Monday, July 7, 2014

The Mars and Venus painting mystery

Monday, July 7, 2014
Wikipedia image here
Loretta reports:

Even Nerdy History Girls take artistic liberties. This is in addition to unfortunate accidental liberties—because, as I’ve said many times, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

In the case of the Botticelli Mars and Venus, initial sleuthing showed me that it would not have been hanging in the British Institution in 1835.  But this painting, which kicks off Vixen in Velvet, was in my mind early in the book’s creation, and nothing else would do.  And then, as I dug a little deeper, it turned into one of those tantalizing historical mysteries.

You’d think, for instance, the subject matter would be obvious, but it wasn’t, as I soon discovered:
“This long narrow panel was probably originally intended to adorn the top of a doorway in one of the Medici palaces or villas, and remained in Florence until it came to England in the Barker collection some fifty years ago.* At the sale of that collection, in 1874, it was bought by the trustees of the National Gallery, acting under the advice of the newly- appointed director, Sir Frederic Burton.”

If you read the rest of the entry, you’ll discover the alternative interpretation of the subject matter. 

But who was Barker?  Another mystery.  Barker is a common enough name, and I didn’t know his first name.  So imagine my excitement to find news of the sale to the National Gallery:
Read at source here
And here’s an account of the sale:

“June 13, 1874

“Sandro Botticelli was well represented, especially by a beautiful series from Boccacio, for which Mr Barker paid 4,000l
., but only two examples were purchased by Mr Burton—viz. the Mars and Venus Reclining with Cupids, and the Venus Reclining with three Amorini pelting her with Roses, the prices respectively being 1,050l. and 1627l.10s. These were the last lots purchased for the nation.”

By this time, apparently, Botticelli was coming back into fashion.  Mr. Barker might well have bought his works when they weren’t such hot commodities.  This would explain why he lent other paintings to exhibitions, but not, apparently, the Botticellis.  I wonder if that explains why the work isn’t mentioned here, in the Collection of Pictures Belonging to Alexander Barker, Esq. (Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain 1854)

I’m not an art historian, and there’s a limited amount of time I can spend on peripheral research—so I hope some of our historical experts can tell us more about the intriguing Mr. Barker.

*about 1854


Unknown said...

I love art mysteries and was particularly interested in learning more about this painting since I'm currently reading your book. Did some digging and found this on Alexander Barker:

Unknown said...

Also found this blog post discussing the painting as well as the mysterious Mr. Barker...

Regencyresearcher said...

Fantastic, Jill. I couldn't find an obituary nor anything about the man except that an Alexander Barker lived at 103 Piccadilly and had esq. after his name.
A previous London directory did find a bootmaker and a banker. I would have thought he was of the family of the banker because of his wealth.
Otherwise, all the references I found discussed the man's collection but not his occupation or life.

Elinor Aspen said...

Thanks for showing us the beautiful painting. I'm currently reading Vixen in Velvet, and I was curious about it (but hadn't yet looked it up myself).

LorettaChase said...

Excellent sleuthing, Jill! Thank you! I now know more than I did! And I feel a little better, knowing that the Vespucci blogger, with all those resources, remained mystified.

Anonymous said...

Alexander Barker, ca 1797- d.1873

Nationality: British
Date of Birth: 1797 ca
Place of Birth:
Date of Death: 1873.10.24
Place of Death: Hatfield near Doncaster


Alexander Barker was a collector and member of the Burlington Fine Art Club. He was the son of a fashionable London bootmaker.


Barker was a member of the committee of the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1867 when JW was expelled on account of a quarrel with his brother-in-law Francis Seymour Haden [#10054]. He was not among those who voted in JW's favour [#12959]. Barker's address at this time was 103 Piccadilly.

Following Barker's death, a sale for the paintings in his collection was held by Christie's in June 1874. He had a huge collection including French furniture of all periods, English and Continental ceramics and porcelain, Venetian and German stained glass, bronzes and carvings in wood, ivory and crystal. His paintings included Giovanni Bellini's Virgin and Infant Saviour with SS Peter and Helena, Botticelli's Mars and Venus (National Gallery, London) and four of his cassoni panels illustrating the Story of Nastagio degli Onesti from Boccaccio's Decameron (Museo del Prado, Madrid), Piero della Francesca's Nativity (National Gallery, London), Luca Signorelli's Triumph of Chastity: Love Disarmed and Bound (National Gallery, London) and eight canvases by François Boucher depicting the Arts and Sciences (New York, Frick).

Anonymous said...

Source for the above: The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK

Anonymous said...

It appears the Barker also worked with the Rothschild family, viz,

"From circa 1852, the interior decoration of Mentmore was directed by Alexander Barker (d. 1873), the celebrated antique dealer and collector with a 'taste that was as fastidious as it was good' ('Bric-a-Brac, a Rothschild's Memoir of Collecting', Apollo, July & August 2007, p. 60). The house was sumptuously furnished with extraordinary works of art in every field, much of which was supplied by Barker to compliment the 'regal tone of the goût Rothschild' (John Fleming, 'Art Dealing in the Risorgimento II', The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 121, No. 917, August 1979, p. 505, footnote 77). Ferdinand de Rothschild, the Baron's nephew, referred to Barker and the importance of his contribution to the furnishing of Mentmore as 'having purveyed most of the fine works of art' in his autobiographical account of dealers and collectors, Bric-a-Brac ('Bric-a-Brac, a Rothschild's Memoir of Collecting', p. 60) and it is possible that the present example, originally a set of four, were acquired by Barker for Mentmore."

Source: Christie's Sale 8048/ Lot 100

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