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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Pictures Incognito

( Originally Published 1913 )



It lay forlorn, "a gem of purest ray serene," incognito-like the necklace of black pearls that was recently sold as glass beads. It had for neighbours three or four napless tall hats, some chipped enamel saucepans, a pair of dingy corsets, and a few odd tableforks from which the electro-plating was gone. Chalked on the back of it were the figures which signify eighteenpence. And yet it was a painting in oils by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

It was, in fact, a fair-sized portrait-study of Eleanor Siddall, who afterwards became Rossetti's wife ; the likeness, as well as the art, is recognisable. She rests in a window-seat, looking into the room; her pensive face-she was poet and painter herself-her high brow, her wonderful coppery hair, her full, long, drooping eyelids, her rich lips, her graceful shoulders and simple dress, her shapely arms, and one hand, are all here. Yes, this was indeed the woman in whose coffin Rossetti buried his manuscript poems, an oblation of woe.Her other hand, the cushion upon which it rests, the window which frames her, the curtain at one side, and a tassel, are sketchy and unfinished, while the rest of the canvas is hardly tinted at all. But stretching away to a hilly horizon behind the figure is a moorland landscape, just glimpsed, and tinted with the last level rays; while over it all is one of Rossetti's blue-green twilight skies. I think my eighteenpenny Rossetti must have been painted at Matlock, when Eleanor Siddall was there in 1857.Unsigned.-The canvas is unsigned, as many studies and sketches are, that none the less are signed all over to the recognising eye. And it is not studies and sketches alone that thus may go incognito. Some of the most famou great pictures, complete, and for centuries enshrined in galleries and collections, bear no painter's name. Among the list of great artists who signed their work very seldom, or never signed it at all, are Correggio, Domenichino, Giordano, Gorgione, Guido, Palma Veechia, Raphael, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian, da Vinci, and Van Dyck. Only the Dutch, Flemish, and German painters systematically signed their work; great English artists have been chary of signatures. It is true that signatures have been put on for them, upon canvases which they may or may not have seen.

Signed. Signatures and monograms of artists have only a secondary value in authenticating pictures; they may even be disproof. A signature in itself alone is hardly more worthy of notice than a doubtful mark upon porcelain; forgers have been rather more busy with pictures than with old china, in fact.

All the same, a painter's signature is not to be sneezed at; Rembrandt's, for instance, is highly characteristic, and so are the dates he added. A real judge of Rembrandts well knows the three Rembrandt periods of style, the contemporary signature, and the appropriate date in each case. If any contemporary signature appears on a picture which answers to the signature in the known respects, the signing adds to the collecting value. Like the gold anchor mark upon a sumptuous bit of "Chelsea," a real signature is worth much, in authenticity and money. And the question whether a picture signature is contemporaneous or posthumous can be tested; for-a signature of the same date as the painting will be incorporate in the substance of the painting, but a little spirits of wine or turpentine will soon loosen and remove a modern forgery of the name.Yet that is a dangerous process in unskilled hands; used by inexperience upon a genuine signature or monogram, the methylated spirit may soon bring away not only the name-marks but that part of the picture too. Some artists signed with paint so fluid and unstable that too harsh a rubbing in of the spirits, in bringing off the varnish, will bring away the signature also. Indeed, the fraudulent sort of dealer, and occasionally the unscrupulous collector, will sometimes have a second-rate artist's signature removed from an old picture so that it may be assigned to the chief master of the artist's particular school. That is the way in which Van Oost becomes a "Rubens," and a Hoogstraaten a "de Hooge."Incognito. Not signatures, therefore, alone and in themselves, but the study of known pictures and famous artists' styles, are what may enable a vigilant collector to rescue from neglect a picture that has gone incognito and little thought of for years. Eyesight, knowledge, and judgment may still acquire a good old picture for next to nothing now and again, and surely one may be prouder of finds like those than of canvases bought by force of guineas at Christie's.



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