Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings in the National Gallery

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Lorne Campbell The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings with French Painings before 1800 (National Gallery Catalogues) Yale University Press 2014, two volumes in slipcase, £95

This is close to the Platonic ideal of a museum catalogue. It's an outstanding work of scholarship by one of the most eminent experts in the field. And it is beautifully produced with generous illustrations of excellent quality, including details and photomicrographs. The introductory essays are brief; this isn't the place to look for a history of sixteenth century Netherlandish painting. But the essays on each artist are much more substantial than the usual potted notes one finds in museum catalogues, and together constitute a really valuable guide to the petits maîtres of the time. 

This catalogue covers one of the weaker areas of the National Gallery's encyclopaedic collection of European painting. Major works by Bosch and Bruegel were fortunately acquired in the early twentieth century (though still no Bruegel landscape), and there's a strong collection of Mabuse including the exceptional Adoration of the Kings, but there are many gaps (nothing by Patinir or Frans Floris, for example). Perhaps it is out of place in a scholarly catalogue, but I'd love to know Campbell's desiderata - which ones got away? 

There are a number of duds in this part of the National Gallery's collection, mostly acquired as part of larger bequests, but even these are discussed with great care. The lavish catalogue entries seem dissonant for pictures such as the female portrait from Quesnel's workshop (NG 3582), or the ruinous male portrait simply attributed to the French school (NG 3539). But many individual entries are exceptionally masterful, such as the lengthy discussion of Mabuse's Adoration of the Kings, with a superb refutation of Ainsworth's claim that it's a collaboration with Gerard David. Campbell's admirably clear writing makes even the most recondite details compelling. Two Tax Gatherers from the workshop of Marinus van Reymerswale is brilliantly compared to the primary autograph version in the Louvre, establishing the precendence of the Louvre version but also sensitively appreciating the fine qualities of the London version, particularly in the draperies. 

These expensive volumes are aimed at a specialist market, but the National Gallery has wisely and generously made a number of entries freely available online, including the great Mabuse. I think that entry should be required reading for first year art history students, as a model of connoisseurship and of academic writing at its best. 

Most aspects of this catalogue cannot be praised highly enough, but it has a fatal shortcoming that is common to this series, which is the lamentable reticence when discussing condition, and particularly when discussing the history of the National Gallery's own conservation efforts. 

The entry on Bosch's Christ Mocked quotes Helmut Ruhemann as saying that he had "never seen a Bosch in such a good condition, and that it would gain greatly by cleaning" (p. 144). It does not say that Ruhemann , the former NG conservator, has done more harm to Britain's paintings than anyone else who has ever lived. He was an influential self-publicist who aggressively over-cleaned, and taught a generation of restorers to scrub pictures within an inch of their lives, and then repaint any obvious gaps themselves. Campbell doesn't pass comment on the claim that Ruhemann's work on the picture in 1934 was limited to 'removing old varnish' and 'slightly making up' some shadows in Christ's robe. Nor does he comment on the two subsequent restorations in 1954 and 1967, the latter including a new cleaning and re-varnishing apparently required within just three decades of Ruhemann's intervention. 

Parts of that Bosch seem very worn, and I would like to know how much of that is down to the National Gallery's own restorers. An obvious way of judging is to show before and after pictures. Files that I've consulted in the National Gallery's own archives include extensive restoration pictures; Ruhemann had no shame, and documented his butchery carefully. But despite the wealth of illustrations in this catalogue, we are never given before and after photographs to show how pictures were changed. Ruhemann's work was controversial at the time, but today is almost universally seen as destructive. But you'd get no sense of that from this book. 

Campbell often describes glazes as 'faded'. I haven't found any instance of his saying that they were wrongly removed by inept restorers at the National Gallery, thought it is widely known that this is what happened. I don't mean to deny that glazes can fade, but the more common problem (especially at the NG) is that they are removed by over-cleaning. Comparison of pictures at the Louvre and the National Gallery clearly reveals the effect of the former's more conservative approach to restoration. But Lorne Campbell thinks that it shows only that London's pictures are more faded; he explicitly states that this is the case with Louvre and NG versions of Two Tax Gatherers. Perhaps they are simply more careful about keeping the curtains closed at the Louvre. 

There are multiple other examples of reticence about the National Gallery's own mistakes, and overly generous assessment of condition. The Mass of Saint Giles by the Master of St Giles was restored after an 'accident' at the gallery in 1933, but we are not told what happened. The Holy Family from Joos van Cleve's workshop is described as being in 'fairly good condition; Joseph's head is better preserved that the Virgin's or Christ's', which is a circumlocution to avoid saying that the Virgin's face has been seriously abraded (p. 223). 

I dwell on these points because if the National Gallery will not confront its institutional history then we cannot trust it to act responsibly today. Ruhemann propounded a clear philosophy of restoration that is now utterly discredited. Does the National Gallery now repudiate that philosophy or not? I do not hold the current staff responsible for historic errors, of course. But prevaricating about those practices raises profound questions about their ability to make judgments about restoration today. This is a truly excellent catalogue, but that should not blind us to the magnitude of sin in its panglossian account of the condition of the NG's pictures. 

'Big Bucks': Georgina Adam on the art market

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Georgina Adam Big Bucks: The explosion of the art market in the 21st century Lund Humphries 2014 £19.99

Georgina Adam is one of the smartest art market commentators, and this book is a lively view of today's craziness. She's especially penetrating in her analysis of the market's corruption - both the corruption of the market and corruption by the market. For example, she tells us that members of Tate's collection committee each donate at least £10,000 a year - or, to put it less politely, buy their way on. Though she doesn't draw it out in this particular case, that gives opportunity to promote purchase of artists that the committee members collect, boosting their value. And it skews the Tate's collection towards art cherished by rich collectors who are not necessarily the sharpest connoisseurs (though some of course are the sharpest connoisseurs; my point is simply that connoisseurship is not proven by a donation of ten grand).

Adam quotes an anonymous American museum director: 
"The problem of collectors sitting on museum boards and trying to use their position to validate their own holdings is ubiquitous, and is being exacerbated by the new class of trustees, who today are investor-collectors ... They will try to use their position to either influence the purchases of the institution, in line with their own collection, or have their own works included in museum exhibitions. You cannot imagine how cajoled and caressed I have sometimes been to take a painting into a show!" (p. 172)
Actually I can imagine. And this is the tragedy of the contemporary art market - not that collectors over-pay for fashionable mediocrity, but that the ghastly bad taste of the contemporary market pollutes the public sphere by influencing museums.This book gives insight into how the contemporary art world works.

I thought Adam was weaker when discussing the art market in its wider sense because she doesn't situate the changes to the art business in the context of changes to other businesses. She speaks of increased professionalisation, like the use of PR firms, and increased globalisation and scale. But none of this is unique to art dealing; the economy has become more global, and many business sectors have become more commercialised. There are lots of comparisons between art dealing today and art dealing in the past, but too little comparison of the art trade and other trades. 

On the specifics of the market, I also had disagreements with Adam's analysis. She claims that auctioneers can offer guarantees because they are so much better capitalised than dealers (p. 35), but in fact auctioneers are agency businesses that are quite thinly capitalised. They typically finance guarantees by seeking wealthy third parties as underwriters, as Adam herself notes elsewhere. And comments on collectors today being more likely to jump in at the top end of the market, or being more focused on the investment angle, are speculative. It's hard to know if the story here is about the changing nature of the art collector or the changing perception of the art collector. 

I'm more confident that Adam is wrong about the accelerating overlap between the commercial and non-commercial art worlds (p. 91). Connoisseurs like Berenson were utterly implicated in commerce, and many experts sold certificates of authenticity, advised dealers and collectors or traded art themselves. There has been a period when museums moved more consciously to distance themselves from the trade, and I agree that has been breaking down. But it's a more nuanced story than the rupture implied here. And I spotted a number of other minor errors along the way; Andrea Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi was only sold in 1985, not in the 1970s (p. 32), for example, and The Birdtrap (more commonly Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Birdtrap) is actually a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in Brussels, although Pieter Brueghel the Younger did indeed paint many versions of his father's picture (p. 74). 

In the conclusion Adam speculates about whether the art market is 'too big to fail', but this is to misunderstand the concept of too big to fail. It normally applies to businesses or sectors whose failure would cause negative spill-overs to the rest of the economy - banks, because their failure would leave businesses and individuals with no access to funds and no means of money transmission, or major manufacturing businesses like car companies whose failure would cause knock-on effects for a massive supply chain. No one argues that to be the case with the art market. A decline in value of art would affect the richest people, who can most easily afford it. 

Adam's long experience reporting on the art market has given her insight into how the market operates and how its actors relate, but some of her wider claims about recent changes needed more grounding in history and economics.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

'Reynolds: Portraiture in Action' by Mark Hallett

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Mark Hallett Reynolds: Portraiture in Action Yale University Press 2014 £50

Sir Joshua Reynolds has been well-served recently, with an excellent catalogue raisonné by David Mannings and now this magnificent monograph by Mark Hallett, focused on the historical and artistic context of Reynolds' art. Each chapter takes a different slice of Reynolds' oeuvre, such as his Royal portraits, his series of portraits of 'great men' known as the Streatham Worthies, and his full-length portraits of women whose presentation at the Royal Academy he reconstructs. Generous comparative illustrations show Reynolds' sources in artists like Van Dyck and earlier English painters, some of which are unexpected. The book is interesting throughout. Inevitably it is often speculative, particularly when assessing motives and reception, but Hallett's command of the evidence and sensitivity to context is admirable. 
The Marlborough Family - Joshua Reynolds
Picture: WikiArt
A particularly interesting chapter on the Marlborough family portrait (pictured above) concludes on a critical note that, whilst well-put and strongly argued, is one point on which I disagree with Hallett. He writes:
"as a coda to this investigation of intimate touch within Reynolds's portrait, I would like to draw attention to what seems to me an unusually awkward, malfunctioning passage of his painting. This is the gesture made by the duchess's left forearm as she, like her youngest son, points at her husband's cameo. To my eyes, when I see this forearm swinging listlessly from the duchess's elbow like the minute hand of a broken timepiece, I want to make it do something that seems so much more in keeping with the rest of her body language -  I want it to follow her gaze and to reach out, perhaps to rest on her second son or daughter's shoulder, and in so doing make up a chain of gestures and touches that one can imagine continuing along either of these children's own outstretched left arms, and ending in the fingers that tenderly cling to Lady Caroline's right shoulder. The ghost of such a pictorial sequence - one that would once again directly link a mother and her growing children together - haunts this image. Instead, of course, the duchess dutifully follows her husband's lead, just as Reynolds, in painting this limp gesture, seems himself to have done. It is, to conclude, his one false touch and something - however seemingly minor - that betrays the difficulties and tensions involved in keeping so many agendas and narratives in play, all at once, within a single image." (pp. 338-339).
But the duchess is the linchpin tying together the two parts of the composition, on the one side her cerebral husband and his heir; on the other side the more animated group of children. If her arm rested on her second son's shoulder it would establish a strong second diagonal in the right hand group, running along two pairs of arms. On her daughter's shoulder, it would establish an arc joining the children together. The effect of either action would be to separate the two parts of the composition, and to establish a too tightly knit group on the right. Reynolds could perhaps have tempered that effect by having the duchess gaze towards her husband, but that would look oddly disengaged from the children with whom she would then otherwise be so intricately linked. 

Hallett reads her 'limp' gesture as dutifully following her husband's lead, but here too it can be read differently. As Hallett notes, she gestures towards an ancient cameo held by her husband. Therefore she is implicitly referencing an historical and cultural world beyond the family, perhaps with an eye to posterity, but perhaps also hinting at her own cultural interests. I see the gesture as touching rather than limp, and I think Reynolds was conscious of the need to soften the duchess's impact in the picture given her dominant central position.

I appreciated this picture a good deal more after reading Hallett's chapter. But it seems to me still to suffer from a kind of ersatz heroism that turns me off Reynolds. There's something false and sometimes histrionic about Reynolds' borrowings from art history. Those great solomonic columns are redolent of Raphael and the high renaissance, but they seem dreadfully out of place in eighteenth century England. I freely admit that the fault is probably on my part rather than Reynolds's. But his borrowed grandiloquence has always struck me as phony, whereas I can happily believe in Gainsborough's equally false arcadian idylls, or Lawrence's grand martial portraits of army officers who were likely fat and inept. 

I dwell on this point because it interests me, not because it's a significant critique of Hallett. The book is superb - certainly one of my books of the year.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Sentences to ponder

I found this gem on Art Daily, describing an app that seems to allow you to, um, shuffle 52 images of pictures from an exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, which should know better:
"uCurate allows visitors to design their version of Made in the USA and, like Duncan Phillips, create deeply personal displays of works that spark visual conversations", says Susan Behrends Frank, exhibition curator. "By making this technology available through a mobile app, the Phillips aims to increase our audience engagement, making interaction with the museum's American masterworks more accessible."
The idea that moving around some images on your iphone is somehow comparable to the formation of Duncan Phillips' sophisticated and personal art collection is just laughable. It's such a marvelous smorgasbord of silliness ... all the buzzwords and fashionable concerns mixed together in meaningless mush. That last sentence has interaction, engagement AND accessibility all together - what's not to like? And it's an app - how cool is that, kids? Oh, and we're curating. Curating is so hip these days; we're all our own curators on social media now. I know this is harmless fun that doesn't do any real damage, but what a monumental waste of time, and what a dreadful distraction from encouraging visitors actually to engage with the real works of art in the gallery. I don't know much about American art, but I bet the Phillips' curators (the real curators) know a great deal. I'd rather they spent their time sharing some of that knowledge with me rather than fobbing me off with silly games.

I've long loved the Phillips, and I'd like to believe that this is all said with tongue firmly in cheek. I suspect that Susan Behrends Frank needs to be seen to be saying the right things, and has come out with this splendid parody as a way of maintaining self-respect.

But there is a horrible possibility that she means it.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Recent reading

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Jonathan Brown In The Shadow of Velazquez: A life in art history Yale University Press 2014 £25

Brown is a leading specialist in Spanish art, and these lectures reflect on his career in art history. He is cautious about attributing pictures, wary of the personal and financial interests involved. Brown rejected the attribution of the recently-discovered Saint Rufina, but was subsequently persuaded of its authorship. His remarks about its minor significance and 'fair' condition (Santa Ruina, he says, a little unfairly) look like sour grapes. There are plenty of fine art historians who are not great connoisseurs, and I welcome diversity of approaches to art history, but I find Brown's disdain for the very idea of connoisseurship off-putting and his emphasis on the risk of corruption is close to an ad hominum fallacy. 

Much else in the book is of value, however. I especially enjoyed reading about his experiences in Francoist Spain, when there were few tourists and the Prado was dingy and un-visited. Fascinating also to read that his father, a suburban office worker, was a keen collector of abstract impressionism. When the abstract expressionists became too expensive, his parents began to collect Surrealist art; their archive is now at the Getty. His chapter on positivist art history ("Scientific and Rigorous") is also very good, and I share his reservations about the potential for applying scientific rigour to art history. His account of the dominance of Diego Angulo Iñiguez in art historical scholarship in Franoist Spain is a compelling study of academic politics as well as offering insightful remarks about the discipline of art history. 

A subsequent chapter on Ribera and El Greco shifts key from biography and method to art history. He explains these artists' workshop practice, noting that both ran factories producing images for the market. It's short but insightful, though dulled for me by my recent reading of longer recent studies on El Greco in particular, which also emphasise his relations with patrons and the market.

I enjoyed reading about Brown's career, and the book provides a window on art historical office politics, but I thought it too short and too unfocused overall. I'd prefer to have seen these chapters incorporated into a quasi-festschrift with contributions from other scholars. 
Picture: Amazon
Don Thompson The Supermodel and the Brillo Box Palgrave Macmillan 2014 £16.99

This is a journalistic account of the market for contemporary art, but there was little that was new to me. According to the postscript Thompson has had extensive access to art market insiders and has consulted a wide range of sources, but his material is stale. Thompson is an economist, but there is virtually nothing on economics and little analysis. It's a quick read with some interesting anecdotes, but unsatisfying if you've been following media coverage of the contemporary art market for the last few years.
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Adam Tooze The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order, 1916-1931 Allen Lane 2014 £30

World War I did not resolve great power tensions; it created new and deep political, economic and diplomatic challenges. The failure to address those challenges led eventually back to war, which inevitably colours accounts of the whole inter-war period. One of the many merits of this superb history of the 1920s is that it analyses the period in its own terms, rather than as a series of milestones on the way back to war. Tooze is alert to factors that shaped the politics of that time, and he casts his net wider than most studies of the period, producing an admirable synthesis that pays attention to ideas and interests, to East Asia as well as the European-American core, to the Russian Revolution as well as the famous international treaties and to economics and domestic politics as well as international relations.

Tooze incorporates revisionist scholarship that will be familiar to specialists, but perhaps less so to the general reader. Clemenceau appears more sympathetic than his popular image, and Woodrow Wilson much less so - rightful revisions in my view. Clemenceau was painted by Manet and was a friend of Monet; he can't have been all bad! Tooze depicts Wilson less as a starry-eyed idealist than as a realist seeking to augment America's power in the world, which is another astute judgment.

Tooze's focus on east Asia may reflect the geopolitics of our own time, but it redresses the balance of more Eurocentric accounts of the period. I am least familiar with this history, and I found these parts among the most rewarding. One reservation is that in my view Tooze underestimates the impact of Soviet communism. He is alive to this risk, and the Russian Revolution and its effects are important in his narrative. But its impact on western rulers and its inspiration to both workers at home and to colonies abroad is in my view more important than Tooze credits.

I agree with Tooze that America's deflationary drive of the 1920s is "probably the most underrated event in twentieth-century world history" (p. 354).  Poland, Austria and Germany became basket cases. The UK and US successfully reversed the effects of wartime inflation, albeit at high cost. France, Italy and Japan were among many countries in the middle, settling for half-hearted stablilisation. German hyperinflation was dramatic and memorable, and it is stamped on the historical memory. Deflation seems less immediately harmful, but it was devastating. It's a tragic example of the impact of wrong-headed economic ideas. Other historians have addressed this, and I think it's better understood by economists, but its importance in inter-war history has still not received the recognition it deserves.

This is one of my 'books of the year'. It's slow in parts, and I'd like to have seen more direct discussion of historical debates to supplement the narrative, but it's an excellent synthetic history.

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Alex Bellos Alex Through the Looking-Glass: How life reflects numbers and numbers reflect life  Bloomsbury 2014 £18.99

If you read one maths book this year, make it this one! This is a fabulous and compelling book driven by anecdotes by adding gradually more analytic detail. Chapters cover topics like the reason why numbers reported in the newspaper or in a set of accounts (of any digit length) are most likely to begin with '1' and least likely '9', and how that's used to catch fraudsters; and the cross-cultural prevalence of deep-seated irrational beliefs about numbers, such as how people see odd numbers as male and even as female.

It's designed for the layman, but you'll enjoy it even if you have a little mathematics. The beauty of this book is the way that it manages to engage different audiences. Everyone from advanced mathematician to complete math-phobe will enjoy the histories and stories. Everyone in between those extremes will get something different from his non-technical elaboration. 
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Adam Phillips Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst Yale University Press 2014 £18.99

Another great book in Yale's new Jewish Lives series. I'm not especially interested in Freud's Jewishness, but I am fascinated by Freud and I'm a big fan of Adam Phillips'. This short book focuses more on Freud's professional and intellectual mentors than his family for, as Phillips notes, we know little about his family and ironically especially little about his mother.

Phillips tells us that Freud "had the courage of his affinities" (p. 69), passionately pursuing people he was drawn towards and often dropping them later. He reveals the sources of Freud's ideas in the fizzling intellectual centres of Paris of Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, culminating in a series of brilliant and revolutionary studies published in the decade hinging around 1900, from Studies in Hysteria in 1895 to Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905, which bracket The Interpretation of Dreams which was published in 1900.

Freud himself was sceptical about biography. He wrote some biographical studies, but they are really rather bad. He has in my view been ill-served by rather hagiographic biographers. His sidekick Ernest Jones wrote the classic biography, and more recently the Freudian historian Peter Gay wrote another. Gay's is very good, but he is clearly most smitten with his subject. Phillips brings the perspective of a psychoanalyst to this short study. I enjoyed it immensely, as I enjoy all of Phillips' many books. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Sculpture and Decorative Art sales at Sotheby's & Christie's

Picture: Christie's
London's major auction houses have recently started collecting together the highest-priced lots across a number of specialist categories into stand-alone sales. Christie's has The Exceptional Sale and Sotheby's has Treasures. I think it's a shame, because it means the sculpture and furniture sales are denuded of the best lots; expensive bling is brought together for the convenience of global gazillionaires who don't want to be delayed by trifling sub-£100k lots, regardless of their merits. In these sales there's always a scattering of ostentatious pieces that I heartily dislike, together with some really great things that would grace any museum collection.
Picture: Christie's

My choice from these sales would be a bronze Rape of a Sabine by Giambologna illustrated above, estimated at £3m - £5m at Christie's. You can't appreciate it from the picture, but the quality is outstanding. I wonder how it will do; there are several enthusiastic and deep-pocketed collectors of major bronzes, and ones this good rarely appear on the open market. Another bronze in the same sale is also from a Giambologna model, but its execution is attributed to Susini (the default attribution for bronzes not quite good enough to be by Giambologna, £600k - £1m). It's very good, but suffers comparison with the Giambologna. The ancient Egyptian Sekhemka statue looks much better in real life than in photographs - an outstanding sculpture, tragically deaccessioned by gross philistines in Northampton who don't think it's relevant for them (£4m - £6m, pictured top). 
A pair of armchairs by Nicolas Hertaut are among the most important menuiserie at auction in recent years (£400k - £600k), but I was most excited to see the dining chairs from Lansdowne House, a masterpiece designed by Robert Adam. The chairs were sold in 1806, and the dining room itself was stripped out and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, sold off after Westminster Council ordered demolition of half the house so they could build a road. I do hope the Met buys the chairs, although few museums make a priority of decorative arts these days, alas. The Met recently hired a decorative arts curator who professed not to like the decorative arts.
Picture: Sotheby's
At Sotheby's, the best lot is one that shouldn't be sold. This Roman Aphrodite (£4m - £6m) is taken from one of the greatest neoclassical rooms in the world, the entrance hall to Syon House, designed by Robert Adam. The room rather than the object is pictured above, because that's the only context where it should be seen. This sale saddens me even more than the Northampton museum deaccession. Boycott the Northumberland sale and buy this wonderful neoclassical sculpture of The Campbell Sisters by Bartolini instead, a snip at its estimate of £300k - £500k. I know it well from its time on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. This kind of sculpture is under-appreciated today, but really high quality and very beautiful. There are some good pieces of modest English furniture that I like, including Georgian hall benches at £250k - £400k. One piece I didn't care for was this pair of console tables, despite their tremendously important provenance. The gilt mounts are attributed to Thomire, the name of choice for high-quality French neoclassical gilt bronze furniture mounts and other knick-knacks. But these mounts don't look especially good, and the Thomire attribution seems especially ambitious to me.

Old Master Drawings

The heads of the sons of Laocoön
Picture: Christie's
Old master drawing sales never get as much attention as painting sales - so much so that the most valuable drawings at Sotheby's have been put into the paintings sale. It's a shame, because drawing viewings can be especially revealing, giving a chance to see things otherwise unknown an unpublished. And the absolute highlight of this season's old master auctions is the sale of a major collection of old master drawings,  the I.Q. van Regteren Altena collection of Dutch old master drawings at Christie's. Altena was buying from the 1920s, and much of his collection has been given to the Rijksmuseum - including a major Raphael. This sale has the cream of his Dutch drawings, and there are three more sales to look forward to. There's an excellent essay about Altena by Peter Schatborn in the Christie's catalogue. It's nice that the old master drawing sales avoid the sycophantic guff about collectors that you get in some of the paintings sales.
A young man leaning on a stick
Picture: Christie's
There are relatively few of the biggest names - only one Rembrandt, for example (though a very fine Rembrandt, above; £250k - £350k), and a few Rubens, with two in this sale including a fine study for Samson and Delilah (£1m - £1.5m). The collection's strength is in its range of first rate works by second tier artists. It's hard to pick favourites. A foliage study by Verwer is one of only two drawings known by this enigmatic artist (£30k - £50k, pictured below). Goltzius's drawing of his hand has been widely and justly praised, but I particularly loved his red chalk drawing of The Heads of the Sons of Laocoon (£70k - £100k, pictured above). On the topic of Rome's influence on Northern artists, there's also a splendid Heemskerck Studies of Roman Sculpture (£20k - £30k), Standaart's The Triumph of Titus (£10k - £15k) and Jan van Stinemolen's View of the Roman Amphitheatre at Pozzuoli (£60k - £80k). Altena clearly had a penchant for the theme.
Study of climbing plants on a tree-trunk
Picture: Christie's
Altena wrote the definitive catalogue of drawings by the de Gheyns, and there are eight in this sale, led by A Large Beech Tree, Partly in Leaf (£300k - £400k). He is woefully under-represented at the British Museum; I do hope they bag a couple. It's a wonderful collection. It offers a coherent overview of Dutch golden age drawing, but more important for a private collection it also offers a personal view of Dutch golden age drawing, with relatively few Rembrandt school figure drawings but a wealth of great landscape drawings. Specialised collections of Dutch paintings can be rather arid (Harold Samuel's, the Otterloos' and the Carters' collections all seem formulaic to me, despite the high quality of many of their pictures). It's interesting that both this collection and the Dutch drawings collected by George and Maida Abrams offer a more interesting personal perspective. Just wonderful; I can't wait for the viewings of the next sections.
The main drawing sale also has some fine things at modest estimates, many by celebrated draughtsmen. Sheets by Stefano della Bella (£4k - £6k), Filippino Lippi (or his circle, £15k - £20k)) and Fragonard (£4k - £6k) stood out, the last an interpretive copy of a painting by Guido Cagnacci. English drawings and watercolours include a particularly strong selection of Turners, but a more modest sheet by Sir Thomas Lawrence (£6k - £10k) would be my choice.
Picture: Sotheby's
Sotheby's sale today has nothing to equal the Altena collection, but they do have a number of Watteaus, best of which is the superb Head of a Faun (£250k - £350k, pictured above) from the Dormeuil collection, another old-time collection formed largely in the early twentieth century. There's also a well preserved head study by Lorenzo Balidssera Tiepolo, least-known of this talented family (£8k - £12k) and lots of Ingres - from which, my favourite is the large Study of the Virgin Mary in 'The Vow of Louis XIV' (£80k - £120k). An especially good Van Goyen landscape would have been at home in the Altena collection (£10k - £15k).

Old Master Paintings at Christie's

Saint Praxedis
Picture: Christie's 
Christie's Old Master and British Paintings sale this evening includes a Vermeer, but don't get too excited. It's an early picture, a copy of a minor Italian painting of St Praxides. For what it's worth, I'm convinced by the attribution, which has been controversial. But I don't love the picture, and the estimate of £6m - £8m reflects the name value of Vermeer rather than its inherent quality. I'm pleased, in a geeky train-spotter kind of way, that I've now seen all pictures plausibly attributed to Vermeer (and I've seen all except this and one in Braunschweig at least twice). Some of the best things are British (generally, of course, but in this auction too). There's a magnificent Reynolds, and above-average pictures by Cotes and Kauffman. And if Van Dyck may be considered an honourary Brit, his Head Study is very good.
The penitent Saint Justus kneeling before an altar - a predella panel
Picture: Christie's
A sensational version of the Master of the Annunciation to the Shepherds' name-picture has been consigned from the Barbara Piasecka Johnson collection. The primary version is in Birmingham, but this one is fantastic and reasonably estimated at £1m - £1.5m; it's my favourite of the high-end lots. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some good pictures in the Day Sale. A version of Wtewael's Perseus and Andromeda (£25k - £35k) and An Allegory of Unequal Love (£50k-£80k) from Bloemaert's circle are pictures of uncertain authorship but high quality with low estimates. Boeckhorst's A Grey Stallion in a Landscape is superb, comparable to Van Dyck's horse studies but estimated at merely £20k - £30k (or about a thousandth of a Jeff Koons...). A predella panel of The Penitent St Justus Kneeling Before an Altar (above) by the Master of the Castello Nativity is particularly unusual and, to me, attractive - but it's not everyone's taste. Still, £30k - £50k seems cheap for something so engaging and unusual.

Tronie of an old man
Picture: Christie's
This Jan Lievens (above) looks wrong to me, and the low-ish estimate is a hint that Christie's doesn't quite believe in it either. I adore Lievens' early head studies, and recently they've sold for high prices - multiples of this estimate. This one looks like a pastiche of Lievens, with excessive use of the brush handle to score lines in the paint. Really not great in my view. Likewise a Portrait of a Bearded Man given to Rubens, with an estimate of just £500k-£800k. That's cheap for a Rubens portrait, but too much for this one in my view. A so-so portrait from Holbein's workshop is also rather highly estimated at £200k-£300k. This sort of picture has done well at auction recently and might well sell for a high price, but a better, if smaller, female portrait from Holbein's school at Weiss for £350k looks better value to me.
Most of the high-estimate lots didn't greatly appeal to me. A good, typical Guardi is unexciting (certainly not at £8m - £10m), the unusual Canaletto nocturne isn't great (£3m - £4m), and there's the usual quota of boring-snoring Cranachs and Brueghels. A big Stomer carries a fairly modest estimate of £400k - £600k, but I think he's another artist over-rated by the market. The most interesting things are often hidden away in the day sales, and the best things aren't always the most expensive.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Old Master Paintings at Sotheby's

Picture: Sotheby's
This Descent into Limbo is catalogued as 'Florentine School, c. 1560. It's a stonkingly good mannerist altarpiece that looks so much better in real life. The large figure of Christ is the worst part, rather flatly painted. But the subsidiary figures are brilliant, particularly the foreground Moses. It has been attributed to Vasari, but I think parts of this picture are better than Vasari. Some of the background figures seemed to me redolent of Pontormo. Its anonymity and the unattractive main figure keep the estimate down to a modest £500k-£700k. This is exactly the kind of picture that museums should go after - art historically important, rare and very high quality, but modestly estimated. It's a small altarpiece - not so large as to dominate a gallery, but big enough to provide an anchor in a section often characterised by small devotional pictures and portraits. It's so much better than the predictable English portraits that Birmingham Art Gallery has bought recently, for example. Do follow the catalogue link and zoom in; the catalogue entry is good, and the image quality on Sotheby's website is excellent. 

The Sotheby's evening sale is tonight, and I went to the viewing at the weekend. It's a wonderful opportunity to see pictures that are usually inaccessible, and to assess pictures that are often not well known to scholarship. People rail against the corrupting influence of money on the art world, and they might have a point in the higher reaches of the contemporary market. But I quite like seeing pictures with price tags attached, because it invites assessment of relative quality. Quality and price is only weakly correlated, and I enjoy thinking about 'value for money' as an academic exercise. I don't much care for some of the highest-estimate pictures at Sotheby's, including Stubbs, Brueghel the Younger's Calvary and Cavarozzi, and a wreck of a portrait optimistically attributed to Velazquez. From the Warwick Portraits, I liked the cheaply estimated  (£80k-£120k) Corneille de Lyon best. The Hemessen at ten times that estimate seemed rather damaged to me, though I didn't study it closely.

Sotheby's is selling a number of pictures and works of art from the Duke of Nothumberland's collection. In this sale there's a gorgeous tiny Jan Brueghel the Elder of The Garden of Eden (£2m-3m); I'm a sucker for his animal scenes. The same source brings a mediocre Van Dyck that won't be missed (£400k-£600k) and an astonishing and usual gold ground picture, the left wing of a diptych by Giovanni da Rimini. The estimate of £2m-3m reflects its beauty, importance and rarity; I don't recall anything closely comparable at auction in the past decade, so the price must be hard to call. But it would be a great addition to many museum collections, and it would even fit nicely in the National Gallery. 

The other major source is the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection, which has been coming up for action for many years now. Johnson was a Polish chambermaid with an art history degree who married her employer, heir to the Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. She had a strongly defined taste and bought some outstanding works, although not all were first rate. A drawing by Botticelli is terrifically rare, but not pretty. Two anonymous drapery studies from Verrocchio's workshop, on the other hand, are just fabulous; they were long attributed to Leonardo. Intriguingly Keith Christiansen attributed the two studies to different hands, which I think might be right. They're rare and important, but also visually stunning. 

The Day Sale includes this wonderful funny A Fool with Two Women by Cornelis van Haarlem.(£60k-£80k) and a cheaply estimated Teniers (£60k-£80k). It's not the most exciting image, and it's not the best Teniers, but it's a well-painted image by a excellent artist, and is superb value at its estimated range. A fine Garofalo Circumcision is estimated at just £60k-£80k; what's with that? Insanely cheap! There are lots of good but unfashionable or unoriginal pictures in the day sale with very reasonable estimates - academic portraits, seventeenth century still lifes and landscapes. Good pictures at the lower end of the market have never been so cheap, relative to average income. 
Picture: Alain Truong
But I'll sign off with my favourite picture in the evening sale, this Rubens oil sketch of The Annunciation (£2m-£3m). Just fabulous!

I'll write about the Christie's sales tomorrow, and also about the Old Master Drawings and other works of art that are being sold this week. The Sotheby's auction is this evening, and I do like to write before the sale, when the market has made its all-too-fallible judgments.