Monday, December 24, 2012

MWA X: Lotto's Nativity

What better way to celebrate the holidays then with another beautiful Monthly Work of Art. This is The Nativity (image: NGA) by the Venetian Renaissance painter Lorenzo Lotto (ca. 1480-ca. 1557). This oil on panel work is dated to 1523. Lotto is seen by some art historians as a proto-Mannerist, and this is evident in the way that he contorts the bodies, especially that of the Christ child. The shimmering blue/pink of Mary's garments and her elongated body are other signs of early Mannerism at work. You'll notice, however, something strange in the picture, and I don't mean the naked flying babies at the top. In the upper left there's a crucifix. Its presence is clearly anachronistic (Jesus was just born in the picture), but it serves to foreshadow for the viewer his eventual death and the establishment of the Christian faith. My memories of growing up in the Catholic Church were that they always put more weight on his death and resurrection. Personally, I preferred the stories of his birth. So in that spirit I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Biography Clinic at the Leon Levy Center

A few days ago I received word that my application was accepted and I had been granted a seat in the first "biography clinic" sponsored by the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. According to the write-up, the clinic will cover "the nuts and bolts of life writing, from conception through completion." This 2-day workshop takes place next month and is geared toward those writing or planning to write their first biographies. In my application I spoke about my work on the sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866), the subject of my doctoral dissertation, and that upon completion my project will be the first survey of his life and work, which I hope to publish afterwards as a book. The carte-de-visite you see here of Gibson was taken by the photographer Frederic Jones in London about 1860 and shows Gibson as the gentleman-bohemian artist that he liked to suggest he was (image: NPG). Among the scheduled speakers for the workshop will be a publisher and agent, as well as a number of established biographers, so I'm definitely looking forward to attending this workshop and very grateful to the Leon Levy Center for accepting my application.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Random Musings 13

It's been a while since I posted one of these "Random Musings," briefly bringing in a hodge-podge of stories. This week there were a few things worth noting. The first has to do with the destruction...excuse me, "renovation"...of the New York Public Library's main research building. bklynbiblio followers may recall that I (and others!) have had a few things to say about this plan here and here. This week the NYPL released the official reconstruction plans, with swanky drawings (image above) and an eye-catching video on their website, to demonstrate how incredible the renovation will be to the public at large. The biggest attraction is that everyone will have wonderful views of Bryant Park. The worst part about the release of these plans is that it's going to have exactly the effect they want: suddenly now even I'm finding myself instinctively rethinking my criticism. That doesn't mean I support the changes; rather, it means the advertising about the changes is designed to make you think it's for the greater good and to make you forget all the negative things about the historic building and its collections. This is Mad Men in action, 2012 style. Even though this week noted preservationist Ada Louise Huxtable published an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal about the destruction of this building, this is one of those moments where it's obvious now that it's irrelevant what people think. The NYPL is moving forward with their plans.

Elsewhere in NYC depressing news, the MTA has announced that starting in March they're raising prices again for the subways and buses. My 30-day unlimited pass is going up to $112 and a regular one-way pass will now be $2.50. This is the 4th increase in 5 years. Word has it that FEMA is supposedly going to pay for the hundreds of millions of dollars of repairs and operational costs the MTA suffered as a result of Hurricane Sandy, so apparently this increase was just a regularly scheduled one. I have to admit that following the hurricane I was among those who were impressed by how quickly the MTA got mass transit back up and running, so I can't completely knock them these days. The fact that the MTA chairman Joseph J. Lhota is suddenly so popular for that must be the reason why he's resigning...and apparently running for Mayor next year.

On a more positive side of things, New York magazine has published their 8th annual "Reasons to Love NY," which is always a delightful reminder of why NYC is so great. Among the highlights this year: our governor (Andrew Cuomo) isn't afraid to talk about global warming; our mayor (Michael Bloomberg) isn't afraid to talk gun control; Donald Trump finally became the joke we always knew he was; you can get anything in a bodega; and we screw in public (my favorite of them all!). You can read all these and more here.

In the art world, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin, made news recently after conservation work on a 17th-century French painting suddenly revealed that the nude woman you see on the left was actually a mythological subject, with images of the god Zeus/Jupiter and a putto/Cupid. The over-painting probably had been done in the 19th century. It's always amazing to me how art can surprise us still sometimes. Here's an article about it from The Art Newspaper.

And last but not least, Archaeology magazine has issued their annual "Top 10 Discoveries" for 2012. They had previously discounted the whole Mayan-end-of-the-world story, so that wasn't on the list. Two of the more interesting that did make the list, however, are the discovery of the remains of "Frankenstein"-like creatures made of body parts from different people all laid to rest in a ritualistic grave in Scotland, and a 2000-year-old bag filled with coins and jewelry in Israel that was probably hidden by a woman during an uprising with the Romans. The best, however, has to be the image you see here. It's a 37,000-year-old stone engraving found in France depicting, of all things, a vulva. There's not much one can say after that, is there?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Auction Sales of 2012

Every once and a while, I like to track on bklynbiblio information about auction sales for works of art when I think something significant or monumental has happened. 2012 has turned out to be a rather startling year, with a number of paintings being sold at auction at incredible prices, some breaking records. The November sale of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's brought in $375 million, followed almost immediately by Christie's similar sale with a record of nearly $500 million in sales. These are simply staggering amounts of money for works of art. Two pictures by the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko sold at auction this year for more than $87 million and $75 million each. But my favorite Ab Ex painter, Franz Kline (1910-1962), reached a record high for his work with Untitled, 1957 (pictured above), which sold at Christie's New York in November for $40.4 million. (bklynbiblio readers may recall my having written about Kline when it was his 100th birthday. I love how his thick, exuberant application of monochromatic paints allude to Chinese/Japanese calligraphy.) Of course, the biggest sale of the year, however, was one of Edvard Munch's versions of The Scream, 1895, which sold at Sotheby's in May for $119.9 million, making it currently the most money ever paid for a work of art at auction (note that it's not an oil painting, but rather pastel on board). You can see this interesting slideshow with images from the Huffington Post with the 20 most expensive works sold at auction this year, ranging from the $119.9 million to a paltry $23 million for an abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky. It's at least somewhat reassuring to know that not everything in the top 20 was "modern"; works by John Constable and Raphael made it on the list too.

There's a decent Wikipedia entry on the "List of Most Expensive Paintings" that is worth consulting, as it combines both auction sales with private sales. As expensive as these aforementioned auction prices are, it's astounding to realize that this year's Munch still only ranks as #8 in the hierarchy, the most expensive painting ever sold being a version of Paul Cézanne's Card Players, 1892-93, for $259 million. What is perhaps most disturbing about this list, however, is that of the top 17 highest-ranking sale prices, 10 of them have all taken place just since the year 2006! This is extraordinary when you realize that we've supposedly been suffering through tough economic times these past few years. Clearly the so-called global 1% haven't been impacted and can easily inflate the art market.

And just when you think you've heard it all, this very week Christie's sold the painting you see here at its Victorian sale for a shocking record price of almost $1 million. The picture, The White Owl, 1856, by William James Webbe, was discovered in someone's attic, cleaned, and sold at auction for about 9 times more than the estimated price. Now, when compared to the sales mentioned above, this is really nothing. But for a Victorian picture, it's astounding. The picture is being called a Pre-Raphaelite work for its stark, photographic realism, but it's not officially a Pre-Raphaelite painting. I mean, I think it's fair to say that I'm relatively familiar with Victorian art, certainly the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, and I've never even heard of this guy! What gets me even more is...who the heck has $1 million to buy a picture of an owl? I think it shows that although one can talk all about these sales and declare them records of sale prices, in the long run they say more about the competitive streak among bidders who vie for these works, rather than the intrinsic value of the works themselves. It seems fair to say that most art collectors today clearly are more interested in art as a commodity and want to flip it to make a profit. Sadly, aesthetics and the work's value solely as a work of art no longer seem to be worth anything.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Aida at the Met

I felt quite privileged on Wednesday night to go to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. I was the guest of a friend (who for his own political reasons wishes to remain unidentified), who had been given amazing Grand Tier tickets for free. We went to see Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aida, which had its premiere in Cairo on December 24, 1871. The opera was fantastic. I had seen Aida in the past on television, but this was the first time I had seen it live. Although I'm not an active opera buff, I do enjoy going when I can, and Italian operas are of course the best (yes, I'm biased). I've seen live both Tosca (my favorite libretto) and La Traviata (possibly my favorite musical score) a number of times. Aida is the story of the pseudonymous Ethiopian princess enslaved to the Egyptian princess Amneris, both of whom are in love with the Egyptian general Radamès, although he is in love only with Aida. Of course there love is doomed and there's a tragic ending. For our performance, Aida was performed by soprano Liudmyla Monasyrska, and she did a truly magnificent job. She sang beautifully, and I was entranced by two of her arias. The other performers were quite good, although none of them stood out for me as well as the soprano. The orchestra was aptly conducted by Fabio Luisi, but I found the tuba player a bit too loud at times, to the point that he overpowered the singers. The famous triumphal march scene was spectacular, however, and the ballet sequences well choreographed. I realized that the triumphal march was scored by Verdi so that it could be repeated again and again to accommodate the size of the actual parade on stage. In some performances, an entire retinue of animals including elephants and giraffes have been included, extending the musical sequence a great deal, but in this performance they kept it to a minimum. It's a shame actually because it is such beautiful music, and believe me when I tell you that you know this music and love it as well. (Here's a YouTube video of the scene as performed in the past at the Met Opera.) I did find it strange to realize afterwards that all the main singers in the performance were from former Soviet countries (Ukraine, Russia, Georgia), which I think says much about the globalism of the arts in the new millennium.

On a personal note, it was interesting to go back to the Met Opera the other night (image at right was the view from our seats!), because I had not been to that theater since my very first live opera experience...30 years ago! Zio PL had gotten free tickets, and since Zia FL couldn't go, he took me. I remember my parents driving me into the City where we met him at Lincoln Center. We saw Rigoletto from one of the tiers...and I actually sat next to Mia Farrow and Woody Allen (they left during intermission). It was an amazing experience overall, but one I could hardly share with classmates the next day as they all thought it was weird that I would even want to go to an opera. In retrospect, it was definitely one of those rewarding experiences that I have cherished my whole life. I just hope it's not another 30 years before I go back there again!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12/12/12 at 12:12 PM

This is the last time in most of our lifetimes that we will ever encounter a series of recurring digits on the calendar and clock such as this exact moment. (The next one won't be until 1:01 AM on 01/01/2101!) So what are/were you doing at exactly that moment? Comment on my blog post, my Facebook page, Twitter site, or just email me, and I will record everyone's action for posterity. Assuming of course the world doesn't end, as some die-hard fatalists are predicting.

No sooner did I post this, then Tweet/Facebook it, I went back to preparing for my Asian art class and completely forgot about it! At 12:12 PM, I was engrossed in watching a video about the contemporary Chinese artist Lin Tianmiao, whose exhibition at the Asia Society is absolutely superb. You can see the Comments section for a few responses as to what you were doing as 12:12 PM, but here are others that were texted and emailed to me. You're action have been immortalized!
DPG: “Sitting at my desk in my office with country music wafting thru my walls, not my choice, thanks to the good ole boys in the shop. Wishing I were somewhere else, NYC would be my pick at this moment or most moments for that matter.”
AA: “I was in a meeting with an advertiser and didn’t even realize the milestone had passed.”
DC: “Buying a bag of chips and a can of soda.  Dirty chips cracked pepper and sea salt, San Pellegrino pompelmo (my favorite).”
GM: “I was reading New York magazine and listening to NPR. Even though I should be working.” (Earlier he had threatened to flash an old lady!)
MB: “Having lunch with Owen, I am assuming because I didn’t look at the clock.”
DL: "I was wishing it was Monday. I'm off of work on Monday!!! My co-worker was grieving. His mother passed away today at 12:12 exactly."
KB: "I was cooking pasta for lunch. And thinking about a budget for a grant application."
RM: "I was mentoring my 8-year-old girl."

Downton Abbey: 25 Days and Counting

According to the official countdown on the PBS website (as of when I'm writing this post), it's 25 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes until the premiere of season 3 of Downton Abbey. I can't wait! Once Christmas and New Year's are over, there's always a bit of a let-down as the worst of cold winter starts to kick in with no other major even to look forward to. So it's a great relief that one can look forward to this amazing television show, about which I've blogged before. Some of the actors have been in NYC promoting the upcoming season and they were on the Today show this morning. The new season already has aired in the UK, but it begins in the US on January 6. Shirley MacLaine joins the cast this season as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora's American mother, a perfect foil for the Dowager Countess, Lady Violet (Maggie Smith). After the wonderful post-World War I Christmas-themed finale (where a long-anticipated marriage proposal finally took place), rumor has it the wedding will go forward but not without a few bumps in the road, including word that the family fortune has gone up in smoke. And will poor Mr. Bates the valet finally be released from prison so he and Anna, the head maid, can be together as we all so desperately want them to be? Let's face it: the show is  basically a big romantic soap opera. But it's SO good! What makes the show superb is the writing, carried out so adeptly by a fantastic crew of actors and gilded with amazing costumes and sets. If you haven't seen seasons 1 or 2 of this show yet, you can stream all the episodes on Netflix and I'm sure lots of other places, but I already own the DVD sets for seasons 1 and 2 and will be adding season 3 to my list as well. You will be hooked like everyone else.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review: The Development of the Art Market in England

In the most recent issue of the UK-based Art Libraries Journal (vol. 38, no. 1, 2013), you will find my review of the book The Development of the Art Market in England: Money as Muse, 1730-1900 by Thomas M. Bayer and John R. Page (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011). Because of limitations with the number of words, however, I had to edit down my review. This is normal practice, so there certainly were no concerns about that. Below is the full version as I initially wrote it, going into a little more depth about the individual chapters and other areas. I've added images as well as they relate to various components of the book. The first image below is William Hogarth's 3rd print from the series A Rake's Progress, 1735; the second below is William Powell Frith's The Derby Day, 1856-58, one of the most commercially successful paintings of the 19th century (both from Tate Britain). The image you see here, James Durden's A Country Auction, has nothing to do with the book, but I thought it provided a nice visual summary about the book.


Art history today is arguably more pluralistic and wide-ranging in its methodologies than ever before. Therefore, it is surprising that in the introduction to Thomas M. Bayer and John R. Page’s book The Development of the Art Market in England they perceive a ‘persistent prejudice that commoditization is inherently damaging to the aesthetic merit and quality of art products’.(1) For traditional connoisseurs who focus on an art object’s uniqueness and the artist’s inherent genius, this may be true. But few in the field of art history and criticism today would challenge Bayer and Page’s hypothesis, that art is a commodity, and key to its economic value is the role of the art dealer as the middleman between artist as producer and collector as consumer. Indeed, Bayer and Page’s text is an important, if occasionally faulty, contribution to art history. Their work is especially valuable to those who study British art, as it helps advance serious scholarship in a discipline often considered sub-standard to the study of French and Italian art.

Bayer and Page focus on England from about 1700 to 1900 because it was during this time that Britain experienced an increasing economic growth due to the industrial revolution and worldwide colonization. Moreover, because Britain was free from civil wars and outside incursions at this time—events that decimated large parts of the European continent—the country was able to maintain a level of economic stability and thus generate a steady market for the sale of art. The authors contend that the old idea that art follows wealth is no longer valid, that in fact these two principles worked reciprocally, supporting and nurturing one another, with the art dealer the fulcrum in this exchange. They focus almost exclusively on paintings, and their primary research comes from the extant records of dealers such as Agnew’s and Arthur Tooth. To this they extracted quantitative data from the scholarship of Algernon Graves and George Redford, as well as Christie’s auction catalogs, to create a statistical and econometric analysis of how and what types of paintings sold in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.(2)

This book then is about production, commodity, and consumption, and thus favors business, finance, and economics over art history. It is part of Pickering & Chatto’s ‘Financial History’ series. This is not to say that the art history student cannot glean something from it, for indeed the authors have much to offer those who wish to learn more about how the London-based art world evolved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When it comes to Bayer and Page’s actual research, however, with their numerous tables and charts, the art historian accustomed to images and interpretations of works of art will be disappointed. Yet, in reading closely a text which argues that art dealers and the commoditization of paintings directed taste and stylistic developments in England, the art historian will find him/herself with a refreshing take on how the art world developed over this time period.

The first chapter is a discussion of the art market in seventeenth-century Netherlands and serves as the model for the commoditization of art. By 1700 this market shifted to London, then the largest and richest city in Europe. The early art market dealt exclusively with Old Masters, and it was only later in the century that an increase in the sale of contemporary native English artists overtook that of Old Masters, a paradigm shift that would swing back and forth for art dealers over the course of the two centuries. The next three chapters focus on the different ways native art established itself in England: instructional and theoretical manuals on painting published in London by authors such as Jonathan Richardson, William Hogarth, and Joshua Reynolds; the first art schools and commercial galleries such as Vauxhall Gardens, ultimately culminating in the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768; and the role of art criticism and auction houses in establishing ideas about taste.

Chapter five is one of the more interesting. From their original research, the authors determined that during the eighteenth century art dealers used auctions exclusively to sell paintings, but this practice changed drastically from the 1830s on, when art dealers became the largest consumers of paintings at auction, in order to resell the pictures at inflated costs. The primary reason for this shift was the power of the reproductive print. The success of the print market in England began with Hogarth and helped nurture support for contemporary native English painters. Through the sale of prints after paintings, the public had the opportunity to own a piece of the painting, while the actual picture could be owned by one person or reinvested in the art market. Chapters six, seven, nine, and ten focus on the Victorian art market’s taste for native English painters. Whereas art dealers in the eighteenth century were less stable in their businesses, during the Victorian period many (Agnew’s, Colnaghi, Gambart, Tooth, etc.) rose to power as stakeholders in the production and sale of art. These art dealers asserted their power when they purchased from artists not only their pictures but their copyright, enabling the dealers to ensure future success through reproductive prints and traveling exhibitions. The last of these chapters discusses how the art market began to fail at the end of the Victorian period with the introduction of new international styles (e.g. Impressionism), the failure of touring pictures due to new cinematic experiences, and the development of cheap photographic reproductions which obviated the once successful market for high-quality prints.

The strength of the authors’ work is most evident when they provide specific case studies. For instance, chapter eight focuses on the auction house Christie’s and its sale practices over the centuries. Other close studies include discussion of dealers (e.g. Arthur Tooth & Sons, pp. 113-17), commercial enterprises (e.g. Grosvenor Gallery, pp. 191-201), and successful painters (e.g. William Powell Frith, pp. 154-58).(3) Their work on the Victorian period itself is substantial and thus more useful than that of the eighteenth century. This is partly because more archival material survives from that period, but also because the book is taken from Bayer’s 2001 doctoral dissertation on the Victorian art market.(4) Bayer is an interdisciplinary art historian with related studies in history and economics, and Page is a certified public accountant and professor of accounting at Tulane. As specialists in the world of financial history, they certainly seem qualified to write on this topic.

Unfortunately, a surprising number of grammatical and spelling errors appear frequently in the text, suggesting poor proofreading at times, and over-editing with the appearance of double words and incorrect phrasing.  These errors continue onto the website ( designed to complement the text with images that are not in the book.  The painter John Singleton Copley, for instance, appears frequently on the website as Copely.  The quality of the images on the website, arranged by chapter, are low resolution files and often poor in quality, so they serve little use.  For a book priced at £60 ($99), the authors could have arranged for black-and-white images in the text of just a few of the most frequently discussed paintings.  More appropriately, they should have published prints after these paintings, since that is such a critical part of their thesis.

The website includes a promising link at the bottom that reads ‘Is the Art Market Like the Stock Market?’  It opens to a series of hyperlinks that relate to PowerPoint slides, but not a single link works, making the entire site worthless.  The closest one comes to thoughts on their analogy to the stock market is when the authors, in the book, propose that ‘painters are firms which produce products …, dealers are specialists and brokers, critics are analysts and the auction house is the stock exchange’.(5) Although thought provoking, missing from this analogy is the collector as consumer/investor.  Bayer and Page have authored a text that offers a close analysis of the painting market, and spend ample time discussing the art dealer, artist, and auction house, but in ignoring the collector, they have omitted a vital part of this stock market analogy.  For those interested in the collector, particularly during the Victorian period, Dianne Sachko Macleod’s superb work Art and the Victorian Middle Class offers an interesting parallel by focusing on how certain industrialists operated as private collectors.(6)

Despite these criticisms, Bayer and Page’s text contributes to the literature in art history and financial history, and also could be consulted by researchers working on an array of related subjects, from British socio-economic history to marketing strategies over time. Although the publisher’s website suggests the text is intended for the general reader, it is for advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and academics. The scholarly apparatus seems ample and well-documented, with thirty-four pages of endnotes, a bibliography of archival, primary, and secondary sources, and a full index. The book itself has a sturdy hard cover and sewn binding that holds up well to regular use, and seems to be an appropriate purchase for college and university libraries, particularly with school programs in international studies, art history, and business/finance/marketing. Bayer and Page have not have written a perfect book on the history of the art market in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, and scholars inevitably will have more questions than answers based on their research. However, they have opened the door to an understudied area, upon which future scholars will be able contribute and thus expand, as it were, a new market on the commoditization of art.

1. Bayer and Page, 7.
2. Algernon Graves, Art Sales from Early in the Eighteenth Century to Early in the Twentieth Century, 3 vols (London, 1918-21); George Redford, Art Sales: A History of Sales of Pictures & Other Works of Art (London, 1888).
3. The section on Tooth was previously published as a longer essay by the authors, ‘Arthur Tooth: A London Art Dealer in the Spotlight, 1870-71’, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 9, no. 1 (Spring 2010),
4. Thomas M. Bayer, ‘Money as Muse: The Origin and Development of the Art Market in Victorian England, a Process of Commodification’, Diss. Tulane University, 2001.
5. Bayer and Page, 143.
6. Dianne Sachko Macleod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).