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Monday, April 23, 2018

Why Paintings Become Famous

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, Jan Vermeer

It has always fascinated me to contemplate why some paintings down through the centuries have become so famous that even those who know only a little about art can instantly identify them, often even naming the artist. At the same time other works of art, by other artist, as well done and visually satisfying have remained virtually unknown. Why is Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (above) considered priceless while the painting below, Filling the Lamps, both having similar content, is totally unknown. The answer lies in the three major factors which determine a painting's monetary value--the lasting impact of the painting's style or content; a fascinating story or mystery attached to the painting; or the work's testament having to do with some tragedy, or hardship linking the artist to a particular work. There are other factors, of course, but those are the most common.
Filling the Lamps
Let's consider the artist first. Little is known of Jan Vermeer himself. Mostly he's admired for his masterful use of light and shadow. Vermeer did not leave many biographical traces and only about three dozen paintings by the artist survive today. In contrast, the artist who painted Filling the Lamps has never been recognized for any earthshattering effects as to style or technique, and his surviving works number in the hundreds. If you haven't already guessed by now, the artist was Jim Lane. Numerous theories abound as to whom Vermeer's sitter may have been. Some scholars maintain that it must be the artist’s daughter, Maria (the likely model for several other paintings currently attributed to Vermeer). On the other hand, there are those who believe the more salacious notion that she was Vermeer’s mistress. Regardless, it wasn’t until almost three centuries after Vermeer’s death that The Girl with a Pearl Earring was chosen for an exhibition poster at Washington's National Gallery of Art in 1995. Following that, the painting quickly rose to celebrity status. To my knowledge, Filling the Lamps has never been displayed publically. Moreover, I couldn't even tell you who owns it much less recall the name of the model.
Mona Lisa, 1503-06, Leonardo Da Vinci
On the other hand (either one will do), there's little doubt as to the above model's identity. Her name was Lisa Gherardini, though we might rightfully question: "Who the hell was Lisa Gherardini?" Leonardo, it seems, made her famous, but neglected to write her biography. Mona Lisa is considered by many to be the most well-known painting in the world. While today. you would be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t immediately recognize that crooked smile, this wasn’t always the case. Leonardo painted her in Florence, around 1507 (actually he worked on it over a period of three or four years). His Mona Lisa did not win much praise, however, until the early 20th-century. While it was admired within small circles of art critics and historians, few others had much interest in the painting at that time. Then, in the summer of 1911, things changed drastically. The Mona Lisa vanished from the walls of the Louvre. What followed was a media explosion, complete with ”wanted” posters plastered all over Paris. Crowds formed at police headquarters, and before long, short films and songs were made about the vanished painting. Overnight, a somewhat obscure work of art became the world’s most famous painting. More than two long years passed before Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee of the Louvre, was arrested as he stupidly attempted to sell the painting to a director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Peruggia claimed that, as an Italian patriot, he believed Mona Lisa belonged in an Italian museum. Following months of speculation and media coverage, Mona Lisa finally returned to the Louvre, where she remains the most visited painting in the museum. (Tip: if you want an up-close look, rent a wheelchair.)
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Gustav Klimt
With a story that In many ways is quite similar, Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907, was one of six Klimt works confiscated by the Nazis from an Austrian home during World War II. After the war, the works became part of the Galerie Belvedere’s collection. The Austrian government claimed the paintings had been willed to the museum and displayed Bloch-Bauer’s portrait under the title The Lady in Gold. In 1998, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, began an eight-year legal battle to secure the painting of her aunt which had once hung in her childhood home. What many saw as a portrait by one of Austria’s most famous artists was actually an important part of Altmann’s past. After the violence and oppression that Altmann’s family experienced in Austria, she wanted the paintings in her new home in the United States. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before the Austrian government finally returned the Klimt paintings to Altmann. This most famous legal battle in art history, eventually inspired a movie starring Helen Mirren in 2015. The court case helped catapult the painting (by whatever name) to international fame.
A Lady and a Gentleman in Black, 1633, Rembrandt van Rijn
If you're starting to notice a pattern here, read on. If you walk through the galleries of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you'll notice something rather peculiar. Thirteen empty frames hang on the walls. These frames serve as reminders of works of art that were stolen in 1990. During the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, museum security guards admitted two men who were disguised as police officers. Once inside, the men tied up the guards and proceeded to steal thirteen works with an collective value of $500-million. Despite a $5-million reward for information leading to the recovery of these paintings, the theft remains unsolved. Included in the heist were three paintings by Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Manet, and several sketches by Degas. Apart from the most famous, A Lady and Gentleman in Black (above) included Rembrandt’s only known seascape. Both, were cut from their frames. More than a quarter-century later, experts are still puzzled by the choice of works, as even more valuable pieces were left untouched. The media attention surrounding the theft brought unparalleled attention to the stolen works.
Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
And finally, two very dissimilar paintings by quite dissimilar artists, stand to break the mold.Neither have ever been stolen. The first, Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, is so well-known as to need little in the way of explanation. Like his tragic, foreshortened life itself, the painting has deeply haunting quality to be found in the work of few other artist before his time or since. Starry Night, painted in 1889 (less than a year before his suicide), is widely considered to be van Gogh's magnum opus. The piece was painted from memory and whimsically depicts the view from his room at the sanitarium where he resided in at the time.
The Goldfinch,  1654,
Carel Fabritius
Though the two paintings bear no physical resem-blance, the plight of The Goldfinch is, in many ways, no different from that of van Gogh as he neared the end of his life. It depicts a chained bird on its perch in front of a mundane background. The melancholic image of an animal tethered to this drab setting strikes a chord with many view-ers. When it was brought to the Frick Collection in New York in 2014, 200,000 people lined up to catch a glimpse of the famed bird. One part of the public’s fascination with this work may, like van Gogh, well be the artist’s own tragic ending. At the age of thirty-two, Carel Fabritius died in a careless explosion of gunpowder that destroyed a quarter of the city of Delft. Many of his paintings were destroyed in the explosion. The Goldfinch was painted in Fabritius’ final year and is one of about a dozen which survived. Another reason for the work’s rise to fame is Donna Tartt's 2014 Pul-itzer Prize-winning novel named for the painting. The intriguing novel, coupled with the fact that The Goldfinch is among the few remaining paint-ings by one of Rembrandt’s most promising students, suggests why this work continues to captivate viewers.


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