still works anyway. 

Trouble at Tate Britain (ctd.)

March 10 2015

Image of Trouble at Tate Britain (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

In The Spectator, Jack Wakefield echoes Waldemar Januszczak's call last year for Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain, to resign. Wakefield's demand follows what he says are a series of particularly poor reviews for Tate Britain's latest exhibition, Sculpture Victorious [about British sculpture in the Victorian age]:

[...] she has presided over a stinker of a blockbuster. Sculpture Victorious has been panned across the board.  The Guardian’s good art critic, Adrian Searle, labelled it ‘an epic fail’ and Richard Dorment, who is not only the Telegraph’s chief art critic but also an eminent scholar of Victorian sculpture, wrote the worst review I have ever read. He takes issue with the conception — ‘an extended academic lecture …deadly dull from start to finish’; the curation — ‘these dolts don’t realise …that exhibitions … are above all visual experiences’; and the scholarship — ‘hot-air generalisations that veer between the banal …and the meaningless’.

Dorment's review is indeed a stinker, and he was particularly narked by an error in the catalogue:

To give one example: twice it is stated that Alfred Gilbert’s failure to finish a royal commission (the Tomb of the Duke of Clarence at Windsor) led to his resignation from the Royal Academy. In fact, he was asked to resign several years after that incident, when a client complained to the President of the RA that Gilbert would or could not produce a commission for which she had already paid a large advance.

The reason I know this is that I’ve written both a life of Alfred Gilbert and the catalogue of an exhibition about him at the Royal Academy. Both are readily available – but in libraries, not Wikipedia .

This is junk scholarship. The people who write this stuff have plenty of theories about art but, in my view, not the kind of knowledge that qualifies them to work in a museum or gallery.

I couldn’t care less when they to publish their low-grade, pseudo-historical twaddle in periodicals no one reads. But to see it in a catalogue published by a respected institution like Tate is depressing, because it will now be repeated over and over until it becomes the accepted view of Victorian sculpture.

I haven't seen the show, but the first review I saw, Laura Cumming's in The Observer, makes the point that alas Victorian sculpture itself can be very variable. So perhaps those who didn't like the exhibition should blame the art on show instead. And then here's Martin Gayford in The Spectator (natch) calling the show 'entertainingly barmy'.

Anyway, one eccentric exhibition is no reason to sack a director. Personally I find there's something grating about rounding on Curtis like this. It is true that exhibitions at Tate Britain have taken a new direction, and there have some been some notable casualties of the more 'thematic' approach, such as the show on iconoclasm, which was always going to be impossible to pull off (though personally I liked it). I thought an early show of the Curtis reign, Migrations, was weak. But more recently the folk art exhibition was considered a success, and must be viewed as evidence of what can be achieved when exhibitions are approached from a novel angle. Is it perhaps the case that some art critics are a little behind the times? And the latest Turner exhibition ticked all the boxes you'd expect from a Tate show.

On top of all this, we have to accept that Tate Britain itself - that is, the building - is today in better shape than it has ever been. Overseeing the comprehensive restoration of the galleries, new basement areas, and a new entrance, was a great achievement.

This isn't to say that there aren't many things old stick-in-the-muds like me (and The Burlington Magazine) consider to be wrong at Tate Britain. The much vaunted 're-hang' looks nice, but doesn't show nearly enough pre- 20th Century art; having labels with no explanatory information on them is just silly; too much art is kept in storage; the shamefully unnecessary departures of a score of talented and scholarly curators, and the consequent loss of expertise; the refusal to engage with wider debates on attribution; the insular institutional responses to perfectly legitimate requests for information (such as the latest hoo-ha over BP's sponsorship), and so on. But many of these are part of a wider institutional problem, and it's still not too late to fix some of them. We must live in hope...

Who should write catalogues raisonnés (ctd.)?

March 10 2015

Image of Who should write catalogues raisonnés (ctd.)?

Picture: Freren/Metropolitian Museum

The photo above left is the front cover of the late Prof. Erik Larsen's 1988 catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's paintings. As you can see, it is a rubbish copy of the genuine Van Dyck self-portrait in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In other words, the front cover alone tells you all you need to know about the quality of Prof. Larsen's catalogue.

But still that book held sway over the Van Dyck market for many years, until it was superseded by the infinitely superior 2004 Yale catalogue.

Why? Why was someone who patently had no idea what a genuine Van Dyck looked like able to pronounce on what was and what was not a Van Dyck? I look into these questions in my latest article for The Art Newspaper, which you can read online (free) here

'A really crass, inept painting'

March 9 2015

Image of 'A really crass, inept painting'

Picture: Sotheby's

Remember the case of the newly discovered Constable sketch (above), which made $5m at Sotheby's New York after being sold as a copy by Christie's in London for £3,500?

Well the Christie's fightback has begun. At the time of the Sotheby's sale, Christie's put out a statement casting doubt on the attribution, saying:

 “We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.”

And now they have provided, to the New York Times, the name of a Constable scholar who doubts the attribution. And he doesn't just doubt it, he says the picture is not even close. 

The scholar is called Conal Shields, and his Constable resumé is impressive enough - in a letter published online (in relation to another matter) he says:

I was formerly Head of Art History and Conservation at the London Institute and am now co-curator of the Thomson Collection and the Thomson Archive of Art, and fine art advisor to Lord Thomson of Fleet, whose collection of paintings, drawings and prints by John Constable is the largest in private hands.

I have been co-organiser of two Tate Britain exhibitions devoted to John Constable, one of these the official bicentennial celebration, and am presently preparing a Constable exhibition for the Royal Academy, London, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Clark Institute in the U.S.A. I am co-editor of the final volume in the Suffolk Record Society's series of Constable documents and was keynote speaker at the National Gallery of Australia's Constable Symposium. I act as a consultant to both Christies and Sothebys.

But does he have a good Constable 'eye'? I don't know, as I've never met him, and have no means to immediately judge his track record. What is curious, though, is that his reaction to the picture is so viscerally different to that of say, Anne Lyles, the former Tate curator who is recognised as the current pre-eminent Constable scholar. Where Lyles saw a fine sketch by Constable, Shields:

“could see no sign of Constable’s hand in the work [...] It’s a really crass, inept painting.”

So this is not a case of Shields saying 'I'm not sure'. He's saying that Lyles, Sotheby's, and the market in general (I heard of not a single dissenting voice when the picture came up for sale as 'Constable' at Sotheby's) is wrong, massively wrong. For what it's worth (though I claim no Constable expertise at all) I saw the picture twice before it was sold in New York, and I had no doubt it was indeed by Constable. 

All this, it would seem, comes in the context of whether Christie's are in danger of being sued by the consignors of the picture when it was sold for £3,500 in London. In the New York Times piece, Lady Hambleden, the named vendor in the Christie's catalogue, says that:

[...] when she first learned the painting was by Constable, “I felt like a fool! I know it’s not my fault, but that was my first feeling.”

But she said she has no intention of suing over a work for which she had little affection and that her mother-in-law had stuffed in a cupboard for 60 years.

“It was sold under my name,” she said, “but on behalf of my children. So it would be their decision whether or not to bring legal action.”

Her sons did not respond to a number of messages seeking comment.

I don't know, but I suspect they're looking into it quite carefully. Remember, the key thing here is negligence, not whether Christie's made a simple mistake; did Christie's make all reasonable efforts to ensure that they looked into the possible Constable attribution? If they showed it to Conal Shields before the sale, and he said 'nah', then they might be in the clear, even if Shields turns out to be wrong. The recent Sotheby's 'Caravaggio' case gives us a good template of how such cases will work, and how hard it is to prove negligence against a major auction house. But it still seems to me that the special weakness in Christie's case is the presence of the £5m Claude in the same minor sale as the Constable, which was only withdrawn at the very last minute.

Incidentally, a reader kindly sent me an interesting quote from an earlier case on attribution heard in a British court, over a putative Van Dyck in 2002. Then, Mr Justice Buckley, in relation to who was qualified to make an attribution, said:

From listening to them both I understood that [the expert ‘eye’] to mean rather more than just observation. Whilst it is vital to have keen observation it is also necessary to have knowledge of an artist’s methods and style and to be sufficiently familiar with his work to be able to recognise his artistic ‘handwriting’. Even that is not all. It involves also a sensitivity to such concepts as quality, emotion, mood and atmosphere. To an extent ‘eye’ can be developed but, like many other human attributes it is partly born in a man or a woman. Were it otherwise there would be many more true experts.

Very true, m'lud.

Update - a reader writes:

It may be the inherent nature of the blog that it is quickly written but  assuming that you want your opinion to be taken seriously I would query your claim of 'no Constable expertise at all'  and yet have 'no doubt that it is by Constable', whatever Shields says!

Nobody should take me seriously.

By the way, the same reader tells me that:

[...] I have heard from several sources that Shields is not alone.

Ed Miliband - 'release the paintings!'

March 9 2015

Image of Ed Miliband - 'release the paintings!'

Picture: Guardian - storage area at Tate.

Well, I don't often say this, but hurrah for Ed Miliband. The Labour Party leader gave a speech on arts policy last week, and said that if he wins the election he will get more art out of storage and put on display. While he didn't promise any more money for the arts (no surprise there) he did say that he wants to:

[...] better use the resources we have in London.

Including do more to ensure that the works in the national collection currently in storage are able to travel to regional museums and galleries around the country.

Just as the Lewis Chessmen have inspired thousands of people around the country, we should open up objects currently in storage.

Splendid! You read the full speech here.

Regular readers will know this is a pet theme of mine. A few months ago I wrote a piece on the question for the Financial Times. You can listen to a podcast of the piece here.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, art vandal?

March 9 2015

Image of Sir Joshua Reynolds, art vandal?

Picture: Berlin Gemäldegalerie

The Berliner Morgenpost reports that conservators at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie have found evidence - in X-rays - of substantial over-painting on Rembrandt's Susanna and the Elders (above). The lead culprit is Sir Joshua Reynolds, who owned the work in the 18th Century. 

Van Dyck's c.1628 self-portrait re-discovered

March 5 2015

Image of Van Dyck's c.1628 self-portrait re-discovered

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper seems to have scooped a story I've been dying to tell you about for some time; the re-discovery of an important self-portrait by Van Dyck. The picture was one of the last important portraits I worked on with Philip Mould in London. Martin Bailey writes:

A self-portrait by Van Dyck that was dismissed a decade ago as a copy is now hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, as an original work. The painting, which has been authenticated by experts, was quietly put on display in February, having been lent by a US collector based on the West Coast.

An unpublished paper on the self-portrait, prepared for the owner, dates the work to around 1629 and states that the attribution is accepted by four key experts: Susan Barnes, a co-author of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné, Christopher Brown, the former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, David Jaffé, a former senior curator at the National Gallery in London, and Malcolm Rogers, the outgoing director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The attribution is also accepted by Patrick Noon, the head of paintings at the Minneapolis museum.

The work is particularly important because it is the self-portrait by which Van Dyck wanted to be remembered. The artist produced an etching of the image in 1630 for the frontispiece of his book Iconography.

The late Oliver Millar, another co-author of the 2004 catalogue raisonné, dismissed the work as “possibly a very early copy”. He assumed that the original painting was missing.

When the self-portrait was put up for sale at Lempertz in Cologne on 12 May 2012, it was described as a “copy after Van Dyck”. The auction house estimated its value at €30,000 to €40,000. The painting fetched €512,000, showing that at least two bidders were reasonably confident that it was by Van Dyck.

For a Van Dyck anorak like me, finding this picture was as good as it gets. Working on it was like being in art historical heaven.

The unpublished paper referred to above was written by me, and I'll share further details with you soon. There's a great deal to discuss. I think the picture was probably painted in late 1628. A few quick additional points:

The Art Newspaper mentions that the late Sir Oliver Millar 'dismissed the work' - but in fact when he saw it at an Agnews exhibition in 1968 he pretty much accepted it. Indeed, although the picture was little known and only exhibited once, it was continously published as 'a Van Dyck' right up until 1999, and it was only in the 2004 Catalogue Raisonné co-written by Sir Oliver Millar that the picture was first doubted.

I'm not sure why Sir Oliver changed his mind, but it was probaby due its pre-conservation condition; it had been substantially over-painted, and was also really quite dirty under old varnish. I believe Sir Oliver was perhaps also misled by the gold chain, thinking that chain was that given to Van Dyck by King Charles I, and that the portrait must therefore be an English-period work (that is, in the section of the catalogue that he was responsible for), dating to after 1632 - when Van Dyck's technique was rather different. In fact, I linked hte portrait to a a gold chain Van Dyck was given earlier, in 1628 by the Archduchess Isabella in Brussels, when she appointed him her court painter. This was Van Dyck's first such official position, and in the picture he is proudly removing his cloak to show off the gold chain. Before the picture was cleaned, it was hard to discern the implicit downward movement in the hand and the drapery.

Other interesting things to note include a prominent pentiment around the hand, which showed that Van Dyck had originally gripped the cloak in a very different manner, and a distinctive application of two layers of ground for the head, which helps give the picture part of its force. It's an incredible portrait to look at in the flesh, and has great presence. What a pleasure it was to work with Philip Mould in his gallery with it - sometimes we would treat ourselves and hang it next to the later Van Dyck self-portrait we also had in the gallery (the one which was bought by the National Portrait Gallery last year). 

In fact, although the NPG's picture has now become rather famous, it was this earlier self-portrait that was until relatively recently perhaps the defining image of Van Dyck. It was the portrait he chose to be printed for his series of engraved portraits, which he called the Iconografie. It is best known in the famous unfinished etching below. 

The painting was also engraved by Paulus Pontius in a double portrait with Rubens. You can see an image of that engraving here.

The photo below shows me with the painting and the Rev. Dr Susan Barnes, who co-wrote the Van Dyck catalogue raisonneé in 2004. I went to show her the painting in New York a couple of years ago - for me, that was a very special moment.

Finally, the provenance is fascinating; I was able to establish that the picture was almost certainly in the collection of a prominent Flemish collector, Jan-Baptiste Anthoine (d.1691) - it is listed in his 1691 inventory; 'Een contrefeijtsel van Van Dijck met eenen mantel in de handt' ['a portrait of Van Dyck with a cloak in his hand']. We know Anthoine marked his pictures with a wax seal - and although the picture has long since been re-lined, we did find the remains of a red wax seal on the back of the original canvas. 

During the research into the provenance, I found that the above painting in the Royal Collection by Jacob Formentrou (fl.1640-59) called simply 'A Cabinet of Pictures', which was thought to be a random assortment of paintings, in fact shows a large number of works from Anthoine's collection. (All of this requires much more time to set out, so I'll have to revisit it for you. I'm afraid this is a rather rushed post.) And if you look closely at the little portrait under the Crucifixion by the doorway, you'll see the Van Dyck self-portrait. You can zoom into the painting on the Royal Collection website here. Anthoine was very interested in Van Dyck it seems, and owned a number of works by him. He also had his family portrait (below) painted by the 'little Van Dyck', Gonzales Coques, [which portrait is also in the Royal Collection] in which he and his family are seen recreating various Van Dyck-ian poses. 

The really odd thing is that the Formentrou cabinet painting hangs at Hampton Court Palace, where I used to live (well, I lived in the park at Hampton Court, not the palace itself). And whenever I went round Hampton Court, which was often, I would look at the tiny depiction of the 'missing' Van Dyck self-portrait, and say to myself, 'one day, I'd like to find that picture'. And then one day I saw it in an online auction catalogue, described as 'after Van Dyck'. The chase was afoot. The gods of art history move in mysterious ways...

Update - a reader alerts me to the blog of Darren R. Rousar, a sharp-eyed visitor to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts who wrote about seeing the picture back on 10th February. He took some good-ish snaps of the painting if you want to see some details. I'm afraid I don't have a good photo that I can publish.

Update II - Iconografie, by the way, is the name of my new company. I'll tell you more about it soon.

Detroit de-accessioning after all

March 5 2015

Image of Detroit de-accessioning after all

Picture: DIA

After all that... The Detroit Institute of Arts will sell this still life by Van Gogh. The sale is not, says director Graham Beal in The Art Newspaper, related to the recent bankruptcy case, but part of the normal de-accessioning process to help buy better art. That said, they might have waited a year or two...

Update - the Association of Art Historians tweets in response:

Don't brew tempest over minor work. You seem to suggest DIA can't develop its collection responsibly.

Which is, erm, slightly over-reacting a little. Is there such a thing, in the public's eyes, as 'a minor' Van Gogh painting? In other words, might some people be a little confused that, after a fighting a highly public battle about not selling paintings, the DIA then announces that it's selling a painting by one of the most famous painters on the planet? Such questions are very far from suggesting the DIA 'can't develop its collection responsibly'.

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