The Courtier In The Federalist: How To Enjoy Art In An Age Of Selfies

Since I’m now *officially* The Federalist’s art critic – or that’s what my byline over there says, anyway – here’s a link to my latest for said publication, about how the phenomenon of selfie-taking has been affecting the art world. Special thanks to my editor, Joy Pullman, who is always extremely generous with me when it comes to the rather excessive length of my articles. If you’d like to comment on the piece, please consider doing so over on The Federalist website rather than here (although your comments are always welcome here, as well.)

Federalist

 

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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.

Selling Off: An American Museum’s Treasures Go To Auction

For the last few months, a BIG controversy going on in the art and museum world has been the decision of the Berkshire Museum, located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to sell off 40 of the objects in its collection, including paintings by some of America’s most important artists. That decision has incurred the wrath of art experts and museum executives around the world, and not without consequence to the museum. At the same time however, the upcoming sale of the Berkshire’s art treasures will give other institutions an excellent opportunity to pick up some major works of art, which in some cases have never appeared on the market before.

Earlier this summer the Berkshire announced that, after a two-year period of soul-searching, it will shift its curatorial focus in order to survive as an institution. To do so, it would have to sell off a significant number of works of art in its collection. It wants to build up its endowment, renovate its facilities, pay the bills, and change from a more traditional, catch-all small museum to one focused on the promotion of science and community activities. You can read more about that process by following this link.

The Berkshire’s decision was condemned by art and museum experts around the world, but more importantly earned the ire of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), both of which provide professional accreditation to the Berkshire, as well as to hundreds of other American museums. Sale of a work of art in a museum’s collection – known in the trade as “deaccession” – in order to purchase another work of art is, while rarely a good thing, a reality for many institutions; the sale of a work of art to fund other purposes however, may be considered a professional ethical violation by the AAM and AAMD.

In an excoriating joint press release released in July, which you can read in full here, the two professional bodies condemned the Berkshire’s decision to deaccession its art:

Selling from the collection for purposes such as capital projects or operating funds not only diminishes the core of works available to the public, it erodes the future fundraising ability of museums nationwide. Such a sale sends a message to existing and prospective donors that museums can raise funds by selling parts of their collection, thereby discouraging not only financial supporters, who may feel that their support isn’t needed, but also donors of artworks and artifacts, who may fear that their cherished objects could be sold at any time to the highest bidder to make up for a museum’s budget shortfalls. That cuts to the heart not only of the Berkshire Museum, but every museum in the United States.

About 6 weeks later, the Berkshire announced that, by mutual agreement, it was withdrawing from affiliation with the Smithsonian. As the reader probably knows, the Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum organization in the world. It not only runs nearly two dozen museums and research centers of its own, but it maintains affiliate relationships with well over 200 museums around the country. These arrangements allow smaller museums to have access to Smithsonian curatorial expertise, scientific research, lending privileges for exhibitions, and so on. Given the difficulty and indeed the prestige involved in becoming a Smithsonian affiliate institution, abandoning that relationship is not something to be taken lightly – but there you are.

I’m not going to weigh in on the deaccession controversy here, other than to say that selling major works of art from your collection, so that you can have a place to teach local kids how graffiti is cool, with the result that they grow into anti-social, juvenile delinquents inordinately impressed by their own cleverness, is a stupid idea.

Among the works of art scheduled to go on the auction block at Sotheby’s this fall are two major paintings by Norman Rockwell, which the artist personally donated to the museum during his lifetime, and whose sale has infuriated the Rockwell family. The earlier work of the two, “Blacksmith’s Boy” (1940) is rather massive, at almost 6 feet long, but that should just fit over your sofa, if you’ve got $7-10 million sitting around.

Rock2

The later Rockwell painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”, is a compositional tour de force of complex angles, surfaces, and lighting effects, a truly major work by America’s foremost illustrator of the 20th century, which entirely justifies its $20-30 million dollar auction estimate.

Rock1

Other paintings up for sale include works by Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Edwin Church, and George Inness, arguably the three most important American landscape painters of the 19th century. There is also a prime example of one of Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s (great-uncle of my friend and new media gadfly Neal Dewing) classic Tonalist interiors populated by languid ladies of leisure.

Dewing

And there is a rare, large religious work depicting the prophet Daniel interpreting the handwriting on the wall for King Belshazzar by the 18th century American academic and historical painter, Benjamin West.

West

Also on offer are portraits by Charles Wilson Peale and his son Rembrandt Peale. The Peales, as you may know, were America’s most famous family of artists during the Revolutionary and Federal periods, who painted iconic portraits of everyone from Washington and Jefferson to Lewis and Clark. The Berkshire is selling off its portrait of General Forman, by Peale the father, and General Washington, by Peale the son.

PealePere

In addition to the forgoing there are also sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Alexander Calder, two of the most prominent American sculptors of the early and mid-20th century, respectively. Continental works include paintings by William Bougereau, Raoul Dufy, Pieter de Hooch, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edouard Vuillard, and others. There are even a few Chinese antiquities, including a massive, 10-panelled lacquered screen from the late 17th century Qing Dynasty.

Not every piece heading to the Berkshire auction is by a major household name in art history, of course. Still, every one that I’ve seen listed for sale is certainly museum-worthy. It’s a pity that the collection could not have been preserved, and given to a museum on better financial and philosophical footing. But in the end, whether purchased by other museums or acquired by collectors who later donate their collections to museums, these works may end up being better-known and more widely seen, once they leave the institution where they are currently housed.