By Tom Martis, MA student in the CMA-CWRU Joint Program in Art History and Museum Studies
Every work of art has a unique story to tell, opening avenues for discussion surrounding a historical period, an artist, certain techniques, or the circumstances of a piece’s creation. The physical history of an object, however, tells a second, parallel story — a story that can remain mysterious and elusive even to art historians and researchers. This aspect of an artwork is known as provenance. An object’s history of ownership, provenance often takes the form of a list of owners and the corresponding years of ownership, dating from the work’s creation to the present day. A full provenance for a piece is somewhat of a rarity, especially for older works; thus these lists often remain incomplete.
The staff at the Cleveland Museum of Art goes to great lengths to complete a work’s provenance. Such research often occurs while the museum is considering acquiring, publishing, or lending a certain piece. The museum maintains high ethical standards for its collection; knowing an artwork’s provenance is the most significant way to ensure that the object is free of an illicit past. The primary moral and legal concerns that most often arise while performing provenance research are the issues of Nazi-looted art or cultural property that was wrongfully obtained.
As an MA student in the CMA-CWRU Joint Program in Art History and Museum Studies, I was charged with compiling a fuller provenance for the museum’s Portrait of Agostino Barbarigo by Paolo Veronese using the resources at Ingalls Library. I worked with Louis Adrean, head of research and programs, Ingalls Library; Leslie Cade, director of museum archives; and Marjorie Wieseman, Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos Jr. Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800.
From the outset, I found provenance research to be profoundly exciting and satisfying. It feels almost like detective work: with nothing more than a list of names and dates, one slowly begins to piece together how the object has changed hands throughout its history. Frequently a lead turns up nothing. A promising piece of information could be a dead-end, while an obscure source may lead to a major breakthrough. Researching the provenance of this portrait was a perfect semester-long project, as there was enough information with which to begin while still having some major gaps to explore. The museum’s provenance for the painting is as follows: Manfrin Collection (1856); with the art dealer H. O. Miethke (1927); bought by the collector Italico Brass (1928); and gifted to the museum in 1928 by Mrs. L. E. Holden, Mr. and Mrs. Guerdon S. Holden, and the L. E. Holden Fund.
To begin my work, I consulted the museum’s curatorial files hoping to find any clues to give my research some direction. The correspondence within turned out to be the most helpful element. A sizable portion of it dealt with establishing the identity of the sitter, who was originally thought to be Manfrin. While the subject of the portrait may have been firmly decided, the suggestion that the painting was a portrait of Barbarigo complicated the provenance. A major impetus for citing the painting as having been in the Manfrin Collection was the supposed fact that the sitter was Manfrin himself. Establishing the sitter as Barbarigo makes this piece of the ownership history slightly more questionable.
After laboring over the correspondence, I found a letter from Italian scholar Terisio Pignatti to the museum stating that he found an 1856 catalogue of the Manfrin Collection that listed a “Ritratto di Onfrè Giust. generale” with dimensions similar to that of the CMA portrait. I then located a copy of the catalogue to cross-reference the information. While a compelling case can be made for these two works being one and the same, this aspect of the provenance remains tenuous. Another hopeful avenue was the correspondence between collector Italico Brass and the then director of the museum, Frederic Whiting. One letter proved to be particularly promising: writing to Brass, Whiting specifically asked if the dealer had any further provenance. Despite looking in several locations, both physical and digital, I was unable to find a response.
While the correspondence may have been exhausted, a few possible leads remained unexplored. The first of these was the painting’s exhibition history. When a work is chosen for an exhibition or to be reproduced in a catalogue, the institution originating the project will typically perform research on the object. Despite having consulted many exhibition catalogues, I found that all published entries on this Veronese portrait confirmed the provenance established by the museum. After having hit a dead end in this line of inquiry, I turned to the transaction between Brass and art dealer H. O. Miethke. If there were an extant record of the sale, Miethke’s documentation may have provided provenance information that had not been noted elsewhere. Reviewing the sales catalogues of Miethke’s collection and investigating the company revealed no new information. More than likely, the sale was a private transaction, and it would not have been reproduced in public records.
Despite the time, energy, and effort expended on this project, I was unable to add anything concrete to the provenance history of this painting. This is not to say that my work was fruitless. First, it was through exploring the portrait’s past that I was able to more firmly substantiate certain parts of the provenance while simultaneously acknowledging its tenuous aspects. More importantly, I gained a deeper appreciation for provenance research. When undertaking such an endeavor, one must resign oneself to the fact that, more often than not, one will not add to an artwork’s provenance. The excitement of learning the intricate history of an object and its surrounding circumstances makes up for any setbacks.