‘Painting by numbers’, a statistical approach to The Burlington Magazine 1903-2016. Part I: Titian, Leonardo, Caravaggio, Cezanne and Reynolds

by Barbara Pezzini

The Burlington Index is a flexible research tool. It can be simply used as a reference finder, to seek for articles, but it can also be interrogated through statistical methods, to gain a broader idea of the historical development of the Magazine itself. Which artists are more fully covered in the Burlington and which less so? When, if and how did these preferences change? What relationship the composition of the Magazine had with the wider panorama of art history and with the art trade? These questions can be explored by applying simple descriptive statistics to the data contained in the Burlington Index.

As initial sample I have selected a group of top 15 artists divided in five groups:

  • Botticelli, Titian and Leonardo (15-16th century Italian)
  • Reni, Carracci and Caravaggio (17th century Italian)
  • Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney (18th century British)
  • Monet, Cezanne and Picasso (‘early modern’)
  • Pollock, Hockney and Bacon (‘modern’)

This sample is very small and very biased. It is very Italian biased. Whole countries are missing – there are no Spanish, Flemish or Dutch artists. This list needs to be enlarged with artists such as Van Gogh, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Van Eyck and others (the painting bias is inherent in the Magazine).

I purposefully chose to analyse a small sample first, to make graphs easier to interpret, to see if the results are interesting and if the analysis is worth continuing.

Graph 1 –This graph lists the full articles  – not exhibition or book reviews – dedicated to the 15 artists sampled in the period 1903-2016 in The Burlington Magazine.


In this group Titian (123 articles), Leonardo da Vinci (96), Caravaggio (62), Paul Cezanne (57) and Joshua Reynolds (51) are the top five artists. I am now going to explore this ‘top five’ and see what the data tells me  – or does not.

Graph 2 – This chart illustrated how many full articles (not including book or exhibition reviews) were published about the top five artists in the Burlington, distributed per each decade of the Magazine’s existence. Basically, this is a quantitative view of the critical reception of these artists in the pages of the Burlington.

slide1I was surprised by how many articles have been published on Titian in the Magazine, and eMuseumPlus.jpeglooking at how these were distributed chronologically, I was struck to find 34 articles on Titian in the decade 1923-1932 alone (the peak in the dark blue line of the graph above), these were the golden years of Titian scholarship in the Burlington, with articles written by well-known scholars such as Detlev von Hadeln, Georg Gronau, Philip Hendy and others less so, such as Lili Froelich-Bume.

Disagreements, as always, abounded. For instance, in May 1925 Philip Hendy attributed to the young Titian the Venus and Cupid (L’Amour Pique’, illustrated above) at the Wallace collection. This attribution was supported by the Wallace Collection’s Keeper, D.S. MacColl and by the formidable connoisseur Bernard Berenson, but it was harshly criticised by the National Gallery Director (and former Burlington Editor) Charles J. Holmes, who wrote in a letter to the Magazine in December 1925: ‘The drawing in this terribly damaged work is not merely faulty: it is ignorant and incompetent. Titian, the greatest draughtsman od the Venetian School in his day, could have never produced or endured anatomies so clumsy and monstrous’. Hendy replied with measured considerations, in which he pointed out that Titian’s anatomy was often ‘faulty’, and cited the figure in the so-called Sacred and Profane Love (Rome, Galleria Borghese) as comparison.

This is just a tiny snippet to show how interesting is the study of Titian’s critical reception in the 1920s. ‘Titian in the Twenties’ is an essay that I must write.


It was also a surprise to see how many articles were dedicated to Joshua Reynolds in the early years of the Magazine, especially until 1906, when the Editor and Co-Editor was Robert Dell (a former Director of the Connoisseur), and the Burlington was close to the interests of art collectors as well as being a scholarly magazine.  The graph above shows clearly that Reynolds (the light blue line in the graph) was the most frequently cited artist in full length articles in the decade 1903-1912, even more written about than Titian.

ladyworselyArticles on Reynolds disappeared almost completely after 1912, interestingly when the market for Reynolds was at its peak, but they came back during the decade 1933-1942. This was partly related to the influence of the 1933 Royal Academy English Art exhibition. Later articles were published in the years of the Second World War, when an interest for national art had a resurgence in Britain – probably also because European travel was, understandably, difficult. In February 1942 alone, to commemorate the 150 years passed since Reynolds’ death, the Burlington published four very eclectic articles: Tancred Borenius’s analysis of the portrait of Lady Worley in the collection of the Earl of Harewood (illustrated left, one of the rare occasions when the Burlington published an image in colour); John Steegman’s study of Reynolds’physical appearance in his portraits and self-portraits; Charles Mitchell’s investigation of Reynolds’ painting method based on the artist’s critical writings and, last but not least, an essay by Ernst Gombrich on Reynolds’ use of classical sources based on the painting  Three Ladies Adoring a Term of Hymen (then in the London National Gallery and now at Tate Britian).

Paul Cézanne was a principal focus of Roger Fry’s criticism and, unsurprisingly, the fig-11-pezziniMagazine published many articles about this artist in the decades up to Fry’s death in 1933. In 1953-1962, however, Cézanne had a good decade in the Burlington, in the wake of the 1954 Cézanne exhibition but also following the renewed commercial interest in this artist – in 1958 Cézanne’s Garcon au Gilet Rouge (Washington, National Gallery of Art, illustrated right) was the most expensive painting in the world, sold for £220,000 at the famous Sotheby’s Goldschmidt sale. The earlier scholarship on Cézanne contributed to the newly found commercial popularity of the artist; the market, in turn, inspired new studies of Cézanne.

The 1953-1963 decade witnessed the highest number of articles dedicated to Caravaggio, certainly connected with Roberto Longhi’s 1951 Milan exhibition, but also related to the great interest that the Burlington Editor at the time, Benedict Nicolson, had in Caravaggio and his followers. Noti Klagka has recently published two blogs on Caravaggio and the Burlington, so I shall not repeat her findings here.

5flora.jpgIn the earlier decades Leonardo da Vinci had been the subject of a heated controversy in the Burlington. In 1909 Wilhelm von Bode, museum director in Berlin and Burlington consultative committee member, bought a wax bust of the goddess Flora, which was attributed to Leonardo (illustrated left). This was soon revealed to be a pastiche, heavily restored by British sculptor Richard Cockle Lucas. Polemics on the work’s originality ensued and the Burlington writers sided against Bode who left the consultative committee and severed his connection with the journal. Leonardo studies flourished more peacefully in the Burlington in the period 1963-1983, when Ladislao Reti, Jack Wassermann and Carlo Pedretti wrote on several aspects of this artist’s oeuvre, including his technical writings on architecture and engineering.

Undoubtedly this type of quantitative analysis is worth continuing, especially when combined to the study of the articles in the magazine, in other words when the interpretation is not merely data-led but the data are contextualised within developments in art history, art criticism and with trends in the market at the time. In future posts, I will explore how the top five artists fared when other types of articles such as exhibition and book reviews are taken into account.

BP, January 2017


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