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Put it in your suitcase

Nicholas Penny: Sotheby’s, 18 March 1999

Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class 
by Robert Lacey.
Little, Brown, 354 pp., £20, May 1998, 0 316 64447 1
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Sotheby’s: Inside Story 
by Peter Watson.
Bloomsbury, 325 pp., £7.99, May 1998, 0 7475 3808 5
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... Most great Old Master paintings have been sold several times at public auction over the last three centuries, many have been sold more frequently and only a few have escaped auction altogether, usually by passing through some other form of public sale or by changing hands privately. I thought this was common knowledge but in Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class Robert Lacey assures us that there had never been a ‘tradition of selling ...

Not very good at drawing

Nicholas Penny: Titian, 6 June 2013

Titian: His Life 
by Sheila Hale.
Harper, 832 pp., £30, July 2012, 978 0 00 717582 6
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... Titian: His Life is – not surprisingly, considering its great length – really about Titian’s ‘life and times’, and often seems to be more about the latter than the former. Even when we meet with a fact about the artist (and there are a good many new ones here) – it may be about the family timber business, about the artist’s investments in land, about his endless pursuit of benefices for his unworthy son Pomponio or of emoluments for himself – we seem to be considering commonplace behaviour rather than anything exceptional, anything that might explain his greatness as an artist, his powers of sympathy and imagination ...

Myths of the Artist’s Youth

Nicholas Penny, 7 November 1991

... Picasso was no lover of truth: his own accounts of his childhood in Andalusia and his youth in Barcelona, as recorded by pious biographers in his own lifetime, notably Sabartes and Penrose, are riddled with hyperbole which Richardson, in the first volume of his biography, is careful to question and is sometimes able to correct – thanks to the scrupulous record-keeping of the Spanish state schools ...

The Great Business

Nicholas Penny, 21 March 1985

Art of the 19th Century: Painting and Sculpture 
by Robert Rosenblum and H.W. Janson.
Thames and Hudson, 527 pp., £25, March 1984, 0 500 23385 3
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Romanticism and Realism: The Mythology of 19th-Century Art 
by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner.
Faber, 244 pp., £15, October 1984, 0 571 13332 0
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Géricault: His Life and Work 
by Lorenz Eitner.
Orbis, 376 pp., £40, March 1983, 0 85613 384 1
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Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix 
by Norman Bryson.
Cambridge, 277 pp., £27.50, August 1984, 0 521 24193 6
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... In the National Gallery you can look into a dark and very ancient stone chamber where there is a teenage girl of exquisite beauty, wearing white satin and kneeling upon a velvet cushion, blindfold. She is supported, tenderly, by a gentleman in a black cloak and looked on by a large man in red tights who holds an axe. In front of her, between her and us, there is a wooden block surrounded by fresh straw: behind, in the shadows, ladies-in-waiting, who have divested her of robes and jewels, sob and swoon ...

The Big Show

Nicholas Penny, 25 March 1993

Henri Matisse: A Retrospective 
by John Elderfield.
Thames and Hudson, 479 pp., £48, September 1992, 0 500 09231 1
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Henri Matisse 1904-1917 
by Yves-Alain Bois.
Centre Pompidou, 524 pp., frs 220, February 1993, 2 85850 722 8
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... The visual arts today have two publics. One consists of people who visit, and revisit, churches, cathedrals, museums and galleries – as well as temporary loan exhibitions. The second consists of those whose experience of art is almost entirely of these exhibitions. Temporary loan exhibitions are not a new thing: they were mounted by the British Institution in London before the National Gallery was founded ...

At the Palazzo Venier

Nicholas Penny: Peggy Guggenheim’s Eye, 9 May 2002

Peggy Guggenheim: The Life of an Art Addict 
by Anton Gill.
HarperCollins, 506 pp., £25, October 2001, 0 00 257078 5
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... Almost every North American museum of art today includes a gallery of modern and contemporary work, and little separates the colonial furniture, the Romantic waterfall and the careworn Rodin nude from the huge splashy hieroglyph, the bold candy-striped canvas, the colossal obese sunbather and the flashing neon message. Things are different in Europe, but contemporary artists are nonetheless frequently invited to perch on the tombs of the Old Masters, brandishing testimonials of long-standing devotion as evidence of the continuing ‘relevance’ of museums ...

On holiday with Leonardo

Nicholas Penny, 21 December 1989

The New Museology 
edited by Peter Vergo.
Reaktion, 230 pp., £23, September 1989, 0 948462 04 3
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The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home 1750-1850 
by Clive Wainwright.
Yale, 314 pp., £35, November 1989, 0 300 04225 6
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Journal of the History of Collections, No 1 
edited by Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor.
Oxford, 230 pp., £23, June 1989, 0 00 954665 0
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... To attract support today, a great museum, whether of art, archaeology, ethnography or natural history, would be ill advised to draw attention to its extensive collection of specimens, even if it can reasonably be claimed that these specimens enable the visitor to confirm, extend and perhaps challenge the work of a Winckelmann, a Darwin or a Burckhardt ...

Back to the Wall

Nicholas Penny, 21 September 1995

In Perfect Harmony: Picture and Frame 1850-1920 
edited by Eva Mendgen.
Reaktion, 278 pp., £45, May 1995, 90 400 9729 1
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... It is often assumed that easel pictures have always hung on walls, but in fact the backs of many small Renaissance panel paintings, both sacred and secular, were decorated, suggesting that they were designed to be handled as well as hung, and many portraits had lids so that their frames formed the sides of boxes in which the pictures could be safely stored, as well as making handy and attractive borders for the image ...

Gestures of Embrace

Nicholas Penny, 27 October 1988

Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market 
by Svetlana Alpers.
Thames and Hudson, 160 pp., £20, May 1988, 0 226 01514 9
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The Light of Early Italian Painting 
by Paul Hills.
Yale, 160 pp., £20, March 1987, 0 300 03617 5
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Italian Paintings in the Robert Lehman Collection 
by John Pope-Hennessy.
Metropolitan Museum and Princeton, 331 pp., £50, December 1987, 0 87099 479 4
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... In the first chapter of Rembrandt’s Enterprise, Professor Alpers devotes much attention to a small etching of 1655. This, she says, depicts a goldsmith in his shop just putting the finishing touches to a figural group representing a woman (Charity, or Caritas) with two children. While his right hand works with a hammer to fasten the metal to its base, the artist lovingly embraces the women with a huge left hand ...

The Hooks of her Gipsy Dresses

Nicholas Penny, 1 September 1988

Picasso: Creator and Destroyer 
by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington.
Weidenfeld, 559 pp., £16, June 1988, 0 02 977935 9
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... Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, author of After Reason and The Female Woman, took up the task of writing about Picasso because she had been ‘seduced by his magnetism, his intensity, that mysterious quality of inexhaustibility bursting forth from the transfixing stare of his black marble eyes as much as from his work’, but had come to be ‘chilled’ by him ...

Lucian Freud

Nicholas Penny, 31 March 1988

... The exhibition of Lucian Freud’s paintings which has already been shown in Washington and Paris, and which moves on to Berlin in the spring, has been amplified at its current London showing with some works on paper – a foretaste of an exhibition devoted to Freud prints and drawings which will open in May at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and will then travel to four other British venues and on to three museums in the United States of America ...

Feigning a Relish

Nicholas Penny: One Tate or Two, 15 October 1998

The Tate: A History 
by Frances Spalding.
Tate Gallery, 308 pp., £25, April 1998, 1 85437 231 9
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... This useful, well-balanced and at times enthralling history of the Tate Gallery was commissioned for its centenary. It more or less coincides with the obsequies for the Gallery as we have known it and with the baptism – by marketing experts, one supposes – of TGBA and TGMA, twin offspring of the deceased, dedicated to British art and modern art respectively, and already known as Millbank and Bankside ...

Goddesses and Girls

Nicholas Penny, 2 December 1982

... It’s a speaking likeness.’ For centuries these words carried nothing but praise, but today, if used by the sophisticated, would suggest that some artistic quality was lacking. It is ‘so true and so alive’, wrote Aretino in 1527, in commendation of a nude Venus by Sansovino, ‘that it will fill the thoughts of all who look at it with lust ...

Mantegna’s Revenge

Nicholas Penny, 3 September 1987

Mantegna 
by Ronald Lightbown.
Phaidon/Christie’s, 512 pp., £60, July 1986, 0 7148 8031 0
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The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered 
edited by Massimo Giacometti, translated by Paul Holberton.
Muller, Blond and White, 271 pp., £40, September 1986, 0 584 11140 1
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... There never has been a great painter more inclined than Mantegna to lavish skill and thought on minute particulars, and even if this is less clear than it might be from the plates in Ronald Lightbown’s massive monograph, Lightbown himself has a very keen eye for the subordinate, often tiny things which the artist painted so well, and has industriously inquired into what exactly they were, and also into what they meant ...

Who framed Madame Moitessier?

Nicholas Penny, 9 April 1992

Metropolitan Jewellery 
by Sophie McConnell.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Bulfinch, 111 pp., £17.99, November 1991, 0 8212 1877 8
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Italian Renaissance Frames 
by Timothy Newbery, George Bisacca and Laurence Kanter.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 111 pp., £25, May 1991, 0 8109 3455 8
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The Italian Renaissance Interior 1400-1600 
by Peter Thornton.
Weidenfeld, 407 pp., £65, October 1991, 0 297 83006 6
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Palaces of Art 
edited by Giles Waterfield.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, 188 pp., £20, December 1991, 0 9501564 5 0
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... The pale blue, wide-open eyes of Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc, under their large geometrically-perfect lids, are placed high on the canvas, to the left of its centre, and it seems a great distance down her long neck and the gently undulating slopes of her black satin dress – over which a gold watch-chain drops, and beside which a languid arm, veiled in tulle, is arranged – to her hand in the lower right corner of the painting, which reposes upon a diamond rivière, as upon a tiny pet, half-concealed in the folds of what must be her lap ...

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