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.

Herbert

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.

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Thought-Pourri: Garish Gods Edition

I received a very gracious email this week from Dr. Diana Kleiner at Yale University, thanking me for my positive review of her survey course on Roman Architecture. She wanted me to let my readers know that the course is also available at Coursera, and those who wish to do so can make it a more fully interactive experience there with class assignments, projects, and the like. Again, even if you have only a passing interest in architecture, I strongly recommend this course as both highly interesting and informative, whether you want to understand the types of concrete construction or dome engineering methods employed by the Ancient Romans, or you just want to know the best spots for gelato in the Eternal City (Dr. Kleiner’s got you covered, there.)

And now, on to the news.

Classical Colors

Speaking of classical architecture, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor has just opened a fascinating new exhibition titled “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World”. Many ancient buildings and the sculptures that decorated them were decorated with vibrant, sometimes garish colors that have faded or disappeared over time, but today scientists can use advanced technology to present us with fairly accurate approximations of what these things originally looked like. For most people it’s rather startling to realize that the stark, white or gray public buildings which we commonly see around our cities and towns, though often based on classical originals, would be considered unfinished by someone from ancient Knossos, Athens, or Rome, thanks to their lack of color. The exhibition runs through January 7, 2018.

Exhibit

Mini Murillo

Meanwhile here on the East Coast, The Frick in New York has just opened a small show on portraiture by the great Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). One of the most popular and influential artists of his time, particularly in the area of religious painting, Murillo is among the most important painters of Spain’s artistic Golden Age of the late 16th to early 18th centuries. While he painted very few portraits, this compact exhibition at The Frick contains 5 of them, including three members of the upper classes in the Seville of Murillo’s day, as well as the only two self-portraits of the artist known to exist. They display a kind of restrained genius and lack of overt sentimentality which makes them particularly appealing to a present-day audience. Murillo: The Self Portraits at The Frick runs through February 4, 2018, and then will head to the National Gallery in London.

Murillo

Strasbourg Shuffle

Last week, the French city of Strasbourg symbolically returned two paintings to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. I write, “symbolically”, because thanks to existing cultural repatriation agreements between Austria and France, the pictures are going to stay where they are for now, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. The works in question are a “Landscape with Mercury and Argus” attributed to the Flemish Renaissance painter Lucas Gassel (1499-1570), and a fantastical landscape painting with animals (including an American Bison?) being rampant all over the place titled “The Earthly Paradise” by the Dutch Mannerist painter Roelandt Savery ( 1576-1639). Neither of these artists is particularly important, frankly, though perhaps Savery is comparatively better-known, thanks to his several rather extraordinarily luxurious depictions of the dodo bird. Curiously, these paintings were looted from the Vienna museum by the Nazis during the Anschluss, in order to decorate the Reichskanzler headquarters in Berlin, but no one quite seems to know how they ended up in Alsace-Lorraine after the war.

Gassel

Paradiso

Valuing Vigée Le Brun

Regular readers will recall my review in The Federalist of the major Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) retrospective at The Met last year, which included most of the best royal and aristocratic portraits created by Queen Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter. Perhaps in the wake of heightened awareness of the artist generated by that show, Christie’s New York has just auctioned a (very beautiful) self-portrait of the (very beautiful) artist for over $1.5 million: more than three times its estimated sales price. The picture was painted in Vienna in 1794, one of several cities where Vigée Le Brun and her daughter lived after fleeing the French Revolution. While not a record sales price for the artist, the result at least suggests the possibility that greater awareness of the artist’s work among potential collectors, thanks in part to the 2016 exhibition, has correspondingly led to an increase in the perceived monetary value of her work: a well-documented phenomenon in the art trade.

LeBrun

 

“Savior” For Sale: Is This Da Vinci Painting Worth $100 Million?

Most of the time, art news doesn’t get front page treatment in general interest news outlets, but occasionally one comes across exceptions. Such an exception cropped up just yesterday afternoon, when both the art press and the mainstream media reacted to the announcement that the “Salvator Mundi” (“Savior of the World”), the only known painting by Leonardo Da Vinci remaining in private hands, will be auctioned next month at Christie’s in New York, with an estimated sale price of $100 million. Rediscovered and authenticated by experts only a few years ago, this extremely rare work is attracting the kind of public attention and curiosity that those of us who plod along following developments in the art world almost never get to see.

Salv

As Christie’s explains in a very thorough press release and accompanying video announcing the sale, the painting dates to around 1500, and represents Christ as the Savior of the world. The pose and imagery in this picture have a long history in Christian art, but Da Vinci’s particular take on this subject is somewhat startling; while Art Net called it “spooky”, I think the more appropriate word here would be, “intense”. (If you want genuinely creepy, Da Vinci’s “St. John the Baptist” takes the cake, as far as I’m concerned.)

Baptist

Now that the “Salvator Mundi” is on the public radar, there is going to be an enormous amount of interest in both the picture itself, and what it will ultimately sell for. As to the former, take for example the following excerpt, from an instant message that I received overnight:

“Is it my imagination, or is Christ’s face bisected vertically by shadow and emphasis for artistic effect? Indeed, the impression was so strong that I had to draw a line on my monitor to determine that his eyes were on the same level, so disconnected they seemed.

If my impression is accurate, I’d imagine this was an intentional reference to His divine and human natures. Thoughts?”

To be fair to my interlocutor, I’m not versed enough in Da Vinci’s methods or intentions to be able to state with any certainty that what he describes was the artist’s intent, particularly given the artist’s somewhat heterodox views on Christianity, but it’s certainly a plausible argument. We know that Da Vinci was one of the earliest Renaissance artists to remove any haloes or emblems of royalty from the portrayal of religious subjects, which would fit in with the notion of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. We also know from his many notebooks that Da Vinci studied areas of science which had a direct impact on the final appearance of his work, such as human anatomy and linear perspective. His “Vitruvian Man” drawing – another extremely well-known work of his that pops up all over the place – most clearly demonstrates this.

Vit

Part of the issue with the “Salvator Mundi” however, is that it’s not exactly in good nick. The face has clearly suffered from over-cleaning, so much so that the eyes are not nearly as intense today, in their faded state, as they would have been when they were new. That penetrating gaze which captures and holds our attention would be even more intense, if the painting was better-preserved.

As to the $100 million price tag, this seems to be a figure based more on rarity rather than overall quality. Despite being (arguably) the most famous of all Old Master painters, Da Vinci’s artistic legacy rests largely upon a handful of paintings, and of course his famous sketchbooks. He was never a prolific artist, too often experimented with technical methods that failed, and worse still he was easily distracted by other, non-artistic projects. He was also infamous for starting pictures that he never finished, as in his painting of “St. Jerome in the Wilderness”.

Jerome

Yet despite his relatively tiny output, many of Da Vinci’s surviving works have had and continue to have a profound influence not only on art, but also on theology, philosophy, psychology, fashion, literature, science, film, music, and so on. Just think of all the pop culture references you still come across on a regular basis recalling the most famous portrait in the world, his “Mona Lisa”, or the most well-known Christian painting in the world, his “Last Supper”, more than five centuries after they were painted. Da Vinci may not have created a lot of art, but of what he did create, he has no rival in terms of penetration and saturation of the popular imagination.

Mona

Last

Now truth be told, I’ve never liked Da Vinci’s work. I find his androgynous figures unappealing, his coloring murky, and his inability to see a project through to completion to be a character flaw, rather than a mark of great intelligence. There does come a point at which, whatever inherent genius someone may have, their inability to complete the task before them within the time allotted becomes a stumbling block, rather than a trifle to be overlooked. You’re of course welcome to disagree, but I’ve always been more impressed with the almost celestial combination of genius AND facility in the work of Raphael and Mozart than I am with the tortured writhing of Michelangelo and Beethoven.

At the same time, I don’t think that $100 million is too outlandish a sum to name for the sale of the only known Da Vinci painting that is, in fact, available for sale. While the “Salvador Mundi” is never going to become as famous as some of the other Da Vinci images that are part of our collective consciousness, it is nevertheless a hugely significant work from an art history perspective. As a rare object, even one that is something of a shadow of its former self, it will no doubt attract a and deserve a lot of attention from those who could afford the exceptionally high price of becoming its next owner.