Before and After

March 3rd, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

The Contadinella [Little Farm Girl] by Francesco Paolo Michetti (1851 – 1929) was sold at Il Ponte, a Milan auction house on 21 June 2007 (lot 927) for 2,100 euros. The drawing then reappeared, vandalized, at Bloomsbury Rome on 5 June 2008 (lot 213C) as the Contadina Abruzzese [Abruzzo Farmer], and sold for 9,500 euros. This happened five years ago, although I only learned of it from some alert art dealers recently. With everything photographed, and then posted on the internet, it’s incredible that they should have had the temerity to do this.


Michetti - before

Francesco Paolo Michetti – Contadinella – Pastel on paper – 440 x 280 mm

Michetti - after

Francesco Paolo Michetti and Anonymous – Abruzzo Farmer – Pastel on Paper – 450 x 285 mm


The pastel study by Michetti may have been left unfinished. Or maybe he had brought it to the state he wanted it to be. The unfinished nature of drawings is central to their appeal, at least to me. I’ve wondered whether the lack of finish allows the looker to complete it in their own mind, making them all the more satisfying.

Clearly, the someone who had the Michetti drawing, was not satisfied. The girl’s head was worked up, her hair was given highlights, she grew a bust, and the blue background was softened and lengthened. The raggedy little farm girl was even given a necklace. The paper measurements were ever so slightly changed. And, the someone was rewarded by a 7,400 euro gain.

One of my critics said that I should speak about Rubens’ retouching of drawings. However, I feel that’s for another post.

The RKD and their Research Services

January 29th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

A friend recently let me know that The Hague’s RKD, the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie or Netherlands Institute for Art History, has a research service where you can send an image of an artwork and they will look for comparative material. Their archive of photographs is immense. Erik Löffler, a curator at the RKD, has kindly answered some of my questions about the service and the RKD in general.

LV: Is it right that only a small percentage of the RKD’s images are in the online database? Is it the eventual aim to have everything online? Has Google approached places like the RKD offering their digitization services?

Erik Löffler: At this moment we have some 200.000 images online, out of ca. 7 Million. Until recently a total digitization seemed impossible, but things change, I notice that the subject is being discussed as a serious option now. We also started digtizing other useful sources, like the Hofstede de Groot Index Cards (comparable with the Getty Provenance index, 1.1 Million cards).

Erik Löffler at a free Art Evaluation Session

Erik Löffler at a free Art Evaluation Session

LV: How hard is it to index the collection and find the right keywords? How do you deal with different languages?

Erik Löffler: We use ICONCLASS which is in English and freely available for everyone; for fine tuning we also have our own keyword list. The interface for our databases (soon to be substituted by a more up-to-date version) is in Dutch and English; soon most of the content will also be available in English.

LV: What is your typical day like?

Erik Löffler: We often work on special projects: 19th Century atelier scenes, female artists, historical interior decorations. I am currently working on some 2000 new records in our databases: art collectors (of whom 258 American: from George Abrams to John Wrenn). We also write for specific exhibitions, and receive visitors at our premises: Dutch and foreign dealers, researchers and museum professionals; curators from the MET or the Hermitage are among our regular clients. We get some 6000 visitors a year (and 200.000 databse users). On a weekly basis we also check new publications and add literature to our database records, especially concerning Dutch and Flemish artists, foreigners who worked in the Netherlands and foreign artists who were influenced by ‘our’ painters.

LV: Can you speak about the RKD research services? Where do the requests for research come from? How many might there be in a month? Do you confer with other curators? How many people are there in your department?

Erik Löffler: I have more than one hundred colleagues; we may get between fifty and eighty requests a month. There are curators for Early Netherlandish Painting, 17th C. Landscapes, Still Lifes, 18th C., several for the 19th C., ‘Foreign Art’, Portraits, Topography, etc. I am specialised in Dutch and Flemish OMD.

LV: I expect you receive a lot of Rembrandt and Rembrandt school works to research. Any great discoveries there?

Erik Löffler: I must say we get less and less framed Rembrandt calendar pages… Prints are usually late impressions (or early reproductions), but last year we had a great Jan Victors painting, from a French castle (people drive to us from Belgium, France and Germany on these days). But at our free Art Evaluations Sessions  we always do nice discoveries in minor masters; still to be seen on our home page is a watercolor by George Hendrik Breitner which showed up at one of these days.

LV: What are the fees for the service? And, the fees for scans and photographs?

Erik Löffler: Our prices can be found here. But a ‘quick look’ is free, and we always ask your permission before starting a paid research.

Reading Room at the RKD

Reading Room at the RKD

 LV: What’s with that fabulous ceiling?

 Erik Löffler: The ceiling in the reading room, that’s after the Counts of Holland engravings by Cornelis Visscher II. As you may guess under these huge staring eyes non one would dare to maltreat our books and pictures… 

LV: I see that there’s a site dedicated to The Rembrandt Database, which is in its early stages, and has 12 paintings and close to 2,000 written documents relating to those pictures. To start, the project will focus on paintings, then drawings that relate to paintings, and then drawings that are not connected to pictures. Any ideas when this will be?

Erik Löffler: To the Rembrandt Database we will first add more paintings, it would be great if in the end all known Rembrandt drawings could be included as well… The project is very important with a.o. money from Mellon.’

LV: You grew up partly in Italy?

Erik Löffler: As I grew up in Italy and speak Italian but also French, Spanish and German, and read Russian, my colleagues tend to put through to my phone everyone who speaks some ununderstandable language; especially Italians, French and Spaniards feel safer when they can speak their own language, so they tend to contact me. Even if I am not the specialist they need at least I understand their complaints about food and weather…. As a matter of fact the RKD has an important network function, no matter which museum you need to contact, there is always a colleague who knows someone there, and if not there is CODART which (as not everyone knows) is housed at the RKD!

LV: In an email you mentioned the writer Couperus.

Erik Löffler: I am myself also board member at the Louis Couperus Museum; he was a Dutch decadentist writer. It is of course useful for the RKD to have someone in the local museum world.

Paper and Watermarks

January 15th, 2013 § 1 comment § permalink

I was able to put some questions about paper and watermarks to Neil Harris and Peter Bower. Professor Harris is the Director of the Department of History and Conservation of the Cultural Heritage at the University of Udine, where he teaches courses in Bibliography and Library Science. An outline of his scholarly career can be found here at the University’s site. His work Paper and watermarks is available online through the site of L’Institut d’histoire du livre. Peter Bower is a forensic paper historian and paper analyst. He has published two books on the papers used by J.M.W. Turner–Turner’s Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and use of his Drawing Papers 1787-1820 and Turner’s Late Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and use of his Drawing Papers 1820-1851. Many thanks to both for their informative answers.

LV: Was the paper used for books also used for drawing and printmaking?

Neil Harris: No, is probably the general answer. Paper for printed books seems to have been different in some respect (though we don’t know what, possibly with less sizing). Paper for artists on principle may have been different; but then artists, especially when short of money, will draw on anything that happens to hand, so Yes is also a possible answer.

Peter Bower: For most of papermaking history in Western Europe paper was made for three basic uses: writing, printing and wrapping. All three types of paper were made on the same moulds, from the same kind of rags, the main difference between them being the degree of sizing used. Drawing papers as such were not specifically made until the mid-late 18th century. Artists drew and painted on hard sized papers made for writing, or in the case of coloured papers, wrapping. Printmakers would use similarly sized sheets to book printers.

LV: Can you say something about how artists bought paper?

Neil Harris: Not really. It depends how much money they had.

Peter Bower: Papers were stocked by stationers and artists’ colourmen and could be bought as single sheets, quires or half reams and reams. Stationers and colourmen stocked what they thought their customers would like.  Some artists did buy paper from mills but this was not common.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93) – Self-Portrait in Paper – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on laid paper – 442 x 318 mm – Musei di Strada Nuova – Palazzo Rosso, Genoa


LV: Watermarks can often help in dating and placing a piece of paper, but what about a piece of paper without a watermark? Are there some general pointers about century and place?

Neil Harris: Yes, there are elements, and a piece of paper without a watermark may have been cut from a larger sheet.

Peter Bower: There is always a huge amount of information about the date and origin of a paper within the sheet. The type of mould used, the wire profile, felt impressions, the method of pulping, ie: stamper or Hollander, the blend of fibres used, the colour and tone, all contribute to narrowing down an identification.

A single-faced mould is a papermaking mould on which the wire forming surface sits directly on the supporting ribs, this produces an increased density of pulp either side of the chain wires, which show as slight shadows when viewed in transmitted light. A double-faced mould has a second set of wires, beneath the forming surface, lifting it off the struts.

The Wire profile describes the relationship between the Laid Lines, tightly spaced parallel lines seen in laid paper when it is held up to the light and the Chain lines, parallel lines visible at 90° to the laid lines, usually an inch or so apart. The wire profile also includes any watermarks or countermarks present in the sheet. In wove papers the wire profile details the gauge and number of wires used for the warp and the weft of the woven wire cloth.

Felt impressions are the marks left in the surface of the sheet when the newly formed wet sheet is transferred from the papermaking mould to the woven woolen blanket, called a felt., caused by the fibres used to make the felt. These vary from area to area, country to country and over time.

Stampers are an early form of a machine for making pulp, consisting of several sets of large wooden hammers, driven by a waterwheel, falling into mortars, filled with rag. Often leave tell-tale traces within the pulp, such as small hard nuggets of dried pulp that didn’t get cleaned out of the mortars.


Hydraulic Mutiple Hammer Mill – 18th Century – Fabriano Paper Museum

LV: Are there watermarks which are solely tied to one area?

Neil Harris: Successful watermarks will be faked or imitated in other areas, but generally they can be broken up on national lines. There are characteristics that tend to identity particular ways of making moulds, for instance the supplementary unsupported chainline for the watermark is a characteristic of Fabriano; the use of a countermark is Lake Garda; tranchfiles are French or Dutch and so on.

Peter Bower: Watermark designs do relate to specific areas, but they were often copied by mills in other areas or countries. A good example is the Dutch ProPatria mark which was also used by many different English makers.


Six-Pointed Star Above a Cross Watermark, 1412 Document on Loan from City Archive, Fabriano Paper Museum


LV: I‘ve read something about encircled object watermarks being Italian. Is this true?

Peter Bower: This is not strictly true, circled watermarks are found in use in Britain, Holland, Germany, Poland, Spain, Russia, etc

LV: I’ve read that J. Whatman paper was faked in Germany? Was counterfeit paper common?

Neil Harris: I think so, but of course “counterfeit” only really comes into play when paper-makers start using their names in watermarks and this only really happens from the 18th century onwards.

Peter Bower: In the 18th century several Italian Mills in the Veneto and also near Naples faked Dutch papers, including D & C Blauw, Cornelis Honig, Jan Honig & Zonen. They could charge more for “Dutch Paper” than their own products

Several famous makers’ initials were appropriated by other makers in Western Europe as a mark of quality, common examples include

WR         Wendelin Richel from Strasbourg. His initials are found as pendant marks all over western Europe for three hundred years or more.

IV         Jean Villedary. Several generations of Jean Villedarys worked mills around Angouleme in France as well as a mill at Hattem in Holland. The IV initials were very common as a countermark in English-made paper.

LVG         Lubertus van Gerrevinck of the Phoenix Mill in Holland. His initials were used by many other makers, either as a pendant mark or as a countermark.


Season’s Greetings

December 21st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

and best wishes for 2013


Canova show at the Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi

December 4th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Thanks to Antonio Canova’s half-brother, sole heir of the artist, Bassano del Grappa’s Museo Civico has the largest collection of Canova drawings in the world. Some 79 drawings from the collection’s 1,876 drawings are being shown at the Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi from 5 December 2012  to 7 April 2013.

Antonio Canova | Study of the Medici Venus – Before Conservation | Red chalk | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

As you’d expect from the foremost Neoclassical sculptor, many of the drawings are after the antique. Like others in the show, the drawing above has Canova’s notations giving measurements–nice reminders that they inhabit real space. Even subjects of his own invention are strongly influenced by the classical world and very few of the drawings seem to be drawn from life.

Most of the works in the show relate to commissions. Canova was a great glorifier of the powerful–Clement XIV, Napoleon, Horatio Nelson, and George Washington among them. With his works, the word monument seems to fit them better than statue or sculpted portrait. Even if monument has a heavy ring to it, there’s something amusing about a work like the Napoleon as Mars the Peacekeeper (heroic nude didn’t appeal to the emperor and he sent it back), or young George Washington in Roman cuirass and pteruges (nowadays this kind of skirt is known as a car wash skirt). Though we might smile at these very Neoclassical portrayals, Canova was dead serious and immensely successful because of them. So successful that he could do things like buy the Giustiniani collection of antiquities and make a gift of them to the Pope. (Canova was also a curator at the Vatican.)

Antonio Canova | Hercules Hurling Lychas into the Sea | Graphite, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

The exhibition is being held in permanent exhibition rooms, with the Canova works set apart by blue panels. The panels, often freestanding, are used to create rooms that concentrate on one commission. Because the Bassano museum is so rich in Canova, it can provide several drawings for a commission, along with models, and prints (ordered by Canova) of the artist’s finished works.

Antonio Canova | Toilette of Venus | Black chalk | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

The drawings are in a range of media: graphite, black chalk, red chalk, charcoal, pen and ink, brush and ink. They are often roughly sketched out or vigorously drawn. Because Canova’s marble works are so refined, snow-white, and polished, the drawings provide relief.

Canova. Il segno della gloria. Disegni, dipinti, e sculture
Curated by Giuliana Ericani, Dir. Museo Biblioteca Archivio di Bassano del Grappa
Museo di Roma Palazzo Braschi
Catalogue published by Palombi Editore


November 8th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Caricature, a branch of portraiture, is much more associated with drawing and printmaking than painting and sculpture. Caricatures are humorous in nature, often affectionately playful, but they can also be merciless in their ridicule. They are generally executed rapidly, and some of the best are drawn with the fewest lines.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) – Caricature of Pope Innocent XI – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 114 x 182 mm – Leipzig

Very often the portrayed doesn’t know they’re being caricatured, and the artist wishes to keep it that way. Bernini, who was deeply religious, would not have wanted his patron Pope Innocent XI to see his caricature of him. The pope, known as a sickly man, is propped up in bed, and his ant-like head is topped by a tiara, while his bony fingers signal orders. The sheet is small, and is meant for Bernini’s amusement, and for his friends. (The artist sometimes included caricatures in the margins of his letters.)

Bernini’s drawing and a drawing such as Pier Francesco Mola’s, just below,

Pier Francesco Mola (1612 – 1666) – Caricature of a Gentleman Viewing a Painting of a Monkey – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on laid paper – 91 x 189 mm – Louvre

must have been satisfying to do. They must have had a therapeutic effect–there’s not much an artist can overtly do to get back at a powerful and difficult patron, but they could be cut down to size in a caricature.

The brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci are often considered the first artists to create caricatures. An example of “ritrattini carichi” or small loaded portraits is just below. Annibale Carracci covered the sheet with little heads, some might be exaggerated likeness of real people, while others look like invented comic heads, the product of nervous doodling. As with much caricature,  heads are in profile allowing for the nose to be exploited to the fullest. With profile caricature, chins also get important treatment, whether exaggeratedly big or small; while with frontal caricature, the ears and eyes come into their own.

Annibale Carracci (1560 -1609) – A Series of Caricature Heads in Profile – Pen and gray-brown ink – 194 x 135 mm – British Museum

This drawing of Agostino is of mascheroni, or grotesque masks. The Carracci enjoyed crossing human and animal heads, like the ancient artists with their fauns  and satyrs. It is both amusing and disquieting. It seems like a particularly good example of grotesque heads since they are studies for gesso sculptures, the descendants of antique stucco work which came to be known as grotesque, from the subterranean grottoes where they were discovered.

Agostino Carracci (1557 – 1602) – Mascherone Studies – Red chalk – 258 x 197 mm – Albertina

The word caricature was first used in print in 1646 and ever since the 17th century, there has been a lot of discussion about what a caricature is, when the practice began, if Leonardo’s testine mostruose are caricatures or grotesques. It’s well worth reading this essay by Gombrich (link to pdf here), which discusses why caricature should be considered an invention of the late 16th century because of the growing self awareness of artists and their place in society. That may be true, but it is certainly easy to find exaggerated and comic representations of people–even real people–earlier in time. Just because we don’t know their names, does not mean they didn’t exist. The twisted, and often funny, damned in representations of the Last Judgement, Romanesque capitals with their leering heads, medieval manuscript margin drawings, and then the graffiti of hated emperors in Roman times. One can only imagine all the caricatures done on wax tablets in antiquity.

It seems logical that prehistoric man would also have found amusement in the warping of features. The sun can play atmospheric tricks making our shadow impossibly long or crushingly squat. A fire or candle’s light is usually flattering, but at the wrong angle it can grotesquely amplify features.


Jake Spencer and the Mayflower

August 17th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

Provincetown’s Mayflower Cafe is the sort of place you could order a plate of spaghetti and a cup of coffee, or a shot of rye, without the waiter questioning you with words or looks. The name comes from the Pilgrims’ ship that anchored in Provincetown’s harbor for several weeks in November and December of 1620.

The Mayflower opened in 1929, when prohibition had all but ended in Massachusetts (1930 was the official year of repeal for the state, or more properly commonwealth, and 1933 for the entire country). The restaurant now calls itself a “family restaurant.” The caricature portraits along the walls speak of an earlier clientele, of a hard drinking group that made it their home in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s.

Mayflower’s Bar Area with Jake Spencer Self-Portrait, Caricature Portrait of an Unidentified Man, and Memorial Plaque | Drawings done in charcoal on wove paper

The drawings are by Jake Spencer. Over the bar there’s a memorial plaque to the artist, reading:


1899 – 1965



The artist’s real name was Jacob Kaplun, but he used Spencer for his professional work–portraits, caricatures, illustrations, and writing. He was a summer visitor to Provincetown, spending most of the year in Greenwich Village. Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street has caricatures by Spencer, and evidently many other bars did too. In the 12 January 1965 New York Times notice of his death, it says “He painted portraits and did caricatures of so many celebrities for ‘Village’ establishments that he would refer to one as having been “wall-papered.”

Interior of the Mayflower, with booths and Jake Spencer Caricatures

The drawings at the Mayflower are signed, Provincetown is given as the location, they’re dated, but the names of the people are missing. For Spencer’s audience it was probably so obvious who the people were, that names were unnecessary. The words “FELLOW MAN” on the plaque might be indicating that they’re just regulars, and not the celebrities of the Times notice. Or, they may be celebrities that I’m unable to recognize.

Jake Spencer | Three Caricatures | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

There’s a big “NO SMOKING” sign inserted in the long wall of caricatures. That too looks dated. Contradicting the sign are the caricatured, puffing away on cigarettes and cigars, contributing with age, light, and leaky air conditioners to the character of the drawings.

Jake Spencer | Profile Caricature of a Man | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

Note of 15 September 2013

L. Drapin, a relative of Jake Spencer’s, wrote pointing out a Village Voice obituary on the artist. In her email, Drapin said that he grew up on Staten Island, a fact that is missed in pieces about him. The Voice obituary lists some of Spencer’s fascinating friends. It makes one think that an exhibition should be mounted on Spencer and such colorful people as his friend Romany Marie. She owned a Greenwich Village restaurant (it relocated a number of times, but always in the Village), frequented by artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill and Arshile Gorky.

Dust-Up at Caravaggio Drawings Press Conference

July 22nd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

A reader sent along this link from the Corriere della Sera (Brescia edition). The article covers a press conference at Leno in the province of Bresica, where Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli discussed the newly identified Caravaggio drawings. The author of the article mentions that it’s hot in the room (it’s the hottest summer in 50 years) and tempers flare. Here’s the video:

If you can stand watching to the end, you’ll hear Curuz bring up Mina Gregori. He makes fun of Gregori for saying that Caravaggio didn’t draw.

This is where it’s easy to agree with him. Caravaggio at least drew with the stick end of the brush, pulling it through wet paint on canvas. It’s hard to imagine that a picture like the Martyrdom of St. Matthew could have been done without quite a number of drawings.



Early Caravaggio Drawings Reported Discovered at the Castello Sforzesco

July 5th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Ansa, the Italian Press Agency, and the Italian daily La Repubblica are reporting that 100 drawings by the young Caravaggio have been identified in the archives of Milan’s Castello Sforzesco. The drawings were culled from a group of close to 1,400 drawings done by Simone Peterzano and his students. Caravaggio was a student of the now almost forgotten Peterzano.

Caravaggio attr. | David | Chalk | Castello Sforzesco, Milan

La Repubblica has an online gallery of a few of the drawings. LINK HERE. Not to go immediately negative, the story reminds me of the Michelangelo at Fort Worth LINK HERE. To whip up interest, the drawings are being valued at 700,000,000 euros (that’s very near a billion!). Tomorrow, unsurprisingly, Amazon publishes the 600 page ebook. It’s written by Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz, from the Brera and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli.

Cupid and Psyche

April 26th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo is hosting the exhibition La favola di Amore e Psiche. Il mito nell’arte dall’antichità a Canova. It makes sense that the exhibition should be held there because of the building’s Perino del Vaga frescoes figuring Cupid and Pysche. The frescoes decorate the apartment, specifically the bedroom, of Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese). The show has objects of all types: sculpture, ceramics, paintings, prints, and drawings.

There’s a magnificent Raphael drawing from Lille for a pendentive at the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche at the Farnesina, and another drawing from Turin for the same project. The exhibition was a bit disappointing because there were so few drawings. One of the exhibitions I’ve only known from the catalogue, and always regretted not seeing, was the 1981 show Gli Affreschi di Paolo III a Castel Sant’Angelo. Progetto ed esecuzione 1543-1548, curated by Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso and Eraldo Gaudioso. The catalogue has close to 150 drawings and to have seen them in the rooms next to the frescoes for which they were made, must have been a thrill. Knowing of this earlier exhibition sharpened the disappointment.

Still, there were two Raphael drawings. And then there was a very surprising black ink on papyrus drawing of Cupid and Pysche. She’s on the left and has butterfly wings, and Cupid with bird wings, is on the right. There’s no text on the papyrus and it may be that it was made as an independent work of art. If the dating of the papyrus drawing is right, it would mean that it’s contemporary with Apuleius’s Golden Ass, which narrates the story of the lovers. The papyrus was found in Egypt, but looks more Roman or Greek in style. The drawing is also amazing for its size–250 mm or about 10 inches across.

The exhibition opened on 16 March and closes 10 June 2012.



Amor and Psyche | AD 100-199 | Black ink on papyrus | 150 x 250 mm | Inv. PSI 8 919 | Museo Egizio | Florence