The Blue Blot

notes, finds & fragments of research

All in good Order ~ An Example of the Importance of describing Portraits (the details, dammit!)


I do wonder about the current quality of research and documentation as presented by auction houses in their catalogues. Or is it no longer of any importance? – that can also be the case. I see it more and more. First it was just with the catalogues of the smaller and local auction houses. I have an anecdote about a small auctionhouse in the Netherlands that managed to describe the portrait of a lady from the upper class, dressed in the fashion of the late 18th century with a lace bonnet and fichu, as ‘portrait of a house keeper’. I was not sure whether to laugh or cry, however, had I been able to decide it would have been done in an equally hysterical style.

And now I see it with the more renowned houses too: Bonhams!
In the upcoming auction with pieces from several European collections, there is one particular portrait that caught my attention. I will explain why but, as I am making a rather ranting point here, let me first show you the dear lady, and quote the given description from the catalogue.


German School, 20th Century | Portrait of a lady, half-length, in a pink dress | oil on canvas, 92.2 x 68.2 cm (oval) | lot 63 in the auction ‘European Collections’ by Bonhams London (Knightsbridge) on December 14th, 2016

ad there not been a thumbnail picture, I would not have guessed that she actually looked like this. And there’s my point: There are consequences attached to this description. As a researcher of history in general, but especially because currently I am trying to reconstruct an 18th century art collection, I tend to use the internet a lot to trace old paintings and portraits. Sometimes I have to deal with very little information to start with, but, luckily, with a bit of creative thinking and research, I have been able to trace quite a few of them. But with a description as given above you will not find the lady as she is ever again.

Granted, there is supposedly a year 1903 somewhere – it could be a 20th century copy, or even an original for that matter. But seriously, this portrait clearly depicts a lady from the first half of the 19th century. And, also, who gives a tinker’s damn about the fact she is wearing a pink dress. It’s nice to know for a buyer if they are looking for something to match the new sofa, but when there is a description to be given about this portrait, the dress does not prevail over the rest – and absolutely not as the main feature. She is merely dressed in this because of the common practical decency of dressing, presenting her fashionable taste, and pink is clearly her happy colour.

Why not mention that impressive lace headdress and the hairstyle along with it?
And, oh, just a thought; the rampantly present orders, perhaps?!

for one immediately noticed that pinned to her leftshoulder, suspended from the characteristic black ribbon, is the badge of the Austrian Sternkreuzorden (in English: The Order of the Starry Cross). Only after being drawn to that, did I notice the white-and-purple ribbon and rosette with the badge of the Spanish Réal Orden de Damas Nobles de la Reina María Luisa (in English: The Order of Queen Maria Luisa). By the depiction of these orders, along with a bit of knowledge (or research) you can easily deduct:

1 | This lady is from the high nobility
To be elligable for the Sternkreuzorden one needed to be of a purer kind of nobility. The main requirement: All sixteen great-great-grandparents of noble blood. And if the lady was married, she had to prove it for her husband too. Furthermore, it was only handed out from the rank of countess.
And the same goes for the order of Reina María Luisa, one needed to be of the Spanish and high nobility. Especially in the beginning the requirements were guarded, as awarded ladies (and their husbands) received the protocol treatment of ‘Excellency’.

2 | She is probably not a member of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, but more likely to be so of the Spanish nobility
Firstly: The depiction of her Sternkreuzorden is not fully correct. It lacks the white wreath on top with the text ‘Salue et Gloria’. This can be considered a mere detail but the ladies of the Austro-Hungarian nobility were very precise on this particular order; as it proved they were of the highest birth and position, and therefore were elligible to be received at court. When looking at the portraits of those ladies you notice that they always wear it correctly and it is depicted correctly. Furthermore: Her badge is quite clear and therefore it is apparent that hers does not show any diamonds, which means she’s not of the highest native ranks, and probably foreign. Had there been diamonds on her own badge, they would have been painted.
Secondly: Because of her membership of the order of Reina María Luisa she is, seen to the members of that order, likely to be Spanish. And, moreover, there are more Spanish ladies who wear both orders on their portraits – the Spanish courtiers were more than once found in Vienna.
It’s a double confirmation to be of the highest catholic nobility. She could, of course, also be of another nation – but the chances of her being at least part-Spanish, are rather high.

I will not go to such length in proving my point, that I’m going to research which ladies in the time of this portrait were a member of both orders, start comparing faces and perhaps find something about the distinctive necklace; all things that could be of help to identify her.

But, dear people of Bonhams, could we now please alter her description to something more suitable? So that she can at least be traced and found in the future by researchers, curators, and others who might be interested? In advance, and also on behalf of this dear lady with the very daring look in her eyes: Thank you so very much.


One comment on “All in good Order ~ An Example of the Importance of describing Portraits (the details, dammit!)

  1. Matteo Giunti
    April 19, 2018

    Love this article and agree with you 200%

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