Caravaggio's lost 'Penitent Magdalene'
October 24 2014
In Italy, La Repubblica reports that noted Caravaggio scholar Mina Gregori has identified the above picture as Caravaggio's lost Penitent Magdalene, previously only known through copies. He is thought to have painted it shortly before he died. It's now in an Italian private collection. More details here (in Italian).
Update - the story has now made it into the English language press. Here's the Guardian.
October 24 2014
Video: Vernissage TV
The Artosphere is awash with breathless reports from Frieze. Here's probably the only review you need to read, from Mika Ross-Southall on the TLS blog:
I spent most of last week at Frieze Art Fair and although much of it was unimpressive – particular low points for me: a worm sculpture made out of cereal-box cardboard; flashing light bulbs spelling out "NOTFORYOU" (just after I saw this there was a powercut in half the tent, perhaps related); a square created from a few hundred pieces of black Lego, mounted on the wall in a bulbous silver spray-painted frame ("This is topical, think Malevich", an art dealer next to me declared. "Aaaah", his clients cooed) [...]
'Think Malevich'. If only it was that easy to sell pictures in the Old Master world. 'Think Rembrandt', I could whisper beside some knackered, dark, Dutch picture of c.1650. 'Aaah'...
Talking of old stuff, I hear (again) that Frieze Masters did reasonably well for 20th Century dealers, but badly for Old Master dealers.
A new Van Dyck attribution at the Scottish National Gallery
October 23 2014
Picture: Scottish National Gallery
I'm pleased to be able to tell you that the above picture has recently gone on display at the Scottish National Gallery here in Edinburgh as a work by Sir Anthony Van Dyck. It had previously been regarded as a studio work. The portrait shows Ambrogio Spinola (1569-1630), the great Italian-born general who commanded the Spanish Habsburg armies in the Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt.
There has long been a ‘Spinola’ gap in Van Dyck’s iconography. We know from an engraving by Lucas Vorsterman (above, example from Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) that Van Dyck did once paint Spinola at some point, and there is also a quick drawing by Van Dyck (below, Musée Atger, Montpellier). However, the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné of Van Dyck's works only lists portraits of Spinola in the 'A' section of catalogue, denoting that the original picture was presumed lost.
The 2004 catalogue mentions many Van Dyck-like portraits of Spinola (as we might expect for such a famous sitter, Van Dyck’s original portrait was much copied). The most important of these include; a full-length studio variant in the Hebsacker Collection in Germany (above, apologies for the image quality) and a three-quarter length version formerly at Cornbury Park in Oxfordshire (below). The latter was sold at Christie’s in 2001 as 'Van Dyck and Studio’. But personally, I suspect it is more ‘studio' than ‘Van Dyck' - it looks a little hard in the handling.*
I would also place in the same 'studio' category another full-length variant in a private collection in Madrid (below, and discussed here by Matias Diaz Padron of the Prado in 2008, who labels it ‘Van Dyck’ in full.)
But I think we can be sure that the Edinburgh picture is in fact the missing original by Van Dyck. In the 2004 catalogue raisonné (see entry no.III.A.25), the picture was described as what 'would seem to be a studio variant' of the full-length in the Hebsacker Collection. The wording might suggest that the author of that section of the catalogue, Horst Vey, didn't actually see the Edinburgh painting in the flesh. But crucially, as Vey notes, the Edinburgh picture is the only version which accords with the drawing by Van Dyck; the sitter's left hand rests on a helmet placed on a table beside him. In the Hebsacker picture, the ex-Cornbury picture and the Madrid picture, Spinola rests his arm on his sword (and, one might say, a little awkwardly too).
I went to see the picture in the Scottish National Gallery stores earlier this year, after I was kindly invited to do so by Dr Tico Seifert, the Gallery’s Senior Curator of Northern European Art. We’d been discussing the picture after I saw an image of it on the ever-valuable Your Paintings website (the picture is not listed on the Scottish National Gallery's own site), and wondered if this was a picture that had been unjustly downgraded at some point. A number of areas in the picture struck me as having great quality, in particular the head, the sitter’s left hand, and much of the armour. The head conveys all the human authority one would expect from a great portraitist - perhaps you can see from the images here how much more impressive the head is than the apparently studio versions. The armour is painted with great dextrousness, conveying an impression of finely wrought, hand-beaten metal. The hand is finely weighted, and painted with assured, wet-in-wet strokes. The technique is free and spirited, betraying all the confidence of an artist painting something for the first time, rather than a studio assistant making a copy or a variant. Under bright lights, we noticed a number of small changes, or pentimenti, which also argued for the picture being the first of its type (though these are not in themselves always evidence of autograph status – sometimes it’s just copyists making a bish). After further analysis, Dr Seifert (who has a track record of making discoveries in the Scottish National Gallery, see here) and the Scottish National Gallery became more and more confident that the picture is indeed by Van Dyck.
I suspect the reason the picture became doubted is because of its condition. It is a little abraded in places, especially the main body of the armour (which would have been painted with darker, softer pigments more vulnerable to ‘cleaning’). And the picture is also rendered slightly unreadable by a rather opaque old varnish. I can’t be sure at this stage, but it seems to me, even viewing the picture inside its frame, that it might well have been cut down from a full-length. Three things make me think this; the first is the abrupt ending of the sitter’s right hand; the second is evidence of significant disruption to the canvas along the bottom edge, as if that area was once either damaged and repaired, or resting on the cross-beam of an old, larger stretcher; the third reason is what appears at first to be the awkward rendering of the sitter’s armour at the bottom of the picture, over his thighs – the gap in the armour between the legs is facing too far around towards the left-hand side of the picture to properly match up with the torso. But this mis-alignment (which we wouldn’t expect to see in portrait Van Dyck began as a half-length) is understandable if we know that the picture would have originally been a full-length, according to the drawing, in which the sitter’s legs and feet are pointing more towards the viewer, while his body, head and arm are turned more towards the table. Any future conservation work carried out by the SNG would help determine this further.
The picture must have been executed very soon after Van Dyck returned to the Netherlands from Italy, in late 1627, for on 3rd January 1628 Spinola left the Netherlands. As we might expect, the picture betrays elements of Van Dyck’s Italian-period style (with quite high-pitch, almost pastel-like colouring in the face) with the slightly glazier aspect of what we call his ‘second Antwerp’ period (the years 1627-1632, or thereabouts, being his second professional period in Antwerp before he left for London). The picture’s provenance is from the Palazzo Gentile in Genoa (which I think has Spinola connections), where Spinola headed to when he left the Netherlands. Previously, Van Dyck had painted both his son and daughter in Genoa.
* Probably Christie's were influenced by the then most recent catalogue raisonneé of Van Dyck's works, by Erik Larsen (pub.1988), but which was, er, somewhat inaccurate.
October 23 2014
Picture: via @MeredithFrost on Twitter
This has been doing the rounds on Twitter today.
Porsche in the Sistine Chapel
October 22 2014
The Vatican is renting out the Sistine Chapel to Porsche. Of course, the Vatican museums say that the chapel isn't being 'rented' for corporate use itself. But a trip around the chapel for Porsche clients is being thrown in with the right sort of donation. And why not. Let's just hope they don't spend the money scrubbing to death restoring the frescoes. Oh, hang on, it's too late...
October 22 2014
Video: via Instagram
Regular readers will know I'm no Koons fan, but marvel at the self-importance of this berk as he spray paints a wall at the Whitney Museum's Koons exhibition. He was arrested. We don't know if he did any time. More here.
Update - a reader writes:
You seem to have misread this brilliant piece of performance art. The man in the video is clearly challenging our perceptions of gallery behaviour, creating a tension between he passive and the active. The black ink against the white wall is symbolic of an artist's struggle against conformity, whilst his abrupt exit leaves us with a stark reminder of the ephemeral nature of art and life.
Trouble at the Picasso Museum
October 22 2014
In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones has an excellent and detailed analysis of the seemingly endless sagas surrounding the Picasso Museum, which has been closed for renovation for years. The case is yet more proof that it's a bad idea to close museums entirely when doing renovations; stick to a wing at a time. Delays always build up, once the watchful pressure of public admission is removed. The Rijksmuseum is another recent case.
Stolen Louvre picture found at auction
October 22 2014
The Art Newspaper reports that a picture of Henri III at prayer, above, stolen from the Louvre during WW2 was spotted by an eagle-eyed French curator, Pierre-Gilles Girault. Well done him. More here.
Still, sadly, not Jane Austen (ctd.)
October 22 2014
Regular readers will be aware of the ongoing debate over the 'Rice Portrait', which is claimed to show a young Jane Austen. I hadn't seen till now the latest argument on the picture, which is perhaps the most emphatic rejection of the identification yet (which I agree with). In the Times Literary Supplement, Henrietta Foster and Kathryn Sutherland not only neatly demolish many of the more curious claims about the picture (such as the fact that an old photo when 'forensically analysed' apparently shows it is signed and dated 'Ozias Humphry 178[9?] RA', above - simply a wrong claim anyway, and in any case Humphry was not an RA then), but also suggests that the whole thing was some elaborate practical joke by a known forger called Dr Thomas Harding Newman, who 'discovered' the picture inthe 19th Century. Well worth a click.
For more AHN on the picture, put 'Rice Portrait' into the search box. For the case in favour of the picture, see the Rice website here.
In conservation with...
October 21 2014
Apologies for the lack of service yesterday - I was in the conservation studio, where multiple layers of over-paint called for the heavy guns; namely, the solvent acetone. Used properly, it is a revealer of lost genius. In the wrong hands, it is art napalm.
In this case, we revealed a picture which is what I thought it was - a study by a Great Painter - but which in some areas isn't, alas, in the best condition. It has evidently been in the hands of a previous 'restorer' some centuries ago.
I'm indebted to Michael Daley of Art Watch for making me aware of this 1886 quote by Count Giovanni Secco Suardo, a collector and conservator:
It has been neither time, nor war, nor fire, nor the iconoclasts who are responsible for the destruction of the majority of our paintings, rather the ignorant presumption of those who deigned to clean them.
Which is still true today, even after two world wars.
Rembrandt re-attributions (ctd.)
October 18 2014
Picture: Clark Art Institute
Here's another Rembrandt re-attribution from the column marked, 'How the Hell was it Ever Doubted?'; the Clark Art Institute's Man Reading, a fine work of the 1640s. The CIA is calling it 'Attributed to', though Ernst van de Wetering in his catalogue raisonneé says it's deffo.
More at Art Daily here.
Schama on Rembrandt
October 18 2014
Tonight we have the great Simon Schama's Rembrandt programme on BBC2. And here in The Guardian we have his take on the shifting Rembrandt corpus post-Rembrandt Research Project, while here in the Financial Times we have his review of the National Gallery exhibition. On the latter, because I'm tickled to be in the Pink'un alongside Schama on this, here's another plug for my Rembrandt podcast.
Paxman on Rembrandt
October 16 2014
Video: Art Fund
I'm a great Paxo fan. Nice video this.
Rembrandt: 3 re-attributions in Berlin
October 16 2014
Pictures: Berlin Gemaldegalerie
I'm not finding it easy to track down a comprehensive list of the 70 pictures that Dr Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project has re-attributed to Rembrandt - but here's an article in the Berliner Zeitung about three pictures Ernst has endorsed in the Gemaldegalerie.
First, and most excitingly, the 'Man with a Red Hat', above, is now back in the oeuvre. I'm surprised it was ever out. What a picture.
Secondly, a Self-portrait (above, no details available on the Gemaldegalerie website), previously thought to perhaps be by Govaert Flinck, is also now recognised as being by Rembrandt.
Thirdly, we have the above Portrait of a Woman, Probably Saskia van Ullenburg, back in the fold.
However, it seems that 'Man with a Golden Helmet' (above, again, not on the Gemaldegalerie website), which was once thought to be one of Rembrandt's finest works, is still not seen as a work by him. Personally, I like it. I prefer it to the Self-portrait and Portrait of a Woman here.
More Rembrandt re-attributions as I get them.
Update - the more I think about this, the more curious I think it is that the National Gallery, for their new exhibition, didn't choose to work more closely with Ernst van de Wetering. What an opportunity it was to really shake up what we know about Rembrandt's later works, and to look afresh at some of his unjustly ignored pictures. I can't help thinking (but I may be totally wrong) that this is why the great Ernst has chosen this moment to unveil his own work on Rembrandt's later career; to remind us of his own dedication to Rembrandt.
I thought (but again may be totally wrong) that it was similarly curious that the National Gallery, when it had its Leonardo show in 2012, didn't make more use of the renowned Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp. Are such cases evidence of the sometimes strained relationship between those working within museums, and the wider academic community? And is this because it tends to be the latter, the dedicated specialists, who more frequently put their heads above the parapet when it comes to making attributions?
Update II - Walter Straten writes from Berlin to correct my reading of the Zeitung's article (my German's a bit flimsy these days); the Portrait of a Woman was apparently flagged as a likely Rembrandt some years ago, and the news from Berlin is that the Gemaldegalerie's Portrait of an Old Man (also not on the museum's website) is now attributed to Rembrandt by Ernst van de Wetering. Walter kindly sends the below photo. Walter is, incidentally, the sports editor of Bild, and also has a keen interest in the Old Masters. So he writes on both sport and art history for Bild. Are there many better jobs in journalism?
Another strike at the National Gallery
October 16 2014
Picture: Museums Journal
There was a strike by room wardens yesterday at the National Gallery, timed deliberately to coincide with the opening to the public of 'Late Rembrandt'. 40 out of 66 rooms had to be closed. But the Rembrandt show remained open, and the media paid little attention to the strike. So that's 1-0 to the National Gallery then.
Not that 'Late Rembrandt' was very busy. A reader who was there writes:
The crowds at the first afternoon of the Rembrandt exhibition were modest with rarely more than five or so people in front of each painting and fewer in front of the paper works.
As regular readers will know, it seems clear to me that the PCS Union's strategy at the National has been little short of disastrous. This latest action will only harden the NG's resolve to de-unionise their staff.
Update - there's some anti-National Gallery briefing in the Daily Mail:
The National Gallery’s ‘blockbuster’ new Rembrandt exhibition has been hailed a triumph by the critics, but visitors might be advised to keep a close eye on the masterpieces.
Some experienced security guards were replaced earlier this year by agency staff and sources claim the change is proving a disaster.
‘Five of them didn’t bother to turn up for training, while another has been sacked over a foul prank in a toilet,’ claims an insider.
‘When others were given a tour of the gallery, some showed little interest, texting away on their phones.
‘They have been spotted touching paintings and even caught on camera in the Rembrandt exhibition stroking works loaned to the gallery. They have apparently received warnings to stop, but this is really shocking.’
The gallery declines to discuss the claims. ‘We would never comment on matters relating to individual staff members as these are confidential between those involved and the National Gallery,’ a spokeswoman says.
However, she adds: ‘Safety and security are of paramount concern. CIS Security employees are vetted to the same level as existing staff; they will also undertake similar levels of training and assume identical responsibilities.’
When I went to the Rembrandt show on Tuesday, I thought the wardens, even if they were 'privatised' ones, were more zealous than ever. I was warned at least twice not to get too close to the pictures, or to point, and this was during a press preview, and in front of glazed pictures.
October 15 2014
The above picture came up at an auction house in West Sussex the other day, catalogued as '19th Century Continental School, and estimated at £70-£100. It made £406,400. So, a nice surprise for the vendor.
More images here. Looks like a Greuze to me.
Update - a sleuthing reader writes:
The Greuze sketch was probably the one given by Greuze to the engraver Johann-Georg Willie on Nov 27th 1759. Willie describes it in his journal:
M. Greuze, this serious, solid painter, has just made me a present of one of his excellent drawings, a sign of true friendship. The drawing represents a kitchen maid stainding next to a cupboard, reading or calculating in her account book, after coming back from market, how she can best cheat her mistress. It is of great beauty, and boldly drawn.
October 15 2014
Yesterday, I was in the National Gallery for the first time since they allowed photography. So I took a selfie (in front of Rembrandt's - or not, depending on your view - 'Old Man in an Armchair'). I didn't see anyone else taking selfies, and nor did I see any bad photography behaviour either. But I was in the quieter rooms, and I didn't stay for that long.
Anyway, I also got this email from a reader on the issue, who more or less hits the nail on the head:
I have been mulling over the photography issue over the last while and in the last 30 days (not to mention the London trip in July) I have visited numerous museums in Boston, Philadelphia (we saw a Vermeer on the its last day!) and Edinburgh – I really enjoyed the American Impressionists exhibition in Edinburgh - and taking photos is simply not an issue. I take a lot of photos and I exercise just the barest amount of restraint and wait until people have left a painting before stepping in to take my photo and it impacts no one. If it’s really crowded brush stroke aficionados then I simply return when it’s not so busy. My camera emits no sounds and with nobody in the vicinity it’s really a non-issue.
The real issue based on my experience is overcrowding and whether people are taking pictures or not it makes no difference if too many people are in a gallery. The National Gallery was the busiest by far and it was a different experience to the other galleries. If galleries want to increase traffic as seems to be the fashion of late they might want to consider set times as the Gardiner Museum in Boston does; it was busy but not over crowded (but they don’t allow photos).
The last two decades have seen, in the UK, a sustained attempt, driven by government policy, to significantly increase gallery visitor numbers. I think this was a good thing, and it has worked. The result is, though, some over-crowding at times. And the thing is, we're just going to have to get used to it.
October 15 2014
Picture: Museo Prado
One of the reasons I go on about connoisseurship so much is that it's not just about working out who painted what, but knowing how they might have painted it. This is particularly important for conservators. Putting a damaged picture back together is not just a technical exercise in joining up the dots - that is, filling in the holes, retouching some abrasion - but having an insight into how a painter would have approached a certain area.
Here is an example of a work by Titian which has been ever so slightly misunderstood during conservation. Titian, like most of his Venetian colleagues, was an artist who liked to work quite freely on the canvas, and as a result you get a lot of changes, or as the arty lingo calls them, pentimenti, in his paintings.
In the picture above, we see a foot from his Danaeë receiving the Golden Rain in the Prado. Clearly, Titian would never have let such wonky toes leave his studio, even if they were painted by an assistant. So what's happened? As you can see from the image, there is a faint outline of an earlier, slightly lower position of the foot - it's that differently coloured 'halo' between the white sheet and the dark outline of the base of the foot. At some point in the past, the picture has been overcleaned, exposing this alteration, and the ends of the toes as they were originally drawn in. And then, probably at a later date, a conservator has got into a muddle as to where each of the toes should end. As a result, two toes look unnaturally long, and the foot looks out of balance. Small errors like this can then make us question the whole painting.
I recently went to see a conservator with a view to seeing if they could clean one of my pictures. But when I heard that they didn't know who painted a (reasonably well known) portrait they were already working on (which belonged to a museum), I made my excuses and left. Some conservators approach pictures as a purely technical exercise, with an identikit, one-size-fits-all approach. But of course different artists used different techniques, and it is essential to know these things when cleaning a picture - some pigments and techniques are much more vulnerable to solvents than others, for example. And as Titian's toes show us, there needs to be and element of artistry involved too, when it comes to re-touching.
October 15 2014
The Getty has a interesting new show, on Rubens and his Eucharist series of tapestries, called Spectacular Rubens. I'm a bit of a tapestry fan, so would love to see it. The show, says the museum:
[...] reunites several of Rubens's exuberant preparatory oil sketches for this commission with four of the corresponding tapestries from the Madrid church for which they were made. Vivid and dynamic, the Eucharist series reveals the enormous powers of invention of a brilliant artist who helped define the Baroque.
There are some good images here. The catalogue, available here, is co-edited by Alejandro Vergara, the Prado curator whose recent 'The Young Van Dyck' catalogue at the Prado was a model of good catalogue writing.
Update - a reader alerts me to these videos on the exhibition, made when it was on show at the Prado.
October 15 2014
Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper reports the excellent news that the Ashmolean will have an exhibition on early Rembrandt in 2018. It's being organised by the Ashmolean's recently retired director, and emminent Rembrandt scholar, Christopher Brown. More here.