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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Art News Roundup: Pompeiian Pooch Edition

Despite the fact that they were first excavated beginning way back in the 18th century, the Ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are continuing to yield fascinating finds for archaeologists, historians, and art lovers alike.

A find which could prove to be of enormous historic, if not artistic, significance has just been announced as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a major excavation, conservation, and restoration effort that began at the site in 2011. Archaeologists have found a wall with a bit of graffiti, written in charcoal, bearing the date October 17th. The writing is believed to be a note written by a workman who was in the middle of a home renovation project. If that’s correct, then the date of the destruction of Pompeii, which is traditionally placed on August 24, 79 AD, is wrong, and the history books will need to be rewritten.

Meanwhile, other excavators working at the site have uncovered an outdoor room which the press is now referring to as “The Enchanted Garden”, thanks to the magnificent frescoes contained within it. The room, or more properly the lararium, was where a wall shrine to the household spirits was kept. The family who lived in the house would make daily offerings here, in order to keep these bearers of good fortune about the place, and it was also a pleasant place to sit, protected from the elements but within reach of flowers and other plants.

While these spaces were common in Roman residential construction, this one is particularly interesting not only for its well-preserved beauty, but also for the presence of a dog-headed humanoid in one of the frescoes. It’s possible that he is the Egyptian god Anubis (or an individual wearing an Anubis mask). You may recall from your history books that Egypto-mania hit the Romans when Cleopatra came to live with Julius Caesar in 46 BC. No word yet on when this lararium will be open to visitors.

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Watching the Watchmen

Regular readers will recall that last week I reported on how art conservation pron has become a thing in the museum world, attracting scores of visitors who want to see art experts at work on cleaning and restoring works of art. Well now, in what may be the most singular example of this trend, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has announced that Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece, “The Night Watch” (1642), a detail of which appears below, will be undergoing a very public cleaning and conservation, beginning next summer. For those of you who won’t be in Holland at the time, not to worry: the museum intends to livestream the restoration on the interwebz.

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Reunited Ruffs

Speaking of art conservation and the Dutch, should you find yourself in Ohio between now and early January, you’ll definitely want to check out “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion”, which just opened at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition brings together three paintings (a pre-restoration detail of one of the canvases appears below) by the great Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) of groups of figures which, subsequent to cleaning and restoration, art historians have only just realized were portions of a large-scale portrait painting of members of the Van Campen family. The original painting was likely chopped up at some point after Hals’ death as a result of damage, with the incongruous bits painted over by a later restorer to make the pieces more commercially marketable. After Toledo, the show will head to Brussels, and later to Paris.

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Measuring De Morgan

If you love computer-generated geometric designs such as fractals, and happen to find yourself in the UK in the next couple of weeks, then you’ll be interested in catching an exhibition that will be closing soon at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London on the work of the great English decorative arts designer William De Morgan (1839-1917). De Morgan is one of the most important of all Arts and Crafts era artisans, thanks in part to his designs for the company founded by his friend and contemporary William Morris (1834-1896). While De Morgan is often thought of as being fascinated with the exotic in his chargers, vases, and tiles, such as the ones shown below, bringing in references to the Middle Ages, India, and Persia, this new exhibition takes a look at the mathematical studies which helped him to come up with and execute geometrically complex designs by hand, without the benefit of CAD. “Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs” closes on October 28th.

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