Not everybody likes Los Angeles. I’ve been twice and I didn’t mind it. Like it or loathe it, the City of the Angels has lots of great museums including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, LACMA, our penultimate museum on the American blog.
Anna Tummers, The Eye of the Connoisseur: Authenticating Paintings by Rembrandt and his Contemporaries, , University of Amsterdam, 2011, published in the U.S.A. by J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2011, 349 pages.
A Significant Deattribution.
For many members of the general public, the ways of curators and museum professionals remain as inscrutable as the workings of the divine. As Anna Tummers confides in her introduction, many paintings are attributed and de-attributed out of the public eye. And it was such a clandestine demotion at the National Gallery Washington during 2004-5 that sowed the seeds that became this book. During her time working on an exhibition of the 17th century Dutch painter Gerard Ter Borch, cleaning revealed the signature of another artist, Caspar Netscher who was imitating Terborch’s style. This revelation resulted in the painting immediately loosing meaning to the exhibition, and it was quietly removed by the curators. Though no stranger to attribution culture, this case struck Tummers hard, and she became increasingly drawn into research about attributions in 17th century “Netherlandish” art.
“This book deals with the methodology of connoisseurship in the field of Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century painting and on the criteria connoisseurs use in making attributions.
As a curator of old masters at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, as well as studying attribution issues and connoisseurship in the 17th century during her doctoral research, Tummers is well placed to define the profile of connoisseurship at the present time. Is this profile sharp and clear, or is it slightly obscured by the shadows of arcane theories and scholarly dispute? In order to assess the status of current connoisseurship, Tummers tracks back through to the Van Meegeren scandal where a distinguished art historian Abraham Bredius authenticated one of the forger’s concoctions, Supper at Emmaus (above) as an autograph Vermeer, which is to say that the art historian believed that Vermeer himself had painted it without the hand of anybody else. This embarrassing attribution resulted in scepticism towards connoisseurship, a turning point since from that moment onwards, evidence rather than intuitive hunches and non-quantifiable evaluations were demanded. What really changed the landscape of Dutch art history, however, was the Rembrandt Research Project in the 1960s and its use of scientific methodology to drastically prune the master's oeuvre, though subjective criteria wasn’t completely eliminated from the process. However, there were problems with their procedures since the system of classification of Rembrandt's paintings was based on the assumption that Rembrandt never collaborated with his pupils. This culminated in some de-attributions, downgrading of Rembrandts to works produced by his pupils, decisions that still divide scholars to this day.
Connoisseurship and Art Theory
Van Meegeren and the RRP will not be unknown to the general reader, but Tummers probes the implications of the forger’s antics for the direction of art history which is dependent on anachronistic modes of thought, an unexplored tangent. The Van Meegeren affair may have been beneficial in the long run because it alerted scholars to the need to understand painting techniques, appreciate master-pupil relationships and learn about the role seventeenth- century art theory played in the origins of connoisseurship. It is the last that is the most essential strand of Tummer’s book because she identifies the impact of the treatises of seicento critics like Roger de Piles (above), Guilio Mancini, Abraham Bosse and Samuel van Hoogstraten on the practice of making judgements about paintings. I’m trying hard to avoid the word “attribution” in this context because early modern experts simply didn’t approach art in that way. Tummers closes her first chapter with a 1677 dialogue between two connoisseurs, a piece written by de Piles, one of the rare cases where there is a discussion on the dating and attributing of paintings in the seventeenth-century. In that century, connoisseurs, theorists, art lovers, experts, or whatever you want to call them, didn’t sit around and squabble about who painted what; they were engrossed in debates about quality rather than attribution.
Copies and Originals.
Tummers further explores the origins of connoisseurship in 17th century Europe, pointing out that distinguishing between copies and originals may have followed precepts in art treatises, a scholarship angle that some modern connoisseurs tend to neglect. Some 17th century theorists and authors of art treatises had sound technical knowledge of paintings, so early experts had a good eye for damaged originals or over painted pictures. Then there is our understanding of the status of the copy which needs re-visiting. There were some copies that were admired such as Andrea dal Sarto's celebrated copy of Raphael's Portrait of Leo X. This case is well-known, but a more obscure, and telling example is the case of a copy of a Caravaggio by the minor Flemish artist Louis Finson. The Middleburg art dealer Charles de Coninck had to guarantee that a painting he had sold for 600 guilders was a copy after Caravaggio by Finson, otherwise the sale would be invalidated. Other painters like Rembrandt’s teacher, Pieter Lastman, were brought in to adjudicate on Finson’s copy, but note in this case it was the attribution of a copy, not an original. Copies after famous originals could occasionally be valued more highly than an original by a lesser master. The Dutch art theorist and painter van Hoogstraten said that whilst bad copies harmed a master's reputation, good copies increased the master's fame.
The Paradox of Seventeenth-Century Connoisseurship.
The crux of Tummer’s argument in this this book is something she calls the “paradox of seventeenth-century connoisseurship.” Research reveals that guild statutes suggest it was routine for master painters, the heads of workshops, to sell work made as a result of collaborating with their studio assistants. Rubens for example, is known to have sold retouched student copies for cheaper prices than his good quality pictures. And there is mention in a 1656 inventory of Rembrandt’s pictures of “six retouched paintings” which may indicate that Rembrandt produced cheaper pictures like Rubens. The other side of the paradox is that early modern treatises that deal with “attribution” indirectly or explicitly encourage art lovers to look for brush marks that “seem distinctively individual.” This paradox has impacted on at the highest levels of Dutch art history, and there is nothing more momentous than ruling on the status of Rembrandts, with the head of the RRP Ernst van der Wetering wondering if the project’s search for “the master’s hand” could not be anachronistic. There is a lot at stake here. Scholars who argue that modern connoisseurship is anachronistic come up against the brute economics of the art market since distinguishing Rembrandt from his pupils can mean millions of dollars. But if there was greater collaboration amongst artists and students, and if Rembrandt's workshop practice (above) was so diverse, as to even permit re-touching of student copies, than what are the implications of that for what Tummers calls “the holy grail of present day connoisseurs” who pursue the autograph work. In the Italian context, the concept of "fatto di suo manno" has been analysed by Richard Spear in Guido Reni and his associates, but one wonders if modern connoisseurs are aware of these debates, let alone their implication. From my interaction with old master dealers and connoisseurs in seventeenth-century art, it clear that they are aware of these debates and recognise the implications for authentication and for judging pictures. I’m not so sure about the large auction houses though.
Tummers has many useful insights on signatures, manners, styles, which all affect the perception of individuality and the problem of autograph work in the seventeenth-century. I found her discussion of “transitional styles” interesting especially as she neatly brought in Poussin’s comment “I am not one of those who always sings in the same key,” a warning to art lovers and connoisseurs to appreciate an artist’s variation in style. Poussin’s comment was his response to his patron Chantelou who had declared in disappointment that the Baptism (above) painted for him was “trop doux” or “too sweet.” Though there is a scarcity of comments on stylistic change over time within the literature of art appreciation, those that we know are revealing. The French theorist Abraham Bosse claimed that three paintings would be enough for a connoisseur to judge an artist's work, "provided the artist hadn't changed it." But Roger de Piles criticised connoisseurs for judging matters of attribution from just three or four pictures of that master's oeuvre. This kind of strategy features heavily in Poussin scholarship where his art is divided into groups of pictures on the basis of variations of style, or transitions in style, Blunt’s “blonde pictures” group comes to mind. Style variation could also be keyed to pricing; a painter could adjust his manner to the expected price as with the Italian baroque painter Lanfranco who dashed off mediocre works if he anticipated small financial returns. Getting back to Rembrandt, Tummers claims that his manner and stylistic variation may reflect gender oppositions derived from art theory or treatises on style. Did Rembrandt deliberately choose to render male subjects with a loose brushwork in a “rough” manner whilist treating women differently, in the “smooth” or “fine” style? I’m not qualified to answer this question, just a keen Rembrandt fan, but I feel Tummer’s point about how modern connoisseurs ignore these considerations arising out of 17th century art theory is a valid one. Modern connoisseurs and the compilers of catalogue raisonnés could pay more attention to debates about seventeenth-century style and function, variation and virtuosity.
Who Judges? Painter or Connoisseur?
“The connoisseur’s increasingly important role on the art market coincided with the increased importance attached to his opinions in city descriptions and its publications on art theory.”
In the 17th century theorists assigned the skill of judging paintings to artists, and it was not until the following century that the advice of the amateur was sought. We learn that Van Mander used the term “art expert” to distinguish them from actual painters, since the former indulged in claims of Ideal judgements and made pretentious comments. In France, Bosse (“Roger showing Two Cardinals around a Gallery”, above) highlighted and criticised phrases like “well-touched,” “of the grand manner” by “art experts” who didn’t understand art. At least three 17th century art theorists, Binet (A Jesuit theorist), Bosse and van Hoogstraten made it clear that only artists were qualified to discuss paintings. For van Hoogstraten, both theorist and practicing artist, most of these experts in his wonderful phrase were “name-buyers” who didn’t rely on their own expertise, but bought on the advice of somebody who considered the painting autograph. A lot of “name-buying” goes on these days as the epidemic of “discoveries” makes abundantly clear. However, some art lovers thought non-painters were equal to the artists themselves, and this development paralleled the art market where connoisseurs took on the role of dealers, auctioneers and those who adjudicated officially in disputes about attribution. The modern era of connoisseurship had arrived.
A Rembrandt Case Study.
“This case study demonstrates, therefore, the importance of having a better understanding of seventeenth-century perceptions in the assessments of paintings from that period. It underscores the main thesis of this book, namely that knowledge of seventeenth-century views on style, authenticity and artistic quality is indispensable in attributions. These insights can greatly sharpen the insights that expert’s use- either consciously or unconsciously- when deciding how to label paintings from this period.”
Tummers finally ties all the main themes of her book together in a discussion of a Rembrandt case study in an epilogue to her book. The 1642 painting, David and Jonathan, in the Hermitage, St Petersburg (above) was considered a Rembrandt until the RRP de-attributed it in 1989. Reasons given were that the brushwork was “superficial”, the spatial construction “weak” and they were not convinced that the colour combination was typical of a Rembrandt product of the 1640s. What made this demotion so high-profile is that it had been championed by Ernst Gombrich in his famous Story of Art which has sold millions. To cut a long story short, Tummers explains that, amongst other things, the RRP did not entertain the possibility that “more than one painter could have executed the work.” Comparing the RRP with Gombrich’s 1950 assessment (which has appeared in all subsequent editions), Tummer’s offers this parting thought. In his discussion of Rembrandt’s David and Jonathan, he spoke more as a seventeenth-century connoisseur might have done. In 1950 Gombrich wrote:
“We can see that Rembrandt was as great a master in conjuring up the effects of these shiny textures as Rubens or Velasquez. Rembrandt used less bright colour. The first impression of many of his paintings is that of a rather dark brown. But these dark tones give even more power and force to the contrast of a few bright and brilliant colours. The result is that the light on some of Rembrandt’s pictures looks almost dazzling. But Rembrandt never used these effects of light and shade for their own sake. They always serve to enhance the drama of the scene.”
Sir Ernst Gombrich, Story of Art, cited in Tummers.
A New Paradigm for Connoisseurship?
Gombrich did not live to see the David and Jonathan re-attributed to Rembrandt by the RRP which happened shortly after Tummers had completed her epilogue. The doyen of art history wrote his enormously popular book for the general public, but, except for the opening foray into Van Meegeren, Tummer’s volume is less accessible to a general audience. Published by the University of Amsterdam and in America, the Getty Museum, it is therefore aimed at scholars and art historians involved in this debate, though it can be read with profit by scholars working in other fields like French and Italian art. A more accessible book covering similar themes is Jonathan Brown’s Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting Art in Seventeenth-CenturyEurope which is more orientated towards the non-specialist, and which is referenced occasionally in Tummers’s volume. Despite that caveat, Tummers does write clearly, avoids theoretical jargon and takes the trouble to explain some terms used in attribution issues early on. Her original unravelling of Gombrich’s unconsciously mediated views of seventeenth-century connoisseurship, in an art history book that has sold millions is brilliant, and suggests ways of bringing the “paradox of connoisseurship” debate closer to the general public. She has written an important book here which is very successful at identifying the assumptions upon which modern connoisseurship is based, as well as calling for fresh thinking on attributions. One can feel the tectonic plates shifting in this world Tummers wants where artists’ oeuvres are meticulously probed, over-hauled and presented afresh in re-written catalogue raisonnés to take account of the connoisseurship paradox. This would entail nothing less than a complete paradigm shift in connoisseurship which is unlikely to happen since so many fortunes, reputations, fellowships and careers depend on the old model. In an aside, Tummers discloses that she contacted a representative of Sotheby's Amsterdam who advised that a "good" Rembrandt studio is valued 5-10% of an authentic Rembrandt..According to Tummers, “this means that a Rembrandt studio picture tends to fetch a price in the range of a six figure sum, while paintings considered to be entirely autograph Rembrandts start at $5 million.” How might Sotheby’s pricing structure work if the connoisseurship paradox were applied to cases of attributions today?
What follows is the presentation of an on-going investigation into the fortunes of a painting. It is divided into two main sections, each a different mode of reporting. The first is in the form of a narrative account, the story of my research; the second is a more systematic catalogue entry with some points raised at the end for further consideration.
A Neglected Painting in Chicago.
With the advent of digital technology, museum collections are laid out on line, and it is easier to see what works of art institutions own. The advantage of this for the researcher is that unattributed and lesser-known paintings suddenly become visible. It is as the walls of museums have suddenly dissolved, and we are looking in at the treasures within. American museums have some of the best web sites and it was thanks to this that my attention was drawn to a curious painting in the Chicago Art Institute during my researches for the Old Masters in America course and blog. Transparency made possible by technology is only one aspect of this; collaboration with another art historian in the Netherlands via the internet and social media also proved significant since it led to the discovery of a similar painting in a museum in that country.
Chicago Art Institute lists the above painting as “Spanish” with a date of c (about) 1630; its support (the medium it is painted on) is canvas and the measurements, in this case 74.3 x 87 cm. No painter is named; the museum simply labels it “Spanish.” Its provenance (history of ownership) just tells us that it was a gift from the heirs of Samuel Gans to the museum. More information remains to be discovered about Mr Gans. The picture shows an old man with hands clenched over a globe of the world which is inscribed. His facial skin is like parchment and his eyes are tightly shut. The picture is painted in sombre tones, earth colours, e.g. brown and red ochre.
The Neapolitan Connection.
After studying the painting, my next move was to put the search term “Heraclitus” in the Getty Provenance Database which informed me that there was a Heraclitus by the Spanish artist Ribera in the Chicago museum. This seemed to conform to my own initial hunch, though this was to prove a lesson in not theorising before the facts are known. Thinking along the lines that this work was by Ribera, especially the style and treatment of the cloak, I next compared Chicago’s Heraclitus to other philosophers painted by that Spanish artist who had worked in Naples. They could not have been more dissimilar, which led me to re-think my initial assessment. Could it be by some artist in the vicinity of Ribera, for example Ribalta, or Salvator Rosa? I knew from my doctoral work on Poussin and representations of philosophers in the baroque period that Rosa had painted Democritus, but I wasn’t sure about Heraclitus. However, a consultation with the catalogue for the Rosa exhibition at Dulwich in 2010 shed some light. Reproduced in the catalogue (fig 75, 197) are Rosa’s Democritus and Heraclitus. The Rosa is shown below on the left, and on the right a Ribera that turned up on the New York art market in 2006 for comparison.
This Rosa is dated 1646 and is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna) and shows the two philosophers in a painted tondo, or circle. The two philosophers are situated along a diagonal accent, and the globe of the world is almost obscured such is their close proximity to it. Though Rosa painted this work long after he had left Naples, its dark and sombre tones clearly owe much to the Spanish artist Ribera, who painted for the Viceroy of Naples. The Rosa catalogue cements that stylistic link by juxtaposing Ribera’s Democritus of 1630 (Madrid, Prado) with the Rosa canvas. Although Rosa depicted both philosophers together and Democritus on his own, he never seems to have shown Heraclitus alone, though this needs validation. However, Ribera may have, but it is difficult to determine whether his separated philosophers with globes are either Democritus or Heraclitus. A web search threw up the above Ribera sold at Christie’s, New York in 2006 which shows a philosopher with a hand on the world-. link There was obviously some uncertainty about the title of the picture, as it is listed “A Philosopher (Heraclitus?)” Though this individual seems to be deeply pensive, he isn’t laughing, and neither is he crying. My judgment is that Christie’s were right to be cautious here. I would be inclined to call him a “Philosopher” pending further iconographical analysis.
A Parallel Case: The Utrecht Heraclitus.
Art history in the age of the internet is about interacting through cyberspace, so I sent the link to a friend and colleague, Maaike Dircx (author of Rembrandt’s Room) via Facebook. A lively and productive conversation followed with the revelation that there was another painting with analogous composition in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht by the Dutch painter Johann, or Jan Moreelse. It began to look as if I, and indeed the museum, were completely on the wrong track. What we were looking at was likely a Dutch painting instead of a Spanish one, or an Italian variant of Neapolitan origin.
The painting in the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (right) is attributed to Johan Moreelse. It was bought by the museum in 1962, is on panel, and it was formerly in the collection of Prince Frederick of Prussia. The Utrecht panel closely parallels the Chicago picture: an old man wringing his hands over a globe of the world, though there are discrepancies. Unlike the Chicago philosopher, the eyes are not obscured in pools of darkness; this allows us to see the tears forming in the corner of the eyes and thus confidently identify him as Heraclitus the weeping philosopher. You are invited to visit the Google Art Project where you can examine a magnified image of the Utrecht philosopher- link. The most conspicuous change is the globe which has painted land masses and continents, unlike the one in Chicago, which surely indicates that the globe in the Utrecht painting is a terrestrial globe. As the globe in the Chicago work lacks geophysical detail, it might be considered a celestial globe, and that invites speculation; why connect Heraclitus with a celestial rather than terrestrial orb? Here are the two globes placed side by side.
Returning to facts, globes of the heavens and earth were often painted in 17th century Dutch art, as in Vermeer’s Astronomer and Geographer who were shown with celestial and terrestrial globes indicating their respective professional orientations as mapmakers of the sky and earth. Earlier in the century at the time, painters from Utrecht were being influenced by Italian art. Traditionally, Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher was often shown agonizing over the state of the world, represented by a globe, whilist his companion Democritus the joyful philosopher was shown laughing at humankind’s folly. Sometimes they were shown in a double portrait with the same globe; but more often they were painted separately with their own globes, as in the wonderful pair of philosophers by Hendrick Ter Brugghen in the Rijksmuseum which has a beautifully painted celestial globe with the zodiac depicted- link. The Centraal Museum also owns a Democritus which has the same provenance, so it must be considered the pendant to its Heraclitus. To complicate matters even more, there exists a single Democritus in the Mauritshuis at The Hague and another pair of laughing and weeping philosophers owned by the National Trust at Knole in Kent, which are attributed to Paulus Moreelse, Jan’s father. Finally, this is the moment to reveal that Chicago also owns a Democritus, which was gifted to the museum along with our Heraclitus. The Chicago Democritus is also classed as “Spanish” and the two philosophers are shown here in parallel.
Could the Chicago painting have been painted by Jan Moreelse, and not some Spanish or Italian artist? In order to find out more about Moreelse, I did a search through the journal database JSTOR and discovered that Jan was the son of the more famous Paulus Moreelse from the Catholic province of Utrecht. Hardly anything is known about Jan’s life, though it is thought that he studied with his father in Utrecht and that he was in Rome (1627) where he was appointed a Knight of the Papal Order of St Peter founded by Leo X in 1521. Jan led a short life dying about 1634.
Dutch scholars have been working on Jan Moreelse since the 1930s: in 1938, Dr de Jonge published three pictures of philosophers (the Utrecht pair and the laughing philosopher in the Mauritshuis), though not as far as I know the Chicago philosophers. English scholarship on the painter appeared comparatively recently, from the 1960s onwards, most significantly in an edition of the Burlington Magazine in 1974 devoted to Caravaggio and his followers, of whom Moreelse is considered to be one. In articles published by Katharine Freemantle and Benedict Nicolson in that edition, both the Chicago and Utrecht Heraclitus were reproduced in illustrations with attributions to Jan. It would be interesting to track the attribution history of the Chicago Heraclitus, but with the meagre information available, this is difficult. Research shows that it entered Chicago (though as what?) in 1895, was (first?) attributed to Johan in the 1974 article by scholars, and currently is demoted to an inglorious Spanish painting, not even on view to the public. It would be helpful to have access to the museum’s dossier on the painting, assuming that they have one!
A Sealed Fate
The Chicago Heraclitus has suffered many misfortunes. Perhaps the lowest point in its life was the decision not to include it in an important exhibition of artists influenced by Caravaggio staged at Cleveland, Caravaggio and his Followers in 1971. According to the leading Caravaggisti (artists influenced by Caravaggio) expert Benedict Nicolson, the curator (Richard Spear) opted not to show the two pictures from Chicago: the Heraclitus and Democritus. Nicolson defended Spear’s decision on the grounds that the two pictures were “in a battered condition and would not have stood up well to their Utrecht neighbours” which is an ambivalent statement to say the least. The motivations of curators are hard to fathom, and the condition may not have played any part in the decision to exclude it from the show. Whatever the reason, the decision to omit the Heraclitus was not welcomed in some quarters. This seems to have marked the moment of the Chicago Heraclitus’s descent into art history oblivion.
Do we conclude that at the time this exhibition was put on, the picture was still not attributed to any painter? Importantly, Nicolson who was one of the leading authorities on Caravaggio’s northern followers stated in the 1974 Burlington article that the Chicago Heraclitus and Democritus “should be added to the oeuvre (artist’s collection of works) of Johan Moreelse.” Nicolson also connected the Cleveland Heraclitus with the variant at Knole, which would bring Johan’s oeuvre to about 11. To appreciate how small an oeuvre this is, it might be worth bearing in mind that the number of paintings securely given to Vermeer is about 35, and that is thought to comprise a small body of work. In Nicolson’s words: “The old philosopher [in Chicago] moaning over its celestial globe is a variant of the old men in Utrecht and at Knole.” Nicolson consolidated his findings in a 3 volume study of Caravaggio and his followers.
More research has revealed that publications in 2010 and 2011 assign the Heraclitus to Jan Moreelse. It therefore seems strange that despite an attribution from leading experts, and its listing and mention in subsequent publications (Nicolson, 1979), (Wright, 2010) (Opera Omnia, 2011) the Heraclitus remains listed as “Spanish” at Chicago. Nobody at Chicago seems to have considered the possibility that these pictures were Dutch. And according to Nicolson in a footnote, the Chicago philosophers have not only been described as “attributed to Ribera” but even more inexplicably “Southern French School.” In retrospect, it seems that exclusion from the Cleveland show may have sealed the fate of the Chicago Heraclitus and led to its subsequent demotion. Had the Heraclitus and Democritus been exhibited, would they have attracted more attention?
Data on Picture, in the Form of a Catalogue Entry.
Heraclitus, the Weeping Philosopher
Dated c. 1630
The Art Institute of Chicago
Oil on Canvas
74.3 x 87 cm.
Past and Current Attribution Status
2013, CAI listing as “Spanish, on their website.” Getty Provenance Index list it as RIBERA, JUSEPE DE (LO SPAGNOLETTO), but not known if the museum accepted it under that name; 1974, Nicolson adds it to Johan Moreelse’s oeuvre, but also states it was previously described as both “Spanish” and “Southern French School” (source of descriptions unknown); 2010, said to have been painted by Johan Moreelse, (Wright, A Collector’s Eye); 2011; (Opera Omnia), no. 5.
1897- Donated by the heirs of Samuel Gans to the museum, as stated on their website.No further information about previous ownership is known. A search through the Getty Provenance Index and the Archives Directory for the History of Collecting in America ( link) reveals no sightings of Samuel Gans.
No documentary evidence is known. It is not known if the museum holds a dossier with this information.
Subject and Theme.
Heraclitus was an ancient Greek philosopher from Ephesus who was believed to have suffered from melancholia, hence the “weeping philosopher” tag. From the 1st century B.C. he became paired with Democritus who reacted to the human condition by laughing at it instead of crying. Their appearance in visual art was influenced by the writings of the renaissance neo-platonic scholar, Marsilio Ficino whose ideas inspired the Milanese painter and architect, Bramante to paint what is the probably the first representation of the pair, though other versions are known in the renaissance. From the seventeenth-century onwards depictions of the two philosophers increased; they were either shown together, or painted separately as pendants. Heraclitus and a globe (sphaera mundi) are common.
Stylistic Analysis and Condition.
The Chicago Heraclitus is painted on canvas, and its measurements are 74.3 x 87 cm. Johann Moreelse frequently painted on canvas, though the Heraclitus in Utrecht attributed to him is on oak panel. Unlike its Utrecht variant, the Chicago does not seem to have been enlarged or cut down; the Utrecht painting has been expanded with a strip at the top of 6 cm. In 1974 Nicolson stated that the Chicago Heraclitus and its pendant were “battered,” though the current condition is unknown- there is no further information on CAI’s website available. These technical observations are perforce minimal, but it is hoped that CAI can be contacted and a copy of the dossier on the painting obtained pending further investigation. Attempts have already been made to contact the Utrecht museum, but wether they will respond remain to be seen.
Helpfully, Professor Albert Blankert wrote an article in the Netherlandish journal Simiolus on the historical and iconographical origins of Heraclitus and Democritus. Here is the English summary that concludes his article, written in Dutch. Reproduced here as a visual point of reference is Bramante’s fresco of Heraclitus and Democritus(1477, Brera, Milan), which Blankert claims may be based on a lost painting that Ficino owned. The emboldened text is mine.
“Marsilio Ficino once wrote in a letter that Democritus and Heraclitus were to be seen in his gymnasium flanking a sphaera mundi, the one laughing, the other in tears. This is the earliest record of an iconographic motif that was to attain wide popularity, particularly in the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. The theme's origin is always explained with reference to passages in Seneca, Horace, Cicero and other, late antique authors who mention the legend attached to the names of these two Greek philosophers: that the spectacle of humanity's folly made Democritus laugh while it made Heraclitus weep. But late antique authors told many other legendary anecdotes concerning the two that were never illustrated in the Renaissance. Thus, the motives for the theme's appearance in Renaissance art have remained unaccounted for. The present article uncovers such a motive. It seems that Ficino did not seek the sources for his gymnasium's decorative program in arbitrarily chosen antique anecdotes. Rather, he applied to the single source that described the depiction in painting of Democritus and Heraclitus, i.e. the ninth letter in Book IX of Sidonius Apollinaris' Epistulae. There, in a passage on the 'pingantur per gymnasium' of various philosophers, one reads: 'Heraclitus fletu oculis clattsis, Democritus riso labris apertis'. It is striking that Ficino speaks of his 'gymnasium' just as Sidonius describes the decoration of the 'gymnasium'. Thus, one may surmise that Ficino turned to this text not to find out how Heraclitus and Democritus were depicted in antiquity, but how a gymnasium ought to be decorated! It may well be that Ficino's gymnasium owed more to Sidonius' prescription, and that 'Zeusippus with his neck bent, Zeno with a wrinkled forehead,...and Diogenes with a long beard' were also to be seen there. The paintings from Ficino's house are lost. Only three other Italian Renaissance depictions of Heraclitus and Democritus are known to survive. The examples are not related stylistically, but they clearly belong to a single iconographic type: in one frame the philosophers flank a round map of the world hung (or just floating) at their eye-level. This arrangement must be derived from Ficino's painting, where the two philosophers were likewise shown flanking a 'sphaera mundi'. The earliest surviving example, a fresco by Bramante from a palace in Milan, follows Sidonius' description of the philosophers' expressions, we may assume by virtue of its being derived from the painting owned by Ficino. If Bramante followed his model in other respects as well, his fresco presents an accurate picture of the archetypal 'Heraclitus and Democritus' that decorated Marsilio Ficino's gymnasium..”
A Blankert, Heraclitus and Democritus in Marsilio Ficino, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1966-67), p. 135
An Epidemic of Philosophers.
As Blankert states, the visual representation of the two philosophers, Democritus and Heraclitus was popular during the 17th century in the Netherlands. Indeed, it proliferated as can be appreciated by viewing a screen shot of the RKD database with the search term set to “Heraclitus.” The Utrecht Heraclitus has been enhanced at top right, though, significantly there is no sign of the Chicago philosophers- link.
The Clenched Fist Motif.
Though Rosa and Ribera, painted philosophers with globes, they do not exhibit the clenched fists motif, which has been seen as a gesture of penitence and more pertinent to religious currents in Utrecht- see Tzeutschler Lurie’s discussion of penitence in relation to the Ter Brugghen Heraclitus at Cleveland. This also strengthens the case for regarding the Chicago philosophers as products of Netherlands culture, though this cannot be gone into here.
Heraclitus- Centraal Museum, Utrecht, oil on oak. 68.5 x 59.5 cm. The painting has been expanded with a strip at the top of 6 cm (as reported on the museum web site). Signed bottom right “Joan' Moreelse.” Link
Democritus- Centraal Museum, Utrecht, oil on oak, 59. 7 x 68. 8 cm. Link
Democritus- Mauritshuis, The Hague, oil on canvas, c. 1630, 84.5 x 73 cm.- Link
Described in Opera Omnia as “Filosofo” (Philosopher), Art Market, Cologne, 12/12/91, oil on canvas, 77 x 50 cms. It is difficult to determine if this figure is either Heraclitus or Democritus; he points towards a globe of the world in accordance with the iconography of this subject, but note the comments on Ribera above. Link (click “next” to advance to no. 3).
Heraclitus- Knole, Kent (National Trust), 1600-38, oil on canvas, 480 x 300 mm. Described on NT’s website as painted by “Paulus Moreelse.” Link.
Democritus- same location, provenance, measurements and attribution. Link.
Democritus and Heraclitus, oil on canvas, 86.4 x 103.5 cm, Schorr Collection. Exhibited 2010, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, A Collector’s Eye: Cranach to Pissarro, not numbered, pp. 110-111, Wright catalogues it as by Johann Moreelse and states it was “Painted in Utrecht about 1630.” N.B. On the RKD (on-line gallery of Dutch paintings) this painting is attributed to Jan’s father Paulus Moreelse.. Link
Democritus- Chicago Art Institute, oil on canvas, 34 1/2 x 29.1 1/2 inches, and same provenance as Heraclitus, so logical to assume this is its pendant. Link.
Drawings and engravings.
An Inconclusive Summary.
A Deficit of Data
It is frustrating that there are gaps in our knowledge about this picture due to the meagre amount of data. Without a clear indication of provenance, condition, or documentation, it is difficult to know how to advance this enquiry beyond these preliminary observations. The crux of the problem seems to be that Chicago and Utrecht don’t know about each other’s paintings, which might have led to its omission from Dutch scholarship; De Jonge and Blankert don’t allude to it, though English scholars working in the field of “Caravaggism” like Benedict Nicolson and Christopher Wright do. Also, in 2001 the Italians compiled a catalogue of Jan’s works. The Americans are the most silent on the Chicago picture, and further research will have to try to uncover criticisms of the decision to leave it (and its pendant) out of the Cleveland show in 1971 which clearly did its reputation great harm. Though the investigation is on-going, and more data needs to be collected, sifted and evaluated, perusal of the scholarly record and “modes of reporting” suggests a lack of coordination of academic resources which could be harnessed more effectively and directed towards the aim of solving the mystery of the Chicago Heraclitus. Reconstructing the critical fortunes of the Chicago Heraclitus through the matrix of catalogues, journal articles, anecdotal evidence, on-line auction reports, museum web sites, and even conversations on social media is a difficult endeavour, but inevitable given the disparity of sources and the problems with accessing the core information, i.e. museum data.
Jan or Paulus?
Another problem is visibility in an art history sense. We are dealing here with a very minor painter, the son of another, Paulus, who is more conspicuous, mainly due to a larger oeuvre, but hardly visible compared to Rembrandt, Vermeer and co. Back in the 1970s there were attempts made to compare Jan and Paulus’s work by Fremantle and Nicolson, which in the case of the former examined biographical documents, monograms and calligraphy on the globes, and in the latter performed stylistic analysis, or traditional connoisseurship. To give just one example of the Jan and Paulus “problem,” the Democritus and Heraclitus in the Schorr Collection is catalogued by Wright as a painting by “Johan Moreelse,” but the RKD database states it was painted by Paulus- link. One wonders if this scholar has collaborated with Dutch art historians, or vice versa. Modes of reporting aside, the artistic relationship between the two brothers , including stylistic affinity, choice of subjects (including philosophers), workshop practice, are themes worth pursuing.
With these comments in mind, here are some questions for further consideration. They are offered in the spirit of open enquiry to a general audience, though specialist input is vital of course. It seems fitting to leave the case open with a number of research questions that could lead to further investigation. Feel free to contact me with more questions, or indeed comments of any kind.
· Is the Chicago Heraclitus of Spanish, Italian or Dutch origin?
· When and where and for whom was it painted?
· If it was painted by a Moreelse, was it Jan, or Paulus his father, or even another artist in their workshop or “circle”?
If it was painted by a Neapolitan artist, is the iconography, e.g., the clenched fist typical of Italian treatment of the theme?
· Why is the Chicago philosopher painted on canvas and the Utrecht variant executed on panel?
· What are the iconographic and symbolic similarities and differences between the Chicago Heraclitus and its Utrecht variant? (I am already working on a post exploring the iconography of Heraclitus and Democritus in the Netherlands, where I will address this question).
N.B. This is a provisional bibliography and will need to be updated when further sources become available.
Diederik Bakhuÿs , Les curieux philosophes de Velázquez et de Ribera, ... [et al.] (Lyon, 2005) pdf ( in French).
A Blankert, Heraclitus and Democritus in Marsilio Ficino, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1966-67), pp. 128-135. (see summary of article above). JSTOR
A. Blankert, · Gods, Saints and Heroes : Dutch painting in the age of Rembrandt, Albert Blankert ... [et al.] (Washington, 1980).
Chicago Art Museum website, Heraclitus entry, Accessed November, 2013- link.
Katharine Fremantle, The Identity of Jan Moreelse, Painter, The Burlington Magazine, Vol 116, No. 859, Special Issue devoted to Caravaggio and the Caravaggesques (Oct 1974), 618-620. JSTOR
Helen Langdon, Xavier F. Salomon, Catherina Volpi, Salvator Rosa, exhibition catalogue, (Dulwich Picture Gallery, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2010-11), pp. 196-7.
Ann Tzeutschler Lurie, The Weeping Heraclitus by Ter Brugghen in the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 121, No. 914, (May, 1979), pp. 279-287. JSTOR
Benedict Nicolson, Caravaggesques at Cleveland, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 114, No. 827, Feb (1972), pp. 112-117. JSTOR
Benedict Nicolson, Additions to Johan Moreelse, The Burlington Magazine, Vol 116, No. 859, Special Issue devoted to Caravaggio and the Caravaggesques (Oct 1974), pp. 618-623. JSTOR
G.E.M.A., Opera Omnia di Johan/Johannes Moreelse, (1603-1634), (2013), Padua. Available (with limited preview) on Google Books. Accessed November, 2011- link.
C.H de Jonge, Paulus Moreelse, (Assen, 1938).
RKD (Netherlands) Database, (search term “Heraclitus), Accessed November, 2013- link.
Christopher Wright, A Collector’s Eye: Cranach to Pissarro, exhibition catalogue, (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 2010), not numbered, pp. 110-111.
Many thanks to Maaike Dirkx for insights, resource sharing and encouraging me to work on this project.
 The Knole Heraclitus was published by Blankert in 1967 who believed that it could be “after Jan Moreelse”, but Nicolson in 1974 stated that the quality was as high as its pendant. The National Trust on their website state that both of their philosophers were painted by Paulus Moreelse, Johann’s brother.
 Nicolson conjectures wether the Mauritshuis Democritus had a pendant which was a replica of the philosopher at Knole.
We have a response from the Utrecht museum via MD. (10/11/13) I quote the curator Liesbeth M. Helmus, who thinks "for now" that the Chicago Heraclitus appears to be "more Spanish than Utrechts". They add they still want to examine as well as performing technical research on the painting style of the Utrecht painters. This will probably happen because there is an exhibition coming up in 2018 on “International Caravaggism”, a frustrating long way off.
News has come to to me of yet another attempt to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. See Wall Street Journal (link). Curators at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art say that they’ve found another version of Delacroix’s Poussin-inspired death bed scene, The Last Words of Marcus Aurelius.
In this digital age, perhaps I’m not surprised to hear of attribution by IPhone , but can’t think that they are really convinced of their claim. According to the WSJ:
Enter Eik Kahng, the museum's assistant director and chief curator. "It's always bizarre when something like this pans out," she says, "because nine times out of 10, it's some wacky thing that someone thinks is a Picasso or what have you and usually it's nothing." But after looking at the iPhone images, Ms. Kahng thought "Hmm; that's kind of odd and interesting." Six days later, she was viewing the work in a Santa Barbara living room. "As soon as I saw the painting in person and, especially, in full sunlight, I knew it was far too good to be a simple copy."
The great Delacroix scholar Lee Johnson is mentioned, (died in 2006) but I can just imagine his reaction to this mediocre rendition of a an illustrious painting..
It might be the last words of Marcus, but no silence on rediscoveries …..