The Courtier And The Federalist: Seeing Sargent

I am pleased to share that today marks my first – and hopefully not my last – appearance in The Federalist, the well-known blog on culture, politics, and religion. In today’s post, “John Singer Sargent Reveals The Private Lives Of The Rich And Famous”, I take my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and their current exhibition, “Yours Sincerely, John S. Sargent” as a touchstone, and invite readers to get to know the work of one of the greatest American painters. In the process, I ask that we reflect on what we think we see when looking at his art, and indeed at ourselves. My thanks to Ben Domenech and everyone at The Federalist for this opportunity to share my thoughts with their audience.

And now I must beg you a favor:

If you like or dislike what you read, gentle reader, please comment on the piece over at The Federalist site. If you think it a not-terrible bit of writing, do let the editors there know by saying so in the comments. Oftentimes the only comments one receives are criticism, but compliments can be just as helpful to the writer and his editors. Of course if you think the piece rather inferior, do please leave feedback as to how it could be improved upon. Interest drives page views in online media, and I can only improve as a writer if I am told what readers like and do not like about my work.

Thank you again for your support!

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What Lies Beneath: Technology Reveals Hidden Art Treasure

In a study published today in the journal Applied Physics A, scientists have revealed some fascinating discoveries concerning a work by the great Dutch artist Rembrandt von Riijn (1606-1669) – revealing a painting which has not seen the light of day for nearly 400 years.

Art researchers were long aware that underneath The Getty’s portrait, “An Old Man in Military Costume”, painted circa 1630-1631, another portrait existed. The image was first perceived in the 1960’s through x-rays of the panel, but until now only a ghostly idea of the appearance of the original painting was known. Forty years later, using a number of modern imaging techniques, scientists have been able to digitally reconstruct what remains of the original image, which is reproduced below.   

This is not the first time a Rembrandt has been perceived to lie beneath a Rembrandt. If you’ve seen – and if you’ve not, you should – the very interesting Frederick Wiseman documentary, “National Gallery”, about London’s finest art museum, you’ll recall that as a result of cleaning and study of Rembrandt’s equestrian portrait of Frederick Rihel (c. 1663), another painting by Rembrandt was discovered. Not only did the artist re-use the painting itself, but he incorporated a few elements of the first image into the image we see today. Strangely, this was possible even though in doing so, Rembrandt rotated the canvas 90 degrees, from a horizontal to a vertical orientation.

Rembrandt was not the only artist to use old paintings as the base for new ones. In addition to which, museums have been x-raying pictures for decades now, trying to understand their composition and oftentimes determine their authorship, through close examination against known examples by the same artist. Yet because of the possibilities offered by high resolution scanners and the like, more and more researchers are finding themselves having to reconsider what they thought they knew about artists whom they have spent their entire careers studying.

The first point to be made about this, quite naturally, is an easy one: ain’t modern times grand? Technology has advanced to the point where, without invasive techniques, scientists are able to go about their work without irreparably damaging what it is that they are studying. In archaeology for example, until comparatively recently the only way to tell whether anything was inside a tomb was by excavating it. Now, in one of the most intriguing theories in contemporary Egyptology, there is serious discussion about using ground-penetrating radar to determine whether Queen Nefertiti, purported mother of King Tut – i.e., the Pharaoh Tutankhamun  – is buried in a hitherto unknown sealed chamber next to his burial in the Valley of the Kings. This latest theory regarding the final resting place of the most famous of all Egyptian beauties, as it happens, only came to light through the use of modern technological analysis of the tomb, in combination with existing research on architecture of the period.

Now for those who are not particularly interested in art or archaeology, these advancements with regard to perceiving things which we cannot perceive with the naked eye can be of tremendous personal benefit. For example, if you have undergone a sonogram to examine the health of your unborn baby, you know that catching potential problems early can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your health, as well as that of your child. Not to mention, of course, that you will be able to carry around a photographic still from the sonogram to show family and friends.

For those who *are* interested in the arts however, the use of technology to gain greater insight into the means and methods by which great works of art were created, and ancient buildings constructed, is only going to improve over time. One suspects that more museums and galleries are going to seek analysis of their paintings, to try to figure out what is sitting in front of them, covered by a thin veil of paint. Perhaps it will even be possible, one day, to remove the top layer of paint on a molecular level and transfer it to canvas, and for the curator to suddenly find himself the proud caretaker of not one, but two Old Master paintings.

Admittedly, that might be going a bit far, but who knows? Fifty years ago, no one knew that the Getty Rembrandt was painted over another Rembrandt. It took forty years to be able to “see” that earlier Rembrandt properly. We have no idea what the next forty or fifty years will bring.

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Magnificent Portrait Of Sir Andrew Wiles By Rupert Alexander Unveiled

This morning as I perused various art news sites, I came across the striking image of a man seated in a leather armchair, painted in cool shades of blues and greens. The image was a new portrait of Sir Andrew John Wiles, who came to international fame back in the early 1990’s for having proved Fermat’s Last Theorem, one of the thorniest problems in mathematics.  The work was commissioned for the primary collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London, and has just gone on display there. I was thrilled – but ultimately not surprised – to discover that the painting is by my friend, artist Rupert Alexander.

As the artist explained in the Gallery’s press release, the unusual color palette relates the work to the field of mathematics itself. “I wanted to convey the cerebral world Sir Andrew inhabits,” he noted, “but rather than doing so by furnishing the composition with books or the obligatory blackboard of equations, I tried to imply it simply through the light and atmosphere. Mathematics appears to me an austere discipline, so casting him in a cool, blue light seemed apt.” 

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time working in front of a computer screen or beneath fluorescent task lighting will immediately recognize the tonalities in this painting. The almost aquatic colors that surround us when we are up late at night, working on a project or even just catching up on social media, differ substantially from the more yellow-toned hues cast by incandescent lightbulbs or sunlight. These cool colors are those of a present yet distant environment, one of significant human thought and reason, but which remains ultimately somewhat mysterious to most of us. That ethereal quality, of the mind pursuing the unknown, is difficult to put across effectively in paint, yet in this case, the portrait succeeds handsomely in evoking that world of the mind.

What is also particularly striking about the piece is the fact that the artist took a great risk here, in going outside of what one might reasonably expect both in a commissioned portrait, and indeed from the artist’s own work. While employing the same highly skilled technique that reminds the viewer of premiere Old Master painters such as Velázquez, here he goes out on a limb to create something indicating his willingness to try something different – not so much to show that he can do it, but because it actually makes sense in context. For note how, without including a single visual cue as to what in fact Sir Andrew does with his time, by his careful choice of colors the artist immediately causes us to conclude, “Aha! This is a man of science.” That is truly a remarkable feat.

“Sir Andrew Wiles” is the first, but one expects not the last, portrait by Rupert Alexander to enter the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Next time you find yourself in London, do drop by and have a look for yourself. And my hearty congratulations to the artist both on this achievement, and for creating a truly compelling and well-thought-out work of art.  

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(L to R) Artist Rupert Alexander; Sir Andrew Wiles; Director of the National Portrait Gallery Dr. Nicholas Cullinan