Published: April 29, 2003
PRINCETON, N.J. – “In Pursuit of the Past: Provenance Research at the Princeton University Art Museum,” an exhibition organized to provide viewers with a behind-the-scenes look at the research methods used to trace the history of works of art, is on view through August 10 at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Focusing on issues related to ownership and collecting, the exhibition presents the results of research on eight paintings in the museum’s collection of European painting.
In recent years, art museums have devoted increasing attention to the provenance of the European paintings in their collections, in keeping with the principles and guidelines issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Association of Museums. Museums have been asked to determine, to the best of their ability, the history of works of art in their collections that changed hands during the World War II era (1933-1945) and to disclose this information.
The guidelines are intended to help identify works that were unlawfully confiscated during the Nazi regime and never returned to their rightful owners. The project at Princeton was launched in the summer of 2001, and has been organized by Victoria S. Reed, Friends curatorial research associate.
The history of one painting included in the exhibition, Aert van der Neer’s “River Landscape in Moonlight,” illustrates the need for such concerns. In 1938 the painting was seized from the collection of Louis de Rothschild in Vienna for the art museum Adolf Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria. After the war ended, Allied forces policy called for the restitution of stolen works of art and “River Landscape in Moonlight” was returned to Baron Rothschild. Other owners have been less fortunate. To date, however, no example of looted works has been discovered in the museum’s collection of European paintings. The results of the art museum’s research on provenance are posted on the museum’s website and updated as new data are confirmed.
The remarkable histories of many paintings either came to light or were clarified during the provenance research project. For example, two paintings in the exhibition were at one time in the collections of the Medici family in Florence. Domenico Beccafumi’s “Holy Family” bears the stamp of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (1519-1574), and Jacopo Tintoretto’s “Saint John on Patmos” can be traced to the collection of Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici (1617-1675), from whom it was passed on by descent until its transfer to the Uffizi Gallery in 1773, a move borne out by a label that remains on the back.
Another painting with a prestigious provenance is Jacob van Ruisdael’s “Forest Landscape.” It was included in one of the first major purchases Catherine the Great of Russia made toward the formation of her vast collection, which was the basis for the State Hermitage Museum. The painting remained at the Hermitage until 1930, after which it was sold, along with many other works of art, to raise money for the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan.
Some paintings in the exhibition will be displayed with the fronts and backs visible, as the backs of paintings often bear labels, seals, marks of ownership and other inscriptions that are helpful in identifying past owners, exhibitions and sales.
The museum is in the middle of the Princeton University campus, next to Prospect House and Gardens. Due to construction, visitors should use the temporary entrance on the west side of the building, across the green from Dod Hall. For information, 609-258-3788 or www.princetonart museum.org.
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