Category Archives: technology

>Yet Another New Old Master Discovery

>The Spanish press is reporting this morning about a potentially exciting find in the world of Old Master paintings which, if proven, will not only constitute an important discovery for the understanding of one of the greatest of all Old Master artists, but also demonstrate yet again how the use of the expert eye in tandem with increasingly sophisticated technological research in the field of art history is expanding the depth and breadth of our knowledge of Western art. Buried in the basement of the Yale University Art Gallery since sometime in the 1920′s, “The Education of the Virgin” is a scarred, forlorn canvas originally attributed to an unknown 17th century painter of the Seville school. It was donated to Yale as part of a collection amassed by a American shipping family that did business in Spain at the turn of the previous century.

The painting shows the Virgin Mary as a little girl, flanked by her mother St. Anne to her left, and her father St. Joachim to her right. St. Anne holds a book on her lap, and is pointing to a line in the text while guiding her daughter’s finger along the same line. The Virgin Mary, a beautiful little girl in a pink dress, stares out sweetly at the viewer who has seemingly interrupted the domestic scene. St. Joachim is leaning into the picture and is saying something to his wife; St. Anne appears to be listening intently and has momentarily stopped giving the reading lesson.

Some of the painting has been cut down at the top and bottom and at the side during its sad history, for truncated portions of at least two figures believed to be angels appear in the background. Genre details surround the figures, including elements which, as presented in the piece, themselves form what in Spanish art of this period is called a “bodegón”, or still life of things such as food and household items. There is even what looks to be a sleeping puppy at the foot of the side table.

In an article to be published next week in the print edition of Ars Magazine, John Marciari Ph.D., Curator of Italian and Spanish Painting and Head of Provenance Research at the San Diego Museum of Art and previously a curator at Yale, has concluded that this unloved canvas of circa 1615-1617 is in fact by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez. In a preview of the print article, Dr. Marciani notes that the combination of the appearance and style of the picture, as well as a technical analysis of the paints and the canvas itself, can only point to Velázquez as the painting’s author.

If Dr. Marciari is proved correct, this could be the earliest known painting by Velázquez, who was born in 1599; at the time of the estimated execution of this work he would have been between 16 and 18 years old. While this may seem incredibly early, Velázquez was in fact extremely precocious, not unlike other gifted young artists such as Raphael or Mozart. It is known that at the age of 12 he left his one-year apprenticeship with Seville artist Francisco de Herrera, and took up an apprenticeship in the workshop of the man who would later become his father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco. When he was 19, he married Pacheco’s daughter and subsequently left his native Seville for Madrid.

Pacheco’s style had a profound influence on the young Velázquez, and the works he began to generate during his earliest period tended to two types: genre scenes, and religious pictures which often appeared to be genre scenes. One of Velázquez’ earliest known canvases, “The Luncheon” of circa 1617, which is presently in the Hermitage, is of particular interest in the analysis of the possible new discovery. If we examine the figure leaning in from the left side of the picture, there is a striking similarity to the figure of St. Joachim in the Yale painting. We can also look at the circa 1618 canvas “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, now in the National Gallery London, which is a combination of genre picture and religious scene, noting the head and hand of the old woman (who is directing the servant girl on how to make a good Spanish ali-oli in the mortar and pestle), and comparing her to the Yale figure of St. Anne.

The Prado Museum, which houses the most important collection of Velázquez’ paintings in the world, has so far not commented on Dr. Marciari’s identification of the painting. However, a number of art experts both within Spain and internationally are recommending that the painting, which as described above is in a rather sorry state, be sent to Madrid for further technical analysis and investigation. Understandably, Yale is not going to undertake the expensive and painstaking process of restoration of the canvas if it cannot be definitively attributed to Velázquez. Naturally, any developments on this will be passed along to you, gentle reader.

Detail of “The Education of the Virgin” c. 1615-1617,
which may be a newly rediscovered painting by Velázquez.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, art history, painting, Prado, Spain, technology, Velazquez

>What We Know of Van Gogh

>Even as I am disappointed to discover that the Pope may not, in fact, be consecrating the Sagrada Familia this autumn [N.B. a couple of very misinformed visitor comments on that post, I must say] in the secular art world there has been yet another interesting discovery of a previously unknown work from an important artist. The Torygraph reports that a work which had previously been derided by many as a fake or a minor piece by a minor artist has now come to be accepted as an early work by Vincent van Gogh. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has confirmed that the piece, now in the collection of the Museum de Fundatie in the Dutch town of Zwolle, is almost certainly an early work by the Dutch post-impressionist master. This is part of the ongoing effort of the Van Gogh Museum to conduct highly advanced scientific tests, including digital scanning and microscopic analysis, on a number of purported works by Van Gogh to determine their authenticity, as was recently featured on PBS’ Nova: Science Now.

Van Gogh is a figure so well-known for his later, heavy pieces bordering on abstraction, employing the use of thick impasto and palette knife, that a more conventional Impressionist-style view such as this causes a jolt in our perceptions of him. We need to remember that all great artists, be they painters, musicians, or novelists, grow and change over time. Even Pablo Picasso, to the surprise of many not familiar with his work, could draw and paint like an accomplished master of academic realism if he wanted to – the point of course, was that he DIDN’T want to.

Take a look, for example, at Picasso’s “Science and Charity”, now housed in the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, and marvel at the fact that this highly technical piece was painted when Picasso was only 17 years old. This does not seem to be from the same hand that painted the famous “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in the MoMA Collection in New York just ten years later. Yet Picasso’s early experiences are the foundation for what came later; the two cannot be separated.

In the case of Van Gogh, we are not accustomed to seeing scenes of many figures in the Dutch master’s landscapes and cityscapes. His much-loved “Cafe Terrace at Night” painted in 1888, currently in the collection of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Holland, shows some figures, but they are quite far away from the viewer. The artist has distanced himself – and us – from the people portrayed, which if we want to play pop psychiatrist tells us a bit about Van Gogh himself at this stage in his career.

The newly-attributed painting, “Le Blute-Fin Mill”, was painted two years earlier than the “Cafe Terrace”. Van Gogh arrived in Paris for the first time in 1886, and this view of the Montmartre neighborhood dates from his first year in the French capital. Unlike the “Cafe Terrace”, here we seem to mingle with the crowds, rather than hide from them.

The staircase invites us to come enjoy the view of Paris from the top of the hill. Perhaps we will join the tourists who have climbed the windmill tower for a better vantage point, and along the way admire the beautiful ladies’ gowns. Even the two gentlemen at the bar-cafe at the bottom of the steps create a cheery mood in spite of the overcast skies, dressed in brightly colored coats and tall, polished boots. One gets the sense of people who want to get out and about, see and be seen, perhaps after having been cooped up for a few days because of rain or snow – something that many of my readers on the U.S. East Coast can no doubt appreciate.

For art historians, be they of the professional or armchair variety, the continued advance of technology provides us with exciting times. Just in the past year or so I have reported on discoveries of previously unknown or “lost” works by some of the great Western Old Masters, including Leonardo da Vinci, Velazquez, Rembrandt van Rijn, Titian, and Ribera. Such discoveries fill in our understanding of the development of the artist’s technique and style, leading to a better appreciation of their work.

Leave a comment

Filed under Amsterdam, art, art history, discovery, Paris, Picasso, science, technology, Van Gogh

>Riding the Google Wave

>Last evening a coterie of area bloggers met at Leopold’s Kafe-Konditorei to share our experiences over the past holiday and our plans for the upcoming ones. And as often happens among bloggers, the conversation turned to tekkie matters. One topic under discussion was Google Wave, the experimental new service from Google which can roughly be described as Email 2.0. Currently available only by invitation, and so new so as not yet available even in a beta format, Google Wave hopes to combine the utility of email with the immediacy of instant messaging, to allow multiple users to work together in something like real time.

When I first learned about Google Wave some months ago on G4′s nerdfest “Attack of the Show” – a program which, regrettably, is becoming increasingly puerile and politicized – I immediately contacted a friend who I thought might be able to snag us some invites to use the service. The limited number of invitations available made it quite the hot ticket in geekdom. Not long after the coveted invite arrived, thanks to a kind fellow out in the Twitter universe, and I began to ride the Wave.

The experience of using Google Wave is somewhat difficult to describe. It is a bit like a more complex instant message conversation, in which users can type text, add media, add additional users to the conversation, and go back and edit the content later. The entire thing is saved in a “wave”, which can be played back in sequence almost like watching a film, showing who entered the discussion, and who added or changed something and at what point it happened.

In terms of practicality, my initial impression (and one which I still hold) is that Google Wave is primarily useful for those working on a joint project of some kind. If you are crafting a proposal for work or for school, planning a trip among a group of friends, or trying to obtain suggestions to address some need or problem, Google Wave would be a good way to go about collecting and reviewing this information. Rather than going back and reading multiple and confusing replied-to emails (with the usual instruction of “start reading from the bottom”) Google Wave allows multiple users to get up to speed quickly and in an interesting, visual way, even if they were not originally parties to the conversation.

However, for general purposes I find Google Wave not to have lived up to the hype which accompanied initial media reports. It is clunky and difficult to customize, for a start, and when logging in I have found myself without any waves at all to read, even though I have not deleted any from my inbox. It can take two or three attempts to log in before the waves reappear.

Google Wave’s utility, while certainly good for some users in theory, seems to be limited. I simply do not know what to do on a regular basis so as to justify my continued use of it. A friend in the media and marketing industry recently told me that he and his office, certainly one of the key groups that Google Wave would be targeted to, have not found it practical. Even the reporter on “Attack of the Show” who initially reported on Google Wave with such enthusiasm and fostered my interest in obtaining an invitation, commented on last night’s program that he found Google Wave to be useless.

As more invitations to Google Wave start to spread, it is possible that a greater number of users will lead to a greater utility for this service. However, without improved support for the site or indications as to what the average user can do with the program, for now it remains a toy with limited appeal to the general public. Replacing our current understanding of email with waves is going to take more investment and tinkering in order to make it both functional and practical.

Leave a comment

Filed under blogs, communication, email, G4, Google, internet, marketing, technology

>History, Science, and Greed

>Regular readers of this blog know that I pass along information regarding interesting re-discoveries of works by the Old Masters. In fact, when I was studying at Sotheby’s in London, one of the key areas I focused on was the market for Spanish Old Master paintings. For those who do not know much about art history, the term “Old Master” is a somewhat loose one, but for our general purposes refers to works of art such as paintings, sculptures, and drawings created between 1300-1800 A.D. It includes names such as Michelangelo, Rubens, and Van Eyck, but not artists such as the Impressionists, Picasso, or Rodin.

Because the Old Masters are long-dead, logic would normally dictate that there are no new works of art by their hands to be found. However, logic does not take into account three important factors when it comes to this area of art collecting: the vagaries of history, scientific innovation, and unadulterated greed. All three should be remembered when news reports surface of a “new” Old Master work of art having been found.

History, for example, does not always provide a clear accounting of what happened to a particular piece of art. A comparatively recent example of this occurred during World War II. The Nazis looted art from all over Europe, including museums, private collections, churches, and public institutions. As shown in the remarkable book and documentary “The Rape of Europa”, many of these works were not properly cataloged, and the present-day location of others remains unknown. It is possible that in another hundred years, for example, some long-lost masterpiece by Rembrandt might turn up in the guest bedroom of someone whose great-grandfather stormed a castle back in 1943 and took what he could find.

The second factor is the increasingly precise ability of science to examine with microscopic detail every aspect of a work of art, be it brush strokes, finger prints, chemical composition of materials used in an artwork, etc. While not a failsafe against the product of a skilled art forger, it does assist the art historian in determining the authenticity of a piece, as well as in aiding in the attribution of a work to a particular Old Master or to a second-rate copyist or follower. Recent examples of this have been reported on this blog previously, such as the discovery of a portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci or in the three altarpieces by Giusepe Ribera found in Granada Cathedral. However, there is a great deal of tension between the scientific community, with its unfailing belief in the neutrality of machines, and the art history community and its equally unfailing belief in the power of the experienced human eye to render a correct attribution.

The final factor of these three is that old human bugbear, greed. Historical research and scientific progress notwithstanding, those reporting on rediscoveries of Old Masters need to be wary of unsupported claims by museums or collectors seeking to convince the public that their pumpkin is, in fact, a glass coach. A collection which contains works by important Old Masters is going to be more prestigious than one made up largely of second-rate works in a poor state of preservation, and the publicity (or indeed, notoriety) gained by an announcement that a work by a major Old Master artist has been found and restored to public view will generate additional revenue by way of increased visitors, charitable donations, government funding, and so on. The temptation to attribute a work of art to a famous name became so overwhelming in the last century that there were some real howlers: works that could in no way be ascribed with any seriousness to the artist whose name appeared on the placard accompanying it.

One of the greatest of the Old Master painters is Tiziano Vecelli (1490-1576), more commonly known as “Titian”, who was arguably the best of the painters working in Venice during the Renaissance. He is particularly well-regarded for his portraits and his mythological scenes, and during his lifetime he was extremely popular with the wealthiest of the wealthy throughout Europe. Titian’s famous equestrian portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain, for example, showing Charles at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1548, is one of the finest jewels of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Yesterday the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine, announced its conclusion that a portrait in its collection, appearing to show one of the Doges of Venice, is a work by Titian. A “Doge” was the elected leader of the Venetian Republic during the Renaissance, and the museum claims that x-rays and other scientific evidence have established that the piece was painted by Titian, one of the greatest of the Old Master painters. However, art experts are cautious to accept the attribution for the time being, because the conclusion was drawn not by art historians, but by technicians.

“The analysis shows that the canvas matches Titian’s historical period,” noted the head of the Western Art department at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, “that the paint used matches his paint, that certain technical attributes match up. But based on that it is impossible to judge whether the painting is a Titian. That is the work of art historians, not technical experts.”

Whether the portrait turns out to be a work by Titian or no, its discovery is an example of what will be an increasing tension between the scientific and art history communities. Scientists will insist that machines cannot be fooled; art historians will insist that no machine can match the experienced “good eye” of someone who has spent their entire career examining works of art in minute detail. And greed will no doubt have its say as well, as it always has in the world of those fascinated by Old Master works of art.

The painting in question, from Finland’s Suomen Kuvalehti

Leave a comment

Filed under art, art history, history, Old Masters, science, technology, Titian

>It’s Not the End of the World

>Early last week, having dropped my mobile on the way home and smashed it into several pieces, I was displeased to discover that, like Humpty Dumpty, I could not put it back together again. This calamity necessitated a visit to my local mobile phone service spot, and waiting for a part to arrive, leaving me without mobile communication for a couple of days. Still having a landline as a back-up, I was not completely incommunicado, but then I hardly use my landline anymore as it is.

Then sometime on Thursday of this past week, as the mobile returned, the high speed internet connection at Casa Courtier went out. The connection subsequently came back to life sua sponte on Thursday evening, but on Friday morning it went out again, and remained unavailable until last evening. The technician was able to repair it remotely, or at least so it appeared. Then this morning, the connection decided to go out again, which will involve another round of 30 telephone calls to who knows how many individuals in order to restore service.

We have become so technologically dependent, as a society, that these annoyances can take on the scale of monumental tragedies, at times. What time does that shop open on Sundays? What is the exact address of that restaurant? Did anyone respond to my (in my mind) clever and pithy comment on that blog post of so-and-so’s? If I unplug and reboot the modem AND the router several times, when oh when will I get service again?

None of these things are so important as to herald the advent of the Four Horsemen, of course. For most of us, if we come down to brass tacks, they are conveniences, and their absence constitutes an inconvenience and little else. Yet we find ourselves feeling strangely vulnerable, even trapped, when these electronic things go wrong. Having taken and bitten into the apple of technology, we find ourselves unable to stop nibbling at it, even for an interval, and our addiction becomes all the more apparent when the fruit is snatched, even momentarily, from our grasp.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned here, dare I speculate that I will quickly forget this moment of reflection on the subject, is that technology and electronic connectivity is a good thing, but it is not something that engenders actual connections between human beings. Do I *need* to be logged into GChat all the time? Do I really have to listen to my iPod every evening? Why should I leave my mobile turned on 24-7?

For some, certainly those who work in the digital world and in communications, the answer to these questions is probably, “Yes.” For those of us who can more easily compartmentalize our lives, if we truly want to, the answer is surely, “No.” The real question for those in the latter category is whether we are brave enough to shut our devices off voluntarily, even if only from time to time, and make an effort to either enjoy the quiet, or to take the initiative to initiate an actual connection in real time.

Leave a comment

Filed under technology