What did 2014 add up to?
When you are sixteen, a year is 6% of your life. When you are sixty, it is only 1.6%. So the years pass more quickly – and the need to pretend that each year passed has fulfilled your hopes ebbs commensurately. The prevailing convention of social media is of the unmoderated optimism of sweet sixteens, but for the silver sixties that will rarely be a comfortable mode.
A year ago I blogged about 2013 as a fairly average year in my worlds. 2014 has not been better. The broad themes have been art history and finance. Sadly by far the most popular post was my attack on an exhibition at the Tate, one which I hesitated before writing because it was negative in tone: perhaps my readers can bear a little reality after all. Too few people will have travelled to Caen to see the Gabrielle Capet. There were fortunately two outstanding exhibitions in London this year, albeit both pastel-free: Moroni at the Royal Academy was the model of narrative clarity, allowing us to enter a world of which we had only seen glimpses. To me, as well as the extraordinarily personal coloration of the painting, there was something immediately arresting and disturbingly contemporary about some of the pictures: the Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ appeared, like Liotard’s late self-portrait with a view of Geneva, to leap the interval of centuries; I was surprised that the critics had nothing particular to say about this.
One cannot praise too highly the National Gallery’s Rembrandt. The exhibition of the decade, not the year; a validation of why art matters. T. J. Clark’s review in the LRB was brilliant. But how I long for blue…and I cannot entirely suppress the question: if Bathsheba’s left thumb were properly drawn would it be a better painting? The success of the event was tinged with sadness at the departure of Nick Penny, and the likelihood that his espousal of the non-blockbuster exhibition would quietly wither away after he goes. His successor has been chosen, but awaits Downing Street approval before we are told: but will he have Penny’s ability to see that a Rosalba pastel can hold its own with a Goya? (One of the short-listed candidates would seem to have a long way to go.)
A squabble about photography in the National Gallery grew out of proportion, largely because it represented the clash of the young and brash with the laudatores temporis acti. As always we lost: perhaps by definition, as you lose this label if you succeed. We did however manage to get the local authority (Kensington & Chelsea) to reverse its policy on basement planning applications, at least for now.
Back at the coalface of pastel research, the bare statistics reveal little. Just over 400 pastel sales were added to the database: each takes rather longer than you might think, and some required significant research time. About 150 new artist articles were written, almost all very short (many simply contemporary mentions of amateurs or very obscure artists). But 560 existing articles were revised, to varying degrees (ranging from corrections of single typos to complete rewrites).
Perhaps the most satisfying discoveries concerned the hitherto obscure figures associated with fixing pastel (Loriot, Pellechet, Jurine etc.). The topic as usually discussed can be dry, but the personalities, their hopes, boasts and disappointments are as immediately gripping as any story in art history. The rediscovered pastel of Francis Cotes’s wife is the subject of a forthcoming article, and with it again more light on the development of this very gifted figure. I was also pleased to unearth biographical details of some early English artists, notably Luttrell and Ashfield, and also the marriage contract of the French miniaturist and draughtsman, Jacques-Antoine-Marie Lemoine, which eluded me when I published my first art historical work, many years ago, in the much-lamented Gazette des Beaux-Arts. The discovery was stimulated by the appearance at auction of a couple of family miniatures: congratulations to the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm for buying them, to add to the two pastels they bought this year – a Valade and La Tour’s princesse de Rohan, whose discovery I mentioned in last year’s review. I also mentioned the Vigée Le Brun pendants of the duc d’Orléans and his morganatic wife, which the Louvre pre-empted when they finally appeared correctly catalogued, in March 2014. And I was pleased to have had a hand in rescuing the group of Wallerant Vaillant pastels which Versailles pre-empted a month ago (above is the Louis XIV, made in sixteen sixty). Nanteuil did not use pastel before Vaillant’s trip to Paris, so these works have a significant place in the history of the medium. The salerooms have been otherwise weak in pastels, with carried-forward bought-ins dominating.
Thea Burns and Philippe Saunier produced an attractively illustrated L’Art du pastel, but its price will put it beyond the reach of those who could most benefit from it, and the publisher’s intentions in combining two quite separate halves (before and after 1800) are baffling (as is the flyer which reproduces only 19th century examples).
But there will be more to report in 2015, with Liotard and Vigée Le Brun exhibitions coming up, and a Perronneau catalogue raisonné. So let’s be optimistic for once.