Previous Posts: January 2017

KMSKA acquires new Van Dyck head study

January 11 2017

Image of KMSKA acquires new Van Dyck head study

Picture: KMSKA

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp has bought a fine head study by Van Dyck. The picture relates to a figure in Van Dyck's 'Crowning with Thorns' in the Prado museum in Madrid (below). (By coincidence, the model used is perhaps the same model as another head study in Prado's collection.) The purchase price has been reported as €234,000, and the sale was made from a French private collection. I believe the picture was sold at Tefaf a couple of years ago.

The newly acquired picture has not, as far as I know, featured in the Van Dyck literature before. But this is common with Van Dyck's head studies. Very few were published in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné, but we know that Van Dyck's working practice means there must be many more out there, and they continue to turn up in the most unlikely places. Indeed, since the sale was safely some time ago, here's one I found in a 'yard sale' in Ireland.

My golden rule with these things is that the study must relate to a finished picture. Invariably, these studies were made to be transposed into larger pictures. And while often one comes across head studies that look as if they might have been painted by someone like Van Dyck, I find that if there's no link to a known painting it's very difficult to make a secure case for the attribution. This is sometimes because an artist's head study might be painted in a style that is typically looser and freer than the style they would use in their finished and more worked up painting - and it's that 'finished' style that many experts seek to compare a picture to.

What's so interesting with the KMSKA's new purchase is that while it does indeed relate to a finished picture, in the Prado, in terms of its basic pose and outline, and indeed all the relevant points of schematic information, such as the highlights and shadows, there is a crucial but subtle difference between the two. This is seen in how Van Dyck has depicted a 'real person' in the ad vivum head study, compared to how that same head is transformed into a 'character' in the finished painting (above). For example, in the KMSKA study, the model is a little more contemplative, and looking slightly downwards, as one would be I suppose if you were a model being painted from life. But in the finished picture in the Prado that person has been given a specific role to play, and has to join in the action. So Van Dyck now makes him look slightly upwards, towards Christ, his forehead is more furrowed, and his eye is just sufficiently more expressive. The bandana marks him out as a ruffian of some kind. One often sees this change in Van Dyck's head studies, from the 'real person' in the head study to the character in the finished picture. It's only noticeable because he was such a good artist.

New extension at National Gallery of Scotland (ctd.)

January 11 2017

Video: NGS

This all looks good. Though it means there will be no room for the curators (or indeed a Director).

Update - I'm told there is almost universal antipathy among staff to Sir John Leighton's plans to restructure the management of the Scottish National Galleries. Two questions arise; why is Sir John so determined to go against the wishes of his staff? And how did the Trustees ever let this proposal get so far? Someone's been asleep on the job...

New Tate director

January 11 2017

Image of New Tate director

Picture: Guardian

Congratulations to Maria Balshaw, who has been appointed the new director of Tate. She's currently director of Manchester city galleries. More here.

Update - the appointment must be formally approved by the Prime Minister; until then the Guardian has taken to calling her the 'Director-Elect'!

Explore the Soane Museum digitally

January 10 2017

Image of Explore the Soane Museum digitally

Picture: Soane Museum

This is very clever.

Turner & 'meglip'

January 10 2017

Image of Turner & 'meglip'

Picture: National Gallery

I've always been fascinated by how advances in artistic materials have driven creative change. Our view of art history tends to be, for example, that at various points in history great artists ushered in a creative revolution that drove forward the next chapter in painting; Titian and 'colore' in Venice, or Monet and impressionism in France.

I'm simplifying, and I certainly don't doubt the place of individual artistic genius in the evolution of art. But just as significant, sometimes, can be the technical development of artist's materials. Titian and his Venetian colleagues would likely not have developed the 'colore' style - based more on broader brushwork and less reliant on drawing (or 'disegno') - had they not been obliged by Venice's damp and watery environment to paint increasingly on canvas (in abundant supply, thanks to all those sailing ships) rather than fresco and panel. They also had the benefit of vibrant new pigments which, due to Venice's pre-eminence as a trading port, came from faraway places such as Afghanistan. Similarly, the fact that by the later 19th Century paint manufacturers had figured out how to put ready-mized paint in durable tubes, thus increasing its portability, greatly benefited the impressionists. 

Anyway, the point of all this is to point you to some new research published in a chemistry journal, Angewandte Chemie (and summarised here at Science Daily) which has discovered more about the drying agents used by artists such as Turner in the 19th Century. 'Megilp', or 'gumtion', made oil paint dry more quickly than before and allowed artists to use extra layers of colours and glazes more rapidly, and more spontaneously. The new research just published has discovered how these admixtures actually worked:

The researchers combined several spectroscopic techniques to explore the gels on multiple scales. They managed to define the molecular interactions of the hybrid organic-inorganic gel system and the mechanisms of gelling. The team uncovered processes similar to those behind the drying and aging of oils. Lead is known to accelerate these processes, which explains the formation of the gel. These findings show that lead not only catalyzes the gelling process but contributes to the structure of the medium.

Regular followers of the recent Old Master fake scandal will recall that lead-based drying agents are also added to forgeries to help make the oil paint dry faster. In this case, the rapid drying is not to help the forgers paint better, but to make the paint look older.

Update - it's Megilp, not Meglip, as I put it in the title.

'Trouble in the Gulf'

January 9 2017

Image of 'Trouble in the Gulf'

Picture: TAN

In The Art Newspaper, Georgina Adam makes a series of predictions for the art market in 2017. Most interesting perhaps is her observation that Gulf state money will cease to have the major impact it once did:

It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Gulf mirage is fading. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project seems stalled and no acquisitions have been announced recently; the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been delayed again, although buying continues; while the Qataris, having accumulated a sensational selection of works of art, appear to be cutting back on spending. And falling oil revenues have caused budgets to be slashed widely. Unrest in the region is discouraging tourism. I see this market continuing to stagnate.

This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

January 8 2017

Image of This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

Irony alert - a story about new research finally proving that William Shakespeare the playwright really was William Shakespeare from Stratford (and not someone else entirely, like the Earl of Oxford) was illustrated in The Guardian with... you guessed it, the wrong portrait.

Anyway, the new information on Shakespeare is fascinating, and centres around his application for a coat of arms. It becomes clear, thanks to archival research by Heather Wolfe, that:

[...] “Shakespeare, Gent. from Stratford” and “Shakespeare the Player” are the same man. In other words, “the man from Stratford” is indeed the playwright. Crucially, in the long-running “authorship” debate, this has been a fiercely contested point. But Wolfe’s research nails any lingering ambiguity in which the Shakespeare deniers can take refuge.

This will likely not stop the 'Oxfordians' from continuing to claim that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare. Woe betide anyone who gets caught in the crossfire between Oxfordians and Stratfordians - it can get bizarrely bitter.

One that got away

January 8 2017

Image of One that got away

Picture: MFA Boston

In 2013 the Church of England sold an important altarpiece by Benjamin West, amid some outcry. It was granted an export licence, having been bought by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The MFA has spent two years restoring the picture and now it has taken pride of place in one of their main galleries. There's a video here of the installation. 

'Book of the blog'

January 8 2017

Image of 'Book of the blog'

Picture: Thames & Hudson

Regular readers will know that AHN is an admirer of Charles Saumarez Smith's blog. I learnt recently that Thames & Hudson are to publish a book of his photographs and observations on East London, where he lives. Charles is (as well as being Secretary of the Royal Academy and much else) a fine photographer. And all the photos have been taken with his phone. He tells me (and I agree) that these days it's much easier and frankly better than using what we might call a 'proper camera'. 

The book will be out in April this year, and you can pre-order it here. It's always heartening to see the daily musings of bloggers like CHarles - each post a small act of creation - amass into a greater whole.

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

January 8 2017

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: FT

Speculation continues as to who is behind the formidable series of fakes that have been fooling the Old Master world for the best part of a decade. But I think we can be sure that it isn't the well known British faker and artist John Myatt, who has produced the above 'Mona Lisa' for a film company. She seems to have been at the botox. The film is about the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. More here, in an article in the FT about forgery in art. 

New Hogarth catalogue

January 8 2017

Image of New Hogarth catalogue

Picture: Yale

I've been meaning to notice the publication of Elizabeth Einberg's new catalogue raisonnée on William Hogarth. You can buy it here for £85.

'Vigée Le Brun's petitioners'

January 8 2017

Image of 'Vigée Le Brun's petitioners'

Picture: Archives Nationale

Neil Jeffares has a useful new article on his blog about Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun. It explores the petition in her favour signed by 255 artists and French luminaries in 1799 to support her return from exile. She had fled during the French Revolution and as such had her assets forfeit. Neil points out that since the document has never been published before, it proivdes usual evidence of signatures. He also classifies all 255 names. More here

Re-stocking a stately

January 8 2017

Image of Re-stocking a stately

Picture: NT

Croome Court in Worcestershire is one of the National Trust's more recent additions: the management of the house was taken over by them in 2007. The house did not come with a collection, but now around 1200 items, including a number of pictures, have been returned to the house and will be gradually put on display. More here

Van Haeften gallery closes

January 6 2017

Image of Van Haeften gallery closes

Picture: TAN

I've been meaning to note that the London Old Master dealer Johnny Van Haeften has closed his St James' gallery. Johnny was the leading dealer of his generation, in fact probably of the last half century. He's a nice fellow too, which alas is not always the case in the upper reaches of the dealing world. The decision to leave St James' comes after a hoo-ha about the lease on his gallery, the freehold of which belongs to fellow Old Master dealer Fabrizio Moretti. Moretti, to Johnny's chagrin, wanted to take over the space for his own purposes. So Johnny has decided to now work from his home in South West London.

But what most caught my eye from this interview with him in The Art Newspaper was his decision to no longer exhibit at Tefaf (The European Fine Art Fair) in Maastricht. This year will be his last time at the fair. Ever since I've been going to Tefaf, Johnny's stand has been the busiest and most prominent, and also the main bellweather for how the fair was going. If Johnny was having a good fair, then so was everyone else. In his reasoning he noted the success of the new Tefaf fair in New York:

“With the innovation of Tefaf launching in New York this year, it’s important to encourage a younger generation [of dealers],”

It seems the New York show has, in the minds of many Old Master dealers, convinced them that the Maastricht fair is in some decline. Which to be honest it has been for the last few years, if not longer. A key reason people used to make the hike all the way to Maastricht was that there wasn't a comparable Old Master fair anywhere else in the world, and certainly not in a major city. The opening of the New York fair has altered that element. I think it's a positive development, and good for the health of the Old Master market in general. Having the leading Old Master fair in distant Maastricht was hardly a good way to encourage new collectors. (Though of course I wish it had opened in London.) Some people also feel that Tefaf in Maastricht has been compromised by the recent Old Master fake scandal, and the New York fair is a chance to usher in a new set of galleries with a new way of doing things. 

€15m Leonardo drawing discovery (ctd.)

January 6 2017

Image of €15m Leonardo drawing discovery (ctd.)

Picture: Tajan

The newly discovered Leonardo drawing of St Sebastian has been declared 'un trésor national' by the French state, after the auction house Tajan (who discovered the work) applied for an export licence. The official value, which must be raised by any French museum wanting to buy the work, is €15m. The clock has three years to run. (During which time I predict that no museum will attempt to buy it.) More here.

The art market in 2017

January 6 2017

Image of The art market in 2017

Picture: Apollo

There's a good feature at Apollo on the year ahead for the art market. Various art world high-ups are quoted. But I was glad to see some robust defence of the Old Master market from Jussi Pylkanen of Christie's. Ok, he might be biased, but he makes some solid points in response to Apollo's question:

Your biggest surprise of 2016?

That an Old Master, Rubens’ Lot and His Daughters, came dangerously close to being the most expensive painting sold at auction all year. It was eventually edged into third place by a great Monet and a market-making De Kooning (which was the picture that defined the shift in taste to Post-War a decade ago). However the historic pair of Rembrandts, which sold privately to the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum actually made Christie’s biggest price of the year, so Old Masters came out on top in the end. Moral of the story: The art world is very simple, in any era and in any economic climate, the greatest artworks by the greatest artists generate record prices – forget the period. In 2016, Rembrandt eclipsed Monet, De Kooning and Rubens.

Of course, we won't read anything like this in the New York Times...

The last director? (ctd.)

January 6 2017

Image of The last director? (ctd.)


My story from a few weeks ago about the apparent scrapping of the post of Director at the National Gallery of Scotland has been picked up by The Sunday Times. We now know a little more about the plans: there will be no dedicated director of the National Gallery. Instead, there will be a single Director of Collections and Research for all three Scottish national galleries (Portrait, Modern and the National Gallery). This director of Collections will answer to Sir John Leighton, who in turn is the Director-General of the Scottish National Galleries, which is the umbrella body for the three galleries in Edinburgh

There are two surviving current directors of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art. But these will also (we assume) eventually cease to be, and the new changes effectively herald a demotion for these posts. In turn, the individual curatorial teams are also effectively being demoted a level within the organisation.

This is slightly more than a Scottish-centric story, because it goes to the heart of how major institutions will be run in the future. Essentially, it's a battle between bureaucrats and curators. 

The point of these new plans is to, according to Sir John as quoted in The Sunday Times;

[focus] on the collection, rather than the buildings, to raise the NGS profile as a “powerhouse for art and culture in Scotland” in a changed world and boost training and development.

Working as a single collection and a single team “will help us to place even greater emphasis on the collection as a national resource to be used across Scotland, internationally and online”.

In talks with staff over two months there was “quite a lot of enthusiasm”, he said and adamantly denied it was a cost-cutting measure.

First, I don't think anyone has ever accused the National Gallery of Scotland of only being focused on its building. So that's a curious statement to make.

Second, from everyone I've spoken to, or heard from, there is in fact precious little enthusiasm for these changes. I gather something similar was tried seven years ago, but was seen off internally. The retirement of Michael Clarke as director of the National Gallery has evidently been seized as a moment to try again.

Third, I'm trying to imagine anywhere else in the world where 'a collection' is easier to promote and market without being clearly attached to the building which houses it. Yes, online collections are wonderful. But mentally and physically we still visit the building. The Louvre is the Louvre, the Hermitage the Hermitage, and so on. It seems to me (and for what it's worth also the three former national museum directors I have spoken in the last few days) that trying to promote a collection rather than an institution is a very difficult challenge. For what will be, in practice, the new 'home' of the Scottish National Galleries collection; a website? How do you market that? (Incidentally, the SNG website is excellent already). 

The plans were criticised in the Sunday Times by the former director of the Portrait Gallery, Dr Duncan Thomson, who said the changes were:

a “misguided attempt” to treat three different institutions as one.

And I agree with him. The immediate danger in the National Gallery, now that the curators there have been removed from the building itself pending relication to another permanent facility, is that it will become a sort of cultural Marie-Celeste. I think it's a shame that Scotland's national gallery will have neither a director leading it or curators in it.

But if you like to see these things as businesses to be managed, then I can just about see the logic of treating the 'Scottish National Collection' as a single entity. It will look neater on a managerial flow chart. But that in effect was what was happening already under the overall leadership of a Director-General, to whom the three existing directors answered.

Instead, the new changes seek to pretend that the three distinctive national galleries in Edinburgh are mere geographic sites. The plans ignore, for example, the fact that the Portrait Gallery, which was the world's first purpose built portrait gallery, has its own traditions, collection and collecting ethos. I understand that the current director of the Portrait Gallery, Christopher Baker, will become 'Director of Portraits' for the National Galleries of Scotland collection - that is, anything that happens to have a face in it. If true, this move rather misunderstands the point of a National Portrait Gallery. 

As I said in the Sunday Times, it seems to me that galleries flourish when directors and curators have more autonomy, not less. Introducing another layer of bureaucracy will diminish curatorial independence and, in the long term, lead to less innovative and exciting institutions. I can't personally see the point of squeezing everything into one entity. Would the Tate, and London's National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery ever agree to be merge as one institution? The last two are so close together they share a roof.

Here's a small but interesting demonstration of how the single entity approach doesn't always work; on Twitter, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery doesn't have its own account, but operates under the combined National Galleries Scotland Twitter account (yes I know, all these Scottish national galleries are very confusing). In order to emphasise what it actually is, the Portrait Gallery has to include in all its tweets a separate hashtag, '#ScotPortrait'. The same goes for the Modern gallery and the National Gallery. It would be better, surely, for these institutions to have their own Twitter account. And perhaps even their own directors. 

Doubtless I'm being a reactionary stick in-the-mud. I'd be interested to hear your views.

Update - a reader writes:

well done for commenting so eloquently on the misplaced restructuring of the three Scottish National Galleries. This plan is typical of the current Scottish Government's "collectivisation" mania - a blatant cost cutting exercise obfuscated by use of glib management language, all designed to eliminate vestiges of professional autonomy and leadership. Please continue to offer your influential voice in commenting on this disastrous plan which as you suggest will greatly reduce the identities of these valued institutions. 

Update II - they're looking for a new chair of trustees at the National Galleries. The deadline is 31st January if you're interested in launching a coup. Apply here.

Update III - a former museum director writes:

[...] without dedicated directors how can the galleries speak as equals to their counterparts in other countries, something which is so important? [...]  As merely a part of some management structure one could in no way carry the same weight.

Five UK shows to see this spring

January 6 2017

Video: Art Fund

Here's Jacky Klein on some good exhibitions coming up this spring.

Bowes Museum acquires rare Bouts (ctd.)

January 6 2017

Video: National Gallery

Last year, the Bowes Museum in the UK acquired a panel painting by Dieric Bouts the Elder and his Workshop. In the above video, Rachel Billinge of the National Gallery's conservation department gives the painting a thorough technical assessment to find out how it was made.

Leiden Collection goes to Paris

January 6 2017

Image of Leiden Collection goes to Paris

Picture: Louvre/Leiden Collection

I'm looking forward to seeing this - the Leiden Collection (of Dutch Golden Age works put together over the last decade or so by the US financier, Tom Kaplan) is sending many of its treasures to the Louvre. Above is a portrait of a boy by Jan Lievens. The collection (numbering some 200 works) also includes pictures by the likes of Dou and Vermeer, and is the world's largest private collection of works by Rembrandt. Remember that when people grumble about the 'lack of supply' in the Old Master market these days.

The show opens on February 22nd and runs until May 22nd. After that it goes to the Long Museum in Shanghai, then the National Museum in Beijing, and then finally to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. How wonderful that such important Old Masters are being shown to new audiences in China. We need more of this. It's telling that it's taken a private collector to do it first.

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