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The Red Vineyard: SOLD!

I have plenty of things to do this afternoon, but I keep stopping to think about Van Gogh. Today I was discussing with my students about how Van Gogh is the quintessential example of the “artist-genius” construct (an artist who essentially is tortured by his art and creative mind). After all, Van Gogh cut off his own ear (unless Gauguin cut it off!), checked himself into a mental asylum (no doubt because of his uncontrollable passion for art, right???), and committed suicide.

Such aspects of Van Gogh’s life are popular to discuss in the world of art history (after all, we still are drawn to the “artist-genius” idea), but there has always been one other biographical detail which has puzzled me for a long time. In order for one to fully emphasize Van Gogh’s oppressed, tortured life, one of the following “facts” is oft repeated in the art world: “Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime” or “Van Gogh never sold a painting during his lifetime.”

So, which is it? Did Van Gogh sell a painting or not? Or did he sell more than one painting? I’ve seen different answers in all types of locations (such as here and here), and I find it curious that there is so much ambiguity on this topic. Perhaps this confusion is partially a result of the internet, although I think that these these “facts” about Van Gogh have been independently propagated for much longer than the past two decades.

Luckily, the internet also has resources to allow for fact-checking. This afternoon I’ve been reading through an unabridged collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters online. These letters indicate that Van Gogh did sell (at least) one painting during this lifetime. The Red Vineyard (shown above, 1888) was sold to Anna Boch for 400 francs in 1890 (just a few months before Van Gogh’s death). The Red Vineyard had been on display at the 1890 “Les XX” exhibition in Brussels. Van Gogh was well aware of his sale, since he wrote his mother about the sale in a letter from 20 February 1890. In a later letter the following month (dated 29 March 1890), Vincent’s brother Theo asked if he could send Vincent the money “from your picture from Brussels.”

A website dedicated to Anna Boch has put forward some suggestions as to why Boch bought The Red Vineyard. One suggestion is that Boch wanted to show some support for Van Gogh, since his art received a mixed review from artists and critics at “Les XX.” Or, as an Impressionist painter, it is possible that Boch simply was interested in Van Gogh’s style. Whatever the reason, the sale was made.

Do you know any more information regarding Van Gogh’s sold painting(s)? Any thoughts as to why this ambiguity has not been completely resolved?


Valentine’s Day Kisses

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, I thought people would like to look at Flavorwire’s article, “The 10 Best Art Kisses of All Time.” My two favorite pieces that are highlighted in the article are Rodin’s The Kiss (1889) and Brancusi’s The Kiss (1908 version found through link).

I would have also included Canova’s Cupid and Psyche (c. 1787-1793, see detail here) on the list. Even though technically the figures have just kissed or are about to kiss (depending on who you ask), it’s a much more beautiful sculpture than that horrid drawing by Picasso (listed as #9 in the article). Ugh.

Do you know of any other works of art which are appropriate for Valentine’s Day?

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Guernica as Nativity

This past weekend, I engaged in a mini-research project to help a friend. This friend is putting together a slideshow of Nativity images for a Christmas party; he is specifically interested in showing images which depict the biblical scene with clothing/architecture/instruments that are contemporary to the time of the artist. This project wasn’t too hard to complete, especially since Northern Renaissance artists loved to depict Nativity scenes in Northern interiors with Northern clothing. Perhaps I’ll post some of my Nativity findings in the next few weeks – it was a very fun project.

Anyhow, while compiling images I became curious to see if Picasso had ever created a Nativity scene. Since Picasso was such a prolific artist (with 271 new works recently added to his oeuvre), I thought he would have depicted a Nativity scene at least once. Surprisingly, I didn’t find any works titled “Nativity” in my limited research time, but I did come across an interesting argument that was recently published in Nómadas: Revista Crítica de Cincias Socialies y Jurídicas. Pablo Huergo Macón argues that Picasso’s iconic painting Guernica (1937, shown above) is a modern representation of the Nativity. Basically, Macón finds that Guernica “is a manger blown up by bombs.”1 Here are some of the traditional images which Macón points out:

  • Virgin Mary cradling a (Christ) child (far left)
  • Joseph (shown as a warrior brandishing a sword)
  • Angel who appears to shepherds (holding a candle in Picasso’s scene)
  • Shepherds (represented by the women on the right side, one in a shawl and one with raised arms)
  • Stable animals (Macón argues that the bull represents the ox and horse represents the mule)
  • Star of Bethlehem (light bulb in center, illuminating the scene)

I think the inclusion of the llight bulb puts an interesting contemporary twist on the whole Nativity scene (but I decided that my friend probably wouldn’t want to use this image for his Christmas party slideshow! It doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas cheer,” does it?).

Anyhow, I think Macón’s theory is interesting and deserves some attention. Even if this theory isn’t perfect, I think it could explain at least one reason why Guernica is so jarring to us: Western viewers can recognize distorted, perverse, and extremely unsettling elements of a traditional Christian theme.

1 Pablo Huergo Macón, “The Other Side of Guernica,” Nómadas: Revista Crítica de Cincias Socialies y Jurídicas 23 (2009:3): 1. Found online here.


The Capitoline Wolf is Medieval?!?

I don’t know how I missed this news (it’s over two years old), but I thought that I would post it for others who may not have heard. In recent years scholars have questioned whether the “Capitoline Wolf” (an iconic statue of a she-wolf that is related to the mythological founding of Rome, see left) is Etruscan. Winckelmann first attributed this statue to the Etruscan period; he based his reasoning on the way that the wolf’s fur is depicted. In turn, it generally became accepted that the statue was created in the 5th century BC.

However, a couple of scholars have questioned this attribution since the 19th century. The most recent critique was published by art historian Anna Maria Carruba in 2006. Carruba noted that in the 1997 restoration of the statue, it was observed that the she-wolf was cast as a single unit – a technique that was common during the medieval period.

Carruba’s work eventually led to radio-carbon dating tests on the sculpture. About twenty dating tests were conducted at the University of Salermo, which resulted in the announcement that the she-wolf was created in the 13th century AD! In other words, she was created up to 1,700 years later than we originally thought. Wow. Sorry Winckelmann: it looks like you’ve struck out again. Ouch.

This is a crazy paradigm shift for me. I’ve always connected the Capitoline Wolf with the Etruscans (and the Romans by extension, since she is connected with the story of how Rome was founded). I’ve always known that the Romulus and Remus figures underneath were made during the Renaissance (they were fashioned in the late 15th century AD, probably by Antonio Pollaiolo), but it’s crazy to think that the Capitoline Wolf is medieval.

I should note, though, that the attribution of this statue is still far from resolved. Not only can one get a sense of the ongoing debate here and here, but right now the Capitoline Museum still has the Etruscan date on their official website. As for me, though, I’m currently inclined to go with the radio-carbon tests and the several scholars which have questioned the attribution. (And maybe I feel this way because I often question Winckelmann’s judgment, even outside of this Etruscan attribution.)

Is this news for anyone else? Maybe I’m just behind the times. What do other people think about this new date?


Why Don’t I Like New "Masterpiece" Discoveries?

My friend heidenkind recently brought my attention to this article, which asserts that The Education of the Virgin (17th century, shown right), a painting discovered in the basement of Yale Art Gallery, is not by Velasquez (as was thought earlier this year). I have to admit, I was pretty pleased that the painting was unattributed to Velasquez. Is that strange? I would assume that most people are thrilled when they learn that a possible new work by Velasquez, da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc., has been discovered. And I rarely (if ever) feel thrilled about such news – particularly if the work has immediately been attributed to a great master. Instead, I get pleased when the painting is demoted from any “great master” status.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel this way. Some of you may remember me earlier post along these lines, in which I discussed my skepticism on the plethora of new discoveries. I haven’t quite pinpointed all of the reasons for my skepticism/hesitation regarding new discoveries, but I thought that writing this post might help me to organize my thoughts. I think that I mostly resist hasty attributions to great masters because I know a little bit about the politics behind art attribution – it’s tempting for a connoisseur to attribute a painting to a great master, since such an attribution would help further the publicity and career of that connoisseur. I’m particularly reminded of Abraham Bredius, the connoisseur who “discovered” the “Vermeer” paintings by the forger Han Van Meegeren. Bredius is lucky that he passed away soon after Van Meegeren’s confession in 1945.

Anyhow, there are lots of other motivations for a work of art to be attributed to a great master, and most of them are financial. The owning museum, institution, or gallery will push for such an attribution, since it will be monetarily beneficial. And hey, the connoisseur could also get a nice fat check for such an attribution.

But is this political/financial reason why I don’t get excited about discoveries? I also wonder if my might have something to do with the historian side of me. If there are unknown works by great masters, then this forces me (as a historian) to reshape the artist in my mind as a historical figure. And I think I resist such reshaping a little bit. Does that make sense? In some ways, I feel like I know great artists quite well, and having a new work of art means that there is some aspect to their lives and work that was hidden from me. (I guess it’s kind of like the artist was doing something “behind my back.”) I know, it’s a little silly. Yet, at the same time, I love learning new things about artists. So maybe I experience some kind of inward struggle (i.e. the desire to learn vs. feeling deceived) when a new work of art is discovered, and that’s why I shy away from such discoveries. I don’t know.

Ironically, though, I rarely feel skeptical when archaeologists announce that a new work of prehistoric/ancient art was discovered or excavated. I always think, “Hey, awesome!” and move on with my life. So my skepticism (and emotional attachment?) must be somehow related to the idea that these works of art are attached to early modern “masters” (i.e. individuals). There isn’t enough information about specific prehistoric/ancient artists (or even some cultures!) for me to get as defensive and protective as a historian. Instead, I almost always get excited about ancient discoveries.

So, that’s what I came up with this evening: political/financial reasons and my silly protectiveness as a historian prevent me from embracing new “masterpieces.” What about you? Am I the only person who is continuously skeptical? Do most people get excited about attributions and “masterpiece” discoveries? Do any other historians get protective about an artist’s biography/oeuvre?


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.