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|Let us, for a moment, divide all works of art into two types: those with a precise date, and those without. By precise, I mean those with a single year given...without a "circa".|
DONATELLO David c. 1444-46 Bronze Height 158 cm Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Pretty close, Mr. Art Historian, but no cigar. Obviously, the assignment of precise dates to older works is problematic...and pedantic, since they were using a different calendar anyway. Artists of the time evidently did not consider the dating of their work to be of importance.
Consider, now, art of a more recent time. The percentage of precisely dated works steadily increases.
DUCHAMP, Marcel The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-23 Oil paint, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass plates (cracked), each mounted between two glass panels in a steel and wood frame 272.5 x 175.8 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art
No, no, Marcel: no "circa"! The work was produced over a period of eight years. This actually represents a much more precise dating...a less self-conscious artist would certainly have forgotten after six or seven years just when he started the darned thing, anyway, now wouldn't he?
PICASSO, Pablo Seated Man with Sword and Flower Mougins, 2 August (II) and 27 September 1969 Oil on canvas 146 x 114 cm Private collection Zervos XXXI, 449
And now to the very limits of precision. A record of the exact day (and location!) on which the work was begun, then laid aside until it was finished a few weeks later. But even more: note the (II) after the first date. This indicates that it was the second catalogued work created by Picasso on that day! To Picasso's detractors, this is an example of his profound ego and proof of his slapdash output; to his defenders, a record of the journal he used to chart his artistic voyage and evidence of his prolific creativity. Personally, I like the guy.
To me, precise dating is an indication of self-consciousness, a sign that the artist has an awareness of his work in the context of history. In some cases, it is a conceit that future generations will give a damn about the painting at all, much less exactly when it was created.
CÉZANNE, Paul Still Life with Apples c. 1895-1898 Oil on canvas 27 x 36 1/2 in (68.8 x 92.7 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York Venturi 736
Here, on the other hand, the ultimate romantic image of the creatively possessed artist, toiling away unacknowledged in the service of his art. Cézanne didn't even sign the vast majority of his paintings, much less provide dates for them. This lends an authenticity to his work, evidence of a firmer commitment to the struggle for self-expression with total disregard for the opinion of the rest of the world. Many an art MFA has been gainfully employed attempting to determine the sequence of Cézanne's ouevre.
VAN GOGH, Vincent Branches with Almond Blossom February 1890 Oil on canvas 73.5 x 92 cm F671 JH1891 Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam
So, if Vincent van Gogh is the quintessential "unappreciated in his time" artist, how did this work come to be so precisely dated? Contrary to myth, Van Gogh was extremely self-conscious of his art. His almost daily letters to his beloved brother Theo provide such a detailed discussion of his work that art historians have been able to use them to precisely catalog almost his entire output.
FRIEDRICH, Caspar David Tetschen Altar or Cross in the Mountains 1807-08 Oil on canvas 115 x 110 cm (without frame) Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
Friedrich offers a poignant example of both sides of this coin. In 1807 and 1808, his Tetschen Altar was a critical work in the burgeoning Romantic movement, and was championed in the press of the time by the many literate supporters of Romanticism.
FRIEDRICH, Caspar David Large Enclosure c. 1832 Oil on canvas 73.5 x 102.5 cm Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
A quarter century later, Friedrich had fallen out of fashion. Forgotten by his contemporaries, he retreated to his studio. There, alone, he created his greatest masterpieces...but only Friedrich knows precisely when.
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