Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mysteries of Art: Is Provenance Necessary?

Second only to aesthetic value, the quality most loved about art is its provenance. Often when in the presence of art, one can feel history radiating from objects and architecture as if it were truly a physical sensation. We can be encapsulated by an object's aura and can be changed by it. Studying the inanimate art objects surrounding us lends to an understanding of who or what was present before us, and therefore, elucidates the future. An examination such as this can, in effect, unravel longstanding and current mysteries of the world.
But what if the history, and thus the provenance, of an object is lost? As a painting changed hands over the centuries, for example, the artist's name, the title, and the reasons for its creation are all important pieces of information that can easily dissolve into the sands of time. Art dealers and museum professionals today insist on written records documenting ownership and other pertinent information of a work. This practice has not always been the case though and works surface which need much dedicated research in order to solve the enigmas locked within the art.
Recently the Left Bank Art Gallery has had one of these paintings walk in the front door. A mysterious 18th-century (possibly 17th-cenutury) painting by an unknown Italian artist has been sitting for decades with a history lost. The subject of the painting is a nude woman reigning two porpoises atop her water-faring vessel. A mermaid waves a diaphanous cloth to the left of the woman. To the right, a merman blows a shell-type horn. The title, artist, and exact date of the painting are unknown. With this significant information apparently lost, how are we to appreciate this artwork's provenance? 
Unknown artist, Untitled, ca. 18th-century. Oil on canvas, 52 1/4"x62 3/4". Left Bank Art Gallery, Saint Simons Island, GA.
Begin by collecting all of the information that is known about the work. This painting is believed to have come out of the James Cash Penney (1875-1971) art collection. Penney's third wife, Caroline B. Autenreith Penney (1895-1992) was an active philanthropist and patron of the arts. They had a home in Clay County, Florida where in the 1920's Penney established the Town of Penney Farms.
Caroline B. Autenreith Penny and James Cash Penney, ca. 1930.
The painting measures w: 62 ¾” x h: 52 ¼” not including the frame, which is original. A professional art restorer dates the painting to the 18th or 17th-century and considers it to be Italian as evidenced by the Italian writing on the back of the frame. Further investigation of the writing must be done to translate the wording as evidence of the painting's origins may lie in these markings.  
Photograph of the back of the painting depicting Italian writing on frame.
The subject seems to be the Roman goddess of love, Venus (or Aphrodite to the Greeks) who was, according to myth, born from the sea. Often she is depicted with her companion, the sacred dolphin. Her long, flowing hair symbolized the abundance of love potential. Many of the attributes of Venus and Aphrodite have been retained in the mermaid myth as the goddesses were responsible for fair sailing and had origins in the sea.  
The time period of the painting estimated by the restorer suggests that this painting was possibly created during the 18th-century. This is corroborated by the Neoclassical movement in Europe which lasted from the mid-18th through the end of the 19th century. Neoclassicism is characterized by arts which drew upon classical Western art and culture, most notably that of Ancient Rome and Greece. The movement formed in response to the Rococo movement which, with its lavish embellishments and opulence was viewed as superficial. It is very likely that this painting, with a subject matter focused on Ancient Roman mythology came from the Neoclassical movement.
As for the identity of the artist, without the provenance of the painting it is difficult to determine from whose hand it was created and vice versa. However, a 17th-century art historian developed a theory which may aid in solving this problem. Giovanni Morelli (1816-91) was an Italian scholar who devised a technique of identifying a painting's artist by closely analyzing details of the painting, more so than previous connoisseurs and scholars had in the past. His scientific methodology centered on the fact that many artists will reuse the same technique in painting an images “unimportant” areas, such as ears or fingernails. Morelli believed that an artist does not change these aspects of paintings from one to another as these elements are not the focal point of a painting. Therefore, if one were to investigate these details of the painting, using Morelli's theory, the artist's identity may be able to be discovered.

Details. Unknown artist, Untitled, ca. 18th-century. Oil on canvas, 52 1/4"x62 3/4". Left Bank Art Gallery, Saint Simons Island, GA.
Would knowing all of this information about the painting add to its provenance? Most definitely. Not only would the value of the painting increase but knowing its place in history would add interest, thus ensuring saleability. Is there an aura lost when this information is not available? Perhaps a bit. However, standing before this painting one is struck by a physical sensation.  Provenance is not something required in order to appreciate or be moved by art.  Art with unknown origins is still able to provide education.  Although seemingly lost, there is a history present in art of this type and this history does in fact give insight to our past as well as a lesson on the future.

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