Barnes, Burrell and a Beck Memorial Lecture: “Philippe Mercier Watteau’s English Follower” ~ by Martin Eidelberg
In 1991 a restorer brought Professor James Beck of Columbia University to trial in four Italian cities on charges of aggravated criminal slander. (Beck’s comments to one journalist had been carried in four regional newspapers.) Facing a possible three years jail sentence and ruinous, punitive damages – the restorer demanded 60 million lire for “material and moral damages” – Beck was exposed, vulnerable, alone. The restorer had sued Beck but not the four newspapers that had carried the allegedly damaging comments by the world’s leading authority on Jacopo della Quercia, whose famous marble carving in Lucca Cathedral, The Ilaria del Carretto, had been stripped of its ancient patina in a “conservation treatment” that included being blasted with particles to remove abrasions and scratches and saturated with penetrating oil to produce a homogeneously shiny surface (see Figs. 2 and 3). Despite the awfulness of the restoration everyone expected Beck to lose. One person who knew that he was going to lose – the trial judge in Florence – told the prosecuting lawyer as they left the court building together for lunch on the first day of the trial that he would find the scholar guilty: “Eh, but I shall convict him”.
Fortunately, that declared intention was overhead by an intern-lawyer and former policeman who happened to be working for Beck’s own lawyer. The judge and the lawyer disputed the attributed words but not the fact that they had left the court talking to each other about the case. Despite their joint denial, eventually, the judge was replaced and Beck was acquitted. (The story of that trial is told in the book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” by James Beck and Michael Daley.) By then, Beck had resolved to set up an international organisation dedicated to speak and act on behalf of art against harmful practices and abusive or exploitative treatments. ArtWatch International was founded in 1992 to be that organisation.
When Beck died in 2007 we knew that the best way to honour his courageous stance was by continuing to campaign through ArtWatch. At the same time, to commemorate his achievements as a rigorous (Rudolph Wittkower-trained) scholar and highly popular teacher, we instigated an annual memorial lecture, alternating between London and New York, to be given by scholars of high esteem. We have been honoured by talks from Professors Hellmut Wohl and Charles Hope in London in 2009 and 2011, and by Professors Mark Zucker and David Freedberg in New York in 2010 and 2012.
The fifth lecture was given in London this year on September 30th by Professor Martin Eidelberg at the Society of Antiquaries of London in Burlington House. It was a sparkling and instructive occasion as Professor Eidelberg showed (through more than fifty PowerPoint slides) a succession of visual comparisons which deftly separated the subject of his talk, Watteau’s English follower, Philippe Mercier, from the many inferior works that had been attached to the artist as a kind of attributional flag of convenience, thereby exposing the intriguing conundrum of a painter of considerable quality who had remained a faithful pastichist of his chosen master, borrowing motifs at every step of his own career. An account of this elusive artistic entity will be carried in the next ArtWatch UK journal – just as the fourth lecture by Charles Hope (“The National Gallery Cleaning Controversy”) is carried in the current journal. Professor Eidelberg cites on his (excellent, as Selby Whittingham describes below) website, Watteau and His Circle, an anecdote about the friend of a colleague who responded to a general archaeology exam question with:
“an incredibly detailed answer about a minor type of Roman provincial pottery. The examiners were bowled over by this man’s extraordinary knowledge on such a minuscule topic, but then asked him why he had expended so much energy on a subject that only three or four people in the world knew anything about. His reply was ‘I realize that, but with them I have such interesting conversations.'”
Martin Eidelberg expresses the hope that his own essays will find a readership, encourage others’ research, lead to stimulating conversations on the art of Watteau and his circle. Certainly, his lecture on the 30th left the (distinguished) audience delighted and flattered to have been party to so discriminating and illuminating a conversation. Given the talk’s rarified subject it seemed appropriate to ask a specialist in the field, Selby Whittingham, who is Secretary of the Watteau Society, Donor Watch and The Independent Turner Society to offer a note on the speaker and his researches.
Dr Whittingham recalls:
“It is 29 years since I first met Martin Eidelberg at the colloquium at Paris to celebrate the tercentenary of Watteau’s birth, to which we both contributed, Martin on Watteau and his early master, Gillot. The speaker immediately preceding myself, Brian Allen, spoke about early imitators of Watteau in England, of whom “easily the most important” was Philip Mercier. Fifteen years earlier John Ingamells and the late Robert Raines, a founder member of the Watteau Society in 1984, held an exhibition on Mercier at York Art Gallery, followed by a catalogue of his works published fittingly by the Walpole Society (Horace Walpole having owned an actual Watteau, now at St Petersburg).
“As Martin’s conclusions will appear in his excellent Watteau blog, suffice it to say that he has once again challenged accepted views and causes us to revise our ideas about Watteau and his satellites. It was a rare privilege for a London audience to hear such an erudite talk, as the subject of Watteau long bypassed London, the blame for this being laid on the embargo put by Lady Wallace on the Wallace Collection from lending any of its pictures! However the accession of Christoph Vogtherr as its Director (successor but one to Ingamells) has now shown that need not be so, and that scholarly publications are not dependent on blockbuster loan exhibitions. On the other hand it is regrettable that an exhibition, mainly of photographs, on Watteau’s techniques held just after the tercentenary at Brussels never transferred, as its organisers had wished, to England, as the matter would have been of great interest to supporters of ArtWatch, some of whom will remember how a conservation mistake was shown by Martin Eidelberg at a previous meeting to have obliterated additions to a painting made by Watteau himself.”
The earlier ArtWatch talk to which Selby Whittingham refers was much appreciated by James Beck. As well as providing a platform for good talks, Artwatch soon discovered that people feel freer to approach and pass on intelligence to a dedicated organisation than to individuals. One of the first to do so was Nick Tinari, a young electrical engineer and devoted student at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. He brought news of an attempt to overturn a prohibition on loans of art works from the Barnes Foundation’s fabulous collection of modern paintings. This, indeed, was alarming: tours not only constitute greatly increased risks (six-fold in the judgement of one insurer) but too often serve also as pretexts for “conservation treatments”. With the Barnes collection (as with that of the Sterling and Francine Clark collection – see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”), the now-at-risk paintings were in the best, which is to say, least-restored conditions.
The justification for the proposed breach of a fabulously generous donor’s wishes and conditions was that money could be raised through a foreign tour of key works in the collection to make “conservation” improvements to the building in which the collection was housed. Alleged conservation needs provide morally-coercive cover for many professional expansions and building projects. Tinari saw the proposal as a ruse contemptuous of Barnes’ intentions and philosophy. Events proved him right – the assets of an institution were effectively hi-jacked and its educational purpose greatly subverted. The story of that heist has been well told (and see Tinari’s own comments below). Less sufficiently appreciated is Tinari’s own remarkable and tenacious defence of Barnes’ wishes and instructions against the hot-shot lawyers of the would-be institutional transformers. Those encounters so sharpened his awareness of and appetite for the law that he turned to law school himself and now works as a patents attorney.
Artwatch has always seen itself as something of a standard bearer and supporter of other worthy autonomous campaigns on Art’s behalf. James Beck had great fondness for courageous campaigning individuals and created a small prize which he named after the New York painter Frank Mason. Mason, a longstanding and popular traditionalist teacher at New York’s famous Art Students League (among his student/devotees was the great American satirist and author of “The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe), was a pioneering anti-restoration figure in the US, leading marches of artists and students at the Art Students League to the Metropolitan Museum in protest at its picture restorations. In opposition to the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling he enlisted the engagement of the writer and former art critic of Time Magazine, Alexander Eliot. With the philosopher Thomas Molnar and the cultural historian Arcadi Nebolsine, Mason had founded The International Society for the Preservation of Art, which organisation was incorporated within ArtWatch International at its 1992 foundation.
At this year’s James Beck Memorial Lecture we awarded the 2013 Frank Mason Prize to Nick Tinari. He, like Selby Whittingham (the recipient of the 2011 Frank Mason Prize), has joined our campaign against Glasgow City Council’s attempt to have conditions of Sir William Burrell’s bequest overturned by the Scottish Parliament so as to permit foreign tours of works from the collection. The submissions to the Scottish Parliament made by Donor Watch, Nick Tinari, and ourselves, can be read at this site. Evidence given to the Parliamentary Committee by ArtWatch UK and others can be seen here.
Nick Tinari’s submission begins:
“I am a practicing attorney and an electrical engineer. I am also an alumnus of the education program of the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. Like Mr. Burrell, the founder of the Barnes Foundation, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, made his gift of an extensive art collection including the stipulation in an Indenture of Trust that none of the works should be loaned. This stipulation was temporarily breached in the 1990s based on the argument that the foundation was lacking funds to maintain theMerion gallery and that a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity had opened for a tour of the artwork to Washington D.C., Paris and Tokyo, with the French and Japanese venues paying a total of $7 million for the loan. This was one of the earliest instances of outright rental of artwork for exhibition and at the time the largest sum ever paid for such a transaction. Since then, the practice has become commonplace…”
In view of this great familarity with the Barnes case and its clear relevance to present considerations of the private bill presently before the Scottish Parliament, we asked Nick Tinari if he might address that relationship when making his response to receiving the Frank Mason Prize.
Nick Tinari’s response:
“I want to thank everyone at ArtWatch for awarding me the Frank Mason prize this year. I’ve worked alongside ArtWatch for many years and they are doing important work that no one else is addressing, namely, protecting our artistic heritage for the long haul, not just for the next exhibition or next year, but for as long as we will continue to recognize artistic genius, which hopefully is a very, very long way out.
“In addition to being a remarkable artist and teacher, Frank Mason was an early voice against imprudent “restoration” of artwork. We are in the small club of those who organized protests at museums, his in the 1970s at the Metropolitan Museum and mine in the 1990s at the Washington National Gallery and Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I met Jim Beck many years ago when I was trying to stop the dismantling of the Barnes Foundation in Merion Pennsylvania. One aspect of the plan to break the founder’s will was an international tour of 80 works from the collection. It was a story that is very similar to the current plans for the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. The trustees no longer had connections to the donor or his intent and they wanted to elevate their own agendas and “put the Barnes on the map,” which was, of course, ridiculous because the Barnes Foundation was world-renowned long before the arrival of new trustees.
“I asked Jim for help because the tour organizer, the Washington National Gallery of Art, wanted to remove varnish from many of the works, many of which came into the collection directly from the artists’ studios and thus were in pristine condition, even if not bright enough for the kinds of shows the National Gallery puts on.
“This was in the infancy of ArtWatch and Jim wrote some letters and we did press releases together and got some attention to the matter. In the end, the works were not touched for the tour, the rumor being that the French organizers objected to altering the paintings, although some of the same institutions have certainly made their own mistakes since then.
“Between 1993 and 1995, roughly 80 Barnes paintings did travel to Washington, Paris, Tokyo, Fort Worth, Toronto, Philadelphia and Munich. Because I did not believe the National Gallery’s officials’ promises about the supposedly careful transit conditions—they actually claimed the works would be safer on tour than in Merion—I examined the works myself in Washington, Paris, Fort Worth, Toronto and Philadelphia. Aided by the condition reports for the paintings prepared before the tour by the National Gallery and which I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, I documented damage to several works as they were moved from city to city.
“The most dramatic damage that I saw was in the form of stretcher creases extending the width of one of the four-meter-wide canvas sections of Matisse’s la Danse [see Figs. 24 and 25], which Barnes commissioned for three lunettes in the central gallery at Merion [see Fig. 17]. Contrary to National Gallery testimony that climate-controlled trucks would be used, the large panels were shipped from Merion to Washington in open-air flat bed trucks in 40 degree Fahrenheit weather and then laid flat and rolled up to a special opening in a large window at the National Gallery [see Fig. 19]. I did not witness it, but presumably, a similar procedure was used to move the panels to the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. We have photos of the arrival of the panels at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, again on open trucks and again laid flat before being moved into the building.
“These photos [Figs. 24 and 25] show the damage as I recorded it at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the painting was on display while the remaining works traveled to other cities. The National Gallery’s incredible response was that they simply had not noted the stretcher creases on the original condition reports. This is belied by an earlier report prepared by chief conservator, Ross Merrill, prior to removal of the work from the Barnes’ walls. In the report, Merrill states that the panels were in “remarkably good condition . . . taught and in plane.” An independent conservator, Paul Himmelstein, testified that the stretcher creases were typical of damage caused by laying a work horizontal against its stretchers, especially during a period of change in relative humidity. That is exactly what one would expect in bringing the work from the heated gallery in Merion to an unheated ride down I95 to Washington and then to be laid flat on the ground there. Prior to this, the work had not been off the wall or out of vertical position since Matisse saw it installed in 1934.
“A second instance of National Gallery mendacity involved the large Seurat les Poseuses, which a previous conservator at the Barnes Foundation stated should not travel [see Fig. 23]. The National Gallery approved the Seurat’s travel but, remarkably, changed its mind after the work had been to Washington, Paris and Tokyo. The claim was that the painting was not damaged but just should not travel any further. Of course this makes no sense. Either the painting was in the exact physical condition that it was in when it left Merion and thus fit for continued travel or it had been degraded since Merion, which was why it was no longer fit for travel. I suppose the third option is that, as the earlier conservator observed, the work was never in condition to travel and the National Gallery, having now exhibited the rare work, was willing to reverse itself, while not admitting that the decision to allow travel was wrong from the start. At least for now, the painting has this helpful footnote in its record should the urge to tour it arise again, although, as in the case of the Matisse, it is pretty clear that Alice in Wonderland rules apply to statements from the National Gallery.
“The final affront to the Matisse occurred only recently when it was moved from Merion to a new gallery in Philadelphia. As it played out, the agenda to put the Barnes Foundation “on the map” did not mean on a map of Merion, Pennsylvania but five miles away in center city Philadelphia. Anyone interested in the full saga of the complete reversal of Barnes’ wishes that the collection remain in Merion as primarily a teaching collection should view the 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal or consult John Anderson’s recently-updated book Art Held Hostage. As for the Matisse, the architects and the Barnes trustees responsible for dismantling Barnes’ express mandate for the collection’s use and display did not recreate in Philadelphia the same building details that Matisse worked to. Rather, in keeping with the Modernist design of the new Philadelphia gallery, they eliminated oak moldings above three windows that Matisse clearly used as visual pediments supporting the figures in the mural [see Figs. 17 and 18]. In place of these visual anchors, there is now a wide strip of bare wall with the figures in the work now adrift. This stripping of the Merion details is so obvious a disturbance of Matisse’s harmonization of the mural to the Merion building that it displays the complete and utter ignorance of both the architects and the Barnes trustees, some of whom fancy themselves as “important” collectors, whose mediocre accretions are regularly exhibited with the connivance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on whose board they also sit.
“The Barnes matter is unfortunately being replayed nearly verbatim in Glasgow at the Burrell Collection. The present stewards of the collection want to remove Burrell’s restriction against the works travelling outside of the UK. The premise is the same as it was in Merion, namely, there are insufficient funds to repair the gallery and touring the collection would raise funds, while the real motive, as with Barnes, is to use a tour of the artwork to put Glasgow “on the map.” ArtWatch has joined this present battle, and rightly so, because, collections like Barnes and Burrell are special islands of calm in a noisy field where art is now seen as a commercial enticement for tourist dollars. The conditions that Barnes and Burrell attached to their generous gifts should be observed not only because of the moral imperative, but because I think it is important to have at least some small part of the cultural heritage that is not subject to commercial pressures and dangers of endless tour schedules and inevitable damage and repair, not to mention the desire to brighten up works to suit viewers jaded by digital, LCD-lit images. Because Barnes had such restrictions on his collection, the works were not hastily cleaned when most museums were doing so. I fear that the rare condition of these works is now in jeopardy as they have now become part of Philadelphia’s self-declared “museum mile.”
“Jim Beck used to say that the experience between the artwork, and by extension the artist, and the viewer is a fragile one, an experience that cannot bear the weight of other agendas like blockbuster tours and “civic boosterism”. ArtWatch was founded to “speak for the art.” As the Barnes Foundation and Burrell Collection demonstrate, there will always be a need for that voice to be heard and I am glad to be a part of that effort.”
In his closing remarks Nick Tinari evoked one of James Beck’s greatest fears: that Art’s welfare is increasingly considered secondary to that of certain vested interests and professional groups. A key and modish contention employed by those who would overturn Burrell’s prohibition on foreign loans is that they wish to increase “access” to art – when art can only ever be in one place at a time and shuttling it around necessarily means that, in addition to being exposed to greatly increased risks, it becomes inaccessible to anyone except professional art handlers for long periods of time between venues, and entirely inaccessible in its home for what can be exremely long periods. A second contention (which we examine in a forthcoming post) is that shuffling art around facilitates scholarship. Many have complained that the scholarship connected with blockbuster exhibitions is often poor and meretricious. James Beck further held in the Art Review (“Facts and Fictions of Restoration”, January 1999), that the scholarly spin-off of such exhibitions constitutes a professional inducement to take risks:
“The ‘new’ interpretations of one artist or another which result from the blockbuster offer the art historian the opportunity to participate in the resulting symposia and international congresses. The same is true of following the restorations of well-known or important works. These too require a whole new apparatus. What art specialist would be willing to forego a role in these activities? This would mean being left out of the massive catalogues that usually accompany art spectaculars. For those who enjoy it, there also opportunities to participate in television interviews or appear on any CD-ROM merchandise. Each of these can involve substantial compensation.”
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Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone
We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)
Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.
Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)
On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.
With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.
With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.
To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.
Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.
By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.
With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.
By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.
Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.
What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?
If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?
When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?
In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.
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