Category: Research

NPG acquires Freud archive

November 19 2015

Image of NPG acquires Freud archive

Picture: NPG

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired Lucian Freud's archive. It has been valued at £2.9m. More here.

The announcement comes in Archive Appreciation Week. Which is an excuse to show you my favourite document from the NPG's archive - a list of rats killed in World War 2 in the Gallery, and how they were killed. THe second one down is the best.

Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

September 8 2015

Image of Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

Picture: Neil Jeffares

Neil Jeffares has posted an extremely useful, free and interesting guide to all things pastel in the 18th Century on his website. It's a PDF - yours to download and keep - and is meant as a form of introduction to his invaluable online dictionary of pastellists (above). He says:

The book aims to answer the questions that used to (or in some cases still do) baffle me, such as

  •     why did some pastellists also work in oil – and which sitters opted for pastel?
  •     why did pastel disappear from fashion with the French revolution, returning a century later, but vanishing just as abruptly?
  •     why does the word have such negative connotations?
  •     was the Académie de Saint-Luc just a virtual concept, or was there a building?
  •     how many pastellists were there?
  •     how can you physically safeguard your pastels for a few pence each?
  •     how were and are pastels displayed?

Neil calls it a 'prolegomena', but it's in PDF form partly because, as he points out:

I’m aware that not everyone enjoys browsing websites. There’s something about riffling the pages of a book that the internet, tablets etc. haven’t been able to replicate. And it’s in the nature of reference books that one doesn’t sit down to read them in a linear fashion. 

And this means it's easy to navigate and use.

On a seperate post on his blog, Neil also looks at the wider question of publishing online, and its various shortcomings. For him, a particular bugbear is authors often not citing proper references. My bugbear is that for some writers online is a licence to go on meandering endlessly, for paragraph after paragraph, with no beginning, middle or end. Print and paper may have been expensive, but they encouraged brevity and discipline.

Fitzwilliam Michelangelo discovery conference

June 16 2015

Image of Fitzwilliam Michelangelo discovery conference

Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam are having a special conference to discuss those newly attributed Michelangelo bronzes. Says the museum:

It was thought that no bronzes by Michelangelo had survived but now an international team of experts believe they have identified not one, but two.

Convincing evidence based upon stringent art-historical research, scientific analysis and anatomical observation argues that the Rothschild bronzes, which have spent over a century in relative obscurity and which are currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, are early works by Michelangelo. If this attribution is accepted, these unsigned and undocumented works would represent a highly significant addition to Michelangelo’s oeuvre.

On Monday 6 July 2015 at Downing College, University of Cambridge, an international panel of art historians, conservation scientists, and other experts will present further research into how these enigmatic masterpieces were made, their likely iconography, meaning, patron and purpose. Papers will also consider how they fit into Michelangelo’s career more broadly and how they relate to the work of his contemporaries.

Tickets are £85, and can be booked here.

Museums and the Trade - National Gallery conference

June 16 2015

Image of Museums and the Trade - National Gallery conference

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London have put out a call for papers for a conference next year on the art trade and museums. Here is what they're after:

  • Mechanics of the relationship: How did the relationships between dealers and art museums work? Were these business relationships, advisory roles, or both? Which sources can we use to establish such relationships? Can quantitative evidence like pricing be used to illuminate these relationships further? Can any shifts in these dynamics be identified or measured over a geographical or chronological range?
  • Biographies: Who were/are the main dealers associated with art museums? Can the personal and institutional biographies of specific dealers, agents, curators and other associated players assist in the reconstruction of the dealer-museum relationship, either in the historical or contemporary domains?
  • Collaboration and conflict: How close was/is the relationship between various dealers and art museums? To what extent can these relationships be construed as successful or otherwise? Are there examples of conflict, such as failed deals, arguments over pricing or the breakdown of relationships? How were successful cases, such as acquisitions mediated by dealers, negotiated? What happens when dealers are in competition with each other? And what happens when museums are in competition with each other?
  • Works: How can case studies of single artworks or groups of pieces help us to understand better the model of dealer-museum interaction? How do the previous histories of works, their provenance, and the manner of their acquisition (e.g. private treaty or auction sale) affect their afterlife in the museum?

More here. It sounds right up my street, and I'd like to go. But I can't immediately see anything in the tightly written criteria above that I can knowledgeably give a talk on.

Changes to access at the British Museum print room

June 16 2015

Image of Changes to access at the British Museum print room

Picture: BM

They've made some changes to access arrangements at the British Museum's prints & drawings room - now you have to make an appointment up to two weeks in advance, where previously you could pretty much turn up. The Grumpy Art Historian is unamused.


June 13 2015

Image of Phallacy?

Picture: Discovery

Regular readers will know I take a dim view of researchers who over-interpret paintings. The most recent example was supposedly seen in Country Life, in a tiny engraving that showed Shakespeare having a dodgy eye. But it was just the engraving, and the portrait was not Shakespeare in any case.

Now, we have from Discovery News an investigation into the foreskins of ancient Pompei, thanks to the study by two doctors of the penis in the above fresco of Priapus. Says Discovery News:

One of Pompeii's most recognized frescoes, the portrait of the Greek god of fertility Priapus, holds an embarrassing truth, according to a new study of the 1st-century A.D. wall painting.

Found in the entrance hall to the House of the Vettii, perhaps the most famous house to survive Mount Vesuvius's devastating eruption, the fresco shows the ever-erect Priapus with his engorged penis.

But this phallus-flaunting symbol of male potency and procreative power shows signs of a condition which can result in difficult sexual relations and infertility, says a study published in Urology journal.

"The disproportionate virile member is distinctively characterized by a patent phimosis, more specifically a shut phimosis," Francesco Maria Galassi told Discovery News.

Galassi is an M.D. now back in Italy who recently worked at Imperial College London. He co-authored the paper with his father Stefano, also an M.D.

An inability to fully retract the foreskin, phimosis was treated only with circumcision or prepuceplasty before the introduction of topical corticosteroids.

"This condition presents different grades of severity, and in this specific case appears to be of the highest grade, in which there is no skin retractability on the glans," Galassi said.

Defects of the genitourinary tract, including phimosis, have been depicted in artistic representation since prehistory, showing a high degree of precision.

But why someone would portray the god of fertility with a severe phimosis?

"It is not unlikely the painter might have desired to report objective evidence of a high prevalence of that anatomic defect in Pompeii, at a time mixing it with fertility attributes traditionally ascribed to Priapus," Galassi said.

In this view, widespread among the male population in Pompeii, phimosis might have been the reason for the abundance in Pompeii of anatomical votive artifacts used to dispel that anatomical and functional defect.

Supports and frames in 16th in early Netherlandish art

May 8 2015

Image of Supports and frames in 16th in early Netherlandish art

Picture: Getty

Getty alerts us to a handy, free new e-book all about frames and supports in 15th and 16th Century Netherlandish paintings. More here.

Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

April 26 2015

Image of Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

Picture: Guardian

In Italy, they say they've dug up Caravaggio's bones, and can prove that he was killed partly by lead poisoning, which might have come from his paints. But it's all rather uncertain - there is no concrete proof the bones above are in fact Caravaggio's. More here in The Guardian.

Optical Coherence Tomography

April 21 2015

Image of Optical Coherence Tomography

Pictures: Optics Info Base

This sounds interesting - a whizzy new camera (seen above, in front of a copy of a Raphael at the National Gallery) can digitally take cross-sections of a painting. Normally, to find out the exact build up of layers in a painting (from ground layer to the tpyes of pigments used), you need to physically take a sample of paint, flip it on its side, and then look at the cross-section under a microscope (as in the colour photo below). But this new camera - developed at Nottingham Trent University - allows a virtual cross-section to be taken, and the results look as they do in the top image, the black and white one.

The process is called Optical Coherence Tomography.

You can read more about the new research here

31.5m art images online?

April 2 2015

Image of 31.5m art images online?

Picture: TAN

Interesting story in The Art Newspaper by Martin Bailey, who reports that an 'International Digital Photo Archive Consortium' is mulling over plans to digitise their entire collections of archival images. That is, images of paintings in exhibition catalogues and sale catalogues since - essentially - photography began. The Consortium includes the Witt library in London, and the Frick in New York, among others. The total number of combined images is apparently some 31.5m.

Martin writes:

Many of these archives still mount images of works with captions on thin card, filed by artist, in alphabetical order. Each artist work is subdivided by type—for example portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Most have not been digitised, so researchers have to visit the library in person.

The plan is to digitise the 31.5 million cards held by 14 of the world’s leading archives and then upload them on the web to make them easily searchable. No decisions have been made on what would be available free or for a charge. The images would be for research purposes, rather than reproduction.

Chris Stolwijk, director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History, says that it is “essential to go digital, otherwise we will be working for a only very small group of researchers”. His institute’s collection is the largest in the world, with 7 million images. Amassed since the 1930s, it is particularly strong in Netherlandish and Dutch Golden Age paintings.

The RKD alwready leads the way in this area, with a large number of digital images. The Frick has a good image library, but it's approach to online - at the moment - is maddening: it has a good database of what images it does have, but it's unillustrated, and if you ask them for an image, they will only send you one in the post! Perhaps the problem here is copyright, which I suspect will be a pretty difficult barrier to overcome. Recent regulations in the UK, for example, have made such projects all but impossible. And although the Witt Library just about still exists, funding cuts implemented by the Courtauld Institute means that it has stopped collecting images, and has no specialist staff.

But if it could be made to work, the benefits on an online database like this would be extraordinary. And if the images were married up to, say, something like Google image search, then anyone wanting to know what an unidentifed painting was could easily find out what it was, who it was by, or where it had been, just by running a search - as long as the painting had been photographed before at some point in its life.

And since most paintings have been photographed at some point, in an earlier sale for example, then those who rely on their visual memory to make a living by actually knowing such things, like me, would be out of a job. Picture sleuthing would become a thing of the past. I'm not going to say this is a Bad Thing at all - progress is inevitable, and it'll be just one more thing that the computers can do better than us. But until then, I suppose I must make hay while I can...

Anne Boleyn-ollocks

February 16 2015

Image of Anne Boleyn-ollocks

Picture: via Flickr

The Anne Boleyn story doing the rounds today highlights everything that is wrong with art research and art reporting at the moment. It is head-bangingly frustrating. 

First, the story, as reported in The Telegraph:

Two of the most well known portraits of Anne Boleyn, which are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, may not be her, scientists have concluded.

Facial recognition experts have created a computer algorithm which maps the faces from portraits to find a match with other paintings.

They used a contemporaneous miniature of Boleyn from the British Museum as a reference, as it is the only undisputed likeness of Henry VIII’s second wife.

After running the software, the experts said they could not be sure that the ‘Anna Bolina’ portrait, a late 16th century copy of a painting from 1533, which hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery, was the queen. [...]

Professor Amit Roy-Chowdhury, of the University of California, created the algorithm after being approached by a history student who was keen to see if facial recognition technology could be applied to art history.

The technology also appears to have cleared up the mystery of the Nidd Hall portrait [above], a painting labelled as Anne Boleyn, but which many historians believed actually depicted Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. The image shows a young woman in a gable hood, wearing a brooch bearing the initials ‘AB’ which was known to belong to Boleyn.

The portrait was labelled as “The Most Excellent Princesse Anne Boleyn” but many historians claimed it was based a painting of Seymour by Holbein. [...]

Well, where to begin? The 'miniature' referred to in this piece is in fact a medal (below) in the British Museum, which is dated 1534. While it certainly does show Anne, the main problem is that it has become so damaged over time that it gives few reliable clues as to what she really looked like. The nose has been flattened, and one side of the face has been rubbed clear of any defining features. She looks like a drunken boxer. Can there really be anything reliable here for a computer programme to register? No.

Next, the National Portrait Gallery portrait and Hever Castle portrait (below). For me, the Hever Castle type is the best of a number of versions of this image, all of which date from the late 16th Century. That is, they are not contemporaneous. They are consciously historical portraits, pianted to fit the political and artistic tastes of the time. While some believe that they copy an earlier portrait, there is no firm evidence that they do. In fact, as actual likenesses, they may not be very reliable at all, and could be said to reflect, in the pale complexion, black hair and black dress, the view of her projected by those who resented her role in the break with Rome - that she was some sort of witch who cast a spell over Henry, and thus set the nation on its fateful path away from Catholicism. For example, in 1586, Nicholas Sanders wrote, 'Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her throat.' By this account, it's hard to imagine what Henry VIII saw in her. 

The Nidd Hall portrait [illustrated at the top] 'proved' by Prof. Roy-Chowdhury has never struck me as a particularly convincing candidate as a contemporary portrait, although I must stress that I haven't seen it. As far as I know, there is no firm evidence that it is a contemporary image. But I certainly don't think it's right to say that 'many historians' have said it was Jane Seymour. The enormous 'AB' pendant is a bit of a giveaway as to who the portrait was meant to represent. Still, that hasn't stopped the newspapers getting into a terrible muddle. On the website of The Australian, they showed Holbein's portrait of Jane Seymour - over which there is no doubt whatsoever - to illustrate the Nidd Hall image.

Finally, Prof Roy-Chowdhury evidently did not place much faith in our best contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn; that by Holbein in the Royal Collection (above). It is true that for much of the latter half of the 20th Century, this drawing was doubted - but mainly because it didn't fit in with the NPG and Hever portrait type of Anne, which many people then thought were contemporary images. Now, however, the Royal Collection describes their fine drawing as showing Anne. Regular readers may recall that I had a role in this. For more details see earlier AHN here

The idea of using facial recognition technology to identify sitters in portraits has been around for years. But I'm afraid I've never been persuaded by it. Prof Roy-Chowdhury says, according to The Telegraph that:

The programme is so advanced that it even takes into account how individual painters like Holbein and Clouet represented certain facial characteristics, making allowances for artists’ style.

Whilst there can be no doubt that such technology can be used for scanning the faces of real people in, say, CCTV footage or Facebook, there are just too many hurdles to overcome in art. 

First, in historical portraits we have no control model to use as a true foundation for a face. All the actual sitters are dead. So while it may be possible to make a computer programme make allowances for an artist's style (and personally I doubt it can) we can never know how an artist translated a real human face onto canvas in the first place.

Then there is the question of wider artistic styles - a Mannerist face will look quite different from a Counter-Reformation face. And finally, there is the question of artistic ability - your average jobbing 16th Century English portrait artists, such as the fellow who made the Hever Castle portrait, would have been simply unable to capture all the intricacies of a face, and could only ever present the very basic elements of a likeness. And sometimes not even that.

Which is why it pains me to have to conclude that another of Prof Roy-Chowdhury's findings can also not be relied upon; that the 'Cobbe Portrait' doesn't show William Shakespeare. As The Telegraph says:

But while the software has cleared up one mystery, it may have opened the doors to several others.

It revealed that two pictures of William Shakespeare are also unlikely to be the bard. The Cobbe portrait which dates from around 1610 is probably not the playwright. Historians have long speculated the painting may be poet Thomas Overbury. The Hampton Court Palace painting is also unlikely to be Shakespeare.

Regular readers will know that I'm not a fan of the Cobbe portrait, and (like the National Portrait Gallery) have never believed that the sitter shows Shakespeare.

You can read more coverage of Prof. Roy-Chowdhury's findings here in The Independent, and here in The Guardian

For an interesting take on what the British Museum medal might have looked like before it was damaged, see Lucy Churchill's website here

Update - it's been interesting to see the media response to this story unfold. The presentation of the new research has been uniformly presented as 'experts say'. Despite the fact that Prof. Roy-Chowdhury, while of course an expert in his own field, can hardly be considered 'expert' in Tudor portraits. Would it be too much to ask that news organisations first ask real experts, before presenting stories of this kind as de facto revelations, rather than just speculation? 

Update II - a reader tweets:

Count to 1510, Bendor.

Yes, I'm aware I get a bit ranty about this sort of thing. But it bothers me that so many people may be misled by badly presented research.

A sculptor writes:

No facial recognition software is needed to confirm that the portrait of Anne Boleyn in a gable hood (Is it the Nidd Hall portrait?) probably shows the same person as the squashed lead portrait medal of 1534. The curious piece of cloth on the top of the head in both portraits (as well as the gable hood), is the same shape in both, which can't be pure chance. This has often been pointed out before. One only needs a good pair of eyes.

The gable hood moreover (without the piece of cloth on top) is very similar to that in a portrait miniature of a woman by Lucas Horenbolte which Sir Roy Strong believes is a portrait of Anne Boleyn, because of its undoubted similarity to the woman represented in the two Holbein drawings, supposedly of her. 

I think it reasonable to suggest that both Nidd Hall portrait and the medal derive ultimately from the Hornebolte, and are vastly inferior versions of the likeness. 

On a technical note, I would suggest that the manufacturing method of the medal relates to contemporary and earlier lead alloy ' pilgrim badges' in technique. 

A fine grain Silnhofen limestone ( imported from Bavaria), was engraved to form a mould. Into this an alloy of tin and lead (similar to type metal) was poured to make one or many casts.(A similar profile portrait medal in lead alloy of Elizabeth 1 by Steven van Herwijck was cast in 1565).

The image had to be engraved in reverse in the mould for Anne to face in the same direction as the portrait it copied. I think this more likely than that the painted portraits face in the same direction as the medal because they were based on it as exemplar.

To confuse things, in a similarly poor NPG portrait, Catherine of Aragon  wears an almost identical hood to the portrait of Anne Boleyn we are discussing.

Quite how poor home grown portraiture seems to have been at the time is clear when we compare these paintings with the marvellous portrait of Catherine of Aragon C. 1502 by Michael Sittow, the Holbein drawings of Anne and Horenbolte's miniature.

The other potential likeness perhaps worth mentioning is the tiny enamel portrait in Elizabeth 1's ring at Hever Castle.

I don't personally subscribed to the theory that the image in the ring referred to here is Anne Boleyn. The evidence to suggest that it is is meagre. I suspect it may just as well be a young Elizabeth I, and that the ring is a private demonstration of 'look how far I've come'; from the 'bastard' daughter of Henry VIII to Queen of England.

Another reader writes:

Having done some work on facial sculpture, I know that computers can reconstruct one side of a face based on the other, barring unknown scars or deformities.

I think the point here, with relation to the British Museum medal, is that there isn't much face to begin with, even on the good side.

Another reader adds, pertinently:

Now Anne Boleyn can join others including Moses and Jesus of whom we have portraits that don't depict their actual  likeness.

Another reader refers us to the other Holbein drawing that was for many years claimed to be Anne Boleyn. There is no evidence that the sitter is Anne, and it can be easily ruled out. 

Update III - another reader adds:

In my experience, the best software development and application is directed by subject matter experts.

Spot on.

A lost Wright of Derby?

January 14 2015

Image of A lost Wright of Derby?

Picture: Your Paintings/Derby museum

The excellent Derby Museum and Art Gallery has secured a £15,000 grant to help them decide whether the above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby. The subject is The Colosseum by Night, and the picture belongs to the museum. However, its authorship has, reports the Derby Telegraph, been doubted. Presumably on account of what appears to be the curious drawing of the arches on the right. Wright painted The Colosseum by Day, which also belongs to the Derby museum. 

£15,000 is a lot of money to find out an attribution, and I presume this sum allows for the picture to be cleaned, and analysed. I can only find this not especially good photo online. Though at first sight the painting looks too wobbly (that's the technical term) to be by Wright, the sky and foliage top left looks convincing enough. Probably there are some condition issues going on, which are affecting how the picture appears. I'm trying to get a better photo, and will put it up if I can. 

Update - Lucy Bamford, the curator at Derby, has kindly sent a high-res image, and below are some close ups. I'm sure that the picture is indeed by Wright - we can tell that alone from the little figure in the window, and also the foliage and sky at the top left.

But the rest of the picture has been savagely 'restored' by someone in the 1960s or 70s, with huge areas entirely over-painted (as seen in the last image below). The question is, why was it done - to cover up old damage? Or just ineptness. Often it's simply a case of the latter.

Lucy Bamford tells me, however:

Worryingly, I had a tip-off from someone who had some dealing with a painting that was also over painted by the same restorer as the Colosseum back in the 60s or 70s. Their approach seems to have been to sand down the original to make a smooth surface on which to lay new paint, ‘improvement’ being the chief concern I presume.

Yikes. The tale such woeful restoration may be a bizarre one to modern ears, but in my experience it's not unusual. No single group of people has done more damage to paintings in history than those who at some point have fancied themselves as 'art conservators'. Ironic but true. Those pictures that are in the best condition are those that have never been 'cleaned'.

The problome is, every generation of restorers (or, in days of old, simply domestic cleaners, who would scrub pictures with a potato if you were ucky, or a scourer if you weren't) thinks it has come up with the latest answer to 'improve' paintings: once it was 'transferring' (with disastrous results) panel paintings onto canvas; then it was wax re-lining (until people realised how the wax damaged the paint surface). Sometimes it seems art restoration is a giant, intra-generational job creation scheme by restorers.

But anyway, I have no doubts that this time around the work will be done well and carefully. And I look forward to seeing a Wright emerge from beneath the work of that sinful earlier restorer. 

New Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings

January 12 2015

Image of New Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings

Picture: BBC

Here's another nice discovery story from Your Paintings: a job applicant for the post of Director of the Atkinson Arts Centre in Southport, UK, discovered a lost work by CRW Nevinson in the Atkinson's collection when he did some pre-interview swotting up about the Centre on Your Paintings. And he got the job. Says the BBC:

An art expert who identified a mystery painting at a job interview has been made manager of the gallery storing it.

Stephen Whittle revealed his "strong hunch" about a painting that has been stored at the Atkinson arts centre in Southport since the 1920s.

He told the panel he thought it was Limehouse, a work by CRW Nevinson, a futurist painter.

"When I saw this unattributed image on the BBC Your Paintings website, it was very reminiscent of Nevinson," he said.

Mr Whittle, who came across the painting as part of his interview research, added: "I mentioned my supposition at interview, but I don't know if it led to me finally getting the job."

See the new picture and other Nevinsons here on Your Paintings.

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.

'The Girl with the Fake Pearl Earring'.

December 16 2014

Image of 'The Girl with the Fake Pearl Earring'.

Picture: Mauritshuis

A professor of Theoretical Astronomy, Vincent Icke, says the earring on Vermeer's famous subject is from Poundland, or whatever the 17th Century Dutch equivalent was. Guilderland I suppose. Says the Mauritshuis website:

In the December issue of popular science magazine New Scientist, Icke, a professor of Theoretical Astronomy at the University of Leiden, states that the pearl on the ear of the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer, could not have been a real pearl. The way in which a pearl would reflect the light does not match the reflection of the light in the painting, says Icke.

The article by Vincent Icke confirms what we at the Mauritshuis have been thinking and writing about Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring for some time now. In fact, it's one of the most fun facts about this painting. Just like the fact that it was purchased in 1881 by the previous owner at an auction for 2.30 guilders. At the museum, the caption for the painting also mentions the unrealistic size of the pearl. Vincent Icke reaches the same conclusion, but through a very different understanding and research. The Mauritshuis has taken note of his findings with great interest. This illustrates what makes seventeenth-century paintings so interesting to look at: nothing is what it seems.

The Mauritshuis has written previously about the jewel in the ear of Vermeer's girl, saying it was not a true pearl. Indeed, just like the turban, the "pearl" was no daily outfit for Dutch girls in the seventeenth century. Quentin Buvelot (Mauritshuis chief curator) described the painting together with fellow curator Ariane van Suchtelen in the catalogue for an exhibition on highlights of the Mauritshuis in Bologna earlier this year. They then wrote: "Some of the most salient features of Vermeer's painting include the girl's headpiece and the pearl in her ear. The headpiece consists of yellow fabric, with blue fabric on top of it, knotted around her forehead. The yellow-green jacket is painted in such a loose style that it isn't clear which material it's made from. It is probably wool fabric. This garment is often seen as part of the girl's exotic costume, but it is indeed a contemporary jacket. The low-set sleeve and small pleats are typical of the fashion in the 1660s, when this painting was made. The pearl on the girl's ear is remarkably large. Whereas most pearls nowadays come from farms, in the seventeenth century, they were natural ones. Pearls were formed in oyster-like sea mussels. Large pearls were rare and ended up in the hands of the richest people on the planet. In the seventeenth century, cheaper glass pearls, usually from Venice, were also quite common. They were made from glass, which was lacquered to give it a matt finish. Maybe the girl is wearing such a handcrafted 'pearl'."

I think we can generally assume that most of those whopping pearls we see in 17th Century portraits - at least the English ones with which I'm familiar - were 'fake' (sometimes made out of compressed fish scales), or indeed simply artistic creations.

'The flowers are all wrong'

December 10 2014

Image of 'The flowers are all wrong'

Picture: Guardian/Louvre/National Gallery

Good story in The Guardian about some new views on the attribution of Leonardo's 'Madonna of the Rocks' in the National Gallery. The attribution to Leonardo is questioned on the basis of the flowers being 'wrong', and also the geology:

“The botany in the Louvre version is perfect, showing plants that would have thrived in a moist, dark grotto,” says Ann Pizzorusso, a geologist and Renaissance art historian. “But the plants in the London version are inaccurate. Some don’t exist in nature, and others portray flowers with the wrong number of petals.”

She concludes: “It seems unlikely the same person could have portrayed rock formations so accurately in the Louvre work and so incongruously in the National Gallery one – especially considering Leonardo’s faithfulness to nature. There is absolutely nothing in his body of work that is not true to nature.

Her conclusions are supported by John Grimshaw, a leading horticulturalist, who is struck by the realism of the Louvre painting, unlike the National Gallery version. In the French painting, he can easily identify iris, polemonium and aquilegia. He says: “There’s a very recognisable iris, a Jacob’s Ladder, a nice little palm tree, all sorts of well-observed bits of vegetation there – and proper plants.”

In my review of the Leonardo exhibition in London in 2012 I wrote about the relative weaknesses of the London picture compared to the Paris one, but based purely on a visual reading of the two paintings hung close together. So I find these latest observations very interesting. I can well believe that the plants in the London version might have been painted by someone without Leonardo's attention to detail.

Update - a reader who I know has a good 'eye' writes:

This argument against the NG painting sounds quite plausible.

It might be condition, but the Louvre Christ child's profile is better too - the hint that the face is turned away a fraction, exactly the sort of thing that rarely translates into copies. 

Mona Lisa theory no. 742

December 3 2014

Image of Mona Lisa theory no. 742

Picture: BG

She was a chinese slave who was Leonardo's mother. Or something like that. More here

Update - a reader writes:

Ah, but the individual numerals of 742 add to 13, which is the unlucky number of Christ and the apostles, including Judas, at the last Supper, and Leonardo's is the most famous painting of the Last Supper, so Mona Lisa theory number 742 must be true!!




Perronneau catalogue raisonné

November 28 2014

Image of Perronneau catalogue raisonné

Picture: National Gallery

Neil Jeffares informs us that a new catalogue raisonné of Jean- Baptiste Perronneau's work will be published in January. He's one of my favourite French artists, and I particularly like the way his pastel technique (he was primarily a pastelist) translates into oil, as seen in the above portrait of Jacques Cazotte in the National Gallery. I've not come across a firm link, but I've often wondered if he had an impact on Gainsborough's later work.

I look forward to seeing the book, which is published by Arthena, and written by Dominique d'Arnoult. As is often the case with these things, there's no easily findable website to send you to (not even on Amazon). So I'm not sure how you'd buy it.

Update - a reader sends in this astonishing fact:

Thrilled to hear about the catalogue: if anyone decided to put on a show of 18thc French portraits, he would emerge as a real star.  Come to think of it, why hasn't there been one; I think people would be surprised how consistently good the works would be from the epochs of Rigaud to David. And, as your other recent post shows, the portrait sculpture was exceptional.

 One other thought per the recent dicsussions around the National's new Wilkie.  The Perronneau of Cazotte, which is a masterpiece, was bought by the Gallery at public auction in 1976 - for £88,000 I recall -  and is only one example of the practice of the then Director, Michael Levey, to bring in to the collection, and thereby for the public in this country overall, works by unfamiliar but important artists.  

It remains the only Perronneau painting in UK collections: PCF list 132 works by Wilkie.

And yes, in terms of price, French 18th portraits are cheap. I'm not sure why. I think the overall aesthetic is too 'peaches and cream' for today's modern taste. We could never shift them when I was flogging portraits in London. But doubtless this'll change.

Update II - Neil Jeffares has the order form here. It seems the publishers don't have a website. So much for digital art history...

Miniature heaven at Philip Mould

November 7 2014

Image of Miniature heaven at Philip Mould

Picture: Philip Mould

If you like your art 'in little', as they used to say in the 17th Century, then do go and see a new exhibition devoted to the British 18th Century miniaturist John Smart at Philip Mould in London soon, from 25th November to 9th December. Smart was one of the best, and spent much of his career in India. Here's the blurb:

Philip Mould & Co. is delighted to announce the forthcoming exhibition ‘John Smart (1741-1811), A Genius Magnified’. The exhibition will feature forty-five portrait miniatures from a European private collection with examples spanning Smart’s whole career. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue detailing hitherto unknown information on Smart’s life and career, and will be the first publication dedicated to his life and work since 1964, when Daphne Foskett published her seminal monograph ‘John Smart: The Man and His Miniatures.’

More here.

Richard Wilson catalogue raisonné online

October 31 2014

Image of Richard Wilson catalogue raisonné online

Picture: PMC

The new catalogue raisonné of Richard Wilson's paintings has gone online.

Just marvel, AHN-ers, at the rarity of such a sentence. How often do we get to see the words 'new', 'catalogue raisonné' and 'online' all together? So all hail please the great endeavours of Dr Paul Spencer-Longhurst, who has compiled the catalogue, and the Paul Mellon Centre in London for supporting it. It looks like a fine model for all such future ventures. 

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