Art News Roundup: Houston, We Have A Velázquez Edition

As I spent a big chunk of yesterday in bed with a cold, here’s your day late, but hopefully not a dollar short, roundup of some interesting news from the art world for this week. For yours truly, the really interesting news this week is that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston has recently re-attributed a painting in its permanent collection to the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The canvas, titled “Kitchen Maid”, is believed to date to around 1620, when the young artist was working in his native Seville.


Two other pieces by Velázquez, which were already very familiar to me, are related to this one. More obviously, there is a larger-sized depiction of a kitchen interior with the same model, now at the Art Institute of Chicago, and it’s probable that the Houston piece was a study or work-up for the finished version. Not many of Velazquez’ studies or drawings survive, unfortunately, so as a clue to his working method the newly attributed painting should prove to be a major object of study for both art historians and conservators.


The other piece to which the painting is related is Velázquez’ “Kitchen Maid With The Supper At Emmaus” at the National Gallery of Ireland, from the same time period. This canvas is the most complex of the three, so it may well be that the Houston piece was the first study the artist made on canvas. That would make the Chicago picture, a second, more advanced composition, with the Dublin work as the final product. To have all three of these survive is rather unusual in art history, even though this practice was not uncommon at the time.


While it may seem odd for the artist to have placed what would normally be considered a background scene to the main action in the foreground, the precedent comes from Dutch paintings and engravings of the time; as part of the Counter-Reformation movement it allowed the faithful to more fully reflect upon and imagine themselves being present at Biblical moments. Moreover, this is not the only example of Velázquez using this concept in his art. His better-known “Christ In The House Of Martha And Mary” (c. 1618), now in the National Gallery in London, is almost a companion piece to the Dublin picture, in this respect.


While the attribution has not been fully put to the test, as is often the case the careful cleaning of dirt and varnish from the surface of an old, overlooked picture made all the difference for those experts who have examined it so far.

And now on to some other art news of interest.

Selfie Stupidity

Another day, another example of self-obsessed social media users ruining a work of art while trying to take a selfie with no thought for anyone but themselves. A group of women at an exhibition in the International Arts Center in the city of Yekaterinburg decided to take a picture of themselves, and in the process knocked over a display case (you can see a still of this below) containing engravings by Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Both pictures had their frames and glass damaged, but while the Goya appears to be fine, the Dalí was damaged from the glass shattering. Apparently no criminal charges will be brought against this group of Stygian witches, despite the museum requesting such action, but I would certainly love to bring a civil lawsuit against them.


Sparkling Seaside

Yes, I do actually recommend Contemporary Art from time to time, not just Old Masters, and so it is with great pleasure that I let you know that new works by British Contemporary artist Gordon Hunt (1958-) will go on show tomorrow at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, and it looks to be an exhibition well worth your time. As the Northeast begins to settle into the long, dark, gray of late Autumn, Hunt’s images of sun and sea, pleasure boats, and people enjoying the water in his native Cornwall or along the Mediterranean are a light-filled joy; you may even feel the need to break out your sunglasses for some of his sunset scenes. His sparkling, glowing technique is reminiscent of the work of the French Pointillist pioneer Georges Seurat (1859-1891), but updated for a modern audience. “Discovery: Contemporary Art Perspectives From England” is on show at Agora until December 1st.


Bidding for Binney

For reasons best known to itself, the Philadelphia Bar Association has decided that it has too many portraits of dead lawyers on its hands, so it has decided to auction them – as well as hundreds of other objects – at Freeman’s American auction next week. Among the highlights are this magnificent 1833 Thomas Sully (1783-1872) portrait of Congressman Horace Binney (1780-1875), who not only turned down an appointment to be a Supreme Court Justice – TWICE – but was one of the few men in Congress to have the backbone to publicly stand up to POS American dictator…er, President Andrew Jackson. Binney certainly knew how to pick them, when it came to have his portrait painted, because as a young man, he was the subject of another magnificent portrait by the great Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) which is now in the National Gallery here in DC, but for some reason is not currently on view. It would be neat – is that the right word? – if the NGA were to purchase the portrait of the middle-aged Birney so that visitors could compare how artistic style changed in America.



Portrait Created By AI Sold To Some Fool For Six Figures

As you may have seen in the news, last week a painting that was (sort of) created using artificial intelligence (“AI”) sold at Christie’s in New York for a whopping $432,500.

Christie’s take on the sale is rather disturbing, but then of course, they have a vested interest in what they’ve done here, and of course in the fee that they’re about to collect for their efforts in this charade. “It may not have been painted by a man in a powdered wig,” commented Christie’s head of prints and multiples Richard Lloyd, “but it is exactly the kind of artwork we have been selling for 250 years.”

Well no, it isn’t.

Let’s assume that this was in fact an Old Master painting, created by an actual French artist working in around 1760, and portraying a real French aristocrat. It’s a blobby mess of an image, with no particular distinction in terms of technique or composition, and the top of the picture appears to be cut off. Is Christie’s really maintaining that it would have gone to all of the effort that it has to market this work back in the 18th century, if it was just some chopped-off, undistinguished oil study by an unknown 18th century artist of an obscure, minor member of the French nobility? Such a claim is utterly lacking in plausibility.

British art historian Bendor Grosvenor who, despite my occasional differences with him, is still the best online read when it comes to looking at Old Master paintings in the contemporary world, is all over this story, as you might imagine. As he points out here, not only is the “AI” aspect of how the image was created somewhat suspect, but the portrait itself is little more than a Photoshop project:

But the much vaunted ‘AI’ artwork at Christie’s, Portrait of Edmond Belamy, is little more than a composite blurring of the 15,000 portraits fed into the programme in the first place. It’s you or I fiddling around on Photoshop for an hour, just scaled up. A regular cry against much contemporary art is ‘my child could have done that’. But now we can replace that with; ‘my laptop could have done that’.

Over on ArtNet, Tim Schneider describes Christie’s actions as “reactionary”: not in the sense often used by the left to describe conservatives, but rather in the sense of someone jumping on the first available bandwagon, as it were. “To me, this is about as reactionary as looking up from a fortune cookie promising true love and proposing to the first person you see in Panda Express,” Schneider scoffs, “and it speaks volumes about how superficially the high-end of the market is engaging with art and machine learning right now.”

I won’t get into the issue, pointed out by Grosvenor and Schneider, among others, that a significant segment of the art community is bemoaning the fact that the “first” AI painting to be sold at a high-end auction features the image of a (supposedly) dead white man. For those of you who are interested in such things, there are plenty of comments to that effect scattered across social media. Yet wherever you fall along the social justice warrior spectrum, I don’t think that issues of race or gender are really the point here.

Rather, in this story we have further proof, as if that were needed, that the Contemporary Art world is first and foremost a speculative bubble. It continues to be inflated by auction houses, art dealers, art media, and the art establishment. The goal is not to celebrate and encourage the creation of great works of art, but rather to make money off of poorly-educated, socially insecure, extremely wealthy people.

The idea of the art world bilking the newly rich by convincing them to purchase art at inflated prices has been around for a long time. Renowned art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) was giving intentionally iffy or flat-out wrong attributions on works of Italian Renaissance art to Sir Joseph Duveen (1869-1939), art dealer to the robber barons, a century ago. That way, Duveen could jack up his prices, and Berenson could receive a larger fee for his services. Colin Simpson’s superb book, “Artful Partners” is still the authoritative text on this nefarious arrangement, which was the most significant, but not the only, one of these sorts of arrangements that existed during the Gilded Age. The Faustian bargain between the two deceivers ended up having a negative impact on art history for decades, and their actions still carry repercussions for art scholarship even today.

Recently I was fortunate enough to acquire the sort of painting that Duveen might have carried in his gallery a century ago. It’s an oil on wood panel depicting St. Jerome in the wilderness, engaging in prayer and penitence, and accompanied by his iconic lion. It dates to somewhere toward the end of the Italian Renaissance, and although reminiscent of the work of artists such as Palma il Giovane (1548-1628), I’m by no means expert enough to make such a firm attribution. It was purchased by a wealthy Pittsburgh manufacturer from a European art dealer about a century ago, and donated to a Rust Belt art museum, which has now deaccessioned it for a hammer price that was no doubt considerably less than what the American collector who brought it across the Atlantic originally paid for it, in today’s dollars.

If our art collecting Northeastern industrialist were alive today, and of course he would not be in heavy industry but in some sort of digital business, the AI portrait sold at Christie’s last week would be exactly the sort of thing that an art advisor would recommend that he purchase. The impetus to acquire however would not be because the art in question was actually any good, but because his owning it would attract the notice of the public and the admiration of his peers. There is no such thing as “bad” publicity, in the present age.

There is a difference here, however, between the world of the early 20th century buyer and that of the early 21st century buyer. While a beautiful image of sacred art is always going to find an audience, so long as there are still Christians who treasure such things, it would surprise me to learn that someone living a century from now would pay the equivalent of nearly half a million dollars for an unremarkable piece of computer art. Perhaps I am wrong about that, of course, but fortunately, I won’t be around to find out.


Art News Roundup: Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Couch Edition

Perhaps the most famous quip – among many – made by President Theodore Roosevelt’s rather infamous eldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980), which she embroidered on a throw pillow displayed in her home, was “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” For the most part, I try to be positive about what I write here, pointing to items which I find interesting and which, I hope, my readers will find interesting as well. But sometimes, you have to sit right down next to Mrs. Longworth on her couch, and have a good chin wag over the nonsense which those of us who cover the art world are forced to put up with on a daily basis.

Take the current fawning of the art establishment over the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) for example. I suppose that, on the whole, one should be grateful when the black turtleneck brigade occasionally deigns to recognize that Western art existed before the 20th century. In the last few years, Gentileschi has become the darling of those who generally eschew sacred art and Old Master painting, because she has been made to fit into the narrative of contemporary feminism. Art media types – many of whom couldn’t distinguish a Frans Hals from a Franz Winterhalter – have been going into raptures over her art of late, resulting in a sudden spike in the commercial value of her paintings.

Yet when you look at her work as a whole, Artemisia turns out to be a bit of an Artemisi-yawn. She mostly painted herself (with her crazy, rolling eyes) dressed up as someone else: Cleopatra, Lucretia, a saint, etc. When she wasn’t painting rather lifeless and unappealing nudes, her preferred party trick as an artist was typically something involving men abusing women, or women getting revenge on men, or Judith doing something with the head of Holofernes, or women injuring themselves. Her paintings are often cold, bitter, and derivative of the work of other artists such as Caravaggio (1571-1610), her own father Orazio Gentileschi (1563–1639), and others. No doubt she had talent, but there were plenty of other Italian Baroque painters whose abilities far exceeded hers, who remain largely unknown or unappreciated outside of specialist circles today.

Now, before everyone rushes to Gentileschi’s defense, I fully recognize that her tragic personal history no doubt influenced both her outlook on the world and the way she portrayed it on canvas. Nor should anyone assume that I am so stupid as to dismiss the work of a great artist because of her sex. As a matter of fact, I’m heading to Philadelphia this weekend to see a major retrospective on the work of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), the greatest of all the women Impressionist painters, and in my opinion a far better artist than, say, her undeservedly more famous contemporary Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).

But the truth of the matter is, while Gentileschi could certainly paint, she really wasn’t anything all that special. In this day and age of course, saying so goes against the popular grain. It’s like pointing out that Beyoncé could do with a vocal coach because she doesn’t actually sing very well: as an aside, it was beyond presumptuous of her to imagine that she could play the great Etta James on film, for example, when she clearly doesn’t have the pipes for it. By all means, go have a wander through the interwebz and check out Gentileschi’s work for yourself, but I suspect you’ll eventually come to the same conclusion that I have.

Assuming that Mrs. Longworth hasn’t asked us to leave at this point, let’s settle into our seats and have a few other strongly-worded things to say, as we look at some of the current news from the art world.

Burne-Jones Burn

In what must be one of the most scathing reviews of Pre-Raphaelite art written since the movement appeared in the 19th century, The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones himself goes against the popular grain to let us know exactly why he can’t stand the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who is the subject of a major retrospective that just opened at Tate Britain in London. The review points out – quite rightly, I might add – that after Burne-Jones settled into his artistic style in his early 20’s, he basically stagnated for the next forty years. Looking across the breadth of the artist’s output over such a long career, one comes to realize fairly quickly that his maidens are interchangeable, his monsters aren’t in the least bit scary, and on the whole everyone in his pictures seems to be utterly bored to death. While I don’t completely agree with some of Mr. Jones’ comparators, I do whole-heartedly agree with his conclusions, even though I realize that this risks my alienating those of you who had posters of this sort of thing in your college dorm room. “Edward Burne-Jones” opened at Tate Britain yesterday, and runs through February 24th.


The Beacon Gets Lit

A “painting” [shudder] by Contemporary artist Mary Corse (1945-) caught on fire yesterday at the Dia:Beacon museum in Beacon, New York, home of the Dia Art Foundation. Ms. Corse creates minimalist works that combine things like canvas, tile, plywood, and electrical elements, into objects that look like bus shelter advertising frames without adverts which, for reasons best explained by others, are considered to be terrific art by those with more money than sense. Fortunately, no one was injured in the conflagration, but the piece, valued by some fool at $1 million, was significantly damaged. No word from the museum on which of Ms. Corse’s works was the culprit.


Ludicrous in Liverpool

It seems a bit off to me, in an age of constant complaints about “cultural appropriation”, that the art establishment would pay tribute to Contemporary sculptor Ugo Rondinone (1964-), an Italian-Swiss artist who lives in New York, for creating a prominent work for the city of Liverpool in the form of a contemporary totem sculpture. [N.B. It’s really just a pile of rocks painted with what looks like poster paint, rather than a sculpture, but there you are.] If the Scouser alderfolk actually wanted such an object, and I’m not sure what one would be doing in Liverpool, there are plenty of indigenous sculptors in the Americas who possess actual artistic talent for such things. No doubt they would have loved the possibility of creating such a public piece, rather than seeing it entrusting it to someone who is ripping off their culture in the most childish-looking way possible. My recommendation would be to dump this awful thing into the River Mersey and start over.