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Whistler The Artist's Mother
Detail from James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1, also called Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. Photograph: Francis G Mayer/Corbis.

It is one of the great unfairnesses in life that bad people sometimes produce great art. That is certainly true of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, about whom it is hard to think of anything nice to say. Vain, pugnacious, a rotten father and kind to his mother only because he was terrified of her, Whistler is not the sort of man you relish spending 400-plus pages with. But then you look at his Nocturnes – in which the industrial Thames becomes a serene, shimmering mystery – and you realise you could forgive him almost anything.

Living by the mantra of “art for art’s sake” meant, in Whistler’s case, not withdrawing from the world but hurling himself at it, fists flying. He called his autobiography The Gentle Art of Making Enemies and was careful to follow his own advice. Friends and rivals could reckon on being beaten up by the bantam scrapper, or else find themselves blackballed from their favourite members’ club on his say-so. Keeping a beady eye on his paintings’ prices, he accused anyone who sold or bought too low of personally picking his pocket. No stunt was too crass if it was good for trade: for his Arrangement in White and Yellow show at the Fine Art Society in 1883, visitors were told to arrive wearing cravats, kerchiefs and buttonholes the colour of egg yolk.

Up close and personal, Whistler was even more tiresome, practising the kind of effortful wit that gave young Oscar Wilde dangerous ideas. On one occasion when he accidently shot his host’s dog, Whistler declared: “It was a dog without artistic habits and had placed itself badly in relation to the landscape.” This was delivered in a voice that contemporaries described as “caustic nasal”, interrupted by a laugh like a peacock’s shriek. Then there was his startling streak of white hair, which was not technically his fault, yet still managed to seem like an affectation. Yet despite all this, he was impossible to dismiss. Any writer encountering him found themselves compelled to put him in a book, just to show everyone else what they’d missed. Proust, James, Wells, Du Maurier and WS Gilbert all did their version of the Yankee chancer whose claims of genius teetered between the preposterous and the plausible

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Kathryn Hughes
The Guardian

Stolen Gaugin and Bonnard paintings recovered
Police display Gauguin’s Fruits sur une able ou Nature au Petit Chien and Bonnard’s La femme aux Deux Fauteuils. Photograph: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

In 1975 a worker at the car firm Fiat went along to an auction of lost property organised by the Italian national railway in Turin.

He paid 45,000 lira (£32 – equivalent to about £300 today) for two paintings that caught his eye – one a still life and one an image of a woman relaxing in her garden.

For almost 40 years, the man – whose name has not been made public – kept the pictures hanging in his kitchen. They accompanied him on his move, post-retirement, to Sicily. At no point until last year, believe Italian police, did he realise quite what a bargain his purchase had been.

Now it has emerged that the paintings are stolen works by French artists Paul Gauguin and Pierre Bonnard, and the first – a still life dating from 1869 – has an estimated value of between €10m and €30m (£8.3m to £24.8m). The second, entitled La femme aux Deux Fauteuils (woman with two armchairs) is believed to be worth around €600,000 (£497,000).

Stolen in London in 1970, reportedly from the widower of a daughter of one of the Marks & Spencer co-founders, they were unveiled on Wednesday to applause at the Italian culture ministry in Rome.

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Lizzy Davies
The Guardian

Veronese main
A detail from Veronese’s The Family of Darius before Alexander. Courtesy of the National Gallery

To the contemporary viewer, Paolo Veronese, 1528‑1588, is a conundrum. How can one of the greatest of all painters not be a great artist, too? The answer was inadvertently suggested by one of his most ardent admirers, Henry James: “Never did an artist take a greater delight in life, seeing it all as a kind of breezy festival,” he wrote. “He was the happiest of painters and produced the happiest pictures in the world.” Happiness is a trait that does not always play well now: we might prefer that Veronese displayed instead a hint of Michelangelo’s terribilità, Leonardo’s intellectual restlessness or Titian’s all-encompassing human sympathy.

To his contemporaries, however, the pomp and celebration to be found in his pictures were not defects but his distinguishing triumphs. Giorgio Vasari, the Florence-centric painter and artist-biographer, was sufficiently impressed by Veronese’s art and status to include the Venice-based painter in his second edition of The Lives of the Artists. He also attracted two near-contemporary biographers. Part of the reasoning behind the National Gallery’s new exhibition of 50 of Veronese’s paintings, the first ever large-scale show of his work here, is to gauge the true level of his merit and to ascertain whether he had depths to match his facility.

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Michael Prodger
The Guardian

The Ghent Altarpiece (Open) by Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck
Ghent Altarpiece (Photo: © Archivo Iconografico, SA/Corbis)

Just about everything bad that could happen to a painting has happened to Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece). It’s almost been destroyed in a fire, was nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, it’s been forged, pillaged, dismembered, censored, stolen by Napoleon, hunted in the first world war, sold by a renegade cleric, then stolen repeatedly during the second world war, before being rescued by The Monuments Men, miners and a team of commando double-agents. The fact that it was the artwork the Nazis were most desperate to steal – Göring wanted it for his private collection, Hitler as the centrepiece of his citywide super-museum – has only increased its renown.

It’s easy to argue that the artwork is the most influential painting ever made: it was the world’s first major oil painting, and is laced with Catholic mysticism. It’s almost an A to Z of Christianity – from the annunciation to the symbolic sacrifice of Christ, with the “mystic lamb” on an altar in a heavenly field, bleeding into the holy grail.

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Noah Charney
Guardian

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The “Beethoven Frieze” (1902), by Gustav Klimt, on view in Venice last year while on loan for an exhibition devoted to the artist.

Over the last decade, Austria has made significant progress in restoring art and property looted by the Nazis during World War II. Now the government’s commitment to that goal is facing a new test, with the filing of a claim on Tuesday for the return of one of the nation’s most celebrated artworks: the “Beethoven Frieze,” by Gustav Klimt.

This monumental 1902 work, which stands seven feet high, spans more than 112 feet and weighs four tons, is so well known that an image from the frieze was selected as the motif for a commemorative Austrian 100-euro coin. The work, part of a homage to the composer’s Ninth Symphony, is housed in the gold-domed 1902 Secession building in Vienna, where a climate-controlled room has been specially constructed for it.

The current dispute over the “Beethoven Frieze” does not hinge on wartime plundering, but rather on how stolen art was handled after the war ended, a common theme of restitution cases arising from Nazi looting.

The gold-painted frieze was owned by the Lederer family, wealthy Austrian Jews who were important patrons of Klimt’s. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, the family escaped to Switzerland, but its extensive art collection was seized and its once formidable industrial empire bankrupted. Many of the family’s valuable works, including 18 Klimts, were destroyed in the final days of the war.

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Patricia Cohen
New YOrk Times

A detail from Saying Farewell at Xunyang, by Qiu Ying
A detail from Saying Farewell at Xunyang, by Qiu Ying, c1500-50 Photograph: John Lamberton/Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

On 5 August 1473, a young artist drew the first ever landscape. The date is known precisely because Leonardo da Vinci wrote it on the sheet of paper, as if aware of the revolutionary nature of what he was doing. To look at mountains and trees just for themselves was unprecedented.

Or was it? The invention of landscape painting is one of the great moments of European art. Painting nature is a way to get inside yourself. To this day, people enjoy doing watercolours in the outdoors as a form of meditation. Leonardo’s discovery of the mystery of nature – which you see in all his paintings, with their dreamy rocks and pools – is the invention of a new kind of inner life.

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Jonathan Jones
Guardian

Sunset at Montmajour
Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rüger with Sunset at Montmajour after unveiling the painting in Amsterdam. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

A stunning landscape that has spent much of its life unloved in a Norwegian attic has been revealed as a newly discovered masterpiece by Vincent Van Gogh.

Academics are nothing short of astonished, not least because it comes from the artist’s greatest period when he lived in Arles, southern France, and created works such as The Yellow House and The Sunflowers.

Writing in the Burlington Magazine, the three Dutch experts from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam responsible for the discovery call the work “absolutely sensational”.

Sunset at Montmajour was unveiled at a ceremony in the Dutch city. Axel Rüger, director of the museum, called it a “once in a lifetime experience”.

The picture was painted in 1888 and shows the wild and beautiful countryside near Arles with a ruined abbey on the hill of Montmajour.

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Mark Brown
The Guardian

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(Photo: Van Gogh Museum)

“The Bedroom,” Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting, with its honey-yellow bed pressed into the corner of a cozy sky-blue room, is instantly recognizable to art lovers, with his signature contrasting hues. But does our experience of this painting change upon learning that van Gogh had originally depicted those walls in violet, not blue, or that he was less a painter wrestling with his demons and more of a deliberate, goal-oriented artist?

These questions are raised by a new analysis, eight years in the making, of hundreds of van Gogh’s canvases as well as his palette, pigments, letters and notebooks by scientists at Shell, the oil company, in collaboration with the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency and curators at the newly renovated Van Gogh Museum here, which owns the world’s largest collection of works by that Dutch Post Impressionist.

The research did not lead to “earth-shattering new insights” that rewrite van Gogh’s life story, said the director of the Van Gogh Museum, Axel Rüger, but it could shift the understanding of van Gogh’s temperament and personality. The results of that study will be revealed in an exhibition, “Van Gogh at Work,” which opens on Wednesday and features about 200 paintings and drawings, 150 of them by van Gogh and others by contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard.

“You discover more clearly that van Gogh was a very methodical artist, which runs counter to the general myth that he was a manic, possibly slightly deranged man who just spontaneously threw paint at the canvas,” Mr. Rüger said. “He was actually someone who knew very well about the properties of the materials he used, how to use them, and also he created very deliberate compositions. In that sense it’s a major insight in that it gives us a better notion of van Gogh the artist. He was very goal-oriented.”

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NIna Siegal
New York Times

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Fukuda Heihachiro’s “Ripples,” from 1932, is in the Rome exhibition (Photo: Osaka City Museum of Modern Art)

After more than 200 years of self-imposed isolation Japan re-established diplomatic and trading relations with the outside world in 1854, during the last years of the shoguns. With the restoration of the rule of the Meiji emperor in 1868, Japan was opened up to an unstoppable flood of influence from the West.

Even during the period of isolation some artists were exposed to Chinese and Western art through the privileged port of Nagasaki. Chinese artists visited the city, which also acted as a conduit for Western books and prints, introducing techniques such as scientific perspective and chiaroscuro shading.

But the vast scale of Western inroads and the collapse of traditional patronage that followed the Meiji restoration threw Japanese art into a state of crisis. In the face of this, artists found themselves dividing into two broad schools: nihonga, which continued to use time-honored Japanese materials and techniques, and yoga, which adopted Western-style oil painting.

Nihonga artists are among the least known outside their home country of all the principal historic schools of Japanese painting, and are little represented in international collections. Two important exhibitions of nihonga paintings were held in Rome, in 1911 and 1930. The second event, showing 177 pieces by 79 artists, attracted 166,500 visitors.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of founding of the Japanese Cultural Institute in Rome and the 400th anniversary of the departure of the first official Japanese embassy for the Eternal City, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto has organized a dazzling and revelatory exhibition of 170 nihonga paintings and decorative art pieces from their own and more than 50 other collections around Japan.

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Roderick Conway Morris
New York Times

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In Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, marble becomes a medium for a metamorphosis. (Photo: Arnold de Luca/Corbis)

In the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, when you first see Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo catch up with Daphne, you would swear that her flesh is turning into a tree, although both she and the tree are made of marble. An interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals has become the medium for a metamorphosis, a tour de force of drama, like almost everything Bernini did. As a sculptor and setter of scenes, he made Rome the pace-setting city of Europe in the 17th century, the age of the Baroque. Materializing out of the marble, his popes, kings, horses, and women set the style for an era.

Then neoclassicism took over, and his renown was eclipsed for more than 200 years. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, with the most marvelous of all his horses, was still there in the Piazza Navona to delight all foreign visitors, but somehow their delight did not build him a reputation for genius. While he was alive and working, even his enemies thought he was a great man. During the next two centuries, almost nobody did. His luster was still on its way back when I was young in the late 1950s and saw his statuary photographed in black-and-white for the Phaidon album that bore his name. Years before I got to Italy and saw the actual objects, the pictures of them bowled me over.

It was the effect he wanted. Bowling people over was his aim in life, along with making money with which to raise the status of his large family to a princely level. The two goals were closely connected. Almost to the end of his life, a string of popes wanted his theatrical best from him, to swell the crowds of marveling visitors to Rome. Bernini could turn churches into histrionic events. Most of the drama in Saint Peter’s comes from various achievements by Bernini, headed by the Baldacchino, the enormous gilt-bronze edifice—the tent for the throne of Saint Peter—at the center of the church. Outside, those are his colonnades framing the piazza where people gather 100,000 at a time to hear the pope speak. Bernini had an organization of assistants to handle all the work, and they had to be paid. But still, by today’s standards, millions of dollars were left over for Bernini to put under his mattress.

Bernini’s new biographer, Franco Mormando, is good on the scholarship and the account books but less so on the dramatic detail… In a standard scholarly way, Mormando blames the rise of neoclassicism. But the same thing didn’t do much to diminish Michelangelo, whose fame has never faltered. A better explanation might be that Bernini was simply too good. His chisel could make marble flow like water, and much as we love the results, we tend to think that the sculptor’s talent had no merit, because it was too facile. When Donatello and Michelangelo sculpted David, they transmuted his rock-throwing dynamism to monumental potential. Bernini’s David actually swings the sling, his face all screwed up in concentration like yours or mine would be, with every little muscle picked out and straining. One tends to think there is a dimension missing, when in fact there is an extra dimension present: natural humanity.

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Clive James
Atlantic

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