Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Clark acquires politically daring portrait of child

Monday, November 27th, 2017

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, is renown worldwide for the size and quality of its Impressionist collection. Sterling Clark, an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, was highly discriminating in the pieces he chose to buy. He was entirely self-taught and relied solely on his own excellent taste, the input of a few trusted dealers and of the opinions of his wife Francine, a French-born actress who he described as his “touchstone in judging pictures.” The result was a collection of such depth that it eclipsed in quality the collections amassed by his wealthier contemporaries.

He kept it all on the down low, collecting for decades in the background, never publishing, promoting or displaying his artworks until th opening of the Clark Art Institute in 1955. Out of nowhere, it seemed, and set in a small college town in the remote Berkshire Mountains, one of the greatest private collections ever pieced together exploded on the scene. The Impressionists, the main focus of Sterling and Francine Clark’s acquisitions after 1920, made the most lasting impression overall, but the Clark also has a phenomenal collection of paintings from the 14th century through the 19th, decorative arts, Remington bronzes, porcelain and British and American silver.

Its location next to Williams College was not a coincidence. From the beginning, the Clarks evisioned the museum not just as a venue for the display of their flawless collection, but as a hub of art historical research and education. The museum sponsors the college’s world-class art history graduate program have developed a truly symbiotic relationship that has produced curators and directors who have worked in the greatest museums in the country and internationally.

Alexandre Jean Dubois-Drahonet (French, 1791-1834), Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde, 1817, Oil on canvas, 59 x 39.6 in. Clark Art Institute, 2017.2.The Clarks’ judiciously ecclectic approach has continued in the museum they founded. The permanent collection has grown significantly since 1955 as the Clark Art Institute very selectively acquires pieces to flesh out certain areas, time periods and subject matters. One of its latest acquisitions is the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817) by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet, a French portraitist who may not have the highest name recognition today, but who was preeminent in his field and specialized in studies of military uniforms, several of which are now in the collection of Windsor Castle. Purchased at auction this past April for $295,500, far above its pre-sale estimate, it is a full-length oil on canvas painting of a boy dressed in full Napoleonic military uniform.

The striking garb and composition of the portrait is a tribute to Achille’s father, Baron Jean-Baptiste Deban de Laborde, a First Empire Hussar who was died in combat at the Battle of Wagram in 1809. His son was just one year old at the time. Seven years later, he sat for a portrait wearing a child-sized version of his father’s uniform with its characteristic silver frogging and wee tasselled hessian boots. The youth leans on a ceremonial sword his father was given as an award for bravery as squadron leader at the Battle of Marengo in 1800. His sabre and its scabbard are on the floor on the lower right. Pinned to the velvet drapery in the upper left of the painting is the late baron’s 1804 Légion d’honneur medal, among others. On the couch behind Achille are Jean-Baptiste’s plumed shako cap and sabretache (a pouch worn on cavalrymen’s belt). The cap bears the number 8, Jean-Baptiste’s hussar regiment.

“This beautiful painting enhances the Clark’s collection of early nineteenth-century portraiture,” said Olivier Meslay, Felda and Dena Hardymon Director. “It invites a close comparison to the Jacques-Louis David portrait Comte Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne-d’Aynac (1816) that is in our collection, and provides a poignant juxtaposition between a Napoleonic war hero and a child honoring one who was lost on the battlefield.”

Dubois-Drahonet primarily worked as a portraitist but also produced a number of studies of military uniforms. His work was notable for its clean lines and a command of light similar to that of his contemporary Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Drahonet exhibited at the Salon from 1812 to 1834 and was awarded a medal in 1827. The portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde combines Drahonet’s talent for portraiture with his detailed knowledge of military uniform and accoutrements.

“The Dubois-Drahonet and David portraits were created within one year of each other, and both represent bold statements of Napoleonic support in a time of staunch anti-imperial sentiment,” said Esther Bell, Robert and Martha Berman Lipp Senior Curator. “David was living in exile when he painted comte de Turenne. In painting such a daring portrait memorializing a soldier with a distinguished military career under Napoleon, Dubois-Drahonet and his patrons were taking a political risk.”

They took it twice, in fact, because that same year Achille’s older brother Edouard-César Deban de Laborde was also immportalized in a portrait by Dubois-Drahonet. The son and heir is even more elaborately kitted out in uniform as he wraps a garland of flowers around the laurel-crowned marble bust of his noble but sad father. When he grew up, Achille, like his father, chose a military career. Also like his father, he rose to the rank of colonel, although not in the Hussars but the Fourth Cuirassiers Regiment. When his brother Edouard died without issue in 1851, Achille inherited his father’s title too.

After it was bought from a Belgian private collector by the Clark, the Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde spent a few months getting some love from the experts at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. They found it in exceptional condition, its canvas, stretchers and frame all original. It just required a thorough cleaning, the removal of a discolored varnish layer (not applied by the artist) and a few fill-ins here and there of small spots where the paint had flaked off over the years. After 65 hours of conservation work over the course of weeks, the beautiful portrait was ready for primetime. It is now on display at the Clark with other early 19th century works.

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LoC acquires, digitizes rare Mesoamerican map

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

The Library of Congress has acquired an extremely rare manuscript map created by the Nahuatl people of Mexico in 1593. The Codex Quetzalecatzin, also known as the Mapa de Ecatepec-Huitziltepec, is one of very few manuscripts by indigenous Mesoamericans survive unburned, largely because it wasn’t part of the immense literary patrimony of pre-Hispanic cultures that was considered “demonic” because of its hieroglyphics, but rather the product of the Relaciones Geográficas, an extensive mapping project of colonial Spanish America ordered by King Philip II the late 16th century. Surveys sent to colonial authorities in every territory had to be filled in with a range of demographic, geographic, topographic and cartographic information, complete with an accurate and to-scale map of the area. The maps and much of the information on them were made by indigenous people based on local knowledge.

The codex maps southern Puebla from Ecatepec, today a suburb of Mexico City to the church of Santa Cruz Huitziltepec and across the provincial border into northern Oaxaca. It’s drawn in iron gall ink and painted in watercolors on paper. It is rich with hieroglyphics, colorful and compelling drawings and text labelling people and locations in Spanish and in romanized Nahuatl. While we don’t know the name of the artist/s and writers who made the Codex Quetzalecatzin, it does include unique geneaological information about an important local family — several generations of the Nahuatl “de Leon” family from 1480 through 1593 — and the interweaving of indigenous and Spanish cultures in the century after Christopher Columbus.

[T]he Librarian stated: “The acquisition of the map, because of its relevance to the early history of the European contact with the indigenous people of America, makes an important addition to the early American treasures at the Library of Congress, including the Oztoticpac Lands Map and the Huexotzinco Codex. It’s a rare document of world history and American history in general.” […]

As with many Nahua, indigenous group, manuscript maps of the period, the Codex Quetzalecatzin depicts the local community at an important point in its history and the iconography that makes up the map reflects some Spanish influence.

“The codex shows graphically the kinds of cultural interactions taking place at an important moment in American history,” said John Hessler, curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection for the archaeology of the early Americas of the Library of Congress. “In a sense, we see the birth of what would be the start of what we would come to know as the Americas.”

Hessler added: “The codex relates to the extent of land ownership and properties of the family line known as “de Leon,” most of the members of which are portrayed on the manuscript. With Aztec stylized graphics, the map illustrates the family’s genealogy and its descent from Quetzalecatzin, who in 1480 was the major political leader of the region. It also shows churches, some Spanish place names and images suggesting a community adapting to Spanish law and rule.”

In the codex, certain features that point to indigenous authorship include pre-Hispanic stylistics, such as symbols for rivers, roads and pathways, and hieroglyphic writing. The marginal notations with alphabetic writing utilizing the Latin alphabet and the names of some of the indigenous elites, such as “don Alonso” and “don Matheo,” are clues to its colonial era composition. This is evidence that some indigenous people enjoyed the Spanish title “don” and had been baptized with Christian names.

The LoC has digitized the map and uploaded it to its website, which in case you haven’t seen it yet is one of the greatest photographic archives on the Internet and has been for years, long before other institutions got on the bandwagon of making high-resolution images available online to the general public. It’s so great, in fact, that I couldn’t even upload the full image to this article because it’s so gloriously gigantic my server can’t handle it. I mean, of course I uploaded a gigantic version, but it’s less than half the size of the original behemoth. Behold it in all its grandeur here.

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A Black Friday sale actually worth spending money on

Friday, November 24th, 2017

In a shocking development, there was one single advertisment in the avalanche of Black Friday gimmick sales spam currently suffocating my email inbox that is actually worth sharing with people of the history nerdly persuasion. I’ve written before about Exhibition on Screen productions, films capturing the background and execution of blockbuster art exhibitions. I’ve only had the opportunity to watch one of them on the big screen, but if I’d had my way, I would have watched them all. The distribution is just very limited is all.

For one day only, ie, today, Friday, November 24th, every film in stock on their website is 50% off. Some of them are on DVD and only available in PAL format so they won’t work in most players in the US. Many of them are digital downloads which are a) easily viewed anywhere in the world, and b) cheap as hell. I’m limbering up my clickin’ finger because there’s going to be a lot of compensatory binging in my near future. I might be amenable to burning them as a stocking stuffers, but I make no guaratees.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Michelangelo – Love and Death, The Impressionists and the Man Who Made Them, The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch, Girl with a Pearl Earring – and other treasures from the Mauritshuis and Leonardo from the National Gallery London will all be mine. Oh yes. They will be mine. For less than $3.50 a pop.

My one crushing disappointment is that their Domus Aurea documentary is out of stock. You would not believe how little material is out there about the recent restoration and new virtual reality exhibition of Nero’s Golden House. The site doesn’t have a bookstore and the general bookstore had diddly squat about the palace beyond a few cheesy pages in a tour book that didn’t even begin to touch on all the new archaeological information and technology.

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Any trouser-clad women in your old family photo albums?

Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

For those of you in who celebrate it, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving full of good times, good food and only slightly deranged arguments that stopped well short of fisticuffs. I have family history on my mind today, thanks in large part to my father taking a moment before we gorged on a wide selection of fine viands to note that the house had been in our family for 106 years and Thanksgiving had been celebrated in it that whole time. His mother grew up there and even when she got married and had kids of her own, they always went to her parents’ house for TG. My father remembers fondly going every year as a child and youth when his grandmother hosted Thanksgiving dinner. Now that my parents live there, they have carried on the century-old tradition with great verve. Thanksgiving is my mother’s favorite holiday and they make a real production out of it every year.

Family lore always make me happy, so before the tryptophan knocks me unconscious more thoroughly than any fisticuffs ever could, I feel compelled to encourage you to check out Women in Trousers: A Visual Archive, a Cardiff University project that is collecting and digitizing images of daring, hard-working, all-around badass women who wore a variety of transgressive bifurcated garments from bloomers to Edwardian trouser skirts where you barely tell there are trousers under there to wide-legged jeans from the 40s. The archive is populated with all kinds of images — drawings, illustrations from periodicals, photographs of women on the job, advocating dress reform or simple in costume — from the mid-19th century to the 1960s. While the imagery focuses on the wearing of trousers, the project’s brief is a wider one: women’s social and political history and the evolution of dress reform in Britain, Europe and America.

The archive is already a fantastic browse but it is still far from finished, and the authors have appealed to the public to submit any photographs and stories they might have of women in their families wearing pants. The ones that have been uploaded so far are universally grand. The Land Girls from WWII are probably my favorites because of how cheerful and tough they were, but I love the ones on ski trips, on the boardwalk and in plays just living their lives and having a blast.

I’m going to go through my grandmother’s old black paper albums and look for a picture I remember seeing as a child of my great-grandmother — a Connecticut Yankee in the most authentic sense of the word who could shoot a rattlesnake through the eye from 100 yards, canned everything that wasn’t nailed down and used an outhouse until the very end of her long life. She was tough as nails but smiled constantly, always had a twinkle in her eye and a funny story for her great-grandkids. She also had a cast iron hand-pump that was the sole source of water inside the house. I was fascinated by it because it seemed like something in a play or on Little House on the Prairie, totally outside my experience and oh man the water was so, so cold. And rusty. She washed in it every day, bless her bulletproof hide.

I hope I can find that pic of her wearing pants because I would love to add her distinctiveness to the archive. With the holidays coming up, now’s a great opportunity to rifle through dusty closets and drawers for photographic evidence of the kickass trouser-clad women in your family. It would be worth it just for the conversations that the pursuit might stimulate, especially with the senior members of your clan.

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John Quincy Adams would have slain on Instagram

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

In a long, eventful life filled with accomplishments, John Quincy Adams often gets the credit for the one thing he didn’t do: being the first President of the United States to be photographed. That record goes to William Henry Harrison, poor sod, who had his picture taken around the time of his inauguration in 1841. Thirty-one days later, he was dead of a fever. (Legend has it he delivered his interminably long inaugural address without a coat thereby “catching cold” which developed into pneumonia and killed him. Now we know that the weather cannot infect you with disease — pathogenic microorganisms do that job — but it makes a good story so it has lingered as the dominant account of how the shortest presidential term of office came to such an abrupt end.) Adams was the second resident of the White House to photographed, albeit many years after his first and only term as President. It was in 1842 and only reprints and copies of that image and the Harrison portrait are known to survive today. The originals are lost.

That’s why there was so much excitement earlier this year when the news broke that an original daguerreotype of Adams taken by photographer Philip Haas at his studio in Washington, D.C. in 1843 emerged from the obscurity of attic clutter to the bright lights of Sotheby’s. It was the earliest known surviving original photographic portrait of a US president. Bidding was not surprisingly fierce and there was much rejoicing in the history nerddom when the National Portrait Gallery announced a few days after the auction that they had placed the victorious bid.

You wouldn’t know from how rare these original plates are, but as it turns out John Quincy Adams was a bit of a camera whore (said in reverent awe, Mr. President’s ghost, not disrespect). Louis Daguerre presented his new technology to the public in 1839, so when Adams sat for his first portrait in 1842, the process was still in its infancy. In March of 1843, he had another portrait taken, his first by Philip Haas. Then he went back Haas’ shop a week later to have the portrait redone because none of the ones from the first session came out right. His diary entries on those dates reveal his fascination with the “camera obscura” device and how it worked.

Getting his picture taken by top society photographers became a regular thing for John Quincy. In September of 1842, six months before he first visited Philip Haas, he sat for photographer John Plumbe at his Boston gallery, then again at Plumbe’s studio in D.C. three more times all in 1846. The second of these four sessions took place on February 14th, 1846. The former President noted in his diary that he went to “Plumbe’s Daguerreotype office” where they took two shots of him: “a full face and a profile, both quite successful.”

The reference in Adams’ diary was the only evidence of the existence of the “quite successful” profile picture by John Plumbe. If it was published, printed, reproduced or in another way disseminated we don’t know about it.

How is there a profile image of President John Quincy Adams published right here in this humble blog then, you boldly but fairly query? It’s not a print, reprint or a copy, though. (Okay it’s a digital copy. You know what I mean.) It’s the original plate shot and developed by Plumbe. It just randomly turned up recently at a Paris antiques market, was spotted by someone with a good eye, got conserved, appraised and authenticated by top experts and it’s all over but the spending.

It’s a quarter plate Daguerreotype in a burgundy-glazed leather case lined with purple silk and velvet. The brass matt is stamped “Plumbe” and cover of the case is embossed with a basket of flowers design that case was one of Plumbe’s signature motifs. The compartment that holds the plate has a paper liner that reads “Manufactured at the Plumbe National Daguerrian Depot, New York.” And the portrait itself is undeniably John Quincy Adams’ mutton-chopped mien in noble profile.

The 1846 Plumbe daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams will be offered at Heritage Auctions’ Americana sale on December 2nd with a pre-sale estimate of $50,000. HA has a strong web component; you can bid early online and the bids are already up to $25,000. Given the results of the last auction where a John Quincy Adams portrait went far and beyond all pre-sale expectations, $50,000 could be surpassed within minutes.

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Guernica as large as life in gigapixels

Sunday, November 19th, 2017

Guernica, Pablo Picasso’s monumental greyscale painting on the horrors of the Germano-Italian bombing of the eponymous Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, is a hard picture to get. For one thing, it’s so huge (26 feet wide, 11 feet tall) that fitting it in a single shot without skewing the perspective is a challenge. For another, there are serious condition issues because it was moved around so much over the decades before its final repatriation to Spain where it is now part of the permanent collection of Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum. A lot of flash photography and multiple shoots from all angles is contraindicated for its conservation.

I’ve encountered very few photos that can even begin to do this massive masterpiece justice. The best ones are all period taken by the surrealist Dora Maar in 1937 while Picasso painted Guernica in a frenzy of activity over less than a month. Eighty years later, her pictures were still the only ones worth looking at if you wanted to learn anything at all about the painting and the artist’s process.

That’s all changed, seemingly overnight to we civilians, but in truth it’s the culmination of years of work on the part of the conservators and researchers at the Reina Sofia. The museum has launched a new interactive website dedicated to the great canvas called Rethinking Guernica which features at its core a gigapixel image of the whole painting. Finally its giganticness is matched in pixels and viewers can get microscopically close to the tiniest speck of paint. Close enough to see brush hairs stuck in the impasto.

Hundreds died in an aerial attack on civilians that shocked the world and set a precedent repeated often by German and allied forces in World War II.

Picasso, then living in France, was commissioned by the struggling Spanish Republican government to produce a work depicting the bombing for the 1937 World Fair in Paris.

That commission and hundreds of other documents concerning “Guernica” are now available online for the first time.

They tell the story of a hugely well-traveled work, with stops in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States, where it spent decades on loan at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

There are papers relating to its trip to Venezuela in 1948 that was cut short due to a coup d’etat, and a frantic telegram sent by MoMA collections director Alfred H. Barr Jr. informing the artist that his works were safe after a fire tore through the museum in 1958.

The gigapixel Guernica can be viewed in more ways than the glorious extreme closeup the high resolution makes possible. By clicking on thumbnails at the bottom of the main screen, you can switch from the visible spectrum view to ultraviolet, infrared and X-ray imaging. You can thank Pablito the robot for that, by the way. He kicked off the Guernica Project in 2011 by scanning every centimeter of the canvas with every imaging technique in the book. It took him a year to complete so detailed a job, working only at night so as not to disturb museum visitors.

The guided tour that the site directs you to when you first load it doesn’t explain a great deal that you couldn’t figure out on your own if you’re even remotely Internet-literate. The icons going down the right side of the screen, for example, are fairly self-explanatory. The square at the top means click for full screen; the + and – underneath mean zoom in and out; the ? opens up the guided tour again if you regret closing it. There are two site-specific icons on the list, however, and they are awesome. The horizontal arrow icon allows you to view the painting in two different imaging technologies side by side, which is extremely cool, while the zig-zag constellation icon pulls up an enormous density of information about the changes to the painting over time, both deliberate ones like Picasso’s deviations from his original prepatory drawings and circumstantial ones like holes, fissures and craquelure in the paint.

Lastly, whenever you click on the image it pulls up tons of content about the history, context, conservation record, damage, repairs, etc. The Reina Sofia conservators have done an exceptional job sharing the results of their years of study of the painting, from cutting-edge technological analysis to archival research. There are all kinds of side-avenues to pursue — biographies of people involved in the history of Guernica, primary documents like letters to and from Picasso about the painting, essays on the meaning of the work, on the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair where it was first exhibited, just to name a few.

“Guernica is a source of never-ending artistic material and it’s a privilege to be with as an art historian,” says Rosario Peiro, head of collections at Madrid’s Reina Sofia modern art museum. […]

“Putting all of this together allows you to rethink the history of the painting,” Peiro told AFP.

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19th c. Dutch farmers: A Croc, a Croc, my dairy farm for a Croc!

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered evidence in the bones 19th century Dutch farmers that the traditional wooden clogs that are now ubiquitous on key chains and souvenir stands but were once ubiquitous on human feet caused permanent osteological damage. An international team of osteoarchaeologists from Leiden University and Western University (Ontario, Canada) discovered the tell-tale bones in 2011 during an excavation of a historic church cemetery in the village of Middenbeemster, Netherlands, that was being relocated.

Beemster was a rural farming community, a dairy farming community, mainly, and the team was hoping to gather previously unrecorded data about the diet, health, common injuries, illnesses and general health of country folk in the 19th century Netherlands using osteobiographical and paleopathological analysis as well as stable isotope analysis (to find out what they ate) and mass spectrometry. There’s a significant body of work that’s already been done on the inhabitants of Dutch cities, but the rural areas have been little studied so this was a unique and important opportunity.

They were able to analyze 500 skeletons, most them very well-preserved, of adult women, men and children. Out of those remains, 130 complete feet were found. Bio-archaeologist and Western University Anthropology professor Andrea Waters-Rist examined the feet bones and found a consistent pattern among them: they presented a rare type of bone lesion called osteochondritis dissecans (OD) which looks like a chip or divot has been chiseled out of the bone. She didn’t even have to use a microscope to see them. The missing chunks at the joints were clearly visible to the naked eye.

In the wider population, OD is found in less than one percent of individuals and the lesions affect various bones, very rarely those in the foot. A whopping 13% of the good folks from the Middenbeemster cemetery, on the other hand, had it and they only had it in their feet. Part of the cause was likely the hard physical labor involved in traditional farming, both inside the home and outside of it, but a lot of people fed their families with backbreaking work and they didn’t have craters in their feet bones. Researchers concluded that it was likely a combination of heavy labour and repetetive stress on certain areas of the feet cause by the iconic “klompen” (which are still worn today, btw, particularly in rural areas).

For farmers, the clogs would have been very useful shoes, as they were affordable, kept their feet dry and, if stuffed with straw, quite warm. As such, they would have been worn for most uses. As the clogs have a stiff sole, they could have amplified the stresses associated with farm work and travelling by foot.

That combination of hard work, while wearing klompen, day-in and day-out, caused the bone chip to form, Water-Rist explained.

“The sole is very hard and inflexible, which constrains the entire foot and we think because the footwear wasn’t good at absorbing any kind of shock, it was transferring into the foot and into the foot bones. It’s not very common in the foot. They were doing something different that we haven’t seen before,” she said.

Since these farmers lived in a time before industrialization, manual labour was more taxing on their body. Oftentimes the klompen was used as a tool for kicking down fences or pushing in a shovel – all tasks later made easier by machinery.

The results of the study of the klompen-related OD lesions have been published in the International Journal of Paleopathology but it’s behind a paywall so you’ll need a subscription or an institutional connection or to pay $31.50 to read it.

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Tutankhamun’s neglected gold gets its day

Friday, November 17th, 2017

When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922, there was such an immense wealth piled inside the small space that his team focused on the large ticket item and packed the rest up. Even finely embossed gold artifacts weren’t important enough to get attention compared to Tutankhamun’s death mask, especially since they were found in pieces before being stashed in the wooden box. They photographed the contents but that was it; they were left uncleaned, unexamined and otherwise undocumented. One of those wooden boxes has been in the stores of the Egyptian Museum Cairo ever since, still uncleaned and unexamined, for decades until 2013 when a collaboration between the Egyptian Museum and Tübingen University archaeologists set out to remedy this 90-year-old oversight. Four years later, the long-awaited goal has been achieved.

The team found the objects in Carter’s original wood crate and began to document and research each piece. They were restored and drawings made of their shape and decorations. The work was painstakingly detailed (hence the four years). In addition to the restoration, documentation and research, the team also faced jigsawing together of the gold fragments. Conservators Christian Eckmann and Katja Broschat were able to place many of the fragments together, ultimately producing about 100 complete or close to complete gold applications that they think were once fittings mounted on bows cases, quivers and horse bridles. One recomposed in their original configurations, the applications could be studied from an art historical perspective. Images embossed on the gold were studied in detail by team member Julia Bertsch, doctoral candidate in archaeology at Tübingen, who was able to identify Egyptian motifs from Middle Eastern ones.

Among these are images of fighting animals and goats at the tree of life that are foreign to Egyptian art and must have come to Egypt from the Levant. “Presumably these motifs, which were once developed in Mesopotamia, made their way to the Mediterranean region and Egypt via Syria,” explains Peter Pfälzner. “This again shows the great role that ancient Syria played in the dissemination of culture during the Bronze Age.”

Interestingly, he adds, similar embossed gold applications with thematically comparable images were found in a tomb in the Syrian Royal city of Qatna. There, the team of archaeologists from Tübingen led by Pfälzner, discovered a pristine king’s grave in 2002. It dates back to the time of around 1340 B.C., so it is just a bit older than Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt. The archaeologist says, “This remarkable aspect provided the impetus for our project on the Egyptian finds.” Now,” says Pfälzner, “we need to solve the riddle of how the foreign motifs on the embossed gold applications came to be adopted in Egypt.” The professor says that here, chemical analyses have been illuminating. “The results showed that the embossed gold applications with Egyptian motifs and the others with foreign motifs were made of gold of differing compositions,” he says. “That does not necessarily mean the pieces were imported. It may be that various local workshops were responsible for producing objects in various styles — and that one used Near Eastern models.”

On Wednesday the gold embossed fittings went on public display for the first time in almost a century in an exhibition at the Egyptian Museum. When this temporary show closes, the artifacts will find a permanent home at the new Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids of Giza.

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Notably unromantic portrait of Admiral Nelson found

Sunday, November 12th, 2017

A portrait of Admiral Horatio Nelson depicting his war wounds in all their unvarnished glory has been rediscovered after 100 years out of public view and knowledge in private collections. It will go on display at Philip Mould & Company’s Pall Mall gallery starting November 13th. To celebrate its return, it will be displayed next to meticulous replicas of the fanciest accessories depicted in the painting: Admiral Nelson’s iconic bicorne hat, recreated according to his precise instructions Lock & Co. Hatters of St James’s who made the original hat by Nelson’s commission, and the still-lost Chelengk jewel very conspicuously pinned to the front of the hat in the portrait.

It was painted in 1799 by Leonardo Guzzardi, an artist at the court of Queen Maria Carolina and King Ferdinand of Naples and Sicily. Maria Carolina, 13th child of the formidable Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I of Austria, sister to Marie Antoinette of France, was a great patron of the arts and had a particular fangirl admiration for Admiral Nelson. She herself may have commissioned Guzzardi to capture Nelson’s likeness when the hero, painter and monarchs were in Palermo after their majesties’ hasty departure from Naples with French troops hot on their heels. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d sought a portrait of the admiral. Earlier in Naples she had told her son she’d have a portrait painted of Nelson so he could stand under it every day and say “Dear Nelson, teach me to be like you.” (Maria Carolina had a lot in common with her mother.)

In this portrait Nelson is emaciated and battle worn, with a scarred head, a missing arm (undetectable in the rendering), a blood-shot eye, and largely missing eyebrow. The portrait is uncompromising, so much so that one past owner, no doubt discomforted by the broken eyebrow, had it painted in to match that on the right. The wound had happened during the heat of engagement with the French at the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay in Egypt in August 1798, whilst standing on the quarter deck with Edward Berry. A shard of iron struck Nelson’s forehead, slicing the skin and leaving an inch of skull visible. The piece of flesh, cut at jagged angles as seen in this portrait, hung down over his right eye, leaving him momentarily blinded. Such was the shock that Nelson, caught in the arms of Berry, famously cried out “I am killed. Remember me to my wife”. He was taken below deck, where the surgeon treated the wound with adhesive strips and gave Nelson opium to reduce the pain. His treatment, however, was supposedly interrupted by news that the French flagship L’Orient was on fire, at which moment Nelson ran back up on deck. This moment is captured by a theatrical portrait attributed to Guy Head [National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, BHC2903], in which Nelson is shown on deck with a burning ship beyond, blood dripping from his bandage onto the shoulder of his white shirt. The injury left Nelson disorientated and severely concussed, and the pain of the wound was such that he was forced to wear his hat tilted back, as seen in the present work, for some months.

Positioned conspicuously on top of his hat is the legendary Chelengk jewel. The jewel, made of diamonds, was gifted to Nelson by the Grand Sultan Selim III on 13 December 1798, in appreciation for saving Aboukir Bay (then part of the Ottoman Empire) from assault by Napoleon. The impressive jewel attracted wonder but also adverse comment, especially when Nelson took to wearing it – unofficially – on his naval uniform hat in a show of undaunted vanity. The gift also included a scarlet pelisse lined with sable fur and two thousand sequins (a type of small gold coin), to be shared amongst the wounded.

All of Guzzardi’s portraits of Nelson derive from a single head-type painted in early 1799 in Palermo, where the artist and subject had flown following the Jacobin revolt in Naples in December 1798. Guzzardi, about whom very little is known, was described at the time as a ‘Celebrated Artist at Palermo, Portrait Painter to the King’, and although few of his works have survived, the existing examples reveal a highly distinctive style with a preoccupation for vivid flesh tones, bold colouring and sharp treatment of facial features.

The first painting Guzzardi did of Nelson was a full-length portrait depicting him in the full dress uniform of a rear admiral. He stands in the foreground on the deck of a ship, his left hand pointing in a weirdly awkward way towards a naval battle behind him on the right, a representation of the Battle of the Nile. The scarlet pelisse is draped over a chair under his pointing finger and the Chelengk jewel takes up half the front of his pushed-back hat.

There are 14 replicas of this portrait known to exist, some painted by Guzzardi, and the group can be split into two according to the admiral’s accessories. In the first iteration, he wears only the insignia of the Order of the Bath and the St Vincent naval medal around his neck. The later works include the star of the Turkish Order of the Crescent, a private issue gold medal for the Battle of the Nile and the official naval gold medal for the Battle of the Nile. While the newly rediscovered painting has the full complement of medals, experts believe they were later additions, that this portrait is one of the early group.

Art historians have known about this particular version of the portrait from archival records and photographs, but the last time its location was known was 1897 when it was documented in the collection of Alfred Morrison, an avid collector of Nelsoniana. He had bought it from Thomas Gullick, a London art dealer who had found the painting rolled up and gathering dust somewhere in Italy in the early 1880s. Even though less than a century had passed since it was painted, and even though the sitter has some very unique distinguishing features and was once one of the most famous people in the world, both the artist and the subject were unknown at that time. Gullick identified it right quick and tried to sell it to Earl Nelson (he passed) and the National Portrait Gallery (they also passed).

Morrison’s vast collection was broken up and sold by his widow. Some pieces went up for auction, others were sold privately. There are extant records of these sales but none of them mention this painting. It made its way to the United States where it was acquired by George M. Juergens of New York. A friend of the family bought it after Juergens’s death in 1987. That friend still owns it today. It seems he’s willing to sell it, however, as Philip Mould & Company is accepting purchase inquiries.

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Ex-grasshopper found in Van Gogh painting

Saturday, November 11th, 2017

Conservators have discovered the body of a definitely deceased grasshopper resting in disarticulated peace among Vincent van Gogh’s Olive Trees. Mary Shafter at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, was examining the work under a microscope as part of a research project for the upcoming catalogue of the museum’s collection of 104 French paintings when she spotted the little guy entombed in the deadly embrace of van Gogh’s thick impasto in the shadow of the first olive tree on the right. At first she couldn’t tell what it was; she thought it might be the leaf debris or an imprint left by leaf on the paint when it was still wet. A closer inspection at the foreign body revealed that it had a head (a decapitated one) and was animal, not vegetable.

Van Gogh liked to paint out of doors, en plein air, as the French (and art historians) call it. Conservators working on his paintings often find leaves, sand, specks of dirt, even small bugs embedded in the canvas. Grasshoppers are not so common. The members of the Nelson-Atkins team were excited by the grasshopper find, and at the prospect of the creature adding new information to the record about when Van Gogh painted Olive Trees. The general date is known, 1889, which was a troubled time for the artist. The year before he’d had his massive break-up out with his former bestie Gauguin followed in short order by the ear cutting incident. In 1889 Van Gogh checked himself into the asylum at the Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and remained there into 1890. The team hoped that if the grasshopper’s date of death could be identified from its stage in the growth/reproductive cycle or seasonal changes, then they might be able to conclusively determine whether Van Gogh painted Olive Trees during his stay in the mental health ward.

Paleoentomologist Dr. Michael S. Engel of the University of Kansas and American Museum of Natural History in New York City, came to their aid. He observed the insect under the microscope and realized that it was incomplete. The scattered body parts were missing the thorax and abdomen. He also was able to discern no sign of movement in the paint where the grasshopper’s bits were embedded, which means it was dead and dismembered before it hit the wet paint. This grasshopper was not pining for the fjords anymore by the time it landed on its eternal resting canvas. It therefore had nothing to contribute to the dating of its now thoroughly glamorous coffin.

So the trapped grasshopper came to nothing, new data-wise, but it’s still a thrilling little slice of Van Gogh’s process frozen in time. He was deeply passionate about capturing life in movement in its natural setting. In one letter to his brother Theo from 1885, he went off on an extended rant about artists who reuse the same old backdrops, tableaux vivants, orientalist and heroic themes, rehashed styles, even models in their studio set pieces, how phony and lifeless their depictions were. He named names too.

Perhaps you think that I’m wrong to comment on this — but — I’m so gripped by the thought that all these exotic paintings are painted in THE STUDIO. But just go and sit outdoors, painting on the spot itself! Then all sorts of things like the following happen — I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. — not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them &c. Not to mention that when one arrives on the heath after a couple of hours’ walk in this weather, one is tired and hot. Not to mention that the figures don’t stand still like professional models, and the effects that one wants to capture change as the day wears on.

That passage, which is not really a complaint so much as a recognition of how valuable working outdoors was to him despite the million irritants, explains exactly how the grasshopper likely got into the paint. He was either blown onto the wet canvas by wind or perhaps got stuck on it when Van Gogh lugged the large, heavy painting back home.

Visitors to the museum have been fascinated by the find. The grasshopper bits are less than half an inch in size and can’t possible compete with the density, vibrancy and complexity of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, but that hasn’t stopped visitors from doing their utmost to spot the wee body parts in the shadow of that tree.

While the grasshopper becomes an engaging topic for museum visitors, more significant research on Olive Trees is underway. Analysis by Mellon Science Advisor John Twilley confirms that van Gogh used a type of red pigment that gradually faded over time. These findings suggest that areas where van Gogh employed this red, either alone or mixed with other colors, appear slightly different today than when the painting was completed.

“Color relationships were central to van Gogh’s practice,” said Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward Senior Curator of European Art. “Since we now know that portions of the canvas where van Gogh employed this particular red pigment have faded, those color relationships are altered.”

The artist’s letters often referred to his works by their dominant colors, which means the more recent changes in appearance can present uncertainty as to which painting van Gogh alluded to in his descriptions. With funding through the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Endowment for Scientific Research in Conservation, more research is being conducted to evaluate the impact of these color shifts. The research is expected to clarify the original appearance of Olive Trees and to offer a clearer understanding of its place within van Gogh’s series of works on this theme.

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