Previous Posts: April 2012

Connoisseurship - the future's online

April 30 2012

Image of Connoisseurship - the future's online

Picture: Louvre

Exciting news from Poussin scholar Dr David Packwood over on Art History Today:

I also plan to create another blog for a Poussin connoisseurship project that looks at problematic pictures in the Public Catalogue Foundation database and other on-line resources. It looks like on-line connoisseurship is coming into its own. Frank DeStefano has just started a series looking at the cataloguing of Giorgione by two noted scholars, Pignatti and Pedrocco; and Bendor Grosvenor is successfully using crowdsourcing to identify individuals in portraits on the PCF/BBC Your Paintings site.

And just wait till I unleash my Van Dyck Project website on the world...

Campaigning for Manet

April 30 2012


From the Ashmolean Museum, a zippy video on why the Manet of Mademoiselle Claus should be saved for the nation.

Ouch - 'The Burlington Magazine' on Tate Britain

April 30 2012

Image of Ouch - 'The Burlington Magazine' on Tate Britain

Picture: Burlington

The new edition of The Burlington Magazine is out, and is devoted to British Art (hooray). There are pieces on Sandby, Turner, Landseer and Samuel Palmer. There is also a timely editorial on the current goings on at Tate Britain, which is well worth a read. It highlights many of the problems mentioned here on AHN over the last few months:

While the troubles besetting the gallery are not confined to Millbank, in a national collection they are deeply disquieting, especially the unprecedented exodus of some of its senior curators. Most of the problems stem from Tate Britain’s invention in 2000 and the reorganisation that preceded it. The gallery then became responsible for the acquisition and showing of British art from c.1500 (inexplicably changed recently to 1550) to the present, with the historic collections ending in the early twentieth century. It is in effect the national gallery of the British School, a publicly accountable institution. Its management bears responsibility for the display of and access to its collections, the standard of its temporary exhibitions and the quality of its scholarship. A visit made to Tate Britain at the time of writing demonstrates all too clearly several shortcomings.

Current refurbishment has closed a number of rooms on the east side of the building. Of the fifteen or so rooms to the west, only one is devoted to the primary historic collection (with three much smaller ‘Focus’ rooms on aspects of seventeenth- and eight­eenth-century art). Double-hung, this anthology runs from Hans Eworth to Burne-Jones. Even if this is only a ‘temporary’ hang, it surely shows a contemptuous attitude to the collection and to its audience. Visitors from abroad may take delight in some popular Victorian paintings but they may well be disappointed to find in this room not a single Constable, an artist of whom they are likely to have heard.1 In the other galleries now open, eight are given over to A Walk through the Twentieth Century, an idiosyncratic, occasionally revealing, stroll that introduces the non-specialist to many obscure names among other well-known paintings and some good groups of sculpture. Throughout, wall labels omit any context or information beyond artist, title and date: a visitor wishing to know more of such representative figures of modern British art as Winifred Knights or James Gunn (individual works by them dominate two of the rooms) are left in ignorance. When the renovations are finished next year, it seems that a new hang will devote much more space to the historic British holdings. We can only hope that it will prove an arresting and visually authoritative display. It should also to some extent reflect, without losing sight of public interest, recent enlightening art-historical research into many aspects of British art in publications and exhibitions (including several fine ones held at Tate Britain itself). We hope not to see again those thematic displays with their clunky juxtapositions that in the early 2000s were greeted with considerable dismay; nor yet the somewhat skittish narrative currently in evidence.

Has a British national collection ever been the subject of such steely criticism in such an august journal? '...shows a contemptuous attitude to the collection and to its audience.' That's pretty strong stuff. But, sadly, mostly deserved. Here's hoping the editorial is read by those who matter...

The NPG's 'most popular show ever'

April 30 2012

Image of The NPG's 'most popular show ever'

Picture: NPG/Freud Estate

The Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is so popular, they're now opening it till midnight. From the NPG's press release:

Lucian Freud Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery will open until midnight from 24-26 May, in the lead up to the last day of the most popular paid-for exhibition in the gallery’s history, it was announced today (30 April).

Gallery figures released today reveal that since it opened on 9 February 2012, Lucian Freud Portraits has attracted over 175, 000 visitors so far, overtaking its previous record-breaking paying exhibitions Mario Testino Portraits (2002), David Hockney Portraits (2006) and Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life (2008). 

The extra tickets for the midnight openings on Thursday 24, Friday 25 and Saturday 26 May will go on sale today only (via Ticketmaster) at or by phone (0844 248 5033). The Gallery’s Portrait Restaurant will be taking bookings for dinner until 9.30pm and the exhibition shop will also be open.

Optimism - Ebay special

April 30 2012

Image of Optimism - Ebay special

Picture: Ebay

This is a 19th Century print worth no more than £5. But if you're feeling impatient, you can 'Buy it Now' for £1,000,000. And look - free delivery!

Update - a reader writes:

Was just reading about the optimistic Ebay listing and when visiting was amused to see that someone had commented 'nice try'; now confess - was it you?!

Not guilty. My comment would be a little fruitier.

'He didn't move at all'

April 30 2012

Image of 'He didn't move at all'

Picture: BBC

Portraitist Jemma Phipps is impressed by Prince Philip's portrait sitting technique:

"He was as still as anything and so professional," Ms Phipps said. "He didn't move at all, which is quite a feat seeing as he is 90. Most of my sitters would probably complain, but he didn't."

How to clean a Monet

April 30 2012

Image of How to clean a Monet

Picture: Washington Post/US National Gallery of Art

Ann Hoenigswald, a restorer at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, tells The Washington Post how a subtly discoloured varnish can change the whole meaning of a picture:

Claude Monet painted “The Bridge at Argenteuil” in 1874 with its blue water and sky and its white clouds and sail. Yet by the 21st century, the important painting was looking dull and needed to be cleaned.

“It struck me it was much too yellow. What disturbed me was that yellow varnish had accumulated in the interstices of the brushwork. With the magnifying loupe and the microscope, you see how thick the varnish layer was and how it altered the intention of the artist,” said Hoenigswald, senior conservator of paintings at the National Gallery, who works on the fading canvases.

Now that the refreshed Monet has been rehung in the newly arranged 19th Century French Galleries, Hoenigswald talks about her satisfaction with revealing the artist’s intentions.

‘There’s a return to the palette which was intended by the artist. The whites were no longer yellow, the blues were no longer green and the purple shadows emerged, as did the crisp texture of the brushwork,” she explained. “However, what is always the most striking is the sense of space which is reestablished when the discolored varnish is removed. It is particularly apparent in landscapes. The relationship between foreground, middle ground and background makes sense again.”

You spent how much?

April 30 2012

Image of You spent how much?

Picture: Mail

The story of a newly discovered 'Lost Turner' hit the news this weekend, with a big splash in the Sunday Times. I've only seen the picture from the press photos, so can't comment on the attribution. But one thing struck me as very odd about the tale:

When Frank Faryab bought an obscure oil painting for thousands of pounds in a private sale, it was just the start of his outlay on the work.

For the art and antiques dealer has since spent more than £2million and much of the past five years trying to convince others it was by JMW Turner, one of Britain's greatest painters. [...]

He will not say how much he paid for the seascape, a 20in x 16in oil-on-pine panel of a hazy sailing ship, but he can list the great lengths he went to for the painting to gain recognition.

He has had the painting cleaned and reframed and has gathered scientific evidence, including infrared dating, checking fingerprints and artistic tests to prove its provenance.

Now I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about authenticating pictures. There's no way you could ever spend £2m on such a process. And even if you could, wouldn't you prefer to go out and buy an undoutedly authentic Turner?

Friday Amusement

April 27 2012


What happened when Peter Lely went to paint Oliver Cromwell.

Louis le Brocquy (1916-2012)

April 27 2012

Image of Louis le Brocquy (1916-2012)

Picture: Guardian

The great Irish painter, Louis le Brocquy, has died. The Guardian has a nice story about the self-taught artist's initial rejection by the arts establishment:

When the National Gallery of Ireland acquired Louis le Brocquy's canvas A Family, in 2002, he became the first living Irish artist to have a painting in the collection. It is a modern parable. Le Brocquy, who has died aged 95, painted A Family in 1951, and Gimpel Fils, his London gallery from 1947 for the rest of his life, exhibited it that year. In 1952 a group of patrons offered to buy the painting for £400 and present it to the municipal gallery in Dublin, but the art advisory committee rejected it as incompetent.

Four years later, it won a prize at the Venice Biennale, was bought by the Nestlé Foundation and hung at its Milan headquarters until 2001. The Irish businessman Lochlann Quinn then bought it from Agnews in London for £1.7m, and with his wife, Brenda, presented it to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Stories of museums rejecting artists who would one day become succesful are familiar in art history. Oh, how they used to laugh at Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and all the rest. Less well known, on the other hand, is that the reputations of those modern artists who are immediately embraced by the museum world tend to decline quite quickly once history intervenes. It is practically a statistical fact that most of the contemporary artists fawned over by museums today will be more or less forgotten in a hundred years time. And it is almost as certain that we today will not have heard of the artist who, a century hence, will be fetching the biggest prices.

Why is this? I don't know - fashions and tastes change. But it probably has something to do with the fact that the key driver of contemporary artistic fortunes, hype, has by definition a short shelf-life. In a world where we struggle to qualitatively assess art, we seek value instead from an artist's reputation, which in turn is often derived from the amount of media coverage they receive. And it's easy these days for an artist to get into the press. Art history, which as a discipline is questioning, rational (usually), and empirical, is a far harder mistress to please.

Martin Kemp on the Prado Mona Lisa

April 27 2012

Image of Martin Kemp on the Prado Mona Lisa

Picture: Prado

On his blog, Leonardo scholar Professor Kemp gives his views on the Prado's revelations on their copy of the Mona Lisa. To my slight surprise, he seems to go along with the theory that some rocks in the background of the copy help date the original. But happily, he seems to agree that the nonsense about Salai is just that.

The idea that a copy should be produced in workshop is hardly a surprise. In our book on the Madonna and the Yarnwinder,  Thereza Wells and I showed that the two prime versions developed alongside each other, in this instance with Leonardo's participation in both. The only surprise is that a copy should be made of an intimate, domestic portrait of a bourgeois sitter. Perhaps Francesco del Giocondo wanted two versions. But it is odd. The implications of the landscape for the dating of the Mona Lisa - the background in the copy is aligned with drawings dateable to after 1510 - provides useful confirmation that the painting took a long time, but is not surprising. Was it ever completely finished? Were any of his paintings completely finished? The London Virgin of the Rocks, which was supplied for the frame in S. Francesco in Milan, is not finished. Only the Louvre seemed to think that the ML was completed before Leonardo left Florence in 1507.

Perhaps I shouldn't complain. It all helps sustain interest and helps sell (my) books.

By the way, we have absolutely no reliable evidence about what Salai looked like - and almost no firm evidence of how he painted. The pretty boy with ringlets, often identified as Salai, was a favourite facial type for Leonardo well before Salai came on to the scene.

Another Art History first!

April 26 2012

Image of Another Art History first!

Picture: BBC

Our newly discovered portrait of the Chevalier D'Eon, the earliest certainly known oil painting of a male transvestite, appeared on the BBC comedy show Have I got News for You recently. You can see the clip here at 34 minutes in.


April 26 2012

Image of Fakeski?

Picture: Mail/Christie's

A Russian Oligarch is suing Christie's this week in the High Court, saying that the above picture he bought for £1.7m is in fact a fake, and not by the famous Russian artist Boris Kustodiev. From the Mail:

The battle to prove the the providence of the painting will last 19 days, and centre around a tiny signature in cyrillic script - said to be that of Kustodiev and dated 1919. Henry Legge QC, for Aurora Fine Arts, through which the painting was purchased, said careful analysis of the signature showed it 'running over' existing cracks in the paint and indicated that it was not written until the late 1940s. Kustodiev died in 1927.

Also highlighting the use of an aluminium-based pigment on the canvas, the QC said it was of a type which was not commonly used by artists until after Kustodiev's death. 'Odalisque' was returned to Christie's after doubts about its authenticity were raised after the sale. The painting was placed on an easel in court for Mr Justice Newey to view.

However, the case began with a dispute over which side should have physical custody of the painting, which Aurora's legal team wants to subject to further tests.

Mr Legge said microscopic, extremely high resolution, photography of the signature could prove conclusively whether it was appended in 1919 or 'considerably later'. [...]

James Aldridge, for Christie's, did not object to fresh photographs being taken, but said cross-sectional testing would be 'unethical' and 'extraordinarily invasive', given the very small size of the signature. Through a detailed comparison between 'Odalisque' and authenticated works by Kustodiev, Christie's insists that the technique, subject matter and other similarities support the attribution to the Russian master. They also say the Aluminium-based pigment identified in the painting was in use by artists in 1919, although not as commonly as in the 1930s.

The High Court hearing - the legal costs of which are likely to equal - if not exceed - the sum paid for the painting seven years ago, continues.

As lawyers say, 'all good things end in litigation'. The case will likely throw up some fascinating questions of how experts assess art, and of course connoisseurship. In fact, the Russian government has already decided the work is a fake, and has published it as such in a list of 900 fake Russian pictures, many of which have been sold in the salerooms in the last few years. One thing to note about this particular case though is that the picture was previously sold by Christie's in 1989, and to me that might argue in its favour as a genuine work. I know there has been a major industry in making Russian fakes to supply the recent boom in modern Russian art - but I don't know the extent to which it started before the collapse of the Soviet regime. 

Queuing for Munch

April 25 2012

Image of Queuing for Munch

Picture: ATG

The Antiques Trade Gazette asks: 

Is this the longest queue ever to view a single lot coming up at auction? 

More than 7500 people turned up to take a look at Edvard Munch's The Scream as Sotheby's staged a five-day exhibition of the picture in London prior to its sale in New York on May 2.

With unprecedented security arrangements for what seems likely to become the most expensive object ever sold at auction, people queued for up to 45 minutes, passing under two airport-style scanners before reaching the hushed serenity of the darkened room. Around eight to ten people were permitted to view the picture at a time...

Update - a reader writes:

We hear a lot about Edvard Munch's "The Scream" as if he had painted only one of it. It would be clearer to refer to, say, the version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" that is in such-and-such a place ... or his copy of it, or his pastel version of it, or not the version or copy of it that was stolen, etc etc, or whatever.

A valid point. It’s interesting that in the Old Master world, some people can talk rather sniffily of the difference between ‘the prime’ version of a composition and later derivations (of a Rubens, for example). But in the modern art world all versions of a work seem to have equal validity. At least, they do when people are trying to sell them…


April 25 2012

Image of Today...

Picture: Samuel Johnson Birthplace Trust

...sorry for the lack of AHN (as if news of the Double Dip* wasn't bad enough). I was at the Oil Painting Expert Network conference at the National Gallery. It was a good day, about which more anon. In the meantime, here's another little discovery from the Public Catalogue Foundation, which I mentioned in my talk. The portrait belongs to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Trust, and shows Johnson's friend, Dr John Taylor. It is listed as 'attributed to John Opie', but is a good example of a 1760s Joseph Wright of Derby. It appears to be in excellent condition. Fortunately, the attribution to Wright found favour today at the conference. A 'Dr John Taylor' also appears in Wright's correspondence.

* official - the longest downturn in British history.

That 'Bronte discovery'

April 25 2012

Image of That 'Bronte discovery'

Picture: J P Humbert

That 'newly discovered' portrait of three anonymous women by nobody in particular 'the Bronte sisters by Landseer' has been withdrawn from tomorrow's auction. The auctioneers say that 'dramatic new evidence' has come to light. Curiouser and curiouser...

A lost work by Angelica Kauffmann

April 24 2012

Image of A lost work by Angelica Kauffmann

Picture: BBC/PCF/Russell-Cotes Art Gallery

Many apologies for the slow service these last couple of days. Filming for the second series of 'Fake or Fortune?' isn't leaving much time for the day job, to say nothing of blogging...

I'm also scratching my head trying to write a paper for tomorrow's conference at the National Gallery, on the proposed Oil Painting Expert Network (OPEN). I will mention some of the excellent discoveries readers have sent in identifying sitters in lost portraits - so thanks again for those.

I shall also be moving onto the more perplexing area of attributions, and in particular attributing anonymous paintings. In other words, connoisseurship, or, as some art historians say, 'the C-word'. One of the pictures I'll mention will be the above portrait of an unknown sitter at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery in Bournemouth. Described on the Your Paintings website as a copy 'after Beechey', it is in fact a very fine portrait by Angelica Kauffmann. I'm pleased to say that the Kauffmann scholar Professor Wendy Wassyng Rowarth agrees with the attribution (on the basis of photographs).

How do I know this? The answer is of course connoisseurship - the ability to look at a painting and tell, sometimes with no other evidence at all, who painted it. Some people (mainly those who can't do it) think connoisseurship is a dastardly, complicated and snobbish word. But in fact it's a very simple concept, and merely reflects hard work and looking at lots of paintings. And there's nothing snobbish in that. The word itself is derived from the Latin 'cognoscere', to get to know - and if you look at enough Kauffmanns over the years, pretty much anyone can 'get to know' what a Kauffmann looks like. That's all there is to it!

Update - a learned reader writes:

Blessings on your last on ‘connoisseurship’. Which is why serious museums and galleries need curatorial photo-archives. Tell that to the Tate.

Quite! And I also learnt today at the OPEN conference that the noted military historian Andrew Cormack has identified the uniform of the sitter in the above Kauffmann as being the Cheshire militia. Now we just need to figure out who he is. Any ideas?

Over-hyping the auctions

April 24 2012

Image of Over-hyping the auctions

Picture: Christie's/Gerhard Richter, 'Seestuck'

Over at Forbes, Abigail Esman has an interesting piece looking at the dangers of auction house hyperbole: 

I cannot recall a time ever before when an auction season kicked off with as much hype and bluster as is now blowing about the upcoming May sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York – the first of the two annual sales of modern and contemporary art that set the tone for the market and establish artist prices for the season. [...] the auction houses are outdoing themselves, tripping over one another in their efforts to locate – and then to sell – the “lost” “forgotten” “unknown” “fresh-to-market” masterpieces that, they promise, represent a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see, let alone to own, the most important, valuable, spectacular, significant, critically-acclaimed, influential, coveted art treasures of all time.

True, marketing has always been the domain of the superlative, and art writing the realm of the adjectival phrase.  And with prices at or above pre-recession levels – meaning that a single sale can be worth literally millions of dollars in commission – high competitiveness between the two largest auction houses for the most lucrative of the year’s sales is somewhat to be expected.  But there comes a point where not only do these sales pitches begin to sound ridiculous, but arguably place the art market itself in a precarious overdrive.

Christie’s, for instance, which boasted $5.7 billion in revenues for 2011, has announced the sale of “an exceptional selection of six important works by Gerhard Richter” at its Postwar and Contemporary sale on May 8.  (See catalogue here .) What will they do, then, with the next batch of “important” Gerhard Richter works?  Or will they be “even-more-important”?

More significantly, should these “exceptional works” fail to meet their estimates (however unlikely that may be given the current Richter fever), the ramifications on the Richter market could be enormous: after all, if these “exceptional” pieces don’t do so well, what about the less-exceptional ones? It is, in fact, difficult for me to discern what makes these individual works so particularly remarkable in comparison to many other Richter paintings I’ve seen out there for less – with the single exception of  “Seestück,” a 1969 seascape that recalls the glowing light of Frederick Turner, and the turbulence of Caspar David Friedrich’s haunting 1807 “Fog” and classic 1808 “Monk by the Sea.”

And in truth, with the market so flooded now with abstract Richters — ubiquitous at every art fair – the possibility that several of those in this group would fail to sell is not entirely unthinkable. (One can only hope that Christie’s PR’s declaration of this as a “landmark event in the Richter market doesn’t prove to be the wrong kind of “landmark.”)

All too true. When it comes to modern and contemporary sales, auction houses are increasingly behaving like estate agents, who seem to describe everything, even one-bedroom flats, as 'stunning'.

That stolen Cezanne...

April 24 2012

Image of That stolen Cezanne...

Picture: Buhrle Collection

...has finally been returned to the Buhrle Collection in Switzerland. From the Washington Post:

Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said the painting was flown Monday to Switzerland on a special flight. He says “(I) hope they guard it well” from now on.


April 23 2012

Image of Today...

Picture: BG

...I'm filming for the second series of 'Fake or Fortune?' at the National Art Library. So I'm afraid posts may be rare. 

Amazing location, don't you think?

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