Category: Research

Exclusive - The Mona Lisa's mystery solved?

September 26 2011

Image of Exclusive - The Mona Lisa's mystery solved?


Leonardo's Mona Lisa, begun in c.1503, has attracted more than its fair share of wild theories. Some say it is a portrait of Leonardo in drag, or more recently that it is the 'the depiction of a soul shared between an expectant mother and her unborn male child'. But now an intriguing new theory has been put forward by Donato Pezzutto, a Canadian doctor who is a keen amateur art historian. His theory is published in an article in Cartographica, a journal which publishes 'articles on all aspects of cartographic and geovisualization research'.

Here's the abstract from Pezzutto's article (quoted with kind permission): [More below]

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The search for Leonardo's lost masterpiece

September 23 2011

Leonardo's greatest lost work is his Battle of Anghiari, painted in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Many scholars believe the painting survives, hidden beneath Giorgio Vasari's murals in the Hall of Five Hundred. Recently, it was discovered that behind Vasari's paintings is a gap, with a space 1 - 3cm deep before the main wall. Did Vasari deliberately create this gap to avoid painting over Leonardo's work? I've always thought it possible, given Vasari's interest in preservation.

Now, a group of experts is trying to use specialist scanning equipment to peer through Vasari's murals, in an attempt to solve the mystery. Fellow blogger Hasan Niyazi has posted an interview with one of the team behind the search, over at Three Pipe Problem.

Waldemar does Dobson

September 23 2011

Image of Waldemar does Dobson

Picture: Ferens Art Gallery

If you missed Waldemar's programme on William Dobson last night, then you can still watch it on iPlayer here. I thought it was enjoyable and enlightening, as Waldemar's shows usually are. There were a few slightly dubious sweeping generalisations, but the theme of the piece, that Dobson was a brilliant artist, certainly held up well. There was even a discovery of sorts, that the above 'Portrait of a Musician' showed William Lawes, a favourite of Charles I (hence the bust of the King lower left).

What the programme did not answer was why, if Dobson was so good, is he seemingly so neglected? Waldemar said Dobson 'changed British art forever' - so what then is his legacy?

The sad truth is that Dobson did not change British art. Here's three reasons why: [More below]

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The dangers of over-interpretation

September 21 2011

Image of The dangers of over-interpretation

Picture: The National Gallery

Professor Michael Baum, a leading cancer expert, has given a lecture entitled Picture of Health: the Art of Medicine. He says that many paintings contain over-looked medical stories and clues. But is Baum in danger of over-interpreting art?

For example, take Piero di Cosimo's Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, above. The Observer takes up the story: [More below]

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Goya X-ray revelation

September 20 2011

Image of Goya X-ray revelation

Picture: Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum has discovered a partially completed portrait beneath its portrait of Don Ramon Satue. Full details here

New book on forger Van Meegeren published

September 16 2011


The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Holland has published a new book on the master forger Han Van Meegeren. In the 1930s and 40s he fooled leading museums and collectors (including Goering) into thinking his fakes were by Vermeer, and other Dutch Golden Age painters. Above is a little film by the museum on Van Meegeren, which is worth a click.

The book's final chapter describes how Van Meegeren managed to fool so many experts. But the thing is - he is still fooling experts. Some of you may remember that I recently helped uncover another Van Meegeren fake, in the Courtauld Institute. They, and others, believed it was in fact a genuine 17th Century work...

Ford Madox Brown puzzle

September 6 2011

Image of Ford Madox Brown puzzle

Picture: Manchester Art Gallery

I recently mentioned the new Ford Madox Brown exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery and the inclusion of the newly discovered Seraph's Watch. Julian Treuherz, who is curating the exhibition, has been in touch to see if anyone can help solve the apparent puzzle on the figure's shirt. He writes:

There is a puzzle in the painting, maybe some of your readers may be able to help. I cannot find out why Brown used the strange quincunx design on the seraph's tunic; he must have put it there for a reason, also the overlapping circles of the haloes and the little ones at the intersections of the haloes. Someone suggested Swedenborgian associations, but the Swedenborg Society looked into it for me but found nothing to confirm this.

Well, I'm stumped. But if anybody has any bright ideas, pray, let us know...

History of Art books out this week

September 1 2011

I hope to make this a regular feature. Out this week are:

  • The Louvre: All the Paintings, by Vincent Pomarede
  • Bernini: His life and his Rome, by Franco Mormando
  • Miraculous Bouquets: Flower and Fruit Paintings by Jan Van Huysum, by Anne T. Woollett
  • Pieter Bruegel, by Larry Silver
  • The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya, by Jonathan Brown
  • Johan Zoffany RA: Society Observed, by Martin Postle
  • Artemisia Gentileschi: A Woman's History, Passion of an Artist, by Roberto Contini
  • Gauguin and Polynesia, by Suzanne Greub
  • Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1474-1534, by Michael Hirst
  • Gabriel Metsi: Life and Work, Catalogue Raisonne, by Adriaan Waiboer
  • Richard Parkes Bonnington: The Complete Drawings, by Patrick Noon
  • Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art, by Aileen Ribeiro
  • Fragonard's Prgress of Love at the Frick Collection, by Colin Bailey

Apologies for the lack of links; if you want to buy, just cut & paste to Google the titles. If I've missed out yours, let me know!

New British Art Journal

August 11 2011

Image of New British Art Journal

Picture: Telegraph

Plop onto my desk comes the new British Art Journal, just in time to make it into my holiday reading bag. This looks to be an excellent issue, it even - gasp - has some new features. As ever, there's a zippy editorial from Robin Simon. He makes a plea for UK museums to make all their images free for use, as Yale has done. He is of course right, as I have said before

Included in this issue are the following:

  • Katherine Hudson on Edward Burra
  • AP Duffy on Paul Nash
  • Helen Wyld on Paul Sandby
  • Alan Davidson on the artist and engraver Thomas Hardy
  • Stephen Conrad on Gainsborough's first Self-portrait
  • Thomas Tuoby on aspects of British art in Barodo, India
  • Juliet McMaster on a possible new watercolour by Samuel Palmer
The article on the newly discovered 'Gainsborough Self-portrait' (detail, above), penned by its owner Stephen Conrad, is engaging. The picture surfaced at an auction in 2005, and has not previously been known. It is inscribed on the back 'Gainsboro'.

Conrad makes a concerted and believable attempt to prove that his picture is indeed by the young 'Tom', and makes a number of points: we know Gainsborough painted portrait 'heads' as a child; the inscription is similar to the manner in which Gainsborough may have written his name when young; there could be a resemblance to Gainsborough at about ten; the costume is right for a picture of the 1730s/40s; the paint is appropriate for the period; and there may be some elements similar to Gainsborough's later technique.

So - is it by Gainsborough? Ultimately, it will always be one of those 'leap of faith' pictures. There is no really compelling evidence that it is by Tom, and of Tom. Making connoisseurial judgements on juvenalia is next to impossible. One just has to ask 'could it be by Gainsborough?' And happily there is enough evidence to suggest that it could be... 

On the first Director of the National Gallery

August 4 2011

Image of On the first Director of the National Gallery

Picture: BBC

Here's a nifty slideshow about Sir Charles Eastlake, the first director of the National Gallery. It coincides with a new exhibition on Eastlake at the gallery, curated by Susanna Avery-Quash. She has just published Eastlake's travel diaries for the Walpole Society. 

PS - doesn't London look nicer with cobbles?

The Walpole Society hits 100

August 2 2011

Image of The Walpole Society hits 100

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

There was a pleasant do at the National Gallery last week to celebrate the Walpole Society's 100th birthday. The Society publishes, in weighty annual volumes, essential evidence on British art history (most famously the notebooks of George Vertue). If you're not a member, do consider joining. For just £45 a year you get their handsome volumes, and much else besides. 

To underline how useful the Society's work is to someone like me, the most recent publication (of Charles Eastlake's travel journals) came in handy for our recent Van Dyck exhibition. Eastlake (1793-1865) was the first director of the National Gallery, and a great connoisseur. Plop onto my desk two days before the catalogue went to press fell Eastlake's notebooks - which revealed that he had seen our newly discovered portrait (above) in Paris on 25th August 1860 in the Rothschild's collection: "Van Dyck - A Girl - whole length - holding her white gown (dark under sleeves) in left hand - fan in rt - [[about]] 2 - 8 w - 3 - 5h." Good timing, eh?

There is a new small exhibition at the National showing how Eastlake used to go on shopping trips in Europe, and how difficult it was to be sure in those days that the 'Giotto' on offer really was a Giotto. Worth a visit. 

Connoisseurship in Crisis?

July 3 2011

Image of Connoisseurship in Crisis?

Picture: Courtauld Institute

The picture above, The Procuress after Dirck van Baburen (see the original here), belongs to the Courtauld Institute in London. It was donated to them in 1960 as a work by the notorious forger Hans van Meegeren. However, two years ago, the Courtauld's investigations revealed that it was in fact not a fake, but a 17thC copy. It was even suggested that the picture belonged to Vermeer, for the same subject appears in the background of two of his paintings.

The Courtauld's findings were first published in the Art Newspaper in September 2009:

A “fake” in the Courtauld Gallery, believed to be by the master forger Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), is a genuine Dutch Golden Age painting, new research has revealed. It is a version of The Procuress, a 1622 brothel scene by Dirck van Baburen, which is also depicted in the background of two works by Vermeer. It is now believed that the Courtauld’s painting may, in fact, be the work that Vermeer once had.

None of this sounded quite right to me, so we decided to investigate further for a possible episode of 'Fake or Fortune?'. The Courtauld kindly allowed us to see the picture in their conservation studio. It not only looked to me straight away like a fake, but a fake by van Meegeren. His style is distinctive, particularly in the way he constructs faces. 

The picture has now been conclusively proved to be by van Meegeren on 'Fake or Fortune?'. There is no doubting van Meegeren was a rogue and a wrong'un, but I feel rather drawn to him. I like to imagine him laughing with incredulity at the sight of leading art historians declaring his paintings to be originals, decades after his death. The intriguing thing is that although van Meegeren conceded he had owned The Procuress, he denied repeatedly that he painted it, claiming his wife bought it in an antique shop. The question is, therefore, how many more of his fakes are still out there?

More on the Van Dyck debate

June 27 2011

Image of More on the Van Dyck debate

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd (detail)

The Antiques Trade Gazette has a good summary of the debate over the Van Dyck study we bought at the Chatsworth Attic Sale.

To recap, we bought the study catalogued as 'Circle of Rubens'. We, and a number of experts, say it is by Van Dyck. Sotheby's, and their own experts (who haven't seen the picture), say it isn't. 

Speaking to the ATG, Sotheby's said that the picture was 'short on quality and uncharacteristic for a Van Dyck.' The quality point is moot. Look for yourself at the face, see how animated it is, and remember that this was intended to be no more than a rapidly painted sketch, for later reference in a finished work. But I readily agree that it is uncharacteristic.

It is uncharacteristic because nobody has properly studied Van Dyck's use of studies before. According to the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne, only 3 studies are listed from between Van Dyck's departure to Italy in 1621 and his death in 1641. This is so patently an under-estimate that we cannot use the 'characteristic' argument when judging potential Van Dyck studies. Instead, we have to look at all the available evidence with open eyes...

Below is my fuller discussion of the picture.

'British School'

June 25 2011

Image of 'British School'

Picture: BBC

Fancy yourself as an art sleuth? The new PCF/BBC website Your Paintings includes loads of pictures that are anonymously catalogued.

Take the selection of works called 'British School', for example. Have a look through and see if you can attribute any of the works - let me know if you have a hunch...

Here's my starter for ten. The above portrait is called 'British School', and belongs to the Fitzwilliam Museum. Is it perhaps by Joseph Highmore...?

A new $200m Leonardo discovery?

June 25 2011

Image of A new $200m Leonardo discovery?

Picture: ARTnews

In the June edition of ARTnews, Milton Esterow has what could be the discovery story of the decade (or even the century?).

Salvator Mundi, above, was discovered in an estate sale in the US. Now, it will be included in the forthcoming Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The only illustration so far available is the murky black and white photograph taken before conservation.

The picture belongs to a group of Old Master dealers, including Robert Simon, and reportedly has a $200m asking price.

It has long been known that there was a lost Leonardo of this subject. One, perhaps this one, belonged to Charles I. Here is a rival claimant to be the original. But, if right, what an astonishing thing Robert Simon has found. It proves what I have often said, that (like it or not) we art dealers are often at the coalface of art history, offering up new discoveries for discussion, acceptance or rejection. Such discoveries are the propellant by which art history advances. Full credit to Nicholas Penny and the staff at the National Gallery for including it in their exhibition. 

The picture was apparently discovered 'about six or seven years ago'. Now, I started working for Philip Mould in May 2005. So if it was bought before then, phew, that's fine. If after, I guess I missed the Sleeper to end all Sleepers. You can see why these sort of stories keep me awake at night...

Read the full fascinating details here. Doubtless it won't be long till this is picked up by the world's press...

Praise for PCF website

June 24 2011

Image of Praise for PCF website

Picture: Guardian

Yesterday's launch of the BBC/Public Catalogue Foundation website has gone down well in the press. The Guardian has illustrated Hogarth's Sealing of the Tomb triptych (above), which forms an unlikely if impressive office decoration for the staff of Bristol Region Archaeology department. Should it not be in a museum somewhere, or a church that is open, or a National Trust property?

The BBC also has video of the painting and its environment, here. Curiously enough, though, the picture is not yet listed on the Your Paintings website under Hogarth...

Over in The Independent, Tom Sutcliffe describes the PCF as 'a kind of Pevsner of fine art'.  

A Holy Family reunion

June 24 2011

Image of A Holy Family reunion

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

Plug alert - here's a bit of news from our exhibition at Philip Mould Ltd, Finding Van Dyck (closes 13th July).

The small picture on the left is Van Dyck's study for the Head of St Joseph, which was used in his larger composition of The Holy Family, on the right. The study was previously unknown, and appeared in December 2009 in a London saleroom catalogued as 'Circle of Van Dyck/Head study of a Man'. But, having established that it related to a known Van Dyck, we were confident, despite layers of dirt and old varnish , that it was 'right' (as we say in the trade), and bought it.

The version of The Holy Family on display here is on loan from Manchester Art Gallery. Like many of Van Dyck's religious and classical compositions, it was painted partly by Van Dyck and partly by his studio assistants. For example, the cherubs upper right are finely executed, while the blue drapery around the Virgin is rather stiff and heavy.

The head of St Joseph in The Holy Family was also painted by a studio hand. While it follows Van Dyck's original study closely, it lacks the vitality of an original head by Van Dyck. Not a great deal is known about Van Dyck's use of studies, and for a long time they were disregarded by scholars. But as more and more are discovered, it becomes evident that, like his one-time master Rubens, Van Dyck made wide use of head studies, both for his own reference when composing large pictures, and for his assistants to follow.

The study and the finished Holy Family have now been reunited for (presumably) the first time since they were painted in Van Dyck's studio in Antwerp, in about 1630.

New PCF website goes live

June 23 2011

Image of New PCF website goes live

Picture: BBC

A new website created in partnership between the BBC and the Public Catalogue Foundation, has gone online. There's even a guided tour with Frank Skinner. The aim is for you to be able to look up every publicly owned painting in the UK - 80% of which are not usually on display.

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Fred Hohler, the tireless founder of the PCF. All together now - thanks Fred!

Vincent or Theo?

June 22 2011

Image of Vincent or Theo?

Picture: Telegraph

The Van Gogh Museum has decided that the above painting by Van Gogh thought to be a self-portrait instead depicts his brother, Theo. From the Telegraph:

"People have often thought it was funny that there were no portraits of Theo, given that they were so close," said museum spokeswoman Linda Snoek.

She said the portrait was made in 1887 while the pair lived together in Paris – a lesser-known period of Van Gogh's life, since the bulk of information about Vincent is derived from letters he sent to Theo.

The painting has long been in storage, but went on display at the museum in Amsterdam on Tuesday as part of an exhibition on new findings about the painter's time spent in Antwerp and Paris in 1885-1888.

The museum has also discovered that the bird in Van Gogh's 1887 painting Wheatfield with a Lark is in fact a partridge.  

New Caravaggio discovery

June 20 2011

Image of New Caravaggio discovery

Picture: Telegraph

A previously unknown painting by Caravaggio has been found in a private collection by art dealer Clovis Whitfield. The composition of Saint Augustine, dated to around 1600, has never before been linked to Caravaggio, but will be published in Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome next month by Yale. More details here

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