Portrait

This Creepy 17th-Century Baby Portrait Was Found in the Home of an ‘Eccentric’ English Farmer. It May Fetch $24,000 at Auction


For years, a 17th-century portrait of a child hid on the back of a door in an English cottage that was crammed with antiques, rarely seen even by the eccentric collector who lived there. 

Now, following the owner’s death, the artwork is set to hit the auction block in London, where it’s estimated to fetch £18,000 to £20,000 ($21,500 to $24,000).

That’s a lot for an artwork relegated to the back of a door. But if you’re wondering why such a valuable piece of art didn’t garner a more prominent placement in the Surrey home, well the painting itself may hold the answer: It’s creepy as hell. 

Hansons, the auction house set to sell the piece on January 28, calls the portrait’s subject a “miniature adult.” But the phrase “weirdly big baby” may better capture this picture’s particular brand of uncanniness. 

Painted nearly 400 years ago, it depicts a cherubic toddler decked out in an ankle-length gown and a lace collar. Stiffly upright the child stands next to a table, the proportions of which make her seem at least four-and-a-half feet tall. 

“I was surprised to find such a compelling portrait hidden away,” said Hansons associate director Chris Kirkham in a statement. “However, I discovered there was a reason for it. The keen collector who acquired it had downsized some years before and brought all of his much-loved antiques with him.”

“His collection included several paintings which were hung on much smaller walls than they had originally been intended for,” Kirkham went on. “He struggled for display space and this little girl in all her finery got tucked away behind a door. Sadly, the collector passed away and this centuries-old work was forgotten.”

It was only by chance that the auction house executive happened to look on the other side of the door, which otherwise remained perpetually propped open. “I just happened to move it and thank goodness I did,” he said.

Courtesy of Hansons Auctioneers.

The piece is being commissioned by the collector’s daughter, who called her father “an eccentric and a collector of all types of antiques and curios.” 

“He had a really good eye for unusual objects and art,” she said. “It offered him a hobby away from his working life as a farmer.”

She noted that she thinks the man “may have purchased the painting at auction many years ago but can’t be sure.”

In the upper register of the canvas is the artist’s name, Adriaen Verkins, and the date it was created, 1626. Hansons suggests that Verkins may have been a Dutch artist whose work—heavily influenced by that of masters like Van Dyck and Rubens—was otherwise lost to time.

The painting will be offered in the company’s Fine Art and Antiques Auction on January 28.

“It is remarkable what we find hidden away in homes, often forgotten and, in this case, behind a door,” added the auction house’s owner, Charles Hanson. “Collectors tend to fill their homes with so many wonderful items over the course of decades, it is easy to lose sight of which ones may be of special significance.”

“When you look into this little girl’s eyes you are swept back to the early 17th century. Fashions of the time for the rich—the poor were in rags—were showy and laden with ornamentation. Jewelry, lace, and multiple contrasting fabrics displayed wealth. This portrait is a remarkable find. It is like a time capsule offering an insight into the life of a wealthy child.”

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Conservators at the Met Have Discovered a Hidden Composition Under Jacques Louis David’s Portrait of a Famed Chemist


In 2019, Jacques Louis David’s famed neoclassical portrait of chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and his wife, Marie Anne, was sent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation lab. The job was straightforward—the removal of a varnish. But in the process, researchers discovered something else, too: a hidden composition under the painting.

The painting we know depicts the Lavoisiers as assiduous leaders of a scientific revolution. A humbly attired Marie Anne leans over her husband, who is seated at a red-swathed table, hard at work before a bevy of specialized instruments. 

Jacques-Louis David, <i>Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and Marie-Anne Lavoisier (Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836)</i> (1788). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jacques Louis David, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and Marie Anne Lavoisier (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) (1788). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But after months of analysis—via such techniques as infrared reflectography and macro X-ray fluorescence mapping—experts learned that David’s original painting of Lavoisier and his wife was far less flattering, depicting the couple as well-heeled members of the nobility, luxuriating in their lavish lifestyle. In the artist’s original sketch, the instruments are gone, the table is bare and inlaid with gilt brass details, and Marie Anne dons a swanky plumed hat. 

The restored painting has now been returned to the Met’s neoclassical galleries. It looks like it always has, but its context has changed.

“The revelations about Jacques Louis David’s painting completely transform our understanding of the centuries-old masterpiece,” said Max Hollein, director of the Met, in a statement. “More than 40 years after the work first entered the museum’s collection, it is thrilling to gain new insights into the artist’s creative process and the painting’s evolution.”

Left: a map showing the combined elemental distribution of lead and mercury in David's painting. Right: an infrared reflectogram of the canvas.

Left: a map showing the combined elemental distribution of lead and mercury in David’s painting. Right: an infrared reflectogram of the canvas. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Born in 1743, Lavoisier was responsible for a number of major contributions to modern science, including the metric system, the first table of elements, and the discovery of oxygen and hydrogen. His wife, born in 1758, was instrumental to many of these innovations, often assisting Lavoisier with tests. 

However, with his success, Lavoisier was also firmly entrenched in France’s Ancien Régime, the dominant system of rule upended by the revolution in the last decade of the 18th century. During that period, he was arrested by for his complicity as a tax collector, and eventually executed via guillotine in May 1794.

David’s 6-by-9 foot portrait was completed in 1788, just prior to the revolution. The artist intended to debut the work at a salon in 1789 but, according to the Met, he was convinced to pull the fawning tribute at the last minute by royal authorities, who were alarmed by rising tensions pointing to the coming overthrow. The painting wasn’t seen by the public until a century later, at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and Marie Anne Lavoisier (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) was purchased for the Met in 1977 by philanthropists Charles and Jayne Wrightsman.

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Kehinde Wiley’s Presidential Portrait of Barack Obama Is Arriving in New York. Here Are 3 Things You Might Not Know About It


In recent history, few artworks have captured the public imagination quite like the Obama Portraits—the official portraits of 44th U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama, which set off a media firestorm when they were unveiled in 2018. 

The president’s portrait, painted by Kehinde Wiley, and the first lady’s, painted by Ashley Sherald, marked a sharp—and refreshing—departure from the staid, traditional styles with which these official portraits had become synonymous. 

And it wasn’t just the art world that was enthralled. When the portraits went on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., attendance skyrocketed 300 percent. Visitors not infrequently broke down in tears before the paintings. 

Since then, the public’s enthusiasm has not waned. Now, in an attempt to bring the images to a wider audience, both portraits have been sent on a cross-country museum tour that will last into spring 2022. With the first leg at the Art Institute of Chicago having just ended, the portraits will go on view at the Brooklyn Museum next week, from August 27–October 24. They will then travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the MFA Houston.  

To mark the tour, as well as President Obama’s recent 60th birthday, we decided to take a closer look at Kehinde Wiley’s foliage-filled portrait. Here are three details that just might change the way you see it.

1) Wiley Does Away With (Most) Of His Famed Historical Motifs 

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005). Collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

One of the most celebrated artists of our generation, Kehinde Wiley has defined his career with monumental oil paintings that often place Black men and women into traditional Western art-historical iconography and against lushly colorful, patterned backgrounds.

Arguably his most famous painting, Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005), which is in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, reinterprets Jacques Louis David’s Neoclassical masterpiece Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass (1801–5). Given Wiley’s dexterity with these political and art-historical references, one might have expected his take on the U.S. presidency—an office with no shortage of historical imagery associated with it—to be filled with eager eggs. 

Instead, Wiley set Obama, the first African American president, in an environment free of overt references, though he retains the imposing physical scale of the history paintings he often echoes. (This one measures over seven feet tall.) Other points of inspiration are even subtler. Obama’s left foot, as New Yorker writer Vinson Cunningham aptly pointed out, doesn’t press into the earth as one might imagine, but floats in an almost otherworldly way, like a Byzantine saint in a golden eternal realm.

Here, Obama the person, rather than the office, is the focus. He is dressed in a nondescript black suit and white shirt, open at the collar, leaning forward toward the viewer with his arms crossed, as though he were listening or just about to speak. His expression could be seen as stern or reassuring. By eliminating any easily decoded symbols, Wiley offers a portrait that revels in its own ambiguity.

 

2) Those Flowers Are More Than a Pretty Backdrop 

Detail of Kehinde Wiley's Barack Hussein Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Detail of Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Hussein Obama (2018). Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Where, we might ask ourselves, is the president meant to be, exactly? Seated in a varnished antique chair, he hovers against a lush green backdrop of leaves and flowers. (The enveloping background inspired some Internet jokesters to compare the image to the famous meme of Homer Simpson getting swallowed up by a green hedge.) 

Wiley painted this portrait working from a series of photographs he made of the president and the image has been celebrated (rightly) for its verisimilitude. But the artist paid almost equal attention to the decorative elements of the picture. The highly varnished rosewood of mahogany chair rosewood of mahogany is a highly specific and yet unreal conglomeration of 18th and 19th styles with curved arms, inlaid patterns, and an oval back that combine aspects of English regency and American styles. (It’s worth noting that the decorative arts have, perhaps more than any other art form, quietly been shaped by the histories of trade, colonization, and warfare, from Chinoiserie to the Egyptian influence on Art Deco. Wiley’s blending of styles seems to purposely confound this connoisseurship).

As with many of his paintings, Wiley does not keep the flora neatly in the background but allows it to curl and twist with its own agency. Upon closer examination, the greenery is laden with symbolism: jasmine references Hawaii, where Obama was born; the African blue lilies represent Kenya, Obama’s father’s birthplace (Wiley’s father is Nigerian); and chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago, the city where his political career began and where, of course, he met Michelle Obama. 

 

3) The Portrait Harkens Back to the Very First of the Presidential Portraits   

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington known at the "Lansdowne" portrait (1796). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

Gilbert Stuart, Portrait of George Washington known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796). Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

While Wiley has done away with his boldest art-historical references, that antique-looking chair Obama is sitting in has conjured up some critical interpretations. Art critic Holland Cotter noted in his New York Times review that Wiley’s portrait bears some resemblance to ​​Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 Lansdowne Portrait of George Washington, a version of which has hung in the East Room of the White House since 1800.

As Cotter notes, “the clothes are an 18th-century version of current POTUS style: basic black suit and fat tie.” Plus, the “vaguely throne-like chair [is] not so different from the one seen in Stuart’s Washington portrait.”

While in another context, this might seem an interpretive stretch, here it feels intentional: in the first presidential portrait, Washington stands beside an empty chair. Two hundred and twenty years later, Obama, the first African American president to occupy the White House (a house built by slaves), has taken a seat at the proverbial table.

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Restoring a Tradition Trump Skipped, Joe Biden Will Welcome Barack Obama to the White House to Unveil His Old Boss’s Portrait


President Joe Biden is welcoming his former boss, Barack Obama, back to the White House for the unveiling of the former president’s official portrait this fall, according to a report from NBC News.

The unveiling will be a makeup occasion after former President Trump declined to invite Obama for the event, which typically takes place in the East Room of the White House with hundreds of guests in attendance.

For 40 years before Trump discontinued it, the portrait dedication was a bipartisan gesture of goodwill by a new president towards his predecessor. (Trump also skipped Biden’s inauguration, opting to leave Washington early for his Florida estate at Mar-a-Lago.)

The paintings are commissioned by the privately funded White House Historical Association, and are awarded to an artist of the former president’s choosing.

Tourists walk past a portrait of former US Presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton during the reopening of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on May 14, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Creating the portraits can take up to four years, and the works are donated to the White House upon completion.

Customarily, portraits of the two most recent presidents hang on the state floor of the White House near the Grand Foyer, though Trump moved portraits of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to a “less visible” location, according to NBC. Biden has since moved them back.

Donald and Melania Trump are reportedly in discussions with the Historical Association and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), where portraits of other US presidents are on view in the “America’s Presidents” exhibition.

An advisor to Trump told NBC that “our progress is consistent with historical precedent.”

When the NPG reopened after it pandemic-forced closure, a recently acquired photograph of Trump was included in the exhibition. It was taken on June 17, 2019, in the Oval Office, the day before Trump formally announced he would seek reelection.

Meanwhile, portraits of the Obamas by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald are now on an 11-month-long, five-venue tour.

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Industry Veteran Simon de Pury on Why Portrait Commissions Are Making a Comeback for the Art World in the 21st Century


Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

When I was growing up, most of the paintings that were hanging in my family’s home were portraits of ancestors. Not being of royal lineage, none of them were painted by great masters. To an impressionable child, some of them were outright scary. 

But when my passion for art awoke as a teenager, I became fascinated by some of the greatest portraits ever made in art history. Portraiture has been a main strand in artistic practice through the centuries. The portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection epitomized for me the ideal of feminine and artistic beauty combined. Ghirlandaio himself can’t have been displeased with the portrait he was commissioned to paint in 1488, since he put on it a Latin inscription which roughly translated means “Art, if only you could depict character and soul, there would be no more beautiful painting on earth than this one.” 

Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449–1494), Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1489-90, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449–1494), Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1489-90, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

Some of history’s most poignant portraits have been self portraits by art giants such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Van Gogh, Picasso, or Warhol. “All is Vanity” was a sentence that my mother kept repeating to me when I was growing up. That expression came from King Solomon. Vanity has always been the main engine behind self portraits and portrait commissions. It is that engine which today is behind the phenomenal success of social media platforms such as Instagram or TikTok. The advent of photography in the 19th century diminished the need for patrons to commission artists to paint their portraits, and the market for the practice dwindled. With time, photography became an art form in its own right and an additional medium through which artists could express themselves. 

One of my favorite questions to friends is: “If you could have your portrait done by any living artist, who would be your top three choices?” and the follow up: “What about for artists of the past?” Most people have to think hard before answering the first question, and can only come up with one name or two at most. Answering the second one comes much easier. The two most frequently mentioned artists in that category are Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol, artists who revived the tradition of portraiture in the 20th century. 

Eric Fischl, Simon and Ahn (2003). Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

Eric Fischl, Simon and Ahn (2003). Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

Freud took a very long time to complete a painting. His works were done from life, meaning that his sitters had to pose for hours on end. His love life was extremely active, and occasionally affairs with some of his female subjects would end before he had had the time to finish their paintings. He categorically refused to do portraits on commission.

In the early 1990s I was renting a flat in Holland Park, very close to where Freud had his studio. I would give dinners and would always try to have a fun mix of guests. On one occasion, I invited Freud as well as Eliette von Karajan, the French widow of the great conductor. As soon as he sat down at the table, Eliette told him: “I would like you to paint my portrait.” He instantly shot back: “Never ever would I do that; my art dictates whom I will paint! Eliette, who is far from being a pushover, answered equally abruptly and it was the start of a very intense and long exchange. The other guests stopped talking and were riveted by the skirmish. Years later, Lucian would still ask me “How is Eliette?” and Eliette would sometimes mistakenly call me Lucian.

With Warhol things were the exact opposite. From 1968 onwards, he made numerous portrait commissions. He utilized the hugely popular SX-70 Polaroid camera to take snapshots of his sitters. This took no time at all. His staff would then make a silkscreen which was used as the basis for the portraits. In the early 80s the price for one portrait was $25,000. Anybody who was anybody had to have their portrait done by him.

My own top three choices to have my portrait done by a living artist would be: David Hockney, Elizabeth Peyton, and Richard Prince. I loved the exhibition of 82 portraits done by Hockney at the Royal Academy in London in 2016. Elizabeth Peyton’s oeuvre consists mostly of gorgeous portraits done of celebrities past and present. Richard Prince’s Instagram portraits would probably be the closest equivalent today to the society portraits Warhol was doing in the 1970s and ‘80s. When you check #selfie on Instagram you see it has been used at least 450 million times. The ultimate ego trip therefore has got to be to have your IG portrait done by Richard Prince. 

But there is a big snag with my dream list. None of these artists will agree  to do portrait commissions unless you are their close buddy or the Queen of Sheba. Even with my extended dream list, which would include Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—who did the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama—Amoako Boafo, Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, Zeng Fangzhi, as well as photographers Mario Testino, David LaChapelle and Juergen Teller, it would be near impossible to get a portrait commission out of them.

Anh Duong, <i>Le Bonheur Paralyse mon Esprit</i> (2013). Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska.

Anh Duong, Le Bonheur Paralyse mon Esprit (2013). Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska.

I would be hard pressed to name even five good contemporary artists who today would take on portrait commissions.

However, the tables may be about to turn. There are two exhibitions taking place currently of artists who do portraits on commission. Anh Duongh’s first solo show in Switzerland just opened at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich. Long an insider tip amongst art lovers, she has over the years made portraits of some of her friends such as Diane von Fuerstenberg and top model Karen Elson. Her strongest works, however, are her self portraits. Her penetrating gaze dominates these and they are the 21st century equivalent of Frida Kalho’s powerful self portraits. She has in the past exhibited in New York at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. This exhibition shows that her most recent work is her best, which is an excellent sign for a mid-career artist.  

Henry Hudson, Sean Scully (2021). Courtesy

Henry Hudson, Sean Scully (2021).

The other exhibition is one that I have the pleasure to present. “Henry Hudson—Microcosm,” is currently taking s place in the artist’s East London studio. Where Anh Duong paints oil on canvas, Henry Hudson first uses his iPad to take a photograph of his sitters. Using the Procreate app for digital painting he transforms these photographs into striking images, which he then prints on different surfaces using a U.V. flatbed printer. The final outcomes are unique works that have different textures depending on whether they were printed on slate, tile, denim, perspex, or dried flowers. He did the portraits of friends, artists, curators, dealers, and collectors from the microcosm of the art world. Like Anh Duong, Hudson does take on selected commissions. It takes Hudson even less time to do an iPad photograph than it took Warhol to do a Polaroid shot. The only thing the sitter has to do is to choose the size and the surface on which he wants the finished work to be printed. 

With artists like Hudson and Duong creating a new market for quality portraits on commission, the time-honored tradition of society portraits could be revived once more in the 21st century. Who will you choose to do yours?

 

Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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