I just made it to ‘Artist: Unknown: Art and Artefacts from the University of Cambridge Museums and Collections’, the current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard. (It continues until 22 September, but the Hedgehog ménage will be away – Venice, since you ask, followed by a quick stop in Ravenna.) One theme of this small and lovely exhibition is the effect on the viewer of not knowing who the artist is, and this is something that has always intrigued me.
The canonical list of attributional (un)certainty, according to the National Gallery, is:
- ‘by Raphael’ shows reasonable certainty about the attribution
- ‘attributed to Raphael’ intimates a degree of doubt about the authorship of the picture
- ‘by the Studio of Raphael’ means painted by a pupil of the named artist, probably under his direction
- ‘a Follower of Raphael’ is someone who admired the artist’s style, but was not necessarily a pupil of his
- ‘an Imitator of Raphael’ is one who slavishly admired the artist, but may have worked at a much later date
(This omits, of course, straightforward, acknowledged copies of existing works, and also outright forgeries.)
How much does it matter that we know the artist? I suppose this depends on the work of art. As the exhibition points out, there is art versus craft, and art versus ethnographic artefact. We don’t usually expect to know the name of the person who carved, for example, this Nigerian head, even though we know that it was acquired, and may have been commissioned, in 1910 by Northcote W. Thomas, ‘Government Anthropologist’, who later gave it to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. And do we class it, and the elaborate thumb piano which Thomas also collected at the same time, as art or craft?
But in the area of European art (even folk art, which by its nature is usually anonymous), we do set store by knowing the name of the maker, even if the best we can do is give him or her a name (almost always male) on the basis of similarity of subject, style, material, brushstrokes, frame or provenance, like the Masters of St Lucy and St Ursula in Brugge.
This classification (it seems to me) is interesting not only for art historians and taxonomists (if that’s the right word in this context), but for anyone who likes or admires a picture and wonders if there are any others by the same hand. But there’s also a strange wish to ‘know’ (in however vague a sense) the person who drew, painted, engraved, silver-smithed … Is the designation ‘Master’ supposed to indicate a master of his art (craft) or the master of a workshop? Did he spend all his life in Brugge, or did he travel and imbibe foreign influences? Was he in fact a she? (Most unlikely, but not completely out of the question.)
Painters, sculptors and architects at the top of their profession were known by name in Greece (Apelles, Pheidias, Zeuxis …), and the names of some vase painters are known, as they signed their work (though most are today named (like the ‘Masters of …’) for the style of their decoration, including ‘Elbows Out’ (fl.in Athens c. 540–530 BCE), whom I had never come across before, but who is apparently recognisable from ‘the strongly exaggerated gestures and odd anatomy of his dancing figures’).
Individual Roman artists seem to be less frequently recorded. Pliny the Elder, in Book 35 of the Natural History, lists large numbers of famous painters and sculptors, from ancient Greece up to his own time, with their works, but the great majority of these appear to be Greek and/or slaves. And the skilled artists who created the wonderful, haunting Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits (mostly from the Fayum, and excavated by Petrie), are, I believe, completely anonymous.
The other obvious reason for putting a name to the artist of a particular work is that it can massively affect the work’s value. The debate over the authenticity of the ‘Salvator Mundi’ – is it or isn’t it (mostly) by Leonardo? – being only the latest in a sequence of usually rather unedifying controversies. This drawing of (possibly) the Madonna was thought for many years to be by Raphael, and at some point somebody tried to firm up the identification by adding his name to it – but it turns out to have been created around a century after Raphael’s death.
(I suppose it is inevitable that the popular television programme is called ‘Fake or Fortune’ rather than ‘Fake or Masterpiece’ … which reminds me that I was very surprised that anyone in the recent episode about a painting of the Salute can ever have thought it was by Guardi, or even Marieschi – even I could see that the perspective of the church is inexpertly flattened, the dome is the wrong shape and the metal plates covering it are most crudely sketched in.) And to confound things further, very few of the items investigated have turned out to be deliberate, premeditated forgeries.
But even if the monetary value of an item is discounted, there is still the issue of the less calculable value of knowing that Titian, Rembrandt or whoever created a particular painting, especially if it is a personal possession. Are you pure-minded enough to love your late nineteenth-century picture of the Salute no less, once you know that it isn’t by Marieschi, let alone Guardi? And if you love the painting as a painting, does it matter that it is ‘only’ a copy, or indeed a deliberate fake?
Portraits are perhaps a slightly different matter, in that not only can the artist but also the subject be misidentified. Christ’s College has a picture in the exhibition which was believed, when it was donated to the college in 1912, to be a portrait (artist unknown) of Joshua Oldfield (1656–1729) who studied at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Lincoln College, Oxford, and later at Christ’s, but, as a non-conformist, could not graduate.
He was a friend of John Locke, an acquaintance of Newton, and founded an academy for Dissenters which was finally based in Hoxton Square in London. Efforts were made to prosecute him in a church court for teaching in public without a bishop’s licence. The case rumbled on until William III himself got to hear of it, and let it be known that ‘he was not pleas’d with such Prosecutions’, so it was dropped.
A worthy addition to Christ’s’ fine collection of portraits, one might think – except that the gentleman does not look at all like another extant picture of Oldfield; there is an easel, suggesting that the sitter was himself an artist; and on the easel an unfinished picture seems to be a male nude, possibly part of a mythological or biblical picture. All these points, and the style of the silk robe, suggest to art historians that the picture is Dutch or Italian – and as far as is known, Oldfield never left England. (In my frivolous opinion, the hair is not at all non-conformist, either.)
Another curiosity is a portrait, identifiable from the far side of the room as Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV and co-founder (following Margaret of Anjou, well-known She-Wolf) of Queens’ College, Cambridge. The image is familiar to anyone with the most cursory knowledge of the period (i.e. me), but what I hadn’t realised was that Queens’ holds four such portraits, all clearly based on the same original, down to the necklace with three pendant pearls.
Is one of these portraits (all anonymous) the model for the other three (or more)? Over how long a period were they copied? Was there royal control over the image, as in the next century? Was it a likeness, or a non-specific expression of regal power and luxury?
Finally, and close to my heart, two educational wall charts from the Cambridge University Herbarium collection. As the caption notes, these are in the tradition of the botanical teaching charts most famously created by Professor Henslow,
but in this case the painter has produced more decorative, less strictly functional plant portraits – look at the graceful bend in the stem of the cowslip, or the three-dimensional depiction of the eryngium.
Not only is the artist unknown, but the date is uncertain (presumed to be somewhere either side of 1900), and it is not known how or when the pictures entered the Herbarium – the ultimate in anonymity.