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The Judging Of Old Pictures
( Original Published 1913 )
"How do they know ?" the possessor of an old picture grumbles, after sending it with a fee to an expert, and getting it back with the verdict that it is not a Hobbema, not a Diaz, or not a Romney, as the case may be. "How do they know?" he demands indignantly. "Look how they differ about that National Gallery Venus! I don't believe they do know!" But they do.
The case of the Rokeby Venus is notorious, and this is not the only great picture which is still a bone of contention. As a rule, the great pictures of the world are already judged and classified. But fine old pictures, of less importance than these, still await judgment, by the hundred. I was asked to look at a "Hondecooter" the other day; it was merely a Barlow. Usually a good old picture can be judged, verified, dated, and its painter's name assigned correctly, even when it has no "pedigree" or continuous record of possession after origin. For the verification of pictures by experts has become an exact science, almost.
Morelli Methods. This exact connoisseurship and the methods which experts now employ are of rather recent growth. They began with. Morelli, an Italian art-critic, about a generation ago. Morelli's method was to study so closely all the details of pedigreeauthenticated pictures by a given artist of the past as to know every small trick of his painting manner. Then from these mannerisms to recognise as his, or not his, a picture of his date and school.
The droop of the eyelids, the shape of the hands, the outline of the ears, in a portrait or figure-picture-nay, the very cut of the finger-nails, may thus become significant. Look, for instance, at the hands in a print of Botticelli's "Primavera." The other day a pseudoBotticelli was offered to the nation ; it was judged as "pseudo" only because, inter alia, it did not answer to the Morelli test, that Botticelli always painted hands as bony, with the nails cut square.
Applying the Method. For example, upon an easel, in a good light, a "Madonna and Child" - one of the myriad old pictures of that subject - awaits the judgment of a picture expert. " Lombard School," he says at once. The crisp, fine-curled hair of the Madonna, brown with reddish gleams in it ; the slightly bulging forehead; the eyelids, so heavy as to seem a little swollen ; the square chin, deep dimpled; the breeding in the long hands; the smile, seeming more in the cheeks than on the lips; the greenish tint of the sky; the mirage-like background, unrealistic, a landscape immense and yet miniature, including rocks, glaciers, streams, and castles-all these convince the judge that he has before him a picture of the Lombard School.
Many such pictures have always remained at Milan. The Lombard type of woman is, or used to be, like that. The same mysterious smile as that used to be seen on the cheeks of the " Monna Lisa " in the Louvre, and also the same straight nose, powerfully set in to face and forehead. But to which well-known artist of the Lombard School can the picture under judgment be assigned? That is the next question. It suggests the style of Luini, as seen in the Brera Gallery at Milan; to some extent it even suggests the work of Leonardo da Vinci; but it may be a Bramantino picture. Probably Luini was Leonardo's studio-pupil; assuredly Bramantino was.Leonardo Signs. There is certainly the pale amberlike glow of a Leonardo picture, though that may be in the varnish mainly. But Leonardo was a profound anatomist and a perfectly skilful draughtsman, and in this picture there is something wrong about the shape of the Madonna's neck. Then the stuff of her robe looks rigid; Leonardo, on the contrary, always gave his painted textures suppleness and " flow." In faint letters the words Di Lionardo Pitore are legible, but still the expert doubts. With a strong lens he applies a final test. He knows that Leonardo was left-handed ; in Leonardo's drawings the strokes of the crayon or pen go from left to right. In places where the impasto, or body of pigment, on the doubtful picture is thin, the lens detects that the brush-strokes went from right to left. Somebody normally-handed painted it. "No," says the judge, "it is not by Leonardo da Vinci."
Luini and Bramantino Signs. Then he studies it as a possible Luini, but what he finds are Bramantino signs. He has opened those pages of Morelli's book which contain a series of copies of hands and ears taken from authenticated Bramantino pictures and drawings. The hands are invariably long, with meagre, almost fluted fingers, two of them joined, the other two separated. The ears are always long, too, the lobes very developed, almost pointed. The picture on the easel shows all these mannerisms, and "It is a Bramantino," decides the judge.
No Child's Play. This seems simple enough, but it is not so easy as it seems. It means examining a picture inch by inch, and almost dissecting it by the eye. It means ready recourse to portfolios of large and perfect photographs of all the authenticated good pictures known. It means expertise concerning textures of canvases, material of pigments, woods used for panels, sizes placed on the blank canvas or panel to prepare it for the paint. It means research in libraries and archives for letters or other documents of the period in which a given picture may be mentioned. And it means steady judgment more than enthusiasm (the tempter). "Enthusiasm is not a method of judgment," Morelli said.
And this is how the experts employed by great dealers, and often the great dealers themselves, are able to judge, date, verify, and put a name to an anonymous good old picture, with almost a mathematic skill.