Saturday, the weather was cool and rainy and I wanted to draw so my only option was to find a museum. The Rodin Museum is in a large house near Les Invalides not far from the Eiffel Tower. The ‘hotel’ is a splendid example of 18th century neo-classicism – which to my eye is more delicate than its baroque predecessor – though this example errs decoratively with carved heads for keystones. 2 pavilions flank the back which overlook large grounds containing highlights of Rodin’s work – including a casting of ‘The Gates of Hell’. Inside are other landmark works such as The Kiss and The Thinker as well as numerous busts and a room devoted to the work of his protegee and lover Camille Claudel. I made my way through each floor sketching and trying to stay out of the way of other visitors. I felt an immediate connection to his work and enjoyed searching for ways to translate his rough expressive style to pencil and paper. An exhibit of his own sketches and watercolors were interesting as they were radically different from my sketches – looser, freer, not at all the 2 dimensional reductions of his carvings I had made.
I crossed the Seine and the grand Belle Epoque Alexandre III Bridge, past the Grand and Petit Palais, and then up the Champs Elysee through crowds of holiday shoppers getting hot mulled wine, crepes, and saucisson from innumerable christmas stands on the sidewalk. At the round-about of FDR I was meeting some classmates at a large art gallery – Artcurail - devoted to 20th century work. The house is a late 19th century confection that would look at home on 5th ave in New York. Inside 3 floors are contained mostly European artists with work to be auctioned later in the week. Many of the greats were represented though the Picasso, Braque and DeChirico were small and minor works. I was taken with a pencil sketch by George Grosz done after he had moved to New York. He had taught at the Art Student’s League there after he escaped the Nazi’s and one of my teachers, Lester Polakov, had been a protege of his. In the sketch, 2 quintessential New Yorkers, one short and fat, the other tall and lean, cranky and lugubrious, and a ragged nest of graphite perfectly expressed their distinct personalities. A delight of the gallery is their cafe designed in ‘high-french’ with black and white creepy-forest wallpaper.
After I reached home I checked some auction sites for Grosz drawings and found a pen and ink from his prime period – Wiemar-era Germany. And, in the way of all internet browsing, I also found some old master paintings at the same auction house. A small portrait of a Dutch woman was valued at $2000 to $3000. This seemed very low for a 17th century painting – regardless of size or attribution. This painting was supposedly painting by Gerard Ter Borch. After some research I learned that Ter Borch was a prominent Dutch painter of the time – where Vermeer was perhaps the greatest. I e-mailed the auction house to learn about the provenance and the condition of the painting.
Two days later, today, they sent more photos and pictures of the back which had labels from previous galleries. The condition of the painting seemed almost too good; it must be either a copy or extensively re-painted. After class, I decided to head to the Louvre to sketch again. While there, I wandered to the galleries devoted to northern European paintings of the era and found several by Ter Borch, even some of a similar size and subject matter, though none exactly the same. I took some photos and looked carefully at the brushstrokes and the crackling of the surface. I don’t know what I thought I was doing – pretending I was in a movie or mystery novel I suppose.
Once home again, I glanced thought the websites of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam. the Met had a few Ter Borches – more than the Louvre, interestingly. The Rijkmuseum, unsurprisingly, had dozens, including one – though larger and more carefully painted – similar in subject and dress. I copied both the image from the Rijksmuseum and the largest version I had from the auction house onto my computer and layered them in Photoshop. I had to flip one and scale it to the same size ( as well as compensate for the perspective of the photo.) The paintings were astonishingly similar. The Dutch one was of a younger woman and painted on canvas – the other chubbier and painted on board – which could explain its smoother surface. The brushstrokes on the ‘one for sale’ were looser but it was a smaller painting and I knew artists sometimes varied their brushstroke scale. The hands struck me as well – hands are very difficult to paint and his are particular graceful – a bit plump, but delicate and lovely. A few other Ter Borchs from the Rijksmuseum had eyelids and highlights painted in the same limpid manner as the auction house painting. The weakest area to me is the white blouse which is crisp and honest in the Museum’s painting and seems stylized and pedestrian in the other.
Finally, I noticed that a label on the back of the painting was a gallery in New York. I tried to find their website but found something more interesting instead. The Gallery was closed by police several years ago and the owner thrown in prison for fraud and larceny – he is still at Riker’s island. Apparently, he was involved with schemes to buy and resell paintings for financiers and celebrities and played loose with the profits. Although many paintings were unaccounted for, there were no charges of forgery. I sent the auction house a provocative e-mail asking if this painting might be stolen property. The story ends here for now.