What's wrong with this picture?
May 24, 2014 10:49 AM   Subscribe

I recently saw this painting of Mrs. Isaac Stern by Jules Lefebre at the Museum of the City of New York. If you zoom in on the necklace and brooch, you'll see that they appear to have been painted in black and white. I'm a rank amateur and even I can see this and what a mistake it is. They don't fit with the rest of the painting, and the necklace in particular seems to float rather than resting on her skin. Is there a story behind this? Googling brought up a jewelry site which vaguely mentioned "it is thought" that the jewelry may have been added later, but doesn't cite a source. I'm very curious why someone who could afford to commission such a lovely portrait would allow it to be practically vandalized in this way.
posted by bunderful to Media & Arts (13 answers total)
Is it known that the artist had definitely finished? Could it have been a grisaille underpainting or dead color layer for the jewelry that was never completed?
posted by mdrew at 10:57 AM on May 24, 2014

Have you tried contacting a curator at the museum? They'd probably have the most information on it.
posted by suedehead at 11:06 AM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

It could be a matter of deterioration depending on the paint colors used. But contact a curator, for sure. Maybe there's an interesting story, or maybe it's just your aesthetic judgement and others disagree.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:13 AM on May 24, 2014

Yeah, I don't see it. It just looks like a crystal brooch and pearls, and the pearls look like they have some very artful shading and painted-in skin tone reflection on them.
posted by The Michael The at 11:29 AM on May 24, 2014 [16 favorites]

I don't know that there is anything wrong with the painting. Most works of art are meant to be viewed from a certain distance away and not "zoomed in" on. I do this on occasion when I visit a museum or gallery, I walk straight up to the artwork (as close as allowed) and try to see the the "brushwork" or pigments etc...I then have to remind myself that the artist most likely didn't intend the work to be viewed from that close and I take a few steps back.
posted by eatcake at 12:04 PM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not seeing it either. It's probably just not meant to be viewed that close up. From a short distance it looks like a relatively realistic depiction of gemstones.
posted by CheeseLouise at 12:05 PM on May 24, 2014

The fan and gloves are in a similar "greyscale only" style, which makes me think it was a deliberate choice in order to depict silvery colors in a piece where gold, pink, and cream tones are predominant. Which, OK, maybe that's a "mistake", in sort of an art direction or costuming sense, but in technical terms it looks to me like the painter did a completely fine job of depicting a somewhat unusual color combination.

It's not a mistake, it's just that the eye expects someone wearing such warm tones to accessorize with other "warm toned" items.
posted by Sara C. at 12:39 PM on May 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seems consistent with his other versions of pearls.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:50 PM on May 24, 2014

This commenter notes that the pearls were thought to be added by the painter at a later date, perhaps because they were a favourite gift she wanted to include in the portrait.
posted by jonathanbell at 2:57 PM on May 24, 2014

It doesn't appear to be a mistake to me. The pearls in particular have skin tone reflected on them and they have shadows painted under them. The "floating effect" you talk about is probably a reaction to the relative brightness of the pearls in the shadowed area of the neck, but if you look at black & white photos of women wearing pearls you can see that they appear quite bright and luminous compared with the rest of the skin and clothing.

The brooch is crystal/diamond, which has no color and doesn't tend to pick up surrounding colors the same way other things do. Mary wearing her crystalline/diamond tiara in Downton Abbey is decent example of this.
posted by xyzzy at 3:02 PM on May 24, 2014

It looks perfectly fine to me. I suspect you're framing your interpretation from modern, photography-as-record viewpoints that don't work well for something that was produced over a period of time, sometimes with a generic body/outfit before the head is added, and frequently enough altered later on. Essentially the painter would work until the sponsor approved (and paid).

I mean, it's great that as an amateur you can see aspects of technique, but I think your amateurism also shows in characterizing it as a mistake or vandalism (!). There are only so many things you can do with pigments, which unlike photographs, have three-dimensionality and all sorts of characteristics such as direction of brush stroke, reflectivity, transparency/opacity, and on and on. Ultimately this may show the technological limitations, from our point of view, but it doesn't impugn the work in any way to observe this.
posted by dhartung at 3:11 PM on May 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Looking at the painting, I see what you're referring to, but at a distance (and I am guessing in the weaker light available at the time), it could have made the pearls stand out in a way that classic brushstrokes wouldn't. I remember a passage in Edith Wharton (I think in The Custom of the County?) where an artist is described as being "the only man who could do pearls properly." It's possible that this sort of a heightened style (or some other, by another artist) is the method or trend she was referring to.
posted by Mchelly at 7:51 PM on May 24, 2014

Neither the pearls nor brooch is painted in only black and white. Perhaps using a different monitor/screen would show a fuller range of color. Also, photos of paintings are not really as good simulacra of the actual painting as we like to think. Keep in mind that this was painted and viewed under very different lighting than we have these days as well.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:54 PM on May 25, 2014

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