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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Whose Bubbles?

posted by on July 10 at 11:03 AM

Last week, the Prado declared that a painting that had long been attributed to Goya is not a Goya at all. There was no new smoking gun, really; the museum made its decision based on style (and based on a pair of initials, long overlooked, that match those of an assistant of Goya’s). Colossus is simply not good enough to be a Goya, the Prado’s Goya expert says.

Seattle Art Museum has had a few cases of shifting attributions in the last couple of years. The most prominent was on its Tiepolo ceiling painting; common wisdom had held that a small sketch for the painting was done by the elder Tiepolo, Giovanni Battista, but that the painting itself, made circa 1757, was actually completed by his son, Giovanni Domenico. The thinking was that certain areas of the painting were, essentially, not good enough to be attributable to Giovanni Battista—too flat in passages, particularly. By doing more research—visiting the original site and elaborately conserving the painting (see video here)—a SAM curator and SAM’s conservator, in consultation with other experts, concluded that the large painting was done by the father, not the son. When SAM opened its expanded building last year, the name on the label had changed, from Giovanni Domenico to Giovanni Battista.

Another name on another label had changed, too, but far more quietly—because one obscure name was exchanged for another. The painting in question now hangs in SAM’s European gallery, and is labeled this way:


Michaelina Woutiers
Flemish, ca. 1620-after 1682
Boys Blowing Bubbles, 1640s
Oil on canvas
35 5/8 x 47 3/4 in.
Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. Floyd Naramore

But for years, the painting of the boys was attributed to Jacob van Oost, a 17th-century painter from Bruges. Van Oost has become a bit of a cipher. There is only one signed painting by van Oost, said SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa (here), but there are many attributed to him. “There hasn’t been a monographic exhibition of all the paintings attributed to him, but if there were, you would be very confused,” Ishikawa said. “The one documented work we know by him looks nothing like our painting. We also had another painting attributed to him [of dogs and a hunt] that looks nothing like this painting. (We deaccessioned that one in 1996 because [it was in bad condition]).”

Ishikawa and others long suspected that Boys Blowing Bubbles was not a van Oost. But whose was it?

In 2002, a scholar of Flemish painting named Katlijne Van der Stighelen happened to be in Seattle, and she came across the painting at SAM. She already had an idea whose she thought it was: Michaelina Woutiers, a female court painter in Vienna—an anomaly. But it wasn’t until Van der Stighelen published a paper in 2005 after a symposium on Flemish patronage between 1550 and 1700 that another 17th-century Flemish scholar, Peter Sutton, suggested to Ishikawa that this painting might be by this unusual female painter. Van der Stighelen concurs.

At this point, the attribution is still the best possible guess rather than an ironclad fact. Like the Goya decision, it’s based on stylistic similarities to four known court paintings by Woutiers, which are held at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. Unfortunately, the museum’s web site doesn’t include any images by Woutiers, but Ishikawa says there’s one in particular, a portrait of Bacchus, that includes a little boy on the right hand side of the picture that looks a lot like the boy on the right in the SAM painting. “I felt confident enough based on comparative photographs and these two opinions to go ahead and make the change,” Ishikawa said. “The Jacob van Oost [attribution] was always problematic, and this person does seem to be a distinct artistic personality. But really, to be completely satisfied, you’d want to get the paintings together.”

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the advent of the Rembrandt Research Project—which in the early stages relied heavily on scientific technology in a search for the “true” Rembrandts—science was held out to be the key to solving attribution mysteries once and for all. But traditional connoisseurship turns out to have as great a role as science. Science may be able to tell you how old something is, or precisely what it’s made of, but consider that Rembrandt, just to take one example, ran a large studio of artists he hired to create paintings that look just like Rembrandts, and you start to glimpse the complications.

In Seattle, with the museum’s relatively limited resources and great distance from the European collections, there have been plenty of question marks. In 2004, Ishikawa said, because of new scholarship, SAM changed the attribution on a 14th-century saint portrait by Allegretto Nuzi to Puccio di Simone. Sometimes, an attribution is little more solid than a bubble in thin air.

RSS icon Comments


This is Seattle; we're lucky to have a fake.

Posted by PC | July 10, 2008 11:35 AM

I love this kind of detective story and deep, deep scholarship. I'd like to hear more about the specifics of what made them make the attribution -- not "we compared the photographs" but specifically which brushstrokes, characterizations, pigments, whatever. I also think that with something like this a simple attribution isn't enough -- they need to list all of the previous attributions, and why they were discarded, and mention any still-existing controversy or doubt.

Posted by Fnarf | July 10, 2008 12:58 PM

True story- I actually came this close to buying that painting out of the back of a van downtown for, like, 10 bucks... then I saw that it was signed "Goyo", so I had to pass.

Posted by UNPAID BLOGGER | July 10, 2008 3:21 PM

Fnarf, I totally agree. I love this kind of stuff, too, and I'd like more specifics. The curator is out of town for most of July, but I might be able to ask her again. Part of the problem in this particular case is that she hasn't seen the originals in person. As for the labeling, I completely agree with you -- and I asked her about that -- but museums generally seem to think they'll "confuse" the public unless the label is short and about content. By contrast, if you follow the National Gallery of London link, the information on that painting and another one in their collection describes the attribution problems associated with Jacob van Oost. For instance, I'd have loved it if SAM had marked that painting originally with a question mark, but the curator didn't think it had been marked that way. The Tiepolo is another case: this curator always felt the ceiling painting was maligned because of its poor condition, and that it was actually by the father. It might have been interesting to get that into a label or onto the museum's web site somewhere.

Posted by Jen Graves | July 10, 2008 5:13 PM

Whew. That was so much nicer than "shut the fuck up!"

Posted by Fnarf | July 10, 2008 5:57 PM

Jen Graves, THIS is what I'm talkin' 'bout. Nice post!!!

Posted by Jubilation T. Cornball | July 10, 2008 8:10 PM

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