Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Trouvelot’s astronomical drawings to go on display

Friday, January 19th, 2018

When last we saw Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, the gifted astronomical observer, artist and accidental destroyer of worlds via his injudicious introduction of the gypsy moth to the US, the 15 impeccably detailed astronomy drawings he chose for publication in 1881 using the new color printing technology of chromolithography had just been digitized by the New York Public Library. Now one of the rare surviving complete sets of Trouvelot chromolithographs is going on public display at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The exhibition, Radiant Beauty: E.L. Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings, opens April 28th of this year and runs through July 30th in The Huntington Library’s West Hall.

The set of 15 chromolithographs was the crowning achievement of Trouvelot’s career, said curator Krystle Satrum, assistant curator of the Jay T. Last Collection at The Huntington. “He was both an extraordinarily talented artist and a scientist, producing more than 7,000 astronomical illustrations and some 50 scientific articles during his working life.”

In vivid color and meticulous detail, the works depict a range of astronomical phenomena. “The high quality of both the artwork and the scientific observation demonstrates his uncanny capacity to combine art and science in such a way as to make substantial contributions to both fields,” Satrum said.

The pas-de-deux between art and science is still producing magic today. Images from high-powered telescope cameras, satellites and probes that have so mesmerized the public since the Hubble first started working right don’t look anything like the swirling marvels of color when they are transmitted. They’re black and white, infrared, ultra-violet, etc., thick with data but not so much visual impact for our limited optic range. It’s the artists who translate that data into something approximating what we’d see if we could.

Trouvelot was a master of converting telescopic information into beautifully colored artworks long before the Hubble was a twinkle in NASA’s eye. The chromolithographs wound up being a bit of a last hurrah for the field. By the turn of the century, drawings were rapidly being superseded by photographs as cameras became more powerful and precise. Of the estimated 300 luxury portfolios published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1882, only a few still survive intact today. Most of them were bought by institutions and observatories as references for their astronomers, but once photography starting edging out the old school artistic rendering, the Trouvelot chromolithographs were sold off or thrown away.

The Huntington’s set was acquired by physicist and Silicon Valley co-founder Jay T. Last as part of his extensive collection of graphic arts, particularly lithographs, from the 19th and early 20th century. He donated more than 200,000 printed works from more than 500 companies, high-end astronomical chromolithograph sets to orange crate labels to the museum. Highlights from the Jay T. Last of Graphic Arts and Social History can be browsed on The Huntington’s website.

Speaking of online collections of historic lithographs, the NYPL didn’t have high resolution versions of Trouvelot’s drawings in the online gallery when it debuted, much to my chagrin, but they are available now for download in tiff format. Click “All download options” and select “High Res tiff” from the list to get them. They’re not as gloriously huge as The Huntington Library’s images which they so kindly allowed me to use in this here post. They are in great condition, however, and I got a kick out of comparing the two sets.


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The Two Brothers are in fact brothers

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Groundbreaking analysis of ancient DNA has answered a century-old question: are a pair of Egyptian mummies from the 12th Dynasty dubbed the Two Brothers actually brothers? One hundred and eleven years after their discovery, we now know the answer is yes. They are half-brothers, same mother, different fathers. This overturns the results from the original 1908 study that indicated no familial relationship between the two men.

The mummies of Khnum-nakht and Nakht-ankh were discovered by renown archaeologist Flinders Petrie in a stone-cut tomb near the village of Deir Rifeh in 1907. Their exquisitely painted coffins were placed next to each other and inscriptions on their sarcophagi identified them as brothers, sons of a local governor (an unnamed “hatia-prince”) and a woman (or women) named Khnum-aa. The richness of the funerary furnishings in the tomb confirmed their high status as the sons of an elite functionary. The style of the tomb dated it to around 1,800 B.C.

Flinders Petrie wrote to the Manchester Museum that his team had discovered a small 12th Dynasty tomb in Rifeh packed tightly with two polychrome painted sarcophagi complete with mummies, two funerary boats with servant figurines, a painted chest with a full set of four canopic jars, five statuettes placed in the coffins and two pottery vessels. All the human remains were intact and the craftsmanship of the artifacts of the highest quality. Petrie, keen to ensure the core funerary group would stay together, offered it to the museum for a £500 contribution to his next excavation. The Museum Committee accepted with alacrity and raised £570 19s in a few weeks thanks to the donations of boosters. The extra £70 19s went to the writing and production of a The Tomb of Two Brothers, a publication about the museum’s research into the find.

This pamphlet makes fascinating reading, touching on the transition from archaeology as an amateur treasure hunt to archaeology as a science, the complicity of antiquities collectors in systemic looting of tombs, and how the sausage of the examination of the remains was made in the Edwardian era. Hint: it ain’t pretty. Cringeworthy in an age when mummies are never unwrapped precisely because of the damage described in the publication: soft tissues disappearing into clouds of dust and moisture causing long-preserved flesh to rapidly decay.

It’s of particular interest in the light of the recent DNA analysis that upends the conclusion drawn from the initial study. The introduction opens with a broadside to those who would castigate archaeologists as desecrators of the dead, pointing the finger back at accusers who “would not hesitate to wear a scarab-ring taken off a dead man’s hand” and who “will handle without a qualm the amulets that were found actually inside a body.” This hypocrisy, the authors note, has real consequences on the treatment of human remains because it creates a market for looters to tear apart dead bodies for saleable trinkets.

They go on to explain why the examination of dead bodies is important.

Archaeology has been raised to the rank of a science within one generation: before that it was merely the pastime of the dilettante and the amateur who amused himself by adding beautiful specimens to his collection of ancient art. Then came the period of the enthusiast in languages, to whom inscriptions the joy of life. And now there has arisen a new school to whom archaeology is a science, a science which embraces the whole field of human activity. Archaeology, in other words, is the history of the human race. It is a science which contains within itself all other sciences. The new sciences of psychology and comparative religion owe their being to archaeology, and history itself is merely archaeology in a narrow form.

Four sciences are listed as examples of disciplines that rely on information derived from material culture of the past: psychology, comparative religion, ethnology and comparative anatomy.

Archaeology can assist these four great sciences only by opening and examining graves and their contents. It is only by a knowledge of the objects placed with the dead, and by the methods of burial, that we the ideas of early races as to a future life; by studying these graves in chronological order we trace the growth of ideas and the evolution of religion and of the philosophy of life. By an examination of the bodies, the knowledge of the ethnologist and the anatomist is immensely increased.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, the fervent belief that their morphological analyses form the scientific backbone of numerous academic disciplines vs. the DNA testing that proved the inaccuracy of said analyses. One of the sciences listed, ethnology, which at the time was emphatically focused on the putative anatomical differences between races and genders of humans, appears to have been the grounding for the erroneous conclusion.

Led by Dr. Margaret Murray, archaeological pioneer and the UK’s first woman Egyptologist, the Manchester Museum team examined the mummified remains in 1908. The team’s anatomist, Dr. John Cameron, compared their skulls and declare the differences between them “so pronounced that it is almost impossible to convince oneself that they belong to the same race, far less to the same family.” He thought the older brother, Nakht-ankh, might be a woman because the evidence of muscular attachment was so faint. When the pelvis established he was male despite the “female character” of the skull, Cameron looked for another explanation:

The question of the skeleton being that of a eunuch next suggested itself; but unfortunately, the state of preservation of the external genitals (see page 44) does not permit one to make a definitive pronouncement on this question. If this could have been proved definitely then we should have been provided with a distinctly rare opportunity of comparing the skeletons of two brothers, one of whom was virile, and the other a eunuch.

(Page 44 is where an extensive discussion of the man’s mummified penis and missing scrotum begins. There was no evidence of the scrotum having been surgically removed, btw.)

Mummy of Nekht-Ankh at various stages of unwrapping, Plate 10, 'The Tomb of Two Brothers', by Margaret Alice Murray et al, 1908.The virile brother has sub-Saharan African ancestry, Cameron concludes, but not exclusively. He was biracial, according to the skull feature studies prevalent at the time. Between that and the eunuch thing, the anatomist cannot accept that they are brothers, but he does explore later on the chapter the possibility that they could be half-brothers with the same mother. Their mother is titled Nebt Per, (“Lady of a House”) in the inscription, which means she had inherited an estate. A moneyed, propertied woman could easily have had children from two different husbands during a lifetime. Alternatively, one or both of them may have been adopted.

Either way, they were still brothers, as the contemporary inscription emphasized, and the exquisitely painted sarcophagi became the museum’s most famous icons. They have been on display almost continuously since 1908 and have been known as the Two Brothers just as long, blood relations or no. There have been multiple attempts to extract a viable DNA sample to determine the brothers’ brotherness but all of the results were inconclusive. The technology has improved greatly in recent years, however, so in 2015 scientists tried again.

[T]he DNA was extracted from the teeth and, following hybridization capture of the mitochondrial and Y chromosome fractions, sequenced by a next generation method. Analysis showed that both Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht belonged to mitochondrial haplotype M1a1, suggesting a maternal relationship. The Y chromosome sequences were less complete but showed variations between the two mummies, indicating that Nakht-Ankh and Khnum-Nakht had different fathers, and were thus very likely to have been half-brothers.

Dr Konstantina Drosou, of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Manchester who conducted the DNA sequencing, said: “It was a long and exhausting journey to the results but we are finally here. I am very grateful we were able to add a small but very important piece to the big history puzzle and I am sure the brothers would be very proud of us. These moments are what make us believe in ancient DNA.”

The study, which is being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is the first to successfully use the typing of both mitochondrial and Y chromosomal DNA in Egyptian mummies.

The new study is available online free of charge so you can read the original publication and the latest one for a one-shot comparative history of science. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr. who in turn was paraphrasing Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, the arc of the scientific method is long, but it bends towards accuracy.

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The Making of a Roman Silver Cup

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

In 2014, the Getty Museum was fortunate enough to be allowed access to one of the world’s greatest Roman treasures: the silver hoard discovered by a farmer ploughing his field in Berthouville, Normandy, France, in 1830. An unprecendented assemblage of silver-gilt objects that epitomize the best Roman silversmithing had to offer, the plates, bowls, cups, pitchers, statuettes are crafted with high relief details, scenes from mythology and elaborate designs that were probably the dining set of an incredibly wealthy Roman. Inscriptions by the donor, one Quintus Domitius Tutus, dedicating them to the Gallo-Roman version of the god Mercury indicate they were later used for ritual purposes and deliberately buried, but first they were likely used to set a fabulously splendid banquet table.

Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D. Cup with Centaurs, 1–100 A.D.. gold det. Photo courtesy the JP Getty Museum.

The Getty Villa in Malibu played host to Berthouville’s most famous citizens starting in December 2010 as part of a collaboration with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to employ its own greatest assets — the deep bench of conservation experience and know-how — to conserve and restore the objects. They had been roughly handled in the initial cleaning back in the olden days of the 19th century, so they needed cleaning, restoration and punctilious research to revive their shine. The work Getty conservators did uncovered a great deal of new information about how Roman silversmiths worked and how 19th century restorers worked.

Because of their aid in restoring these precious objects, the Getty was given the sole opportunity to exhibit the treasure and other fine silver pieces from the collection of the Cabinet des Médailles at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville ran from November 2014 through August 2015. It was the first time the Berthouville treasure has ever been allowed to leave France and very possibly the last.

I wrote about the exhibition at the time, but I missed the very cool YouTube video showing how Roman silversmiths would have created one of the exquisite cups in the treasure. There’s also a cool 3D rotating view of the Mercury statuette that is one the stars of the Berthouville show.

The video quality on this one leaves something to be desired, but the content sure doesn’t. It’s a lecture by Getty antiquities curator Kenneth Lapatin on the background of the Berthouville Treasure.

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Wellcome acquires elegant portrait of luxuriously bearded woman

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

The Wellcome Collection, the free museum and library founded by pharmacist and medicalia collector Sir Henry Wellcome is surely one of the most wide-ranging, fascinating and vibrant museums in London. It has just added another gem to the millions: an oil painting of Barbara van Beck, a 17th century artist and business woman who made a splash in European and British high society thanks to her talent, grace and hairiness, largely the last of these.

Van Beck had hypertrichosis or Ambras syndrome, a genetic condition that cause thick hair growth in places where it doesn’t normally grow on humans. Barbara’s long, silky chestnut hair covered her face, from forehead to nose to chin. Combined with her fine figure and excellence on the harpsichord, her concerts and performances were a big draw, attended in theaters and drawing rooms instead of the dingy carnival sideshows “bearded women” would be relegated to in later centuries. Her condition made her stand out — people loved to see her the juxtaposition of biological oddity, fashion plate and accomplished lady — but it was her ability to perform artistically as well as socially that garnered her such appreciative and well-heeled audiences.

Diarist John Evelyn records attending one such performance in London in his entry of September 15, 1657:

I saw the hairy woman, twenty years old, whom I had before seen when a child. She was born at Augsburg, in Germany.
Her very eyebrows were combed upward, and all her forehead as thick and even as grows on any woman’s head, neatly dressed ; a very long lock of hair out of each ear; she had also a most prolix beard, and moustachios, with long locks growing on the middle of her nose, like an Iceland dog exactly, the color of a bright brown, fine as well-dressed flax. She was now married, and told me she had one child that was not hairy, nor were any of her parents, or relations. She was very well shaped, and played well on the harpsichord.

She worked consistently for decades, was a bona fide celebrity and widely depicted even long after her death. The Wellcome has five prints of van Beck already in its collection. Engraver Richard Gaywood’s 1656 portrait of her standing by a harpsichord, her hands posed delicately on the keys, was widely circulated and copied by later artists. The newly acquired oil painting predates Gaywood’s engraving by 10 years or so. It is the first painting of van Beck in the Wellcome Collection and is of very high quality.

“We don’t know who painted the portrait, or where, when or for whom, but the point of it is Barbara’s dignity,” Angela McShane, Wellcome’s research development manager, said. “This is a beautifully executed high-status painting. She is not portrayed as a freak as the Victorians would have described her – as I often say when lecturing, you can blame the Victorians for most things – but as a woman with great self-possession and presence, painted at a time when she would have been viewed, as Evelyn saw her, as wonderful, a natural wonder.”

“There is nothing titillating about her low-cut dress either, though we might now see it that way. She is dressed is in the highest fashion of the day and contemporary viewers would have recognised that.”

That is a tribute to her gifts and perseverance. Her life could have easily taken a very different path. Barbara van Beck was born Barbara Ursler in Augsburg, Bavaria, in 1629. As Evelyn alludes to, by the time she was eight years old her parents were exhibiting her in traveling shows, but either did not neglect her education or she used her wits to get one herself by whatever means were on offer. As an adult she was highly cultured, spoke several languages and had traveled extensively.

Barbara Van Beck etching by R.S. Kirby, 1813. Photo courtesy the Wellcome Collection.It was also fortunate timing. Given how people with such visible conditions were often treated before and after her (called demons, ostracized, made to live in squalor, put on display like zoo animals from cradle to coffin), Barbara van Beck was lucky to have been born during a window of time starting in the late 16th century when monarchs, aristocrats and high society developed a keen interest in anomalous configurations of the human body. It was part of the cabinet of curiosities ethos, collecting oddities of biology, minerology, archaeology, geology. If it was deemed exotic, some king wanted to display it. Indeed, it is eminently possible that the oil painting of van Beck was commissioned for one of those aristocratic collections, perhaps even the most famous of them all.

[The condition] was named for Ambras castle in Innsbruck, where Ferdinand II, the archduke of Austria, had created a famous cabinet of curiosities – still open to the public – which included portraits of people with unusual medical conditions such as hirsutism. The portrait of Van Beck is of such high quality that McShane wonders if it could have been in the collection at some point after Ferdinand’s death.

“We know nothing of Barbara’s life after that meeting in London. She disappears from history. There is no reason why she wouldn’t have had a normal lifespan. If you survived to 10 years old, you were highly likely to make it to 60. There must be more records of her out there somewhere, a research project waiting for somebody.”

The portrait is not yet on display. It needs some love of the cleaning and conservation type which the Wellcome Collection staff are currently giving it. The plan is for the work to go on public display early this year. It will also be a featured player at the Culture of Beauty conference at the Wellcome later in 2018.

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A little gift

Monday, December 25th, 2017

I hope you’ve all had a grand, warm, lucrative, family-and-friends filled Christmas Day. As it has been a tad busy, I’m going to keep it short with a little gift post in the form of pretty pictures. You might recall my recent article about The Portrait of Achille Deban de Laborde (1817). As I was in the neighborhood visiting family, I popped into the Clark Art Institute to enjoy its exceptional collection of Winslow Homers, George Inneses, Renoirs, Monets, Sisleys, Alma-Tademas, Sargents, Renaissance Old Masters and about a thousand other art historical gems.

I also made a special pilgrimage to the 18th century French portraiture room to see the youth in a replica of his father’s Napoleonic uniform. He is just as sweet and soft-eyed as he looked in the official release pictures.


In that same gallery is a painting by Louis-Léopold Boiully, a portraitist and genre artist who was highly celebrated in his time and managed to thrive from the ancien regime all the way through to the July Monarchy, although he did have a little less than pleasant moment with the Committee of Public Safety over the erotic undertone of his paintings which would have cost him his life had it not been for the discovery of a properly propagandistic Le triomphe de Marat (1794) in his studio. The genre paintings capture scenes of French society, street life and current events. Most of his portraits were of middle class people and celebrities, including Robespierre.

The painting in the Clark, however, is not a portrait, even though it’s in the portrait gallery. It is a trompe l’oeil from 1785 called, appropriately, Various Objects. It depicts what looks like a pinboard with letters, a nosegay of pansies, a black and white drawing, a glass bottle hanging from a string, a leather pouch, scissors, a switchblade and a drawing compass. I think it’s pretty great, and appreciate it all the more because it was Boiully who coined the phrase “trompe l’oeil.”

Happy holidays, everyone!

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Queen’s gold and worker’s footprint to shine in Penn Museum’s new Mespotamian galleries

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

On November 1st, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology began its first major renovation since it was founded in 1887. The building, a grand historical treasure in its own right, is in dire need of upgrades, especially systems. Most urgent is the air conditioning system which doesn’t need upgrading because it doesn’t actually exist. The museum gets hot in the summer and the body heat and moisture from visitors exacerbates the problem, putting the delicate objects on display at risk.

The three-phase renovation will create a new exhibition space with state-of-the art climate control technology and 6,000 square feet in which to showcase the Penn Museum’s stellar Near East collection. A pioneer in the field of Middle Eastern archaeology, the Penn Museum was the first in the country to send a team to explore Mesopotamian sites in 1887. They’ve been back hundreds of times since and collected more than 100,000 objects, making the Penn Museum’s Near East collection one of the greatest in the world.

More than 1,200 of those objects will go on display in the new suits of three galleries — Towards Cities, Ur: The Great City, The World of Cities — dedicated to Mesopotamian history, giving visitors a panorama of the evolution and development of culture and urban life in the cradle of civilization through objects of enormous rarity and significance.

The artifacts getting an abode worthy of them include the splendid headdress of Sumerian Queen Puabi, made from 24 feet of gold ribbon, 20 gold rings and long strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads. It was found by Sir Leonard Woolley during his excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur in 1928. Other Royal Cemetery stand-out pieces will go back on display in the new galleries, among them the bull head fragment from an ancient lyre made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli and shell, the Ram in a Thicket statuette.

It’s not all glittering gold masterpieces of luxury materials. The breadth of the collection allows the Penn Museum to tell the story of how Mesopotamia moved from villages to large cities with massive populations and an unparalleled collection of wealth. Front and center in the new Middle East Galleries will be one of the museum’s most unusual Sumerian objects: a footprint left in a piece of wet mud brick in Ur 4,000 years ago. One of the world’s oldest wine vessels will be on display (a Neolithic pot discovered at Hajji Firuz Tepe, Iran, that dates to around 5400 B.C.), a baby rattle, a writing primer for children and many more objects that will give visitors a view into daily life from writing and record-keeping to agriculture, labour, meal preparation and burial practices over 10,000 years of Mesopotamian history.

The Middle East Galleries will take pride of place in the renovated museum, right next to the entrance hall. It officially opens to the public on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

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Puttin’ on the Rijks

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Marten Soolmans', 1634. Purchased by the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the RijksmuseumWhy yes I am absurdly pleased with that title, thank you for asking. When the Rijksmuseum is putting on a show dedicated to full-length portraiture of moneyed art patrons from the Renaissance to the 20th century, certain puns become irresistible. The new exhibition, High Society will be centered around the museum’s most spectacular new babies, the portraits of wealthy merchant Marten Soolmans and his bride, heiress Oopjen Coppit painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1634. He was only 28 years old but already had made a name for himself as the top portraitist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), 'Portrait of Oopjen Coppit', 1634. Purchased by the Republic of France for the Musée du Louvreon the scene. He had known Soolmans since the latter’s desultory stab at law school in Leiden when he was 15, and as Oopjen Coppit was kind enough to bring an enormous pile of cash into the matrimonial home as a dowry, Marten booked the best to have himself and his wife immortalized top to bottom. These are the only full-length, life-sized portraits Rembrandt ever painted.

The pair is jointly owned by the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum who spent €80 million apiece to buy the portraits from Baron Eric de Rothschild. Because the portraits were already in France with the baron, the Louvre got first crack at displaying them in accordance with the intricacies of the shared acquisition deal. They went on display in Paris in March 2016 for three months, then moved on to Amsterdam where they had another brief three-month display next to the Night Watch before being taken off public view for much-needed conservation. The portraits had only been lightly cleaned and had “fake saliva” daubed on to bring back some of their original sheen before their debut at the Louvre.

That thorough restoration, undertaken by a joint team of experts from both national museums, is just about finished now and the wedding couple will be shown conserved, repaired, their finery back to its finest, for the first time at the new exhibition opening March 8th, 2018. It’s not the happy couple who will be peacocking it in this show. The Rijksmuseum took the opportunity to make Marten and Oopjen the fulcrum of a larger exploration of the evolution of the full-length portrait in art history, borrowing more than 35 masterpieces from private collections and museums in Paris, London, Florence, Vienna and California, among others. This is the first exhibition dedicated to this most magnificent of portrait formats.

Life-sized, standing, full-length portraiture had been the province of kings and powerful aristocrats in earlier times, and barely seen at all up north. The portraits of two proud exponents of the moneyed Dutch bourgeoisie illustrate the upwardly-mobile aspirations of the young Dutch Republic, then just 50 years old and focused on building wealth through trade and industry instead of bloodlines, currying monarchical favor and conquest. Marten and Oopjen were some of the earliest examples of the style being employed in Holland.

The earliest life-sized portraits of worthies standing around looking fabulously wealthy (or telegraphing their politics or promoting their families or celebrating their greatest beauties or their weddings, as in the case of Marten and Oopjen) that we know of were painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1514. The subjects were Henry Paolo Veronese, Count Iseppo da Porto, c. 1552. Baltimore, Walters Art Museum and Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi, Contini Bonacossi Collectionthe Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife Catharina, Countess of Mecklenburg. Less than a decade later the Italians stepped up to the plate with the unnamed subject in Moretto da Brescia’s Portrait of a Man (1525). The earliest known couple depicted in a full-length portrait by an Italian artist are Count Iseppo da Porto and his wife Countess Livia Thiene by Paolo Veronese (ca. 1552).

From those beginnings, the format spread north and west during the 16th and 17th centuries. Great masters like Velázquez, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals went big during this period, as did Rembrandt with Marten and Oopjen. The exhibition keeps going, illustrating the shift in focus from people of noble rank to people with money to socialites and even (gasp!) artists in the early 20th century. One of the last portraits to be painted from the group on display is one of Edvard Munch by Walther Rathenau (1907).

The exhibition is a short one — giant rarities don’t get loaned very often or for long — and closes on June 3rd, 2018.

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Google, British Museum digitize Maya collection

Monday, December 4th, 2017

The British Museum and the Google Arts & Culture have been collaborating on creating a complex, in depth digital virtual museum experience for years now. It’s been an exceptionally fruitful partnership from the outset, when the the new Google subsite dedicated to the British Museum’s physical structure, contents, permanent collection and exhibitions opened two years ago. Google Street View’s cameras crawled the entire space and put one of the world’s greatest encyclopedic museums online for everyone in the world with an Internet connection to explore in mind-blowing detail. The collection was rephotographed, this time in the massive resolution of gigapixel cameras, so objects could be viewed on computer screens in far greater dimensions than in person.

Their latest endeavour is dedicated to the preservation of endangered Mayan cultural knowledge and artifacts. It’s a fully functional guided tour, not just of the British Museum’s Maya collection, but of Mayan history and culture. If you go through the virtual exhibition in order, you’ll first encounter an introduction by writer Kanishk Tharoor who gives a summary of who the Maya were and are, a timeline of key events, what we know about their cities, architecture, engineering, language, art and science. That’s followed by a piece by historian Robert Bevan on what the collapse of Mayan cities can tell us about our own present. It’s highly relevant to the British Museum’s collection because since the Spanish burned almost all of the written manuscripts, in order to read Mayan history we have to rely on inscriptions carved in stone.

Atmospheric erosion has caused many in situ written carvings to become illegible, but a new collaboration between Google Arts & Culture and the British Museum is working to combat this gradual destruction. Using 19th century photographs and casts, combined with 21st century digital techniques, means fresh texts to decipher, and a deeper understanding of the ancient Maya.

The project’s source material is the work of the much-overlooked Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay who traveled through Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras in the 1880s. He used the up-to-date photographic technique of dry plate photography and hauled tons of plaster of Paris with him to create moulds of some of the monuments he encountered, and paper to make impressions (‘squeezes’) of others. 400 of the resulting casts and 800 glass plate negatives are now in the British Museum, among the 100,000 American items held in its collection.

Now, all of these casts and squeezes are being 3D-scanned, allowing researchers to manipulate the images in a way that will assist in translating the Maya inscriptions. Alongside this, an immersive VR journey is being created that takes children, via objects in the museum, to see the ruins in the forests of the Maya region, complete with howler monkeys and soaring ceiba trees that, amongst the Maya, are thought to connect the underworld with the sky. The project is giving us a clearer picture of what happened to the ancient Maya.

Bevan’s article includes embeds of some of the newly digitized Mauslay photographs and 3D models of the moulds he took. You cannot download them, sad to say, but click on the embeds to see them in their fully zoomable fulgor. The next section is a multi-media slide show that explain Mayan writing, the conservation of Mauslay’s casts, the history of Guatemalan masks and the many challenges of preserving Mayan monuments using pictures and animated street view captures. It culminates in a YouTube video of curator Dr. Jago Cooper speaking about Maudslay’s work and how the British Museum can help Google to preserve Mayan history.

The next section is another slideshow, this one about the history of the museum’s Mayan collection which is of comparatively recent extraction. They didn’t really start collecting Maya artifacts until the mid-19th century. Maudslay’s casts didn’t join the party until the 1920s and the best known original artifacts only arrived in the 1930s when coffee planter Charles Fenton donated his important private collection to the museum. The two slideshows after this one focus on the explorer and his casts, followed by a huge photos and 3D models of the casts.

Because it’s Google we’re talking about, there are opportunities to take a virtual stroll through ancient Maya archaeological sites, explore their cities in 360-degree flexibility, even tools for teachers to design virtual trips through space and time for their classes. It’s an ambitious assemblage with a deep bench of content and media to devour. So what are you waiting for?

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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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Cranach painting in Royal Collection authenticated by pigeon tendon

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Pigeon tendons have confirmed that Queen Victoria was right and a slew of subsequent Royal Collection curators were wrong: a painting she acquired is an authentic work by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Victoria bought it in 1840 as a Christmas present for her husband Prince Albert who was an avid collector of his countryman’s work and ultimately added a dozen paintings by the master himself or his workshop to the Royal Collection.

Portrait of a Lady and her Son (ca. 1510–40) is a double portrait of an Electress of the Holy Roman Empire and her apple-cheeked son wearing exquisite finery and holding hands. She and Albert did not question its attribution as a genuine Cranach, but by the early 20th century Royal Collection Trust experts reluctantly acknowledged that it was not by Cranach or even by his workshop. Instead, they believed it was painted by Franz Wolfgang Rohrich (1787–1834), who was an extremely successful Cranach forger. He cranked out more than 40 copies of the Electress holding her son’s hand and sold them to deep-pocketed collectors all over Europe. It took decades for people to cotton on to Rohrich’s fraudulent imitation game, and many of his pseudo-Cranachs are still in Europeans private and public collections.

Royal Collection Trust’s reasoning was that the style, principally the tender physical and emotional connection between mother and son, was not something seen in Cranach’s oeuvre. His figures are remote and stylized. Holding Mommy’s hand is not in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s wheelhouse. Also, while the Rohrich versions were everywhere, there was no painting that could be definitively identified as a Cranach original modified by the forger.

The issue returned to the fore recently when the Royal Collection Trust agreed to loan the portrait to an exhibition in Dusseldorf that took place earlier this year. RCT conservators and curators worked with Cologne’s University of Applied Sciences to study the painting in depth with technology that wasn’t invented when the early 20th century curators made the deattribution decision.

In collaboration with TH Köln (the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne), Royal Collection Trust’s conservators and curators examined the work ahead of its loan to the major exhibition Cranach der Alterer: Meister Marke Moderne at the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf in spring 2017. Infrared reflectography was used to look beneath the paint surface, revealing preliminary underdrawing typical of Cranach’s work. Analysis of the pigments, metal leaf and the application of paint provided further evidence that the portrait was a work of the 16th century.

Finally an x-ray of the painting revealed that a fibrous material had been used in the preparation of the panel. Analysis of similar fibres on other works by Cranach has identified them as tendons, and in one instance DNA analysis had shown them to be pigeon tendons. Sixteenth-century glue recipes often included pigeon tendons to strengthen the mixture and counteract the natural warping and splitting of the wood.

The evidence was reviewed by Professor Dr Gunnar Heydenreich of TH Köln, an expert on Lucas Cranach the Elder, who confirmed that the painting was an original work by the master from which it appears all later versions derive.

The Royal Collection Trust conservators are ecstatic at the reattribution of the portrait to Cranach and have wasted no time in giving it a prominent position on public display. It has been installed at eye-level in the King’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle where it will keep company with its brethren by Cranach and his workshop, including Apollo and Diana (ca. 1526), Lucretia (1530), and The Judgement of Paris (ca. 1530–35).

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