Art News Roundup: Going, Going, Gone Edition

Even as some museums are beginning to reopen following months of pandemic shutdown, visitors may notice that something – or some things – are missing.

The Brooklyn Museum announced yesterday that, due to the financial impact of Covid-19, it would be auctioning off a dozen pieces from its permanent collection at Christie’s on October 15th, including works by German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), and French 19th century Realists Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), shown below, and Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). This follows the same museum’s selling a work by British Modern painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992) at Sotheby’s at the end of last year, one of the artist’s many, rather creepy interpretations of Diego Velázquez’ (1599-1660) famous 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, supposedly to finance new acquisitions.

Meanwhile, the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse is taking a similar path, and on October 6th Christie’s will be selling their 1946 drip painting by American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), done on a smaller scale than his often gigantic canvases, and in predominantly red tones, rather than Pollock’s usual black. As with the Bacon sale in Brooklyn however, the stated goal here is not to pay the bills but to diversify the museum’s holdings. L.A. Times Art Critic Christopher Knight, whose opinions I frequently disagree with, but whose reporting deserves every award it gets, rightly points out that it was rather sneaky of the museum to announce this upcoming sale during the “black hole” of Labor Day weekend, when presumably fewer people would notice the announcement.

Although one can point to the exact moment when the genie was let out of the bottle, this sort of thing started happening long before Covid hit these shores. When the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) loosened its rules earlier this year on the deacquisition of art, the intent appears to have been to allow museums to look around for things they could get rid of, in order to keep things going. However, although the guidance for these supposedly Covid-inspired measures is set to expire in April 2022, I can guarantee you that won’t be happening. The temptation to get rid of x in order to acquire y is simply going to prove too great for these museum directors to resist.

Now, a rational person might suspect that in changing the rules as it did, museum officialdom must have been thinking about a complaint that I’ve made for years, i.e. the fact that the overwhelming amount of the holdings of these institutions are kept in storage where no one can see any of them. If we were talking about the equivalent of a good clear-out, as unfortunate as that might be in some ways, at least the major pieces in these institutions would remain in the public eye. However, the rather nasty and protracted fight that took place back in 2018 over the transformation of the Berkshire Museum from cultural institution to Discovery Kids play zone, was more than a whiff of what’s to come, and obviously predates the present pandemic.

With respect to these latest sales, truth be told, I don’t like Caranch at all – or Courbet or Pollock, for that matter (although I do like Corot.) If someone wants to purchase these items for their collection, well, have at it. At least I’m not the one who would have to look at them every day.

Yet the question of what I personally like or dislike is a separate matter from a rather more existential one, which is coming to a head in our public institutions. Who gets to decide that a work by one artist in a public collection is culturally less significant than a work by another? Is that decision ever a reasonable justification to get rid of a work of art, particularly one by an artist who is already well-established as a major figure in cultural history? Do we just sell off all the Titians, so that we can line the walls of our museums with graffiti?

It’s one thing to want to keep the lights on and your employees paid. There are certainly ways to go about doing that, even via deacquistion, without lopping off important bits from your permanent collection. It’s another to play social science experiment with art that you hold in trust for the public. To that end, when you do finally get to go back to your favorite art museum, gentle reader, I’d recommend that you check to see if there’s anything that’s gone missing during your absence.

And now, some other interesting headlines from the art world over the past week, in brief.

Notre Dame News

Unfortunately, I missed last night’s ABC documentary on “Notre Dame: Our Lady of Paris”, although even with the negative points raised in this review, I hope to catch it online later. While the public won’t be able to visit the interior of Notre Dame de Paris anytime soon, in a sign of things starting to normalize a bit, the crypt of the Cathedral-Basilica has now reopened to visitors with exhibitions on two of the most famous figures associated with the building during the 19th century: architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (1914-1879), who did major work on restoring the Cathedral from the ravages of the French Revolution, and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” author Victor Hugo (1802-1885). In fact while Viollet-le-Duc did the actual design work, Hugo was the major cultural figure who spearheaded the movement to actually save the building, when it was slated for demolition due to vandalism and decay.

Sagrada Familia Stalls

Speaking of church construction, officials at the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona have announced that they will be unable to meet their self-imposed 2026 deadline for completion of the massive structure, which will eventually be the tallest church in the world. It was hoped that the major work would be complete in time for the 100th anniversary of the death of its architect, Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), but due to both pandemic restrictions on work and the colossal plunge in funds from visitors – the Sagrada Familia since its inception has been funded entirely through private donations and ticket sales, with no assistance from the Church or State – the astonishing progress witnessed in recent years has substantially ground to a halt. Yet another disaster for which we have Red China to thank.

At the Auctions

And to close out this week, there are just a few, less controversial auction items that I wanted to draw your attention to. First, you may recall that the original design for the Olympic flag by Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937) was coming to auction with a pre-sale estimate of approximately $92,000-$115,000. In the end it sold for over $278,000 at Drouot Cannes, which doesn’t surprise me in the least for such an important piece of design, sport, and cultural history. Today, meanwhile, Doyle’s will be auctioning off a number of important works of art, including a very “Life with Father” 1893 portrait of author and British Museum archivist Louis Alexander Fagan by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), and a wonderfully muted, very late floral still life from 1903 by the great Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904). I was able to visit part of the National Gallery last week – more on that another time – and one of the great joys there is its collection of both Fantin-Latour’s portraits, which are sadly not on view to the public at the moment, and his small canvases of flowers, food, and everyday items, many of which fortunately are.


No Art News Roundup this week I’m afraid, as I’m on a much needed break. While due to present apocalyptic conditions I’m mostly just puttering about the manse, I’ve been productive to a degree, and managed to visit the (partly) reopened National Gallery yesterday. Look for an upcoming article on that subject in The Federalist soon.

In the meantime, regular readers will recall my occasional requests for support for the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage, a charity organization that I’m honored to be a part of, as we seek to establish a permanent hermitage up in the state of Maine. I’m pleased to report that our GoFundMe efforts are now very close to our final goal, so if you are able to help or know someone who can, please have a look at this link with anyone whom you think may be interested. It would be wonderful if this was the year that we could finally get Brother Rex (and his kitty companion, Clare) into a permanent home, so that not all of 2020 will be a dumpster fire.

Until next week then, I leave you with a reminder of the beauty of civilization, a performance of the famous second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, with the great Daniel Barenboim both playing and conducting. His tempo and restraint are slightly different than what one normally hears in recordings of this piece, and make it even more thoughtful, graceful, deceptively simple, and slightly melancholy-bittersweet than it already is, if that’s possible. It really makes the ear sit up and take notice, as it were, of the music.

Also note how in the film, we don’t see the usual reaction shots of the pianist’s face as he plays, nor closeups of his hands from a side angle. In fact, he keeps his back to the camera the entire time, as it pans about the orchestra. At the end, the shot pulls back to reveal the elegant yet strangely empty room in which the performance is taking place. It was very much on my mind yesterday, walking through the similarly elegant yet empty corridors of the museum. Covid cannot end soon enough.

Art News Roundup: The Collector Who Reconsidered Collecting

The really big news in the art world at the moment is that billionaire Ronald Perelman plans to sell off a significant portion of his massive art collection through Sotheby’s – and the interesting question is, why?

Mr. Perelman is perhaps best known as the principal shareholder of Revlon cosmetics, and he also maintains interests in a wide variety of financial, manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and other companies. Of late however, he’s been selling off or reducing his stake in a number of these ventures, and for those of my readers who are more informed with respect to that aspect of this story, I defer to your knowledge on that subject. For my purposes however, it’s the art sell-off which caught my eye, since Mr. Perelman owns a collection estimated to be worth in the billions of dollars.

In July, two paintings purported to be from Mr. Perelman’s collection (Sotheby’s was very discreet) were auctioned off in London, although originally there were supposed to be three of his pictures on the block. “Peinture (Femme au chapeau rouge)” (“Painting (Woman in a Red Hat)”) (1927) by Catalan Surrealist Joan Miró (1893-1983), was particularly significant, as it once belonged to the artist’s friend, American “kinetic” sculptor Alexander Calder (1898-1976). The painting, which with its cobalt blue background and limited palette is a classic example of the artist’s work during the 1920’s, sold for about $28.7 million. That isn’t a bad price, although it was at the low end of the pre-sale estimate.

Another work, “Danseuse Dans Un Intérieur, Carrelage Vert et Noir” (“Dancer In An Interior, Green And Black Tiles”) (1942), a late painting by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), was expected to fetch at least $11 million, but sold for around $8.6 million. Like Miró, when I think of Matisse I think of bright primary or Mediterranean colors, strong blacks, and a sense of light and movement. There’s certainly plenty of black in this picture, and a bit of bold color with the use of orange to suggest the mahogany of the armchair, but the palette combination of a muddy yellow with a similarly waterlogged teal just doesn’t really do it for me. (Also, what idiot stands a vase of flowers on an upholstered chair?)

A third piece that was (allegedly) from Mr. Perelman’s collection, a portrait by English Modern painter Francis Bacon (1909-1992), was withdrawn before the auction. Another of Bacon’s overrated “meat” pictures, as I collectively call his work, and whose appeal I can never understand, it carried a whopping estimate of $15.1 million–$22.6 million. That wasn’t an unreasonable guess based on market values, since Bacon’s work has been fetching astronomical prices in recent years. No explanation as to why it was removed from the auction has been forthcoming, however.

As to the upcoming sales, there’s no word at the moment as to what will actually be on offer, but in addition to the Bacon, the collection is known to contain works by a number of big-name Modern and Contemporary artists, including De Kooning, Giacometti, Koons, and Rothko, among others. I daresay most of it will consist of things that I would walk past at an exhibition without glancing at for more than ten seconds, if only to engage in the usual mental checklist game I play where I spot something from across the room, and identify the artist before even reading the accompanying placard. You may not like a piece, or indeed an artist’s entire oeuvre, but it’s still intellectually useful to be able to recognize that artist’s work when you come across it in your travels.

That being said, the bigger question I have here – and I daresay many of my readers have as well – is the motivation behind this sale. In a recent email to Vanity Fair, and by all accounts this was a very rare communiqué indeed, Mr. Perelman explained that he’s been reassessing things as a result of the pandemic. “Over the past six months,” he noted, “I’ve been mostly at home like most New Yorkers. A simpler life, with less running around and more time with my family, including homeschooling our youngest children, has energized me and taught me new things.”

It’s certainly possible, of course, that there are significant, prudent financial reasons as to why these particular assets need to be sold off during a time of economic uncertainty. Yet even if that’s the case, the fact that this particular collector, who for decades has been a major figure in the world of Modern and Contemporary Art, has taken a look at what really matters to him, and decided that a lot of this stuff he has accumulated just isn’t worth holding onto, is an interesting turn of affairs. Whether self-examination was a primary or secondary reason for this sale, at the very least it’s an example of how this pandemic is having a significant impact not only on the art market, but also on the individual collector’s perception of his own values.

And now, on to some other interesting art stories from the week gone by.

Rembrandt Rethink

A work that has been gathering dust in storage for decades may turn out to be a previously unknown portrait by the young Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). “Head of a Bearded Man” (c. 1630-40) has been in the collection of the Ashmolean in Oxford since the 1950’s, but for much of its time there the panel painting was thought to be by someone outside of Rembrandt’s circle, albeit working in a style similar to his. Scientific tests including dendochronology have now determined that the wood panel on which the portrait is painted was planed from the same tree whose wood was used for two other paintings: Rembrandt’s “Andromeda Chained to the Rocks” (c. 1630) and “Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother” (c. 1630) by Rembrandt’s friend Jan Lievens (1607-1674). The two artists rented studio space together in Antwerp from 1626 to 1631, until Lievens moved to London and Rembrandt to Amsterdam. Determining the authorship of the Ashmolean picture will involve cleaning and removal of the old, yellowed surface varnish that currently obscures the colors and details of the panel. However, the fact that the wood on which it’s painted shares a common origin with the aforementioned paintings by both Lievens and Rembrandt himself is very exciting news for scholars.

Hals Heist

An older contemporary of both Lievens and Rembrandt, Dutch genre painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) has remained a popular artist for centuries thanks to his often jocular images of individuals or groups enjoying themselves. Last week Hals’ “Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer” (1626) was stolen – for the THIRD time – from the currently-closed Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum in Leerdam, a small town in Holland. It’s interesting to note that the theft took place on the anniversary of Hals’ death, while the recent theft of “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)”, which regular subscribers/readers will recall that I wrote about back in March, took place at another small town museum in the Netherlands which was also closed due to the pandemic, and on the anniversary of Van Gogh’s birth. Coincidence?

Hainhofer Handwritings

While autograph books have been around for centuries, a recent acquisition by the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany has to be one of the most beautiful examples ever assembled. Known as “Das Große Stammbuch”, it’s a type of autograph collection known as a “friendship book”, which was put together by German art dealer and diplomat Philipp Hainhofer (1578-1647) over the course of many decades of travels around Europe. Filled with signatures and inscriptions from emperors, kings and queens, princes and princesses, cardinals and bishops whom Hainhofer befriended, and containing gorgeous illustrations (some of which are shown below) that surround the inscriptions or appear on the opposite sides of the pages, it was thought lost for centuries after the very same library unsuccessfully attempted to purchase the book nearly 400 years ago. The volume then reappeared on the market back in 2006, when it was sold at Christie’s for $2.3 million. With assistance from German public and private funds, the library has finally acquired the book via a private sale brokered by Sotheby’s for $3.3 million. The book will now be studied and conserved over the next three years, before being placed on public display at the library.

Art News Roundup: More of the Same Edition

Quite frankly, I’m tired of reporting on this sort of thing, for various reasons.

Following his recent action concerning the Hagia Sophia, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has ordered the conversion of yet another former Byzantine church into a mosque. The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, in Istanbul, boasts magnificent 14th century mosaics, such as those shown below, which were covered up under the Ottomans when the building became a mosque. They were uncovered and restored when the building was secularized, but they will now have to be covered up again, in some fashion. You can read more about Mr. Erdogan’s latest bread-and-circuses move here and here, as well as see more images and video of the sacred art and architecture.

I find it interesting that Mr. Erdogan feels a compelling need in recent years to take over these spaces and convert them to mosques, rather than commissioning new houses of worship. Surely there are Turkish architects, construction companies, and manufacturers who could use the work. Perhaps this is happening, in part, because he’s run out of money.

The gargantuan new 1,100-room Turkish Presidential Palace covers over 3 million square feet; by comparison, Buckingham Palace only has a paltry 775 rooms, and boasts a measly 830,000 square feet. The “official” cost of what is supposed to be Mr. Erdogan’s temporary residence while in office is $615 million, which is a particularly staggering sum when you consider that Turkey already had a very large Presidential complex in Ankara, and Turkey’s GDP per capita is currently about $9,000 (in America, we’re somewhere north of $65,000.) I’m sure you could build quite a few new mosques for $615 million, but there you are.

Putting aside the issue of megalomania however, the situation in Turkey of necessity forces me to reflect upon what at first glance might seem to be a parallel situation in Spain, where mosques were turned into churches. For example, following the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th century, the Cathedral of Córdoba was expanded and turned into a vast mosque, before being turned back into a Cathedral once the Moors were expelled from the city in the 13th century. If you go there today, sitting in the middle of the Islamic structure is a Late Gothic/Early Renaissance church, which remains in active use. Although the most famous example in the country, it isn’t the only one.

However it should be pointed out that there are key differences between the Turkish and Spanish situations.

Whereas the Hagia Sophia, the Chora Church, and other Byzantine buildings were converted to mosques when what we now call Turkey became Islamic, just as mosques in Spain were converted into churches when the country became Christian again, in the Turkish case the affected buildings had been secularized and converted into museums after World War II. Up until now, they had not been active places of worship of any sort for many years.

The same did not occur in Spain, other than during the brief period of Communist rule at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, when everything sacred that wasn’t burned, looted, or demolished was secularized. Moreover, many of the former mosques in Spain were themselves former Christian churches, albeit ones that had undergone expansion and alteration during Muslim rule. Thus, what might seem to be a parallel situation between Turkey and Spain really isn’t one at all.

Given that no one dares to say, “No,” to Mr. Erdogan within Turkey, and the country’s strategic importance gives many states pause before appearing to publicly criticize it, unfortunately it’s likely that this sort of nonsense will continue to make headlines for the foreseeable future.

And now, on to some more pleasant news from the art world over the week gone by.

More at the Meadows

The Meadows Museum in Dallas – which I had been hoping to finally visit this summer but…COVID – recently acquired several new works for its excellent permanent collection of Spanish art. Five drawings were purchased from De La Mano in Madrid, a gallery specializing in Spanish Old Masters. Perhaps the most interesting of the acquisitions is “The Death of St. Mary Magdalen” (c. 1645-50) shown below, by the great painter/sculptor/architect Alonso Cano (1601-1667). As a young man, Cano left his native Granada to go study in Seville, alongside Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) under Velázquez’ future father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644). When they were art students, Cano and Velázquez’ styles under Pacheco’s influence were so similar, that the authorship of some paintings by one or the other remains a hotly-debated point among experts, as in the case of this “Immaculate Conception” owned by a private foundation in Seville. In any case, the Meadows is now open again with limited capacity, pandemic permitting, should you care to trundle along and see their new acquisitions for yourself.

More at the Markets

Despite the undeniable impact of COVID, the art market seems to be finding buyers. While many of the usual fairs and shows are cancelled or postponed, and auctioneers and galleries are imposing severe limits on visitors, commerce has been shifting online to such a significant extent, that some auctioneers such as Christie’s have decided to completely shake up their traditional sales calendar. Indeed, Old Master painting specialists Van Ham in Cologne noted that their move to primarily online sales has increased their average number of bidders by 25% since the beginning of the pandemic. That doesn’t necessarily always translate into higher prices: Van Ham sold the painting of “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” shown below, by an unknown 17th century Italian artist, for around $30k, the low end of the pre-sale estimate. In other instances however, online bidding has generated more competition than ever before, and yielded surprising results. A recent sale of vintage movie posters at Ewbank’s in Surrey, for example, which included original posters for “Casablanca”, “Dr. No”, and other classic films, drew bidders from over 30 countries, 99% of the lots were sold, and in the end sales totaled $121k – double the pre-sale estimate.

More of Everything

If there’s one artist whom we could comfortably point to as emphatically rejecting the maxim, “Less is more,” it would almost certainly have to be Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Just in time for Christmas, a heavily-illustrated new book, “The Dalí Legacy : How an Eccentric Genius Changed the Art World and Created a Lasting Legacy” looks at the eccentric artist’s life-long pursuit of excess in all things. Authors Dr. Christopher Heath Brown and Dr. Jean-Pierre Isbouts examine not only Dalí’s art, but also his influence on fashion, film, design, and the notion of an artist developing a public persona. Long before TikTok for example, Dalí was doing ridiculous things on camera in order to attract publicity, and holding press conferences to share his bizarre exploits and ideas. Whether his example has benefited either art or society is certainly worth debating. “The Dalí Legacy” will be published on December 1st.

Art News Roundup: Fascinating Finds Edition

Finding great works of art buried in unlikely places is the dream of every armchair Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.

Obviously everyone enjoys seeing some magnificent bit of carving or metalwork put on a display stand in a museum, because the discovery of such objects adds to our knowledge of art from the culture and time period in question. This is one of the reasons why I try to keep up on important archaeological finds as much as I do with developments in the art world, because the one often helps to inform a better understanding of the other. However, if you know anything about archaeology, you know that oftentimes what appears to be little more than a heap of garbage can have great significance, even if it doesn’t contain precious jewels, priceless statues, or the like. Such is the case with a recent archaeological discovery in the north of England.

The persecution of Catholics during the English Reformation is a well-known, if often conveniently brushed aside, aspect of history. From an artistic standpoint, perhaps the best book on the impact of that tragedy remains “The Stripping of the Altars” by Eamon Duffy, which reads rather like a virtual horror story of iconoclasm in Britain. One of the key centers for what were referred to as “recusants” was Norfolk, where the Howard family and their supporters were able to remain Catholics despite the outlawing of Catholicism, albeit not without repercussions.

For those prominent Norfolk area families who were not quite as powerful as the Howards, keeping the faith was a bit more dicey of a proposition. For example, at their estate known as Oxburgh Hall, where they still reside to this day, the Bedingfeld family constructed a “priest hole”, where priests could be hidden when Elizabeth I’s spies came looking for them. Although this element of the property has been well-known for a long time, a recent discovery at the house has caused a great deal of excitement in the archaeological community.

As part of an ongoing renovation and restoration project at the house, workers at Oxburgh Hall were recently removing floorboards in the attic to get to the ceiling joists of the room below, when they stumbled across a rather remarkable cache. Hidden beneath the floor, along with the usual things that tend to slip between the cracks over the years, were thousands of fragments of paper and textiles dating from the late Middle Ages through to the Georgian period. It seems that, as the National Trust put it, the rats living in the ceiling had rather expensive tastes, for they made nests for themselves out of fine silks, velvets, brocades, and paper over the centuries, snatched from discarded bits of clothing, letters, and even pages of books.

A particularly interesting find in the hoard was an almost-intact copy of “The King’s Psalms” by St. John Fisher (1469-1535), Bishop of Rochester, complete with gilded leather binding. Since there’s no work by Fisher that goes by this title, I suspect it’s probably a copy of his commentary on seven of the Psalms dealing with the subject of sin and penitence. Fisher was executed by Henry VIII, as he was the only one of the English bishops who refused to sin by accepting Henry as the head of the Church, so owning a copy of a book by him would certainly have raised the red flag for his daughter’s investigators, and at the very least would have resulted in its confiscation.

One of the fragments described by ArtNet in their reporting on the story is a page from a 15th century illuminated manuscript, which bears part of the text of Psalm 39 from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. It probably came from a “Book of Hours”, a collection of readings from Scripture, prayers, and devotional texts that were often lavishly illustrated, and used throughout the day to pause for prayer and reflection. While in full context, this particular Psalm is mostly about avoiding sin and recognizing the brevity of life, in verse 1 it states, in part, “I will keep a muzzle on my mouth, as long as the wicked are in my presence.” It seems as though the Bedingfeld family took this advice to heart.

And with that said, let’s turn to some other stories of interest that popped up on my radar over the week gone by.

Snow Show

Despite the fact that they came to prominence at the same time, in the same place, and shared the same art dealer, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909) did not associate with one another in late 19th century New York. Now, a new show which just opened at the Denver Art Museum, “Natural Forces: Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington”, explores artistic connections and parallels between the two great American artists, and the juxtaposition seems a particularly fascinating one. We often associate Homer with paintings of the ever-changing seascape of New England, and Remington with his famous bronzes of personalities from the American West, but as this exhibition demonstrates, Remington himself was also a masterful painter. We see this in his “The Fall of the Cowboy” (1895) shown below which, if not quite as profound as Homer’s famous “Fox Hunt” (1893) – which is also in the exhibition – painted two years earlier, shows that Remington understood how to convincingly paint a snow scene: something which, as any artist will tell you, is not as easy as one might think. The show runs through September 7th, Covid permitting.

Wine Windows

An interesting architectural oddity has come back into vogue, thanks to Covid. As Art Daily reports, during the Renaissance in Florence, the Medici family granted homeowners the right to sell wine, spirits, and olive oil from the ground floor of their premises, via small arched openings known as “buchette” that were set into the exterior wall giving onto the street. Although selling limited quantities of food or beverages to the public via an opening has remained a tradition in certain places, such as convents and monasteries, for the most part the practice of pushing a glass of wine through a barred window fell out of use in Tuscany quite some time ago. With the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, many of these long blocked-up openings are being rediscovered and repurposed. One assumes that New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio would hate this, which is all the more reason to find a way to do it in more places, I reckon.

Palatial Pictures

And returning to the UK where we began, coming in December residents of and visitors to London will want to book their tickets early for what promises to be a particularly spectacular exhibition to be mounted at the Queen’s Gallery, the public art exhibition space at Buckingham Palace. “Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace” will feature 65 works of art from the Queen’s personal collection, including works by Canaletto, Rembrandt, Titian, and Vermeer, among others, including the magnificent portrait of art collector Andrea Odoni (1527) by his friend Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1557). The motivation for the show is the ongoing renovation work at Buck House, which is having its ancient electrical and plumbing systems updated, and so rather than put these objects into storage, they will be put on public display until renovations are completed. The show opens on December 4th and is expected to run through January 2022, depending both on the progress of work at the Palace as well as Covid, natch.

Art News Roundup: The Show Must Go On(line) Edition

It has to be said: I’m itching to see some art in person.

The last show I saw, the Met’s retrospective on the legendary Gerhard Richter, was only open for a few days before it had to close due to Covid, and now that the Breuer Building has been leased to the Frick Collection, the exhibition won’t be mounted again. After that, I was supposed to see a major show on Baroque painting in Genoa, another on the life and work of American Modern artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), a show about the evolution of Victorian majolica, and a survey of Contemporary French artist Erik Desmazières’ architectural fantasy illustrations. And that was just going to take me through the first part of the summer.

One show that was on my radar, which has now reopened but is a bit too far for me to travel to under current circumstances – thanks again, Covid – is the traveling exhibition “Glory of Spain: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library” in Houston. It’s really a must-see for those of you who can get to it, since all of the big names in Spanish art are represented: El Greco, Ribera, Velázquez, Zurbarán, Murillo, Goya, and so on. Among the many gems in the show is Joaquín Sorolla’s (1863-1923) luminous portrait of his friend, the always nattily-dressed American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), painted in 1911 while the two were doing some plein air painting.


For as long as it’s possible anyway, the show has reopened and will run through January 3rd, although I doubt I’ll be able to get down there to see it during its run.

Then of course, there are the shows that have been announced, but are actually something of a tease, because no one really knows whether they’ll be able to come off or not. This isn’t the fault of museums of course, because they have to announce these things in a timely fashion, Covid or no. If they want to put on an exhibition borrowing works from other museums or private collections, the larger the show, and the older the art, the more logistically complicated it is to pull off. You can’t simply show up at the Hermitage one day and ask to borrow their Leonardo for the next few months. An exhibition of any decent size involves all kinds of considerations, such as reciprocal loans, insurance, transportation, and so on.

Case in point, the National Gallery of Art here in DC recently announced two shows for 2021, including the first solo exhibition ever held in the U.S. on the weirdly wonderful Venetian Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1465–1526), whose interiors in particular are mesmerizing windows into life in the Veneto five centuries ago. His “Vision of St. Augustine” (1502), for example, is perhaps less interesting as a depiction of its subject matter, and more interesting for its details, including a very sweet dog who seems fascinated by his master’s reaction to something that he himself cannot see or understand.


This NGA show will be held in addition to the aforementioned exhibition on Baroque art from Genoa that had to be postponed until next year – all assuming, of course, that there *is* an exhibition season next year.

While no one really knows what’s going to happen next, in the meantime we can certainly make use of the many online resources available. You may not be able to see the once-in-a-lifetime Raphael exhibition at the Quirinale in Rome for example, or the show of Spanish turn of the previous century artists at Colnaghi in London, but there’s an app or a site for those things. It’s not the same as being able to see the art in person, but at least shows like these are going on as best they can.

And on that note, let’s move on to some art-and-internet related things that caught my eye this week.

Sung Soirée

This evening soprano Grace Srinivasan and keyboardist Patrick Merrill will be live-streaming a concert on YouTube of classical music by French composers, stretching from the Early Baroque period into the 20th century, including works by Debussy, Grigny, Fauré, and others. Those of you who follow me on Instagram have probably heard Grace’s beautiful voice in an occasional Story post, such as when I happen to get to church early and catch choir practice. If you can’t watch the performance live, no worries: it will be posted to YouTube for you to watch later. And while you’re at it, thanks to Covid both musicians have had the rest of their concert events canceled for the year, so if you’d like to make a donation to their virtual tip jars, information on how to do so is available at the YouTube link.


Colorful Caracalla

Speaking of Instagram, one of the accounts that periodically pops up in my search feed is that of digital artist and designer Daniel Volshart, who of late has been posting some astonishingly realistic images of the Roman Emperors. “For each portrait,” notes ArtNet, “he uploaded dozens of images of stony busts depicting the emperor in question, creating an increasingly refined approximation of their likeness. Once he was satisfied, he moved to Photoshop where the more interpretive work took place: he removed cracks and replaced broken appendages, added skin texture and eye color and so on, essentially turning chiseled rocks into hi-res photographic pictures.” Mr. Volshart’s thinking and methodology are just as much about artistic instinct and historical research, as they are about using existing works of sculpture and painting in combination with new technologies, to help us get a better mental and visual picture of some of these fellows, such as the Emperor Caracalla (188-217 A.D.), shown below.


Facebook Footprint

While not an online experience in itself, but rather brought to you by the people who bring you online experiences (for good or for ill), I was rather stunned earlier this week to learn that Facebook will be occupying ALL of the 730,000 square feet of office space being created in the former Farley Post Office, opposite Penn Station in Manhattan. The massive building is, in some ways, a more restrained echo of the magnificent Pennsylvania Station that was torn down in 1963 to create the exceptionally awful current station, in which one wants to spend as little time as possible. Both the old Penn Station and the still-standing Farley Building were masterworks of America’s greatest firm of architects of the Beaux Arts period, McKim, Mead, and White, so at least the remaining structure should have a useful life for some years to come, thanks to being occupied by a tenant with rather deep pockets up above, and a new Amtrak hall on the main and lower levels.


Art News Roundup: So This Is Love Edition

Normally, the only time I might stop to think about wishing upon a star or the like is when listening to the “Dave Digs Disney” (1957) album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet – particularly their take on “So This Is Love” from Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” (1950).

Of course in the present climate, if there’s any fairy tale that seems to resonate most, it’s probably that recounted by the poet Goethe in “Der Zauberlehrling” (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.) Based on a story from Ancient Greece, and perhaps most famous in its retelling in a sequence from Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”(1940), the story involves the same task being performed over and over again, threatening to overcome those involved. I suspect that for many, the Coronavirus pandemic has taken on that aspect the longer it has continued, and I know that some of my readers are struggling right now with the thought of how they’re going to cope with yet another impending semester – or longer – during which their wee ones will have to be homeschooled, and not by choice.

Two recent bits of arts-related news however, have been on my mind this week regarding this issue, not only for teacher-parents, but also for those just looking for some wisdom, beauty, and a bit of a break from having to do the same thing over and over again, seemingly without ceasing.

As highlighted in a new exhibition that opened recently at Windsor Castle, in 1940 a series of 16 paintings by the great British portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) depicting the allied leaders involved in the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte were taken down from the Waterloo Chamber at the royal residence, and placed in storage for safekeeping during World War II. The following year, teenage art student Claude Whatham (1927-2008), who had been evacuated from Manchester to the countryside as were many other British children, was commissioned to create a series of paintings to fill the empty frames where the Lawrence pictures normally hang. They were to be executed on strips of wallpaper, presumably for easy removal afterward, and the theme chosen for what was supposed to be a temporary installation was a series of characters from pantomime, a centuries-old British musical comedy tradition often enjoyed during the Christmas holidays.

The stories in pantomime – or “panto” as it’s often called, for short – are usually taken from popular fairy tales, with characters that would be familiar to everyone in the audience, regardless of age. While children follow the adventures of figures such as Aladdin or Puss In Boots, or the perils of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the scripts for these performances are generally written in such a way that elements of adult contemporary humor, such as political or social references, are contained within them. These references would go over the children’s heads, but be caught by the grown-ups attending the show.

The installation of Whatham’s paintings in the Waterloo Chamber was intended to tie in with a planned series of pantomime performances held in the room in order to benefit the Royal Household Wool Fund, as the Royal Collection Trust explains:

Christmas pantomimes were performed at Windsor between 1941 and 1944, the first being Cinderella, in which both Princesses had leading roles. The pantomimes were staged in the Waterloo Chamber and were both written and produced by Hubert Tannar, Headmaster of the Royal School in Windsor Great Park. The performers included local children (some evacuees) and friends of the Princesses, with occasional help from service personnel based in the Windsor area. There was always an enthusiastic audience, and all monies raised from the admission charge went to the Wool Fund, to supply knitting wool for the making of comforters for the armed forces.

For whatever reason, after the War ended Lawrence’s portraits were returned to their frames, but Whatham’s panto paintings were not removed: Whatham’s fairy tale characters remained stuck to the walls underneath. The images were not seen again until 1992, when the Lawrence paintings were once again temporarily removed for safekeeping, during the disastrous fire that ravaged parts of the Castle. Perhaps because they had been covered up for almost fifty years at that point, the pantomime pictures remained remarkably fresh, despite having been executed on decidedly non-archival paper and using inexpensive paints.


Above we can see a selection of three of the sixteen Waltham paintings: Dick Whittington and his cat on the left, Cinderella in the center, and Jack and the Beanstalk on the right. They’re wonderfully Art Deco in style, and obviously influenced by Continental advertising posters of the period, though there’s a confident economy of line that’s all the more remarkable considering that the artist who painted them was only about fourteen years old at the time. It’s also interesting to note how the image of Cinderella somewhat strongly anticipates the Walt Disney depiction of the same character several years later, although it seems highly improbable that Disney himself could have seen the Whatham painting. [N.B. If my readers are more informed on this point – or indeed on any point – than I am, please share what you know in the comments section.]

The paintings are currently on display for visitors to Windsor Castle while the Lawrence portraits are once again undergoing some study. While it seems a pity that Waltham’s work will be covered up again in a few months, for as long as they’re visible they serve as a colorful reminder of how, even in the darkest of times, it’s possible to find some inspiration from these old, magical tales. And to that end, for those of you interested in taking a deeper dive into the subject, there’s an online learning resource that you may find worth investigating.

“Fairy Tales and Sacraments” is an online course being offered this coming semester by my friend Sarah Maple, PhD., Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York. As Dr. Maple describes the course, in part:

Fairy Tales allow us to isolate, suspend and consider particular realities that further explore the mysteries of our origin, meaning, and destiny…Fairy Tales from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in particular, attempted to recapture the imaginations of Christians, and the whole world, within the message of the Scripture and the Gospels. This course is an intensive study of the Fairy Tales of George MacDonald, author of The Princess and the Goblin, and the primary source of inspiration for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.


Tolkien, Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Louis Carroll, and many other writers were hugely influenced by the Scottish poet, Christian apologist, and children’s fantasy author George MacDonald (1824-1905), shown at work above. For example, in reflecting on MacDonald and his work in a forward to a book about MacDonald – written by one of MacDonald’s eleven children from his over fifty years of marriage to his wife Louisa – Chesterton noted the Scottish writer’s enormous impact on his own life:

[I]n a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I have read, including even all the novels of the same novelist, it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…The commonplace allegory takes what it regards as the commonplaces or conventions necessary to ordinary men and women, and tries to make them pleasant or picturesque by dressing them up as princesses or goblins or good fairies. But George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and he dressed them up as ordinary men and women. The fairy-tale was the inside of the ordinary story and not the outside.

Dr. Maple’s course will run online from August 25th through December 8th, and for more information on how to go about signing up, please contact the College Registrar’s Office by following this link.

And with that, let’s move on to some less magical, but still interesting stories from the week gone by.

Notes from Notre Dame

Now that the melted, twisted scaffolding surrounding the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris is being removed, attention has turned to the church’s historic pipe organ, which dates to 1733. Miraculously, like the enormous rose window it sits beneath, the gigantic instrument survived the April 2019 blaze intact, but the entire thing is now in the process of being disassembled, including its 8,000 pipes. Every piece of it has to be cleaned of lead, soot, and other debris, and any damaged parts need to be replaced. Then the entire thing must be re-tuned, disassembled for transport, and put back together inside the Cathedral. The disassembly alone is expected to last through the end of this year, so this is yet another gargantuan task ahead for the team of restoration experts.


Booty from Berlin

By now more people are aware of the work of the “Monuments Men”, the team of experts who rescued art stolen or stashed away by the Nazis during World War II. This summer, the Cincinnati Art Museum was supposed to open an exhibition titled “Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men: The Berlin Masterpieces in America”, recounting another aspect of the story. At the end of the War, 202 masterpieces from the Berlin State Museum were found stashed in a salt mine in the town of Merkers, and were recovered by a team lead by U.S. Army Captain Walter I. Farmer, who hailed from Cincinnati. It was decided to send the paintings to the U.S. for a tour of American museums, a move which Captain Farmer and others protested for, among other reasons, smacking of the kind of triumphalism that Ancient Rome would engage in after defeating its enemies. This is just one intriguing aspect of the rather complicated story of what happened to these pictures, which the show is to tell (whenever it opens) alongside some of the works themselves, on loan from Berlin, as well as documents, photographs, and other original materials. Although the exhibition is currently on indefinite hold, the catalogue is now available and is definitely on my Wish List. Below, Generals Bradley, Eisenhower, and Lieutenant General Patton tour the Merkers mine before the paintings were taken back to the surface.


Gazing from Ghent

One of the most famous works of art rescued from the Nazis by the Monuments Men is, of course, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, more commonly known as “The Ghent Altarpiece”, a 15th-century masterpiece by the Van Eyck brothers that resides in St. Bravo’s Cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent. Readers will recall that recently, a number of ill-informed commentators and meme-makers criticized the recent cleaning and restoration of the piece, because the face of the Lamb came out looking more humanoid and less lamb-like. After an exhaustive review, experts from the University of Antwerp and the National Gallery of Art have concluded that the Van Eycks did, in fact, intend to have the Lamb – who symbolizes Christ Himself – display the (to modern eyes) slightly disturbing face that we see gazing out at us now. It may be a late Medieval convention with respect to how to portray animals, since similar faces appear among the horses in one of the other panels of the altarpiece, or it may be that one or both of the Van Eycks intentionally wanted to have the viewer thrown a bit off-balance when praying or meditating before the image. For more about this, including a wealth of technical analysis that really gets into the weeds (but in a fascinating way), you can read the report here.

Art News Roundup: Masterpiece Market Edition

The art world regularly tells us that Old Master paintings are out of fashion, but those of us who love them (and those of us who have the means to acquire them) don’t particularly seem to care.

On Tuesday night, a very beautiful self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1699) that I told you about back in June sold at Sotheby’s London for a whopping $18.8 million. It’s a new world record price for a self-portrait by the artist, since the last Rembrandt self-portrait to come to market sold for $8.9 million back in 2003. About half a dozen bidders engaged in the bidding spree, probably because this is one of the last self-portraits by Rembrandt remaining in private hands, and also, I suspect, because of speculation that I reported on previously that the picture was probably an engagement present, which the artist executed for his beloved first wife, Saskia.


Then on Wednesday night, the arresting “Portrait of a Young Woman Holding a Chain” (c. 1603) by the great Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), was sold at Christie’s London for around $5.2 million. This is an early, unfinished work, possibly a highly-evolved sketch for a painting now lost or unknown to us, and it’s quite a direct gaze that we’re getting from the unknown sitter. One theory is that this is one of a series of portraits of court ladies commissioned by Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, to decorate the “Gallery of Beauties” in his palace. However, other experts point to a diplomatic trip that Rubens made to visit King Philip II of Spain in 1603, where the artist is known to have painted several portraits of Spanish courtiers. To my eye, the muted colors of the dress and the up-swept hairstyle under a veil are more typical of the Spanish Hapsburg court of the time.


So how do we explain this unexpected level of interest in what have long been two of the most well-regarded but decidedly old-fashioned Old Master painters in Western art?

One possibility is that buyers are hedging their bets in reaction to the economic impact of Covid. Many collectors at the upper end of the market purchase art as a commodity, because it’s easily transported, sold, or traded. While they’re often interested in speculation, which explains why they like to purchase works by Contemporary artists and then flip them a few years later for a profit, in times of uncertainty they may be seeking more proven artists in whom to invest for a rainy day. So while the art-as-commodity buyer may still desire the relative liquidity that high-value works can provide, artists such as Rembrandt and Rubens are what we might think of as “blue chip” artists: on resale, they have pretty consistently held or increased in value.

Another possibility is that explored in this interesting survey/overview in Artsy regarding younger collectors. It notes the trend in recent years to try mixed sales, such as those this week that included both the Rembrandt self-portrait AND the Rubens portrait. These jumble lot jobs throw together big names in Old Master, Modern, and Contemporary works in the same evening, and often achieve more remarkable results than if the art had been placed in more narrowly-themed sales.

Thus, potential buyers are being shown a wider variety of choices in a single auction or show than they might otherwise have considered. Per the Artsy article, dealers and auctioneers see younger, up-and-coming collectors as having more “omnivorous” tastes, rather than sticking to particular artists, schools, or styles. This may be reflective of younger collectors’ heavy use of social media, where people are often interested in very eclectic subjects.

There’s something to be said for this argument, as my own Instagram can tell you, even though I mostly stick to certain specific areas when it comes to collecting art. Still, it’s an interesting development to note, and if sales such as these continue to draw greater interest from buyers who might otherwise eschew auctions or galleries that only specialize in one or two areas of collecting, it could have a significant impact on the future direction of the art market for Old Masters back to how it once was, before there were specialized sales. We’ll just have to wait and see if this is a mere trend, or a permanent shift.

And now, on to some other art stories of interest this week.

Denizen Ducks

Speaking of IG, The Met announced on their Instagram account earlier this week that, in the absence of human intrusion thanks to the pandemic, a mother duck has taken up residence on the roof of the museum, and is currently brooding a clutch of eggs. It’s been decided not to attempt to move her or the nest until the ducklings hatch, and since the museum won’t be opening any time soon, for now this is probably a safe spot for the feathered family. Naming conventions for the birds are, I believe, still up for grabs, and we’re told that the ducks will be moved to Central Park once it’s safe for rangers to do so.


Nantes News

Although a suspect in last week’s arson attack on the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes is now in police custody, there’s still no word on a possible motive. According to prosecutors the individual, who was questioned initially because he had been responsible for locking up the building that night, has expressed great remorse for his setting the fires. In speaking to the press, his attorney describes him as a “believer”, presumably meaning that he is a Catholic or at least a Christian, so perhaps what we are looking at here is not sectarianism but rather mental illness. The man faces ten years in jail and a $175,000 fine if convicted, while the cost of the damage to the destroyed 400-year-old organ and Renaissance stained glass windows is likely to be calculated at many times that amount.


Sorolla Salon

Staying in France, but heading further south, the Hôtel de Caumont in Aix-en-Provence has been able to reopen just in time for its new show “Joaquín Sorolla: Lumières Espagnoles (“Spanish Lights”)”, celebrating the work of the great Spanish Impressionist painter. Sorolla (1863-1923) is probably best-known for his very large canvases of his family, portraits of famous people, scenes of country life, and depictions of the pleasures of the seaside, but the Caumont show takes a different approach than most exhibitions of this type. The exhibition shows not only many of the master’s great, finished works, but also a number of his preparatory work-ups, where he figured out details of composition, lighting, and so on at a more intimate scale. I particularly love the sketchy oil shown below, “El Botijo” (1903), which shows a young woman helping a child to get a drink from a traditional Spanish ceramic water jug with a spout known as a “botijo” on what, based on the figures’ attire and the overall tones of the picture, looks to be a very hot summer’s day. It’s one of the many objects in the show that were lent by private collections, making this show (and its exhibition catalogue) all the more special. The exhibition runs through November 1st, Covid permitting.


Art News Roundup: Unafraid Edition

I’d like to take a moment, if the reader will permit me, to address those who are behind the rash of church burnings and vandalism in France, the United States, and elsewhere.

There has been quite a lot of this sort of thing in recent months, such as that which occurred at Nantes Cathedral earlier this week, destroying the 400-year old organ as well as a number of Renaissance stained glass windows. Many other examples have gone unreported by the “mainstream” media, as well as by the art media world that I follow. Perhaps it’s because they secretly (or not-so-secretly) agree with the idea of iconoclasm when it comes to sacred art and architecture.

Part of the problem, of course, is that evidenced in this piece, in which the reaction of Archbishop Georges Pontier, head of the French bishops’ conference, to this sort of vandalism is to say, “We do not want to develop a discourse of persecution. We do not wish to complain.”

Of course not.

Most Catholic bishops are rather spineless, utterly uninspiring ninnies, who are primarily interested in being popular – or at least, being well-thought of – rather than in protecting their flock and their patrimony. Lest one think that this is a new development, I’d remind the reader that all but one (St. John Fisher) of the Catholic bishops of England chose to commit apostasy rather than lose their palaces (and heads) when Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England, and began expropriating Church property and destroying works of art for the sake of his ego and reproductive shortcomings. It is once again left to the laity to try to defend their own Church, since its leadership is, in the main, fundamentally incapable of doing so, because it is too concerned with how to build sustainable wind farms in the South Pacific while their empty churches burn to the ground.

So while this may sound a bit odd, coming from this particular scrivener, my challenge to those who are targeting Catholic art, architecture, and the like is: do your worst.

You can destroy it all. Burn the Holy Sepulcher, smash Michelangelo’s Pietà , tear up the Book of Kells, use the tilma of St. Juan Diego for target practice. Go ahead. The only thing that you will achieve, as a result of such barbarism, is a public demonstration of your own ignorance.

The Church’s existence is not contingent upon the existence of tangible objects. Nor, as it happens, does it exist subject to the approval of human beings. It cannot be destroyed via the attacking of outward manifestations of its beliefs. Many have tried, of course, but it has survived two millennia of persecution, both from without and even from within, carried out by far more powerful, intelligent, persuasive, and influential people than you are.

So again I say, go ahead, do your worst. Show us what a naughty little miscreant you are, and post it on social media. And then all of your equally small supporters can post their expressions of support for just how cool you are.

And when you lie on your death bed, many years from now, I hope you will have the opportunity to pause and reflect upon what you have done. Because no matter what you do today or tomorrow, the Church will still be here, even then. And despite everything that you have done or will do, in a futile attempt to bring an end to her existence, she will still be praying for His Mercy upon your soul at the hour of your death, WITHOUT EVEN KNOWING WHO YOU ARE.


Rant over, chaps and chapesses, so now let’s move on to some more interesting stories, and a larger dose of them, since unfortunately I was unable to post last week due to other circumstances.

Notre Dame News

Over at The Art Newspaper, Francesco Bandarin has a comprehensive summary of the latest news from the efforts to rebuild and restore the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Paris, following last year’s devastating fire. In addition to the recent, welcome news that the roof will be returned to its pre-conflagration appearance, word is that the complex tangle of melted scaffolding is expected to be removed by October of this year, and that although some of the vaulting that is still standing was weakened by the fire and will need reinforcement, it looks like it will be salvageable, which is a big relief. Among the tricky issues remaining to be decided is the question of what roofing material will be put on, once all of the structural support is back in place, since the traditional lead roof was an environmental disaster once it caught fire, sending countless particles of potentially toxic lead into the atmosphere and the Seine. In addition, it is expected that the square in front of the church is going to undergo a major redesign, which as S. Bandarin notes is probably going to be the one opportunity which President Macron et al will have to stamp something contemporary on the site. Given that our present perspective on the Cathedral is not what medieval pilgrims would have seen as they approached, there isn’t really anything that needs to be preserved here – although one hopes that it will focus on vistas and gardens rather than in concrete and “art”.


Bleaching Banksy

Celebrated British artist and petty criminal Banksy, whose rather childish art has somehow managed to capture far more attention than it deserves among the sheeple who flock to see his stunt du jour, recently fell victim to a common problem facing Contemporary artists who create works that look like (and indeed are) utter garbage. Mr. Banksy defaced a train carriage on the London Underground recently, and a conscientious worker, assuming (correctly) that the work was merely graffiti, scrubbed off the mess from the walls. Unfortunately, Tube authorities appear to be caving to public sentiment in wanting to embrace acts of public vandalism in the name of “art”, so expect to see more of the same until someone finds some common sense and a backbone.


Protean Project

Looking like something that Bond villain Karl Stromberg would love, a proposed underwater research facility to be located off the island of Curaçao has been revealed by Swiss designer Yves Béhar and French undersea researcher Fabien Cousteau. To be named “Proteus”, the structure is expected to cost $135 million, and will contain laboratories for studying everything from sea creatures to tectonic plates, along with providing living accommodations for up to 12 people. Presumably that’s what all of those giant olive-shaped bulbs sticking out of the main structure are for, although there isn’t enough money in the world to make me want to go down there: I’ve seen “The Abyss” too many times. Still, as a bit of futuristic design, it’s kind of interesting to imagine what it may look like if and when it ever gets built.


Olympic Origins

With the Olympics on hold for…well, who knows for how long, an item coming up at auction this Sunday in Cannes may be of interest to both collectors of sports memorabilia and to aficionados of iconic 20th century design. The original drawing for the Olympic flag by Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), founder of the International Olympic Committee, has been in the hands of the descendants of the original owner since the Baron de Coubertin executed it in 1913. Famously, he wanted to make sure that at least one color of all the flags of the world was included in the design, which is certainly one of the most famous and universally recognizable sports emblems in the world. The pre-sale estimate on this very unique piece of design history is roughly $92,000-$115,000.


Finding Friant

And finally for this week, I often note that one of the joys of learning about art is the fact that there is always more to learn: the more you see, the more you realize that you know nothing, and that challenge to keep learning keeps me going. Case in point, Émile Friant (1863-1932) is a name that probably doesn’t ring a bell with most people, including yours truly. So when I read the news that the Association Émile Friant is asking for information from the public on works by the artist to complete what’s called a “catalogue raisonné”, a term used in art history for a complete, scholarly listing of all known works by a particular artist, I was intrigued and decided to look up some of his work online. I’m glad I did, because paintings like this, and this, and this show what a marvelous, direct manner of painting he had. This is definitely an artist whose work I intend to learn more about.



Art News Roundup: History Repeating Edition

George Santayana’s famous maxim about those who forget history being doomed to repeat is, unfortunately, all too sad of a truism when it comes to architecture in this country.

Among the greatest firms in the history of architecture, McKim, Mead, and White, built the sorts of structures that Americans at the turn of the previous century could justly be proud of when showing off their towns and cities to visitors: impressive train stations and palatial libraries, grand hotels and luxurious private homes, and so on. Among their many achievements, they renovated and expanded the White House, designed the Rhode Island State House, and built monuments, churches, and hotels across the country. One of their greatest achievements, which no longer exists, was the magnificent Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, which was replaced by the sort of Midcentury Modern monstrosity that the art establishment has, disturbingly, become overly enamored of in recent years, most of which are little more than giant warts on the face of the American landscape.

The destruction of old Penn Station in the 1970’s is rightly viewed as a watershed moment in public opinion regarding historic preservation. Its loss led to the passage of numerous laws and regulations limiting the ability of public and private owners to either destroy or make significant alterations to structures that have been found to carry historic significance, whether because of what happened inside them, their beauty, and what have you. Paradoxically, if such a monumental, well-known building as Penn Station had not been destroyed in the face of fierce public opposition, it’s likely that many other important structures great and small would have been hit with the wrecking ball decades ago.

Unfortunately however, New York once again seems to be on the verge of proving Santayana’s point, as it looks as though another McKim, Mead, and White building in Manhattan is about to come crashing down.


The Vanderbilt Building, which dates from 1892, is an unusual listing in the firm’s catalogue, as it’s one of the few proto-skyscrapers that they ever designed. Most McKim buildings are much wider than they are tall, so as a comparator to what other American architects were doing at the time, such as Adler & Sullivan in Chicago, it’s an important example of not only how the firm tried to adapt their Beaux-Arts style to the times, but also of how American cities started to go vertical a century ago in a wide variety of ways. It’s only with the advent of Modern architecture after World War II that we get the boring, upturned glass Kleenex boxes that tend to dominate most cities around the world today.

It’s also important to note that this particular building was financed by the Vanderbilts, who were among McKim, Mead, and White’s most important clients. Like other powerful merchant families before them, such as the Medici and the Rothschilds, the Vanderbilts invested significant funds not only in their own homes, but also in their commercial buildings. This is a prime example of the care and expense that they put into that effort during the Gilded Age, back when Lower Manhattan was the thriving hub of both domestic and international commerce for the city and indeed for the country.

Now, to be fair, it would be inaccurate to conclude that this building is a shining jewel of a structure. Putting aside its present dilapidated condition, it’s somewhat awkwardly proportioned as a result of the limitations of the site, and I haven’t been able to determine whether any of the presumably once grand interior spaces, such as the lobby and elevator banks, still exist. That being said, to quote one of those interviewed by The Architect’s Newspaper, “You don’t just throw away McKim, Mead & White buildings.” Hopefully some resilient and vociferous New Yorkers will find a way to save this rather unique part of their city’s architectural history.

Erdogan Egoism

As I warned you would happen some time ago, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is now actively seeking to turn the Hagia Sophia from a secular museum into a mosque. A case to do so is currently pending before Turkey’s Supreme Court, which held a brief hearing on the matter this past Friday. The building was originally a church, and one of the most important ever built, but roughly 1,000 years after its construction it was converted into a mosque. In recognition of the fact that the structure was a sacred site for both Christians and Muslims, as well as having great architectural and historical significance, in the 1930’s it was secularized and turned into a museum. Mr. Erdgoan however, is seeking to shore up his political base, given his unpopularity in many circles at home and abroad for things like this, so this is a classic bread-and-circuses move. A ruling is expected on July 18th.


Missed Mannerist

The latest tale of rediscovered art treasure comes from South Africa. A retired couple, who had taken up buying and selling antiques as a hobby, came across a box of odds and ends for sale at a local auction for the princely sum of around $15. Among the items was the small bronze sculpture pictured below, which experts believe was probably made by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Susini (1580-1624). The piece is now in London and will be auctioned off by Christie’s on July 29th; with a pre-sales estimate of somewhere around $40k.


Selling Sargent

And finally, returning to the Gilded Age where we began, Bonham’s announced this week that they will be selling this magnificent portrait by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) at their upcoming American Art sale in New York on July 29th. “Mrs. John C. Tomlinson” (c. 1904) may seem at first glance to be one of Sargent’s bread-and-butter society portraits, but it’s a prime example of why he’s one of the greatest of all American artists. Sargent simultaneously manages to capture both the elegance of the sitter, and the fact that she is not an aristocrat. This is the daughter of a self-made man, and the wife of another, who took full advantage of her education, her intelligence, her ability to travel, and the opportunity to have unique experiences. She looks out at us confidently as if to say, “I made it,” but yet she does so with a kind of warmth and almost a hint of mischief in her eyes, which manages to set her apart from the terrifying society matrons who dominated the New York of her day. The pre-sale on this one is $200-$300k, and given the fact that the market at present is dominated by buyers with exceptionally bad taste, it will probably go for that, but for those who understand such things this piece is worth far, far more.


Art News Roundup: Thinking Is Hard Edition

The ability to read and write does not automatically impart the ability to think – or indeed, the ability to write well.

Case in point, this week the always wince-worthy online art magazine Hyperallergic offered a rather juvenile, ill-informed take on the latest botched art restoration in Spain, a story I reported on in last week’s Art News Roundup. I won’t comment on the author’s specific opinions, since they speak for themselves. Nevertheless, it’s still worth pointing out something that often appears in art criticism of this kind: a demonstrable lack of understanding of the subject matter, subsumed beneath a muddle of feelings expressed at the expense of underlying research, reason, and analysis.

For example, as opposed to what is stated in the Hyperallergic piece, as well as what you may have read in similarly lazily-researched English-language commentary, the painting in question was NOT claimed in Spanish news reports (or indeed by The Guardian) to be by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) himself. Rather, the canvas is a later copy of one of his most popular works. The Murillo original, known as “The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial” (c. 1660) is, so far as I am aware, still hanging on a wall at The Prado in Madrid. Misreporting on this point has become so bad that ACRE, Spain’s Association of Conservers and Restorers who were interviewed when the story broke, had to put out a press release in English.


Now admittedly, I’m fluent in Spanish, and so it’s perhaps easier for me to read and understand art news stories in that language without the need of a translator. That being said, had the author noticed that in the very title of the video linked to in the Hyperallergic article appear the words, “copia desfigurada”, and then done a bit of basic due diligence to plug those words into, say, Google Translate, said author would presumably have realized that this was not an actual Murillo which had been ruined. This fact is not merely a distinction without a difference here, in that, not only does the assumption that the piece is by Murillo himself serve as a foundation for the rest of the article, but, as I argued in my own piece, there is a different level of analysis that needs to be employed when dealing with the destruction of a privately-owned copy of a work, when the original is already protected in a public collection.

As I often observe in these virtual pages, I read such things so that you don’t have to do so, but occasionally I like to share a particularly notable example of why you should be extremely wary of both the reporting and the opinions being put forward by the art media establishment.

With that said, let’s move on to some more enjoyable and interesting stories from the week gone by.

Hefty Hippos

Remember that eccentric bronze bathroom suite shaped like a hippopotamus family that I told you about back in April? A week ago the 1992 ensemble by French sculptor François-Xavier Lalanne (1927–2008) went for around $2.4 million at Sotheby’s Paris. My guess back in April was that the group’s pre-sale estimate was a bit too low, but in the end it landed roughly around the middle of the predicted range. The Robb Report, which follows the market for all sorts of high-end things, noted in reporting on the sale that purveyors of luxury goods “may be scrambling to deal with the fallout from the Coronavirus crisis, but collectors’ appetite for the truly ridiculous appears to be alive and well.” That may be, but given the slightly lackluster performance for such a very rare and charming group of functional sculptures, it’s only true up to a point.familie

Volcanic Vicissitudes

With a return to exhibitions beginning in museum world, it’s perhaps not surprising that an immersive exhibition on Pompeii and its destruction by Mount Vesuvius, which reopened yesterday in Paris, is proving to be popular with visitors who have been cooped up for months. What is surprising however, is a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which researchers speculate that another volcanic eruption, this time in Alaska in about 43 B.C., may have led to the end of both the Roman Republic and the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt. We know that a similar watershed moment occurred in 1600 B.C., in which the volcano that marked the center of the island of Santorini exploded, and may have led not only to the destruction of the Minoan Empire, but to colossal tidal waves and clouds of ash that were recorded from Egypt to China, as well as (possibly) giving rise to the legend of Atlantis. It’s interesting to consider that the reaction to this Alaskan event may have changed the course of Western history, including Western art. Meanwhile, “Pompeii” runs at the Grand Palais in Paris through September 27th, pandemic permitting.


Renaissance Reunion

I will freely admit that, until I read this story about the latest acquisition by The Mauritshuis, I had never heard of Batholomäus Bruyn (1493-1555), also known as Barthel Bruyn the Elder. Bruyn was a German artist, the most prominent working in the city of Cologne in the first half of the 16th century. While the bodies of the sitters here are somewhat disproportionate to their heads, the overall effect is one reminiscent of the crystalline clarity and immediacy that one finds in works by another German artist of the same period, Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), such as his glorious 1532 portrait of Hermann von Wedigh III now at The Met. It’s great to see that Mr. and Mrs. Omphalius are back together again after being separated for so long. And of course, one of the joys of learning about art is that you will never run out of subject matter on which to continue educating yourself: these connections and references draw us deeper into our understanding of the sweep of history, since new styles of art rarely emerge from a vacuum.



Art News Roundup: Fool Me Twice Edition

As you may have seen, gentle reader, yet another art restoration blunder in Spain has been making international headlines this week.

The owner of a 19th century copy of a painting generally known as “The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial” (c. 1660) by the great Spanish Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) decided that he wanted to have the object cleaned and restored. He paid an individual described as a “furniture restorer” in the city of Valencia to do the work, and the individual made a colossal cock-up of it, not once, but TWICE. One wonders why the owner didn’t immediately demand that the painting be returned after he saw the initial damage, which is really rather awful:


I’ve weighed in on this problem of botched interventions in Spain for years now, so it’s nice to see that The Guardian and other publications are starting to catch up with me, I suppose. When I’m in Spain, I spend a decent amount of time visiting art galleries and antiques dealers, and it sometimes causes me to raise an eyebrow when I see a particularly dingy, dodgy establishment advertised as providing art restoration and conservation, in addition to buying and selling. I also suspect that this is a far more widespread problem than just within Spain, but since the 2012 “Beast Jesus” incident became a worldwide phenomenon, stories like these allow readers to be directed back to previously published articles, just as I have done.

That being said, there’s an important distinction to be made between the previous infamies and the current uproar.

In the case of the “Beast Jesus”, or the day-glo painted statues of St. Anne and St. George, the objects in question were not the private property of an individual. Rather they were (broadly speaking) church property, located in parishes in small towns around the country, where there is often really little or no authority considering sacred art other than the opinion of the pastor himself. That lack of coordination and oversight remains an institutional problem, and it needs to be addressed by the country’s bishops.

Here however, the object in question is owned by an individual collector, not by the Church or a public institution. Much as one may lament the fact that the collector was so stupid as to send his painting to a furniture restorer rather than an art conservator, he has every right to dispose of his property as he chooses. One cannot foresee and thereby forestall every possible method by which a fool and his money are parted.

Passage of stricter standards in Spain and elsewhere concerning licensing, certification, and so on, as well as educating the public on the importance of seeking advice and intervention from a properly trained expert will no doubt cut down on the number of those who hold themselves out as being art restorers or conservators. Yet that won’t stop someone from turning their art object over to their brother-in-law or their neighbor’s niece for cleaning or retouching based on some element of good will rather than common sense. It remains the case that the remedy in such situations is not some sort of draconian law concerning the ownership of art objects, but rather the remedies afforded to the owners of such objects in the civil courts.

On a related note, then, do yourself a favor and go subscribe to one of the most fascinating channels on YouTube, Baumgartner Restoration. Chicago-based art restorer and conservator Julian Baumgartner posts videos showing what it takes to properly clean, restore, and preserve all kinds of work, whether it’s an Italian Renaissance altarpiece or an American landscape painting from the turn of the previous century. Sometimes he’s lucky, and the work goes fairly smoothly, but it’s the videos where the work is so damaged, or so filthy, that you can’t even imagine how he’s going to be able to save it, that are perhaps the most interesting viewing. You’ll come away with a greater appreciation, as I did when I had this 17th century painting restored, of just how many hours and hours of work and years of expertise are needed, in order to try to save a work of art that’s falling to pieces before your eyes.

And now, let’s take a look at some other eye-catching stories from the art world this week.

Tantalizing Taunt?

Like something out of a Hollywood screenplay, the thief who recently stole a Van Gogh from a museum in The Netherlands has provided what, in the case of a human kidnapping, we would call “proof of life” evidence. Art historian and art crime expert Arthur Brand contacted authorities when he obtained recent images of “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” (1884), which seem to indicate that the painting still exists. Mr. Brand has, understandably, not made any other information public, but one assumes that the photos are either part of or prelude to a ransom demand. As the Art Crime blog notes, another possibility may be, given that the newspaper shown features a story about Mr. Brand, that the individual may be “thumbing his nose” at the famous art detective, as if daring him to try to catch him. Stay tuned as this one develops.


Breuer Brokering

The last exhibition I was able to see in person was “Gerhard Richter: Painting After All”, a major retrospective of the Contemporary artist’s work (and rumored to be his final show in America) which opened at the Met Breuer on March 3rd. I saw the show on March 7th, posted some shots of it on Instagram here and here, and was preparing a review for the magazine when everything pretty much went to hell, and the museum was forced to close (along with just about everything else in New York) on March 12th. This week it was announced that the building, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art had leased from the Whitney Museum of American Art, and more importantly the Richter exhibition itself, would not be reopening, as the Met is transferring the lease to the Frick Gallery. The Frick is preparing for a major renovation and expansion, and while the mansion which houses the collection is undergoing construction, objects and operations will be moved to the Breuer Building. The structure, which has been described by people with appalling taste as “a work of art in and of itself”, ought to be demolished once the Frick moves back into its proper HQ – but I suspect that, unfortunately for those who have to live around it, that won’t be happening.


Wyeth Waterman

And finally, this week Christie’s opened a special online mini-exhibition titled “Wyeth’s World”, to advertise the private sale (no auction) of nine works by the great American painter Andrew Wyeth (1917–2009). The selection ranges from small, sketchy studies, to large works painted in tempera, one of Wyeth’s preferred mediums. Perhaps the best of the objects on offer is “Lobster Man (Forrest Wall)” (1948), a large watercolor shown in the photograph below. To me, it’s a classic image of Post-War America, and I particularly love the detail of the steam rising from the open thermos and coffee cup lid. No word on the asking price, but it must be somewhere in the six-figure range, I should think. The online exhibition runs through July 17th.