Who’s That Chap? UK Art Detective Is On The Case

I recently became aware of an online art forum which could prove to be highly addictive.

The charitable group known as ArtUK began in 2003 as the “Public Catalogue Foundation”, a charitable group dedicated to cataloguing all of the oil paintings held in British public collections, the vast majority of which are not on view due to limited resources. In 2016, the Foundation was rebranded to the more user-friendly moniker of “ArtUK”, and currently holds information on over 200k pictures. Future plans for the charity include cataloguing all of the thousands of works of sculpture held in public trust throughout Britain.

Among the stated goals of the group is increasing the amount of available information about publically-owned works of art, “through crowdsourcing expertise.” One of the ways in which the public can get involved in this effort is through participating in the online forum called “Art Detective” hosted on ArtUK’s website. Works such as this early 20th-century portrait of a previously-unknown figure are posted in a discussion thread, and participants can use their own knowledge and expertise to comment and attempt to help public institutions gain greater knowledge about the works in their care through a collaborative effort.

(c) Royal Free Hospital; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

At this point, for example, we now know that this formerly unidentified painting is a portrait of Dr. Charles Brehmer Heald (1882–1974), a physician at the Royal Free Hospital in London. From clues such as the hairstyle, clothing, and apparent age of the subject, consensus seems to be that the picture dates to sometime before World War I. Dr. Heald would have been in his mid- to late-30’s, and he’s dressed as a stylish chap of his era would be: high tab collar, large mustache, and the sort of slicked back, long on top/short on the sides hairstyle that the Edwardians often favored. The next big question, now that the sitter has been identified, is to figure out who painted this portrait, and when and where they did so.

Currently there are over 300 such discussions posted on Art Detective, but I suspect as more potential users become aware of this resource, they’ll want to get involved. People love a good mystery, and they also love sharing their personal expertise, in order to help others who may have gotten bogged down in something they’re working on. Much as people researching their ancestry, trying to build a cosplay suit, or growing heirloom tomatoes can sometimes get stuck trying to locate information or ideas, art identification is an area where many public museums, galleries, and historic houses can benefit from contributions not just from art experts, but from people with interests in a wide variety of fields, such as armor and weapons, period costume, social history and customs, local genealogy, and so on.

Take this painting of a fellow who lived several centuries before Dr. Heard, for example. This may be a portrait of Christopher Herbert (1532/1533 (?)–25 June 1590), one-time Lord Mayor of the city of York. He was an exact contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, and a member of a large and important Yorkshire family. The ArtUK discussion on this painting reveals that there is some dispute over which member of the Herbert family he might be, and the posts contain some interesting history about that clan’s genealogy and activities during the 16th and 17th centuries.


One of the particularly interesting discussions in the forum on the subject of authorship concerns whether this is a work by Antonio Moro – or more properly, Anthonis Mor (c.1517-1577), a Dutch artist who spent a great deal of time in the service of the Spanish Habsburgs. While Mor spent a great deal of time in Spain, he also got back home to The Netherlands many times, and visited England on at least a few occasions. In 1553 for example, he was sent to London to paint a very famous portrait of the Emperor Charles V’s first cousin, Mary I, the only surviving child of Henry VIII and the Emperor’s aunt, Katherine of Aragon, at the time of Mary’s coronation as Queen of England. You be the judge as to whether the Herbert portrait is by Mor, but at first glance, there is much to suggest that it might be.

There’s much more of this sort of thing on the ArtUK website, and it’s encouraging to see how UK institutions are making use of this resource to better inform themselves, historians, and the public about the art currently held in public trust. It’s also interesting that there isn’t – so far as I’m aware – anything else like this online at the moment in the US, or indeed for ordinary people. On the public side of things, it would be great to see the development of a national database of all of the paintings held in public collections around the country.

In addition, I suspect that there’s a big, untapped market for this kind of identification on the private side of things as well, otherwise shows like Antiques Roadshow would not be running for years and years. There are a few paintings in my personal collection that are not hugely valuable – or not valuable enough to pay an art historian to go research, anyway – where I have little information on either the artist or the subject, and about which I’d like to learn more through crowdsourcing. Perhaps one of my readers with technical savvy and an entrepreneurial bent could come up with something like this for amateur art collectors? I bet there are quite a few advertisers – Ebay, 1stDibs, Chairish – who would love to target visitors to such a forum.

Unseen Sargent: The Boredom Of Madame X

I wanted to share a little gem – well, a few gems – that I stumbled across the other day, while watching a lecture on American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). You’re probably familiar with Sargent’s justly famous “Madame X” (1883-84) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as it’s become one of the most iconic images in art history; Sargent himself once referred to it as probably “the best thing I have done.” There’s a bit of irony regarding its status as a great American work of art, since Sargent spent the bulk of his time working in Europe, the portrait was painted in Paris, and its subject was a young American social climber who had married a French banker and emigrated to France.

Be that as it may, this image of the statuesque and sultry Madame X, or Madame Pierre Gautreau to give her proper name, has influenced artists, advertisers, and designers for generations. The composition is a deceptively simple one: a young woman in a black evening gown is shown standing next to a small table, whose top she is grasping and slightly leaning upon. It’s become so familiar that we can’t imagine seeing it any other way. What’s interesting to think about however, is that Sargent began with the idea of portraying Madame X sitting down.

By all accounts model and artist at first got on well, since they saw the creation of this painting as a way for both of them as ex-patriate Americans to move up in Parisian high society. Unfortunately for Sargent, his model had rather a short attention span, and it was difficult for him to get to her pose or pay attention to what he wanted for very long. Perhaps this is why he seemed to linger over the idea of portraying her sitting rather than standing, and we have a number of images of her sitting, with or without a book as a prop. Take a look at these sketches, which show some of the ideas that Sargent toyed with when creating this painting (I particularly like this first one):

Seeing these is a bit like seeing a photograph from a movie set during a break in the filming, where Han Solo and Chewbacca are still in costume, but they’re having a chat with George Lucas. We recognize the elements of Sargent’s finished painting – the face with its pointed nose and highly arched brows, the upswept hair, the black mermaid dress with the plunging neckline and the jeweled shoulder straps – but we see them in preparation, not in their final configuration.

I’m reminded a bit in that first sketch of a painting by fellow American ex-pat artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), painted a few years before Sargent’s work, which is now in the National Gallery here in Washington. “Little Girl In A Blue Armchair” (1878) displays the kind of languor on the part of the sitter that perhaps Sargent was struggling to capture in his initial design phase. Here, the model has given up all pretense of cooperating. Her puppy has curled up in the next chair, in anticipation of its mistress being told that she now may go out and play. Like Madame X, this little girl has pretty much had it with the whole art thing by this point.

Fortunately for those of us who love his work, Sargent left a wealth of sketches to admire and study, which tell us a great deal about how his technique, and how he came up with the ideas which he later translated into paint. Yet I think these sketches in particular, for arguably his most famous (or infamous) painting are revealing in a different way. They show us not only a great mind at work, but they also show us how, even a century and a half ago, people just could not sit still and pay attention for very long. 

One can only speculate how much time Madame X would have spent on Instagram.

Out Of The Fire: Relic From A Lost Art Collection

A very exciting art find to pass along to you this morning, if like me you love the work of Diego Velázquez (and if you don’t, we’re going to have words.)

Art historian Bendor Grosvenor reports that the American Friends of the Prado Museum has made a long-term donation to the Madrid institution of a newly-discovered preparatory painting by Velázquez, the greatest of all Spanish painters. It depicts Philip III of Spain, and was likely a portrait study for a lost historical work, “The Expulsion of the Moriscos”, which was painted in 1627.

The completed work was part of a series of enormous historical paintings by Velázquez which hung in the Royal Alcázar (“Fortress”) of Madrid. The fortress was originally built by the Moors during their occupation of Spain, and was later added to by successive Spanish monarchs. It was destroyed by a massive fire in 1734, and “The Expulsion” went up in flames along with it.

The fire in the Alcázar spread so rapidly, that the Royal Family had to quickly decide what to save. They managed to save most of the religious items from the chapel, but due to their size and location, many works of art on the upper floors had to be abandoned. Velázquez’ masterpiece, “Las Meninas”, was only just spared from the flames when it was taken out of its original frame and thrown from a window.

The burning of the Alcázar is one of the greatest tragedies in art history, when we look at the inventory of what was lost. Over 500 paintings were destroyed, among them works by Velázquez, Bosch, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, and Van Dyck. If one were to construct a museum containing only the works that had been destroyed in the fire, it would be considered one of the greatest in the world. This also gives us some impression of just how wealthy Spain used to be.

Today when you visit Madrid, the present Royal Palace (known as the “Palacio de Oriente”) stands on the site of the original Alcázar. It is an 18thcentury Baroque behemoth, sumptuously decorated on the inside, and the largest European palace still in use as a royal residence (it is almost twice the size of Buckingham Palace in London.) While there are still some important works of art inside the building, most of the great art which was formerly here is now in the Prado Museum.

Fortunately for me, I’ll be at The Prado in about two weeks, so I can examine this rediscovered Velázquez for myself. In reading about some of the stylistic and technical analysis that went into the attribution of this work, I’m very interested in looking at it up close, so I can see whether I agree. No, I’m not qualified to make that decision on a professional level, but part of the fun when this sort of thing happens in the art world is to go along and see the piece, in order to decide whether you think the experts got it right. Stay tuned for details.