Battered Beauty: A Strange Picture Goes Under The Hammer

Coming up at the end of this month, Christie’s in New York will be auctioning an unusual painting which has been put up for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece began life as a late Medieval altarpiece, was defaced to become a work of propaganda, and in its present state is one of those pictures which probably only a real art nerd could love. Yet the story behind its creator, its alteration, and the way it looks today provide some interesting food for thought.

The work in question, “The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis”, is attributed to the great Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482), and was probably painted in 1472. It depicts the Madonna and Infant Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by (L to R) Saints Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Louis IX of France. The figures are placed inside an ornate Gothic gallery (look at that beautiful floor tile) which opens out onto a lush, inviting landscape. It is a large piece, roughly about four feet square, although not as gigantic as some other Flemish altarpieces of this period.

As you can see in the image accompanying this post, the picture was ruined at some point in the past. The result is that we can see some of the underdrawing for the figures that are now missing. When this piece was created, the artist or one of his assistants would have sketched out the design first, in order to have some precise visual guidelines to work by. This unusual detail, which normally is not visible to the naked eye, gives us some great insight into the methods of the man who created it.

Hugo van der Goes worked in what is today modern Belgium, and rarely left it, although his work was commissioned by and sent to collectors across Europe. Like his near contemporaries Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, his paintings have a jewel-like quality to them, both in the richness of his colors, and in his attention to the tiniest details. Although little is known about his personal life, we do know that in his 40’s he closed up his shop to become a brother at the Augustinian Abbey of Rouge-Cloître, outside of Brussels.

While van der Goes continued to paint and accept commissions even after joining the Augustinians, he was apparently troubled both by how much he had taken on, and by his perception that he was never going to be able to complete his work – at least, not to the level of excellence which he felt called upon to achieve. It may have been van der Goes’ perfectionism and scrupulosity which precipitated his retreating to the world of religious life, but eventually his psychosis developed into full-blown depression. He became convinced that he was a failure and going to be damned, and tried to kill himself in 1482, about ten years after this picture was painted. Although he survived the attempt, he eventually succumbed to his injuries, and died shortly thereafter.

Later in its history, van der Goes’ altarpiece was vandalized by an unknown individual. Whoever he was, he scraped off the image of the Madonna and Child, as well as the continuation of the background landscape which appeared behind them, and painted an interior scene of a church. He also scraped away the image of St. John the Baptist, and repainted him with an image of Elizabeth of York, the wife of England’s Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. St. Jerome lost his cardinal’s hat and his lion companion, and was turned into an Anglican bishop, while the figure of a king, originally intended to represent St. Louis IX of France, could now be interpreted as Henry VII.

In effect, the altarpiece became a marriage portrait, celebrating the union of Henry VIII’s parents. The defeat of Richard III, and the union of the Tudors and the Yorks through marriage, had provided Henry VII with the basis which he needed to claim the English throne for himself. Years later, despite the iconoclasm brought about by Henry VIII, when countless works of art were destroyed, someone managed to save this piece from the bonfire.

From a historical standpoint, it would have made contextual sense if this piece had been repurposed at some point during the Tudor period. However, Christie’s maintains that the scraping down and repainting took place much later, in the 18th century. To me this seems rather strange, given that the piece had survived intact through the Reformation; by the Georgian period, English collectors were eagerly snapping up art masterpieces such as this for their collections. Barring some subsequent discovery, we may never know why this painting has suffered as it has.

A few years ago, The Met had the changes removed, and the entire painting cleaned and restored. While van der Goes’ missing paint could not be put back, the picture did regain its compositional and architectural symmetry. Previously hidden details reemerged: St. Jerome’s lion friend returned to his side, for example, and in the foreground two beautiful little still lifes were uncovered. We see a glass vase with colombines on the left, and a silver censor (an incense burner used at Mass) on the right.

While no longer in a pristine state, this beautiful ruin is still expected to fetch a high price. Christie’s estimates that it will sell for between $3-5 million, though I do wonder whether that is a bit high for an individual collector of Old Masters to swallow, merely for the sake of specialized artistic interest. Perhaps when it leaves one institutional collection, i.e. The Met, it will be acquired by another. We shall see what happens.

The Art Of “I Love You”

No matter how much you know about great art, there is always something new to discover. Recently I’ve become interested in the work of a Swedish painter, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793). During his lifetime he was arguably the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris, but today he is not as well-known as he ought to be. Today I want to draw your attention to a charming portrait of his wife, who was also a popular but now largely forgotten artist. The painting is not only a charming piece in its own right, but I think it captures something of the love which the two of them felt for each other, in a way which was very unusual for the time.

Roslin was born in Malmö, the city in Sweden now famous as a major international business and design center, but in 1718 not much more than a tiny provincial town of a couple of thousand people. He moved to Stockholm in his teens to study painting, and his career might have remained that of a provincial Swedish painter had he not been given the opportunity to travel and study in Germany and Italy. Then in 1752, Roslin moved to Paris, where he met a young lady named Marie-Suzanne Giroust (1734-1772).

Giroust was an orphan from a comfortably well-off, conservative family of artisans, whose father had been jeweler to the King of France. She used her inheritance to study art, and it was while she was taking classes in pastel drawing from Joseph-Marie Vien (1716-1809), later the official court painter to Louis XVI, that she met Roslin at Vien’s studio in The Louvre. The two immediately fell in love, but Giroust’s bourgeois family refused to allow her to marry Roslin: he was from a poor family, he was a foreigner, and he was a Protestant.

It took seven years for Giroust to wear down her guardians, but eventually she succeeded, in part due to the intervention of the Count of Caylus, Roslin’s main artistic patron, and the Swedish Ambassador, who agreed to witness their marriage contract in 1759. This combination of persistence on behalf of the couple, and persuasion on behalf of the higher-ups, eventually convinced Giroust’s family that this would be a respectable marriage. She and Roslin went on to have six children together, 3 boys and 3 girls.

“The Lady With The Veil”, which is in the National Museum in Sweden, was painted by Roslin in 1768. It shows a lady dressed “à la Bolognaise”, the style then fashionable in the Italian city of Bologna. The lady’s head, shoulders, and part of her face are covered by a voluminous, black satin veil, which has led some art historians to speculate that it was painted during Carnival or Lent.

Despite her somber overlay, it is hard to imagine a more feminine and charming image of a lady. The subject of this picture is smiling and blushing at someone over to her left. Even though we can only see one of her eyes, the one that we can see is obviously twinkling at the object of her gaze. Whoever it is, she clearly has a soft spot for them, but it is actually the fan that tells us who she is looking at.

Back when ladies carried fans, they were more significant communications weapons than we would appreciate today. Depending on how a lady held her fan, she could send a message to someone else, provided that they knew how to read the secret signals which a lady’s fan could convey. The drawing of a folded fan across the right cheek was well-known “fan-speak” for, “I love you.”

No prize then, for guessing that the lady with the veil is Giroust herself, and the person whom she is signaling to is her husband, Roslin.

When this painting was exhibited in the Salon of the French Royal Academy the year of its creation, the French philosopher Diderot praised it, and famously commented that it was “très piquante’ – “very spicy”. Given the flirtatiousness of the Rococo era, it would be easy to look at this picture as an example of 18th century coquetry, like the work of Boucher or Watteau, which was later swept away by the horrors of the French Revolution. However given the back story of the couple involved, I think there is a lot more depth to this picture than meets the eye.

What I find particularly interesting is that this image was painted in 1768, nearly a decade after Roslin and Giroust were married, and after they had to fight tooth and nail for years just to get permission to marry in the first place. This is a couple that had already been through tremendous strain and hardship together long before they got to their marriage vows, let alone having to deal with the six rugrats they soon had scampering about the house after they were married. It strikes me that a man who could paint his wife in this way, after ten years of marriage and six children together, is still very much in love with her, and she is still very much in love with him.

Sadly, Giroust died of breast cancer at the age of 38, four years after this portrait was painted. Her husband never remarried, but he did manage to survive the French Revolution, unlike many of his patrons. This image remains a beautiful testament to their marriage, and the power of truly devoted love.

Italian Treasure, American Albatross: The Perils Of Purchasing A Pontormo

For some time now, I’ve been following an international tug of war over a striking 16th century portrait by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (1494-1557). The painting was purchased by a prominent American art collector from a British aristocrat two years ago. Unfortunately, what has happened since then exposes why American collectors – even those collecting objects that are far less valuable – need to be wary of doing business in other countries.

Pontormo lived in Florence for most of his life, where he studied with Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, among others. He’s known for his unusual religious paintings and portraiture, where his figures often have both elongated proportions, and a somewhat pensive mood that reflects his own melancholy nature. His more famous pupil Bronzino (1503-1572) took up many elements of his master’s style, and eventually became *the* society portraitist of the day. But whereas Pontormo’s portraits always seem a bit sad and introspective, Bronzino’s were all about slick self-confidence. Toward the end of his life, Pontormo produced fewer and fewer paintings, and turned in on himself to such an extent that even Bronzino couldn’t get in to see him.

Portraits by Pontormo rarely come on the market, as there are only about a dozen plus in existence, and most of these are in Italian museums. This particular image of Florentine nobleman Carlo Neroni disappeared sometime in the 18th century, but was rediscovered by an art expert back in 2008. It had been purchased by the 3rd Earl of Caledon in 1825 and passed down through his family, who had no idea what they had. The painting was loaned to the National Gallery in London, until the 7th Earl decided to sell his newly-discovered treasure. In 2015, it was purchased by American hedge fund executive J. Tomlinson Hill of Blackstone Group, for somewhat over £30 million.

Yet despite the fact that Mr. Hill is now the rightful owner of this Pontormo, matters have conspired to prevent him from doing what he wants with his property.

To begin with, Mr. Hill cannot take his painting back to the U.S., without first obtaining an art export license from the British government. This is an issue faced by American collectors around the world, not just in Britain, and not just among those with Mr. Hill’s means at their disposal. Age and value are both considerations, but in the UK, art created as recently as 1967 may require an export license, if you want to bring it back to the States.

Even if you apply for an art export license however, while you are waiting to hear if it will be approved by the British government, a British museum has the right to attempt to purchase the object from you for the price you paid for it. You don’t have to sell, but then there’s no telling what might happen to your request for an export license, either. It puts the art collector into something between a rock and a hard place.

The fact that you might be able to get your money back seems like a good option. Unfortunately for Mr. Hill, the value of the pound has declined significantly since he bought the painting in 2015 and began his long wait for a decision regarding his export license. As a result, he could lose millions of dollars if he‘s forced to sell the painting to a British art museum today.

To me, there’s something rather illogical about this situation, and it should give Americans pause before purchasing art or antiques abroad.

What, exactly, have the Brits prevented from leaving their country that’s so vitally important to their national heritage? To begin with, they didn’t even know this painting existed until recently. It isn’t as if Mr. Hill purchased a statue which stood on the façade of one of the countless cathedrals that the British stole from the Catholic church, or that he managed to pick up the bed that Princess (Alexandrina) Victoria was sleeping in at Kensington Palace when she learned that William IV had died and she was now Queen.

In fact, this painting has absolutely nothing to do with Britain whatsoever, other than the historical accident of its being located there. Pontormo was not a British artist. The subject of this painting was not a British person. The art was not even created for a British collector.

At some point in the past, someone stole or purchased this painting in Italy, and it somehow ended up being resold to a collector in the UK. It lay completely forgotten and unnoticed in the private home of a British noble family for nearly two centuries, until it was temporarily loaned to a public museum a few years ago. That, in sum, is the full extent of this painting’s tenuous connection to the British people, whose tax dollars were supposed to go toward purchasing it for a public museum.

Now granted, giving a country the chance to hold on to its cultural heritage is better than the alternative, for there are many objects in our museums – including British ones – which were stolen from other countries in order to enrich individual and national collections. However a reasonable person would conclude that there’s a difference between denying an export license for, say, a George Stubbs painting of a British racehorse, or a Hans Holbein portrait of one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, and denying an export license for a work of art which has no real connection to Britain at all. I find it difficult to fathom the argument that somehow a British museum or collector has a greater moral right to purchase this painting than does an American.

The latest news on this debacle is that Mr. Hill’s application for an export license has just been denied, and he’s also turned down the UK National Gallery’s offer to purchase the painting. He could of course try for another export license in about ten years, but that possibility seem unlikely to succeed. And I doubt very much that he would want to go through this hassle all over again a decade from now, particularly since this very rare work of art isn’t going to be getting any less valuable in the interim.

Instead of obtaining a jewel for his art collection, and one which, given his years of philanthropic support of American museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, would likely have gone to an American institution at some point in the future, Mr. Hill has now found himself with something of an albatross – albeit a very beautiful one.