AP History Notes

Posts Tagged ‘poussin’

“Of Outstanding Aesthetic Importance and Significance for the Study of Poussin’s Art.”


This phrase occurs in a press statement from the Dept of Culture, Ministry and Sport about a temporary export ban on Poussin’s Young Moses Treading on Pharaoh’s Crown which is owned by the Duke of Bedford.

“The painting by Nicolas Poussin depicting the moment the infant Moses trampled Pharaoh’s crown, will be exported overseas unless a matching offer of £14,000,000 is made. The Culture Minister issued the temporary export bar in the hope that a UK buyer can be found in the time allowed.

Ed Vaizey took the decision following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by Arts Council England. The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds that the painting is of outstanding aesthetic importance and significance for the study of Poussin’s art.

Of the 30 or so paintings by Poussin in UK galleries and museums, none are quite so insistently severe in either their colouring or composition as this piece.

The decision on the export licence application for the painting will be deferred until 22 April 2014, although this may be extended until 22 October if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the painting at the recommended price is made.”

Maybe a tall order in today’s financial climate- but I hope a museum is able to save it for the nation. It would look good hung next to Poussin’s Finding of Moses in the NG London. Or it could go in the Ashmoleon next to the Exposition of Moses, or nestle in amongst the Dulwich Poussins. I hope it doesn’t leave the country,but if did I would favour it hanging next to its variant in the Louvre. Both compositions look like they’ve been hewn out of rock with that block-like rectangular composition, though the French version is more opened out. They both are of extreme importance to Poussin’s development in the late 1640s. I’m really pleased with the wording of that press release, though depressed that the loss of yet another Poussin may be on the cards. Now we can only wait.



Article on Poussin’s Holy Family in New Mexico Mercury


Not from me, for a change. Last week I was sent an article by Bill Peterson. The end of the article will tell you all about Bill, but I’ll say that he has worked at the Getty and admires Poussin’s Holy Family with 11 Figures which is shared between that museum and the Norton Simon. It’s a long article but worth reading. This took me back to my doctorate as I wrote a lot on the Holy Family, the Flight into Egypt and similar subjects. And I fully agree with Bill that St Joseph in this- and a number of other Holy families- does resemble Poussin himself. Enjoy!

The above composite image is from Bill’s article in the New Mexico Mercury.


The Connoisseurship Paradox


Book Review.

Anna Tummers, The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and his Contemporaries, , University of Amsterdam, 2011, published in the U.S.A. by J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2011, 349 pages.

A Significant Deattribution.

For many members of the general public, the ways of curators and museum professionals remain as inscrutable as the workings of the divine. As Anna Tummers confides in her introduction, many paintings are attributed and de-attributed out of the public eye. And it was such a clandestine demotion at the National Gallery Washington during 2004-5 that sowed the seeds that became this book. During her time working on an exhibition of the 17th century Dutch painter Gerard Ter Borch, cleaning revealed the signature of another artist, Caspar Netscher who was imitating Terborch’s style. This revelation resulted in the painting immediately loosing meaning to the exhibition, and it was quietly removed by the curators. Though no stranger to attribution culture, this case struck Tummers hard, and she became increasingly drawn into research about attributions in 17th century “Netherlandish” art.

“This book deals with the methodology of connoisseurship in the field of Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century painting and on the criteria connoisseurs use in making attributions.


As a curator of old masters at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, as well as studying attribution issues and connoisseurship in the 17th century during her doctoral research, Tummers is well placed to define the profile of connoisseurship at the present time. Is this profile sharp and clear, or is it slightly obscured by the shadows of arcane theories and scholarly dispute? In order to assess the status of current connoisseurship, Tummers tracks back through to the Van Meegeren scandal where a distinguished art historian Abraham Bredius authenticated one of the forger’s concoctions, Supper at Emmaus (above) as an autograph Vermeer, which is to say that the art historian believed that Vermeer himself had painted it without the hand of anybody else. This embarrassing attribution resulted in scepticism towards connoisseurship, a turning point since from that moment onwards, evidence rather than intuitive hunches and non-quantifiable evaluations were demanded. What really changed the landscape of Dutch art history, however, was the Rembrandt Research Project in the 1960s and its use of scientific methodology to drastically prune the master’s oeuvre, though subjective criteria wasn’t completely eliminated from the process. However, there were problems with their procedures since the system of classification of Rembrandt’s paintings was based on the assumption that Rembrandt never collaborated with his pupils. This culminated in some de-attributions, downgrading of Rembrandts to works produced by his pupils, decisions that still divide scholars to this day.

Connoisseurship and Art Theory


Van Meegeren and the RRP will not be unknown to the general reader, but Tummers probes the implications of the forger’s antics for the direction of art history which is dependent on anachronistic modes of thought, an unexplored tangent. The Van Meegeren affair may have been beneficial in the long run because it alerted scholars to the need to understand painting techniques, appreciate master-pupil relationships and learn about the role seventeenth- century art theory played in the origins of connoisseurship. It is the last that is the most essential strand of Tummer’s book because she identifies the impact of the treatises of seicento critics like Roger de Piles (above), Guilio Mancini, Abraham Bosse and Samuel van Hoogstraten on the practice of making judgements about paintings. I’m trying hard to avoid the word “attribution” in this context because early modern experts simply didn’t approach art in that way. Tummers closes her first chapter with a 1677 dialogue between two connoisseurs, a piece written by de Piles, one of the rare cases where there is a discussion on the dating and attributing of paintings in the seventeenth-century. In that century, connoisseurs, theorists, art lovers, experts, or whatever you want to call them, didn’t sit around and squabble about who painted what; they were engrossed in debates about quality rather than attribution.

Copies and Originals.


Tummers further explores the origins of connoisseurship in 17th century Europe, pointing out that distinguishing between copies and originals may have followed precepts in art treatises, a scholarship angle that some modern connoisseurs tend to neglect. Some 17th century theorists and authors of art treatises had sound technical knowledge of paintings, so early experts had a good eye for damaged originals or over painted pictures. Then there is our understanding of the status of the copy which needs re-visiting. There were some copies that were admired such as Andrea dal Sarto’s celebrated copy of Raphael’s Portrait of Leo X. This case is well-known, but a more obscure, and telling example is the case of a copy of a Caravaggio by the minor Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Middleburg art dealer Charles de Coninck had to guarantee that a painting he had sold for 600 guilders was a copy after Caravaggio by Finson, otherwise the sale would be invalidated. Other painters like Rembrandt’s teacher, Pieter Lastman, were brought in to adjudicate on Finson’s copy, but note in this case it was the attribution of a copy, not an original. Copies after famous originals could occasionally be valued more highly than an original by a lesser master. The Dutch art theorist and painter van Hoogstraten said that whilst bad copies harmed a master’s reputation, good copies increased the master’s fame.

The Paradox of Seventeenth-Century Connoisseurship.


The crux of Tummer’s argument in this this book is something she calls the “paradox of seventeenth-century connoisseurship.” Research reveals that guild statutes suggest it was routine for master painters, the heads of workshops, to sell work made as a result of collaborating with their studio assistants. Rubens for example, is known to have sold retouched student copies for cheaper prices than his good quality pictures. And there is mention in a 1656 inventory of Rembrandt’s pictures of “six retouched paintings” which may indicate that Rembrandt produced cheaper pictures like Rubens. The other side of the paradox is that early modern treatises that deal with “attribution” indirectly or explicitly encourage art lovers to look for brush marks that “seem distinctively individual.” This paradox has impacted on at the highest levels of Dutch art history, and there is nothing more momentous than ruling on the status of Rembrandts, with the head of the RRP Ernst van der Wetering wondering if the project’s search for “the master’s hand” could not be anachronistic. There is a lot at stake here. Scholars who argue that modern connoisseurship is anachronistic come up against the brute economics of the art market since distinguishing Rembrandt from his pupils can mean millions of dollars. But if there was greater collaboration amongst artists and students, and if Rembrandt’s workshop practice (above) was so diverse, as to even permit re-touching of student copies, than what are the implications of that for what Tummers calls “the holy grail of present day connoisseurs” who pursue the autograph work. In the Italian context, the concept of "fatto di suo manno" has been analysed by Richard Spear in Guido Reni and his associates, but one wonders if modern connoisseurs are aware of these debates, let alone their implication. From my interaction with old master dealers and connoisseurs in seventeenth-century art, it clear that they are aware of these debates and recognise the implications for authentication and for judging pictures. I’m not so sure about the large auction houses though.

Transitional Styles.


Tummers has many useful insights on signatures, manners, styles, which all affect the perception of individuality and the problem of autograph work in the seventeenth-century. I found her discussion of “transitional styles” interesting especially as she neatly brought in Poussin’s comment “I am not one of those who always sings in the same key,” a warning to art lovers and connoisseurs to appreciate an artist’s variation in style. Poussin’s comment was his response to his patron Chantelou who had declared in disappointment that the Baptism (above) painted for him was “trop doux” or “too sweet.” Though there is a scarcity of comments on stylistic change over time within the literature of art appreciation, those that we know are revealing. The French theorist Abraham Bosse claimed that three paintings would be enough for a connoisseur to judge an artist’s work, "provided the artist hadn’t changed it." But Roger de Piles criticised connoisseurs for judging matters of attribution from just three or four pictures of that master’s oeuvre. This kind of strategy features heavily in Poussin scholarship where his art is divided into groups of pictures on the basis of variations of style, or transitions in style, Blunt’s “blonde pictures” group comes to mind. Style variation could also be keyed to pricing; a painter could adjust his manner to the expected price as with the Italian baroque painter Lanfranco who dashed off mediocre works if he anticipated small financial returns. Getting back to Rembrandt, Tummers claims that his manner and stylistic variation may reflect gender oppositions derived from art theory or treatises on style. Did Rembrandt deliberately choose to render male subjects with a loose brushwork in a “rough” manner whilist treating women differently, in the “smooth” or “fine” style? I’m not qualified to answer this question, just a keen Rembrandt fan, but I feel Tummer’s point about how modern connoisseurs ignore these considerations arising out of 17th century art theory is a valid one. Modern connoisseurs and the compilers of catalogue raisonnés could pay more attention to debates about seventeenth-century style and function, variation and virtuosity.

Who Judges? Painter or Connoisseur?


“The connoisseur’s increasingly important role on the art market coincided with the increased importance attached to his opinions in city descriptions and its publications on art theory.”

In the 17th century theorists assigned the skill of judging paintings to artists, and it was not until the following century that the advice of the amateur was sought. We learn that Van Mander used the term “art expert” to distinguish them from actual painters, since the former indulged in claims of Ideal judgements and made pretentious comments. In France, Bosse (“Roger showing Two Cardinals around a Gallery”, above)  highlighted and criticised phrases like “well-touched,” “of the grand manner” by “art experts” who didn’t understand art. At least three 17th century art theorists, Binet (A Jesuit theorist), Bosse and van Hoogstraten made it clear that only artists were qualified to discuss paintings. For van Hoogstraten, both theorist and practicing artist, most of these experts in his wonderful phrase were “name-buyers” who didn’t rely on their own expertise, but bought on the advice of somebody who considered the painting autograph. A lot of “name-buying” goes on these days as the epidemic of “discoveries” makes abundantly clear. However, some art lovers thought non-painters were equal to the artists themselves, and this development paralleled the art market where connoisseurs took on the role of dealers, auctioneers and those who adjudicated officially in disputes about attribution. The modern era of connoisseurship  had arrived.

A Rembrandt Case Study.


This case study demonstrates, therefore, the importance of having a better understanding of seventeenth-century perceptions in the assessments of paintings from that period. It underscores the main thesis of this book, namely that knowledge of seventeenth-century views on style, authenticity and artistic quality is indispensable in attributions. These insights can greatly sharpen the insights that expert’s use- either consciously or unconsciously- when deciding how to label paintings from this period.”

Tummers finally ties all the main themes of her book together in a discussion of a Rembrandt case study in an epilogue to her book. The 1642 painting, David and Jonathan, in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (above) was considered a Rembrandt until the RRP de-attributed it in 1989. Reasons given were that the brushwork was “superficial”, the spatial construction “weak” and they were not convinced that the colour combination was typical of a Rembrandt product of the 1640s. What made this demotion so high-profile is that it had been championed by Ernst Gombrich in his famous Story of Art which has sold millions. To cut a long story short, Tummers explains that, amongst other things, the RRP did not entertain the possibility that “more than one painter could have executed the work.” Comparing the RRP with Gombrich’s 1950 assessment (which has appeared in all subsequent editions), Tummer’s offers this parting thought. In his discussion of Rembrandt’s David and Jonathan, he spoke more as a seventeenth-century connoisseur might have done. In 1950 Gombrich wrote:

We can see that Rembrandt was as great a master in conjuring up the effects of these shiny textures as Rubens or Velasquez. Rembrandt used less bright colour. The first impression of many of his paintings is that of a rather dark brown. But these dark tones give even more power and force to the contrast of a few bright and brilliant colours. The result is that the light on some of Rembrandt’s pictures looks almost dazzling. But Rembrandt never used these effects of light and shade for their own sake. They always serve to enhance the drama of the scene.”

Sir Ernst Gombrich, Story of Art, cited in Tummers.

A New Paradigm for Connoisseurship?


Gombrich did not live to see the David and Jonathan re-attributed to Rembrandt by the RRP which happened shortly after Tummers had completed her epilogue. The doyen of art history wrote his enormously popular book for the general public, but, except for the opening foray into Van Meegeren, Tummer’s volume is less accessible to a general audience. Published by the University of Amsterdam and in America, the Getty Museum, it is therefore aimed at scholars and art historians involved in this debate, though it can be read with profit by scholars working in other fields like French and Italian art. A more accessible book covering similar themes is Jonathan Brown’s Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting Art in Seventeenth-Century Europe which is more orientated towards the non-specialist, and which is referenced occasionally in Tummers’s volume. Despite that caveat, Tummers does write clearly, avoids theoretical jargon and takes the trouble to explain some terms used in attribution issues early on. Her original unravelling of Gombrich’s unconsciously mediated views of seventeenth-century connoisseurship, in an art history book that has sold millions is brilliant, and suggests ways of bringing the “paradox of connoisseurship” debate closer to the general public. She has written an important book here which is very successful at identifying the assumptions upon which modern connoisseurship is based, as well as calling for fresh thinking on attributions. One can feel the tectonic plates shifting in this world Tummers wants where artists’ oeuvres are meticulously probed, over-hauled and presented afresh in re-written catalogue raisonnés to take account of the connoisseurship paradox. This would entail nothing less than a complete paradigm shift in connoisseurship which is unlikely to happen since so many fortunes, reputations, fellowships and careers depend on the old model. In an aside, Tummers discloses that she contacted a representative of Sotheby’s Amsterdam who advised that a "good" Rembrandt studio is valued 5-10% of an authentic Rembrandt..According to Tummers, “this means that a Rembrandt studio picture tends to fetch a price in the range of a six figure sum, while paintings considered to be entirely autograph Rembrandts start at $5 million.” How might Sotheby’s pricing structure work if the connoisseurship paradox were applied to cases of attributions today?

The Elephant in the Room

I only recently caught up with Christie’s attempt to sell Poussin’s Hannibal Crossing the Alps on a Elephant in July. I’ve been neglecting the art market of late, so I didn’t hear about the auction until this month. My first thought was that it was a shame to separate the Hannibal from its two other Poussins at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.


When I told another Poussin scholar about this, he expressed reservations about how the valuations of paintings are disconnected from scholarship, which to him is the elephant in the room, the thing nobody seems to want to talk about. I had to agree. The picture was purchased by one of the most perceptive connoisseurs and patrons of the 17th century: Cassiano dal Pozzo, who was extremely knowledgeable about leading artists like Titian and Leonardo. He clearly saw something in this canvas which led him to pay a sizeable amount for a struggling painter with great potential. And it was one of the twentieth- century’s finest baroque scholars Sir Denis Mahon who included it in an important exhibition of 1999 on Poussin’s early years in Rome. To put this in context, Mahon connected the Hannibal with an undated letter to Cassiano in which Poussin says he has made drawings of the elephant, not an elephant, which he had the impression that Cassiano wanted, and so would make him a present of it. As this letter was a “pathetic, though dignified plea” ( to use Mahon’s words) by an ill and penurious young painter, Mahon argued that the letter motivated Cassiano to tactfully help the painter by paying 40 scudi, a large sum for a work by an unknown artist who had arrived in Rome in 1625, the likely date of this work. Yet although Cassiano showed charitable sentiments, he would not have bought the painting if he had had doubts about Poussin’s abilities.


I doubt if Cassiano bought the Hannibal because it was an “unusual” and “unconventional” subject. From reading the remarks of the Christie’s representative, the picture is presented as a curio, a pictorial oddity that might appeal to a modern patron on the lookout for “unusual” subjects that Poussin rarely painted. That is obviously the view of someone who doesn’t know much about Poussin. A lot of his subjects, both famous and lesser-known, are unusual; many famous landscapes have unusual iconography like philosophers discoursing in groups. And the renowned Mercury consigning Bacchus to the Nymphs/Echo and Narcissus, one of Hannibal’s companions at Harvard, is very unusual. To say that Poussin painted “mostly mythological and religious subjects” is to demean his inventive powers. What about allegories, animals and natural history, battle-pictures, landscapes, philosophical subjects, self-portraits and a plethora of other topics on canvas and on paper. Please Christies, valuations based on real scholarship next time.


These views are reported in this article by Reuters. I’m not surprised that the press would take this line after hearing Christie’s half-hearted “endorsement” of the Hannibal. As for the sale, I may be wrong but I bet it didn’t sell for 3.5 million. Doubtless they were hoping that Poussin’s name would boost interest, not to mention the 21st equivalent of a Cassiano dal Pozzo with an eye for an “unusual” picture turning up to bid. Perhaps Christie’s thought that if “minor masters” like Scipione Pulzone could fetch 3 million or thereabouts, the same for work for a neglected painting by a major master like Poussin.

I took a photograph of the Poussins when I visited the museum in 2006, though sadly my snap of the Hannibal didn’t come out. I hope the real elephant does stay in this particular room after its travels. There’s too much art wrenched out of museums and propelled around the world.

Picture 035


Poussin and “The Shock of the Nude.”


Well, for better or worse there’s no doubt that modern artists like Poussin. This time it’s the turn of the late pop artist Richard Hamilton. His last major artwork was interrupted by death last year; but as the Independent reports here, “he allowed the National Gallery to incorporate three of his Photoshop studies in a show of his works he was already planning with them.”

The image above was inspired by Balzac’s famous story about an artist, Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu I have used this source on my courses, but I usually choose Picasso’s witty drawings and paintings on the subject- scan down this post for examples. But I might use Hamilton’s unfinished work now as I find the nude, Poussin, Courbet and Titian an intriguing juxtaposition. It invites interesting perspectives on art history.

One thing. If Poussin represents “youth” in this fragment of the “Balzac  Triptych”, I should point out that Poussin was middle-aged when he did his self-portrait in 1649-50; though Poussin is a young, unknown painter in Balzac’s story, but Hamilton could have chosen the British Museum S/P which shows NP as a younger man. Titian’s fine for old age, and as for Courbet, he might be too young for middle-age. It’s a pity Hamilton isn’t here to explain what he meant to say here.

A slideshow is available here.

What do Poussin and the London Underground have in common?

David Triumph 3237
Nicolas Poussin, Triumph of David, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Clive Head, Terminus Place, Dulwich Picture Gallery.

If you go along to this  forthcoming talk at Dulwich Picture Gallery, you might find out. 

In Conversation: Nicolas Poussin and Clive Head

Tuesday 4 December

7 for 7. 30pm/Linbury Room

Join Xavier Bray, this time in conversation with artist Clive Head and critic Michael Paraskos as they discuss Clive Head’s project From Victoria to Arcadia at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Marlborough Fine Art.  Painted in response to Nicolas Poussin’s The Triumph of David, Clive Head’s work ‘Terminus Place’ will sit temporarily alongside the gallery’s collection of works by Poussin. This provides a timely opportunity to reconsider the place of the artist today and a look back to Old Master techniques.

Clive Head’s work From Victoria to Arcadia will be on display from 10 October 2012 until 13 January 2013. He is the leading British realist painter of his generation, known for his striking paintings of urban landscapes.

Michael Parasko is director of programmes for the Cyprus College of Art and is one of a new generation of art critics associated with the New Aesthetics.

£10, £8 Friends – Includes a glass of wine

This is yet another attempt by this gallery to show their Poussin’s holdings next to a modern artist. This sounds pretty pointless to me- Poussin is able to speak for himself.

I found this comment by Head on another site.

“Poussin has helped me to understand that art is not about the documentation of our world and that the artist is not a social commentator. Art has a far more important purpose which is to reveal a world beyond our own. I have no interest in the stories Poussin chooses at the beginning of his journey but the very means in which he redefines reality every time he picks up a paintbrush."

And the view from Dulwich is….

“Juxtaposing two very different worlds – the classical world of Poussin and Head’s depiction of one of London’s busiest tube stations – will provide a startling visual comparison, which I hope will inspire visitors to look at Poussin in a totally different way.”

To which I reply in amazement…Oh yeah? If anybody can tell me how a photorealist painting of the London Underground helps people appreciate the subtleties of Poussin’s art, then let me know- the laugh will do me good. 

I hope the Standard send Brian Sewell to review this.

A View from the Albertina


So last Saturday lunchtime I was sitting on a park bench in the centre of Vienna, admiring a neo-classical fountain adorned with a Triton making advances to a startled water nymph. The plashing of water and the chirping of the birds provided a natural foil to the drone of urban traffic audible in the distance. Soothed by all this, I reflected on my earlier visit to the Albertina, one of Vienna’s famous museums.


The word “Albertina” has never conjured up Prince Albert to me, whose residence it used to be, but drawings- sheets and sheets by the score, of the greatest of artists. It is one of the most important print rooms in the world, housing about 60,000 drawings and a million prints. I’ve visited a few international print rooms in my time, but not this one. Sadly, this was a whistle stop tour, so I had no time to schedule a visit to this connoisseur’s heaven. If I ever win the lottery and go and live in Vienna, this is where you’ll find me.


When I visited there was a wonderful exhibition of Maximillian I and the Age of Durer. This was going on in the basement, so I took the downward escalator into a set of dimly lighted rooms housing the exhibition. The surroundings reminded me a bit of the London National Gallery’s lower exhibition space- about the same size. Some marvellous portraits of Maximillian, first ruler of Austria, here. And some famous prints by Dürer such as his “Knight” his allegorical woman, various others. I must confess that the walls of military pageants by other artists wearied me, but my enthusiasm was re-ignited on seeing Dürer’s unbelievable Triumphal Arch of the Emperor, a coloured woodcut with the most elaborate iconographic scheme you could ever see. 10innsbr

Both humanist and court painter, Dürer was able to negotiate between these areas excelling at both. Yet the Dürer I really love is the observer of nature and society. This side of the artist is minimally represented here with some beautiful watercolours; his rational, yet reflective view of Innsbruck. Certainly this exhibition was an unexpected bonus.


As to the layout and decoration of the Albertina, if you’re looking for comparisons, the Courtauld Institute comes to mind. Like that museum you ascend to higher levels and encounter drawings, paintings and prints in ornate settings containing rococo furnishings. After the Dürer//Maximillian show it’s back up the fast steel escalator and then a more stately passage up a flight of marble stairs presided over by neo-classical statues of muses, and other cultural deities. You step into an elegant room, and immediately to your right you see beautiful trois crayons drawings by Rubens’s of his first wife Isabella Brandt and their children. Exquisite, though some bizarre curatorial decisions here; if you swing to your left you see a wall of drawings by the Austrian modernist, Egon Schiele, some of which are frankly pornographic. N’est pas devant les enfants, not in front of the children please!


There are rooms enfilade, and they are adorned with mirrors, like a room for ballet or preening. Some nice watercolours here, and some engravings. I made no written notes so my memory may be fallible here. I do recall Joseph Anton Koch’s sombre Oedipus and Antigone Leaving Thebes. Studying this drawing, I realised why I call Koch the “Austrian Poussin.” He was very familiar with the great man’s landscape compositions. The town in the back of this drawing, Thebes presumably, might be re-named “Poussinville.” Though Koch’s physical origins may have been in the Tyrolean mountains, his artistic locus can be found in NP’s classical landscapes of the late 1640s and early 1650s. Still, a fine draughtsman- and what better model was there for this kind of picture? You can see the townscape if you magnify using the Albertina’s database here.

raphael madonna

Moving along, you enter a small room that has drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo on its walls. About 6 by Raphael, and 3 by Michelangelo, mainly studies of nudes and Madonnas. It was a bit difficult to study some of the Raphael drawings as a large rococo sofa stood in front of them. Couldn’t really kneel on it could I? No real attribution problems detectable here, though I did wonder about the drawing of the Madonna’s forearm and hands in a black chalk study; they don’t seem up to Raphael’s standards. Again, you can study it more closely on the museum’s on-line database here.


What I was really looking forward to seeing turned out to be something of a non-event, although had I not overheard a guide I would have remained in blissful ignorance. I’m referring to Dürer’s celebrated watercolour of the hare and his study of a tuft of grass. My excitement at seeing Dürer’s hare was quietened by overhearing a guide saying that it wasn’t the original. I checked with another guard- and they said the same. Presumably for security reasons the original stays in the print room. Not sure what I feel about that. As it’s the most famous work in the museum, perhaps a case can be made for keeping it under lock and key, but on the other hand intense popularity should ensure its accessibility to the public. Oh, in the shop on the way out I spotted huge models of the hare, painted in gaudy colours like pink, green and yellow! Dürer’s masterpiece turned into kitsch? Now these should stay hidden.

A large amount of space on the upper floor was given over to an exhibition of modern art from the Albertina’s permanent collection. Billed as “Monet to Picasso” it runs right up to 1960s modernists like Francis Bacon. The opening phase of the exhibition has a lot of neo-impressionism; artists like Signac whose Venice: Pink Cloud reinvents Turner and Monet for the pointillist and fauvist generation. I don’t want to be judgemental but most of the German Expressionism and Austrian modernism that followed the French moderns left me cold; too much disfiguration in the service of some abstract ideal like the eternal feminine. Though I did like the little gallery of Paul Klee’s paintings including his self-portrait. It was a relief to return to more figurative modernists like Modigliani, and course Picasso who despite having a fling with abstraction returned to a more classical style in later years. I was also pleased to see one of Philip Guston’s “Klansmen” paintings. A serious intention, but a comic spirit here. Who can forget these Klansmen, riding round in little cars, brandishing cigars, painted smoke curling up from their mouths into the hot night air of some southern metropolis. Exhausted, I came to my final painting: Francis Bacon’s Seated Man of 1960. Typical Bacon of this period: a smartly dressed figure with an air of the bureaucrat about it, seated uncomfortably, within a cage, a box, or for some kind of armature of the painting. Of course the story of modern art continues beyond this point- but for now let’s close the book.


So, what did I make of it all.? Well, for your 11 Euros (about £8) you don’t get a bad deal, though I’m a staunch supporter of free admission. Still, you get two great exhibitions for your money plus a selection from the permanent collection. Even with free admission to museums these days you’re looking at £13 upwards for the exhibitions in the same museums- especially metropolitan shows in the UK. It would have been nice to have seen more drawings, but it must be a nightmare deciding what to display given the limited space available. Some stuff obviously stays on view, like the hare- or its copy. The museum is interesting in that despite its old master emphasis, it has a lot of modern art and photographs- there was also a exhibition of photos when I visited. A comprehensive collection with the accent on graphic works. But if you want to see old master paintings in Vienna, then you need to visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum- more on that in another post.

Poussin Connoisseurship Project resumes

Mystic Marriage1

Very sorry for slow posting on the PCP. but it was a case of OBE, (overtaken by events) which made demands on my time.

We resume with a post about a painting in Edinburgh, the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine. Is it a Poussin or not? Read here to see what I think.

Some Modest Self Promotion


This month sees the publication of a book of 15 essays on the theme of self and space in the early modern. There’s a chapter on Poussin’s Self- Portraits by me, as well as a lot of stimulating essays by scholars from not only art history but other disciplines.

My copy is winging its way to me as I write, but Google Books have got excerpts from the book on-line here.

The fruits of a series of conferences on the theme, run by UCLA between 2007-8, a lot of work has gone into this book- and I’m proud to be associated with it.

BTW, I haven’t got fed up of blogging. I’ve just taken a short holiday from it.

PCP continues…

calf fragment

An enigmatic two-headed fragment that did the rounds as a Poussin, until the attribution hit a slight snag.  Details here.

PCP. Next Entry: Northampton copy of Golden Calf.

So we move to Northamptonshire from Leicestershire, to consider a copy of Poussin’s troubled masterpiece in London- The Adoration of the Golden Calf.


Poussin Leicester Holy Family


The next entry on the Poussin Catalogue Project is up. This time I’m considering whether a Holy Family in the Leicester Art Gallery was painted by the master.


A Poussin Recovered and a “Poussin” Discredited.

The genuine article.

I don’t usually post twice on the same day- but it was great to hear via Bendor about the recovery of the stolen Poussin Midas.

Meanwhile, that other “Poussin” Baptism, along with the other recovered “old masters” is the subject of  a short article in the Art Newspaper, “Experts have doubts about the “Poussin” and other old masters seized in Rome.” Sorry, it’s not on their website. I only heard via a press release sent to Warwick University. Sorry again- but I don’t know how to get the text off the PDF.

Both Bendor and I are quoted on the “Van Dyck” and “Poussin” respectively. What I glean from this article is that the carabinieri are refusing to comment on claims about the worthlessness of this hoard; and the Superintendent of Rome museums, Rossella Vodert says through Il Giornale dell’Arte that  “the attributions of several of the works are uncertain and need to be verified.” Several! They all look dodgy to me. As for the Baptism, no expertise needed there- it’s a Poussin no-brainer! I’m not reassured by what I hear. A few posts back I identified an 18th century painting attributed to Poussin in the Capitoline, which was obviously a misattribution.

More on Poussin

Just in case you don’t read comments I’m putting up a great response to the Red Sea post by a fellow Poussin scholar, Stephen Conrad. Amongst Stephen’s insights are mention of the “reconstruction of the pillar of cloud” to the right of the picture,  far more significant than the changed figure I commented on yesterday. And amen to the possible reunification of the London Adoration of the Golden Calf and the Red Sea, which would be the culmination of this meticulous restoration. How I long for that day!

“As a fellow Poussinist I have enjoyed reading your blogs, and look forward to your ‘Poussin Project’ but I think, if we are to be at all critical of the conservation of the Crossing of the Red Sea by the NGV, the more important change to the paint surface of this very large canvas than the head reversal, is what appears to be the reconstruction of the pillar of cloud at the extreme right of the picture. Just before this picture was sent to the 1960 Paris exhibition, where it was reunited with it pendant in the National Gallery in London for the first and last time since they were split up for the first time in their history in 1945, the picture was cleaned (in Melbourne?), when it was discovered that the pillar of cloud (not fire, though it may be pinkish in tone, judging from the few glimpses in the online film clip of the newly unveiled restored picture) was so damaged that it was covered up – as Blunt noted in 1966. A study of the Gantrel engraving (on which engraver Wildenstein remarks that he worked after copies not originals, in this case apparently one by Le Brun) may show a face turned round, but there is no pillar of cloud – at least in his tiny reproduction; but the fact that the far more accomplished Baudet made the engraving of the pendant in London, not Gantrel, is interesting, and of course has had consequences for the dating of the work and may be evidence that Poussin did not work on them at exactly the same time – or it may not! In any case, it is greatly to be hoped that the NGV will publish a monograph on the newly restored picture (as, for example, Lyon did when it acquired the 1651 Flight into Egypt) so that the present more advanced technical restoration may be judged against that of 1960, and subsequent photographs until now. Ideally, we can only hope that the National Gallery in London (which cannot lend its picture due to the vandalism it suffer in the early 1980s) may request and be granted the chance to exhibit the pair together for the first time in over 50 years, so that contemporary scholars and the public unable to get to Melbourne may have a chance to study the two pendants. As with the London gallery’s restoration of the Leonardo Madonna of the Rocks and the Louvre’s cleaning of Leonardo’s St Anne, the lengthy time taken by the NGV to clean this important and sadly little known Poussin (simply because of distance) speaks of far more careful conservation work undertaken than in 1960, and publication of the entire process is essential to assure scholars and the public that all changes made to the paint surface are informed and well-judged. It is unlikely that the NGV would not do so, and your blog is certainly right to ask the question.”

There’s an excellent descriptive analysis of the painting by Mark Shepheard over on the Melbourne Art Network.

And finally, here’s my first entry on the Poussin Connoisseurship Project, on the Birmingham copy of Christ Healing the Blind. See what you think- and feel free to comment.


Restoration and Reversal

Perhaps this belongs on the PCP site- news of the completion of the restoration of Poussin’s Crossing of the Red Sea, a painting in National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

This report from ABC news reproduces two photos of a section of the painting: one section before cleaning; another after restoration. You’ll see the back of the head of a young man, which according to the curators in this report was Poussin’s correction to a face he originally painted but didn’t like. They base this observation on the study of related visual sources such as engravings and replicas. In this interview the curators are talking about a “new look” to Poussin’s painting, which always rings alarm bells with me, not to mention raising the question of what the paintings looked like back in the 17th century- the of issue Poussin’s original intentions. To quote from ABC News:

3985168-3x4-700x933 3985110-3x2-940x627
Crossing section in its current state after restoration. Crossing section before cleaning.

Senior conservator Carl Villis says the "new look" of the painting actually brings the painting much closer to its original appearance.

For example the face of one of the figures in the painting was visible and now only the back of the head is seen.

"He [Poussin] did originally paint the face but decided he didn’t like it and covered it up," Mr Villis said.

"The replica had the face turned round the other way as did an engraving and a tapestry that were also made.

"So we knew that this head was actually supposed to be turned round the other way."

Of course I knew about this restoration- but not the specifics of the cleaning, and certainly not this head alteration; but now the PCP has been launched, it seems appropriate to refer to this restoration again. As to Melbourne’s own “Poussin Project”, while I respectfully hear what the curators and restorers are saying about the head in engravings seemingly conveying Poussin’s original intention, that turned figure doesn’t gell with me. It’s not really a Poussin motif.

To be fair to the Australian curators, I’d have to study some sources in relation to the painting before judging their claims about Poussin’s original ideas for this figure, and one could start with a copy by Le Brun after Poussin’s original, from which many engravings derive.  I won’t say anything more about this case- maybe return to it on the PCP in the future. However, the issue of cleaning, restoration, and the original state of Poussin’s work will certainly figure in my first painting on the PCP, which is in a state of soon-come. 

Here’s a reproduction of the whole painting pre-restoration. It’s not a very good one- but it gives you an idea of the composition and its figuration. I’ve had this in my files for ages, and in it you can see the figure in black looking out, at centre left. Of course this has been reversed and we now see the back of his head.

Red Sea
Nicolas Poussin, The Crossing of the Red Sea, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, c 1634-5, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, oil on canvas, 154 x 210 cm.

Poussin Connoisseurship Project

NP SP det

" As long as our school follows in your footsteps, it will be esteemed in spite of its faults; when it ceases to appreciate you, art will fall into decline.”

As Bendor said yesterday, I’ve started another blog devoted to Poussin matters alone: mainly connoisseurship issues, inspired by GAP, PCF and others.

You can access it here, or via the link on the sidebar.

The aims of the project are briefly explained over there, as well as the format I’ll be using; the first entry on the Birmingham copy after Poussin’s Christ and the Blind will be up in a few days.  Just need to check some more sources.


A Puzzling Picture in the Rijksmuseum.

Cardinal Borromeo distributing Charity in a Landscape with Ruins, attributed to Henry Ferguson, or Hendrick Vergazon, dated, 1700-1720, oil on canvas, 130 cm x 193 cm,

Some paintings are real conundrums, like this one that turned up in a Facebook discussion between me and some other art lovers last week. A colleague in Amsterdam, Maaike Dirkx, unearthed this intriguing, not to say baffling picture from the depths of the Rijksmuseum. I’ll let Maaike describe it:

“This painting poses all sorts of intriguing questions. It shows the saint Carlo Borromeo standing in an idealised classicist landscape next to an enormous marble sarcophagus showing in relief an adoration of the shepherds. According to the Rijksmuseum this scene was based on a painting that was attributed to Raphael since c.1635. I haven’t been able to find it – suggestions are appreciated!

Borromeo points to the relief while addressing two men, one of them a dean. A crippled man sits next to him in front of the sarcophagus. On the left, in the foreground, we see the Holy Family with the Christ Child riding on donkeys, accompanied by a young man. In the centre a blind boy and a blind girl cross a stream. To the right, in the middle background, a richly dressed young mean gives alms to a group of beggars.”

Flight into Egypt group.

Maaike brought me in because I’ve spent a lot of time looking at 17th century French art. Looking at this, I could immediately detect a whole spectrum of different influences- not just French. The landscape suggests knowledge of Nicolas Poussin, as does the Holy Family (a Flight into Egypt group) also reminiscent of the master. I could also detect that this painter knew a certain genre of painting that placed ruins like sarcophagi, tombs, and objects of antique interest in a landscapes, much favoured by patrons in Poussin’s circle. Known for this tendency were minor masters who imitated Poussin, like Pierre Lemaire and Pierre Patel by placing Holy Families next to antiquities, in order to show the overthrow of paganism by Christ. Something of that appears to be going on in this picture, though it’s clumsily done. Why place a river god (the Tiber?) with a cross and orb over a relief of the Adoration? It’s not exactly an elegant way of showing this supplanting of paganism by Christianity, unless it means something else. Back to the visual sources. Other elements like the bivouac group on the right occur in 17th century French art. Was this an 18th century French artist re-working the artistic traditions of his countrymen? How wrong can you be? Maaike again:

Of the painter, Henry Ferguson, or Vergazon, little is known, except that he was born in The Hague in 1655 or 1665 and died in Toulouse in1730. A painter named H. Ferguson is recorded in the guild at The Hague for 1712-1719. Ferguson worked in London before 1712 where Walpole speaks of a Hendrick Vergazon, who assisted in Kneller’s workshop and who painted some landscapes himself.

So, Vergazon or Ferguson, or whatever you want to call him, is mentioned in Walpole and was in the employ of the famous English portrait painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller. I’m afraid that I know nothing about English portraiture (hello Bendor), but there’s tons of Kneller on the Public Catalogue Foundation website.

Adoration of the Shepherds, supposedly based after a Raphael composition known since 1635.

As if all this isn’t confusing enough, we have the little matter of why the artist chose to place a massive sculptural relief of the Adoration slap bang in the middle of it all! According to the Rijksmuseum, this particular scene is based on a painting that “has been attributed to Raphael since 1635.” I’m still giving that matter some thought, thinking about 17th century French versions of this scene. My working theory at the moment is that this Adoration isn’t by Raphael at all –that’s a new one, start a debate about a Raphael attribution based on a picture in a picture! I think this is more of a “mix and match” Raphael- hell, the whole picture is mix and match- and the studied elegance of the Adoration group suggests the influence of Italian mannerism, like Parmigianino or Perino del Vaga, or the School of Fontainebleau.  Relying on my visual memory, I can’t recall an exact Raphael scene like this, but I’ll have to do further checks.

relief 2
Cardinal Borromeo and the distribution of charity.

To call this picture “eclectic” is the understatement of the year. What painter would place an elegantly looking figure- who would look OK in a Kneller portrait, come to think of it- next to a group of women who look like they’ve strayed from a Poussin or a Le Brun composition? What mind-set could produce a picture that is structurally, thematically, on all levels, uncoordinated?

In summary, this is what we know about Henry Ferguson.

He was born in the Hague in 1655, or 1665. He was probably a member of the Guild at the The Hague between 1712-1719. It’s here that he must have learnt more about 17th century French landscape and religious painting; there  are substantial links between Poussin and Co and the landscape painters in the Netherlands in the early 18th century- but I’ll leave that for another post.

In his Anecdotes of Painting, Horace Walpole speaks of a Hendrick Vergazon who works in the atelier of Sir Godfrey Kneller. Walpole’s description is worth quoting as it tallies with the Rijksmuseum picture:


“A Dutch painter of runs and landscapes, with which he sometimes was called to adorn the back-grounds of Kneller’s pictures, though his colouring was reckoned too dark. He painted a few small portraits, and died in France.”

Interestingly, a genre picture attributed to Ferguson was sold at Sotheby’s in 2010. The traditional attribution was to William Gowe Ferguson, his father.  Martin Eidelberg has now returned it to the son, Henry. Eidelberg has a very nice site on Watteau, his main area of expertise; he has written an article on Ferguson, which I’ve yet to track down. Perhaps for that Poussin and Dutch landscapists post?

Some Problems in Poussin Connoisseurship via the Google Art Project.

GAP Poussin
Poussin gallery at GAP

Although I’m sure that this wasn’t in the minds of the people behind the Google Art Project (GAP),it may turn out to be quite a useful tool for connoisseurs. For one thing it makes a lot of obscure pictures visible, some of which I have never encountered as a Poussin scholar; so GAP throws up opportunities for considering, and in some cases re-considering some connoisseurial  problems in Poussin. It also highlights some of the problems in using reproductions to judge colour and style, a huge topic which I can’t do justice to here. Maybe another post sometime?

The main reason for this post is that out of the 36 high-resolution in the Poussin archive of the GAP, a few trouble me. I hasten to add this isn’t a criticism of GAP  whose resolutions are immensely useful to professional art historians like myself, which allow us to “drill” down to the detail of a picture. At the same time I’m a Poussin scholar and I feel duty-bound to highlight certain difficult pictures to anyone using the tool.

Capitoline Museum, Rome.

Capitoline Museum, Rome.

Here is one that has to be rejected, no doubt about it. The Camillus and the Schoolmaster of the Falerii. looks like an eighteenth-century pastiche of a famous Poussin subject known through several versions- see below. Camillus the Roman general punishes a schoolmaster who sought to betray his pupils by offering them as hostages; Camillus is indignant at this perfidy and has the miscreant stripped naked and beaten back to the Falerii by his charges. I’ve never seen this version before- and now unfortunately I have. I have no idea why the Capitoline have labelled this picture- here seen in situ- a Poussin. Like many of his paintings of the late 1630s, Poussin creates a firm, relief-like picture that usually unfolds from left to right. The colours, the poses, especially the foppish gait of Camillus have absolutely nothing to do with Poussin, or indeed the 1630s. Instead of thrashing the disgraced schoolmaster out of the village, the children seem to be leading him out to a picnic.Compare this with one of Poussin’s stern versions shown here.

Poussin, Camillus and the Schoolmaster of the Falerii, Louvre, Paris, c, 1637, oil on canvas, 252 x 268 cm.

I should advise the Capitoline to look for their painter in early 18th century France, a rococo painter with classical pretensions- but no means of putting them into practice. Let us not look but pass on.   

Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.

Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio.

Then there are paintings that have always been problematic. An excellent example of this is a painting at Toledo, a mythological or poetic work which traditionally provoked debate until everybody lost interest in the work. Nobody can even agree on what the subject is, let alone who painted it. Is it “Dido and Aeneas”, “Mars and Venus”, or “Rinaldo and Armida”? It’s on GAP as “Mars and Venus”, though there’s no conclusive proof that it is that subject. Checking Christopher Wright’s 1984 catalogue raisonné, he says that it fits neatly into Poussin’s development and places it in the late 1630s, though traditionally it’s been dated to the early 1630s or even 1624. Leaving dating aside for the moment, let’s consider what we have here.

Mars and Venus, or Dido and Aeneas, or Rinaldo and Armida, Toledo Museum of Art, c. 1638-9 (?), oil on canvas, 158 x 190 cm, right-hand side autograph, left-hand side over painted?

We have a painting that may be 60-70% by one of three other painters, and 30% by Poussin himself. This view might not be as bizarre as it sounds: three famous Poussin scholars (Blunt, Thuillier and Wild) attributed the work to three different painters, and Wright says that the museum, (presumably  hedging its bets) attributes it to three other painters- and Poussin. There’s no discussion of that on the GAP entry, nor on the museum’s website, though more information, or links to more information might come in time. The entry reads:

“In a lush landscape, Venus, Roman goddess of love and beauty, is attended by her handmaidens, the Three Graces, while Mars, the god of war, stands enraptured by the sight. The figures are inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s study of ancient classical sculpture. He derived his theme from classical literature, combining the Toilet of Venus, in which Venus makes her morning preparations while gazing into a mirror, with Mars "disarmed" or "unmanned" by Venus—a symbol of love’s power to vanquish war. To illustrate this idea, Poussin shows Mars’s weapons and helmet cast aside, while he holds his shield to serve as Venus’s mirror. Its oval with her reflected image ingeniously links the two principles and marks the change in pictorial key from the quiet, coolly lit group of women composed in profile-like relief sculpture to the warmer tones of Mars’s shadowed figure and the flickering movement and lighting of the two cupids. The landscape sustains this shift, the stately trees and constricted foreground opening out to a spacious vista toward snowcapped mountains. By the time he painted Mars and Venus, Poussin had lived some ten years in Rome since arriving there from France in 1624. Rome was to be his permanent home. Poussin’s clients were cultivated men who shared his intellectual interests and valued the harmony he achieved between poetic content and rigorous clarity in his paintings of mythological and religious subjects. Poussin absorbed ideas from many sources, including the monuments of antiquity and the work of Renaissance painters Raphael, Giulio Romano, and Titian. But from the force of Poussin’s artistic personality and his astonishing ability to invent solutions appropriate to each subject’s mood came an artistic language, both incisive and sensuous, that broke new ground.”

Well, let’s assume it is “Mars and Venus” for the moment, though it seems an iconographic mishmash for Poussin, completely unlike his usual clarity in dealing with subject matter. The male figure and putto look Poussinesque, but they don’t seem that well-painted. And then there’s the landscape whose colours don’t seem typical of Poussin: that deep indigo seems uncharacteristic of his palette. At the same time I should stress that I’ve never actually seen this picture, as it’s seldom exhibited because of doubts over the authorship, and I’m having to study reproductions. It was exhibited in 1960 and here is a newspaper article recording its passage to Paris in that year! The river god in the water, if that’s what he is, seems summarily painted, though I will concede that the pose is found in other of Poussin’s works. The ground seems to be showing through in large parts of the painting, though they might to be due to paint loss- a technical report might help here. For the purposes of balance I’m going to quote Christopher’s Wright’s comments on the picture:

“It is difficult to see why there should have been such a conflict over the status of this picture. As Four painters are currently involved and each one advanced by a distinguished specialist there is reasonable certainty that at least three of them are wrong (Blunt initially accepted the picture in 1960, but re-assigned it to the “Hovingham Master” in 1966; Thuillier said it had been painted by Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy; finally, Wild rejected it and gave it to Poussin’s friend, Jacques Stella). In considering the old attribution to Poussin the picture fits quite easily into the artist’s development in the later 1630s (on stylistic grounds, this makes sense to me, but only the right-hand side) and the whole of the right hand side of the composition is close to the Toronto Venus Presenting Arms to Aeneas.  The problems arise with the treatment of the naked figures on the left which seem far too realistic and even anecdotal for Poussin. Careful examination of the picture reveals that they may well have undergone some later “improvements”. It is hoped that a cleaning of the picture will establish this hypothesis (I do not know the condition of this picture nor have I seen a technical report on it, so it’s impossible to prove or refute this. Has the picture been cleaned since Wright made his observations?). (Wright, no. 94, 183)

Earlier in his catalogue Wrights has this to say:

“The Toledo picture has been subject to many doubts. It was originally thought to be one of Poussin’s early surviving pictures, then because it did not seem to fit into the artist’s early development, it was rejected altogether by many authorities. The right hand half of the picture clearly fits into the style familiar from the mid 1630s (no argument there). It is not dissimilar in treatment to the work in Toronto. The problem arises for the grouping of four nude female figures on the left which seem both in drawing and composition to be quite unlike Poussin. It is just possible that they may have been re-painted at a later date and it is hoped that a future cleaning of the painting will resolve the problems.! (Wright, 60-1)

As Wright says, the real problem is the left-hand group of three women who seem entirely untypical of Poussin. The strange and infelicitous admixture of large hips, small breasts and thinly tapered legs seems to indicate a different hand here. I would say that look mannered as well as realistic. Also, the kneeling woman is a direct quotation from a Crouching Venus, and Poussin doesn’t make his antique quotations so conspicuous; nor to my knowledge does he use that source in his art. So, if more than half isn’t stylistically typical of Poussin- though Wright still doesn’t reject it- then I’d be uncomfortable giving it totally to Poussin. I can see why Wright is happy to see it as a Poussin, but that left-hand female group is so at variance with Poussin that  I can’t comfortably accept it as autograph. On the other hand I can’t completely reject, as parts of it seem consistent with Poussin. What a dilemma!

Clip0002 21pansyr
  Poussin, Pan and Syrinx, Staatliche Gemaldergalerie, Dresden, oil on canvas, 106.5 x 82 cm.

In his catalogue, Wright reproduces it next to the Pan and Syrinx (Dresden) and you can immediately see what Blunt called a “blonde” colour that is typical of of a group of pictures in the late 1630s. In Wright’s catalogue, the colour of the Toledo painting is closer to this “blonde” group, not the GAP colours, including that horrible blue. Sorry, my scanner is broken so I can’t put up an image of the reproduction in Wright, but within this group fall pictures like the St Rita of Cascia (Dulwich), St Margaret (Turin), Pan and Syrinx (Dresden), Venus and Aeneas (Toronto), Rinaldo and Armida (Bode Museum, Berlin). Maybe this case highlights the danger of using reproductions, especially digital to make assessments about art, though there’s a tradition of using them in connoisseurship. Here’s an excellent article that explores the topic of colour in museum photographs and the problems when using them.

If I compare the Toledo canvas with the Pan and Syrinx, I might accept a tentative attribution, though that depends on working from Wright’s reproduction. If the museum colour is right, then the picture would not fit into the late 1630s, and indeed we should put it back to the early 1630s, when works with similar colours were done. However, the problem remains of certain figures and motifs in the Toledo picture consistent with autograph works from that period.

I’m still deeply troubled by the non-Poussin elements in the Toledo canvas, and of course there is the colour problem, which is going to be difficult to resolve without me actually seeing the painting. Some of my Poussin colleagues have written about the Toledo painting assuming it is totally autograph, but I couldn’t until I’d satisfied myself about these doubts. I have e.mailed the museum with my concerns, but so far no answer. It would be good to hear from them in order to see if Wright’s hypothesis held water, which I think it might.

Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Dulwich, London.

Then there’s an interesting cluster of paintings at Dulwich. Firstly, a canvas of putti or children playing, which I vaguely know about. “Putti in a Landscape” has been labelled “17th Century French”, though it’s still in the Poussin section. This has a bearing on the last problem because if Blunt saw a Poussin picture with non-Poussin elements, then he would invent another master to explain that incongruity. Not that he needed to as there  are lots of candidates for copyists after Poussin’s Bacchic children, but Blunt memorably invented one painter called the “Master of the Clumsy Children.” Then there were painters in Rome like Podesta who is known to have copied Poussin’s bacchanals of children; still more enigmatic artists like the aforementioned “Hovingham Master” who’s crossed my path from time to time. I don’t know who painted the Dulwich putti, but this cannot be attributed to Poussin: the putti are badly drawn, no anatomical realism at all.

There’s a mysterious canvas called “Landscape” which could mean anything. It has figures lounging in leafy groves or strolling through the landscape, which you find in the artist’s work in the 1640s, but that kind of landscape was much imitated. The artists’ brother-in-law, Gaspar Dughet might be a better candidate than Nicolas himself. This vague landscape is in even worse condition, unable to penetrate beneath the layers of dirt and possibly over painting, but not by the master.

Lastly, there’s a  kind of Bacchic family group consisting of satyr, nymph and putti, very common in Poussin’s oeuvre. This picture is a deplorable condition, and if you zoom in you can see the craquelure and dirt, and god knows what else. But even though this hasn’t been restored, I think there’s no doubt we’re dealing with an imitator of Poussin’s Bacchic groups here.  All these three were in the Bourgeois bequest, but they’ve hardly attracted much interest, hardly surprising given their woeful state.

Albertina, Vienna

There are only two Poussin drawings on GAP, one of which I know is autograph as I’ve inspected it closely on the study table at Windsor. The other of a broken silver birch tree, or two trees, in the Albertina, perturbs me, though I have to say I haven’t seen the sheet itself. There are crude transitions between different densities of the wash; form isn’t modelled well, and frankly the application of the wash isn’t typical of Poussin. It appeared in an exhibition of 1984 curated by the late Konrad Oberhuber who actually used to work at the Albertina until he moved to the USA. As Oberhuber notes in that catalogue, it was rejected from the early 1960s onwards, given to Gaspar Dughet. Only Wild supported the attribution to Poussin in 1980, and  Oberhuber was emboldened by this to present it as a Poussin drawing of around 1630. The trouble is his argument depends on comparing it to a whole cluster of drawings which manifestly aren’t by NP. Who’s it by? Well, we could maybe accept Gaspar, but it might be too early for him; Jean Frangois Millet (possibly); Jean Lemaire, who would be working with Poussin at this time. There is also the appropriately named “Silver Birch Master” a landscape painter invented by Blunt in 1950. It used to be thought that a painting in the National Gallery, a Landscape with A Cowherd, was by the SBM, but Blunt changed his mind and re-attributed to the young Gaspar in 1980. Although there have been attempts to move it back to Poussin, it has stayed with his brother-in-law, which makes perfect sense to me. The attribution also helps to elucidate the Vienna drawing because the treatment of the trees in the London painting are similar. So I think both drawing and painting are the work of the young Gaspar Dughet.

Maybe all this highlights the need for professional art historians and specialists to consult with the GAP on issues of attribution and connoisseurship, though overall it’s thumbs up for a very useful resource. 


Anthony Blunt, ‘Poussin Studies V: ‘The Silver Birch Master’. Burlington Magazine, 92 (1950), pp. 69-73.

Anthony Blunt, Poussin Studies XIII: ‘Early Falsifications of Poussin’, Burlington Magazine, 104, (1962), pp. 486- 498.

Konrad Oberhuber, exh. cat., Kimbell  Art Museum, Fort Worth Poussin: The Early Years in Rome, (New York, 1988).

Humphrey Wine, The Seventeenth-Century French Paintings in the National Gallery, (New Haven and London, 2001).

Christopher Wright, Poussin Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné, (Jupiter, 1984).

Toledo entry on painting. http://classes.toledomuseum.org:8080/emuseum/view/objects/asitem/117/12

37 Masters?

Following up on the report of the Rome heist recovery, here’s a article from that fount of art history knowledge- the Telegraph.

The paintings include Portrait of a Knight by Van Dyck, Christ on the Cross by Rubens and The Baptism of Christ by Nicolas Poussin, a 17th century French artist who spent most of his working life in Rome.

Lesser known works include an exquisite painting of the Madonna and Child by the 13th century artist Berlinghiero Berlinghieri, who came from Lucca in Tuscany, and a work by a student of Caravaggio.

Two of the masterpieces may have been painted by Rubens and El Greco, although the attributions are yet to be confirmed.

"Rarely does one recover such a large quantity of works of such artistic importance," said Rossella Vodret, an expert from the ministry of culture.

Five other art works, which were stolen at the same time, are still unaccounted “

In what universe were such badly executed and conceived canvases painted by Rubens and his student Van Dyck?  I’m starting to wonder if the press have mis-represented or mis-quoted Vodret- time will tell..

If anybody has come across a list of the 37 works, then I’d be interested to see it. Most of all I’d love to see a copy of the auction catalogue in which these paintings appeared as Poussin et al.


Poussin recovered, but is it a Poussin?

Att. to Poussin, here rejected, perhaps unknown 17th century Italianate artist, Baptism of Christ, detail, Italian police hand-out!

I’m hearing of the rescue of many stolen old masters by the Italian police, the famous carabinieri military police. See the Guardian article here. It records the finding of 37 works of art taken in an art theft in Rome in 1971. Artists mentioned are Van Dyck (Portrait of a Cavalier), Guido Reni and Poussin (Baptism of Christ). I can’t comment on van Dyck and Reni, but I know that this isn’t by the French master. The Guardian reports:

“It was one of the most audacious art thefts seen in Rome: one night in 1971 a gang of thieves slipped into the plush residence of a construction magnate in the upmarket Parioli neighbourhood and walked out with 42 rare paintings, including works by Van Dyck and Poussin.

Detectives soon concluded that the culprits were not members of the mafia, but beyond that, there were few concrete clues, and within days the trail had gone cold.

Now, four decades on, Italian police have recovered some of the stolen paintings from a house in the same district of the country’s capital, where they were hanging proudly on the walls. As well as a Van Dyck portrait of a cavalier and a Poussin depiction of the baptism of Christ, the haul contains a Christ on the cross attributed to Rubens, now being verified by experts.

Italian painters Berlinghieri and Guido Reni are also included in the collection, which was described as an exceptional find by Rossella Vodret, an expert from the Italian culture ministry.”

Well, Rossella Vodret may an expert in the Italian culture ministry, but I’m a Poussin scholar and I don’t think I’m looking at one of his works. A clumsy composition- and those cherubs!As I spent a lot of time in my doctorate days looking at religious paintings by NP, I think I’m qualified to pronounce on this. So the owners bought a picture they thought was by Poussin, and the thieves stole it thinking the same? My guess is an Italianate painter trying to emulate Poussin, not very successfully. Or it could be a collaboration between Gaspar Poussin- Poussin’s brother-in-law-and an Italian artist?  But the figures are too monumental for Gaspard, yet parts of the landscape recall NP.

Still, I’m intrigued as to who the painter might be. I wish I had something better than a reproduction on a hand-out from the Italian police to go on!

Claude in Oxford

Claude Lorrain. Ascanius and the Shooting of the Stag, 1682, Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford

Decided to visit the Claude Lorrain exhibition in Oxford yesterday. I wasn’t disappointed: an excellent appraisal of Claude that takes in his paintings, drawings and etchings. Jon Whitley and the other curators have set every thing out nicely; you get three rooms devoted to the three types of media.

I spent about 90 minutes in it, most which was mainly looking at the room of Claude’s drawings. It’s fascinating to trace his use of wash, and eventually black chalk. It’s very instructive, especially the wall devoted to Claude’s drawings of figures and animals. It’s evident that Claude’s figure drawing is really awkward; some of the animals are ridiculously out of scale, such as the sheet with an eagle’s head. I was amused to discover that for a composition of the Golden Calf, he based his circle of figures on Poussin’s painting of the same subject. They were French painters in Rome who often shared a bottle of wine together. When Claude takes his cue from his friend he does better, but even on this sheet we get the disparities of scale. This should be borne in mind when looking at Claude’s Judgement of Paris (that subject again) whose figures may not even be by Claude, according to the curators. I find this quite plausible; the range of figurative expression is too wide for Claude, each of the goddesses have distinct poses and gestures, presumably so that they could be identified by the viewer.

The room of etchings is excellent too. The curators have even put out a glass case with all the tools of the process, so that you can appreciate how much labour goes into the art. Claude’s etchings are the least known of his work; I’m only sorry that my visit didn’t coincide with a talk that Jon Whitley’s on that side of Claude.

Claude Lorrain, Psyche before the Enchanted Castle,  1664, National Gallery, London.

A nice selection of paintings, some of which have been lent from private collections like the Judgement of Paris, which comes from a private Scottish collection. It’s also nice to see Claudes in famous galleries, like the Psyche before the Enchanted Palace (NG, London)  next to these lesser-known canvases. Best painting in this room? I’d probably say the Ashmoleon’s Ascanius and the Shooting of the Stag- at the top.

The Ashmoleon do these kind of exhibitions extremely well. To quote one of my students, “an anti-blockbuster experience”. During my visit there must have been about 10-12 people in the exhibition, at most. Well worth a visit, but you’ll have to hurry as it closes in early January.

And while you’re in Oxford, you might want to pop into Oxford Modern Art for a comprehensive (and free) display of 75 works on paper by Graham Sutherland. A far cry from Claude, with Sutherland’s representation of subterranean mines, surrealistic Welsh landscapes and war-ravaged London. Walking round this exhibition after Claude’s optimistic, sunshine soaked vistas, makes you feel that the sun has gone in and darkness has descended on the world. Curated by another artist, George Shaw, Sutherland: An Unfinished World, runs up to mid March next year.

And finally… if like me you like to unwind after a hard day’s museum going with a pint of Oxford real ale, there’s a nice poster setting out all the pubs of Oxford in the form of a tube map. This sort of thing has been done before by modern artists to make a political point, but the beer connection is much more palatable. The framed version is a bit pricey, but the unframed version is about a fiver. Cheers!

Poussin’s Revenge

The above is what  a colleague of mine is calling the wave of  impending strikes at the National Gallery. In response to concerns about security, the foot soldiers of the museum are threatening a series of strikes next month that could seriously disrupt the high-profile Leonardo exhibition due to start on the 9th November.  The cause of these projected walkouts are the new security arrangements. From the Guardian:

“Under pressure from government cuts, the gallery has instructed its warders – now called "gallery assistants" – to each watch over two rooms rather than one, as previously. Warders claim the new arrangement allowed the Poussin vandal time to attack two paintings because the warder was in the adjoining room.

About 200 members of staff – including curators – have signed a protest petition to the gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny.”

The_National_Gallery,_London_-_geograph.org.uk_-_104004Security has been a burning issue since the attack on Poussin’s Golden Calf perpetuated in the summer. I can only assume that the great French master would have approved of the action the warders, or “gallery assistants” as they are now forced to call themselves, might take on behalf of his art, Leonardo’s and all the other old masters in the gallery.

The article doesn’t mention it, but it remains to be seen how other major museums like Cracow and the Louvre are going to react to this growing storm, since their valuable masterpieces will be vulnerable too.

I haven’t yet booked a ticket for the show, and that might prove a blessing in the long run.

Normal Service will be resumed as soon as possible

keep-calm My apologies for the long gap of time since the last post. I didn’t intend to stay away from the blog that long, but circumstances intervened: problems with my computer, issues with Typepad, and a whole load of non-art history stuff over the last six weeks which put blogging well and truly out of the picture. I’ll tell you about it sometime. I’ll be  resuming blogging soon, probably with a review of a new book on connoisseurship, both traditional and scientific, sent to me recently. There’ll also be posts on Leonardo- I’m teaching a course on him- and possibly more research- generated  material on the subject of art and the body.

I can’t resist commenting on the sad news that Poussin’s Ordination will leave the U.K. for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The Kimbell was hiding in the wings waiting for the chance to snap up this canonical masterpiece. This they did- for $24.5 million. I couldn’t care less about the money, but I do care about the fact that the first set of Sacraments have been fragmented even more. Perhaps I’ll never see Ordination again, unless the Kimbell organises a conference on Poussin and religion, or something like that.

I have no idea who designed the image for this post, but many thanks for it.

Naturalized Antiquity and Classical Graffiti at Dulwich

poussin12 On the face of it what could Poussin (his Rinaldo and Armida pictured here) and the American abstract artist Cy Twombly possibly have in common? I didn’t go to this exhibition, but I’ve seen a few reviews, some favourable, some damning. Reading Brian Sewell’s caustic review of the show currently on at Dulwich, I can see that the minds behind this exhibition are seeking parallels between Poussin’s approach to mythology and Twombly, who is noted for labelling his works after myths like Leda and the Swan and Hercules and Patroclus. Yet, Sewell is surely right to observe that Twombly’s labelling system, with its scrawled, garbled letters has nothing in common with the classical lettering in the celebrated inscription ET IN ARCADIA EGO, despite efforts to read some archaeological gravitas into Twombly’s squiggles. This critic is also right to state that the only thing that Poussin and Twombly have in common is that they arrived in Rome, drawn by the classical tradition; in Poussin’s case, after seeing the “light of Italy” in Raphaelesque engravings in a patron’s collection; in Twombly’s, after repudiating the abstract turn in favour of the romanticised European past.

cytwomblyinromep In a photograph by Robert Rauschenberg taken at the Capitoline Museum in Rome in 1952, a gangling Cy Twombly stands next to the famous Hand of Constantine, his form caught in profile. The image is perhaps meant to be read as Rauschenberg’s ironic attempt to cast Twombly in the mould of a philosopher, complete with obligatory book at his side, an interpretation suggested by the pointing finger of the monument which like Plato in Raphael’s School of Athens seems to be calling on the divine for inspiration. This recapturing and recovery of the classical tradition worked on very different levels for the two artists, despite claims that Twombly was a born-again classicist with a Homeric vision. Twombly superimposed his modernism over the classical heritage; Poussin completely immersed himself in it. That is the difference. In his marvellous description, Joshua Reynolds said that Poussin was a mind naturalized in antiquity.

“No works of any modern have so much of the air of Antique Painting as those of Poussin. His best performances have a remarkable dryness of manner, which by no means to be recommended for imitation, yet seems perfectly correspondent to that ancient simplicity which distinguishes his style. Like Polidoro he studied the ancients so much that he acquired a habit of thinking in their way, and seemed to know perfectly the actions and gestures they would use on every occasion.” [1]

Now compare Robert Hughes in a Time article on Twombly:

“The sight of all these orts and fragments in Twombly’s pictures seems to have convinced his more ardent admirers that he’s a classicist, saturated in the myths and literature of the ancient Mediterranean, exuding them from every pictorial pore. All he has to do is scrawl a wobbly triumph of Galatea or et in arcadia ego on a canvas, and suddenly he’s up there with Roberto Calasso, if not Edward Gibbon. When an audience that has lost all touch with the classical background once considered indispensable in education sees Virgil written in a picture, it accepts it as a logo, like the alligator on a Lacoste shirt. The mere dropping of the name, or the citation of a tag, suggests that a classical past still lives, solid and whole, below the surface. But a toenail paring isn’t a body.” [2]

Indeed: a toe nail certainly isn’t a whole body. As for the mind, it’s absurd to claim that Twombly can think like the ancients.

Then there’s this argument about Twombly and signification. I recall a book where one art historian within a discussion of representation in the western tradition, said that it was too easy to view Twombly’s art as ‘a refusal to signify’.[3] I admire this scholar but I’m not buying this idea of signification in Twombly. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind comparisons between Poussin and modern artists. There have a been a number of shows in the last few years that have paired emulations of Poussin’s work with the original, like Leon Kossoff’s version of the Triumph of Pan in a National Gallery exhibition held in 2007. Yet Kossoff managed to convince me as an interpreter of Poussin because he is a real painter, seeking the spirit of Poussin’s art in the materiality of the work, not some dubious parallel between image and text, which a lot of Twombly scholarship stresses. I think Robert Hughes nailed it perfectly when he said that Twombly was one of America’s first graffiti artists, long before Basquiat started spraying SAMO on New York walls. That’s not to demean graffiti artists whose work I like, but Twombly’s classical graffiti for me is just full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Sewell in calling CT a charlatan- that’s for you to decide.

What I do know is that a great opportunity has been lost. How much more impressive and good for Dulwich to have paired Poussin with Poussin- his paintings with his drawings! Or we could have had a whole exhibition of drawings, maybe somewhere in the provinces like Oxford or Birmingham, charting the evolution of naturalized antiquity in this incomparable artist. I wish someone had asked me to curate an exhibition like this- I’ve have jumped at it! It’s long overdue as we haven’t had a Poussin exhibition in the U.K. since the 1990s. Sadly, we get this daft exhibition. Once again Poussin is in the news for all the wrong reasons.

[1] Joshua Reynolds, Discourse V.

[2] Robert Hughes, ‘The Graffiti of Loss’, Time Magazine, October 17th, 1994,

[3] Stephen Bann, The True Vine: On Visual Representation and the Western Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1989, 2.