Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Strange Lives of Works of Art

I have written on similar subjects before but am always fascinated how works of art have lives of their own. Often it is just a question of moving from collection to collection be it private or public. Over time any work of art may not seem as desirable as it did when first acquired. Private collectors may deaccession for financial need or a change of taste. In our case, our former collections did not seem to fit our lifestyle in Santa Fe as they did in New York.

Even museums wish or must sell from their storerooms. A museum may acquire a work from a donor in hopes of getting more from them. Later on, it may be felt that the donation is not of the caliber of other works in the collection or better examples have been obtained. So, the original donation goes into storage and when it reaches the bottom of the ladder, or the museum no longer needs so many similar works, it gets deaccessioned for the next collector to acquire.

But there are other ways in which works of art have their own lives. What prompted this Missive is an article I read last week, entitled “The Girl with a Pearl Earing’s Lavish Jewel May be a Fake and 4 Other Secrets Scholars Have Uncovered in the Work of Vermeer”. What word stuck in your mind from that long title? I will bet it was the word “fake”! Sometimes I don’t concentrate enough when I read and I read the title, as I would bet many others did, that the painting was a fake. That is not what the article said, but it did get your attention.

The article goes on about how the most popular painting in the Mauritshuis in the Hague and four other Vermeers may have been altered or “edited”, either by the artist himself or others later in some cases because of possible suggestions of impropriety. For example, The Girl Standing at the Window reading a letter in the Museum in Dresden, when cleaned revealed the painting of a cupid on the wall which might imply that the girl at the window was reading a love letter from a suitor. In 17th century Holland that might have been considered scandalous. Does that make the picture worth more or make it more attractive? The good and evil is in the mind of the beholder, and it depends on the standards of the era.

Here are images of the painting before cleaning and after.

Sorry, this is not an issue of fakes but part of the history of the paintings. In the case of “The Girl with A Pearl Earring” jewelry experts said the pearl was too big to be an authentic jewel of Vermeer’s time. Happily, the few brush strokes that enlarged the pearl have been found to be consistent with the artist’s highlighting. From a dealer’s point of view, this kind of question would affect the value if this painting were on the market. If a buyer were to think the pearl had been enhanced later to make it more prominent, he might not want to pay the “full” price of a Vermeer. The senior partner of my gallery, Saemy Rosenberg of Rosenberg & Stiebel used to say in German, “They can kill you with their science”. Which certainly could be true as far as value is concerned.

What should a museum do if a painting in their collection is called a fake or painted by a less important artist? I have probably mentioned before the “Polish Rider” by Rembrandt in the Frick Collection. The “experts” decided at one point that the picture was not by Rembrandt, but the Frick, in a courageous act, refused to take it off wall. Low and behold, the next experts came around to once again fully attribute the picture to Rembrandt.

Also revealed recently is that Jacques Louis David’s portrait of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Marie Anne Lavoisier, donated by Jayne & Charles Wrightsman to the Metropolitan Museum in 1978 had also been reworked. This was done by the artist because of the changing politics of the time. I will let you read the Met’s analysis for yourselves and see the transformation in the painting.

There are so many more examples of revising art history through scientific discovery. Whether this is progress or just disturbing the status quo is up to your own way of thinking and possibly your age as well!

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