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Five Old Masters in Milan – UPDATED

April 27, 2012

Lot 24 Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi, lo Scheggia (S. Giovanni Valdarno 1407-1486 Firenze)
Scena di trionfo all’antica
tempera e pastiglia dorata su tavola: 41×51 cm
sul retro scritta antica a colore A.Orcagna; etichetta antica “A.Orcagna Costume of Piccolomini family; due timbri doganali datati 1951.
Estimate: €40,000 – €60,000 ($53,006 – $79,509) HAMMER PRICE €70,000

Tucked into the May 30, 2012, sale of Old Master paintings at Christie’s in Milan are a few pictures worthy of attention.  Lot 24 (above) by lo Scheggia is the sort of cassone panel with themes grand, triumphant and celebratory for which he was famous.   This one appears to have been severely cut down — it would originally have been a long horizontal composition of a procession — so it resembles a predella panel in scale.  It has some grime on it, but should clean well. That said, one has to like lo Scheggia, who I generally find to more irksome than interesting.

Next up, in a very busy and overbearing (original) frame, is this gentle, winning and deftly articulated Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Simone Cantarini.

Lot 36 Simone Cantarini (Pesaro 1612-1648 Verona)
Riposo in Egitto
olio su rame, in cornice originale intagliata e dorata: 28×37,5 cm
Al retro della cornice, iscrizione antica “Boschi” e i numeri di inventario 32 e 61; bolli in ceralacca non identificati

Lot 36 Simone Cantarini (Pesaro 1612-1648 Verona)
Riposo in Egitto

The contrast between the body language of the relaxed Christ child, draped in Mary’s arms while staring out to the viewer, and the intense conversation between Joseph and Mary is fascinating in its naturalism and animates the composition.  The mule at left, a necessary compositional balancing element, I suppose, is poorly handled almost to the point of being intrusive.  This painting could also benefit from a light cleaning (look at the filthy varnish in the sky).

Lot 45 (below) is a Caravaggisti work by Trophime Bigot, a French painter one doesn’t often encounter.

Lot 45 Trophime Bigot (Arles 1579-1650 Avignone)
Cristo deriso
olio su tela: 72×97 cm
Estimate: €80,000 – €120,000 ($106,011 – $159,017) THIS LOT OPENED AT €50,000 AND BIDDING STOPPED AT €60,000 AND IT FAILED TO SELL.

Here’s a portion of the Wikipedia entry about the artist:

Bigot has always been known from his documented altarpieces in Provence, but the English art historian Benedict Nicolson was the first to propose that he was identical with the artist called Maître à la chandelle (Candlelight Master), who was active in Rome, producing relatively small candle-lit scenes with heavy but subtle chiaroscuro in a style similar to that of Georges de la Tour. Nicolson connected a figure documented in Italy as variously Teofili Trufemondi/Trofamonti/Troffamondi/Bigotti with this artist, and suggested these were Italian versions of Bigot’s names. This theory was much disussed, and for a while many believed that there were two Trophime Bigots, father and son. It is now generally accepted that the two artists were the same man, who painted in two different styles according to the different demands of the Roman and Provençal markets; “It seems, however, that Bigot was simply adapting to new circumstances.” However acceptance of this theory is notably lower in Italy; the Galeria Doria Pamphili in Rome still attribute the boy with candle above to “Maestro Giacomo”, and the National Gallery at Palazzo Barberini hang works attributed to Bigot and the Candlelight Master in the same room, with the assertion that the styles and lighting are different.

This next work by Pietro Liberi is beautifully painted, romantic and elegiac.  He was active in the Veneto which is evident from the restricted palate (think Tintoretto and Veronese) and handling of paint.

Lot 49 Pietro Liberi (Padova 1605-1687 Venezia)
Compianto su Cristo morto
olio su tela
99,5×160,5 cm
cornice antica intagliata e dorata
Estimate: €40,000 – €60,000 ($53,006 – $79,509) TWO PHONE BIDDERS PUSHED THE BIDDING FROM AN OPENING OF €30,000 TO THE HAMMER PRICE OF €65,000.

An intriguing quality is gauzy treatment of the figures, suggesting otherworldliness and divinity, juxtaposed with the realistic depiction of the Crown of Thorns and nails in the foreground and the crisp edge of the white drapery.  The face of Christ is elegant, placid and sufficiently nuanced to suggest it was painted from a live model, while Mary and her attendants, the angels and putto look more like stock figures, which is effective in focusing attention back on the image of Christ.

The use of diagonals is well done. The strong downward left to right made up of the angels’ faces and the body of Christ, contrasts with the strongly implied right to left created by Mary and Christ’s heads, which are thrown back in opposite directions thus forcing the viewer’s eye.  This directionality is augmented by the largest and most clearly articulated angel’s wing.  Christ and the sheet on which he rests are also the brightest portion of the canvas, surrounded by literal and metaphorical darkness.

The treatment of some details, such as the hands of the Christ figure, is uneven.  The left hand is compositionally complex and a beautiful study in naturalism, while the right hand (and forearm) verges on clumsy.  This and other minor reservations, notwithstanding, I find this painting really intriguing and appealing. Here’s a segment from the Wikipedia entry about the artist: Liberi was born in Padua, his earliest training was with Alessandro Varotari (il Padovanino). He traveled extensively in Italy. During a voyage to Istanbul, he was captured into bondage for 8 months by pirates from Tunis. He was nicknamed il Libertino due to his frequent choice of salacious themes in cabinet pieces.”  Clearly, this in not one of his salaciously-themed cabinet pieces.

The last work is newly discovered, a Saint John the Baptist by Nicholas Regnier.

Lot 54 Nicolas Regnier (Maubeuge 1588-1667 Venezia)
San Giovanni Battista
olio su tela: 257,5×196,5 cm
Estimate: €400,000 – €600,000 ($530,057 – $795,086) BIDDING ON THIS LOT STOPPED AT €270,000 AND IT FAILED TO SELL.

Compositionally, this may derive from Caravaggio’s painting of the same subject now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum, though that work is more dynamic.  Nevertheless, this monumental canvas, with it’s obvious condition issues, is impressive.  For more about this artist, here’s part an informative and well illustrated entry on the artist from the Art Tribune:

Régnier was thought to be born in 1591 according to a mistaken reading of a birth certificate. In fact, he might have been born in 1588, certainly before 1593 in any case. After his first training under Abraham Janssens in Antwerp, documented only by Sandrardt, the young painter left for Italy. He stopped in Parma in 1616-1617 before arriving in Rome.
Unfortunately, there are no known works from his early years. Thanks to his master Janssens, and also perhaps Lionello Spada whom he must have met at the Farnèse court in Parma, Régnier soon became familiar with the Caravaggesque movement. Once in Rome (between May 1617 and Easter of 1620), he shared lodgings with David de Haen and Dirk Baburen, both of whom belonged to this school.

Along with Valentin de Boulogne, Régnier was one of the main adepts of the Manfrediana Methodus, a term which designates a Caravaggism reinterpreted through the prism of Bartolomeo Manfredi’s style. Régnier quickly oriented his manner towards a pursuit of refinement and gracefulness, which Annick Lemoine calls “a poetics of seduction” or “a Caravaggism of seduction”. In this, he is in direct opposition to the Northern Caravaggisti such as Honthorst and Baburen, whose art reflects an almost caricatural earthiness. After settling down in Venice, Régnier’s style became even more suave, influenced by the Bolognese painters, particularly Guido Reni who became one of his principal models.

After looking over these works, and judging simply from the online images, were I to take one of these paintings home, it would be the Liberi. It is wonderfully captivating.

Stolen Art & Antiquities returned to Italy

April 27, 2012

NOVELLARA 1511 - 1587
oil on copper
16 7/8 by 11 3/4 in.; 43 by 30 cm.
ESTIMATE 1,000,000-1,500,000 USD
Lot Sold: 1,497,000 USD ($1.3 million hammer price + buyer's premium)

Yesterday at the Italian Embassy in Washington, DC, a ceremony was held to repatriate art and antiquities that had been stolen or otherwise illegally exported from Italy, this painting by Lelio Orsi among them.

It’s a weird painting, and that’s the single note I wrote in my Sotheby’s catalogue for January 24, 2008 sale of Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, which is the last time I saw the work.  Turns out, according to Voice of America, it was was “smuggled into the US through false customs documents.”  Here’s the VOA News report which includes commentary by  Renato Miracco, the embassy’s extraordinary cultural attaché.

Along with the Orsi painting, pages torn from illuminated choirbooks and antiquities looted from archaeological sites were returned in a ceremony that included Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano and Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero. Looting Matters has additional coverage.

Here’s the complete entry from the 2008 Sotheby’s catalogue:


Victor Spark, New York; Private Collection, New York.


V. Romani, Lelio Orsi, Modena 1984, p. 38, footnotes 55 and 56, p. 113, reproduced fig. 23, and p. 170;
F. Frisoni, in E. Monducci & M. Pirondini eds., Lelio Orsi, exhibition catalogue, Reggio Emilia, Teatro Valli, December 5, 1987 – January 30, 1988, pp. 140-41, cat. no. 124, reproduced;
D. Ekserdjian, “Lelio Orsi, Book Review,” in The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXXX, no. 1024, July 1988, p. 539, reproduced fig. 62;
F. Cappelletti, in The Dictionary of Art, London and New York 1996, vol. 23, p. 574.


This exquisite copper is an extremely rare work by the idiosyncratic Emilian artist Lelio Orsi. The son of a painter, Orsi worked for much of his life in Reggio Emilia but in 1546, following accusations of his involvement in a murder plot, he fled back to his native Novellara. He stayed there for over a decade, traveling briefly to Venice in 1553 and to Rome in 1554-55. Orsi’s eccentric style successfully blends Correggio’s vivid use of colour, Raphael’s classicism, and the contorted forms of Michelangelo and Giulio Romano.

Although he was a prolific draughtsman and decorator, relatively few easel paintings by Orsi are known. This painting is unique in Orsi’s oeuvre, both for its subject matter and support: the use of copper is highly unusual. In a private communication, David Ekserdjian has pointed out that he believes this to be one of the earliest known paintings by any artist to use copper as a support and Vittoria Romani concurs, saying she is not aware of any documented works by Orsi on copper, nor of coppers by any other artist at such an early date.1 The sensuality of the subject matter, the preciosity of the copper support, and the intimate scale of the work all indicate that this painting was almost certainly commissioned by a private patron. The brilliant use of colour – bright blue sky with a burst of yellow above – and contorted mannerist forms are reminiscent of Correggio, whom Orsi much admired and emulated.2 Although dated to between 1546 and 1553 by Romani, who first published the picture, this copper has more recently been dated to shortly after 1560, by comparison with Orsi’s Conversion of Saint Paul drawings in Oxford and Cleveland, both of which are closely related to a Michelangelo design.3 A date of execution close to his Roman sojourn seems reasonable, given the overriding influence of Michelangelo and Raphael in this copper, but Orsi’s eccentric interpretation tempers the Michelangelesque tension and contortion of the figure of Diana with the Raphaelesque classicism and stillness of Leda. The neighing horses find parallels in Michelangelo and Giulio Romano, and resemble others in Orsi’s graphic oeuvre, further supporting a date of execution around 1560 or shortly afterwards.4

According to Greek mythology Leda – the wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta – was seduced by Jupiter after he came to her by the river in the form of a swan. As a result of their union she laid an egg (or two, according to different accounts), from which hatched the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux, and the mortal Helen and Clytemnestra. The theme of Leda and the Swan, popular in classical antiquity but relatively rare in Cinquecento painting, is unique in Orsi’s own oeuvre. The two most famous Renaissance treatments of the subject by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo are lost and known to us today only through copies, drawings and engravings.5 These differ considerably in spirit from the present work, for in these Leda is shown as a willing participant in the seduction;

Leonardo’s Leda smiles and allows the swan to place its wing protectively around her, and Michelangelo’s Leda is in the throes of a passionate embrace and appears to be kissing the swan’s beak. Orsi’s treatment of the subject is unconventional and much more unsettling. First of all the setting is not terrestrial but celestial: where Leonardo places Leda in a lush landscape beside a river, Orsi’s Leda stands on a cloud, in a sky of the deepest blue. The episode was said to have taken place at night and the figures are bathed in a supernatural light.6 Leda, dwarfed by the enormous swan, surrenders to Jupiter; her vulnerability emphasized by the protective pose of her hunched back and bent legs. She makes no attempt to fight or scream, and the neighing horses and fretful hounds beside Diana provide the only expression for Leda’s silent anguish.

The classicizing pose of Leda, so in contrast with the mannerist treatment of Diana above, is not surprising given the artist’s frequent recourse to classical sources. Orsi was obviously captivated by antiquity: he copied the Torso Belvedere and used it for the man lower left in a drawing of the Allegory of Summer in the Louvre;7 and one of the Dioscuri forms the basis for the man leading the horse in the Conversion of Saint Paul drawings in Oxford and Cleveland.8 In this copper the distinctive poses of Leda and the swan derive from a classical relief (see fig. 1). A 17th-century engraving (see fig. 2) of the composition by Jan de Bisschop (1628-1671)9 is, like Lelio Orsi’s painting, most likely based on Roman models of the relief. Since Orsi probably first visited Rome in the 1540s and went there again in 1554-55, it is quite plausible that he saw a Roman copy of the bas-relief in Rome; something which would further support a date of execution for the copper circa 1560 or shortly afterwards. Although Leda and the swan’s positions directly derive from this relief, Orsi has made the design entirely his own: whilst Bisschop introduces a palm tree to the left of his engraved composition Orsi has retained the simplicity of the original design, increasing the drama by outlining Leda and the swan against a brilliant blue sky. This serves to emphasize Leda’s exposure and vulnerability, the rich flat colour of the background contrasting with the delicate modeling of both Leda’s flesh and the swan’s feathery texture.

Despite his idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable style, the corpus of Orsi’s firmly attributed paintings remains surprisingly small. This is probably due to the fact that Orsi was not given his due attention until the latter part of the 20th century – he only gets a brief mention by Malvasia in the 17th and by Tiraboschi in the 18th century – and this is even more surprising given his reputation, attested to by the epitaph on his tomb – ‘in architectura magno in pictura maiori et in deliniamentis optimo’.10

1 See Romani, under Literature, p. 38, footnote 55.
2 For Correggio’s influence on Orsi see, for example, the latter’s Ecce Homo in Montpelier, Musée Fabre, which closely resembles the painting of the same subject in the National Gallery, London, by Correggio (to whom the Montpelier picture was once attributed): see Frisoni, under Literature, p. 184, cat. no. 157, reproduced.
3 Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, inv. no. 422A, and Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art, inv. no. 51.348; see Frisoni, op. cit., pp. 141-42, cat. nos. 125 and 126, both reproduced. Orsi’s interest in Michelangelo at this time also manifests itself in paintings copying Michelangelo’s designs: see, for example, Orsi’s Annunciation (private collection) that repeats a composition adopted by Marcello Venusti, after a Michelangelo drawing (Frisoni, ibid., p. 151 and p. 166, cat. no. 140, reproduced).
4 As well as the Oxford and Cleveland sheets, compare Orsi’s sheet of Fight between horses and Fight between lions and men on horseback, both in private collections: Frisoni, ibid., p. 145, cat. nos. 131 and 132, both reproduced.
5 Leonardo’s design, a source of inspiration also for his pupils Cesare da Sesto and Giampietrino, shows Leda standing and apparently smiling, with the swan’s wing drawn protectively behind her. Michelangelo’s interpretation also shows Leda as a willing participant: she reclines, with her left arm hanging limply beside her, and although the swan has forced itself upon her she gives in to the seduction, apparently without a fight despite her muscular body.
6 The goddess Diana, who was the daughter of Jupiter, symbolizes the moon (as the crescent on her forehead suggests).
7 Cabinet des Dessins, Louvre, Paris, inv. no. 10380; see M. Pirondini, in Monducci & Pirondini, under Literature, p. 56, cat. no. 11, reproduced.
8 Frisoni, op. cit., pp. 141-42, cat. nos. 125 and 126.

9 See Ekserdjian, under Literature, p. 539, reproduced fig. 61. The relief may also have been known to Cesare da Sesto, either directly or through contemporary engravings, for a similar composition (albeit with Leda’s head turned to the viewer) is recorded on a sheet in his sketchbook in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (see M. Carminati, Cesare da Sesto 1477-1523, Milan 1994, p. 252, cat. no. D28, reproduced).

10 ‘Great in architecture, better in painting, and best in drawing’; cited by Ekserdjian, op. cit., p. 539.

Upcoming sale of Cambodian Antiquities with Shaky or Non-Existent Provenance – UPDATED

April 25, 2012

Lot 522, Provenance: ??
A FINE SANDSTONE HEAD OF A MALE DEITY. Khmer, Pre Rup style, 10th c.
Height 35 cm.
Estimate: CHF 20 000.- / 30 000.- (€ 16 670.- / 25 000.-)

UPDATE – The online auction catalogue for this sale has the same result for all of the lots in this article: “Unsold / no responsibility is taken for the correctness of this information.”  It’s unclear whether these lots failed to sell or if they were withdrawn from sale.

The May sales of Asian art and antiquities at Galerie Koller in Zurich include a selection of Cambodian antiquities that have shaky or non-existent provenance (i.e., history of ownership).  Given the ongoing tussle over the disposition of a possibly looted Khmer statue currently with Sotheby’s, why would an auction house offer up works for which there is no clear provenance?  On pages 188-193 of the auction catalogue there are several items, including a beautiful bust (Lot 522, above) that should have the auction house and potential buyer’s very concerned.  Five lots have no provenance whatsoever, four have the nebulous provenance “Swiss private collection” (the Swiss Freeport system has too often been abused as a method for laundering the provenance of antiquities), and two are listed as having been purchased in the mid to late 1980s, before Cambodia’s 1993 law nationalizing its cultural heritage, but well after the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was adopted in November 1970.  As the New York Times reported, ‘In 2004 the Association of Art Museum Directors declared “member museums should not acquire” any undocumented works “that were removed after November 1970, regardless of any applicable statutes of limitation.”’ The International Council of Museums (ICOM) Red List of Cambodian Antiquities at Risk warns specifically about the types of work Koller is offering.

To be fair, there could be good, clear title to all of these items that includes documented provenance demonstrating their original export from Cambodia was legally done.

Since most of these works don’t have anything near that (at least not published in the catalogue), potential buyers should avoid them.

Lot 523, Provenance: Swiss private collection.
Khmer, Bayon, 13th c. Height 27 cm. Wood stand.
Estimate: CHF 9 000.- / 12 000.- (€ 7 500.- / 10 000.-)

Lot 524, Provenance: Purchased at „Au Vieux Venise“, Paris, 1989 (invoice available).
A SANDSTONE HEAD OF VISHNU. Khmer, pre-Angkor, 7th/8th c. Height 24.5 cm. Probably slightly retouched.
Estimate: CHF 10 000.- / 15 000.- (€ 8 330.- / 12 500.-)

Lot 525, Provenance: ??
Khmer, 11th/12th c. Height 36 cm.
Estimate: CHF 6 000.- / 8 000.- (€ 5 000.- / 6 670.-)

Lot 526, Provenance: ??
A GREY SANDSTONE SHIVA LINGAM. Khmer, Angkor Wat style, 12th c. Height 44.5 cm.
Estimate: CHF 6 000.- / 9 000.- (€ 5 000.- / 7 500.-)

Lot 527, Provenance: ??
A SANDSTONE TORSO OF A MALE DEITY. Khmer, Angkor Wat, 12th c. Height 46.5 cm. Stand.
Estimate: CHF 5 000.- / 8 000.- (€ 4 170.- / 6 670.-)

Lot 528, Provenance: ??
A BRONZE FIGURE OF BUDDHA MUCHALINDA. Khmer/ Lopburi, 13th c. Height 24 cm.
Estimate: CHF 2 000.- / 3 000.- (€ 1 670.- / 2 500.-)

Lot 529, Provenance: Swiss private collection.
A FINE BRONZE FIGURE OF PRAJNAPARAMITA. Khmer, 12th/13th c. Height 17 cm.
Estimate: CHF 4 000.- / 6 000.- (€ 3 330.- / 5 000.-)

Lot 531, Provenance: Swiss private collection.
A BRONZE STANDING FIGURE OF BUDDHA. Khmer, Lopburi, 13th c. Height 20.5 cm.
Estimate: CHF 4 000.- / 6 000.- (€ 3 330.- / 5 000.-)

Lot 530, Provenance: Swiss private collection, purchased in Chiangmai 1986.
A BRONZE STANDING FIGURE OF BUDDHA. Khmer, Lopburi, 12th/13th c., height 30.5 cm. Wood stand.
Estimate: CHF 2 000.- / 3 000.- (€ 1 670.- / 2 500.-)

True! “One of the most beautiful exhibitions I have ever seen”- NY Times, Ken Johnson

April 24, 2012

Itō Jakuchū
Mandarin Ducks in Snow, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of
30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
1759, second month
ink and colors on silk
142.0 x 79.8 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

“Colorful Realm of Living Beings”, the rather humble sounding title for a collection of 30 18th century Japanese hanging scrolls by Itō Jakuchū on view at the National Gallery of Art is actually an astonishing artistic achievement; and all hyperbole aside, this exhibition really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The ebullient New York Times review does not oversell the wonder of Colorful Realm.

Many layers of genius — including technical proficiency, compositional bravado, knife edge balancing of verisimilitude and exaggeration, and remarkable juxtapositions of color — are involved in these works, which stem from Chinese and Korean bird and flower painting precedents.  Jakuchū (1716-1800) not only mastered those earlier works through copy and repetition, he expanded the vocabulary of fauna depicted, created winning and delightfully amusing tableaux and established new artistic boundaries within the confines of a centuries old artistic tradition.

The series, started in 1757, took a decade to complete and resided in the Shōkokuji Monastery in Kyoto.  Jakuchū originally gave 24 scrolls to the monastery and later added the remaining six.  He also created the Śākyamuni Triptych, scroll paintings of The Buddha Śākyamuni, Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, which are also on view at the gallery.

A five minute gallery video provides a look at the installed exhibition, an interview with the exhibition’s curator, and excerpts from the press reception and Buddhist ceremony that opened Colorful Realms.

Jakuchū’s compositions range from airy (as in Lotus Pond and Fish and the exhibition’s earliest and most traditional work Peonies and Butterflies) to outrageously congested (Nandina and Rooster and other chicken and rooster scrolls). Indeed, the artist’s use of chickens and roosters, ordinary fowl, is among his many compositional innovations.  He find in them both humor (as he does with the small octopus clinging to the tentacle of a larger octopus in Fish), and a striking protagonist.

It is the technical virtuosity that absolutely astounds — the intricate and delicate depiction of flora and fauna, the commanding brushwork and the death defying articulation of texture. In addition, Jakuchū painted on the reverse of many scrolls adding depth, texture and ambiance to the tableaux.

Itō Jakuchū
Roses and Small Bird, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30
vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1761-1765
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.7 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Lotus Pond and Fish, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30
vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1761-1765
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.7 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Nandina and Rooster, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30
vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1761-1765
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.9 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Fish, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of 30 vertical hanging
scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1765-1766
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.4 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Wild Goose and Reeds, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of
30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1765-1766
ink and colors on silk
142.6 x 79.3 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

File name: 3234-001.jpg
Itō Jakuchū
Peonies and Butterflies, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set of
30 vertical hanging scrolls, c. 1757–1766
c. 1757
ink and colors on silk
142.0 x 79.8 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
Old Pine Tree and Peacock, from Colorful Realm of Living Beings, set
of 30 vertical hanging scrolls
c. 1757–1766, c. 1759-1761
ink and colors on silk, with gold
142.9 x 79.6 cm
Sannomaru Shōzōkan (The Museum of the Imperial Collections), The
Imperial Household Agency, Tokyo

Itō Jakuchū
The Buddha kyamuni, from Śākyamuni Triptych, c. first half of the
ink and colors on silk
142.4 x 79 cm
Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto

Itō Jakuchū
The Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, from Śākyamuni Triptych, c. first half of
the 1760s
ink and colors on silk
142.4 x 79 cm
Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto

The Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, from Śākyamuni Triptych, c. first
half of the 1760s
ink and colors on silk
142.4 x 79 cm
Jōtenkaku Museum, Shōkokuji Monastery, Kyoto

The entire series is on view through April 29, 2012 as part of the centennial celebration of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to the nation’s capital.  The gallery is seeing record numbers of attendees and has extended visiting hours for the final days of the exhibition.

That the scrolls survive and as a complete set is a near miracle (think of all the 14th and 15th century Italian altarpieces that were chopped up and sold off one predella panel and pinnacle at a time, so that they now exist like the scattered relics of so many dismembered saints).  That the entire set has been allowed to travel outside Japan for the first time ever is another near miracle bordering on divine intervention.  That you only have days left to see it means don’t delay.

New Developments on “Israeli Prisoners Dig Their Way to Early Christianity”

April 24, 2012

A prisoner wipes the dirt from an ancient tile mosaic. The inscription, in Greek, reads, "Lovers of God who contributed the Altar to the God Jesus Christ as a memorial." Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times.

A catchy November 2005 New York Times headline, “Israeli Prisoners Dig Their Way to Early Christianity”, points to a fascinating discovery — what may be the earliest church in the Holy Land, indeed in the world. The Meggido church in Tel Meggido, Israel, was discovered during a prison expansion project.  Now, Haaretz reports: “A plan to relocate the Megiddo prison and build in its stead a tourist site featuring the remains of the world’s most ancient Christian church is moving one step closer to fruition.”

As already reported in Haaretz, the prison would be moved two kilometers to the west. Project manager Gad Yaakov said that half a million visitors are expected to tour the site in the first year, with a moderate rise in the number of yearly visitors expected in following years.

Convicted felons clearing a mosaic uncovered within the confines of Megiddo Prison. The prison will be relocated in two years in order to construct a tourist center. Photo by: Eyal Warshavsky.

The church remains were unearthed four years ago, during prison renovations. The excavations revealed a mosaic floor, with three inscriptions. The one to the west of the mosaic reads, “The god-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” The inscription and other findings, such as coins, are believed to date from the third century.

The findings suggest that the Roman army that was positioned at the site was involved in Christian community rituals even before the institutionalization of the Christian church.

When the findings were unearthed archaeologists said that “it is likely that the inscription points to the antiquity of the building. At first there were tables that served an eating ceremony, and only later alters were added. That takes us back to an ancient period, before the institutionalization of churches with basilicas.”

When the inscription was found, archaeologist Yotam Tepper, who directed the excavations, called the findings “a substantial contribution to the study of the Roman Army in the eastern Roman Empire, to theological-Christian issues, to the consolidation of Christian rituals in the pre-Byzantine period and the mutual cultural influence with the adjacent Jewish community.”

The site is believed to be part of an ancient Jewish village named Kfar Othnay, mentioned in ancient sources. Nearby the Romans constructed the headquarters of the sixth legion and a city named Maximianopolis.

Shortly after the remains were discovered the Israel Antiquities Authority recommended relocating the Megiddo prison, a move which is expected to happen within two years. Hanan Erez, head of the Megiddo regional council, believes that the construction work on the tourist site will begin shortly after the prison is moved, and will not take very long.

The site will be called “Megiddo, the gate to the north.” It will include the Mosaic of the ancient prayer house, an archaeological garden, a restaurant, a multi-media presentation, a museum, a souvenir shop and the Ramat Menashe biosphere visitor center.

Yaakov said that “the location of the site, on the road to the north, and the site’s uniqueness as a major spiritual revelation for all Christians visiting Israel, will transform the site to a central target for tourists in Israel.” He added that the site will be “part of a master plan for the whole area that will include an industrial zone run by Jewish and Arab councils, a Jewish National Fund Park in the Keini stream, and more.

“Castle of the Slave” – inspired by one of the 7 Wonders of the World?

April 23, 2012

Qasr al-Abd was the centerpiece of the second-century B.C.E. family estate (known today as ‘Iraq al Amir) built by the Tobiads of Judah. Archaeologist and architect Stephen Rosenberg believes the ruin was built to be the burial monument of the Tobiads, modeled after the mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

New research by archaeologist Stephen Rosenberg suggests this complex in Jordan is based one of the ancient seven wonders of the world – the mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The article in the new Biblical Archaeology Review, previewed in Bible History Daily, argues the site was a burial complex for the Tobiad family.  Here’s an excerpt:

Qasr al-Abd, or Castle of the Slave, is a monumental, Hellenistic-style ruin located amid lush fields in Jordan’s Wadi as-Seer valley, not far from Amman. The centerpiece of a grand second-century B.C.E. estate built by the Jewish Tobiad family (known today as ‘Iraq al Amir), it has long been a mystery why the Tobiads built this impressive structure. Was it a temple? A hunting lodge? A pleasure palace? A tomb?

Based on the monument’s elaborate design, decoration and the evidence from the ‘Iraq al Amir estate, Stephen Rosenberg, author of “‘Castle of the Slave’—Mystery Solved” in the May/June 2012 issue ofBiblical Archaeology Review, proposes the ruin was actually the burial monument of the Tobiads, modeled after the mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

According to Rosenberg, Qasr al-Abd has many features characteristic of a monumental, Hellenistic-style mausoleum. First, the building’s two-story exterior is adorned with statues and carvings of various animals, including lions, eagles and panthers. Depictions of such powerful, majestic animals are often found in funerary contexts in the ancient world (including the mausoleum at Halicarnassus) and likely provided Qasr al-Abd, the burial monument of the Tobiads, with similar symbolism and meaning.

To the north of the Tobiads’ ‘Iraq al Amir estate are caves that were used to inter the family’s dead before the bones were finally deposited inside the mausoleum. The entrances to the caves are inscribed with the family name of the Tobiads. Photo by Erich Lessing.

Choice Dutch Old Masters at Lempertz

April 23, 2012

UPDATED WITH SALE RESULTS – A handful of pictures coming to auction at Lempertz May could easily make the beginnings of a fine 17th century Dutch collection.  Specifically, a classic winter skating scene by Hedrick Avercamp, a romanticized artist in his studio portrait/genre painting by Gerrit Dou and a rare still life by Jan Fris.  The three are solid examples of each artist’s styles and capabilities, through none could be said to be a showy masterpiece (for those who go for that sort of thing).  Additional works of interest include those by Philips Wouwerman, Simon de Vlieger, and Jan Van Der Heyden.

Lot 1215. HENDRICK AVERCAMP, 1585 Amsterdam – 1634 Kampen, WINTER SCENERY
Monogrammed lower left: HA (joined), Oil on panel. 31 x 52,5 cm.
Estimate: EUR 800,000 – 1,200,000 ($ 1,052,424 – 1,578,636). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 1.89 MILLION INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

Lot 1258. GERRIT DOU, 1613 Leiden – 1675 Leiden, OLD MAN IN HIS STUDIO
Signed and dated lower right: GDov 1649 (on the book), Oil on panel. 68,2 x 53,5 cm.
Estimate: EUR 1,800,000 – 2,200,000 ($2,367,954 – 2,894,166). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 3.785 MILLION INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

The Dou is rich in detail, and texture, texture, texture! The composition is a dramatic stage-like setting created by the framing arch, open drapery and array of items in the foreground; the memento mori of the putti on the column and the suspended cupid juxtaposed with the elderly artist; the wonderful contrast of textures including the sheen of the drapery, the worn and dented surface of the jug, the pearlescent shell interior, the book of prints, the feathers of the dead peacock, the plaster bust and the worn wooden table.  The elderly artist is carefully articulated, his attire and face also a delightful study of textures.  Pretty much everything you want in a really nice Dou.

Catalogue entry:

Gerrit Dou was 36 years old when he produced the painting ‘Painter in his Studio’ in 1649. It shows and old man lost in concentration on his work. He is elegantly dressed in a grey cloak over a brown jacket, such as the scholars used to wear, together with a beret of red-brown velvet. Because of the position of the easel and canvas we are unable to see what the man is painting. It could be the objects laid out on the table in the forground, but these are directed at the viewer and therefore wouldn’t be seen in the same way by the painter.

The scene is set in a tall room, lit by a window on the left hand side. The falling light accentuates the head of the painter, which is reflected in the shiny surface of a bronze tankard, and a gopper-coloured, gathered curtain on the right. If the curtains were drawn, the scene would hidden, therefore giving the feeling of an excerpt on a theatre stage.

The painting is, in many ways, an unusual work by Gerrit Dou. Measuring 68 x 53 cm it belongs to the very few ‘large’ pictures from his hand. The composition on the other hand is less detailed than his other works. Where these are mostly very colourful, this work offers a finely graduated, particularly subtle colour palette built from various tones of brown, grey, gold and copper with white and dark blue lending contrast.
The key difference to the great part of Dou’s paintings lies in the fact that it is not a genre picture, and also not a self-portrait – of which Dou had produced many.

Eric Sluitjer and Ronni Baur have studied the iconography of this picture and have established that it depicts an allegory to the art of painting. In a self-referential way, Dou is displaying his interpretation of painting. At the age of 15 he entered Renbrandt’s workshop and worked in close proximity to him up until he left for Amsterdam in 1631. He lived his whole life in the same house in Leiden, and despite great success, he lived simply and never married. His life consisted only of painting, at which he worked with great diligence, patience and devotion. The same could also be said for the painter in this picture. The emergence of a work of the art of painting also begins with inspiration, represented here by the flying Putto, shooting his arrow. His job is the ‘imitatio’, the imitation of nature, for which the objects laid out in the forground stand. The great painter must also study art and poetry himself, here reflected in the arrangement of the plaster busts, the open books and the musical instruments.

Sluijter noted that Gerrit Dou deliberately chose the peacock here to demonstrate the competition between ‘natura’ and ‘pictura’, between nature and painting. Here it may also be read that in the representation of nature we are overcoming its transience. Whilst the colourful feathers of the peacock are preserved or frozen in painting, something which nature is incapable of doing, the peacock itself has already been subjected to its temporary fate.

It is also interesting to note that this animal, dominantly placed in the forground, has been a symbol of vanity since the Antiquity. According to Dou, vanity damages the painter, whereas patience should be one of its principles. This is represented by the illustration in the open book which shows the biblical characters of Tobit and Anna: patiently waiting for his son, Tobit tends to the fire whilst Anna has the endless task of spinnging wool.

At the time this work was painted, described by Ronni Baer as ‘one of his most beautiful’, Dou was of those painters, famous in all Europe, whose works were particularly in demand and expensive. He was said to be the founder of the so-called ‘Leidener fine painters’. At the age of 28 his patron, the historian and Mayor of Leiden, Jan Orler, named him as a painter, whose style should be imitated by all young painters. In fact, many artists of the following generations absorbed his precise painting style and his appealing ‘window pictures’ together with his typical representation of single motifs.

Lot 1286. JAN FRIS, 1627 Amsterdam – 1672 Amsterdam, TOEBACKJE
Signed and dated lower right: J. Fris 1665, Oil on panel. 49 x 42 cm.
Estimate: EUR 120,000 – 140,000 ($157,864 – 184,174). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 693,280 INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

This is a really handsome work by a very obscure artist.  Here’s the catalogue entry:

The entire oeuvre of the Amsterdam painter Jan Fris is not very extensive, therefore, signed and authentic works by his hand are quite rare. This painting from his mature period shows a so-called “Toebackje”, a still life with tobacco. Bergström classifies this theme as a Vanitas still life where painter and viewer were supposed to reflect the passage of all worldly things (I. Bergström: Dutch Still Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century, London, New York 1956, p. 154 ff.). Vanitas paintings guide the viewer to reflect and contemplate deeply the mazes of the world, the vain pursuit for power, fame and enjoyment, and confront him with his own mortality and and the vanishing of time (H.J. Raupe: Dutch Painting of the Seventeenth Century, Münster 2004).

On a tabletop the painter has distributed several objects, in the centre, a white clay pipe is prominently shown, its mouthpiece emitting a fine line of smoke. Next to it extinguishing pieces of coal in a broken clay vessel can be seen, while at the back an undamaged Raeren jug with the Amsterdam coat of arms is displayed. On the left is a deck of cards with the six-of-hearts at the front left. In a Vanitas painting, the cards represent the game that is not only a waste of time but also of money.

Monogrammed lower left: PHLS. W (PHLS joined), Oil on panel. 35,6 x 40,6 cm.
Estimate: EUR 200,000 – 250,000 ($263,106 – 328,883). THIS LOT SOLD VOR EUR 317,200 INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

Catalogue entry:

In a landscape in the evening that is coloured in a warm light by the sun, huntsmen rest at an inn to take some refreshments. The inn with the maid and her children represent genre-like elements, but the protagonists of this painting are the huntsmen whom Wouwerman depicts in different positions, showing them en face, from the side and from behind, whereby he does not forget to place his hallmark, the white horse, in the centre of the composition. But the most important figure within the figural composition is the horseman in the right centre shown from behind. He is painted in bright colours and is depicted isolated from the other figures, so that his refined silhouette stands out against the gloomy sky.

Birgit Schumacher dates this painting to the second half of the 1650s, when Philips Wouwerman was at the height of his career, developing an individual style and succeeding on the art market. Schumacher has characterised this period with terms like “sovereignity” and “elegant refinement.” In this painting, the elegant refinement can be seen in the brilliant palette, the artistic sovereignity in the bold invention of the central figure who turns his back towards the beholder.

Lot 1263. PHILIPS WOUWERMAN, 1619 Haarlem – 1668 Haarlem, DEPART FOR A FALCONERY
Monogrammed lower left: PHL. W (PHL ligiert), Oil on panel. 47 x 63 cm.
Estimate: EUR 220,000 – 260,000 ($289,417 – 342,038). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 341,600 INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

Catalogue entry:

The landscape shows a hunting party that is about to depart for a falconry. The huntsmen, servants, horses, and dogs have gathered in front of a castle, and Wouwerman depicts them in a rhythmical figural composition, leading the beholder from right to left, from the horseman depicted en face to the elegant pair that steps down the staircase of the castle. The warm light, the picturesque castle with its Neptune fountain or the lady with the parasol give the landscape a southern atmosphere characteristic for Wouwerman´s landscapes.
This painting has been dated to around 1665/1668 by Birgit Schumacher who assumes that it was once the pendant of a landscape depicting the return from the hunt (Schumacher 2006, no. A225). Wouwerman´s landscapes with hunting parties often did not show the hunt itself, but the departure, the rest during or the return from the hunt, allowing the artist to depict elegant hunters with their precious horses. There was a constant high demand for landscapes with such elegant and refined figural staffage and warm, brilliant colours. The Dutch society, becoming wealthy and powerful, adopted an aristocratic taste in the middle of the 17th century that Wouwerman perfectly fulfilled with such landscapes. To satisfy the high demand, Wouwerman had his workshop make copies of his landscapes. Of this painting, a few have survived, one being in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich.

Detail Lot 1263. PHILIPS WOUWERMAN, 1619 Haarlem – 1668 Haarlem, DEPART FOR A FALCONERY

The solemnity of the upper left hand of the painting with its open sky and scant clouds is offset and balanced by the near chaos of the lower right hand section with all manner of people and animals (and the triton bearing figure on that fountain) kicking about.

Detail Lot 1263. PHILIPS WOUWERMAN, 1619 Haarlem – 1668 Haarlem, DEPART FOR A FALCONERY

Lot 1238. ANTHONY VAN DYCK , copy after, 1599 Antwerp – 1640 London, SELF PORTRAIT
Oil on canvas. 80 x 61 cm.
Estimate: EUR 30,000 – 40,000 ($39,466 – 52,621). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 512,400 INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

Part of the challenge of collecting Old Masters is issues of attribution and the painting above is an excellent example as the opening line of the catalogue entry notes: “This self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was long considered to be an authentic work by the artist because of its high quality.” It’s a copy after a lost original.  The painting is nonetheless arresting.  The sitter’s left eye almost bores a hole through the viewer and treatment of the face brings the subject palpably to life.  We may yet see this re-ascribed to Van Dyck.

Catalogue entry:

This self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was long considered to be an authentic work by the artist because of its high quality. Scholars like Gustav Glück, Wilhelm R. Valentiner, Ludwig Burchard und Erik Larssen have ascribed it to van Dyck. In fact, is a copy after a lost original.

The self-portrait depicts van Dyck with a golden chain, probably the one he received from Charles I. as a knight of the English kingdom. In an apparently spontaneous turn he looks at the beholder, holding his black coat elegantly in his right hand. The painting is of importance for the self representation of the artist as Van Dyck used the head for one of his rare etchings by his own hand. This etching again was altered by Jacob Neeffs after van Dyck´s death and was used for the frontispiece of an edition of the Iconographia, van Dycks collection of famous men of his time. Thus this portrait was to shape van Dyck´s posthumous image.

Signed lower left: S de Vlieger (on the boat), Oil on panel (parquetted). 43 x 54 cm.
Estimate: EUR 140,000 – 180,000 ($184,174 – 236,795). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 231,800 INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

There’s a compelling mundane-ness to this coastal scene with this group of figures in the lower right corner in conversation (while the dog impatiently awaits his master).  The sharp ess-curve in the shoreline that separates the two boats in the foreground is especially effective and helps animate the figure in the water (foreground, center). The large vessel under sail (center, right ) does not add any compositional strength to the picture (at least as viewed in digital form). The ambiguous articulation of the clouds, however, allows us to focus on the more crisply detailed foreground activity.

Lot 1319. JAN VAN DER HEYDEN, 1637 Gorinchem – 1712 Amsterdam, VIEW OF A GRACHT IN AMSTERDAM
Oil on panel. 39 x 40 cm.
Estimate: EUR 300,000 – 400,000 ($394,659 – 526,212). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 544,720 INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM. 

I like this painting for what it’s not – a celebration of Amsterdam through its architecture.  Those sorts of paintings force one to look up as though on a walking tour of a city’s architecture. The buildings here are largely shielded by trees, offering only a peek at some details – doors, windows, chimney’s, caryatids and other embellishments.

Detail Lot 1319. JAN VAN DER HEYDEN, 1637 Gorinchem – 1712 Amsterdam, VIEW OF A GRACHT IN AMSTERDAM

One’s eye is forced to look at the foreground precisely because the remainder is obscured.  Rather than bright red brick and gleaming whiteness, we have to confront the streets one has to traverse (and scrape from your feet before entering the house), the way the water meets the edges of the somewhat crumbled embankments and the grit of daily life.

Detail Lot 1319. JAN VAN DER HEYDEN, 1637 Gorinchem – 1712 Amsterdam, VIEW OF A GRACHT IN AMSTERDAM

Here the prosperous city is humanized.  A child watches someone sweeping. The construction materials of the embankment on which they stand — brick and timber — are quietly articulated.  Behind the two, other figures sit and talk.  There is the palpable sense of everyday activities that could be happening now, if only for the telltale period attire. Compositionally the left to right diagonal of the trees, repeated by the cloud structure, forces our eye to this simple, pedestrian drama.

Estimate: EUR 2,500 – 3,000 ($3,289 – 3,947). THIS LOT SOLD FOR EUR 4,390 INCLUDING BUYER’S PREMIUM.

This final piece is a fascinating mystery.  The carving is reasonably competent but it’s the composition that intrigues and begs for further study.  How is it that all these elements including broken crockery and tumbled tankard and the two figures add up to an allegory of melancholy? Are these two Adam & Eve after the fall (in some very revised, post-frat house party way)? And who are all the tiny figures to the left of the female figure’s crossed legs? Throw into the mix some astrological symbols, the Golgotha-like mound on which the two figures rest and the blasted tree trunks. Perhaps this is making more of what might be a fairly pedestrian carving, but I love it.  Any information readers have about the history and iconography that supports this being an allegory of melancholy would be very welcome.

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