Previous Posts: September 2012

No more holes - search for 'Leonardo' mural ends

September 17 2012

Image of No more holes - search for 'Leonardo' mural ends

Picture: National Geographic

I learn from the ever-indispensable Three Pipe Problem that the search for Leonardo's mural, The Battle of Anghiari, has ended. The news comes from a few small announcements in Italian press, and means that the National Geographic Channel is no longer funding any research. This is surely a Good Thing. The initial results were rather blown out of proportion (for more see Martin Kemp's view here). But it was all good fun while it lasted. 

X-ray reveals Velasquez original

September 17 2012

Image of X-ray reveals Velasquez original

Picture: Meadows Museum, Dallas

Intriguing story in The Washington Post about Velazquez's portraits of Philip IV, which are known in a number of autograph versions. An x-ray of a version in Dallas has apparently proved that it is the first. It will be exhibited alongside a version from the Prado in a new show, which runs until January 13th. Regular readers will remember the Met's restoration of their version, which saw them upgrade the attribution to Velazquez in full.  


September 16 2012

Image of Watch!

Picture: BBC

This is my last plug, I promise. At least, until next week's episode. The first of our new series of 'Fake or Fortune?' is on BBC1 tonight, Sunday, at 6.30pm. The picture in question is the little 'Blue Dancer', above, signed 'Degas'. Is it by him, or a worthless fake?

Next week we'll be focusing on three possible paintings by Turner, and the week after a possible Van Dyck. By the way, the next two episodes will begin slightly later, at 7pm. This means we will clash with the X Factor, but then happily nobody watches that...

To anyone who has stumbled across the site for the first time, welcome! I'll post more on the 'Blue Dancer' tomorrow.


September 13 2012

Image of Optimism

Picture: Daily Mail

It could be a £20m Turner! Or a £500 copy. You decide. Either way, it seems that the easiest way to get free publicity these days is to claim that you might have found a masterpiece. It doesn't matter if it's a worthless copy - few journalists can begin to tell the difference, and fewer still can be bothered to ask someone who can. We saw a similar story last month with yet another 'Leonardo' discovery. (Is it a coincidence that both stories were featured in the Daily Mail?) Soon, we will be able to bastardise Andy Warhol's famous line, and say 'In the future, every painting will be world-famous for 15 minutes.'

BBC SouthEast (the 'Turner' belongs to a Kent antiques dealer) asks me if I can go on telly and talk about the discovery. Should I be kind and optimistic, or should I give the picture, and the world's press, both barrels of brutal, AHN honesty?

The wisdom of crowds

September 13 2012

Image of The wisdom of crowds

Picture: Cambridge University Library/PCF

Or in this case, art historian and reader Tim Williams. He has found that one of the unattributed pictures in yesterday's post on mystery PCF pictures, the portrait of Thomas Broughton at Cambridge above, is by (or after, I can't tell from the image online) Nathaniel Dance. Below is the engraving which carries the attribution to Dance [courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery].

Excellent work Tim - Cambridge University Library owes you one. Thanks for your suggestions on the others everyone - keep 'em coming. 

Face of the Day

September 12 2012

Image of Face of the Day


A rare stray into current affairs in honour of this Benghazi-an.

Finding Richard III

September 12 2012

Image of Finding Richard III

Picture: Philip Mould/Historical Portraits

I've long been sceptical of archaeologists leaping to conclusions from, say, one shard of pottery - but the latest evidence from the search for Richard III's body is potentially of exceptional importance.

The bones found underneath a car park in Leicester, in a former Franciscan friary where Richard is thought to have been buried, have to be sent for DNA testing before any positive identification can be made. However, it has been revealed that the battle-scarred skeleton suffered from scoliosis, and so one shoulder would have been visibly higher than the other. That's not quite the same thing as having a hunch back, but a deformity of sorts nonetheless.

If that is the case, then we can clear Shakespeare of at least one accusation of Tudor propoganda, and begin to reinterpret Richard's iconography, which almost universally shows him with a raised shoulder. It gets higher and higher the further one goes into the 16th Century, as can be seen in an example we sold a while ago, above. Compare that to the much earlier version belonging to the Society of Antiquaries, below. It's often been thought that all the portraits of Richard showing a 'hump' were the result of the Tudor black legend. But if he really did have a raised shoulder, that tells us a great deal about how we should view 16th Century royal iconography.

By the way, no amount of digging will persuade me that he did not kill the Princes in the Tower.

Sleeper Alert

September 12 2012

Image of Sleeper Alert

Picture: Bonhams

At least two people got excited enough at yesterday's minor Bonhams sale to bid this '19th Century French School' head of a monk to £49,250 (inc. premium), from its £700-£1,000 estimate. Clearly 17th Century, and Flemish, I thought it had a sniff of Jordaens about it. It looked much better in the flesh than the illustration. Perhaps we will soon see it again.

Update - a reader writes:

Isn’t someone guessing it’s a study of the monk on the lower right of Ruben’s altarpiece of “The Last Communion of St Francis” [KMSKA, Antwerp]?

A £7m Steen on the block

September 12 2012

Image of A £7m Steen on the block

Picture: Arts Council/Sotheby's

A reader alerts me to the sale of a fine Jan Steen, Grace before Meat, from the Walter Morrison Picture Settlement (ie, Sudeley Castle). The pre-auction guide price for any museums interested in acquiring this tax exempted picture is £7m. Probably the lower auction estimate will be around that level when it comes up for sale at Sotheby's in London this December.

Who painted this?

September 12 2012

Image of Who painted this?

Picture: Your Paintings/Glasgow Museums

Here's a tricky connoisseurship test. I've just come across this picture on the PCF/Your Paintings website. It's listed as copy of a self-portrait by John Baptist de Medina - although you'd be hard pressed to tell from the photo. It must be covered with a very old layer of consolidating material. Still, when the venerable Public Catalogue Foundation said they were going to photograph every publicly owned oil painting in Britain, they certainly meant it.

A reader who is helping the PCF with attributions and identifications has sent in these mystery pictures, and asks the AHN sleuths for some crowd-sourcing assistance; see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Can anyone make any breakthroughs? 

Update - Art historian James Mulraine wonders if the neoclassical scene might be by Rosa di Tivoli (1655-1706).

'Gates of Paradise' re-open

September 12 2012

Video: Al Jazeera

Well, they won't actually open, but you can at least see them again. After a 27 year restoration programme (that's fine art conservation, Italian style), Lorenzo Ghiberti's magnificent renaissance gates for the Baptistry of San Giovanni in Florence have gone on show again. More details here.

Museum Makeover

September 12 2012

Video: Boston MFA

The central gallery at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which I lauded here once before, has been given an impressive looking makeover.

How to publicise an exhibition in the 21st Century...

September 10 2012

Image of How to publicise an exhibition in the 21st Century...

Picture: Walker Art Gallery

...find a Penis in a painting! There's all sorts of excitement in the press at the news that a willy has been 'found' in Millais' Isabella, ahead of the new Tate Pre-Raphaelites show. In case you can't find it, it's the erect-looking shadow of the man in the left foreground. From The Independent:

One of the works on show at the exhibition, which opens tomorrow, is the first painting by John Everett Millais as a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood he helped found, called Isabella. One Tate curator has uncovered a hidden image in the painting which shows a character in the foreground with what appears to be an erection.

Isabella, painted in 1848 when Millais was just 19 years old, will force people to “shove aside their preconceptions” and “dramatically changes the way we see the work,” Carol Jacobi said. “It gives us a different view of the Victorians.”

The painting shows the character in the foreground on the left angrily leaning forward, with his leg outstretched and using a nutcracker. The sexual suggestion is produced by a shadow on the table.

Dr Jacobi said: “The shadow is clearly phallic, and it also references the sex act, with the salt tipped into the shadow,” before adding: “We can assume it’s deliberate, so then that raises the question: what’s it there for?”

But wait, what's this? I have just this minute 'discovered' two similar 'shadow willies' in Millais' The Carpenter's Shop (Tate, below), a work previously thought to be all about religion. But, Stop the Press - Millais must have been willy mad! And the picture's all about 'wood' - OMG! Can readers find any more examples?

Update - a reader writes:

Pretty sure there's something ropey going on in 'The Ornithologist' too...

... and what's Grace Hoare trying to hide behind that hat? I think we should be told!

Update II - meanwhile, a reader more at home in the 17th Century wonders, justly, what the hell is going on with this Velasquez. Ooph.

I feel a book coming on: 'Da Penis Code', anyone?

More on that 'Leonardo' sculpture

September 10 2012

Image of More on that 'Leonardo' sculpture


Following my report on the 'Leonardo' sculpture last week, and the potentially reckless taking of a modern mould from a fragile 16thC beeswax original, a distinguished sculptor writes:

To make a mould directly from such a complex wax if genuinely by Da Vinci as Pedretti alleges, would - as you say - be reckless.

Even the most minutely detailed 'piece mould' would risk damaging the original as 'walls' would have to be built on the surface of the original wax to mark the boundaries of each part of the mould.

Though there is clearly a wire armature inside -visible where one foot has fallen off, other extremities would also be at risk during the process if the armature was missing in them too.

However Museums and others can now make non-invasive, non contact replicas of even the smallest 3D objects by laser scanning followed by rapid prototyping using an SLA (stereolithography) file generated and processed from the laser scan.

Replicas can be made directly in wax built up in layers by a form of 3D printing. Following skilled finishing to match the surface of the original, these wax replicas could then be used to make bronzes by the traditional 'lost wax' process. Because the 3D information is digitised replicas can also be easily generated in different sizes.

The oldest restitution claim ever?

September 10 2012

Image of The oldest restitution claim ever?

Picture: Museo Prado

In Italy, the National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage has made a formal request to France for the return of the Monal Lisa. More details in the Independent, which adds, at the bottom of its webpage:

*This article was originally erroneously illustrated with a copy of the Mona Lisa in Spain's Prado galery [sic]. This has since been rectified and now shows the original painting.

But actually, why not? The Italians should ask the Prado if they can have the copy back, as a consolation prize.

Update - a reader writes:

It must surely gall Italians that the Louvre owns more easel paintings by Leonardo (5) that there are in the whole of Italy (4, not including the Baptism).

When science takes over art history

September 10 2012

Image of When science takes over art history

Picture: Sunday Telegraph/Rubenshuis

A consequence of the decline in connoisseurship is the disproportionate weight placed on science when attributing paintings. In the world of science, an answer is usually binary - something either is or it isn't. When scientists get involved in art history, therefore, they often attempt to bring too much certainty to a situation. 

Here's an example: 'This zippy new machine and Professor X say this painting is by Van Dyck. Therefore it must be by Van Dyck.' And today's art historians, increasingly unsure of how to assess paintings because their teachers taught them that connoisseurship is a Bad Thing, are often only too happy to go along. Of course, Professor X may have looked at as many Van Dycks in his life as his zippy new machine has - ie, none. But because 'science' is involved, the decision is final. Nobody ever asks how much the new machine costs, and whether the scientists are overly keen to market their new invention.

Yesterday we had the Sunday Telegraph reporting that a a new 3D X-ray 'Minidome' machine had proved that a painting thought to be by Rubens of Van Dyck was in fact a self-portrait by Van Dyck. The key fact was this:

By looking at the brush strokes on the surface of the painting, the researchers found that it had been built up in layers, continually revised during its creation – a technique associated with van Dyck, who lived from 1599 to 1641 and is best known for his portraits of the pre-civil war royal court. Art historians know that he continually rethought his composition and technique as he went along.

Rubens, by contrast, did not; he would paint according to a pre-conceived plan, not revising his earlier work, meaning that his brushstrokes would show up entirely differently under 3D examination.

This is such a load of old phooey that I can scarcely believe it to be true. (If you don't believe me, make a quick trip to the National Gallery and look closely at any of the Rubens' on display there. You'll soon find evidence of Rubens changing his mind - moving the leg of a cow here, or the finger of a model there - or as we call them in art history jargon, pentimenti.)

But let's leave aside the question of whether that's the only evidence for changing the attribution from Rubens to Van Dyck, and hope that the facts will be better presented in a proper article, which we can return to. The main point here is that before we go around changing attributions based on a zippy new x-ray machine, we surely need that machine to make many, many scans of other paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck (for example). Then we will not only have a proper body of comparable information from which to draw our conclusions, but we can also be sure that we are interpreting these new images correctly. 

I'm certainly all in favour of using science to help attribute paintings. We will feature three examples of how just how important it is in our new series of 'Fake or Fortune?' But we must be careful how much emphasis we place on science, which by and large can only tell you what a painting is not, not what it is. If we rely too heavily on new technology, we may find to our cost that old fashioned art history is discarded entirely. And as the poorly written article in The Sunday Telegraph shows us, it's already happening.

That Pretending Pretender

September 10 2012

Image of That Pretending Pretender

Picture: BG

The interloping 'Cardinal York' I mentioned at Holyrood is in fact - courtesy of keen-eyed reader Mark Shepheard - Cardinal Prospero Colonna di Sciarra, after a painting by Batoni. Great spot - thanks!

'Bronze' at the RA

September 10 2012

Video: RA

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian gives the new show five stars, and detects the hand of none other than Leonardo in one of the exhibits:

Officially Leonardo never finished his only attempt at bronze sculpture, a colossal horse he tried to cast in Milan. Officially the work here, a group of three towering figures that usually stands high on the baptistery in Florence, Italy, is by his friend Giovan Francesco Rustici. But the 16th century art writer Giorgio Vasari claimed Leonardo collaborated with Rustici on this masterpiece and here, up close, you can see that he did. One of the awe-inspiring figures has the bald head and "nutcracker" profile of a Leonardo da Vinci caricature. The whole group is like one of his sketches cast in metal. He surely shaped this eerie work of genius, with Rustici modestly acting as technician.

If the label says 'Renoir'...

September 10 2012

Video: ITN

...then it must be by Renoir, right? You can buy it here on 29th September.

'Fake or Fortune?' preview - is this by Degas?

September 7 2012

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?' preview - is this by Degas?

Picture: BBC

Here is a little clip about the first programme of the new series of 'Fake or Fortune?'. The programme is all about a painting which may, or may not, be by Edgar Degas. The programme will be broadcast next Sunday, 16th September, at 6.30pm on BBC1. Viewing is of course compulsory for all AHN readers.

The two subsequent episodes, on paintings which may or may not be by Turner and Van Dyck, will be shown at 7pm. Apparently there's some drama on the 16th which is taking priority. Clearly, BBC schedulers don't recognise TV gold when they see it.

Ps, the picture we are standing in front of is by Titian. So we could be in a Degas and Titian sandwich.

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