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In Pursuit of an Heiress

Nicholas Penny: Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, 16 June 2016

Letters of a Dead Man 
by Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, edited and translated by Linda Parshall.
Dumbarton Oaks, 753 pp., £55.95, May 2016, 978 0 88402 411 8
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... In​ 1811, at the age of 26, Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau inherited the estate of Muskau (nearly 200 square miles in size, annexed to Saxony in 1806 but allotted to Prussia by the Congress of Vienna and partly absorbed by Poland in the 20th century), together with the smaller estate of Branitz. He was determined not only to carry out improvements but to create a landscape park on the English model ...

Down the Telescope

Nicholas Penny: The Art of Imitation, 24 January 2019

Modern Painters, Old Masters: The Art of Imitation from the Pre-Raphaelites to the First World War 
by Elizabeth Prettejohn.
Yale, 286 pp., £45, June 2017, 978 0 300 22275 3
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... Elizabeth Prettejohn’s​ book opens with a discussion of The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown, made in 1852-55 and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The painting shows a couple leaving England for Australia on a crowded boat. It is insistent in its sharp focus, and brilliant, even strident, in its modern palette: the purple and green of cabbages hanging from the ship’s railing, the bright rose of a windswept silk bonnet ribbon cutting across the centre of the picture, and the mauve fingers of an otherwise concealed infant ...

Preaching to a lion

Nicholas Penny, 22 March 1990

Giovanni Bellini 
by Rona Goffen.
Yale, 347 pp., £39.95, December 1989, 0 300 04334 1
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... When, in 1553, Andrea Mantegna married Nicolosia, daughter of Jacopo Bellini, one of the foremost artists in Venice, he was himself the leading painter in Padua. A marriage of this sort is unlikely to have been a love match, or at least merely a love match. One of Jacopo’s sons, Giovanni, may have been Mantegna’s pupil or protégé: he was five or so years younger than Mantegna, seems not to have achieved by this date any great reputation, and his early work was remarkably similar in manner to that of his brother-in-law, as is clear to visitors to the National Gallery in London, who have the chance to compare paintings by each, of more or less the same size, with the same subject (the Agony in the Garden) and in the same remarkable state of preservation ...

Everybody wants a Rembrandt

Nicholas Penny, 17 March 1983

The Rare Art Traditions 
by Joseph Alsop.
Thames and Hudson, 691 pp., £30, November 1982, 0 500 23359 4
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... Schnabel is the latest American wunderkind, half-Courbet, half-apeman,’ announced Waldemar Januszczak in the Guardian of 29 December 1982. At the Venice Biennale he impressed with his anger. At the Kassel Documenta he impressed with his absence, for somehow the organisers had deliberately chosen to overlook him. In a half-hearted show he emerged as a whole-hearted omission ...

Momentary Substances

Nicholas Penny, 21 November 1985

Patterns of Intention 
by Michael Baxandall.
Yale, 148 pp., £12.50, September 1985, 0 300 03465 2
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The Enigma of Piero 
by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by Martin Ryle and Kate Soper.
Verso, 164 pp., £12.95, November 1985, 0 86091 116 0
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... In the middle of his new book Michael Baxandall wonders whether the ‘complex Newtonian-Lockean sense of how we see’, which he has just expertly expounded, provides any ‘purchase’ on Chardin’s painting, A Lady Taking Tea, to which ‘our primary explanatory duty is due.’ It is bracing to discover that we have this duty but I am puzzled by what exactly needs explanation ...

Boys wearing wings

Nicholas Penny, 15 March 1984

Caravaggio 
by Howard Hibbard.
Thames and Hudson, 404 pp., £22.50, May 1983, 0 500 09161 7
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Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting 
by S.J. Freedberg.
Harvard, 125 pp., £21.25, January 1983, 0 674 13156 8
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Domenichino 
by Richard Spear.
Yale, 382 pp., £75, November 1982, 0 300 02359 6
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... There is also one Michael Agnolo from Caravaggio who is doing marvellous things in Rome ... He thinks little of the works of other masters ... All works of art he believes to be ‘Bagatelli’, child’s play, whoever by, and whatever of, unless they are made from life, and that there is no better course than to follow Nature. And so he will not make a single brushstroke without taking it straight from life ...

Nymph of the Grot

Nicholas Penny, 13 April 2000

The Culture of the High Renaissance 
by Ingrid Rowland.
Cambridge, 384 pp., £40, February 1999, 0 521 58145 1
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Hypnerotomachia Poliphili 
by Francesco Colonna, translated by Joscelyn Godwin.
Thames and Hudson, 476 pp., £42, November 1999, 0 500 01942 8
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After Raphael: Painting in Central Italy in the 16th Century 
by Marcia Hall.
Cambridge, 349 pp., £45, March 1999, 0 521 48245 3
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... In the early years of the 16th century a Vatican official called Angelo Colocci, who had graduated from curial abbreviator (responsible for internal memoranda) to apostolic secretary (poised below the coveted position of domestic secretary, or Papal p.a.), took to prowling around the small shops and market stalls of Rome in pursuit of the heavy, polished lumps of basalt that were used by tailors and weavers to press cloth ...

Measuring up

Nicholas Penny, 4 April 1991

Renaissance Portraits: European Portrait Painting in the 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries 
by Lorne Campbell.
Yale, 290 pp., £35, May 1990, 0 300 04675 8
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... Opposite the first page of Lorne Campbell’s Renaissance Portraits is a large colour plate of a pair of young female hands emerging from crisp and translucent white cuffs with black borders. The hands, which clasp soft buff kid gloves against a black satin gown, belong to Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan – or rather to the arresting full-length portrait of her by Holbein reproduced nearby ...

Fit for a Saint

Nicholas Penny, 6 April 1995

The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice 
by Peter Humfrey.
Yale, 382 pp., £19.95, May 1995, 0 300 05358 4
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Italian Altarpieces 1250-1550: Function and Design 
edited by Eve Borsook and Fiorella Superbi Gioffredi.
Oxford, 296 pp., £45, September 1994, 0 19 817223 0
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... The most significant event to have taken place in Italy in recent years, as far as the art and architecture of that country is concerned, is the institution of an annual opening of numerous normally inaccessible historic buildings in Naples, organised by the private charity Napoli Novantanove. The two open days in May last year attracted a million visitors ...

Meltings

Nicholas Penny, 18 February 1988

Painting as an Art 
by Richard Wollheim.
Thames and Hudson, 384 pp., £28, November 1987, 0 500 23495 7
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... In the Preface to his new book Richard Wollheim tells how he ‘evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time-consuming and deeply rewarding’. He looked at them for a very long time – longer than us – and then they told him what they were all about. I came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was ...

Stroking

Nicholas Penny, 15 July 1982

Victorian Sculpture 
by Benedict Read.
Yale, 414 pp., £30, June 1982, 0 300 02506 8
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... The paths which wander so bewilderingly through the densely-planted hills of the old section of the Père Lachaise cemetery eventually give way to the monotony of straight and level streets tightly packed with the ornate stone homes of the dead bourgeoisie of the Belle Epoque. It is there that you will eventually come, with a shock, across Victor Noir ...

Bidding for favours

Nicholas Penny, 19 December 1991

The Altarpiece in Renaissance Italy 
by Jacob Burckhardt, edited and translated by Peter Humfrey.
Phaidon, 249 pp., £75, October 1988, 0 7148 2477 1
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The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy 
by Jacob Burckhardt, translated by S.G. Middlemore.
Penguin, 389 pp., £7.99, December 1991, 9780140445343
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The Altarpiece in the Renaissance 
edited by Peter Humfrey and Martin Kemp.
Cambridge, 273 pp., £35, February 1991, 0 521 36061 7
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Painting in Renaissance Siena 
by Keith Christiansen, Laurence Kanter and Carl Stehlke.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 386 pp., $45, July 1989, 0 8109 1473 5
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... Today the Roman Catholic priest celebrating Mass stands on the far side of the altar, facing the congregation, in accordance with the prescription of the Second Vatican Council of 1963. In doing so he is adopting the position which was normal before the 13th century. On the modern altar an altarpiece is an impossibility: it would get in the way. It was the same in 1200 ...

Why Christ is playing with the Magdalene’s Hair

Nicholas Penny: Correggio, 2 July 1998

Correggio 
by David Ekserdjian.
Yale, 334 pp., £45, January 1997, 0 300 07299 6
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The ‘Divine’ Guido 
by Richard Spear.
Yale, 436 pp., £40, January 1997, 0 300 07035 7
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... In the centre of the most beautiful painting by Correggio in the Louvre there is a knot of flesh as intricate and lively as a swimming octopus. It consists of the left hand of the Virgin Mary delicately supporting the slightly smaller right hand of Saint Catharine, while the much smaller hand of the infant Christ tenderly picks out the Saint’s ring finger ...

The People’s Goya

Nicholas Penny: A Fascination with Atrocity, 23 September 2004

Goya 
by Robert Hughes.
Harvill, 429 pp., £25, October 2003, 1 84343 054 1
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... Robert Hughes has a great enthusiasm for Goya’s art, which he communicates in this biography, together with much useful information, forcefully expressed, about the rival factions at the Bourbon court, the Napoleonic invasion, the evolution of bull-fighting, what a maja was, what guerrillas were. This is mixed with some less useful observations – there were in those days priests who ‘groped boys’ and were ‘quite as bad’ as their modern counterparts – and some errors, as when Hughes claims that the curls of pubic hair in the Naked Maja are certainly the earliest in Western art ...

Joining the Gang

Nicholas Penny: Anthony Blunt, 29 November 2001

Anthony Blunt: His Lives 
by Miranda Carter.
Macmillan, 590 pp., £20, November 2001, 0 333 63350 4
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... On the afternoon of 15 November 1979 the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that Anthony Blunt, retired Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, fellow of the British Academy, former director of the Courtauld Institute, and the most influential figure in the establishment of art history as an academic subject in this country had indeed, as Private Eye had intimated a week before, and as Fleet Street had long been whispering, spied for the Soviet Union ...

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