(Helpful Hint: For those of you who just journeyed to this post, via the ArtsJournal link, I also discuss the Duccio here and here.)
In his forthcoming book, “Connoisseurship in Crisis: From Duccio to Raphael,” James Beck argues that issues of provenance, quality and art history weigh against the attribution to Duccio and the date of ca. 1300, attached to the Metropolitan Museum’s most expensive acquisition ever, the tempera-and-gold on wood “Mother and Child” (also discussed in my previous post).
The Met’s counter-arguments, offered by curator Keith Christiansen, are presented at length in last weekend’s NY Times article on the subject. Interestingly, he had been previously quoted in the Times asserting that the painting contains “the first illusionistic parapet in European art.” Now, reacting to Beck’s art-historical assault on the parapet (see below), the Times has quoted an observation by Duccio expert Luciano Bellosi that the Met’s parapet is, in fact, not unique to its time but similar to a painted cornice in Giotto‘s fresco series from the 1290s in the Church of St Francis in Assisi.
Here’s some of what Beck’s book has to say:
PROVENANCE AND DOCUMENTATION
[The attribution to Duccio is confirmed] by no documents or other historical evidence from the artist’s lifetime….What is more, there is no provenance for the picture until ca. 1900, six hundred years after the presumptive date of its creation.
The work was one of many acquired shortly after 1900 by Count [Grigorii] Stroganoff….[Many of those objects] were unknown or at least had not appeared in scholarly monographs, journals, catalogues, or presented in exhibitions, and consequently had not been subjected to evaluation within the discipline. Along with the others, the Metropolitan Duccio was, in effect, a new object to the field, with no previous history….The Stroganoff collection was filled with mediocre works, including possible forgeries and fakes, as well as a handful of more convincing objects.
The treatment of the gold-accented borders of Mary’s garment…proves to be yet another unsettling element which speaks against the attribution to Duccio. These borders or edges are confused, inelegant and hesitant, forming dreary swings which are uncharacteristic of Duccio’s confirmed works, like the Madonna of the Franciscans in Siena’s Pinacoteca. In other words, Duccio’s impeccable control of design is totally absent in the Metropolitan’s painting.
The Child’s raised arm, which appears like that of an amputee, constitutes another disconcerting element. While nobody should expect Duccio to draw with the anatomical precision of a Leonardo da Vinci, one might expect the limbs and hands in the little painting to be consistent with Duccio’s treatment in securely documented works, which is not the case.
The parapet or shelf located below and on a plane in front of the image of Mary and the Child…[is] the Achilles heel of the attribution….We are asked to believe the impossible: Duccio at a fairly young age made a breakthrough which he himself totally ignored in his other works, as did his followers. True enough, a similar foreshortened shelf on brackets is found in early wall painting, especially in the circle of Giotto in Assisi, as Bellosi has indicated, but in addition to being vastly different in scale, the element does not operate as a bracket in front of an image but instead serves as a kind of base for the figuration, and therefore can hardly be regarded as the same thing….Whoever produced the Metropolitan Duccio must have been aware of of the depiction of space and planes in Renaissance painting [thus suggesting that it was painted after its putative date of ca. 1300].
None of this proves that the painting is a fake from the 19th century, as Beck somewhat recklessly claims, or even that it’s not by Duccio. The Met’s conservation lab has done a technical examination of the painting that it says provides additional support for the attribution. It should release those findings in detail (including any attempts to date the painting scientifically), to help clarify these matters.
As for my own response to the painting: Beck himself probably knows (as Bellosi also told me yesterday) that it is not uncommon for early Italian Renaissance paintings to lack a pre-20th century provenance. I acknowledge that the work may be of truly outstanding art-historical importance. As a precursor of the Italian Renaissance, “this is the real thing: painting no longer as an illustration, but something that attempts to evoke a human response from the viewer,” curator Christiansen told Calvin Tomkins of the New Yorker.
But for this non-specialist, that attempt is unsuccessful. I’d much rather linger in front of another recent acquisition in the same gallery, the “Crucifixion” by Pietro Lorenzetti, one of Duccio’s pupils and followers.
Luckily, I can. The Met has something for everyone…and then some.