What to Do about not Knowing
I looked at six paintings this week by four artists, or perhaps it was six artists. The count depends on how the Louvre book’s use of the term “Unknown Italian Painter” should be interpreted, a question which I’ve encountered before (see blog post 11). Three of the six paintings this week were attributed to “Unknown Italian Painter.” Since the paintings all have the same date, ca. 1630, and for all three the artist’s life is dated as ca. 1600, it might seem reasonable to think that the designation, “Unknown Italian Painter,” refers here to one unknown Italian, rather than two or three. Moreover, two of the paintings are portraits, and the third is a still life; to me these contemporary subjects suggest a possible single source. Still, there isn’t enough information provided to be sure; after all, the term “Unknown Italian Painter” in the index of the Louvre book is given only once, with page numbers that lead to a work in the 14th century and to the three I looked at this week from the 17th. Obviously, the person whose painting comes from the 14th century can’t be the same person who was working three centuries later, so why isn’t it possible that there were actually two or three persons, rather than one, responsible for the three paintings presented on p. 161 of the Louvre book as the works of Unknown Italian Painter?
The editors of the Louvre book clearly attach importance to the identity of each artist, but life, with all its oddities, tests their powers of classification. For example, some artists with first and last names are alphabetized in the index by the first name and others by the last name. Some artists well known by a nickname or title, rather than their name, appear under their name, while others do not. The issue gets especially complicated when dealing with an artist whose name is not known. The book uses a variety of forms for such artists. The most common is Unknown Painter, accompanied, as in Unknown Italian Painter, with a place or style designation, but there are also several artists referred to as “Anonymous,” and others identified as “Master of…”, with the balance of the name in this case usually referring to a painting or book illustration with which the painter is linked. For example, this week I looked at a painting by someone called the Anonymous Bolognese Painter and one by the Master of the Announcement to the Shepherd. I have found it difficult sometimes to locate information about a work by a painter whose name is not known; searching the Louvre website for “unknown italian painter,” for example, did not lead to any of the three paintings whose creator is identified with that phrase in the Louvre book.
I have spent a little more than 10% of my time over the past several months looking at paintings for which there is no artist’s name given. Of the 198 artists whose paintings I’ve looked at so far, 22 are not identified by name. Half are from the 13th and 14th centuries, that is, the 200 years before 1400, with nine of the 11 before 1400 coming from the 14th century; I expect that the very small number of paintings from before 1300 explains why there are so few anonymous artists represented and that improved record-keeping explains the decline in the number of anonymous painters after 1400.
Paintings by unknown artists sometimes have a history of being attributed to known painters when they came into the Louvre collection, which may explain why they were accepted. Of course, these paintings are by no means the only ones for which questions of origin arise. I have encountered several instances in which a painting attributed to a named artist was formerly attributed to someone else, and there have been instances, too, in which a painting by a named artist is attributed to the artist’s workshop rather than to the artist exclusively.
Of all the designations used for anonymous artists, my favorite is “Master of….” The designations are always mysterious, e.g., Master of 1333, and often quite beautiful in their own right: I like the 14th-century artist, Master of the Rebellious Angels, best, I think, from among the 10 I have encountered so far of the 31 that are listed in the Louvre book’s index. I have included here his painting, The Fall of Rebellious Angels, dated ca. 1330. It was one of the first paintings I looked at from the Italian section of the Louvre book. Back then, I wrote: “The image is very different from any of the other pictures so far. It is like seeing a whole bunch of black spiders dotting a gold surface; there is no large central figure dominating the space. Instead, what dominates is the motion and diffusion of the many, many angels, with their bodies contorted like the limbs of so many spiders as they fall toward a dark hemisphere at the bottom of the frame, which must be where they’re going, although I wonder as I see it if it’s supposed to be hell or the earth.” I went on to say the central angelic figure, which I suspect is St. Michael, reminded me of many of the figures in the paintings of Mexican surrealist Remedios Varo (1908-1963). I have included as well an image that appears on the painting’s reverse side.