Art News Roundup: Solo Goya Edition

Like any other commodity, art gets around, but so do the ideas which lead to stylistic innovations in art.

Case in point: next weekend the Cincinnati Art Museum will open a major exhibition called “Treasures of the Spanish World”, featuring works of fine and decorative art from Spain and Latin America. All of the exhibits are on loan from the temporarily-shuttered Hispanic Society of America Museum & Library in New York, whose grand headquarters has been undergoing major renovation and is expected to reopen next year. The fact that such a large collection exists outside of Spain is quite remarkable, but the fact that it’s in America is a great opportunity for my fellow Americans to learn more about the role of Spain in cultural history.

Among the most significant objects heading to Ohio is Francisco de Goya’s controversial masterpiece, popularly known as “La Duquesa Negra” (“The Black Duchess”) because of her attire, but more properly a “Portrait of the Duchess of Alba” (1797). As the preferred painter of the Spanish Court, Goya (1746-1828) took a different tack from his predecessors, often depicting the royal family and their courtiers in rather unsympathetic or perhaps more earthy fashion. The nature of his relationship with one of his aristocratic patrons, the aforementioned Duchess of Alba, has always been subject to a great deal of gossip and speculation.


That whiff of scandal comes in part from the fact that, in this painting, the Duchess is shown pointing to something on the ground. Closer examination reveals that is writing, which reads “solo Goya” (“only Goya”). Because from our perspective the words are upside down, the implication is that the Duchess herself has written the text in the dirt. If that wasn’t enough to set tongues wagging, note that the Duchess is depicted wearing two rings: one bears the name, “Alba”, and the other the text, “solo Goya”, yet again.

Are these elements of the picture an indication that the Duchess only wanted the best, and that therefore she only wanted to be painted by Goya, the best artist then working in Spain, along the lines of the old advert, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins”? Or is there an implication of something more than a business relationship between patroness and painter? The reader is invited to draw his own conclusions, since art experts are still fighting over this topic.

The core of the Hispanic Society’s collection was assembled by philanthropist and Hispanophile Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955), who collected pieces from Spain, Portugal, and their former colonies, and his initial gift was added to over the years by subsequent donors. It includes everything from original Moorish tiles from the Alhambra Palace in Granada, to ivory colonial period statues from the Philippines and Goa. Everything won’t be heading to Cincinnati, of course, but what will be there should provide visitors with a hint of what to expect when the Society is finally able to move back into its home.

Due to the nature of the institution from which its component objects are drawn, this is the sort of exhibition that one doesn’t see very often in Europe, where there’s a tendency among the former imperial powers to segregate the work of their homegrown artists from those executed by artists in their former colonies. Yet once these countries began expanding their power and influence overseas, they couldn’t help but influence and themselves be influenced by the cultures that they were coming in contact with. We saw this last year in the Frick Collection’s exhibition of “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”, where not only was there some evidence to suggest that the artist, the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), had executed the thirteen giant canvases for a client in South America, since his family had set up a kind of regional showroom in Lima to market his work in and around Peru, but several of the figures are depicted in garments that are reminiscent of traditional Inca attire.

Given the breadth of the Hispanic Society’s collection, and the extremely rare opportunity to see some of the key works from that collection outside of New York, I want to particularly encourage those of you in the Midwest, or who find yourselves there during the show’s run, to make the time to catch this show. The significant influence of Spain on the history and culture of the Americas and indeed of the United States is not a subject that is taught very much in schools, where the focus tends to be on the British and French empires. I suspect that, if you take the time to tour this exhibition, you will come away from it with a greater appreciation of that influence, as well as for the beautiful objects that the Spanish-speaking world has created over the centuries.

“Treasures of the Spanish World” is at the Cincinnati Art Museum from October 25th through January 19th.

And now, on to some of this week’s more interesting news stories from the art world.

Pamplona to Paris

Sticking with the Spanish theme for a moment, Juan Bautista del Mazo (c. 1612-1667) was an important painter from the Golden Age of Spanish art, whose work is not very well-known outside of specialist circles, not even within Spain. The son-in-law of Spain’s greatest painter, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), del Mazo trained in his future father-in-law’s studio beginning in the 1530’s, and assisted him on many commissions, particularly excelling in the depiction of landscapes. The two worked together so closely, that one of the big debates going on in art circles at the moment is whether some paintings that are currently attributed to Velázquez need to be re-assigned to del Mazo.

In the meantime, works that are currently known to be by the younger artist hardly ever come up for auction. Last week his “View of Pamplona” (c. 1550-1557), a fairly small painting at roughly around 2 feet by 4 feet, and featuring the coat of arms of the former kingdom of Navarra appearing in the clouds over the city, sold for $140,000 at auction in Paris. As greater research and new technologies begin to ascribe more of Velázquez’ work to del Mazo, and reassessment of the younger artist takes shape, his paintings are likely to increase in value, so I’d consider this purchase to have been quite a bargain for whoever bought it.


Naples to Seattle (and Dallas)

What looks to be an excellent new survey exhibition opening today in Seattle, and later moving to Dallas, will bring many great works of Renaissance and Baroque art to these shores for the first time. “Flesh and Blood: Italian Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum” at the Seattle Art Museum will showcase 40 works from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, whose core collection was formed by the powerful Farnese family, and later acquired by the Bourbons. Visitors will have the distinct pleasure of seeing two portraits of the same member of the Farnese family, painted by two of the greatest artists in history, but executed decades apart: Raphael’s “Portrait of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese” (c.1509-1511), and Titian’s “Portrait of Pope Paul III” (1543). The show runs through January 26th, after which it will travel to the Kimbell in Dallas from March 1st to June 14th.


Staying Put in Pompeii

And speaking of the Bay of Naples, last week I mentioned how British scientists are going to try to read hundreds of carbonized scrolls buried in the infamous 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, among other sites. This week, archaeologists digging at Pompeii have uncovered a remarkably well-preserved depiction of Roman gladiators fighting in the arena, with one having clearly wounded the other in rather graphic fashion. The wall fresco is located in the basement of what is believed to have been a tavern or wine shop, and was probably the 1st-century equivalent of a sports bar frequented by professional athletes, their supporters, and their groupies. Despite centuries of digging, much of the ancient site remains unexcavated, so hopefully there will be more of these discoveries to come.



Just a gentle reminder to please consider supporting a cause that’s very dear to me. Thank you!!


A Special Request of My Readers

Gentle Reader:

I don’t normally come to you begging for support, but in this case I’m doing so via the blog, in part because I know that a number of you either aren’t on social media at all, or you use it only occasionally – and otherwise you might not be aware of a charitable effort that I’m involved in and promoting across media platforms.

Please join me in support of an effort that is very close to my heart: to finally establish a permanent home for Little Portion Hermitage, whose board I’ve been proud to serve on for the past several years. We’ve been steadily raising funds and met our initial fundraising goal, but as it’s turned out, these days even the most humble of hermit homes doesn’t come cheap. We can’t keep sending out the current hermit, Brother Rex Anthony Norris, to go look at potentially suitable properties, while knowing that we still don’t have quite enough to be able to acquire one.

If you’re thinking about making a donation, I want to reassure you that this effort is a legitimate one. Friends of Little Portion Hermitage is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization registered in the state of Maine, and all donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Brother Rex himself is a consecrated hermit in accordance with Canon 603 of the Roman Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, and is under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of the Diocese of Portland. This effort is therefore properly aligned with both Civic and Church authorities.

If you’re not in a position to help out financially, then I’ll ask you two things: please keep this effort in your prayers, and please pass along this information to anyone whom you think may be able to contribute, or who might know people in a position to do so.

Thank you in advance for your kindness!


Little Portion Hermitage:


Federalist Twofer: Art Nouveau Scotland and Renaissance Spain

This morning, gentle reader, I have two new exhibition reviews of mine to point you towards – one published last week, and one today – looking at the work of two very different, important figures.

For those of you who missed it, my penultimate piece for The Federalist was uploaded this past Thursday. In it, I reviewed a new show at The Walters in Baltimore, on the life and work of architect, artist, and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), and the development of the Glasgow Style of art and design. Although I still find something rather off-putting about a great deal his work, the retrospective did have, in the form of several of his late watercolors, some unexpected highlights that I found very appealing indeed. In fact, if someone were to take on the task, I’d love to see a show dedicated solely to Mackintosh’s late paintings, like the one shown below, so that we could see more of his mesmerizing, highly-detailed views of the south of France, alongside his compositions featuring arrangements of lush flowers and carefully-observed everyday objects.


But wait: there’s more!

You can also head over to The Federalist and read my latest, released today, reviewing the first-ever American exhibition on the great Spanish Renaissance sculptor Alonso Berruguete (c. 1488-1561). The show opened at the National Gallery here in the Nation’s Capital this past weekend, and while nowhere near as large as the Mackintosh retrospective, it will certainly appeal to those interested in sculpture, architecture, and seeing how the Renaissance developed outside of Italy. It will also appeal more specifically to those of you who enjoyed the wildly popular “Sacred Made Real” exhibition of Spanish sacred art in London and Washington some years ago.

Although I was already well-acquainted with Berruguete before seeing the show, having seen a great deal of his stuff in Spain, when looking at his work outside of its usual context it suddenly struck me that it was far more forward-looking than I had previously appreciated. Technically, this is Renaissance art, but it’s clear that in many aspects – its drama, convolutions, and highly decorated surfaces – one could argue that Berruguete was anticipating the development of the Baroque by over a century. It’s his combination of Classical, Gothic, and Moorish, however, unlike anything that came before it, that will stun you if you see the exhibition, like the detail shown below.


Both of these shows will be traveling after they finish their runs in Baltimore and DC, so be sure to check here and here to see if you’ll be able to catch them during their time in the U.S.

If you like either (or both) of these articles, do be so kind as to share your feedback over in the comments section at The Federalist? For some reason the comment section over there tends to turn into a slug fest between commenters arguing about subjects which have little or nothing to do with what I’m writing about, so it would be nice to read some thoughtful feedback/criticism for a change. Many thanks in advance!

Art News Roundup: Naming and Shaming Edition

Last week the Museum of Science and Industry (“MSI”) in Chicago announced a major gift from one of the city’s wealthiest residents, and the internet quickly lived up to the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, has pledged $125 million to the popular Chicago institution, which preserves a vast collection of scientific and technological objects of great historic, scientific, and industrial design importance, such as the Apollo 8 command module and an entire World War II German U-boat, as well as a host of interactive educational exhibits on topics such as genetics, optics, and electricity. Since 1933 the museum has been housed in the former Palace of Fine Arts, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece built for the now-legendary architectural assemblage known as the “White City”, the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Mr. Griffin’s is the largest single gift ever made to the institution, and as part of the donation negotiations, the museum’s board agreed to rename the place after him: henceforth, the institution will be known as the “Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry.”


Almost immediately after the announcement, social media went into overdrive to criticize the move as shameful.  While many characterized the renaming as “ego-centric”, others were critical of Mr. Griffin’s past support of conservative political candidates, such as Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio. Still others posted tweets that were (rather predictably) along the lines of Judas Iscariot’s complaint in St John 12:5.

More curious perhaps, is the fact that, for about 24 hours after the donation was announced, the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Griffin contained the following text [edit mine], as shown in the screencap:

“Somehow despite his vast wealth and narcissism, he’s still such an insecure turd that he paid a ton of money to put his name on The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry like anyone is going to give half a sh[*]t in twenty years. Good job, Ken. You really spit in the face of mortality with that.”


Presumably, Wikipedia was too busy trying to figure out whom Miley Cyrus was fooling about with to get around to removing that scurrilous edit, one which strikes this scrivener as more reflective of its composer’s own personal inadequacies, rather than a legitimate criticism of the donor in question.

The convention of naming cultural institutions or parts of them after major donors is nothing new. For example, initially called simply the Music Hall when it opened in 1891, New York’s Carnegie Hall was renamed by its board in 1893 to honor steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who had paid for its construction, even though initially he didn’t want his name on the building. The aforementioned Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was originally called the Columbian Museum of Chicago when it opened in 1893, but in 1905 it was renamed to honor its original benefactor, department store magnate Marshall Field.

More recently, the main concert hall at New York’s famous Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was renamed for music mogul and philanthropist David Geffen. The same hall had formerly been named for a previous major donor, acoustics millionaire Avery Fisher. Another building at Lincoln Center, the David H. Koch Theater, was named for the late businessman and philanthropist, after he pledged over $100 million to the theatre for its renovation and upkeep.

Suffice to say, not only is naming a long-standing tool in philanthropic giving, but as Mr. Griffin explained to the Chicago Tribune, named gifts can have a significant influence on encouraging other wealthy people to make gifts of their own. “Everybody watches what their fellow peers are doing,” he noted, “and there’s no doubt this gift to the MSI will encourage others to be generous in their giving.” Mr. Griffin indicated that he himself was inspired by the $100 million gift given by Ann Lurie, another Chicago philanthropist, to build a new home for the city’s Children’s Memorial Hospital. That institution was subsequently renamed, “The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital”, and despite its bearing the name of wealthy people on its front door, somehow the practice of medicine managed to muddle through.

While some may not like the fact that the wealthy – and indeed, people of ordinary means – sometimes need incentives to donate to our cultural institutions, the notion that many of our cultural, scientific, medical, research, and other institutions would be able to survive, à la Blanche DuBois, upon the kindness of strangers is completely unrealistic. All human beings like receiving public recognition, and if they don’t, then they retire to La Grande Chartreuse, or close themselves in hermetically sealed apartments and use Kleenex boxes for slippers. If the cost to Chicagoans of ensuring the future of one of their greatest institutions is the renaming of said institution after an individual who helped assure its future for another few decades, that seems a small price to pay.

And now, on to some headlines of interest since we last met.

Pompeiian Particles

Speaking of science and technology, there may be a major breakthrough coming in one of the most daunting challenges facing archaeologists for the past two centuries. The so-called Villa of the Papyri is a palatial country house located on the coast near the doomed city of Pompeii, which is believed to have been the property of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law and his family. It was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., and when it was rediscovered in the 18th century, by some miracle almost its entire library of hundreds of scrolls had been preserved, making it the largest collection of books to survive from the ancient world. Unfortunately, because the paper was carbonized, many of the scrolls have proven virtually impossible to unroll or read, despite several attempts using methods both invasive and otherwise. Recent x-ray scans have been partly successful, but now a new effort is underway to examine some of these extremely fragile objects using a particle accelerator, which in theory would allow scientists to unroll the scrolls in virtual reality. If it works, who knows what unknown or lost works of Greek and Roman drama, history, poetry, or the like might be recovered for posterity?


Egyptian Error

And while we’re in the ancient world, you may have seen in the mainstream press how the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently ended up with egg on its face, when it was forced to return a gilded coffin it had on display to the Egyptian government. The beautiful Ptolemaic-era mummy case, which once contained the remains of an Ancient Egyptian priest, had apparently been looted during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and was sold to The Met two years ago by French art dealers using falsified documents. Over on the ARCA crime blog this week, there’s a fascinating deep dive into the case showing that, as has been the case for quite a long time, people sometimes don’t ask questions which they don’t really want to learn the answers to, even if they’re not technically culpable of doing anything wrong.


Van Dyck Vindication

Thanks to the interwebz (a series of tubes), a portrait long-believed to be a studio copy of a lost work by Antony van Dyck (1599-1641) has now been identified as the original. “The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia” (after 1621/before 1641), which hangs in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, depicts the daughter of Philip II of Spain, who ruled over the Spanish Netherlands on behalf of her father during the first third of the 17th century. The painting shows her in later life, following the death of her husband Archduke Albert VII, when she became a Third Order Franciscan. As recounted in The Guardian, a lively forum discussion on the Art Detective site – a place which I can state from personal experience is HIGHLY addictive – led experts to take a closer look at the picture, and confirm that it was by the hand of the master. Hopefully the example set by the cousins in putting up this virtual catalogue of all the works held in public collections throughout the UK, and combining it with a place for the public to discuss these pieces, will inspire other countries to do the same, since undoubtedly there are other lost or misidentified art treasures out there, just waiting to be rediscovered.

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633)


Hideous building – outstanding headline.


From The Federalist: Scheming Guardians Of Taste

My latest for The Federalist is out this morning, reviewing the superb new book, “Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940,” by the Frick Collection’s Charlotte Vignon, Ph.D. While a very readable survey of the business practices of the Duveens, the most powerful art and antiques dealers in America and Europe during the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, this is a dense, heavily footnoted work which, as a work of painstaking scholarship and attention to detail, should be applauded on its own terms. Dr. Vignon must have spent countless hours going through hundreds of pages of correspondence, ledgers, invoices, and receipts to present us with an overview of how one company came to dominate the art world a century ago, although she is too good of an historian to impose her own value judgments on either the Duveens or their famous clients, such as the Hearsts, Morgans, the Rockefellers.

Ultimately this detachment is very much to Dr. Vignon’s credit, rather than otherwise, for the recounted actions of the buyers, sellers, and supporting characters, and the data that she uncovered as part of her research, all paint a picture that speaks for itself. This is a classic tale of how the supply and demand needs of market forces, in the pursuit of scarce, valuable resources, are often met in ways that are not always, to say the least, above board. If you’re ready for a deeper dive into how many of the beautiful things that you see in American museums or historic homes ended up where they are, then this book absolutely needs to go onto your reading list.

“Duveen Brothers and the Market for Decorative Arts, 1880-1940,” by Charlotte Vignon, Ph.D., is published by Giles, Ltd., and is out now in hardback.



Art News Roundup: Saving the Strip Mall Edition

It inevitably proves to be the case that things made by human hands, no matter how utilitarian those things are, eventually become the subject of human study. If you want to learn more about Pennsylvania Dutch barns or Japanese tatami mats, chances are you’ll find that someone, somewhere, wrote an academic paper or book on the subject that triggered further investigation and scholarship. It appears that the time has now come to turn our attention to something that most of us think very little about, if at all: the strip mall.

In a review published yesterday in The Architect’s Newspaper, architect Shane Reiner-Roth looks at the new book, “Sunset Market Plaza: Meditations on Strip Malls in Los Angeles”, a limited-edition collection of reflections, proposals, and what we might call “strip mall sightseeing” information. It’s true that for the most part, these stand-alone buildings, or groups of these buildings clustered around a parking lot, are not protected structures. Yet Mr. Reiner-Roth and the editors of the book are clearly raising the question as to whether at least some of them should be considered for preservation, just as we would any other type of older, vernacular architecture.

Strangely enough, I think there may be something to this, but I think a larger question is whether we ought to consider the possibility that a more subtle strip mall may have some restrained architectural merit to it. Particularly telling in the article is a quote from L.A. developer Sam Bachner, a major builder of strip malls in southern California, who likes his projects to be something more than purely utilitarian boxes. He asks the architects working on his projects “to incorporate elements which are reflective of the specific community in which they are located… Some places might care more about color schemes, or I might have one place with a bell tower, or maybe I will use a blue tile roof in Koreatown—it’s all about community context.”

It’s interesting to note that this conceptualization of what a strip mall ought to look like is largely unchanged since the post-war period, since in many smaller towns and cities or out-of-the-way neighborhoods you can still find strip malls built 50 or 60 years ago which perfectly reflect this way of thinking. For example, the Colonial Shopping Center in York, Pennsylvania serves a colonial era city in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country. The shopping center however, is a small complex well outside of downtown, consisting of a pair of small-scale strip malls built in 1955 that sit on two sides of a mid-sized parking lot. It’s not a remarkable group of structures in any way, nor are these structures particularly ersatz colonial in style.


On the other hand, if we look more closely at the details of the shopping center we can see subtle references to York’s colonial past. The shop fronts feature wood paneled doors, as well as mullioned display windows and transoms. Square columns with plain, cubical capitals and bases support a vaguely Mount Vernon-esque porch running the length of one side of each building. The effect is to create something that seems familiar, without looking like a theme park attraction.


Back in the 1950’s, the developers of this project could have simply built a plain group of boxes lined up next to each other and called it a day. Instead, they added just enough unifying architectural detail that the complex references the city’s history, without hitting us over the head with things like faux fan lights or fiberglass dentil molding. You may disagree of course, but I think one of the reasons that this pair of strip malls has survived relatively intact is its very subtlety. Having recently been purchased by a local college however, which to my knowledge has still not announced what it intends to do with either the buildings or the land on which the buildings sit, it’s a case in point as to the question of whether these utilitarian buildings are deserving of preservation and further study.

And now, on to some interesting news stories from the past several days.

Exit to Ethiopia
In a story worthy of a film script, an 18th century Ethiopian ceremonial crown that sat in a suitcase in Holland for decades after being illegally smuggled out of the country for safekeeping is about to return home. You can read the rather twisty-turny tale of how and why it ended up in Rotterdam over on Art Daily, but as you can see in the photograph below from Agence France Presse, it’s quite an elaborate, heavy piece of metalwork. Made of gilded copper, the cross on top of the crown features the Holy Trinity in the center, the square section toward the bottom has twelve panels depicting the twelve Apostles, while the lowest panel (I’m guessing that’s a breastplate?) features the Madonna and Child seated on a throne and accompanied by two angels.


Back in Bordeaux
Speaking of significant lost and found objects, a parish in France is celebrating at the moment. The Basilica of Saint-Michel in Bordeaux is an important French Gothic church with an absolutely massive, 375-foot tall free-standing bell tower, the tallest in the south of France. Among the church’s treasures is a 15th century altarpiece composed of alabaster panels carved in Nottingham, England, which at the time was the center for alabaster sculpture in Europe. Back in the 1990’s, four of the panels were stolen and replaced with plaster copies, so that the crime went undetected for an unknown period of time. The originals disappeared into the black market in stolen art and might have remained lost. Fortunately, they were unwittingly purchased by British art dealer Russell Strachan who, upon learning their true origin, recently returned the sculptures to their home; as you can see, there’s a space just waiting for their re-installation.


Payments in Paris
In other positive French basilica news, the two French billionaires who offered considerable sums for the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris are now getting out their checkbooks. Bernard Arnault and François Pinault pledged roughly $218 million and $109 million, respectively, in reaction to the devastating fire that took place at the Cathedral back in April. M. Arnault signed his installment agreement last week, and M. Pinault did the same this past Tuesday. To date, roughly half of the promised donations have actually come in or been formalized.




Botticelli Backstory: Exploring A Picture’s Provenance

On these virtual pages I often share news and views with you about art, from exhibitions and sales to new discoveries and concepts. Yet even though I sometimes touch on aspects of a work’s provenance, i.e., the ownership history of a piece, it’s an area that I’d like to explore at greater length. So, I’m interested in learning whether you’d be interesting in coming along for the ride.

Let’s take a look, for example, at the “Portrait of Michele Marullo” (c. 1496), a painting by the great Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (c. 1450-1510), that will be going on display at the Frieze Art Fair in London this weekend:


Marullo (c. 1458-1500), also known as “Marullus”, was a prominent poet and mercenary soldier, whose parents had fled Constantinople when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. His family subsequently lived a rather peripatetic existence, moving further and further away from the growing Ottoman Empire until arriving in what is now Italy. He eventually came to Florence to work for the Medici sometime before 1494, and was celebrated both for his poetry and his military prowess.

Most of the press reporting on this story will be focused on the rather breathless marketing around the picture, which is being described as “The Last Botticelli in Private Hands”: a phrase very reminiscent of the publicity campaign before the sale of the Leonardo “Salvator Mundi” two years ago. Of course, while the portrait is probably the last known, undisputed Botticelli in private hands, that doesn’t mean it’s *actually* the last Botticelli in private hands. Adding that clarifier would lead to a more accurate description, even though it would be a dud as far as marketing is concerned.

Subscribers and followers may recall that back in July, we looked at how a buyer’s perception that a work of art is by a major Old Master painter can have a significant impact on the sale price of that piece, even when the seller makes no such claim. The case study involved a portrait of a young man being offered for sale in Zurich, which the auction house described as being “in the style of” Botticelli, but which it never attributed directly to the artist himself or indirectly to members of his workshop. We also did some comparing and contrasting on the question of whether the portrait might not be by Botticelli’s pupil Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). Whoever painted it, despite the lack of attribution several potential buyers got into a bidding war over the piece, which carried a pre-sale estimate of $5,000, so that it ended up selling for about $6.4 million.

So now, let’s consider the painting that will be for sale in London. Experts generally agree that the portrait is entirely or mostly by Botticelli himself, is in good condition, and its subject is a prominent figure of the time well-known to 15th century scholars. The piece also has a reasonably good provenance for a Renaissance painting that was not in a royal collection, including ownership by the son of the Empress Josephine, cleaning and conservation carried out by the chief restorer at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg over a century ago, and more recently a long period of public exhibition at the Prado in Madrid. The picture is presently the property of the Cambó family in Spain, who have owned it since it was acquired at auction in Paris back in 1920 by the prominent Catalan businessman, party leader, and former government minister Francesc Cambó i Batlle (1876-1947).

Curiously however, the press release on this picture isn’t entirely clear on an interesting aspect of the painting’s more recent provenance. The release notes that Cambó was “[a]n exile after 1936 and the rise of Franco,” and ties Cambó’s exile to his love of the painting, since the subject of the portrait had been an exile himself. While that’s quite a romantic image for the purpose of marketing this piece, there’s actually a bit more nuance to the story than that.

Like many conservative Catalans at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Cambó took the view that, although General Franco and the Nationalists were bad news, the Republicans were far worse: “los otros son peores”, he later wrote in his journal, explaining his thought process when he chose sides, a phrase which since then has become indelibly associated with his views and indeed the views of many others on both sides of the conflict. His self-imposed exile, which actually first began in 1931 with the downfall of the Spanish monarchy and the proclamation of the Second Republic, only became permanent after 1936 once war broke out, but even then he quietly gave money to support non-bellicose aspects of the Nationalist cause.

In the end, we can say that the story of the painting’s provenance is accurate. However, if someone were to read it with only a basic knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, they might conclude that the previous owner supported the Republican, rather than the Nationalist side in the conflict. The truth, as it turns out, is something more along the lines of, “I’m sick of all y’all.”

This is just one example of the interesting information that often emerges from a more in-depth examination of provenance, when it comes to art objects. So, gentle reader, if you find these stories interesting as well, perhaps you’ll be so good as to leave some comments, regarding particular works of art whose backstories you’d be interesting in reading more about? The how and why of how these pieces came to be where they are often involves tales that, for the most part, go untold, because we focus on the appearance, subject, or value of a work of art, rather than its history as an object that has been bought and sold, stolen or recovered, over long periods of time. Oftentimes, the histories connected with these objects can be just as interesting as the aesthetic or material aspects of the objects themselves.


Art News Roundup: Kitchen Cimabue Edition

If you’ve not seen the story already – and it both pleases and amuses me greatly that a number of my readers immediately contacted me about it when the story broke – an extremely rare painting by one of the most important figures in art history was recently discovered hanging in a French kitchen.

Cimabue (c. 1240-1302) was a Florentine artist who could be considered either among the last of the Gothic painters, or among the first of the Early Renaissance painters, depending on how you look it. He worked in a style that was largely dependent upon accepted Byzantine models, but he pushed the boundaries of that style in search of a greater degree of realism than had been seen in Italian art since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. He was also the teacher of Giotto (c. 1267-1337), a multi-faceted artist who took many of the lessons learned from his master and ran with them, leading to an even greater degree of expressiveness and sense of volume in his art.

Although he was highly regarded in his day, very few paintings by Cimabue have survived down to the present, which makes the discovery of this small, otherwise unremarkable painting all the more significant. It depicts the scene in the Bible described in St. Matthew 27:27-31 and elsewhere, when Jesus was mocked, slapped, and beaten by the Roman soldiers. The small panel, which about the size of an 8×10 photograph, is believed to be a part of a now-dismantled polyptych, i.e., an altarpiece made up of many individual paintings on panels. Two other panels by Cimabue of roughly the same size, scale, and date are known, one of which is in the National Gallery in London, and the other of which is at the Frick Collection in New York, and when you see the three works together – the image below shows the newly-discovered work in the center, and to-scale reproductions of the other panels on either side – the relationship between them is obvious.

The most focused-upon aspect of the story in the mainstream press has been the fact that the elderly woman who owned it, and didn’t realize what she had, hung it on a wall above the hotplate she used for cooking. However to my mind the most interesting part is the theory that the altarpiece of which this was originally part was split up at some point by an art and antiques dealer in the late 19th century, since the parts were worth more than the whole. If that supposition is correct, it means there’s a reasonable likelihood of other Cimabue panels from this same polyptych floating around out there. The Frick painting turned up at an art dealer’s in Paris in 1950, while the National Gallery painting turned up at a stately home in England in 1900. Perhaps somewhere else in France, Italy, or the UK, more of these little jewels are languishing, forgotten, above a night stand in a guest room or perhaps on the landing of a back staircase, just waiting to be brought back into the light.

The painting will be sold by Acteon Enchères at their salerooms in the city of Senlis, about half an hour or so north of Paris, on October 27th. If you happen to find yourself in Paris today however, you can trundle along and see the painting at the Acteon showrooms, located a couple of blocks from the Palais-Royal. The pre-sale estimate for the picture is somewhere around $6-7 million, which may seem like a lot for something that isn’t very large, but in terms of rarity and importance to the history of Western art, it’s truly a small price to pay.

And now, let’s move on to some other art stories of interest this week.


Speaking of astonishing art discoveries made in humble circumstances, here’s another one for you. An amateur art collector who loves to scour auction houses, flea markets, and the like, looking for what he calls “orphaned art”, i.e., works by important artists that go unrecognized and unloved, came across a cracked, flaking painting of an elderly nude man, a detail of which is shown below. He was convinced that this was something rather special, and after a great deal of research over a number of years, his hunch turned out to be correct: the piece, as he suspected, is an extremely rare, early oil sketch of a live model by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). It was painted as a preparatory study for Van Dyck’s “St. Jerome with An Angel” (c. 1618), which is now in a Dutch museum, one of three variations on the same theme from around the same time, painted while the artist was still an apprentice to Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). The picture is currently in dire need of conservation and restoration – as its discoverer noted during a press conference, it’s even got bird poop on the back, which makes me think it resided in a barn at some point – but it’s currently on exhibit at the Albany Institute of History & Art in Albany, New York through October 6th.

Saint Jerome sketch at Albany Institute


Readers may recall my previous reporting on the missing “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609), also referred to as the “Nativity With St Lawrence and St Francis”, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), which was stolen in 1969 from the Oratory Church of St. Lawrence in Palermo, where it had hung above the high altar since its creation. This week The Guardian dropped something of a bombshell discovery in the still-unsolved crime, in the form of a previously unknown interview of Monsignor Rocco Benedetto, the now-deceased parish priest of St. Lawrence’s who, at one time, was unjustly targeted by police as having a hand in the picture’s disappearance. Apparently, the mafia attempted to extort a ransom payment from the Church in exchange for the return of the painting, going so far as to cut off a part of it and mail a piece of it to the Monsignor as a kind of proof of life. The priest tried to get the Italian authorities involved, but according to his videotaped testimony, they didn’t seem to be interested. Sadly, the whereabouts of the masterpiece remain unknown, and some question whether the painting even still exists.



On a much happier note, my dear friends travel and documentary filmmakers Diana and David von Glahn have a new series premiering on Catholic TV this coming Monday. “The Faithful Traveler In Portugal” is a highly informative, thoughtful, but fun tour of Fatima, Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto, Braga, and many other locations around Portugal, with the added benefit of a distinctively Catholic perspective which is sensitive to the deeper meaning of many of the sites and stories presented. Simultaneously, the camera eye feasts on things like beautiful art and architecture, or the subtle pleasures of things like breakfast pastries, coffee, and port wine, inviting the viewer to pause to reflect, enjoy, and savor.


The combination of host Diana in front of the camera, while her husband David is doing the filming, allows them to use their respective strengths to work together on the content and form of the films, so that they can pick up on aspects of Portuguese history, art, and culture that other travel shows would simply miss or gloss over entirely. For example, I particularly loved seeing the highly unusual architectural design of the confessionals at Lisbon’s former Hieronymite monastery church, as well as the nearby royal sarcophagi held up by rather charming pairs of miniature elephants. This attention to detail, as well as the taking of time to connect art and Christian spirituality, is something unique to their presentation: I’ve always appreciated that aspect of “The Faithful Traveler” shows over the years, and that is certainly the case yet again with the latest series.


“The Faithful Traveler in Portugal” premieres Monday, September 30th at 8:00 pm Eastern on CatholicTV. See the full upcoming schedule for all 9 episodes, and learn how you can watch from wherever you are on almost any device, by visiting the Faithful Traveler’s series site.



Listening In: The Federalist Radio Hour

Just a brief post this morning, gentle reader, as a number of things are currently afoot here in my world and require my attention.

In case you missed it, my appearance on The Federalist Radio Hour was released yesterday, and you can listen in on my conversation with Federalist publisher Ben Domenech by following this link. We tackled a wide range of current topics in the art world, from museum funding controversies to the future of public collections in a time of greater scrutiny. While I dislike the sound of my own voice, I had a great time, as I enjoy being able to talk about art matters in an off-the-cuff way.

If you enjoy listening to the show as much as I enjoyed being a guest on it, do please drop some feedback in the mail to that effect to, and by all means feel free to share with others whom you think might be interested in the discussion.


Art News Roundup: By the Numbers Edition

Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts about a significant New York Times investigation into the alleged failures of French authorities to adequately address public health and safety concerns during and in the aftermath of the devastating fire at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris. Yet despite the negative stories arising from that tragedy, there are also positive tales to tell. Among them is the news that a massive tapestry-carpet created in 1838, and in the possession of the cathedral for the past 176 years, has been saved from almost certain destruction. The story of what happened involves quite a few figures for us to consider, so here we go.

The 82-foot long wool rug, designed by Jacques-Louis de La Hamayde de Saint-Ange-Desmaisons (1780-1860) and produced by the renowned Savonnerie factory, is rarely seen by the public, and then usually only on very special occasions, such as the visit of Pope St. John Paul II to celebrate Mass in the cathedral back in 1980. Although it survived the fire back in April of this year, the carpet soaked up an enormous amount of water during the effort of firefighters to bring the blaze under control, to the point that it had increased in weight from about 1 Metric tonne to over 3 Metric tonnes (about 6,614 pounds.) If you’ve ever forgotten to air out a wet scarf, sweater, or pair of socks made of wool, you know what happens next: mold and mildew can start to grow, not only creating a distinctively unpleasant odor, but also eating away at the very fabric of the item. Now imagine this happening on a scale many, many times that of an article of clothing.

To combat this, conservationists had to unroll the Saint-Ange tapestry, which is stored in two halves, and dry the pieces in an industrial wind tunnel. Then over a period of 24 hours they froze the fabric to kill any bacteria and mold, by gradually dropping the temperature down to -31F. Afterwards, it was transported to the Mobilier National, a conservation and restoration agency that is part of the French Ministry of Culture, which looks after many of the country’s artistic treasures, particularly period furniture and historic textiles. It will now take months of painstaking cleaning and restoration work to address issues such as water stains, tears, and so on.

The best part is, the experts have decided to perform their work for FREE, at no cost to the Archdiocese of Paris, which owns the tapestry. What’s more, before that work gets underway, the public are invited to come see the carpet in its current state this weekend, September 21-22, by visiting the Mobilier’s studios in Paris. If any of my readers happen to trundle along for a look, please let me know, as I’d love to see your photos.


And now on to some other numerically interesting stories from the art world this week.

Sculpture on 70th

Although he wasn’t as talented an artist as his contemporary Verrocchio, the Florentine sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni (c. 1440-1491) was nevertheless an important figure in the development of Western art, and he is now the subject of a show which just opened at the Frick Collection in New York. As the informal dean of an artistic academy founded by Lorenzo de’ Medici in his palazzo in Florence, Bertoldo was a teacher of the young Michelangelo, among others, but is perhaps best remembered today among historians and art aficionados for the commemorative medals that he produced in the wake of the Pazzi Conspiracy. Among other works in the show is the magnificent glazed terracotta frieze in the Classical manner – a section is shown below – which he designed for the entrance portico of Lorenzo’s country house at Poggio a Caiano; at around 48 feet long, it’s the largest terracotta relief produced during the Renaissance.

Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence” is on show at the Frick through January 12th.


Artists in the Aggregate

There’s a new online project that I encourage you to take a look at, particularly if you’re in a position to commission or acquire sacred art. The Catholic Artists Directory, which launched just recently, is “a starting place for those looking to commission a work of art or music for a parish, home, or other community,” and will eventually include artists from across many disciplines: from painters and sculptors to composers, cabinet makers, metalworkers, and everything in between. Among those already listed whom I know either personally or via online friendship are John Henry Folley (an in-progress shot of a Eucharistic-themed still life by him appears below), Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Daniel Mitsui, Enzo Selvaggi, and Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs. This is definitely a resource worth adding to your bookmarks.


Paintings in the 8th

And to finish up in Paris where we began, those of you who find yourselves in the City of Lights this Fall/Winter need to visit the somewhat lesser-known Musée Jacquemart-André, in order to see the equally lesser-known Alana Collection of Italian Renaissance art. The collection was assembled by Chilean corporate magnate Àlvaro Saieh and his wife Ana Guzmán, and has never been exhibited in its entirety; this is the first time that a selection of pieces from the collection is being shown to the public. Works in the Paris show include paintings by Bellini, Bronzino, Fra Angelico, Tintoretto, Uccello, Veronese, and many more, in a virtual who’s who assemblage of Italian Renaissance masters. I’m already on the waiting list for the exhibition catalogue, because despite having studied Italian Renaissance art for many decades now, I’m unfamiliar with many of the pictures in this show, and need to feast my eyes upon them, albeit only in photographs.

The Alana Collection: Masterpieces of Italian Painting” is at the Musée Jacquemart-André through January 20th.



Parisian Paralysis: A Major Investigative Piece on the Notre Dame Fire

For those of you following the ongoing controversies surrounding the devastating April 15th fire at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris, I direct you to a major investigative piece published yesterday by the New York Times.

After conducting dozens of interviews, and having obtained access to a number of confidential government documents, the Times alleges that “French authorities had indications that lead exposure could be a grave problem within 48 hours of the fire,” but failed to take prompt action. Indeed, according to reporters,

The tests showed levels of lead dust above the French regulatory standard for buildings hosting children in at least 18 day care centers, preschools and primary schools. In dozens of other public spaces, like plazas and streets, authorities found lead levels up to 60 times over the safety standard. Soil contamination in public parks may be among the biggest concerns. The highest contamination levels, revealed in the confidential Culture Ministry documents obtained by The Times, were at different spots in, or near, the cathedral site. The authorities failed to clean the entire area in the immediate aftermath of the fire and waited four months to finish a full decontamination of the neighborhood.

As an art scholar from The Met explained recently, by destroying the roof, the fire effectively accelerated the natural deterioration process of lead when it is exposed to the elements, but on a massive scale. With – quite literally – tons of lead being released into the atmosphere as a result of the fire, all of those bits were eventually going to come down somewhere. They settled on plants and manmade structures in squares and parks, clung to nearby rooftops and the sides of buildings, floated down the Seine, etc. As the (very well done) animations in the Times article indicate, according to the French Ministry of Culture’s own confidential documents, in some areas of the Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame is located, those lead particles were found to be at 1,300 times the safe exposure level.

As you might imagine, those at greatest risk of developing health complications are, as was the case in the 9/11 attacks in this country, construction and cleanup workers, police, firefighters, and other safety personnel. For weeks following the blaze, people engaged in salvage, cleanup, and security operations at the site without wearing masks, breathing apparatus, or hazmat suits. In addition, journalists gave live reports and conducted interviews, while tourists wandered around nearby outside of the cordoned off areas, snapping pictures for social media. And as I’ve explained previously, lead exposure is a particularly dangerous situation for pregnant women, infants and children, since it can lead to serious developmental issues.

While there’s currently an environmental lawsuit related to the Notre Dame fire making its way through the French courts, the information revealed by the Times will most likely give rise to additional actions and inquiries. Much of this will depend on when or if evidence of lead-related illnesses begins to appear among those belonging to the more at-risk groups described above. Meanwhile, for the moment we’re simply witnessing the usual mixture of French bureaucratic claptrap: denials, shrugs, claims of “not my job”, etc., led by a finger puppet of a French President, whose primary concern seems to be getting reelected so that he can continue to afford his La Prairie under eye concealer.

Yet I think that some higher-level questions need to be posed here in the wake of the Times’ reporting, particularly given the fact that Notre Dame de Paris, like a number of other significant architectural monuments in France – including virtually all of the thousands of historic churches in the entire country – are the property of the French government, which is legally responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of these structures under the terms of a massive government land grab back in the early 20th century.

Who is ultimately responsible for coordinating disaster responses such as these, when cultural property is in danger? Whatever the unique circumstances that contributed to this colossal cock-up, does the government of France as it currently (sort of) functions possess the requisite competence to address a future disaster at another site of cultural importance elsewhere in the country? If it can’t properly handle such a situation within the very heart of its capital city, would it even be capable of dealing with a similar one taking place outside of Paris?

The French people, it seems to me, deserve better answers to that question than they have received to date.



Art News Roundup: Viewing Verrocchio Edition

My latest for The Federalist is out today, reviewing the new exhibition “Verrocchio: Sculptor and Painter of Renaissance Florence”, which opens at the National Gallery of Art here in the Nation’s Capital this coming Sunday. I had the privilege of attending the press preview of the show on Tuesday, and want to encourage those of my readers who find themselves in DC during the exhibition’s run to make sure to stop in and see it. There’s a lot to absorb, and I couldn’t address everything that came to mind in a single article, so I just wanted to share a bit more about the artist and his significance.

Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435-1488) died an untimely death in Venice at the age of 53, where he had moved after winning a competitive commission from the Venetian Republic to sculpt a bronze equestrian monument honoring Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1475), one of the greatest military strategists of the day. Understandably, the Colleoni was probably just a bit too big to ship over to the NGA. However the show does have two of Verrocchio’s preparatory drawings for the sculpture, showing how the artist thought about the figure of the horse.

Chronologically speaking, Verrocchio’s monument is the second great equestrian statue of the Renaissance. It was created about thirty years after Donatello’s bronze monument to Gattamelata, an earlier military leader, which is in the city of Padua. Yet in truth, Verrocchio’s sculpture really ought to come first in rank, for it had an enormous impact on the development of monumental sculpture for future generations, even though, sadly, Verrocchio himself didn’t live long enough to see it cast and erected.

Also, just as Verrocchio’s bronze “David”, shown below, which is the single most important highlight of the National Gallery exhibition, eschewed the introspective awkwardness of Donatello’s earlier bronze “David” in favor of portraying a self-confident young hero, Verrocchio’s monumental equestrian bronze rejected the somewhat staid aspect of Donatello’s earlier treatment of a similar subject. Whereas Donatello displays his subject as a man of quiet concentration, Verrocchio depicts an intense, terrifying man of action, who is very shortly going to be tearing you and your pathetic army into little pieces. It’s always reminded me of Klaus Kinski’s turn as the Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre in Werner Herzog’s epic film, “Aguirre, Wrath of God” (1972).


And with those thoughts out of the way, let’s move on to a few interesting stories from the art world over the past week.

Sotheby’s Sold

Following a shareholder vote that wasn’t even remotely a close-run thing, Sotheby’s is leaving the stock market behind after four decades. Despite four pending lawsuits (that I’m aware of), a whopping 91% of shareholders, including the company’s employees, voted in favor of the acquisition of the prestigious auction house by a company headed by French billionaire Patrick Drahi; the merger should be finalized by the end of the year. Sotheby’s and Christie’s will now both be privately held, British-founded but French-owned corporations, battling on more equal footing for dominance at the top end of the art market. Let the games begin.


Orientalism Offered

Speaking of Sotheby’s, an upcoming exhibition and auction of one of the world’s most important collections of Orientalist art looks to be well-worth seeing, if you get the chance. As I’ve mentioned previously, following many years of neglect by both academics and collectors, Orientalist work is hot once again, and dealers are making hay of it while the sun shines. Among the most beautiful of the pictures up for sale is “Riders Crossing the Desert” (1870), shown below, by the great French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). The Najd Collection goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s London on October 22nd, following a tour of some of the highlights of the sale at Sotheby’s locations in several cities around the world, and a lengthy preview of all the lots at the London showrooms.


Loot Located

Los Angeles police recently retrieved a hoard of dozens of stolen antiques, collectibles, and works of art, taken from homes across Hollywood and elsewhere in the city back in the 1990’s. The breakthrough came via a call to the authorities from an eagle-eyed California auctioneer, who had been consigned several works for sale that, upon further research, appeared to match the descriptions of some of the missing items. Police now face the difficult task of identifying and tracking down the owners of these objects, some 25 years on. While pictures like the genuine Picasso and Miró works in the cache are interesting, I found this rather melodramatic pulp art piece perhaps *the* most interesting of the recovered items. You can scroll through the LAPD’s Operation Demetra gallery page to see more, and they would certainly appreciate your help if you spot anything that looks familiar.



As a final note for this week’s roundup, just a reminder that, if you don’t already do so, you may enjoy following my Instagram account. Apart from the usual IG fare, I often post pictures I’ve snapped at the exhibitions I visit. In taking pictures of art, architecture, and design objects to share online, I try to share observations of my subjects viewed both at a distance, as well as in close-up details that I find interesting, such as Verrocchio’s technical brilliance in the depiction of fabric, as shown below.

Be sure to visit my profile page at