What is Provenance

The post-war work of cataloguing and returning the stolen art
  • This lesson will address one of the major problems faced by the art world since World War II: the issue of provenance. Provenance is the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art. The term comes from the French provenir, "to come from," and is used to describe the origin of an object, along with the history of its ownership.
  • Subject Areas

    Visual Arts, Social Studies, English/Language Arts
  • Objectives

    Students will:
    • Understand what is meant by provenance and provenance research.
    • Research and trace the life of a particular work of art and understand its unique story in relation to World War II.
    • Apply the understanding of provenance to antiquities and ancient cultural heritage.
  • Part One: What Is Provenance?

    Begin by showing students the following clip:
    • The Life of a Picasso
    • video goes here
    This Picasso painting, Buste de Femme à la Chemise, 1922, has been shown very few times. (Note: Maclean calls it Bust of a Woman.) After it was bought by Monsieur Deets, nothing was known of the work. As Maclean points out, there is no knowledge of how it became part of Mr. Gaffe’s collection. The painting was essentially lost for 60 years. How does a work of art become lost? What factors are added by war?

    Few labels are on the back of the Picasso. This provides evidence that it was away from public view or exhibition for a long time. When a work of art is shown at a museum, it is often stamped, or a label is applied when it is on loan. What stamps did Maclean observe when he looked at the back of the work?

    While there are customs stamps and other things to notice on the reverse side of the painting, Maclean says this only gives us "a bit of a clue to the history of the painting." Ask students to speculate on the methods used by art historians, dealers, auction houses, collectors, and museums to further find out about the history of a work of art.

    Explain that they must dig through records and letters and try to rebuild information based on documents. The primary purpose of provenance is to confirm the time, place, and, if appropriate, the person responsible for the creation of a work of art. The subsequent history of its ownership is also an essential component of establishing provenance. Various techniques are used to determine the accurate history of a work. Provenance relies on detective and forensic skills. Written and oral records, comparison, and expert opinion-plus scientific tests used to verify age and the materials used to create a work-may all come into play.

    How We Know the History of Works of Art

    Complete a discussion about the issues raised by the clip and check for student understanding of provenance. Assign each student a separate work of art (suggestions are given below). Provide students with the artist’s name, title of work, and, if available, the museum or collection in which the work belongs. Direct students to conduct Internet research to gather details about the work and to locate any news articles about it. Sources for information may be from museum websites, art organizations, or news media.

    Student reports will include:
    • A brief biography of the artist who created the piece.
    • Key facts about the piece’s creation (especially when and where).
    • Where it has been.
    • Where it currently resides—or whether it is lost or destroyed.
    • Other important details associated with the piece.
    • An image of the artwork accompanied by the source where it was found.

    Instruct students to begin their research by looking at the website of the museum that currently houses the work. If the art piece is listed as in a private collection, students should conduct a general web search on the title and artist’s name. Some museum websites have provenance indices; many museums are trying to resolve the issue of the history of their objects, particularly in relation to World War II.

    Let students know they will each present their research to the class and submit a written report.

    Before launching into research, visit and review as a class the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) website. Look at the Provenance Research Overview for more information about how museums address the issue of history for works of art in their collections.

    The Philadelphia Museum of Art also offers good public information about the circumstances of restituted works or works in question within their collections. Explore the site with the class.

    List of works to assign:

    For the following works, information can be found on the website of the museum that holds the work. Also, check for provenance searches for the following museums.
    Henri Matisse, Bathers with a Turtle, 1908, Saint Louis Art Museum
    Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, 1918, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere
    Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Paul Gauguin, 1888, Fogg Art Museum
    Raphael, Portrait of a Young Man, 1516, Czartoryski Museum
    Oskar Kokoschka, Duchess of Montesquiou-Fezensac, 1910, Cincinnati Museum of Art
    Max Beckmann, The Descent from the Cross, 1917, Museum of Modern Art, New York
    Max Beckmann, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, 1917, Saint Louis Art Museum
    Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922, Museum of Modern Art, New York
    Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de’Benci, 1474–78, National Gallery of Art
    El Lissitzky, Proun 2 (Construction), 1920, Philadelphia Museum of Art
    Marc Chagall, Purim, 1916–18, Philadelphia Museum of Art
    Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, 1926, Philadelphia Museum of Art
    François Boucher, Mercury Confiding the Infant Bacchus to the Nymphs of Nysa and Boreas Abducting Oreithyia, each 1769, Kimbell Art Museum

    The following works can be found in articles on the web. Do a simple search using the artist’s name and title of the work to see what stories are revealed about these works.

    Lucas Cranach the Elder, Adam and Eve, each ca. 1530, Norton Simon Museum
    J.M.W. Turner, Glaucus and Scylla, 1841, Kimbell Art Museum
    Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Las Tres Velas (Three Sails), 1903, Private Collection
    Caravaggio, Saint Matthew and the Angel, 1602, Gemaldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
    Egon Schiele, Krumau Landscape, 1916, formerly Neue Galerie, Linz
    George Grosz, Metropolis (View of the Big City), 1916–17, Thyssen Bornemezia Collection
    Salomon van Ruysdael, Ferry on a River, 1649, National Gallery of Art
    Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading A Horse, 1906, Museum of Modern Art
    Pablo Picasso, Le Moulin de la Gallette, 1900, Amber Room, 1701–09, Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo
    Edgar Degas, Place de la Concord, ca. 1875, Hermitage Museum
    Saloman van Ruysdael, Ferry on a River, 1649, National Gallery of Art

    For the following works of art in the Getty collection, go to the link for provenance information. To get information about the art or the artist, go to the Explore Art Function and type in the artist’s last name.

    Paulus Potter, The "Piebald" Horse, 1650–54, J. Paul Getty Museum
    Paolo Veronese, Portrait of a Man, ca. 1576–78, J. Paul Getty Museum
    Masaccio (Tommaso di Giovanni Guidi), Saint Andrew, 1426, J. Paul Getty Museum
    Pieter Jansz.? Saenredam, The Interior of St. Bavo, Haarlem, 1628, J. Paul Getty Museum
    François Boucher, Venus on the Waves and Aurora and Cephalus, 1769, J. Paul Getty Museum

    Presentation Activity: Create a Gallery
    Every student should have an 8½ x 11 image to display (perhaps mounted on card stock, poster board, or oak tag).

    Display images alongside student reports. If possible, display in a location where other students may see the material and learn about the works of art.

    To include a geography component in the lesson, thumbnails of each artwork can be posted onto a very large map of Europe. The location of the thumbnail can be determined by the place of the artist’s birth or the place it was created. That activity provides a good counterpoint to the places the artworks ended up.

    Following the research and students’ presentations, discuss the following questions:
    • Why is it important for museums to have clear records of provenance on the works in their collections?
    • How easy or difficult was it to track down the provenance of the work you were assigned?
    • What were some of the issues you faced in trying to determine the provenance of the work you were assigned?
    • What impact did World War II have on the provenance of your artwork?
    • What effects did the selling, stealing, and removal of objects during World War II have on the provenance of your artwork?

    • Understanding Restitution
    • video goes here
  • Part Two: Contemporary Issues of Restitution-Antiquities and Cultural Heritage

    Closely related to provenance is "provenience," which archaeologists talk about. Provenience is the exact place an object is found; it is the context that is uncovered as it is excavated.

    There are two ways to remove an object from the ground (or from under water). The first way is to carefully record important information about the context in which it is found. This is done through a controlled excavation. The second way is to remove the object quickly, for the sake of getting it (looting) and to ignore its setting, its relationship to other objects, and other important details.

    When an object is removed from its context it is separated from critical supporting information about the piece. (The same is true of a crime scene when police begin their investigation.) Lost as well is the story the object could tell about the role it had in the material culture of the society to which it belongs. Compare what could be known about a gold necklace, for example, if it’s known exactly where it came, compared with a looted gold necklace. Did it come from a grave? From a palace? From the house of an elite? A looted gold necklace may be beautiful and sought after, but its teachings are shallow.

    To lose provenience means provenance can’t be fully known. Archaeological sites are part of humanity’s cultural heritage. Looting destroys that heritage and creates irrevocable damage.

    Since the dawn of the new century a number of cases have been generated by the Italian government in relation to objects that were looted from ancient sites and then sold to American museums. Research the issues of the restitution of Italian artifacts in relation to the antiquities collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Search for news articles on the Internet in relation to the stories associated with each of these institutions.

    Discuss the following questions:

    • What are the bases for the claims brought against these museums by the Italian government?
    • What have the outcomes been in relation to these cases and the return of antiquities to Italy?
    • What impact have these cases had on other countries seeking the return of objects they deem as cultural patrimony (anything inherited or derived from one’s ancestors)? Look to Greece and its demands that Great Britain return the Elgin Marbles to the Parthenon.
    • Who should own the treasures of antiquity?
    • What right do museums have to hold these objects?

    Look to this link at the New York Times for recent restitution articles.
    • What Happened in Iraq...and What Didn’t
    • video goes here

    Discuss the clip in terms of the ideas explored in this lesson. Draw out additional reactions and discuss. What are some of the challenges for protecting cultural heritage? What are the challenges for raising awareness about its importance?
  • Assessments

    Student assessment draws from an evaluation of student ability to conduct accurate research, meet the goals of the written assignment, demonstrate knowledge of the material during the oral presentation, and class participation.
  • Useful Websites to Support Provenance Research

    National Gallery of Art (Washington DC) Provenance Research
    The Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Standards

    National Council of the Social Studies more info
    II. Time, Continuity, and Change
    III. People, Places, and Environments
    V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

    Language Arts more info
    Writing Standard 4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
    Level III [Grades 6–8]
    3. Uses a variety of resource materials to gather information for research topics.
    Level 4. [Grades 9–12]
    2. Uses a variety of print and electronic sources to gather information for research topics.

    National Standards for Arts Education more info
    Content Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
    Achievement Standard [Grade 5–8]

    • Students describe and place a variety of art objects in historical and cultural contexts.
      Achievement Standard [Grades 9–12]
    • Advanced: Students analyze and interpret artworks for relationships among form, context, purposes, and critical models, showing understanding of the work of critics, historians, aestheticians, and artists.
  • The Greatest Theft in History: Lesson Links

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