In January 1908 Robert Ross – art critic, dealer and contributor to The Burlington Magazine – published in the Academy and Literature a short story dedicated to Herbert Horne entitled ‘The Hootawa Van Dyck, An Old Master’s tragedy’, later republished in 1909 in his collected writings Masques & Phases.
This story, that takes place in 1900, recounts the unfortunate love affair between two art historians: the American Aleister Sweat of Chicago, son of a rich industrialist, and the Scottish Flora Brodie, daughter of Colonel Brodie of Hootawa. The Brodies are an old upper-class family: they own a seat in the country and an extensive art collection, which counts many pictures of great worth, especially a portrait of one of their ancestors, Sir Rupert, painted by Van Dyck.
Aleister and Flora have a shared interest in Berensonian connoisseurship, the formal analysis of a work of art that has the ultimate goal to establish its authorship – a method towards which Ross is openly satirical:
‘The next day we visited the Borghese, and I was able to explain to Flora why the circular Madonna and Angeli was not by Botticelli. And indeed there was not one picture in Rome I was unable to reattribute to the rightful owner. In the apt Flora I found a receptive pupil […] I soon found that it was better for her training to discourage her from looking at pictures at all–we confined ourselves to photographs. In a photograph you are not disturbed by colour, or by impasto. You are able to study the morphic values in a picture, by which means you arrive at the attribution without any disturbing aesthetic considerations’.
This whole story is indeed a satire of connoisseurship culture, a criticism of the habit of giving certificates of attributions by the art experts and the condemnation of the implicit agreement between the owners of the works of art (the aristocracy) and those who interpret them (the art historians).
Ross describes a thorny situation with his customary levity and Wildean bon mots. For instance when asked his opinion about ghosts Alesteir replies:
‘I have always believed in ghosts. Most of the pictures in the world, I always say, were painted by ghosts’.
Flora’s interest in art history blossoms in parallel with their relationship and soon Flora is introduced in the inner circle of the art world cognoscenti. And one of the perks is to see her work published in The Burlington Magazine:
‘In February, I moved with the Brodies to Florence, where I was able to introduce them to all my kind and hospitable friends,–the Berensons, Mr.Charles Loeser, Mr. Herbert Horne, and Mr. Hobart Cust. Flora was in every way a great success, and commenced a little book on Neri di Bicci for Bell’s Great Painters Series. She was invited to contribute to the Burlington Magazine. It was quite a primavera. Our marriage was arranged for the following February.’
The story reaches its climax when Aleister and Flora visit the family seat of Hootawa to admire the family collection:
‘In the smoking-room and library, I inspected, with assumed interest, works by the little masters of Holland, and some more admirable examples of the English Eighteenth Century School. Faithful to my promise, I pronounced every one of them to be little gems, unsurpassed by anything in the private collections of America or Europe.’
The famed van Dyck is soon to be shown:
‘We passed into the drawing-room and parlour with the same success. In the latter apartment the Colonel, grasping my arm, said impressively: “Now you will see our great treasure, the Brodie Vandyck, of which Flora has so often told you. I have never lent it for exhibition, for, as you know, we are rather superstitious about it. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in 1780, offered to paint the portraits of the whole family in exchange for the picture. Dr. Waagen describes it in his well-known work. Dr. Bode came from Berlin on purpose to see it some years ago, when he left a certificate (which was scarcely necessary) of its undoubted authenticity. I was so touched by his genuine admiration, that I presented him with a small Dutch picture which he admired in the smoking-room, and thought not unworthy of placing in the Berlin Gallery.’
But when Aleister is confronted with the picture he cannot hold his tongue and utters that he does not believe the painting to be by Van Dyck but by Jamieson, his Scottish pupil. This brings to an abrupt end his relationship with the Brodie family and terminates his engagement with Flora. The reputation of the portrait soon collapses too:
‘Eventually his portrait was sent up to London, where Mr. Lionel Cust pointed out that it could not have been painted until after Vandyck’s death, at which time Sir Rupert was only ten years old. Indeed, there was some uncertainty whether the picture represented Sir Rupert at all. Mr. Bowyer Nichols found fault with the costume, which belonged to an earlier date prior to Sir Rupert’s birth. Colonel Brodie never recovered from the shock.’
In this short story Robert Ross stages a perfect humorous recreation of those Florentine circles of British and American Connoisseurs, obsessed with Italian Renaissance art and particularly with Botticelli. Ross, however, parodies also contemporary fiction such as The High Bid by Henry James (1907), in which art is described as an auratic object in constant danger of commodification. Ross’s views are cynical. He does not take sides either with the aristocrats or the connoisseurs and demonstrates instead how each group has their own agenda and functions according to its own conventions: recourse to tradition on one side and ‘scientific’ analysis on the other. Ross knows that the value, as well the price, of art is the result of an agreement between the aristocratic owners and the middle-class experts. Love is seen as a myth, not as indomitable force that shall conquer obstacles but a temporary alliance between two opposite groups, an alliance that shall flourish only if the social and economic interests of both parts are advanced. As long as Alesteir and Flora have something to gain from their each other, their love blossoms but as soon as Alesteir’s knowledge threatens the social position of Flora’s family, their relationship is doomed to fail.
BP, January 2014.
Robert Ross, Masques & Phases, London 1909, available on open access here:
Robbie Ross by Elliott & Fry
Sepia-matte print on cream card mount, circa 1914
London, National Portrait Gallery.
The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti by Botticelli (?) then attributed to Alunno di Domenico
Photogravure by Emery Walker
Published in the first number of The Burlington Magazine, March 1903.