Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Two uknown Cézanne sketches found on back of watercolors

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Unfinished sketches have been discovered on the back of watercolors by Paul Cézanne in the collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The watercolors, previously on display in room 20 of the Collection Gallery, had been out of their frames before, but the backs were hidden behind brown paper. It was that brown paper backing, ironically, that spurred the discovery of what it had been hiding for a century a so.

Brown paper is highly acidic. Over time the acid migrates from the backing into the original paper medium causing it to darken and become brittle. The Barnes Foundation knew that five Cézanne watercolor landscapes needed to have the brown paper backing removed and in January of 2014, all five of them were sent as part of a group of 22 works to the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), also in Philadelphia, for treatment.


Photographs © 2015 The Barnes Foundation.

CCAHA paper conservator Gwenanne Edwards was painstakingly removing the backing from the 1885-1886 watercolor entitled The Chaîne de l’Etoile Mountains with a microspatula when she saw swirls of blue and green and some pencil lines. Once the backing was entirely removed, an unfinished sketch of trees done in pencil and then accented with watercolors was revealed. It’s hard to determine exactly what the subject is since the sketch is so incomplete, possibly a path winding through trees with a square well in the center. The bottom right corner has a pencil note on it, an “X” and the word “Non” with what appears to be a question mark after it. This is not the work of the artist; it’s probably a notation from a dealer on whether its saleable.

Behind the backing of the second watercolor, Trees, conservators found a much more detailed graphite-only sketch of a manor house and farmhouse with a mountain in the background. Denis Coutagne, president of the Société Paul Cezanne in Provence, researched the drawing and identified the location as the Pilon du Roi peak in the same Massif de l’Etoile mountain range in Aix-en-Provence, southern France, depicted in the first watercolor. This was one of Cézanne’s favorite locations which he painted and drew many times over.


Photographs © 2015 The Barnes Foundation.

It was not uncommon for Cézanne to work on both sides of the paper in his sketchbooks and on larger, individual sheets such as these, and over the course of his career he produced thousands of drawings, some of which were done in preparation for oil paintings, but most often they were a place to experiment with line and color. “These sketches offer a window into Cezanne’s artistic process, which is truly invaluable,” said Barbara Buckley, Senior Director of Conservation and Chief Conservator of Paintings at the Barnes Foundation.

The five brown paper-backed watercolors were acquired by millionaire chemist and eccentric art collector Albert Barnes in 1921. The seller was Leo Stein, author Gertrude Stein‘s brother, who between 1904 and 1914 had built with his sister an exceptional collection of modernist works in their shared apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. Leo Stein was a particular devotee of Cézanne, so much so that when they dissolved their household and split up the collection in 1914, Leo let Gertrude have all the Picassos and most of the Matisses but insisted on keeping Cézanne’s small 4 3⁄4 by 10-inch oil painting Five Apples (now in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Thaw).

Leo Stein and Albert Barnes had been friends for years at the time of the sale, bonded by their shared love of art. When financial difficulties forced Stein to sell some of his collection, he asked Barnes to arrange the sale of some pieces in the United States. Barnes wrote to Stein that he had been unable to find buyers for the five watercolor landscapes because nobody he had contacted “seems to think they are sufficiently important to want to own them.” We can’t be sure whether that was in fact the case or if Barnes was being economical with the truth in order to score a bargain, but the final result was Barnes acquiring all five for $100 each.

There is no evidence in the correspondence that either Stein or Barnes had any idea there were sketches on the back of two of them. Given the probable dealer pencil markings on one of the sketches, it’s likely that the backs of the watercolors had already been covered with paper before Stein bought them.

The newly discovered sketches will be on display in double-sided frames in the second floor classroom of the Barnes Foundation from April 10th through May 18th, after which they will return to their former one-sided display in Room 20. This is an extremely rare opportunity to see anything at all from the Barnes collection not in its assigned location. Barnes left very strict, very specific instructions on the management of the art in Foundation’s charter. One of the rules is all the works have to be displayed exactly where Barnes chose to display them, never moved, never removed, never sold, never loaned. Even taking down works for conservation purposes requires the permission of the Pennsylvania Attorney General. Barnes arranged his art the way he liked it, a configuration he felt most in keeping with his Deweyite educational principles. The Foundation was to be an educational institution for students of art, not a museum for the general public.

Those rules have since been challenged by the foundation’s board, most notably in the controversial decision to break Albert Barnes’ will and move the entire collection from Barnes’ home in Merion, five miles outside of Philadelphia, to a new, larger facility on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in metro Philly. The excellent but agonizing 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal (available on Netflix streaming or for rent on Amazon Instant) covered the shenanigans involved. You can read the Barnes Foundation’s rebuttal to the documentary here.

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CT scan reveals mummy inside Buddha statue

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

A 11th or 12th century statue of a meditating Buddha with a perfectly posed mummy inside received a revelatory CT scan last September at the Meander Medical Center in Amersfoort, central Netherlands.

The statue arrived in the country as part of the Mummies exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, northeastern Netherlands. This was the first time the reliquary was allowed to leave China and it’s the only Chinese Buddhist mummy that has ever been made available for scientific research in the West.

The exhibition ran from May to August, after which the statue was taken to the medical center for CT scanning by Buddhist art expert Erik Brujin. Under the careful supervision of Brujin, radiologist Ben Heggelman ran the statue on its back through the CT scanner and took samples of bone tissue for DNA analysis. Gastrointestinal and liver disease specialist Raynald Vermeijden used an endoscope to sample material of an unknown nature from the mummy’s thoracic and abdominal cavities.

Several news stories have incorrectly described the mummy as a shocking discovery, but it was known to be inside the statue all along. Not to state the obvious, but that’s why it was sent to the Drents Museum in the first place as part of the Mummies exhibition. The research team did make one surprise find: the cavities where the organs once resided are stuffed with pieces of paper that have ancient Chinese characters written on them.

The mummy is believed to be that of the Master Liuquan of the Chinese Meditation School, or Ch’an (known as Zen in Japan) Buddhism. He died around 1100 A.D., which is the source of the date for the statue. The Drents Museum exhibited the statue as an example of self-mummification, a grueling, torturous, years-long process in which Buddhist monks gradually starved, dehydrated and poisoned themselves in the hope of attaining enlightenment and leaving an incorruptible corpse. It required an almost inconceivable degree of self-abnegation. For the first 1,000 days they ate only nuts and seeds gleaned from the area around the temple. The next 1,000 days the diet was whittled down to small portions of pine bark and roots until the end of the period when they began to drink a tea made from the sap of urushi tree. This sap is what lacquer is made of; it is toxic to humans. The tea induced the release of fluids and made the body unappetizing to insects and microorganisms that would otherwise be inclined feast on the corpse.

With no body fat or fluids left and poison in his tissues, the monk would then be walled alive in a room that gave him just enough space to sit lotus style. A tube let air into the tight space and the monk would ring a bell to let people know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the space sealed for another three years. When the 1,000 days were up, the tomb would be opened to see if the body was in fact mummified. If it wasn’t, and most of them weren’t, it was buried with due respect for the unbelievable toughness and devotion of the priest who made the attempt. If it was, the deceased would no longer be considered dead but in a state of eternal meditation, removed from the cycle of Samsara. He was elevated to the rank of Buddha, his mummy dressed and decorated and placed on an altar.

The practice as described above was codified by Kuukai of Mount Koya, Japan, founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. He is thought to have learned it while studying esoteric Buddhist practices in the T’ang region of China. Most examples of self-mummification have been found in the Yamagata Prefecture in Japan, but there are instances in China and India as well. The thing is, there is no removal of organs in this procedure. If the mummy in the Buddha statue did indeed self-mummify, his organs must have been removed after death, and I can’t see how it could have been done three years later. There’s a different process at work in the Buddha statue mummy.

I hope the scan and tests will get some answers about how he died and was mummified. The results of the research will be published in a monograph at an unscheduled future date. The exhibition is now in the Hungarian Natural History Museum where it will remain until May. After that it will travel to Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Sweden concluding in Wales in 2018.

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Dutch hooligans riot, vandalize Barcaccia fountain

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

Fans of the Rotterdam soccer team Feyenoord ran riot in Rome’s historic center on Thursday, throwing bottles and flares and causing serious damage to the Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna. Built by Pietro Bernini, father of famous architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1627 and 1629, the fountain just reopened in September after an extensive 10-month restoration. Now there are more than 110 gouges, scratches and chips on the travertine marble and several large chunks broken off the edge of the central basin.

On Friday morning public works crews sifted through broken glass, bottles and assorted trash to recover all the fragments they could find in the water. City restorers assessed the damage and it does not look good. There are broken pieces as large as 8 by 3.5 centimeters (3 by 1.4 inches). Even if the larger pieces can be reattached cleanly — not an easy feat with the highly porous travertine — the chips and scratches will likely remain. Expert Anna Maria Cerioni says that the damage to the fountain is permanent.

It’s unclear what set this barbarians off other than the usual metric ton of alcohol and whatever idiotic sports rivalry. They rampaged through the beautiful and historic Campo de’ Fiori piazza on Wednesday evening, throwing bottles at riot police and leaving the square covered in garbage. Over the two days of clashes between rioters and police, 10 police officers and three Dutch fans were wounded. A total of 28 were arrested and 19 of them have already been convicted and sentenced to six months in jail or a $50,000 fine.

All of this happened before the actual Europa League match between Feyenoord and Roma on Thursday afternoon. Additional police were dispatched to the Olympic Stadium for the event, in the expectation that violence might break out between the opposing teams’ fans, but nothing happened. The score was tied 1-1, Feyenoord moves on in the bracket and the 6,000 Dutch fans got on planes and headed home with no further trouble.

The mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, is incandescent with rage. He said that while several banks and organizations have contacted him offering financial support for the restoration, he thinks the Netherlands or the Feyenoord club should pay for the damage according to the principle of “who breaks it buys it.” The Dutch embassy’s public statements (you can see them on their Facebook page) focus on bringing the responsible parties to justice. “Soccer must be a party where there’s no room for violence. The Italian authorities can count on the total cooperation and committment of the Netherlands to ensure than the culpable are punished.” They also said an investigation has been opened in Holland to identify the perpetrators.

They haven’t excluded paying for it, however. When the mayor told the press after a long conversation with Dutch ambassador Michiel Den Hond that “they don’t feel responsible for the economic outlay to repair Bernini’s fountain,” Aart Heering, the ambassador’s spokesperson, said the mayor’s comment was premature, that before saying the Netherlands doesn’t want to pay for the damage, first the damages have to be quantified and the perpetrators identified.

The Feyenoord club’s general manager Eric Gudde described the rioting as “utterly reprehensible behavior … that fills every normal thinking Dutchman with horror.” There’s a bit of the No True Scotsman fallacy in the club’s reaction. The rioters aren’t real fans, you see, but rather lowlives who unlike the real fans went to Rome with the intent to “misbehave.”

Film of the clashes between rioters and police in Piazza di Spagna on Thursday:

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Ohio museum returns 16th c. astrolabe to Germany

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Germany giveth and Germany taketh away. Last month the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) announced it had acquired Napoleon’s brother’s exquisite spiral chandelier from a Hamburg art dealer. Two days ago the museum announced it would voluntarily return an exquisite 16th century astronomical instrument to the Gotha Museum in Germany after being presented with evidence that the object had been stolen from the museum after World War II.

The instrument is a multi-use device known as an astrological compendium made by Augsburg craftsman Christopher Schissler in 1567.
Schissler was considered the greatest of Augsburg’s instrument makers, crafting pieces of the highest quality from precious materials for the likes of August I, the Elector of Saxony, and Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor. Only around 100 instruments made by Christopher Schissler are known to have survived. This particular one was made for the Kunstkammer of Rudolf’s court in Prague. Rudolf was fascinated by mechanical devices and gave Schissler, along with other top instrument makers, access to court astronomers so they could be apprised of the latest research. He supported them financially and encouraged them to develop new designs and mechanisms.

This device is very much a show-off piece, a showcase for its owner’s wealth and scientific knowledge. Made from gilded bronze and enamel, it’s an astrolabe, but it also has a variety of other functions. The outside cover is a sun dial, the inside cover a map of the world from which a plumb-bob can be hung to calculate angle of inclination. Interior compartments include a wind rose, a compass, a lunary (a device to calculate the time based on the moon), a perpetual calendar and a zodiac showing which signs govern which days. It is inscribed along its octagonal edges “CHRISTOPHORUS SCHISSLER FACIEBAT AUGUSTAE VINDELICORUM – ANNO DOMINI 1567″ (Christopher Schissler made this, Augsburg ― Anno Domini 1567).

Image courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art.

The Schissler Compendium remained in Prague Castle until 1620 when it was taken as plunder by the forces of Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, after their victory against Frederick I, King of Bohemia, at the Battle of the White Mountain, one of the early clashes of the Thirty Years’ War. It was taken to Munich. Twelve years later, it was plundered again, this time by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden who invaded Bavaria and in May of 1632, took Munich. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle later that year and after his ally Bernhard of Saxon-Weimar died in 1639, the spoils from Bavaria were divided among the survivors. The Schissler Compendium went to Bernhard’s brother Ernest I, Duke of Saxe-Gotha, who installed it in his collection at Gotha.

Inventory records from the 19th century indicate the instrument stayed put in the collection of the Dukes of Gotha at Friedenstein Castle for 300 years. When the palace was converted to a museum, the compendium went on display alongside a larger astrolabe by Schissler. Much of the collection was moved during World War II for safekeeping and returned after the war was over. Thuringia was occupied by American forces for a few months after the end of the war, and then the Soviets took over. They took many of the Gotha Museum treasures to the Soviet Union only to return them after the establishment of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in 1949. We know that the Schissler Compendium was not among the art and artifacts returned to the museum by the Soviets.

So somewhere in the chaos of wars world and cold, the instrument made its way to New York art dealers and thence to Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo Museum of Art had no knowledge of its checkered past until May of 2013 when Dr. Martin Eberle, director of the Gotha Museum, wrote them a letter about the astrolabe. He included considerable documentary and photographic evidence that Toledo’s Schissler Compendium and the Gotha Museum’s Schissler Compendium were the same piece. After a couple of months spent reviewing the documentation, TMA Director Dr. Brian Kennedy wrote back to Dr. Eberle acknowledging that it seemed their astrolabe was the one stolen from the German museum.

The institutions negotiated for a year after that, planning the repatriation of the object and the loan of artifacts from the Gotha collection to the Toledo Museum of Art in exchange. They still haven’t decided which pieces will be loaned, but they’ll sort that out in due course. Meanwhile, repatriation is nigh, tentatively scheduled for March or April of this year.

Kudos to the TMA for returning the piece. There’s no legal requirement that they do so. The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property does not apply, nor do the protocols regarding Nazi loot. This was entirely an ethical choice they made because they think it’s the right thing to do.

[U]nlike earlier cases, this is one that involves no government bureaucracy or complications raised by potential thieves or distributors awaiting trial. It is, as Mr. Kennedy noted, simply an agreement between two museums to get a historically valuable piece back to its rightful owner.

“We’ve recognized there’s been a cultural shift in how museums conduct themselves,” Mr. Kennedy said. “There’s much more scrutiny in how museums obtain their objects and transparency now.”

He said the TMA had made it museum policy over the past 10 years to look harder into the ownership history of every piece.

“This was a one-of-a-kind scientific device,” Mr. Kennedy said. “It’s sad to see it go, but it’s not ours.”

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Codex Calixtinus thief sentenced to 10 years

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

On Wednesday the Provincial Court of La Coruña convicted former electrician José Manuel Fernández Castiñeiras of stealing the Codex Calixtinus, an invaluable 12th century manuscript that contains the first travel guide for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For the theft of the codex, ongoing burglaries of cash and other items and money laundering, Castiñeiras was sentenced to 10 years in prison (three for the codex, five for the burglaries, two for the laundering) and a 268,000 euro ($304,000) fine. His wife Remedios Nieto was sentenced to six months for money laundering and got her own 268,000 euro fine because she had to have known her husband’s wealth was ill-gotten. His son Jesus Fernández Nieto was acquitted as the court considered him a patsy used by his father who bought two apartments in his son’s name to launder some of the stolen money.

The court concluded that the electrician had taken keys to, among other locations, the office of the Dean and of the administrator, and used them to gain access to the Cathedral safe that regularly held large quantities of cash from sales of tickets to the Cathedral museum and roof, rent from Church properties and donations of the faithful. The total amount Castiñeiras stole in cash alone is 2.4 million euros ($2,735,000) in currency from 59 countries.

Defense counsel Carmen Ventoso tried the “this whole courtroom is out of order” defense, calling the trial a “procedural Guantanamo” in which the defendants’ rights had been trampled from before they were even on trial. She claimed police had broken into the house and installed monitoring devices a month before the arrest, that the official police search exceeded the parameters of the warrant, that the first interview in which Castiñeiras admitted he had stolen the Codex at 12:00 AM on July 4th, 2011, was full of errors and invalidated by the interrogator’s hardball tactics (“suggestive,” “argumentative” and “repetitive” questioning verging on duress), and that the Cathedral’s security camera footage showing the defendant shoving stacks o’ cash into his pockets was altered after the fact to incriminate her client. She wanted the search thrown out and all the evidence gathered as a result of it.

The court, unsurprisingly, was not persuaded by this argument or by Ventoso’s repeated imprecations against Judge José Antonio Vázquez Taín who, according to her, is a sterling example of “what shouldn’t be done.” The judge didn’t buy her next defense — that Castiñeiras had OCD and was a hoarder — either, on account of he somehow managed to overcome this compulsion just fine when he invested his filthy lucre in property.

On the stand last month, the first time he spoke publically about the theft, Castiñeiras admitted he had “probably” stolen all that cash (different news stories put the amount at anywhere from 1.7 to 2.4 million euros) from the Cathedral safe before he had a stroke in 2004, but he stopped keeping his accounts after the stroke and couldn’t remember if he kept stealing. When the magistrate asked him if he had stolen any other artworks or valuables from the church (a number of antiquities were also found in his home), the defendant replied that he woke up every day at 6:00 AM to work hard for the Cathedral. Because apparently early mornings and work entitle you to stuff millions in cash, art, church documents and whatever else into your pockets, seems to be the implication.

That fits with the disgruntled employee theory of the crime. He was let go in 2011, officially due to restructuring, but possibly because he was suspected of theft. That can’t have been the source of his cleptorage, however. He may have stolen the Codex Calixtinus in July of 2011 out of pique, but he’d been making off with huge fistfuls of cash regularly for something like a decade by then. In his confession he said he was acting against the institution that had failed to offer him permanent employment, but he also hinted darkly that the lack of poverty and chastity from certain Cathedral personnel his poor, traumatized eyes had witnessed during his many years on the job drove him to a decade of thievery. The lack of chastity was homosexual, gasp, and the lack of poverty consisted in staff taking money out of the offering bag and helping themselves to the best donations of silverware, hams and fine wines.

The Codex is now back at the Cathedral. It was returned on July 8th, 2012, four days after it was found in a garbage bag under some newspapers in Castiñeiras’ garage. It was on public display in the chapter house for the day, after which it was put in a safe location while the Cathedral looked into improving its obviously faulty security systems.

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Video reveals Richard III’s fatal blow

Monday, February 16th, 2015

The University of Leicester has released a video of the forensic examination of Richard III’s skull that revealed the blow that is likely to have been the coup de grâce. The video captures the moment (in real time, this is not a reenactment) when Professor Guy Rutty of the East Midlands Forensic Pathology Unit working with University osteologist Dr. Jo Appleby traced the trajectory of a penetrating wound from a sharp weapon that would certainly have been fatal.

Out of the nine injuries to the skull, there are two candidates for wounds that caused Richard’s death: a big hole on the right side of the occiput at the base of the skull caused by sharp-force trauma from a large bladed weapon like a halberd, and a smaller penetrating wound with radiating fracture to the left side of the occiput caused by the pointed tip of an edged weapon like a sword or the spike of a polearm weapon like a halberd or bill. (For more details about Richard’s wounds and the weapons that may have caused them, see this article from the Royal Armouries.)

At the time of the press conference announcing the early results of the study of the skeleton, the larger injury seemed the likeliest fatal wound. The smaller one of the two wasn’t even mentioned, that I recall.

In the video Professor Rutty, who was a Home Office forensic pathologist for 19 years, and Dr. Appleby slide a thin metal rod through the smaller penetrating wound. They align it with a cut mark on the left posterior arch of Richard’s first cervical vertebra to determine the angle of the blow and finds that the rod culminates at a small flap injury that looks like a tiny divot on the inner surface of the cranium. The three aligned injuries strongly suggest that the point of an edged weapon was driven up through the back of his head up into the brain and penetrated the skull opposite the entry wound. That’s a distance of 10.5 centimeters, or just over four inches.

The audio is rough and there is no closed captioning option, but it’s still neat to see the moment when all the wounds aligned. If you’d like to get a fuller picture, read the paper on the examination of Richard’s perimortem wounds published in The Lancet.

The video is one of 26 shot by a University videographer to document the discovery, study and reburial of Richard’s bones. Ten others are currently available for viewing on the University’s dedicated Richard III website. The set won’t be complete until the funerary cortege on Sunday, March 22nd, the lying in state and finally the reinterment ceremony on Thursday, March 26th, are recorded.

While I’m on the subject, I am compelled to recommend the episode of the PBS series Secrets of the Dead in which a young man with scoliosis very similar to Richard’s in degree and shape of spinal curvature volunteers to be put through the paces of medieval combat to study how effective the last king of England to die in battle would have been as a fighter. It is fascinating to see what he can and can’t do. Spoiler: he can do an amazing amount, and unlike Richard, he only got broadsword and horseback training for a couple of weeks in his adulthood. The best part is the extremely badass custom suit of armor a blacksmith makes for him. It needs some modification from the standard template because of certain anatomical peculiarities caused by his scoliosis (mainly the lack of a usable waist for armor purposes), but once he’s in it you wouldn’t know there’s anything at all unusual about that knight.

If you have any questions about how a man with Richard’s disability could perform on the battlefield, watch this show. I’ve already watched it twice it’s so good. I might have to make that thrice now that I’ve reminded myself of how awesome it is.

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Puppy Love gifted to Norman Rockwell Museum

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

One of Norman Rockwell’s most tender and beloved images, Boy and Girl Gazing at Moon (Puppy Love), also known as the Spooners, has been donated to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The donor is Bill Millis who has owned the oil painting since he bought it at an art gallery in 1975 when he was 26 years old.

“I loved everything Rockwell had painted—for me it’s what America stood for,” recalls Millis from his home in High Point, North Carolina. “Little did I know how popular Mr. Rockwell was, but I’d write him and he’d always write me back. I asked him if he knew whether any originals would ever be for sale, and he told me that there was going to be a showing at the Bernard Dannenberg Galleries in New York City.”

Millis traveled to New York and met with the gallery’s curator, who showed him the works on view. “I was just in awe of the Rockwell paintings, and all of the sudden I saw this one, Puppy Love, and I asked if it was for sale, and he said it was, and I said ‘Oh my goodness!’” Then only 26 years old, Millis asked the curator if he could hold it for him until the following Monday when he could send a check, to which the curator agreed.

Millis wrote to Rockwell to let him know he’d bought the painting and Rockwell so kindly replied: “I’m glad Puppy Love finally has a happy home.” Since he painted it for the cover of the April 24th , 1926, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it was a homecoming just shy of 50 years in the making. The loving, innocent depiction of young sweethearts entranced by the moon on their way to go fishing with their simple stick pole, worms in a can and an irresistibly cute beagle puppy, continues to charm a new generation in the Internet era as exemplified by its selection as the subject of the February 3rd, 2010, Google Doodle commemorating what would have been Norman Rockwell’s 106th Birthday,

When Millis first bought the painting, the check he wrote the curator was for $27,000 so it was a major purchase at the time, but prices for original works by Norman Rockwell are on a whole different plane these days. He was a prolific artist who was popular throughout his career and extant works aren’t rare. They’re just really expensive now, especially the original oil paintings for his most famous magazine covers. Puppy Love is very much in that category. If it were to be sold on the art market today, it would be valued at $4 million and would probably sell for even more than that. The auction record for a Rockwell painting was set in December of 2013 when Saying Grace went for $46 million.

Millis has kept an eye on the prices and knew he had a winning lottery ticket hanging on his wall. Even though he left the painting to the Norman Rockwell Museum in his will, he was sorely tempted by the sky-high prices to sell Puppy Love and use the proceeds to fund a church-building ministry. Finally he decided in consultation with his family that not only was he not going to sell the painting to the highest bidder, but he wasn’t going to wait until he was dead to donate it.

The museum was ecstatic, of course. It houses the largest collection of original Rockwell art in the world — 998 original paintings and drawings — plus an archive of 100,000 items — working photographs, correspondence, fan mail, contracts — donated by the artist himself. However, it does not have the kind of acquisition budget that can allow them to keep up with the price of original Rockwell art as it rockets into the stratosphere. Saying Grace and the two other Rockwells that sold at that auction (The Gossips for $8.5 million and Walking to Church for $3.2 million) had been on long-term loan at the museum for years before the owners, descendants of The Saturday Evening Post art editor Kenneth J. Stuart, decided to cash in. Unless people give them things, the museum has been decidedly priced out of the market.

Now Bill and his four children Casey, Maggie, Jenny and Jesse, have donated the work “in honor of Norman Rockwell, an incredible American,” the Norman Rockwell Museum has 34 oil paintings of The Saturday Evening Post covers. That’s an impressive 10 percent of the Evening Post originals.

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Film of Eastland disaster found in Dutch newsreels

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

The wreck of the Eastland, 1915. Kaufmann, Weimer, & Fabry Co.

It was drizzling in Chicago on Saturday, July 24th, 1915, but the damp weather didn’t keep the employees of the Western Electric Company from hastening to the Chicago River wharf where they would board one of five steamers that would transport them four hours across Lake Michigan to the amusements of Washington Park in Michigan City, Indiana. The Western Electric annual picnic was particularly well-attended, with almost 7,000 employees, family and friends planning to go. The first chartered steamer to board passengers was the SS Eastland, a 12-year-old ship that had been designed without a keel and was top-heavy from inception. Diver and other rescue workers recover victim of Eastland disaster. Photo by Jun Fujita.Ballast tanks filled with water were supposed to balance out the weight, but nonetheless the Eastland had had multiple listing incidents over the course of its short career.

A month before the Western Electric picnic, the Eastland had more weight added to its top in the form of additional lifeboats, a reaction to the recent passage of the Seaman’s Act (itself a reaction to the sinking of the Titanic) which required increased lifesaving devices on ships. The act didn’t go into effect until the end of the year, but the steamship company decided to get the jump on it. It did not decide to lower the ship’s passenger capacity, however, although by the terms of the Seaman’s Act the Eastland would go from being licensed to carry 2,500 passengers to a capacity of 1,200.

Drawing of the Eastland disaster by political cartoonist and eyewitness to the events Bob SatterfieldUnaware that their ship had a history of top-heaviness, that it was even top-heavier right then than it had ever been thanks to all the new lifeboats and rafts on the top deck, and that there were twice as many of them as future regulation would allow, 2,500 picnickers boarded the Eastland. As soon as they got on the ship started listing. Still moored to the wharf, the steamer listed to starboard, then to port. The passengers thought it was fun at first and the captain thought he could fix it, so he didn’t order an immediate evacuation. At 7:31 AM, the Eastland rolled all the way onto its port side and capsized in 20 feet of water a few feet from dry land.

People who had been milling about on the upper decks were dumped into the Chicago River. Whoever was able to scramble over the starboard rail as the ship turned remained dry on the exposed starboard side of the capsized vessel. The passengers below deck (and there were many, particularly women and children), with the good sense but bad luck to stay out of the rain, were trapped. Disoriented in the sideways ship, crushed by falling furniture, fixtures and people, flooded by the water rushing into the interior, they died from drowning, blunt force trauma, and trampling.

Rescue workers recover body of victimEight hundred and forty-four people died in the hull of the Eastland. Twenty-two families were completely annihilated, and more than 650 families lost at least one member. Nineteen families lost both parents. One hundred and seventy-five women, three of them pregnant, were widowed; 84 men were left widowers. Of the victims who lost their lives, 228 were teenagers and 58 were babies or young children. Seventy percent of the dead were under 25 years of age; the average age of the victims was 23. The Eastland tragedy remains to this day Chicago’s worst disaster in terms of loss of life.

Kenosha used as a floating bridge to rescue Eastland passengersThe tugboat Kenosha, which was tied to the Eastland in preparation to tow it from the river to the lake, immediately changed gears to rescue. Captain John O’Meara had the tug moored to the wharf so passengers who had managed to climb onto the starboard side of the Eastland as it rolled could use the tug as a floating bridge to walk to safety. Divers were enlisted to search for survivors, or more realistically to recover bodies, inside the capsized ship. They had to break through the sides of the ship using cutting torches.

Rescue and recovery was only the beginning. With so many dead and so many more living rushing to the riverside clamouring to know the fate of their loved ones, storing and identifying the dead and alerting their families would become a logistical nightmare. Western Electric just happened to be incredibly well-positioned to live up to the challenge.

Western Electric ad in October 16th, 1915 issue of The Literary DigestThe Western Electric Company made equipment for the Bell System, a network of local phone companies either directly owned by or closely connected to AT&T. Originally formed to make telegraph machinery in 1869, the company went through several iterations before AT&T bought a controlling stake in the company in 1881. Western Electric became the exclusive manufacturer of AT&T telephones in 1882. By the early 20th century it was also manufacturing or reselling a wide range of electrical appliances like dishwashers, toasters, radios and vacuüm cleaners.

It manufactured the parts for the Transcontinental Line that linked sea to shining sea by voice. The first transcontinental phone call, from Alexander Graham Bell in New York City to Dr. Watson in San Francisco, was made in January of 1915, just six months before the disaster. (And yes, Bell did repeat his famous line, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you” for the test. Watson replied that it would take him a week since he wasn’t in the room next door this time.) Instantaneous voice communication across 3,000 miles was an exciting technological leap forward for Western Electric and its employees, and that buzz was part of the reason the picnic was so enthusiastically embraced that summer.

Hawthorne Works 1910sThe company had a paternalistic, almost Hershey-like approach to its employees. Productivity, Western Electric believed, could be improved by creating a supportive, active, family environment. The Hawthorne Works plant, built in Cicero, Illinois in 1905, had a band, gym, restaurant, library, baseball field, bowling alley and track field. Eventually it would have its own hospital, fire department and police. Employees were encouraged to join teams, be they baseball, soccer, bowling or chess. The company saw sports and friendly competition were a way for employees to get to know each other, to work together as a team, maybe even get a rivalry going on between people or departments that would egg them on to make more phones.

The company offered evening classes for all employees, men and women. The classes could be related to the job or purely for one’s edification. Then there were the social entertainments: dances, masquerades, movies, concerts, ice skating, and the culmination of the season, the annual employee picnic.

Ticket to the 1915 picnicOrganized by employee social clubs for the first four years, the fifth annual Hawthorne Works picnic in 1915 burst the boundaries of the clubs and became its own thing, generating a shockingly vast panoply of committees to attend to every little aspect of the day. Committees included Program, Judges, Prizes, Beach, Dancing, Tug-of-War, Amusement, Picnic, Transportation, Tickets, Photography, Grounds, Music, Publicity, Athletics and Races. It was the Transportation Committee that arranged with the Indiana Transportation Company to charter five large ships to carry the throngs to the picnic site.

Second Regiment Armory as temporary morgue. Photo by Jun Fujita.When the disaster struck, Western Electric employees who had been waiting to board their own ships for the party used some of the teamwork developed on the company baseball diamond to band together for the recovery, identification and notification for their fallen comrades. They and other volunteers set up temporary morgues in warehouses and in the Second Regiment Armory. They created multiple information bureaus to make a list of names of the dead and collect information from frantic next of kin. They had dozens of phones installed so the information bureaus could share data instead of duplicating each others’ work, and to receive the many phone calls from worried friends and family. They scoured hospitals for living and dead. They sorted an enormous quantity of personal belongings that had been taken from dead bodies in the hopes of identifying them, as well as from the inside of the ship.

That’s just scratching the surface. After identification there was relief, providing some financial support for the families of the dead. The Eastland Memorial Society has digitized a transcript of the August 1915 edition of the Western Electric News, a memorial issue dedicated to those who perished in the disaster. Read this page for the company’s account of its employees’ dedication, ingenuity and heroism in extremely trying circumstances. For a contrasting viewpoint, read Carl Sandburg’s very different take on events in the International Socialist Review.

Horrified rescue worker with victim. Photo by Jun Fujita.The wreck and its tragic aftermath were thoroughly documented by the press. Groundbreaking photojournalist Jun Fujita, the first Japanese-American photojournalist and one of the first photojournalists period, had just been hired by the Chicago Evening Post. He happened to be at work bright and early on July 24th, 1915, so he was able to run to the wharf as soon as he heard about the disaster. Fujita took pictures of the capsized ship and the crowd of passengers perched on top of it. He clambered onto the ship and got some very compelling shots of the rescue efforts, including one of a wharfman carrying the dead body of a child. The tough old dock worker with a horrified look in his eyes as he holds a young victim in his arms became a symbol of the disaster in the same way the firefighter tenderly cradling the bloody baby after the Oklahoma City bombing became an iconic image. Jun Fujita wrote a poignant essay about the day’s events as seen through the agonized eyes of the rescue worker with the dead child in his arms.

There was no film of the disaster known to have survived. That changed on Thursday. University of Illinois Ph.D. candidate Jeff Nichols was looking through that magnificent time sink that is Europeana, the digital database of Europe’s cultural patrimony, doing research for his dissertation on World War I propaganda when he saw the intertitle of a Dutch newsreel refer to the Eastland. Then he found a second clip in another newsreel. Both movies were uploaded to Europeana’s exceptional World War I site, Europeana 1914-18, by the EYE Film Instituut Nederland which has contributed hundreds of hours of archival footage to the database.

The first clip is a segment (starts 1:08) of a newsreel that otherwise covers World War I-related events, mainly in England. The only exceptions are the opening scene of Bersaglieri, an Italian light infantry unit famous for their signature black grouse feather hats and the brisk trot they use instead of a parade march, taking the town of Cormons on the border with Austria-Hungary, and the second scene of the rescue efforts around the capsized Eastland.

The second clip (starts 9:10), also a segment of a newsreel covering home front events, records the salvage crews working to right the Eastland on August 14th, almost four weeks after the disaster.

Hawthorne Works water tower and the mall that replaced the other buildingsThe Eastland’s owners were tried in a Chicago court for criminal neglect, but the jury acquitted them. The steamer itself was repaired, renamed the USS Wilmette, and used as a training ship for the Navy until it was finally broken up for scrap in 1947.

Hawthorne Works went the way of so much midwestern manufacturing. Employer to more than 40,000 people at its peak, the plant closed its doors permanently in 1986, and shortly thereafter the brick industrial buildings were demolished to make way for a hideous strip mall. Only the water tower and a cable factory, now used by the county as a warehouse, remain of the original campus.

Dorothy Fitzgerald, 3, victim of SS Eastland disaster along with her motherThe Chicago History Museum has a display on the Eastland disaster in the City in Crisis section of its permanent exhibition Chicago: Crossroads of America. Go to the Eastland Disaster Historical Society website for tons of information about the disaster and its aftermath. The organization was founded by the two granddaughters of a survivor of the disaster, and it is a labor of love and respect. Not to be missed is their meticulous reconstruction of the passenger list with links to more information and photographs about the victims and survivors.

 

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Portrait attributed to Leonardo seized from Swiss bank vault

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Italian financial police and the Carabinieri art theft squad teamed up with Swiss federal authorities Monday to seize a painting some believe to be a lost portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci from a bank vault in Lugano, Switzerland. Clandestine sale negotiations were ongoing when the police nabbed the work. The top asking price was 120 million euros ($135.9 million). Prosecutor Manfredi Palumbo said at a press conference that there are 70 people of interest in this investigation, all potentially part of a large illegal art smuggling ring attempting to move multiple works out of Italy into the black market.

The painting was found as a result of a fortuitous encounter during an unrelated investigation last August. The finance police in Pesaro, a town on the northeast coast of Italy in the Marche region, were looking into an insurance fraud case when they discovered documents indicating the portrait was in Switzerland. The finance police teamed up with the Carabinieri and tracked down the painting in the private vault of a Lugano trust. There’s some raw footage of the bust here. All that teal makes for a pretty sad looking Swiss bank vault.

This isn’t the paintings first sojourn in a Swiss vault. When the news of it first emerged in October of 2013, the portrait was one of 400 artworks kept in a Swiss bank by an anonymous Italian family who claimed the collection had been in Switzerland since the early 20th century. Completely unpublished and undocumented, of course, because that’s how Swiss private collections like it. Family lore whispered of it being Leonardo’s portrait of Isabelle d’Este so finally around 2009 or so, likely in advance of sale, they began intensive research on the piece. Radiocarbon dating found that the work was painted between 1460 and 1650; X-ray fluorescence found that the primer and pigments are consistent with those used by the Renaissance master. UCLA emeritus art history professor and Leonardo expert Carlo Pedretti enthusiastically authenticated the portrait as Leonardo’s work.

The question of whether Leonardo ever painted a portrait of Isabella d’Este has been much debated by art historians over the centuries. In December of 1499, Leonardo da Vinci fled Milan after the city was conquered by the French and his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza was overthrown. On the way to Venice, he stopped in Mantua where he was welcomed by Isabella d’Este, wife of Francesco II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, who had met the artist at the double wedding where she married Francesco and her sister Beatrice d’Este married Ludovico Sforza. (Leonardo had actually designed some costumes for a joust held as part of the wedding celebrations.) He wasn’t in town for long, but Leonardo did make the time to draw a portrait of Isabella in black, red, white and ochre chalk on paper. He made at least two sketches of her portrait profile. One he took with him to Venice; the other he gave to Isabella’s husband Francesco Gonzaga. Multiple letters from Isabella to Leonardo asking him to make a painting from the sketch have survived, but there is no evidence that he ever did so. Isabella also asked him to make her another drawing after her husband gave hers away in 1501, but there’s no evidence he did that either. The sketch Leonardo gave to Gonzaga is now lost. The sketch he brought with him is now in the permanent collection of the Louvre.

The discovery of an oil painting undeniably modeled after the drawing sparked much discussion as other experts disagreed with Pedretti’s attribution. One glaring issue is that the portrait is on canvas while Leonardo and his school used wood panels. This would be the only known work he ever did on canvas. It’s also a remarkably accurate match to the sketch considering that it was ostensibly painted years after the drawing was done (Pedretti posits that it was painted in 1514 when Leonardo met Isabella again in Rome). Then there are the quality concerns. Parts of it — the crown and that atrocious palm frond she’s holding — are clearly not the work of the master.

Just to add another layer of labyrinthine complexity to this case, recall that the news of the Isabella portrait broke in the Corriere della Sera’s Sette magazine the first week of October, 2013. Less than two months earlier on August 27th, 2013, Pesaro police received a tip that a local lawyer, Sergio Shawo, was found in possession of a letter from one Emidia Cecchini, the 70-year-old putative owner of the portrait, in which she exhorts him to sell the painting for no less than 95 million euros ($107 million). By Italian law, all art works more than 50 years old cannot leave Italy without a special export license and there was no license pertaining to the portrait. Pesaro authorities asked their Swiss colleagues to execute a search warrant on the Swiss bank vault where the painting was believed to be kept, but they were unable to find it there.

So when all the big publicity about this incredible find in the Swiss vault was going down with the dueling experts and the lab testing and all that, as far as authorities were concerned at least, the painting was actively on the lam. Police suspected it had been smuggled back into Italy in a dastardly game of keep-away, and indeed it may have been before returning to Switzerland the next year where it cropped up in that insurance fraud case.

The painting is still in Switzerland for now where it will stay until legal ownership can be determined. Cecchini, the nice old lady in reduced circumstances whose grandparents put together so fine an art collection, may be the legitimate owner trying to win the lottery by the illegal export and sale of her property, or that whole 400 paintings in a Swiss vault since the early 1900s story may be a complete and total fabrication to cover an art smuggling conspiracy. Two art dealers are under investigation for involvement in this case, and they were looking to sell other Old Master works at the same time.

Once ownership is established, the Italian authorities want the painting back in Italy. Until then, additional authentication research is on hold.

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Magna Carta found in Kent library scrapbook

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

An exemplar of the 1300 edition of Magna Carta has been discovered in a Victorian-era scrapbook in the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone, Kent, southeast England. The newly discovered parchment is almost two feet long, but it is not in good condition. Moisture has claimed about a third of the document — a vertical strip down the middle is gone — and the royal seal of King Edward I is missing. Still, with so few exemplars surviving (there are only seven of the 1300 issue), even a damaged one is an exceptional find.

The document was discovered by Dr. Mark Bateson, Kent County Council’s community history officer, while he was looking for another medieval royal charter at the behest of University of East Anglia professor Nicholas Vincent, Principal Investigator for the Magna Carta Project, a wide-ranging study of the seminal charter limiting the rights of kings in anticipation of the 800th anniversary of its issue by King John at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215. Vincent asked Bateson to look up Sandwich’s original copy of the Charter of the Forest, a complementary charter to Magna Carta asserting public rights of access to royal forests first issued by John’s son King Henry III on November 6th, 1217. As the Kent History and Library Centre contains the county’s historic archives, a vast treasury of almost 9 miles of historical documents going back as far as 699 A.D., Bateson searched there for the Forest Charter.

He found it pressed in a scrapbook put together by E. Salisbury, a British Museum official, in the late 19th century. This particular edition of the Charter of the Forest was issued to Sandwich in 1271. Turning the page, Bateson saw another medieval parchment and recognized it as Magna Carta. The 1300 issue date was still visible at the bottom of the page. Professor Vincent authenticated it as genuine from its layout, the handwriting of the scribe and the details of the text which match the other surviving 1300 Magna Cartas.

Since King John was made to sign the first issue by his rebellious barons in 1215, Magna Carta was reissued multiple times to affirm and modify the enumerated rights. The 1300 reissue was the last to be distributed under the king’s seal, and the fact that Sandwich received a copy may indicate Magna Carta was more widely distributed to smaller towns and ports than previously thought. Sandwich was one of the Cinque Ports, a confederation of five coastal towns who maintained fleets of ships for the monarch in return for tax breaks and a number of self-government rights. Richard the Lionheart landed in Sandwich in 1194 upon his return to England after the extortionate ransom demanded by his captor, Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, was paid. The only other Cinque Ports town known to have a copy of Magna Carta is Faversham. Professor Vincent hopes the discovery of the Sandwich Magna Carta may be an indication that other small towns could have one of their own squirreled away in their archives.

The fact that Sandwich has originals of both the 1300 Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest in its archives is exceptionally rare. Only one other institution, Oriel College, Oxford, has the same pair. The two go together like the proverbial horse and carriage, historically speaking. The Charter of the Forest was issued to expand upon the forest law references in Magna Carta, like a Forest Bill of Rights to Magna Carta’s Constitution. Since avid hunter William the Conqueror first established a separate forest law to keep people from messing with his personal game preserve, lands declared royal forest had expanded greatly, especially under King Richard and King John. The Plantagenet kings had claimed ever more land, some of it not even wooded but rather moor or pasture land or even villages, as royal forest and forbade traditional customs like the use of forests as common land for grazing, fishing, collecting firewood, foraging or cultivating subsistence crops. The Charter of the Forest restored these rights to free men and abolished the death penalty for taking the king’s venison. Magna Carta deals with the rights of barons, so the Forest Charter is actually the first charter to protect the rights of the regular people from aristocratic overreach.

The Charter of the Forest also bears the honor of being the cause for the coining of the epic name “Magna Carta.” The term was first used in a 1218 proclamation to distinguish the “Great Charter” from its smaller and more focused relation, the Forest Charter. In 1297, Edward I issued the two charters together in the Confirmatio Cartarum, or Confirmation of Charters, to pacify yet more unruly barons who were mad at him for taxing them. It’s of note that Sandwich received both charters even though the county of Kent had no royal forest. It suggests the two went out together as a team no matter the destination.

This is obviously a banner year for Magna Carta enthusiasts. Last week, the four surviving exemplars of the 1215 Magna Carta came together for the first time in a “unification” exhibition at the British Library. As these are very delicate documents, there was limited space for people to visit the once-in-a-millennium event so the BL went fully democratic and randomly selected 1,215 attendees from 43,715 applications received from more than 20 countries. After the all too brief three days of unification, the two Magna Cartas that do not live at the British Library permanently returned to their home bases: Salisbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral. Salisbury Cathedral will host an exhibition of its own starting on March 6th. Lincoln Cathedral’s Magna Carta will be on display in a fancy new vault built at Lincoln Castle starting April 1st.

The British Library’s upcoming Magna Carta exhibition runs March 13th through September 1st, 2015. It is sponsored by legal firm Linklaters which has set up a simple and effective Magna Carta viewer where you can zoom in on a legible exemplar and read a transcript or translation of it.

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