Art History

A Museum Has Located a Missing Figure That Was Cut Out of This 17th-Century Family Portrait

A rare reunion has taken place at the Nivaagaard Collection in Denmark, as the museum has located the image of a woman, who, for nearly 200 years, has been missing from a 17th-century family portrait.

Double Portrait of a Father and Son (1626), painted by Flemish artist Cornelis de Vos in luminous color, sees a resplendent duo in bourgeois garb, the son tenderly clutching his father’s hand. But part of a dress, poking out of the lower right-hand corner of the picture, has long indicated that the painting was missing a figure—quite likely a mother, who had been cropped off at some point.

A research team, put together by the museum to study its Dutch baroque collection, duly set on a hunt for this missing woman last year.

They began with a 1966 conservation report by the National Gallery of Denmark, which provided another vital clue. The volume contained photographs of the painting without its frame following a restoration, revealing part of a woman’s arm, complete with an elaborate cuff. Her hand, with one finger encircled by a pricey ring, held a pair of embroidered gloves lined with red velvet.

An unframed Double Portrait of a Father and Son (1626), with a woman’s hand visible on the right. Photo: The Nivaagaard Collection.

Detail of the woman’s hand holding a pair of embroidered gloves. Photo: Screenshot from Nivaagaard Collection’s short film, The Lost Woman With the Brown Eyes.

“We began our search by looking for matchers among all the sitting women in de Vos’s oeuvre,” said Jørgen Wadum, the museum’s researcher and special consultant. “This turned up dozens of women amongst the archives of RKD [the Netherlands Institute for Art History] and the Getty Research Institute.”

Wadum then did the next logical thing: He googled “Cornelis de Vos portrait of a woman”—and he found her. “It was totally unexpected!” he said.

Cornelis de Vos, Portrait of a Woman (1626), unrestored. Photo: The Nivaagaard Collection.

His search had led him to de Vos’s Portrait of a Woman (1626), an image of which appeared in a 2016 interview with Dutch art dealer Salomon Lilian. In 2014, Lilian had acquired the work at an auction at Christie’s London, and what’s more, had it cleaned and restored.

To the Nivaagaard team, the connections between the two paintings were plain. The elegant lady portrayed in Lilian’s painting wore a millstone collar similar to that of the father in Double Portrait; her brown eyes, too, matched those of the young son’s. The restoration also revealed that the brown background of Portrait of a Woman was merely overpainting; the woman actually stood against a landscape, filled in with some distant poplar trees and heavy clouds.

Cornelis de Vos, Portrait of a Woman (1626), after restoration. Photo: The Nivaagaard Collection.

It was this backdrop that lined up with the one in Double Portrait, making them an undeniable match. “Fortunately, Lilian had had the painting restored,” said Wadum. “Otherwise, we may have missed the link to our double portrait.”

Portrait of a Woman is notably smaller than Double Portrait, its height only less than half of the larger work. Researchers believe the original family portrait may have been severed into two paintings, possibly after sustaining damage, around 1830–1859. Double Portrait was acquired by Danish businessman and Nivaagaard founder, Johannes Hage, in 1907.

The reunited family portrait. Photo: The Nivaagaard Collection

The team is also continuing to source the identity of the family as much as the provenance of the family portrait. They have homed in on the 1802 sale of a painting, titled A Family Picture of Three Portraits of De Vos, in London, a canvas that would reappear at various other auctions in England between 1812 and 1830. At these later sales, the portrait was curiously retitled or described as A Burgomaster, His Wife, and Son by De Vos (burgomaster denotes the mayor of a town)

“Is this merely an interpretation of the auctioneer, or did the lost upper and lower right corners of the canvas contain an inscription?” said researcher Angela Jager. “In any case, the ruling elite is exactly the type of clientele one would expect for a monumental family portrait by the sought-after portrait painter.”

While research is ongoing, the Nivaagaard Collection has acquired Portrait of a Woman with a grant from the New Carlsberg Foundation. The museum will exhibit both portraits as part of its Painting Collection, illustrating what museum director Andrea Rygg Karberg called “a huge scoop for Dutch baroque art history.”

Speaking about the reunited family portrait, he added: “All three of the subjects take on an entirely new dimension, depth, and glow when they are contemplated together as originally intended, rather than in isolation from each other.”


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Did Vermeer Have a Daughter Who Painted Some of His Most Famous Portraits? This Art Historian Thinks So

For centuries, art lovers have wondered at the identity of the sitters in Vermeer’s beloved masterpieces. To the shock of many scholars, one expert has suggested that Girl with a Red Hat (c. 1669) may in fact be a self-portrait by the artist’s daughter Maria. Furthermore, she could be responsible for several of the Dutch master’s best known works, according to a new report by author Lawrence Weschler in The Atlantic.

These claims were first published in art historian Benjamin Binstock’s controversial 2008 book Vermeer’s Family Secrets. The theory was dismissed out of hand by mainstream Vermeer specialists, but with the recent discovery that Vermeer’s Girl With a Flute (c. 1669/1675) in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. may actually be the work of an unidentified apprentice, some scholars are starting to reconsider the facts.

Often intentionally provocative in his writing style, Binstock has gained a reputation for taking an unfashionably connoisseurial approach to the history of art, openly interrogating long-accepted attributions by reassessing the works’ style against what we know about the artist’s life. Unsurprisingly, endeavors like these have tended to rile up the establishment and push Binstock to the very fringes of mainstream academia.

By first attempting to identify the various models that reappear in Vermeer’s works and in doing so, reshuffling their sequence slightly (most of Vermeer’s works have a wide range of possible dates), Binstock believed he had brought to light new inconsistencies in both chronology and style especially towards the end of Vermeer’s life. Although these unreviewed claims remained hypotheses, Binstock felt comfortable stating them as fact.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1664–67, oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Bequest of Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, The Hague

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1664–67, oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Bequest of Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, The Hague.

Born in 1632, Vermeer had his first daughter Maria in 1654. According to Binstock, she replaced his wife Catharina as his main model around a decade later, beginning with Woman With a Pearl Necklace (c. 1666) and eventually starring as the subject of Girl With a Pearl Earring (1670). These dates, and most others given by Binstock in this article, are the subject of some debate among scholars.

During the 1670s, Binstock’s narrative diverges substantially from the accepted timeline, with his claim that Maria also began working as her father’s assistant and studying his methods. He designated both Girl With a Flute and Girl With a Red Hat as early self-portraits by Maria on account of their more awkward, amateurish style as much as their compositions. Neither painting has a fixed date, and Binstock opted for 1672 to align with Maria’s late teenage years.

The scholar has also attributed works like the Met’s Study of a Young Woman (1672) and both the Frick’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music (1673) and Mistress and Maid (1673) to Maria, arguing that they constitute a pastiche of the considerable skill shown in Vermeer’s greatest masterpieces.

Girl with a Flute, Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1669-1675. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Flute, (ca. 1669-1675). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Finally, Young Women Seated at a Virginal (1674) had at one time been contested as a Vermeer but was eventually authenticated only after it was found to be painted on a canvas cut from the same cloth as The Lacemaker (also 1674). Another possible explanation for this would be if the work was by someone working closely with the artist and sharing both his materials and style.

No assistant has ever previously been associated with Vermeer, but this assumption is now being reconsidered thanks to the National Gallery of Art’s reattribution of Girl With a Flute. According to Binstock, artists at the time were not required to register their children as apprentices with the painters’ guild, which may explain the lack of a surviving record. A possible reason why Maria then stopped producing paintings after her father’s death in 1675 could be her marriage in 1674, after which she left the Vermeer household.

We’re highly unlikely to ever have a definitive answer on Maria’s possible involvement in Vermeer’s oeuvre, and the stakes of reattributing paintings are high as much for the holders of these priceless masterpieces as the scholarly reputations involved. Nonetheless, as Vermeer attracts renewed interest with a historic survey at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Binstock is still hoping that his theory might finally receive some serious critical attention.

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Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s Portraits of Marie Antoinette Sparked Scandal—Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About the Royal Image

Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, still manages to mesmerize the masses. Some 230 years after her grisly demise, her most powerful legacy, in many senses, is her image, with its complex and contradictory forms.

Visions and revisions of the Austrian-born Queen have inspired astounding biographies, fictions, films (including Sofia Coppola’s aughts classic), fever-pitched bidding at auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s alike, and of course, countless fashion spreads. Just now, the Getty Center in Los Angeles is hosting “Porcelain from Versailles: Vases for a King & Queen,” an exhibition devoted to two sumptuous Sèvres porcelain vases owned by the royals. This very week, a new television series Marie Antoinette, created by Deborah Davis, the writer of The Favourite, is making its U.S. debut on PBS. 

In her own lifetime, Marie Antoinette consciously constructed her public-facing image—oftentimes to her own detriment. Born Maria Antonia Anna Josepha, she was the 15th child and youngest daughter of the astute Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan of Lorraine, rulers of the Habsburg empire. Regarded as an undeniably beautiful, but somewhat frivolous child, Marie Antoinette was thrust into the public and political eye when, at the age of 11, it was agreed that the young Archduchess of Austria would marry Louis XVI, the Dauphin of France and heir to the French throne.

 Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France

Joseph Ducreux, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France (1769). Collection of the Château de Versailles.

The would-be Queen’s painted image played a pivotal role even in these earliest moments. In 1769, the French artist Joseph Ducreux traveled to Vienna to paint the young Maria Antonia and his resulting portrait, Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, acted as Louis XVI’s first glimpse of his soon-to-be wife. Her visage was met with approval and, in 1770, at the tender age of 14, she was sent to France where she wed the shy 15-year-old Dauphin. 

The new Queen’s position in the court remained tenuous for over a decade, as the betrothed royals failed to consummate their marriage; Marie Antoinette was unable to produce an heir, thus making an annulment of their marriage a possibility. Her first child Marie-Thérèse wasn’t born until 1778, and Louis Joseph, Dauphin of France and heir apparent, until 1781. In the intervening years, she had become keenly aware of how she presented herself. “As long as an annulment was possible, she had to cultivate an ‘appearance of credit’ with the King,” wrote Judith Thurman in a 2006 New Yorker essay on the Queen. The young Queen, then, sought to cultivate the air of sway and power, even as she felt she had little. 

Still from Marie Antoinette, a television series with a new take on the life of the queen, which debuts on PBS in the U.S. on March 19.

Still from Marie Antoinette, a television series with a new take on the life of the Queen, which debuts on PBS in the U.S. on March 19.

Marie Antoinette favored Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the leading woman artist of her era, as a frequent court painter, in helping her bring this image to life. A celebrated portraitist, Vigée Le Brun imbued her paintings with singular naturalism and sensitivity, while embracing the pastel tones of late Rococo and elements of the emerging Neoclassical style.

Having painted her first major official portrait of Marie Antoinette in 1778, Vigée Le Brun would go on to paint some 30 portraits of the Queen over the next six years. This artistic alliance would bring the artist fame, money, and prestige, but would cost her her safety as well. In 1789, at the dawn of the revolution, Vigée Le Brun, a lifelong royalist, made the infinitely wise decision to flee France with her daughter, disguised in tattered clothes, so as to escape the consequences of her allegiance to the Queen. 

Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783), which belongs to the Palace of Versailles, is among Vigée Le Brun’s most famed portraits of the monarch. Picturing the Queen in a blue silk dress, with fantastic ostrich plumes in her hair, delicately holding a rose, the image is once imperial and naturalistic—an indelible vision of Marie Antoinette. But, as with every image of this Queen, political and cultural angling is happening right on the surface of the canvas. 

We’ve taken a closer look at Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783) and found three facts that might help you see it in a whole new light.

 It Had an Infamously ‘Austrian’ Counterpart

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress. Found in the Collection of Schloss Wolfsgarten. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

Often we say there is a story behind the story. In this instance, there is a painting before the painting.

One of the premier artists of her age, and one of very few women artists in the Academy, Vigée Le Brun was invited to show in the 1783 Paris Salon. For the exhibition, the Queen agreed to have her most recent portrait—Marie Antoinette en robe de gaulle (Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress)—displayed to the public. The painting depicted the Queen in pastoral attire, donning a muslin cotton dress with a blue sash, a straw hat, and free of jewels. 

The dress had been designed by dressmaker Rose Bertin, a popular French designer and a favorite of Queen’s. Bertin, a woman born to modest means, had become a competitively sought-after marchande de modes and was dressmaker to a stylish cohort including Vigée Le Brun herself, as well as the infamous Madame du Barry, the longtime mistress of King Louis XV. Bertin’s styles were often unconventional, sending early shockwaves through more traditional circles. 

Marie Antoinette holds a rose, a symbol of her Hapsburg birth.

Though idyllic from a contemporary perspective, Vigée Le Brun’s painting sparked a furor in French society for its perceived lack of dignity. To many, the muslin dress read as bold insult to the public; rather than presenting herself as a regal queen deserving of respect, she attired herself in what many deemed to be her underwear, roleplaying a country girl. 

During this era, Marie Antoinette particularly enjoyed spending time at her beloved Petit Trianon, a small château the King had gifted her on the grounds of Versailles, far from the palace and a sanctuary from the court life she deplored. There, the Queen had a functioning dairy, chickens, and other animals, and enjoyed an idyllic, if amusement-park-like, version of country life, and where she dressed informally, in-keeping with Vigée Le Brun’s portrait. 

George Romney, Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia (1787–88). Collection of the MFA Boston. The English sitter is shown in the chemise la rein style that had scandalized the public just a few years before.

George Romney, Mrs. Billington as Saint Cecilia (1787–88). Collection of the MFA Boston. The English sitter is shown in the chemise la rein style that had scandalized the public just a few years before.

Many saw this first painting as evidence of the Queen’s unwillingness to assimilate to French court life. The rose that appears in both portraits stands as symbol of her Hapsburg family heritage. The dress itself was scandalously made from imported cotton instead of French silk, an industry that was flailing at the time. One critic decried the image, saying it would be better titled “France Dressed as Austria, Reduced to Covering Herself with Straw.” The art historian Mary Sheriff surmised that the painting “was read as indicating the Queen’s desire to escape being French, to bring what was alien into the heart of the French realm.” With the outrage mounting, Vigée Le Brun withdrew the portrait and quickly painted Marie Antoinette with a Rose as a replacement, which was displayed before the Salon ended

Despite the public outcry, this very same chemise-style gown would soon become a fashion rage in France and England, even earning the name chemise à la reine, or nightdress of the queen, cementing the association.


The Painting Places French Fashion First

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783). Collection of the Palace of Versailles, Versailles

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783). Collection of the Palace of Versailles, Versailles

Marie Antoinette with a Rose presents our infamous monarch in a much more formal attire than its predecessor and acts as a direct artistic appeal to the public, underscoring the political muscle of Vigée Le Brun’s portraiture. 

“Vigee Lebrun’s career raises important questions about artists’ relationships to social change, for artists do not reproduce dominant ideology passively; they participate in its construction and alteration. Artists work in and also on ideology,” remarked art historian Griselda Pollock in her essay “Women, Art, and Ideology: Questions for Feminist Art Historians.” 

“This painting represented Marie Antoinette in a blue-gray silk robe à la française and rich pearl jewelry, attributes that better attested to both her majesty and her Frenchness,” describes historian Caroline Weber. 

Detail of Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783).

Detail of Marie Antoinette with a Rose (1783).

The blue silk and lace trim were both nods to France’s own industries, while, in her hair, she wears a turban set with large plumes of ostrich feathers. The bird’s feathers were a signal of great wealth, as they had to be imported from Africa—also hinting at the scope of the French empire and its conquests. In one more twist, by the beginning of the Revolution in the following years, the very robe à la française, pictured here to appease the public, would fall quickly out of favor for its associations with the aristocracy. 

These two paintings—Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress and Marie Antoinette with a Rose—together reenact on canvas a lived moment from the Queen’s young life. Upon reaching the French border, the teenage soon-to-be Queen, dressed in an opulent Austrian wedding dress, was met by members of the French court and stripped to her underwear. Crying, the Queen bid goodbyes to her friends and her beloved dog Mops, who were sent back to Austria—and she was redressed publicly in the French style. This act, a symbolic stripping of her Austrian ways and her adornment in the French, was described a process of making her “a thousand times more charming.”


A Queen—and a Painter—Caught Between Two Worlds

Caricature Showing Marie Antoinette as a Dragon, French, 18th century. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Caricature Showing Marie Antoinette as a Dragon, French, 18th century. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painting a portrait of Marie Antoinette was in many ways a double bind. During her many precarious years at the court, the young monarch had made conscious decisions about how she would attempt to preserve her perceived relevance, amid swirling rumors of the king’s infertility and more-than-whispered allegations of her supposed romantic dalliances. She chose to announce herself through fashionability, being a la mode, and with it, became a notorious spendthrift, earning the nickname Madame Déficit. 

“Cultivating the appearance of virtue might have been a more politic strategy, but she chose, instead, to model her style and behavior on those of a royal paramour. The wives of Louis XIV and Louis XV had both been pious and obscure wallflowers, which is precisely what the French expected from a good queen,” wrote Thurman in her essay. 

Changing fashions—and the shifting role of women—only further scandalized the public. Bertin’s fashionable styles were adored by the Queen, but also by the actresses and prostitutes who mingled with the monarch at the Palais Royal. As stylistic boundaries dissolved, in painting and in fashion, the public grew further disoriented. 

“The resulting erosion of visible boundaries between sovereign and guttersnipe bred still more animosity against Marie Antoinette. As one underground writer noted with scorn, ‘The most elegant whore in Paris could not be more tarted up than the Queen,’” wrote Weber in her book, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. 

Women’s role in society was very much in flux and as Weber notes of the Queen’s dressmaker, “Bertin’s rise to power had already generated tremendous anxiety as it seemed to indicate that the King had ceded his authority to a pack of frivolous scheming women.” Among these women was none other than Vigée Le Brun, who herself fell under the public’s scrutiny. “The painter’s iconoclastic aesthetic program led certain members of the public to perceive her as a disgrace to her sex and to qualify her as a hermaphrodite of sorts,” Thurmin explained. 

As the bourgeois family rose up with its ideal of the domestic mother, and the notion of family as dynasty collapsed, no version of Marie Antoinette that Vigée Le Brun could conjure, would appease a society in panic.

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Victor Burgin’s ‘Photopath’ Unlocked Multi-Dimensionality in Photography 50 Years Ago. Now, the Work Is Resurfacing in New York

“A path along the floor, of proportions 1×21 units, photographed. Photographs printed to actual size of objects and prints attached to floor so that images are perfectly congruent with their objects.”

So read a set of simple, if ambiguous, instructions that Victor Burgin wrote on a single index card in 1967. When followed, the prompt yields a line of photographs that are exactingly printed to mimic the floor on which they’re installed—so much so, in fact, that it’s easy to miss them altogether. 

This was Photopath (1967-69), an era-defining work of mid-century photo-conceptualism that still mystifies today, even if—or, indeed, because—it leaves its viewers with more questions than answers. Photopath is the subject of both a new book and a show. The latter, a dedicated exhibition at Cristin Tierney Gallery that opens today, marks the first time in more than 50 years that the influential artwork will be installed in New York.

Victor Burgin, typed instruction for Photopath, 1967. Courtesy of the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

Burgin, now 81, wasn’t a photographer when he created Photopath 51 years ago. He didn’t own, or even really know how to use, a camera. What the technology represented to him was a means to an end—or, more accurately, the “solution to a problem,” he said in a recent interview.

The British-born artist was getting his graduate degree at Yale in the late ‘60s and was hyper-conscious, as many young artists are, of his place in the iterative evolution of artistic ideas and movements—that process where a generation of makers responds to the one that preceded it, and in doing so, establishes a new set of issues for the successive generation to take up. 

“We felt, back then, that our generation had to find the problem. Once you found the problem, then you knew what your artistic problem was; it was solving that,” Burgin said. 

On the artist’s mind were the slightly older mid-century minimalists—Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and his then-teacher at Yale, Robert Morris—whose formally rigorous work often resisted close examination and instead gestured outward, to the spaces in which it was installed. But Burgin was after something more elusive, something even non-material. 

“It struck me then that maybe I found the problem,” he said, recalling it in the form of a question: “What could I do in a gallery that would not add anything significant to the space yet would direct the viewer’s attention to [their] being there?” It was into this context that Photopath was born.

Victor Burgin, Photopath (1967-69), installation view, Nottingham, 1967. Courtesy of the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

The artwork was one of several index cards that Burgin wrote after he had returned to the U.K. Creating instructions for hypothetical artworks satisfied his desire “to do away with the object” in his work, but the cards, too, felt unfulfilled; he needed to enact the prompts to complete them.

So he did. Photopath was first realized on the scarred wooden floor of a friend’s apartment in Nottingham in 1967, then again at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1969 and at the Guggenheim in 1971. 

Though the piece was conceived as a kind of sculpture—or an anti-sculpture, perhaps—its impact, in retrospect, feels emphatically photographic. Like few artworks before it, Photopath exploited the medium’s uncanny ability to nestle in between image and object, illusion and idea. If the artwork doesn’t compel its viewers to consider these ideas intellectually, it at least makes one feel them through interaction. Do you treat it like a sculpture or a picture? Or is it not an artwork at all and instead just another stretch of floor? Do you step on Photopath’s prints or walk around them? 

“It is hard to imagine an act of photography more straightforward and uncompromising than Photopath,” writer and curator David Campany explained in his recent book on the artwork and its legacy, published last October by MACK.

“It aims to fulfill the basic potential of the medium, which is to copy and to put itself forward as a stand-in or substitute. Yet,” Campany went on, “in meeting this expectation so literally, it somehow estranges itself.”

Victor Burgin with Francette Pacteau photographing the brick floor at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, 1984. © Andrew Nairne / Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge. Courtesy of Victor Burgin and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

To date, Photopath has only been installed a handful of times, the most recent instance of which came in 2012 at the Art Institute of Chicago’s “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-1977” exhibition, when it was laid upon the polished wood boards of the museum’s Renzo Piano-designed atrium. After the run of the show, Burgin’s prints were discarded, leaving a dark, ghostly silhouette on the sun-soaked floor. He had, in a sense, created another type of photograph.

“I thought, ‘That’s just perfect.’ It really returns [the artwork] to the origin of photography,” Burgin said, noting that the show felt like a fitting conclusion for the artwork. He thought that would be the final time Photopath would be shown.

But that changed last year when Campany approached the artist with the idea of writing his short book about the artwork—a piece of writing that blends analytic art theory and personal experience, often to lyrical effect. What Campany identified in Burgin’s artwork was a kind of foresight for how photographic technology is used today. 

David Campany, Victor Burgin’s Photopath, 2022. Courtesy of MACK.

“[J]ust as Vermeer had pursued an important technical development in the picturing of three-dimensional space, so too had Burgin anticipated aspects of representation that are just as pervasive: the replication of surfaces, and the uncertain space between images and their mental impressions. Fake leaves on plastic plants. Laminated tabletops imitating stone or wood. Synthetic clothing pretending to be denim or leather.”

“Photographic ‘skins’ are everywhere in contemporary life,” Campany concluded. “They are not pictures, at least not in the conventional sense, but are a fact of our contemporary material, visual, and virtual experience.”

Victor Burgin: Photopath” is on view now through March 4, 2023 at Cristin Tierney Gallery in New York. Victor Burgin’s Photopath by David Campany is available now through MACK.

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Morris Hirshfield Worked Most of His Life as a Tailor—Here Are 3 Things to Know About the Self-Taught Artist Who Was Revered by the Surrealists and Is Now a Museum Star

Today, Polish-American artist Morris Hirshfield is considered one of the most significant self-taught artists of the 20th century. But this was not always the case. The term “Outsider Art” was coined in 1972, well after Hirshfield’s death in 1946, but his paintings still suffered from the critical prejudice that frequently accompanies art that is made outside of mainstream modes and contexts. In the decades since, Hirshfield’s contribution as an important Modernist painter has been frequently overlooked, and his work has been relegated to the footnotes of art history.

The American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in New York has attempted to rectify that, by mounting the most comprehensive exhibition to date of the artist’s work with “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” The critically applauded show, on view through January 29, 2023, seeks to not only introduce Hirshfield to a contemporary audience, but also solidify his standing within the greater trajectory of Modern art and rectify years of critical neglect. And unlike the shows Hirshfield was involved in during his lifetime, this AFAM exhibition has been met with widespread acclaim by critics and audiences alike.

Installation vies, "Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered." Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Installation view, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Born in 1872 in Poland, Hirshfield led a life largely set apart from the art world—although he dabbled in wood carving and created a sculpture for his local synagogue as a teenager. He immigrated to New York City at age 18, where he initially worked in a women’s apparel factory, first as a pattern cutter before working his way up to tailor. Eventually, he left the factory and went into business with his brother, Abraham, opening a small women’s coat and suit shop.

After 12 years, the shop was shuttered and Hirshfield opened “E-Z Walk Manufacturing Company” with his wife, Henriette. The most successful items produced were “boudoir slippers”—ornate, comfortable shoes meant for home wear—which greatly contributed to the company’s growth. At its height, the business had more than 300 employees and it grossed roughly $1 million dollars a year. The house slippers were arguably Hirshfield’s greatest business success, and 14 of his patented designs from the 1920s were meticulously recreated by artist Liz Blahd for the AFAM exhibition as an homage to this facet of the artist’s life.

Celebrating this novel and intriguing exhibition, we did a deep dive into the life and work of Hirshfield and found three incredible facts about the artist to give viewers more insight into his work.

Installation view, "Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered." Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Installation view, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” Photo: Eva Cruz/EveryStory. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

All of Hirshfield’s paintings were made in the last seven years of his life

Morris Hirshfield, Angora Cat (1937–39). Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Morris Hirshfield, left: Angora Cat (detail) (1937–39), right: Angora Cat (1937–39). Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

With an incredibly diverse and varied body of work, it would seem to follow that Hirshfield had a long and storied artistic career, or at the very least a history of informally experimenting with painting. But he spent the majority of his professional career working in women’s apparel and footwear. Forced to retire in 1935 due to failing health, Hirshfield only began to paint at the ripe age of 65. The seemingly immediate ingenuity and resourcefulness with which he approached his practice can be seen in some of his first paintings, like Angora Cat (1937–39). The support for this work was a preexisting painting that hung in Morris and Henriette’s Brooklyn apartment; the lion figurine set on a decorative shelf above the cat’s head is a remnant of the overlaid painting, cleverly incorporated into the new composition. The extreme detail that Hirshfield paid to every facet of his paintings, such as including repeating, intricately detailed patterns across backgrounds and costumes, indicates a rigorous pace to his artistic output. Together, Hirshfield’s oeuvre of nearly 80 paintings were entirely created in the last seven years of his life—perhaps a cogent reminder that it’s never too late to start something new.

Hirshfield’s first major retrospective led to the

museum director’s demotion

Installation view, "Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered." A recreation of part of the Museum of Modern Art, "The Paintings of Morris Hirshfield," (1943). Photo: Photo by Eva Cruz/EveryStory. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Installation view, “Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered.” A recreation of part of the Museum of Modern Art, “The Paintings of Morris Hirshfield” (1943). Photo: Eva Cruz/EveryStory. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, New York.

One of the most significant (perhaps even infamous) events of Hirshfield’s relatively short career as an artist was his 1943 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York—which made him the first self-taught artist to garner such a comprehensive show at the museum. According to the press release, “The Paintings of Morris Hirshfield” featured 30 “primitive paintings” and was installed under the direction of Sidney Janis, a supporter of Hirshfield’s work and an influential New York dealer and collector who was at the time a member of the museum’s advisory committee. The show was a critical failure, and the press it received was overwhelming negative—with art critics collectively referring to Hirshfield as the “Master of Two Left Feet,” alluding to the planar perspective the artist used in his compositions, particularly of women. Though of course there were other contributing factors, the influx of bad press caused by the exhibition led the trustees of the museum to demote director Alfred Barr—who deemed Hirshfield’s Tiger (1940) an “unforgettable” modern animal painting—before the show had even closed. The exhibition at the AFAM, however, has reclaimed the moniker for Hirshfield, with the catalogue accompanying the current exhibition titled Master of Two Left Feet: Morris Hirshfield Rediscovered, written by art historian Richard Meyer.

The Surrealists loved his work

Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons (1942). Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2022 Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Morris Hirshfield, Girl with Pigeons (1942). Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection. © 2022 Robert and Gail Rentzer for Estate of Morris Hirshfield / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Despite mainstream criticism of Hirshfield’s paintings, many Surrealists working in New York at the time embraced his singular style. Marcel Duchamp and André Breton were both fans of Hirshfield’s intriguing and unique paintings, and Breton included Girl with Pigeons (1942) in the seminal “First Papers of Surrealism” exhibition of 1942—the first major Surrealist art show in the U.S. That same year, examples of Hirshfield’s work were documented in the home of Peggy Guggenheim, in a photoshoot taken by Hermann Landshoff. In these images, Surrealist juggernauts Duchamp, Breton, Leonora Carrington, and Max Ernst (Guggenheim’s husband at the time), are shown collected around and apparently transfixed by Hirshfield’s Nude at the Window (Hot Night in July) (1941). In 1945, Hirshfield was asked to contribute an artwork for the cover of the October issue of View: The Modern Magazine, a periodical that advocated for avant-garde art, with an emphasis on Surrealism. Hirshfield created a new piece featuring one of his signature flattened women on a meticulously detailed blue field, surrounded by three birds and adorned in geometric flowers and a sash.

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