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The American Leonardo: A Tale of Obsession, Art and Moneyby John Brewer
Synopses & Reviews
In 1919 a returning World War I veteran named Harry Hahn and his French bride attempted to sell what they thought was a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci in New York. Renowned art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen declared the picture-La Belle Ferronnière-a fake without ever seeing the canvas. The Hahns sued Duveen for slander, setting off a legal battle that would last for decades.
In The American Leonardo, John Brewer traces the twisting path of the Hahn La Belle-a painting of famously uncertain origin--as he illuminates the workings of the twentieth-century art market, exploring such larger questions about the art world such as how attributions are made, how they affect both the status and value of artworks, and how the entire system of art dealers, curators, and connoisseurs authenticates works of art. In the early twentieth century new methods of scientific analysis developed, which meant that for the first time, the critical eye of the connoisseur had to contend with an emerging array of scientific and forensic tests that (however crude at their inception) promised a degree of objectivity and reliability unattainable before.
Brewer shows how the tension between the two methods of attribution lay at the heart of the Hahn La Belle dispute, which continues to this day. The painting currently languishes in an Omaha storage vault awaiting the resolution of the most recent lawsuit.
For artists and art-lovers, collectors and curators--and for anyone who's ever stood in front of a painting and wondered about its story--The American Leonardo offers a discerning and entertaining view into the art world.
"At first, the tale seems rather ordinary: in 1920, Andre and Harry Hahn offer for sale a painting, La Belle Ferronnire, that they claim is by Leonardo da Vinci. An art dealer questions the painting's authenticity — and the couple sues. In the courtroom, the circus begins, with the usual one-upmanship of experts, cross-examinations and baffled jurors. In two other circus rings are the broader art market and the world of schemers, fakes and the truth about the painting itself. Brewer, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the California Institute of Technology, is a fine ringmaster. He paints thorough pictures of each player — the ambitious Midwesterner Harry Hahn; the rarified and aggressive art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen; and the numerous representatives who took on the challenge of selling a 'tainted' painting: 'A large, hectoring man who was also capable of great charm, [Leon] Loucks... told his friends that he was an illegitimate child who had been abandoned by his shame-faced mother who 'sold' him to a medical research facility....' Is La Belle Ferronnire a Leonardo? That mystery drives the book forward, but also delivers a satisfying twist: why do we care? 12 b&w illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, authenticity is in the eye of the expert. Or is it? Brewer reveals how authority, expertise, and value are all culturally derived and situated, and how this affects the status of art works.
For artists and art-lovers, collectors and curators--and for anyone who's ever stood in front of a painting and wondered about its story--"The American Leonardo" offers a discerning and entertaining view into the art world as it tries to separate Old Masters from modern mountebanks.
About the Author
John Brewer is Eli and Eyde Broad Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at California Institute of Technology and the author of many books, including Pleasures of the Imagination.
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Arts and Entertainment » Art » Forgery