Wednesday, December 12, 2007

December 2007 - Decorative Copies and Museums

If there are portrait miniature experts with the time or inclination to read this blog, please be aware I really do welcome corrections or comment about the content.

Apart from recording my own research notes, the blog is trying to help to improve the general pool of knowledge on the subject, both for beginning and advanced collectors.

For this particular post, expert opinion will be even more welcome than usual. (Since writing this post, a knowledgeable person has contacted me and advises that they agree with most of the conclusions below, although they think the Viertel pictured is genuine.)

Every week I receive emails asking me about miniature portraits and I try to answer them to the best of my ability.

For example, sometimes a query may read; "This valuable miniature is signed and belonged to my grandmother, can you please tell me anything about it".

Many of the miniatures emailed to me are decorative copies and it is quite difficult for me to determine how best to tell people that I do not think a miniature they have is as rare or valuable as they had believed. However, I feel I need to try and tell them "like it is", otherwise there would be little point in commenting.

Most people are grateful for my time and effort in replying to them, but sometimes I do not receive any acknowledgement, which I usually take as an expression of disbelief that I have not endorsed their treasured heirloom as being by a famous artist!

Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented about decorative miniatures and fakes. In particular how signatures of famous artists were often used by copyists. However, I thought it is worth addressing the subject again, but without using the actual examples sent to me.

Instead, I have selected a museum catalogue, almost at random, and will comment on images within the museum collection. (I say almost at random, the main reason for choosing this particular catalogue being because it was small and would easily fit on my scanner!)

The catalogue is titled "Portrait Miniatures in the Royal Ontario Museum" and was published in 1981. It illustrates 50 miniatures from the ROM collection.

My intention in commenting on it, is not to expose the collection as a misrepresentation, but instead illustrate how some museum collections, although acting in good faith, can contain miniatures which are, in my opinion, decorative copies.

Therefore owners with similar decorative copies should not feel they have embarrassed themselves, by buying or owning a decorative miniature. They are in good company and it can be very difficult to be sure whether a miniature is an original or a copy.

Even so, I am aware of some people who knowingly collect decorative miniatures for the pleasure of each painting and the history associated with the sitters.

A very great advantage available to current researchers, is the ability to easily scan and exchange images over the Internet. This was not possible in 1981 when the ROM catalogue was prepared, but now allows different examples by a single artist to be compared, and critical likenesses or differences noted.

Suggested revisions to the opinions on specific miniatures as expressed below, are welcome, so I can modify the comments where necessary.

Appropriately modified, the comments may then help collectors to determine how to recognise decorative copies, why they should not necessarily rely on museum catalogues, and show how scholarly research can revise previous attributions.

Most of the examples illustrated by ROM do not show the frame the miniature is housed in and in my mind in evaluating a miniature portrait, this is the first matter to make a judgement on.

Apart from the identity of the sitter, there are three main elements in evaluating a miniature, the frame (xxx - where xxx may be 16C, 17C, 18C, 19C, or 20C), the portrait (yyy - with the same range), and the signature (zzz - again the same range).

Recently, I replied to one query with the comment; I guess that 90% of my initial judgement of any miniature is based upon the nature and date of the frame itself. That is, the shape, size, and material it is made of, the design of the reverse of the frame, and the nature of the glass covering the miniature.

Only after that point, do I look at the portrait itself to see whether the portrait agrees with the frame and supports that opinion, or disagrees with my opinion of the frame, meaning the miniature has perhaps been re-framed.

Re-framing is not rare, but it is quite uncommon. A major reason being the difficulty of finding a replacement frame of exactly the right size, especially with earlier miniatures, where there are no standard sizes.

However, it can happen where a frame is damaged or where an uncaring owner likes an old locket type case and decides to reuse it for a modern photo (!!!) - thus relegating the original miniature to a modern frame.

Thus, I adopt a strong test which says if the frame is "xxx", are there any good reasons to think the portrait is not "xxx", but is in fact "yyy".

The signature "zzz" only becomes relevant right at the end after I feel I have got the correct date for the frame and the portrait. It then acts as confirmation of an initial opinion, just as silver experts comment about silver hallmarks on "The Antiques Roadshow".

I have not presumed to comment upon plates 1 to 11 in the ROM catalogue, as my knowledge of that era is too limited, but it would not surprise me to learn that several are copies and thus not original works by the artists named in the catalogue.

However, in looking at the 39 plates in the catalogue numbered from 12 to 50, I think that as many as 20% are not by the artists nominated. I gain the impression that previous attributions have just been accepted, with some miniatures being attributed by relying on the signature alone, without evaluating the frame or the portrait.

The miniatures in question are addressed in turn. The opinions are mine, but I am very willing to correct them where expert opinion differs from my view.

Plate 16 described as "typical of the work of Antoine Vestier (1740-1824), to whom it is attributed". My reservations about this item are that the mouth is too small for the face and the quality does not look good enough compared to other works by this artist.

The reference to the mouth can be explained as follows. In every era, as in the 20C and 21C, there are big swings in fashions. With the mouth sometimes fashion is to accentuate it with lipstick, and sometimes fashion is to minimise it, perhaps as a tiny "cupid's bow". In most instances, the size of a sitter's mouth in a portrait will reflect the fashion at the date the original miniature was painted.

Thus if an earlier "large mouth" miniature is copied during a time when a "small mouth" is fashionable, the copyist will generally end up with a mouth which is the wrong size compared to the size fashionable at the time the original was painted. Less obviously, this may also apply to the size and shape of eyes and eyebrows.

Plate 20 is attributed to Augustin Ritt (1765-1799). The ROM description includes the comment; "the acquisition of one of his miniatures was a great accomplishment for the ROM". However, in my view, the frame marks this miniature as a 19C copy and the quality is far short of the quality of Ritt's work. To me the eyes are too large; overall it appears flat, whereas miniatures by top artists tend to appear three-dimensional. Many decorative miniatures were painted and housed in frames like this one.

Plate 23 and 24. ROM dates them at 1780-1790 and comments "we can safely attribute them to the French artist Villard (Villaud or Villair)". However, rectangular miniatures were rare before 1810 and the miniature is different in style to the example by Villair illustrated in Schidlof, which is in fact round.

Plate 27 is described by ROM as "painted in watercolour on ivory by John Smart." There are other Smart portraits in the ROM catalogue that look "right" for John Smart, but this one does not. The quality is not there and it looks as if it is probably a copy by another artist, of a miniature by Smart.

Plate 30 is apparently signed "el Canario" and thus attributed to Luis de las Cruz y Rios. He settled in Madrid about 1815 and died in 1850. As the costume of the sitter in this miniature dates to 1780-1790, it is unlikely to be by this artist. It gives the impression of being a laboured copy of another miniature, rather than a spontaneous original.

Plate 33 is attributed to Johann Carl Friedrich Viertel a Danish artist. The miniature is weak and does not appear to be well painted, but it is conceded that there is some resemblance to plate 1220 in Schidlof, so it may possibly be a correct attribution. Since writing this a kind visitor has commented "I think that the Viertel is absolutely genuine and typical, (as mediocre quality as most of his works)". Thus I was wrong to include it in this section, however I will leave the image here as an example of how differing opinions as to genuineness can achieve consenus through an exchange of views.

Plate 49 is attributed to Jeremiah David Alexander Fiorino (1797-1847). This also looks flat and the mouth seems too small for the period. This is on ivory, whereas he usually painted on porcelain.

It will be noted that, part from one example by John Smart, all the others of doubtful attribution are by European artists. This is a reflection that decorative miniatures were commonly created in Europe by copying originals and adding fake signatures, but much less often copied in Britain. Continental copies were often copied from monotone engravings, where the printed copy might be the reverse of the original. Hence many decorative miniatures are painted in different colours to the original and may be a copy based upon a mirror image.

Having made all these comments, I am conscious of the adage "people who live in glasshouses should not throw stones!" There are still several decorative miniatures in this "Artists and Ancestors" collection. For the most part these are gradually being weeded out and disposed of, but a few are kept for sentimental reasons! However, comments and corrections are always welcome!

Also, I should comment that it was very good of ROM to print a catalogue in the first place, as many other museums have not. ROM can also be assured they are not the only museum to have doubtful miniatures in their catalogues. It is possible ROM has altered some of its attributions since 1981, but the catalogue still circulates amongst readers who may feel entitled to rely upon the accuracy of the information within it.

In fact I will only make one criticism of ROM. That concerns a comment right at the end of the 1981 catalogue saying; "As this book was going to press, the ROM was informed of a generous bequest of 200 miniatures ... These miniatures and a number of other recently acquired examples will be published in the near future as a separate catalogue".

Well, here we are nearly 27 years later, and to the best of my knowledge ROM has not yet published the separate catalogue! If anyone from ROM reads this blog and is able to advise a publication date, I will gratefully add it here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Don, I just wanted to express my thanks for all your endeavors to put more information online about miniatures. It's always fun to peruse your blog and share in the excitement you obviously have found in collecting and studying miniatures.

I hope you do garnish more expert feedback regarding your thoughts and insights.