Archive for the ‘Modern(ish)’ Category

Who is hidden under Picasso’s Blue Room?

Friday, June 20th, 2014

Infrared imaging confirmed what experts have long suspected about Pablo Picasso’s 1901 work The Blue Room: there’s a whole other painting underneath, a portrait of a bearded man in a bow tie. A conservator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., which has owned the painting since 1927, first noted that the brushwork was atypical in 1954. X-rays in the 1990s confirmed that there appeared to be something underneath The Blue Room, but it wasn’t until 2008 that infrared imaging revealed a clear picture of a bearded man in a bow tie and jacket resting his head on his hand, and the revelation wasn’t announced until now.

“It’s really one of those moments that really makes what you do special,” said Patricia Favero, the conservator at The Phillips Collection who pieced together the best infrared image yet of the man’s face.

“The second reaction was, ‘Well, who is it?’ We’re still working on answering that question.”

Scholars have ruled out the possibility that it was a self-portrait. One possible figure is the Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who hosted Picasso’s first show in 1901. But there’s no documentation and no clues left on the canvas, so the research continues.

Picasso made several portraits of Vollard, a highly influential figure in the art world of late 19th, early 20th century Paris. He was a great supporter of the likes of Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, and the young Picasso was eager to join the dealer’s roster of talent. Vollard loved to sit for his artists, and Picasso knew it would behoove him to flatter his vanity. He would pursue a contract with Vollard for decades, but although Vollard was glad to buy and sell individual pieces, Picasso never did secure his services as his primary dealer.

In 1901 when Picasso had his first show at Vollard’s gallery on rue Lafitte, the artist was just 19 years old. That show was full of color and vibrant themes, for instance Crazy Woman with Cats. Vollard considered the showing a failure with many works left unsold. Picasso’s art took a drastic turn that year as he launched into his now-famous Blue Period. Influenced by Gaugin and Toulouse-Lautrec and his own depression after the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas, Picasso chose subjects that emphasized human misery — the elderly, infirm, prostitutes, beggars, drunks — with the color blue dominating the works. The Parisian critics and buyers weren’t fans at first. Vollard himself didn’t start buying Blue Period paintings until 1906, two years after the period’s end, and then only because influential collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein had begun to collect them.

Another possible candidate for the sitter of the hidden portrait is Spanish writer Pío Baroja. He published his first novel in 1900, and Picasso is known to have drawn him for an issue of Arte Joven (Young Art), a magazine Picasso co-founded with his friend Francisco de Asís Soler in Madrid in early 1901 which published only five issues before folding in June.

Based solely on the timing and the beard, I’d propose fellow artist Jaume Andreu Bonsons as a possible subject. There’s a drawing of the two of them Picasso did upon his return to Paris in late winter, early spring of 1901 (nobody is quite sure when he returned to Paris from Spain that year). Tenuous, I know, but what the hell, right? You can tweet any ideas you have to the Phillips Collection, #BlueRoom, or comment on their blog.

The Blue Room is on tour in South Korea through early 2015, but research proceeds apace. Conservators plan to employ additional imaging technology to attempt to identify the colors used in the portrait. In 2017, the painting will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit that will cover both The Blue Room and the bearded gent beneath it.

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British Guiana stamp sells for record $9.5 Million

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

The rarest stamp in the world, the only known surviving example of the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, sold for a record $9,480,000 (including buyer’s premium) at a Sotheby’s auction in Manhattan on Tuesday. The pre-sale estimate was $10 – $20 million, so they were expecting the new bar to be set significantly higher, but still leaves the previous record-holder — the Swedish Treskilling Yellow sold in 2010 for an undisclosed amount that was at least as much as the $2.3 million record it set in 1996 — in the dust. At one-thousandth of an ounce and 1 5/32 x 1 1/32 inches, the stamp is now the most valuable object in the world by weight, volume and size.

This rather plain stamp printed in black ink on magenta paper was an emergency issue by the postmaster of British Guiana when an expected shipment of English postage failed to arrive on time. The printers of the Royal Gazette newspaper in Georgetown ran a small contingency supply of stamps: one-cent magentas, four-cent magentas and four-cent blues. They were printed with a simple outline design of a three-masted ship and the colony’s Latin motto “Damus Petimus Que Vicissim” (We give and expect in return).

About 200 of the four-cent stamps have survived, but the only one-cent known to exist was rescued by a 12-year-old boy who found it among his uncle’s papers in 1873. He collected stamps, so when he saw this one that he didn’t have in his collection, he cut it off the envelope and put it in his album. Because it wasn’t a pristine copy (the original issue was square; this one has cut corners), young L. Vernon Vaughan sold it another collector, Neil McKinnon, to buy some newer, prettier issues. The One-Cent Magenta left British Guiana in 1878 when McKinnon sent it to Scotland for appraisal.

The stamp passed through several hands after that, including those of Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary of Paris, a legendary philatelist, and textile magnate Arthur Hind of Utica, N.Y. Hind bought it in 1922 at auction for $35,250, a record at that time, and reportedly outbid avid stamp collector King George V for the little red stamp.

“Arthur Hind had never intended to even bid on the British Guiana,” the Sotheby’s catalog said.

But an encounter with a stamp dealer in London changed his mind, and owning the stamp changed his life. Mr. Hind later acknowledged that the stamp “had caused him to be ridiculed,” the Sotheby’s catalog said. “A London journalist described the 1856 British Guiana as ‘cut square and magenta in colour’ and himself as ‘cut round and rather paler magenta.’”

Hind was also rumored to have secured a second One-Cent Magenta only to light his cigar and the stamp with the same match, ostensibly to ensure the value and rarity of the one survivor would remain untarnished. The source for this story was an anonymous letter writer, so who knows if it’s true.

The last time the stamp was sold was 1980. The buyer was du Pont chemical fortune heir John E. du Pont who spent a then-record $935,000 for it. In 1997, du Pont was convicted of murdering Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz and was sentenced to a term of 13 to 30 years in prison. He died in prison in 2010. It’s his estate that sold the stamp.

For more details on the incredible journey of this wee stamp and the history of British Guiana, see the Sotheby’s catalogue multi-part exploration.

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Plans for Richard III’s tomb, reburial finalized

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

As there has been no appeal lodged to contest the ruling of the High Court that the remains of King Richard III are to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral, plans for the reburial have been finalized. The Cathedral Fabrics Commission for England have approved the tomb design of architects van Heningen and Haward. There’s no inlaid marble white rose of York underneath the raised platform in this version. Instead, a plinth made of black Kilkenny marble will seal the tomb beneath the Cathedral floor. Richard’s name, dates and motto will be engraved into the sides of the plinth — the nature of the marble will make the lettering appear white in contrast with the dark color of the smooth surface — while his coat of arms is inlaid in marble and semi-precious hard stones at the top foot of the plinth.

On top of the plinth will be a large rectangular block of Swaledale fossil stone, quarried in North Yorkshire, deeply incised with a cross along its full length and breadth. The fossil stone is so called because it is peppered with visible fossils, once-living beings long dead whose remains have been brought to light and immortalized in stone, a metaphorically significant analogy to Richard’s fate.

Underneath the plinth, Richard’s remains will be laid to rest in a lead ossuary which will be placed in an oak coffin which in turn be placed in a brick lined vault under the Cathedral floor. The precise design of the wooden coffin is still being worked out and will be announced at a later date, but the carpenter who will make the coffin has been selected already. It’s Michael Ibsen, Richard’s sixteenth grand-nephew, a direct descendant down the maternal line of Richard’s sister Anne of York whose mitochondrial DNA helped identify the King’s remains. He’s a cabinet and furniture maker by trade, so it’s a fitting commission in every way. Ibsen accepted the work offer with alacrity, calling it “a very appropriate gift to offer to [his] royal ancestor.”

The oak coffin will play an important role in the reburial ceremony. The ossuary will be placed in the coffin at the University of Leicester and the coffin will then be transported to the Cathedral along a public route that will follow what we know of King Richard’s movements on the last days of his life. It will be received formally by Cathedral officials accompanied by the medieval service of Compline. The coffin will then lie in state covered with a pall that will feature scenes from Richard’s life and death. The public will be invited to pay their respects at this time.

The reburial service will not be a funeral as Richard had one of those already. Instead it will be a special service designed according to detailed research of medieval reinterment rites (reburials were quite common back then, and there are extant sources describing the services). The service will conclude with the coffin being lowered into the brick vault. The tomb will be sealed overnight with the stone plinth and the sarcophagus-like Swaledale fossil stone marker.

The tomb and marker will be installed in an ambulatory (an open walking space) between the new Chapel of Christ the King and the sanctuary under the tower, the most holy place in the Cathedral where the main altar stands. It will be a peaceful, quiet spot, separated from the main worship area of the Cathedral by the relocated Nicholson screen, an ornately carved screen created in the 1920s by ecclesiastical architect and baronet Sir Charles Nicholson to separate the nave from the chancel.

Cathedral officials hope to start the construction work this summer so the building can be finished by early 2015 in time for a Spring reburial. The total budget for this project is £2,500,000 ($4,240,000). The Diocese of Leicester will contribute £500,000 ($848,000) and £100,000 ($170,000) has already been collected in donations. Much of the rest will come from large grants from trusts, foundations and private donors. There will be a fundraising appeal later this year targeted to the Leicester community, giving local residents the opportunity to fund a specific element of the reburial project. Meanwhile, donations are open. If you’d like to contribute, you can do so online here or you can print out this pdf form for sending in a donation by mail.

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Make your own 19th c. patent medicines

Monday, June 16th, 2014

During an archaeological survey before construction of a new hotel at 50 Bowery in New York City, archaeologists unearthed a trove of 19th century bottles from when the space was occupied by a German beer garden. Atlantic Gardens offered beer and live entertainment from 1858 until it closed in 1916, leaving behind all kinds of dishes and bottles. Among the latter were bottles of patent medicine, nostrums made from combinations of herbs and alcohol or even narcotics like opium, that claimed to cure a wide variety of ailments.

One of the bottles was a small green glass cylinder labeled “Elixir of Long Life.” Two bottles of Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters were also discovered at the site. With the empty vessels in hand, the experts of contractor Chrysalis Archaeology decided to seek out recipes and recreate the products that once sold briskly at taverns as well as at apothecary shops and from street vendors.

After researching the brands in German, the team found that The Elixir of Long Life is a fairly straight-forward collection of ingredients from the herbalist handbook — aloe, an anti-inflammatory, gentian root, a digestive aid — combined with lots of alcohol. Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters went a bit further afield:

The Hostetters recipe is a bit more complex, containing Peruvian bark, also known as cinchona, which is used for its malaria-fighting properties and is still used to make bitters for cocktails, and gum kino, a kind of tree sap that is antibacterial. It also contains more common ingredients, including cinnamon and cardamom seeds, which are known to help prevent gas.

But it too was proportionally dominated by grain alcohol, so even if the herbs didn’t cure what ailed you, the rest of it would make you forget about how sick you were. In fact, although Dr. Hostetters bitters may not be sold as medicines anymore, its cousins like Angostura and Aperol are popular ingredients in cocktails and are often consumed before or after meals because they’re still considered digestive boosts, a hangover from their days of being sold at taverns to quell the stomach demons.

But why should the archaeologists have all the fun? Here are the recipes to make your own Elixir of Long Life and Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters in the comfort of your own home.

Elixir of Long Life:

Aloes – 13 grams
Rhubarb – 2.3 grams
Gentian – 2.3 grams
Zedoary (white turmeric) – 2.3 grams
Spanish saffron – 2.3 grams
Water – 4 ounces
Grain alcohol (vodka, gin) – 12 ounces

Squeeze out the liquid from the aloe and set aside. Crush the rhubarb, gentian, zedoary and Spanish saffron (for a modern twist, use a blender for this part), and mix them with the aloe liquid, water and alcohol. Let the mixture sit for three days, shaking frequently. Then filter it using a cheesecloth or coffee filter, and serve. Be careful with the liquid — the saffron can dye your hands or other kitchen items.

Dr. Hostetters Stomach Bitters:

Gentian root – 1 1/2 ounces
Orange peel – 2 1/2 ounces
Cinnamon – 1/4 ounce
Anise – 1/2 ounces
Coriander seed – 1/2 ounce
Cardamom seed – 1/8 ounce
Un-ground Peruvian bark (cinchona) – 1/2 ounce
Gum kino – 1/4 ounce
Grain alcohol (vodka, gin) – 1 quart
Water – 4 quarts
Sugar – 1 pound

Mash together the gentian, orange peel, cinnamon, anise, coriander, cardamom and Peruvian bark. Mix the crushed ingredients with the gum kino and the alcohol. Let the mixture sit in a closed container for two weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain the mixture, add the sugar and water to the strained liquid and serve.

 

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Picasso curtain will move to NY Historical Society

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

The biggest Picasso in the United States will be leaving its home on a wall at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York for what one hopes will be greener pastures at the New York Historical Society. RFR Holding, owner of the historic Seagram Building where the Four Seasons and the 19-by-20-foot theatrical curtain have lived together in harmony since 1957, planned to remove the work last year. It claimed the wall on which it hung was structurally unsound due to a leaking steam pipe and informed the New York Landmarks Conservancy, owner of the painting since it was donated to it by Vivendi Universal, then owner of the Seagram Building, in 2005, that the curtain would be coming down immediately.

The Conservancy challenged the plan in court. They said the curtain was far too fragile to be moved, especially by rolling the canvas up “one click at a time” and transporting it in a rental van. At the last minute, the court sided with the Conservancy and issued a temporary restraining order. Since then, RFR Holding and the Landmarks Conservancy have been locked in a struggle over the fate of the historical curtain. The discussions have now apparently borne fruit, and the front cloth painted by Pablo Picasso in 1919 for a production of the Ballets Russes’ Le Tricorne will be moved to the New York Historical Society, conserved and put on display, all at RFR’s expense.

To move the Picasso, workers will mount hydraulic lifts to detach the top of the curtain from the wall. It will then be wrapped around a wide roller, starting at the bottom. The curtain will first go to a conservator, for cleaning and restoration work. The historical society plans to have it installed for an exhibition in May.

That process sounds a lot like the original “one click at a time” plan which the Conservancy deemed far too dangerous. The art mover agreed that the painting could “crack like a potato chip” under the strain. The Conservancy isn’t too thrilled about it, judging from their press release, but they will have conservators on the ground during the removal and transport stages.

The impetus for this compromise is the looming defeat in court the Conservancy expected. The donation was made on the condition that the curtain remain where it was at the Four Seasons, but that wasn’t going to be able to trump RFR’s solid legal position. From the Landmarks Conservancy press release:

We did our best to maintain it in place. But our only leverage was that the Curtain is specifically included in the current restaurant lease. It was made clear to us that the Curtain would not be included in whatever new lease is negotiated. So, if we had prevailed in Court, the most a judge could grant is that the Curtain stay until the end of the current lease.

Phyllis Lambert, daughter of Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, purchased and installed the curtain in 1957. She’s not in favor of this plan.

“It sort of breaks my heart,” she said.

Vivendi bought the Seagram company, including its large art collection, in 2000, around the time Mr. Rosen bought the Seagram Building. Later, the financially ailing Vivendi moved to sell the entire Seagram art collection, but Ms. Lambert persuaded Vivendi to bequeath the Picasso to the conservancy.

Lambert has every reason to be bummed. The curtain is an iconic part of what has become a beloved and famous interior. However, the Conservancy had few options here, and it’s undoubtedly better for its long-term prospects for the painting to be in the hands of a museum instead of a company owned by a man who once called the curtain a “schmatte” (Yiddish for “rag”) and who appears to be keen to install works from his own modern art collection in the space. The pressing issue is how to ensure the least possible trauma in the removal and transportation.

The New York Historical Society is thrilled to have it. They plan to make Le Tricorne the centerpiece of the second-floor gallery.

 

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Shriver relatives reinterred in Causten Vault

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Timothy Shriver, son of Robert Sargent Shriver Jr. and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, brother of journalist and former California First Lady Maria Shriver, attended a memorial service Wednesday for relatives he didn’t know he had. They were prominent people in their day, but over time their final resting place in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery had fallen into disrepair and was in dire need of restoration. Since the brick vault could not be repaired while the remains were still inside, in 2009 Douglas Owsley, head of the Natural History museum’s Physical Anthropology Department, was asked to excavate it and identify the remains for future reburial. After years of research and restoration, the skeletal remains of 16 people were reinterred in the tomb attended by a small group of Shriver relatives.

The Causten Vault was built in 1835 by lawyer and international diplomat James H. Causten after the tragic death of his first son, Charles Isaac, who passed away just days short of his second birthday. According to his obituary, little Charles “was a child of uncommon intelligence and excited the admiration and affectionate regard of all that knew him. His family have much cause to regret the early fall of one so interesting and promising.”

James Causten would outlive all but one of his children, and his daughter Josephine only outlived him by four years. His eldest daughter Henrietta Jane was the Shriver connection. She married Joseph Shriver, scion of an important Baltimore family that included a signer of the 1776 Maryland Constitution. Henrietta died in 1863 of a sudden heart attack when she was 52, “leaving both families overwhelmed in grief at this loss of their richest jewels.” She was buried in the vault, joining her daughter Josephine Shriver who had died 14 years before her mother at the age of four.

After his death in 1874 at the age of 86, Causten was buried in the family vault, which was already so sadly well-populated by then. It would eventually hold the remains of 22 members of the extended family, and that’s not counting the eight temporary residents who were placed in the vault while arrangements were made for permanent burials elsewhere. One of them was First Lady Dolley Madison. Her niece and adopted daughter was Annie Payne Causten, wife of Dr. James H. Causten Jr., the founder’s son. After Dolley died in July of 1849, she was buried in the Public Vault of the Congressional Cemetery ostensibly just until arrangements could be made to bury her by her husband’s side at his Virginia estate Montpelier. Unfortunately her gambling, alcoholic wastrel son, whose endless debts were a major reason for her poverty in old age, set aside no money for her burial. When he died of typhoid fever less than three years after his mother, she was still in the Public Vault. A month later, Annie Payne Causten had Dolley’s remains moved to the Causten Vault. Unfortunately she died a few months later aged just 33, so Dolley’s remains stayed in the vault for another six years. Finally the Caustens saw to it that she was buried in Montpelier.

The last burials in the Causten Vault were at the end of the 19th century. After that, the fate of the vault matched the fate of the Congressional Cemetery. It stopped being a fashionable place for Washington politicos and society figures to be buried and gradually fell into neglectful decay. Vaults crumbled, headstones broke, drug dealers and prostitutes plied their trades amidst the historical dead. In 1976 the non-profit Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery took over management of the cemetery, but it wasn’t until the '90s when volunteers and innovative programs began to boost restoration projects. Its inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1997 brought it fresh attention, including, finally, some maintenance funding from Congress.

Restoration is an ongoing process. The Causten Vault became a priority in 2009 because its mortar was crumbling and the barrel roof was on the verge of collapse. When Douglas Owsley and his team opened the tomb, they found that the interior was in even more dire condition. Over the years the shelves that held coffins had fallen apart, pancaking caskets and human remains in a chaotic pile several feet thick. The remains were carefully removed and transported to Owsley’s lab at the National Museum of Natural History.

Over the past five years, a team of archaeologists and anthropologists analyzed the skeletons taken from the vault, the hardware on the coffins (which helps date the caskets) and personal artifacts found inside. Bones provide all sorts of information, Owsley said, from gender and age to lifestyle (years of heavy labor, for example, take a toll), diet and probable cause of death.

In the final tally, the remains of 16 people were found. The six people known to have been buried in the vault whose remains were not found are thought to have been buried near the bottom of the vault where the damp conditions caused brushite to form on the bones and eventually disintegrate them. The remains of the 16 were identified and placed either in white boxes or in their original cast iron coffins, several of which survived in usable condition. They have all now been reinterred, with their family in attendance, in the Causten Vault.

 

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One of Vermeer’s first paintings authenticated

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Saint Praxedis, an oil painting depicting the 2nd century saint cleaning the blood of a decapitated martyr, was first attributed to Johannes Vermeer in 1969. That year it had gone on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Florentine Baroque Art from American Collections as a work by Felice Ficherelli, aka Il Riposo. It was thought to be a second version of a nearly identical 1640-5 work by Ficherelli, but University of London art historian Michael Kitson proposed a very different hand was behind the copy. In his opinion, the signature “Meer 1655″ on the bottom left of the painting “correspond[ed] exactly to those on Vermeer’s early works, particularly the Maid Asleep.” He also thought the treatment of the historical subject had elements in common with Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, namely its “breadth of form and handling and a similar gravity (though not sickness) of mood.”

Kitson’s tentative attribution wasn’t widely accepted. Saint Praxedis was an unusual subject in Dutch painting in general and for Vermeer in particular, even though he did start out treating historical scenes like Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and Diana and her Companions, both of which were painted during Vermeer’s earliest productive years (1654-1656). Also, this would be the sole example of Vermeer copying the work of an Italian master, or anybody else for that matter.

In 1986, Arthur Wheelock Jr., the influential curator of Northern Baroque painting at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, boosted Saint Praxedis‘s fortunes. Wheelock agreed with Kitson that there were stylistic similarities between Saint Praxedis and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. He also suggested that the painting of the saint’s face was characteristically Dutch in modeling, comparable in its downcast posture to the young woman in A Maid Asleep. Wheelock noted a second potential signature on the right side. It’s barely distinguishable, but Wheelock posited that it said “Meer N R o o,” originally “[Ver]Meer N[aar] R[ip]o[s]o” or “Vermeer after Riposo.”

Wheelock’s arguments were controversial. Several important art historians and experts in Dutch painting thought the brushwork, lighting and quality had little in common with Vermeer’s known works. One of them couldn’t even find the so-called second signature, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have found it persuasive since it’s the only example of a signature shouting out the original artist. Many experts were convinced Saint Praxedis was of Florentine origin, painted by a student of Ficherelli’s, and that the signature was a later addition referencing an artist named Meer or van der Meer.

The painting was purchased the year after Wheelock’s first publication by Polish-American art collector Barbara Piasecka Johnson. She died last year, and works from the fine collection she and her husband Johnson & Johnson co-founder John Seward Johnson I put together will be going up for auction at Christie’s London on July 8th (view the catalogue here). With a potential pre-sale estimate of $11,000,000-$13,000,000 if she could be shown conclusively to have been painted by Vermeer’s hand, Christie’s enlisted experts from the Rijksmuseum and Amsterdam’s Free University to test Saint Praxedis.

The results are pretty spectacular. From the Christie’s catalogue:

Particles of lead taken from samples of lead white pigment used in Saint Praxedis were submitted for high precision lead isotope ratio analysis at the Free University, Amsterdam. The results placed the lead white squarely in the Dutch/Flemish cluster of samples, establishing with certainty that its origin is north European and entirely consistent with mid-seventeenth century painting in Holland. Two separate samples from the picture have been tested to certify this result. This provides incontrovertible scientific proof that the picture was not painted in Italy. Furthermore, a lead white sample taken from Diana and her Companions was tested in the same manner to allow for comparison between Saint Praxedis and a work from the same approximate date that is universally accepted as by Vermeer. The outcome of this was extraordinary, providing an almost identical match of isotope abundance values between the two samples. They relate so precisely as to even suggest that the exact same batch of paint could have been used for both pictures.

As for why Vermeer would copy a work by a second-rate Italian artist on a subject of little resonance in Dutch Protestant culture, the simple answer is that it was a learning project. We don’t know very much about Vermeer’s life, but there is no solid evidence that he was ever apprenticed to or tutored by an established artist. Vermeer appears to have taught himself to paint, amazingly enough, and as a highly knowledgeable fan of Italian art and as a recent convert to Catholicism, the 22-year-old artist had reason to appreciate Ficherelli’s original even if his contemporaries did not. Saint Praxedis was a particular favorite of Jesuits in the late 16th century, and Vermeer’s mother-in-law lived next to an order of them in Delft.

This is one of only two works attributed to Johannes Vermeer that is privately owned, so even though Saint Praxedis doesn’t look much like the works Vermeer is famous for today, the incredibly rare chance to buy any piece by Vermeer could drive the price through the stratosphere.

 

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1733 portrait of freed slave acquired by Yorktown museum

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare, 1733, Jamestown-Yorktown FoundationA previously unknown portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701–1773), an aristocrat from what is today Senegal who was sold into slavery in 1730 but made his way back home through a series of fortunate events, has been acquired by Virginia’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Along with its companion piece by the same artist, this is the earliest known portrait of a slave from the 13 colonies and the first Western portrait of a named African sitter. Its ultimate destination is the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown which is slated to open in 2016, but it will be on display at the Yorktown Victory Center from June 14th through August 3rd.

Ayube Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon in England, was the scion of a wealthy family of Muslim clerics and rulers in the West African Kingdom of Futa. While on a mission to the Gambia River to barter two slaves in exchange for supplies, Diallo was kidnapped and sold into slavery himself. He told the British slavers who bought him from his Mandingo kidnappers that his family would ransom him, but when the message didn’t get to his family in time, William and Henry Hunt loaded him into the ship and sold him to a dealer in Annapolis, Maryland.

He wound up the property of one Mr. Tolsey, a tobacco farmer on Kent Island, Maryland, who first attempted to put Diallo to work in the fields. He couldn’t hack it. This was back-breaking labor, and Diallo was a soft scholar. He was assigned to tending cattle instead, which he was a little better at. After being mocked by children for his prayers, in June of 1731 Diallo ran away. He was soon captured and put in prison in the Kent County Courthouse. There he met a British lawyer named Thomas Bluett whose curiosity was piqued by Diallo’s fine carriage and composure.

Bluett enlisted a translator and found out Diallo came from a wealthy family of important people. Tolsey, keen to derive some kind of profit from this liability of a slave, allowed Diallo to write a letter back home and then gladly allowed an official from the Royal African Company in London to buy his freedom. Diallo and Bluett sailed to London in March of 1733 where the cleric, nobleman and former slave made a social splash. He was commissioned by the future founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane, to translate Arabic manuscripts in his library. He was introduced at Court by the Duke of Montagu. And he had his portrait painted by William Hoare.

Bluett describes the painting of the portrait in Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, one of the earliest slave narratives (albeit not written in first person):

JOB’s Aversion to Pictures of all Sorts, was exceeding great; insomuch, that it was with great Difficulty that he could be brought to sit for his own. We assured him that we never worshipped any Picture, and that we wanted his for no other End but to keep us in mind of him. He at last consented to have it drawn; which was done by Mr. Hoare. When the Face was finished, Mr. Hoare ask’d what Dress would be most proper to draw him in; and, upon JOB’s desiring to be drawn in his own Country Dress, told him he could not draw it, unless he had seen it, or had it described to him by one who had: Upon which JOB answered, If you can’t draw a Dress you never saw, why do some of you Painters presume to draw God, whom no one ever saw?

Hoare figured it out in the end, painting Diallo in a white robe and turban, wearing verses from the Qur’an in a pouch around his neck. The use of national dress makes this portrait unique. Other prominent named Africans would be painted after Diallo, but they were depicted wearing English dress and wigs.

Portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare, 1733, National Portrait GalleryHoare painted two versions of this portrait, although for centuries only one was known and it was long thought lost. The only evidence of it was a 1750 print. It turns out to have been in the same family since 1840 and was rediscovered in December 2009 when the owners put it up for auction at Christie’s in London. The Qatar Museums Authority purchased it for £554,937.50 ($932,517). The Culture Minister put a temporary export block on the painting to give the National Portrait Gallery a chance to raise the money by the end of August 2010. They came within £60,000 of the goal on August 12th, 2010. I was unable to discover if they actually managed to raise the full amount on time, but either way, the NPG made the QMA a purchase offer which it refused. The QMA did withdraw its export application, however, and eventually negotiated a long-term loan with the National Portrait Gallery.

The publicity from the NPG’s fundraising campaign brought attention to the portrait, inspiring the owners of the second version to engage in private sale negotiations with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., purchased the oil-on-canvas painting with funds raised privately, including a lead gift from Foundation trustee Fred D. Thompson, Jr., of Thompson Hospitality, the country’s largest minority-owned food service company. “This portrait is a powerful symbol of the diversity of colonial America’s population, which included people from many different African cultures,” says Thompson. “Diallo – his image and story – is an ideal teaching opportunity for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries.”

“For approximately three years now, the Foundation has been in confidential negotiations to acquire this important portrait,” says Thomas E. Davidson, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation senior curator. “Diallo’s visage speaks for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who remain largely unknown, yet who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population.”

 

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Harvard confirms book bound in human skin

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Scientists have confirmed that one book in Harvard’s Houghton Library — Des destinées de l’ame (The Destinies of the Soul) by French poet and essayist Arsène Houssaye, first published in 1879 — is bound in human skin. The book belonged to Dr. Ludovic Bouland, a doctor and book collector from Metz in the northeastern French province of Lorraine who combined his professional vocation with his interest in books and book binding in a rather macabre way. Arsène Houssaye was a personal friend of his. He gave the doctor a copy of his new book and Bouland had it rebound. A handwritten letter signed by Bouland found inside the book describes the new binding:

“This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.”

There used to be a typed document with the book that elaborated on the source of the skin. The original is gone, but we know from notes that the skin came from “the back of the unclaimed body of a woman patient in a French mental hospital who died suddenly of apoplexy.” The second book Bouland refers to that uses the same skin is now in the Wellcome Library, and according to a 1910 article in a French magazine, Bouland got the piece of skin when he was a medical student at a hospital in Metz. He received his medical degree in 1865, which means he held on to that poor lady’s skin for decades before sectioning it for use in binding at least two books.

The note Bouland wrote on the flyleaf of De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis, a 1663 edition of the influential book by Doctor Séverin Pineau that described the hymen in great anatomical detail (little of it accurate compared to the modern understanding of that intriguing membrane) and provided valuable instruction on how to tell if a virgin had been “corrupted,” is a creepier version of the Des destinées de l’ame explanation:

“This curious little book on virginity, which seemed to me to deserve a binding in keeping with its subject matter, is bound with a piece of woman’s skin that I tanned myself with some sumac.”

As far as Bouland was concerned, a book on the immortal soul and one on hymens were equally well-suited to be bound in the skin of a destitute mentally ill woman who had the misfortune to die of a stroke in the hospital where he was studying.

Two other books at Harvard, one in the Law School Library, one in the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine, had inscriptions identifying them as examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy (the official term for book binding using human skin). The Law School book is Practicarum quaestionum circa leges regias Hispaniae, a treatise on Spanish law by Juan Gutiérrez published in Madrid in 1605. A dramatic inscription on the last page of the book claimed:

“The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.”

The book’s binding was DNA tested in 1992 but the results were inconclusive, most likely because of the tanning process. A year after that, a new analytical technique called peptide mass fingerprinting was developed. Peptide mass fingerprinting breaks proteins up into component peptides whose masses can be measured by mass spectrometer and the results compared to a database of known proteins. Two months ago, peptide mass fingerprinting conclusively proved the binding to be sheepskin, not the product of Jonas Wright’s flaying.

The Countway Library book is a 1597 French translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which has a faint inscription in pencil on the inside cover stating simply “Bound in human skin,” but experts doubted its accuracy because the binding doesn’t look like other confirmed human leather bindings. Peptide mass fingerprinting proved that it too had a sheepskin binding.

With two of the three claimed human skin bindings proved false, peptide mass fingerprinting was enlisted once again to test the binding of Des destinées de l’ame. This time the peptide mass fingerprint matched the human references, but while it eliminated the usual suspects like sheep and cow, it couldn’t conclusively exclude other primates because we don’t have the comparison data for them.

Although unlikely that the binding was made from a primate source, the samples were further analyzed using Liquid Chromatography-Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LCMSMS) to determine the order of amino acids, the building blocks of each peptide, which can be different in each species.

“The analytical data, taken together with the provenance of Des destinées de l’ame, make it very unlikely that the source could be other than human,” said [Director of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics Resource Laboratory Bill] Lane.

 

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Beached whale revealed in 17th c. Dutch painting

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014


View of Scheveningen Sands by Hendrick van Anthonissen seemed like an unassuming beach scene when conservator Shan Kuang first began to work on it. Painted in 1641 and donated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1873 along with a group of other Dutch landscapes by patron Richard Kerrich, View of Scheveningen Sands was sent to the museum’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for conservation while the Dutch Golden Age gallery was closed for a year-long refurbishment. Its resin varnish coating had yellowed over time, so Kuang was tasked with removing it to freshen up the painting for the grand reopening of the gallery.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, before restorationKuang began to painstakingly clean the canvas. Her work soon revealed an incongruous lone figure of a man standing on the horizon. There was only sea underneath him and sky above, so it was unclear how he fit into the composition. More cleaning of the area next to him exposed a dark grey triangular shape, which led Kuang to speculate that the man might be in the rigging of a sailboat that had been overpainted. She could see that the ocean in that spot was more crudely painted than in the rest of the painting.

After much discussion with Hamilton Kerr conservation experts and Fitzwilliam curators, they decided the overpaint was not the work of van Anthonissen. Its thick impasto and inferior quality indicated a later alteration done in the 18th or early 19th century. By the time the painting was donated in 1873, nobody knew it had been overpainted. Removing it was still a risky prospect. It’s difficult to take away just the paint layer that was added without harming the original paint, and you never know what ugly surprises might be concealed by the overpaint.

"View of Scheveningen Sands" by Hendrick van Anthonissen, ca. 1641, after restorationThey decided to take the plunge, and Kuang set about removing the thick overpaint with a scalpel and a few carefully chosen solvents. To ensure she didn’t damage the original, she viewed the work under the microscope. Under the paint she found not a ship, but a beached sperm whale.

The man who seemed to be standing on the horizon is, in fact, balanced on the whale’s back where Kuang suggests that he might even be measuring its length.The chosen focus of the painting resonates with a surge of public interest in whales: contemporary records show many instances of whale beaching on the coastline of the Netherlands in the first half of the 17th century. While the Anthonissen painting seeks to represent the whale in a realistic manner, some prints from the period portray whales as rampaging monsters of the deep and omens of disaster.

"Beached Sperm Whale at Beverwijk on 19 December 1601" by Jan SaenredamRealistic depictions of beached whales and viewing them as omens of disaster was not mutually exclusive. The Dutch Republic in the late 16th, early 17th century was experiencing the religious and political upheaval of the Eighty Years’ War, a period that coincides with the heyday of the beached whale in Dutch art, literature and political writing. The appearance of a whale was seen as a portent of defeat in battle or a sign of God’s displeasure at the prospect of a truce between religious factions. A 1602 engraving by Jan Saenredam of a beached whale at Beverwijk has a long Latin note underneath detailing the exact measurements of the mammal (60 feet long, 14 feet high, 36 feet in circumference, 14-foot tail, 12-foot lower jaw) while above the tableau is a frame of allegorical references to earthquakes, eclipses and the passage of time. There are also more anatomically correct details of the whale after decomposition gases caused it to explode and Death shooting Amsterdam with a plague arrow.

By the time Anthonissen painted his beached whale landscape, the trend was losing steam. Negotiations between Spain and the Dutch Republic began in 1646, and a Treaty formalizing Dutch independence was signed in 1648. The prophetic vision of beached whales no longer bedeviled the stable, confident Republic. With the interest in the subject long faded, someone decided to hide the dead whale altogether, perhaps to make it more palatable to a wider market as an innocuous beach scene.

View of Scheveningen Sands, with a Stranded Sperm Whale is now on display in the reopened Dutch Golden Age gallery of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

 

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