19th Century

John Constable; not miserable

July 24 2018

Image of John Constable; not miserable

Picture: V&A

Here's a clever bit of research; the V&A's senior curator of paintings, Dr Mark Evans, has been able to prove that some of John Constable's most dramatic watercolour landscapes of Hampstead are faithful depictions of the weather at the time. It had been thought that the moody skies were perhaps a reflection of Constable's mood at the time. But Dr Evans was able to trace weather records by one of Constable's neighbours, and matched these to the exact time and date inscribed by the artist on the back of the paintings. More here

William Blake at Petworth (ctd.)

January 15 2018

Image of William Blake at Petworth (ctd.)

Picture: NPG

The William Blake exhibition at Petworth is now open; Maev Kennedy has had a preview in The Guardian.

Alma-Tadema in London

September 29 2017

Video: Leighton House Museum

There's just a month left to see the well-received Alma-Tadema exhibition at the Leighton House museum in London:

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity (7 July - 29 October 2017) is the largest exhibition devoted to the celebrated Victorian artist held in London since 1913. The show explores Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s fascination with the representation of domestic life in antiquity and how this interest related to his own domestic circumstances expressed through the two remarkable studio-houses that he created in St John’s Wood together with his wife Laura and daughters.

Still, sadly, not Jane Austen (ctd.)

April 2 2017

Image of Still, sadly, not Jane Austen (ctd.)

Picture: via FT.com

Regular readers will know the case of the 'Rice Portrait', which claims to show Jane Austen. The painting has its defenders, including the family who own it, and who have their own website putting the case for the identity of the sitter here. Many others are unconvinced, including the former Chief Curator of the NPG in London, Jacob Simon.

Jacob's view of the picture has always been especially important, since he has been compiling an extremely useful and exhaustive online database of artist's suppliers in Britain - and a key piece of evidence in the case of the Rice portrait is a canvas maker's stamp on the back. The stamp is that of William Legg, who sold canvasses in High Holborn in London between abou 1801 and 1806. This is important because for the Rice Portrait to show Jane Austen it would need to have been painted in about the late 1780s.

Until now, only one example of a William Legg canvas stamp has been known. But in an article in the FT, writer Anjana Ahuja writes about a portrait she recently bought of a 'Mrs Smith' by the artist James Northcote (above). This painting is signed and dated 1803 - and it too has a William Legg canvas stamp on the back (below).

In other words, it's clear evidence that the stamp on the back of the Rice portrait must date the painting to the early 1800s. Therefore, it cannot show Jane Austen (born in 1775), for the sitter is clearly too young.

There have always been significant gaps in the case for the Rice portrait being Jane - not least its early provenance - and this latest evidence can only set the case back further still.

A new cache of artist's suppliers information has lately been uploaded to Jacob Simon's database; all available for free at the click of a mouse. Amazing.

Paxman on Delacroix

March 6 2016

Video: Art Fund UK

Here's Jeremy Paxman's take on the National Gallery's new Delacroix show.

New Daniel Gardner record

July 12 2015

Image of New Daniel Gardner record

Picture: Sotheby's

'Daniel who?', you say? Daniel Gardner was a leading proponent of pastel in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. He also taught John Constable to paint portraits. Until recently, his pictures have not made huge money at auction, but in 2013 a large group portrait (Mary Sturt with her three eldest children) made £133,875, against an estimate of £50,000-£80,000.

The same estimate was also carried by a portrait sold at Sotheby's last week, of Mary Whitbread, Lady Grey (above), which I thought reasonable enough. The picture made, however, £233,000, establishing a new record for the artist by some margin. The picture was in extremely good condition, which must account for the price I suppose. But nonetheless it seems to me to be something of a breakout price for a category which has hitherto been rather under-appreciated. 

New Monet pastel discovery

June 24 2015

Image of New Monet pastel discovery

Picture: Guardian

When the London-based art dealer Jonathan Green came to remove some tape from the back of a Monet pastel he'd bought at auction, he was pleasantly surprised to find another, completely unknown pastel by Monet. More here in The Guardian.

Finland's first Monet

March 30 2015

Image of Finland's first Monet

Pictures: via BBC News

BBC News reports that technical analysis of a disputed Monet in Finland's Serlachus Fine Arts Foundation has revealed an overpainted signature, below. The discovery apparently means that Finland has its first Monet.

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

'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.

Who painted the Met's 'English School'?

February 2 2015

Image of Who painted the Met's 'English School'?

Picture: Sotheby's

The Metropolitan Museum in New York sold the above, 19th Century 'English School' landscape at Sotheby's last week. It was estimated at $25k-$35k, but made $197,000. An optimistic bidder thinking it was by Gainsborough? I hope not, because it isn't. 

But it is by someone good, probably early to mid 19th Century. I give up entirely in about 1820, so I've no idea who painted it. But I'd wager it'll turn up somewhere in the trade soon, with the attribution nailed. In which case, do we have to ask, why did the Met sell it?

Update - a reader suggests 'Swiss School':

[...] a closer look at the trees and foliage may suggest to me a lost composition by Pierre-Louis de Larive-Godefroy (1735-1817). He was a key painter from the Geneva school in the last decades of the XVIII century and very much influenced by XVII century Dutch landscape. A painting by him of this size and quality would definitely command the price paid at the auction.

Update II - Another reader sends in the below photo of the painting at Sotheby's view, and writes:

The ex-Met landscape: the general feeling is that it’s Ramsay Richard Reinagle. [...]

A stupid sell-off by the Met. It used to hang in the British period rooms. 

It was a picture of remarkable quality - not a run-of-the mill landscape at all. And the Met’s British picture collection is not strong enough so they can afford to lose a picture like this.

Kelvingrove acquires sleeping fair-scape

January 7 2015

Image of Kelvingrove acquires sleeping fair-scape

Picture: Glasgow Herald

Here's a nice story from my new locale, up here in Scotland; the Kelvingrove art gallery has acquired, for £220,000, a lost landscape by the Scottish artist John Knox (1778-1845), which shows the 'Glasgow Fair' around 1820. The picture had been discovered in 2013 by Edinburgh-based dealer Patrick Bourne, who spotted it at Sotheby's described as showing a scene in Aberdeen, and attributed to William Turner De Lond. It was bought for £76,900.

I heartily approve of the Scottish version of the 'White Glove Photo-op'.

More here.

Constable before 'n after

December 19 2014

Image of Constable before 'n after

Pictures: US NGA

There's a nice piece on the US National Gallery's website about the restoration of their 'White Horse' by Constable. Before conservation, above, the picture was thought to be a copy of a picture in the Frick. But cleaning (below) and x-rays revealed otherwise.

Turner's 'Rome from Mount Aventine'

November 12 2014

Video: Sotheby's

Sotheby's wheel out the superlatives in their video for the £15m-£20m Turner coming up in December. 

Van Gogh still life to be auctioned

September 28 2014

Image of Van Gogh still life to be auctioned

Picture: FT

One of Van Gogh's final still life paintings is to be sold at Sotheby's in New York in November, where it is estimated to sell for up to $50m. More here in the FT.

Restoring Monet

July 2 2014

Image of Restoring Monet

Picture: Independent.ie

A picture by Monet that was punched by a visitor to the National Gallery of Ireland (above) has been restored, and is now back on display. More on the conservation work here.

Museum swapshop in Washington

February 20 2014

Image of Museum swapshop in Washington

Picture: Wikipedia

Here's a surprise, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, one of America's finest, will be taken over by the US National Gallery of Art. The collection will be broken up, with perhaps as much as half of it (which is primarily 19th Century art) being distributed around the rest of the country. More here in the Washington Post, and here in the New York Times, which reports:

“This arrangement turns two great collections into one extraordinary collection,” said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery. “The Corcoran will still have its own identity: a great facility with a distinguished building. It’s a way of keeping the Corcoran memory alive.”

If the plan is approved by the boards in April, it will put an end to years of money trouble for the Corcoran, which had some 103,000 visitors last year. The Corcoran currently runs a $2,071,129 deficit, has $2,787,690 of bank debt and an endowment that has shrunk over the last decade to only $18 million. It also has a $44 million acquisitions fund. Unlike the National Gallery, which does not charge for admissions, the Corcoran is one of the few museums in Washington that does ($10 for adults), a practice that has hampered its ability to attract a strong visitorship. If the plan is implemented, all exhibitions in its original home will be free to the public.

Over the years, the Corcoran has pursued a number of efforts to shore up its finances, including the sale of real estate. In 2010, it sold the Randall School, a former public school in Southwest Washington, where it once planned to relocate the college, for $6.5 million to the Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell and the developer Telesis. It also tried to sell the college’s current building in Georgetown, but the deal fell through. Last year, it announced the possibility of relocating from its historic building on 17th Street, but after a hailstorm of criticism its board changed its mind, saying the museum would stay put and look for other options. In June, the museum auctioned a group of Oriental carpets at Sotheby’s, which gave the Corcoran about $39 million, which went into its acquisitions fund.

The story seems almost hard to believe - that in the US, land of mega-charitable giving to the arts, such a fine museum would effectively give up and vanish.

Update - a reader with his ear to the ground sends this helpful summary of events:

Apparently, the Corcoran deal is largely about real estate, like so many London deals.  Their landmark building needed 100 million in repairs in addition to the endowment needing a major top up.  It was a situation which needed work a decade ago.  It wasn't principally about the art collection, which we view as paramount.

University of Maryland, a "red brick university" in UK terms located in an undesirable suburb, was negotiating to take over the Corcoran school to enhance its own offerings when GW University, already well endowed and a Corcoran neighbor in central DC stepped in to acquire the school and the two DC trophy properties which it wanted despite their needing major renovations which it can afford.  They offloaded the art to the National Gallery which will keep some, exhibit some in the Corcoran building which will mostly become a Contemporary art exhibition space and give the remainder to other museums.  

The school wasn't viable and the trustees were generous six figure contributors but it needed more than a hundred million quickly, a major endowment, a new direction and a refurbished image.  It didn't have a plan for the future that would make it sustainable and attract donors.

The Met Museum in NYC is great at selecting the right trustees, rotating trustees when they are less useful, and making brilliant choices of directors who are scholars with vision and are socially appealing.  This attracts donors and builds the Museum.  It all comes to management.  Management attracts assets, both art and funding.  This also is true in the dealer world.

The Barnes is a parallel, where the alleged purpose was a suburban school for art appreciation with a teaching collection with the government requiring some public access in exchange for its charitable status.  I lived a block away for three years when I was young and could just walk in because I knew the director, but the public was limited to two hundred visitors per day three then later four days a week with minimal parking and access.. The trustees let the endowment dwindle and squandered a lot of it fighting with its neighbors and the deMazia trust (another story).  No one would contribute with the trustees required by the Barnes will running things, but 100 million USD flowed in rapidly when it became a museum in town and open with normal hours and new trustees.

A rarely seen Monet

February 6 2014

Image of A rarely seen Monet

Picture: The Times

The Times reports that a previously unseen Monet, Sur Les Planches de Trouville, will be exhibited at the Musee Marmottan's forthcoming exhibition of Impressionist works in private collections. Sur Les Planches de Trouville apparently belongs to the Freud family. 

Dadd watercolour discovered on Ebay

January 29 2014

Image of Dadd watercolour discovered on Ebay

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that a watercolour by Richard Dadd, painted while he was imprisoned for murdering his father, has been found on eBay for just £200. More here


January 21 2014

Image of Nicked

Picture: Evening Standard

The above picture by Samuel Palmer, called The Comet, has been stolen from a pensioner in London. Says Sky News:

Police are investigating a fraud scam which saw a £100,000 painting stolen from an 89-year-old woman's home in London. Detectives say the woman was contacted by telephone by a person claiming her bank cards had been used in a crime.

The woman was told she needed to call her bank immediately. She tried to call the bank, but the caller had not hung up and stayed on the line. The victim then believed she was speaking to her bank - but she was still speaking to the original caller.

The woman was told that someone would come to her house to collect her cards. The victim was also asked whether she had any items of value in the house. She mentioned a £100,000 painting by Samuel Palmer, called The Comet of 1858.

Police say a man, believed to be aged in his 30s, around 5ft 10ins with dark hair and an English accent, later came to the home and stole the painting, bank cards and jewellery.

The picture is probably worth more than £100k.

Update - a reader writes:

With regards to your 'Nicked' article:

'a man, believed to be aged in his 30s, around 5ft 10ins with dark hair and an English accent', sound familiar?

I'm 6ft 4!

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.