Category

portraiture

Can You Guess the Artist?

If a famous artist like Leonardo da Vinci passed you on the street, would you recognize him? There is little doubt that you would instantly recognize his painting of the Mona Lisa, but what about the face that created the Mona Lisa? I have a feeling that most people wouldn’t recognize a majority of famous artists, but I might be wrong. Try and guess the artist depicted in each of these portraits/self-portraits. (I tried to avoid self-portraits that are too indicative of the artist’s style – I don’t want that to give the answer away!) The answers are in the comment section of this post.



How did you do?

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Nefertiti and CT

I never thought I would be interested in reading an article in my father-in-law’s Radiology magazine. However, I was intrigued that the cover of their recent issue has a picture of the famous Nefertiti statue bust (made by the artist Thutmose, Dynasty XVIII (ca. 1353-1335 BC)). Recently, some computed tomography (CT) performed on the core and surface of the statue bust has revealed new information.

According to this article, there are slightly different physical characteristics which appear on the inner core of the statue (consequently revealing a “second hidden face”).1 On the inner core, the CT revealed that there “creases around the corners of the mouth and cheeks, a less harmonious nose ridge, and less prominent cheekbones. The nose [also] showed a slight bump.”2

The visible outer layer (left) and the inner layer (right) show a difference in the nose (the bump is indicated by an arrow)

Although the outer surface of stucco refined and softened these wrinkles and bumps, it is also interesting that there is a more pronounced shaping of the eyelid corners on the outer layer (see image below). This emphasis on the outer eyes supports interpretations that this bust was supposed to be recognized as a depiction of a mature woman, not of a woman of flawless beauty.”4

The shaping of the eyelid corners on the outer (visible) surface can be seen on the right (indicated by *). On the inner core (left) creases in the corners of the mouth (arrows) were found.

I think it’s fascinating to look at different facial characteristics on the inner core – perhaps the inner core is a more correct representation of how Nefertiti appeared in life. It’s great that technology can help historians and archaeologists learn more about art. In this study, CT also showed more information regarding the types of tools and materials that were used to sculpt the bust. In addition, further details were revealed about the thickness of the stucco, which will serve as useful information for conservators.

Although I didn’t understand all of the scientific terminology or system of measurement used in this article, it was still interesting to read. Perhaps I should pick up Radiology more often?

1 Alexander Huppertz et al, “Nondestructive Insights into Composition of the Sculpture of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti with CT,”
Radiology 251, no. 1 (April 2009): 236.

2 Ibid. On a side note, I think that this slight bump makes Barbra Streisand’s tribute to Nefertiti seem especially appropriate! This photograph of Streisand was taken in conjunction with a 1966 episode of “Color Me Barbra,” in which Streisand performs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art next to the bust of Nefertiti.

3 Ibid., 239.

4 Ibid.

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Rethinking the Family of Charles IV

Like most people who study art, I was taught that Goya’s portrait, Family of Charles IV (1800-1801), is a caricature of the royal family. Most introductory art history textbooks discuss the ugly features of the family members and their awkward poses. In short, the painting was supposed to reveal the stupidity of the royal family. I further interpreted this picture to show the family in an unflattering light – who in the royal family would approve of having a young woman (on the left) painted with her face turned towards the wall?

In fact, I was going to write a post on this unflattering portrait until I began to do some more research this morning.

Recently (within the past decade), there have been new arguments regarding Goya’s portrait of Charles IV and his family. Edward J. Olszewski argued in 1999 that the Goya adds a sense of animation to this portrait because the sitters lack a common focal point. However, he also admits that there is a lack of unity that resulted because Goya sketched the members of the group individually, not collectively.1 He argues that the family members approved of the sketches that were taken for the portrait. Suggestions that a family member looks “foolish” or awkward are because the elderly Dona Maria Josefa was suffering from the effects of lupis (she died shortly after the portrait was completed) and Dona Maria Luisa Josefina (on the far right, holding a baby) suffered from a spinal defect.2 In addition, Olszewski finds the brilliant colors and pigments in the painting to be very favorable; they were quite modern for the period.

I also learned from Olszewski’s article that the woman on the left side of the canvas (with her face turned towards the wall) is the future bride of the prince regent, as yet unchosen. Of course she would be depicted with her face towards the wall, since the family wasn’t sure whose face to portray! Maria Antonia could have been painted in the portrait after she and Ferdinand married in 1802, but Goya was never asked to change the painting.

As for the infamous critic’s statement that the painting looks like a “grocer and his family who have just won the big lottery prize,” Alisa Luxenberg wrote in 2002 that this statement has been misquoted.3 Several historians have picked up on this quote and scattered it throughout art historical texts. She and Olszewski both point out that a similar quote was stated by Renoir in 1907. Renoir mentioned that the portrait looked “like a butcher’s family in their Sunday best.” However, the point of this comment was not to pinpoint the painting as caricature. Instead, this statement was an indication of Renoir’s belief that “an artist’s ‘true’ personality – meaning class to Renoir, who seemed acutely sensitive to his own working-class roots – manifests itself in art. In the recounting of this discussion, Renoir supposedly explained that Goya’s plebian background emerged in his rendering of artistocrats as shopkeepers.”4

These articles have made me rethink the Family of Charles IV portrait. I still don’t find many of the family members to be terribly attractive, but this doesn’t mean necessarily that the portrait is a caricature. Instead, perhaps this portrait is a paradigm for its age; with the ongoing Enlightenment in the 18th century, perhaps the stress on scientific, visual evidence affected the production of idealized portraiture? Maybe the members of the family wanted to be portrayed as how they really looked, whether attractive or unattractive.

If you want to read more, I would particularly recommend Olszewski’s article. It’s quite fascinating.

1 Edward J. Olszewski, “Exorcising Goya’s ‘The Family of Charles IV’,” Arbitus et Historiae 20, no. 40 (1999): 176-177.

2 Ibid., 178.

3 Alisa Luxenberg, “Further Light on the Critical Reception of Goya’s ‘Family of Charles IV’ as Caricature,” Arbitus et Historiae 23, no. 46 (2002): 179-180.

4 Ibid, 179. See also Olszewski, 182-183.

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Gainsborough’s Portrait of Georgiana

Keeping with this week’s theme of stolen art, I am particularly interested in the story regarding the portrait Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. This portrait was completed in 1787 by Thomas Gainsborough, a popular English portrait painter. I’m particularly interested in this painting because my grandparents own a reproduction of it (or else it’s another painting that closely mimics the style and pose of Gainsborough’s portrait – I’ll have to look more closely next time I visit).

Georgiana is the great-great-great-great aunt of Princess Diana, and there have been many parallels drawn between the two women. Both beautiful women were the toast of England during their life, although Georgiana outlived her days of high public favor. (The film “The Duchess” (2008) was based on Georgiana’s life; actress Kiera Knightly (who played Georgiana) was angered that her character was often compared to Diana).

Almost a century after the painting was completed, it was sold in 1876 at an auction. Crowds of people gathered to catch a glimpse of this famous portrait. It was eventually sold to the American banker Junius Spencer Morgan, who bought the painting as a gift for his son, J. P. Morgan. However, before the portrait was shipped to America, it remained for a while on exhibition in London.

During this short period of exhibition, Adam Worth crept into the Agnew Gallery and stole the Georgiana portrait from its location of display. Worth hoped that he could use the well-loved painting as collateral; he wanted to bargain with the government to get his brother John freed from prison. However, John’s lawyer was able to negotiate a release for the prisoner before Adam even had time to strike a bargain with the government. Consequently, Adam Worth was left with the beautiful portrait on his hands.

For the next twenty five years, Worth kept the painting. When he traveled, he would bring the Georgiana with him in a false-bottomed trunk. While at home, Worth would sleep with the beloved portrait under his mattress. Ben Macintyre writes in his book Napoleon of Crime that Georgiana was a “permanent, hidden companion” for Worth. Even when Worth experienced financial troubles and threats of capture, the theif preferred to “face disgrace, penury, and imprisonment rather than part with the Duchess.”1 Finally, near the end of his life, Worth sold the painting for an undisclosed sum and negotiated a promise of immunity.

Today, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is part of the Devonshire Collection. In 1994, the current Duke of Devonshire bought the portrait and placed it at Chatsworth, his ancestral home. Edward Dolnick points out that Georgiana now “presides” in the grand dining room, the location where she held court during her lifetime.2

1 Ben Macintyre, Napoleon of Crime (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), 16.

2 Edward Dolnick, The Rescue Artist (New York: Harper Collins, 2006), 151.

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FDR’s Unfinished Portrait

Before Christmas, I worked on a project which involved scanning and transcribing the letters of a WWII soldier (Grandpa B) to his wife (Grandma B). It was a really fun project and gave me a nice break from unpacking and remodeling. J helped me transcribe some letters, including one that discussed Grandpa B’s reaction to Roosevelt’s sudden death. Both J and I knew that Roosevelt had died suddenly, but neither of us knew the details.

After looking it up, we discovered that Roosevelt collapsed on April 12, 1945 while he was sitting for a portrait with the painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff. He died that same day from a cerebral hemorrhage. I don’t think there are any other important historical figures who have collapsed (and subsequently died) while sitting for a portrait. (Can anyone prove me wrong?)

This is a reproduction of Shoumatoff’s unfinished portrait of the president. The original portrait hangs in “The Little White House” museum in Georgia.

As has been commented elsewhere, I think that that this unfinished portrait is a visual representation of FDR’s unfinished presidential term. Roosevelt never got to see the defeat of Nazi Germany (V-E Day), and although he ordered the construction of the atomic bomb, he never was faced with the decision of dropping it on Japan. Truman had to pick up and finish Roosevelt’s incomplete work. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues that Roosevelt’s political work is still left unfinished; in 2004 Sunstein published The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever.

In 1991 Shoumatoff published a memoir regarding her experience of painting “The Unfinished Portrait.” I plan on reading it soon.

I also found online a transcript of Robert G. Nixon’s oral history. He also has some interesting recollections of the day FDR died.

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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.