Previous Posts: May 2012

Get ready for 'The Getty Research Portal'

May 14 2012

Image of Get ready for 'The Getty Research Portal'


Coming soon from those enlightened people at the Getty, a new online art historical research facility, with scans of oodles of invaluable books and journals. From the Getty press release:

On Thursday, May 31, 2012 the Getty Research Institute (GRI) will launch the Getty Research Portal, an unprecedented resource that will provide universal access to digitized texts in the field of art and architectural history. 

The Getty Research Portal is a free online search gateway that aggregates descriptive metadata of digitized art history texts, with links to fully digitized copies that are free to download. Art historians, curators, students, or anyone who is culturally curious can unearth these valuable sources of research without traveling from place to place to browse the stacks of the world’s art libraries. There will be no restrictions to use the Getty Research Portal; all anyone needs is access to the internet. [...]

Because the Getty Research Portal only aggregates the metadata of the digitized texts and links to them, instead of keeping the texts on a server, there are no technical limitations to how much material can be collected. However, given current restrictions on the digital dissemination of copyright materials, all of the content on the Portal will be limited to works published before 1923 which are considered part of the public domain.

New Van Gogh Museum acquisition

May 11 2012

Video: Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has unveiled a new acquisition, their first for five years. Van Gogh's 1882 watercolour of a pollarded willow tree was bought at Christie's earlier this year for £1.2m (a bargain surely compared to all the crazy contemporary prices this week). More details here.

Waldemar on Leonardo the Anatomist

May 10 2012

Image of Waldemar on Leonardo the Anatomist

Picture: Royal Collection

The Royal Collection's new show get's the thumbs up from Waldemar:

So accomplished is the presentation here of our inner biology, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Leonardo isn’t just progressing anatomical understanding. He is also inventing biological drawing. Today, we live in a world of plentiful biological illustration, and all these methods of explaining the inner body are familiar to us: the section, the inner close-up, the view across the cut, the map of the arteries, the exploded joint. In Leonardo’s time, they all needed to be invented. Here he is, turning abstract knowledge into a tangible and understand­able visual coding.

The final room is dizzyingly impressive. It records his most sustained effort to turn his ­anatomical knowledge into a published treatise. Somehow, he gets to know the professor of anatomy at the university in Pavia, and the two of them embark on a thorough investigation of the skeleton and its muscles. A few of the sheets of intense, insightful drawings that result — a set of views of the inner workings of the human hand; a series of cross sections of the human shoulder in motion; the first accurate drawing of the human spine — are downright miraculous.

These sensitively shadowed drawings of body parts achieve so much more than is demanded of them. There’s a sense of movement, a thoroughly con­­vincing corporeality and, above all, that uniquely Leonardoesque sense that you are somehow able to look through the human skin to a precisely observed inner reality: not an abstracted diagram of the stuff of life, but the stuff itself.

The unobservable is being ob­served here. And this utterly ­convin­cing sense of reality is ­Leonardo the artist’s greatest gift to ­Leonardo the scientist.

Forger gets two years

May 10 2012

Image of Forger gets two years

Picture: ATG

William Mumford, who admitted creating up to 1,000 works, has been jailed for two years. From the Antiques Trade Gazette:

The forged works imitated a range of artists including Francis Newton Souza, Sayed Haider Raza, Jilali Gharbaoui, Sadanand Bakre, Maqbool Fida Husain, Welsh landscape painter Kyffin Williams, and English surrealist and modernist artist John Tunnard.

It is believed the paintings have been released onto the UK market over a five-year period.

Operation Sketch – led by the Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit, supported by ArtBeat Special Constables – identified the scam in April 2009 after they were contacted by a major London auction house which had identified an unusually high number of Husain paintings offered for sale.

Hundreds of paintings and false instruments were found in the back bedroom and garage of Mumford's home address in East Preston, West Sussex, including gallery stamps, ink pads and Victorian paper used to create a false provenance.

There's still plenty of forgers out there - it's caveat emptor more than ever these days.


May 10 2012

The impeccably unionised room wardens at the National Gallery in London are joining the public sector strike today. So prepare for room closures if you're going. But all exhibitions and displays will still be open.

More records

May 10 2012

Image of More records

Picture: Getty/AFP/Art Daily

Yet more auction records fell yesterday at Sotheby's; a Lichtenstein (above) for $44.8m,and a Warhol 'Double Elvis for $37m. Ai Weiwei's ton of Sunflower Seeds fetched $782,500. The Bacon I mentioned yesterday sold for $45m. A full roundup at Bloomberg here.

If anyone knows whether these enormous prices are a) signs of a healthy economy, or b) the world going mad, please let me know.

Update - a reader writes:

You ask about art prices: 'If anyone knows whether these enormous prices are a) signs of a healthy economy, or b) the world going mad, please let me know.'

To be fair, has the same question not been asked many times in the past, over many years if not several centuries?  On the other hand, I personally cannot think that some of this art will last; and I include even 'The Scream', I am afraid.  Yet on the third hand (maybe this makes me an alien), was that not said also in the past, for instance about Manet and Monet?

The most expensive 'Circle of' ever?

May 9 2012

Image of The most expensive 'Circle of' ever?

Picture: Christie's

Here's a curious picture from Christie's forthcoming Old Master sale in New York; a small oil on panel described as 'Circle of Rembrandt' with the enormous estimate of $150,000-$250,000. The picture is being deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Perhaps accounting for its high price is the fact that it was long thought to be by Rembrandt, but now isn't. And yet, if it isn't by him, or by anyone identifiable in his immediate circle, it surely isn't worth what the estimate suggests. Adding to the picture's uncertainty is a statement in the catalogue that the date of the wood panel (derived by dendrochronology) does not accord with the fashion of the sitter.  

A Rothko record

May 9 2012

Image of A Rothko record

Picture: Christie's

Last week, Sotheby's secured the highest auction bid ever for a painting. But last night Christie's retaliated with what is billed as 'the highest ever price for a piece of contemporary art at auction'. Rothko's 1961 Orange, red, yellow [above] made $86.9m. Mind you, is Rothko really 'contemporary' any more?

More details of the Rothko sale hereBloomberg has a comprehensive round up of the other records achieved on the night (for Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein and Barnett Newman). My Guffwatch entry made $1.1m.

But - how long will the Rothko record last? Today Sotheby's offers a famous Bacon.

Update - a reader writes;

You asked the question "Is Rothko really contemporary anymore?", and I'd like to take up this question. It seems to me that recently (say in the last 5 years) the term 'contemporary art' has come to mean not a temporal classification of art made recently (however you define recent), but to mean 'art that is about now'. Contemporary art is art which does not look forward to the future, as modernism did, or root itself in the past (though some allusion is often unavoidable) but concerns itself with our rapidly changing world. I would still agree that a Rothko is more modern than contemporary, but I do think that a reexamination of the term 'contemporary' is necessary in today's art vocabulary.

Is the government planning to scrap art export controls?

May 8 2012

You might think so, given that 'regulations covering the export and return of cultural objects' are among those highlighted on the Cabinet Office's 'Red Tape Challenge' website. 

A new Lawrence for the National Gallery

May 8 2012

Image of A new Lawrence for the National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery has a new portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence on display. Portrait of the Hon. Emily Mary Lamb was allocated to the Gallery in lieu of inheritance tax. Says the Gallery:

This work is an important addition to the National Gallery’s British collection. The Gallery currently holds examples of formal and full-length works by Lawrence – John Julius Angerstein, aged about 55, about 1790; John Julius Angerstein, aged over 80, 1824; and Queen Charlotte, 1789 – but this painting exemplifies Lawrence’s influential but more informal depiction of children and families. 

Its inclusion in the collection will enable Gallery visitors to appreciate the breadth of Lawrence’s repertoire. The oval portrait depicts the 16-year-old sitter in motion, her head turned towards the viewer in a pose that has a long tradition in the history of portraiture. However, Lawrence brings a freshness to the work, reflected in the informality and economy of his brushwork.

The Hon. Emily Lamb went on to become an influential, politically prominent society hostess. She first married Peter Leopold Clavering-Cowper, 5th Earl Cowper. After his death, in 1839 she married Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, who served twice as Prime Minister between 1855 and 1858 and again from 1859 to 1865. Her brother, Viscount Melbourne, also served as Prime Minister.

Now Lawrence is my favourite English painter - but I must say I wouldn't normally have described this portrait as being on the National Gallery's level. Might it look a little lost amongst all their other masterpieces?

Art history futures - Jubilee edition

May 8 2012

Image of Art history futures - Jubilee edition


A reader writes:

As an art dealer, I was both taken aback and delighted to receive an invitation to my 4 year old daughter's first group exhibition at her school in Chiswick as part of the Jubilee Celebrations. Face Britain, invites the nation's school children to paint self-portraits, which I believe have been beamed on to the Houses of Parliament.

Here is Isabella (artist and dealer) with her Self-portrait aged 4 ...asking price £8. (Sold).

I think he's got a bargain, don't you?

Yet more art history toys

May 8 2012

Image of Yet more art history toys

Picture: The Odd Blogg

Tho' mercifully these ones aren't for sale. 


May 8 2012

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Christie's

Rich pickings for Guffwatch in this week's New York contemporary auction catalogues. Here's a typically adjectival-heavy offering from Christie's for the above Untitled #8 by Vilja Celmins (est. $7-900,000), which introduced me to an entirely new word, 'mimesis':

The tension between the ethereal constellation of stars and the layers of charcoal that lie on the surface like an undulating blanket of dark, engulfs light even as it draws attention to the flat paper on which the scene is rendered. Celmins' shower of stars is transcendental at the same time as it is material. The vast nebulous night sky becomes accessible through the world of drawing. The translation of a vast nebula into a drawn image pressures both, as the artist reconfigures in charcoal on paper the technologically transmitted vision of space.

Untitled #8 encourages deep reflection and suggests a viewing experience of infinite variety, much like the sky Celmins captures in the drawn image. The attention to detail in the artist's process creates an effect as deep in time as the cosmos, yet her hand drawn starscape both encourages and resists such depth by virtue of a few strokes of an eraser. Through sensuous tactility and a keen sense of mimesis, Untitled #8 draws the viewer in and in so doing conflates not only the near and far, the hand-wrought and mechanical, but also the profane and sublime.

In case you were as ignorant as me, 'mimesis' means 'a figure of speech whereby the words of actions of another are imitated'.

Update - a reader puts me in my place:

Mimesis is widely written about in Western art history - a description of a type of art attempting to mimic reality - which some argue can be traced back to the famous myth of Hellenic painter Zeuxis - whose tale is echoed in Alberti's De Pictura and even in Raphael's own letters (namely the cobbling together of several ideals portions to create a complete ideal).

The concept is obvious - but the word is totally new to me. I must be reading the wrong kind of art history books. 

Can anti-terrorist technology help identify lost sitters?

May 8 2012

Image of Can anti-terrorist technology help identify lost sitters?

Picture: NPG

Probably not, as I conclude in today's Independent:

Software developed to recognise terrorist faces is being adapted to solve the mystery of portraits of unidentified people.

In certain cases, cutting-edge "face recognition" technology could identify faces from digital images, detecting similarities in facial constructs. The data will come from scans of known features of individuals, such as in a death mask or identified sculpture.

A feasibility study is being conducted by two art historians and an electronic engineer at the University of California. They describe FACES (Faces, Art and Computerised Evaluation Systems) as a "new tool for art historians". The project has received a $25,000 government grant.

Conrad Rudolph, professor of art history at the university, said: "Before the advent of photography, portraits were, almost by definition, depictions of people who were important in their own worlds. But, as a walk through almost any major museum will show, a large number of these unidentified portraits from before the 19th century have lost the identities of their subjects."

Frans Hals' The Laughing Cavalier, the 1624 masterpiece in the Wallace Collection, London, is among famous portraits whose sitters remain unknown. The picture's title was coined in the 19th century. Jeremy Warren, the Wallace's director of collections, said: "With the Laughing Cavalier, everyone accepts that name, but actually he's not laughing and he's not a cavalier ... I'd love to know who he is. If this technology can help us do it, we'd be absolutely delighted."

Bendor Grosvenor, a specialist in portraits at the Philip Mould Gallery, London, would particularly like to identify a "rather beautiful portrait" by an anonymous 17th-century hand – currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

He said: "It was traditionally called The Duke of Monmouth on his Deathbed, but it isn't him as the dates don't work. Deathbed portraits are relatively rare, so who was important enough, or loved enough, to have been painted in such a moving portrayal by a good artist? I would love to know."

But he added: "Most unknown sitters are unknown because they were only painted once, and there is no other likeness with which to compare them. So the new programme will most likely only help with portraits of people for whom we already have other portraits."

Professor Rudolph accepts that "difficulties are inherent" through variations in expressions, age, angle of pose and lighting. But initial tests – on identified 15th-century portraits of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Florentine ruler – have shown how faces can be reduced to labelled graphs and matched up.

This idea has been floating around for a while now. The late Labour MP and former sports minister Tony Banks (for whom I used to work, and who was a great collector of historical portraits), suggested using hooligan-spotting cameras to look for lost portraits as far back as the '90s.

I suspect that such technology has a long way to go before it can be really useful to art history. Portrait painters invariably had their own way of drawing faces, which can make comparing likenesses in works by other artists incredibly difficult. Sir Peter Lely is a well known example - as Pepys said of his portraits, 'good, but not like'. So the same sitter in a Lely can look quite different when painted by Kneller. Probably, this new computer programme will never be as useful as a well-studied art historian with a good memory for faces.

One day, computers may well be able to not only identify sitters, but artists too. Then I'll be out of a job. But I reckon we picture hunters and art historians have a few years left in us yet.

Update - a reader writes:

Regarding that deathbed portrait, whoever the man was there does seem something slightly ominous about his hidden neck. Was he, perhaps, someone who had his head cut off and later sewn back on again? Is that why it was thought to have been the Duke of Monmouth? [...] it seems to me that after death one wouldn't need to be wrapped up against the cold anymore, at any rate.

Update II - another reader writes:

Thinking about your excellent comment on the quondam Duke of Monmouth NPG, I looked up beheaded persons, of whom they are happily very few. I wondered about Sir Henry Vane the Younger and Colonel Penruddock, who both seem vaguely similar in face and age and date of death. The tight lips drawn up lips of the NPG sitter intrigued me, so I began to google 'postmortem effects of decapitation' but then I remembered that's the sort of thing loonies look up.

Preparing a painting for exhibition

May 7 2012

Video: Royal Collection

A new video from the Royal Collection shows how great care is taken when transporting masterpieces. The picture in question is a Canaletto from the Royal Collection, sent for display at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. Presumably, therefore, it didn't have far to go.

These days, most public collections insist on this sort of treatment, no matter how short the distance travelled, or how insignificant the item. It's one reason why loan exhibitions have become so inordinately expensive. Some collections, though, do manage to maintain a sense of proportion. Some years ago, we had a loan exhibition of Tudor art at our gallery; one item, a miniature of no enormous value, had to be flown first class with an accompanying curator in a specially constructed crate. The transportation bill was about the same as the item's value. The most valuable exhibit, on the other hand, came in a curator's handbag via the Tube.

Stolen Poussin recovered

May 7 2012

Image of Stolen Poussin recovered

Picture: Interpol

A stolen Poussin has been recovered (and unlike last time this one appears to be genuine). It had been taken along with three other works from the Musee Fesch, in Corsica, last February. The pictures were mysteriously left in a Corsican car park. You can see better photos of the pictures over at Interpol

HLF gives £5.9m to Manet appeal

May 7 2012

Image of HLF gives £5.9m to Manet appeal

Picture: Mail

Excellent news from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has decided to give £5.9m towards the Ashmolean Museum's acquisition ofMademoiselle Claus (above, with director Christopher Brown). Well done the HLF. From The Guardian:

The grant was made through the new fast-track procedure introduced by the Heritage Lottery Fund last year to help national collections raise purchase funds quickly. Chief executive Carole Souter called it an extraordinary painting, "luminous, beautiful, a real masterclass in brush stroke technique".

The Art Fund charity has already given £750,000, and individuals and friends of the museum – one of the oldest public museums in the world and now the most visited in the UK outside London – have given a further £200,000.

Does this mean that the HLF is now looking more kindly on acquisitions? Let us hope so. We have recently seen a worrying number of important works leave the country for want of acquisition funds, and there are many important pictures in the queue, so to speak. Other sources of funding for acquisitions, such as the National Heritage Memorial Fund, are drying up fast. Only the HLF, which is awash with money, nowadays has the fire-power to save our art historical national heritage. 

The Ashmolean only has £908,000 outstanding, which it must raise by 7th August. You can make a dent in that amount here

Friday Amusement

May 3 2012

Image of Friday Amusement

Picture: The New Yorker

Cleaning Poussin

May 3 2012


In Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria has spent a year restoring Poussin's Crossing of the Red Sea. The video above shows its unveiling - and it's nice to see a museum making such an effort to show the results of conservation to the public. Here is an excellent site charting the restoration process. You can even watch a video of it being varnished. More galleries should follow this example. 

Update: get the full lowdown on the painting from David Packwood here.

And for less than 1/100th of 'The Scream'...

May 3 2012

Image of And for less than 1/100th of 'The Scream'...

Picture: Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham

...Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery want to buy this full-length of local Grand Fromage Dr John Ash, by Joshua Reynolds. The picture is being sold by a local hospital to raise funds for new cancer equipment. The price is £900,000. 

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