"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
July 1, 2013
Drawings of Three Old Men 580 Years Apart
by Lawrence Jeppson

Three drawings of old men intrigue me. One was done 580 years ago. The second, about 165 years ago. The third, 29 years ago.

All were done by master artists.

After much hemming and hawing, I decided to start with the most recent and work backwards. Why? The oldest is the most intriguing, the newest the least mysterious.

After spending a dozen years in Paris, Taiwanese Dr. Tsing-fang Chen came to Washington to participate in a Formosan Independence Protest Rally. That’s where we met and became instant friends, holding forth in French. Not long afterwards, urged on by many of us, he emigrated to New York City with Lucia, his Taiwanese bride he met in Paris.

The Chens moved to a Maryland house in suburban Washington, D.C., where they lived until they decided he needed to be closer to the action. They acquired a townhouse on Wisconsin Avenue, not far from the National Cathedral. It was zoned commercial and already had a display window in front. This became both home and gallery, and I spent much time there.

The Chens decided his art needed to have a stronger New York City presence. They acquired a couple of older buildings in the SoHo area, moved back to the Big Apple, and converted them to a gallery and a cultural center from which Chen’s important international following was spawned.

Before leaving D.C., Chen came out to our Bethesda house and drew my pencil portrait. I recall, his intent was to use it in New York to paint my oil portrait. In the move the sketch disappeared into the Chen files and boxes.

When Lucia found the pencil portrait last year, she gave it to my Manhattan daughter, who sent it to me a few weeks ago.

Tsing-fang Chen, Portrait of Lawrence Jeppson at Age 58.

There is no question about the authenticity of this drawing: I was there when it was done.

This next portrait, Resting Figure with Staff, is also a pencil sketch. It consists of a barefooted, bearded, ill-dressed man sitting on a box and with a bag of what might be his only possessions. Pencil sketch on blue-buff paper, ca. 1845.

Gustave Courbet (attributed to), Resting Figure with Staff

The drawing is signed with the monograph “G C.” When the drawing was given to me by a Paris friend many years ago, it was “attributed to Gustave Courbet.” Courbet’s initials match the monogram.

I went through the 1976 ten-volume edition of the Bénézit Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs, which has tens of thousands of names and brief biographies,  looking for another artist with the initials G. C. and found no one other than Courbet (1819-1877) whose career would fit this drawing.

Is my old man a genuine Gustave Courbet, another author of the same initials, or an outright impostor deliberately masquerading as a Courbet?

The attachment of a genuine name is only of psychological and market value. The more famous the artist, the happier we are with the art and the more it is worth in the marketplace.

But if we can divorce ourselves from the natural man, the social quality and market worth of a work of art should depend only on its intrinsic quality. Forget who did it. Is it good?

This sleeping old man is exquisitely drawn. I refuse to find fault with myself for believing it probably is the real McCourbet.

My third old man drawing poses even greater challenges. It is a finely depicted drawing done in silverpoint, a fine-line medium used before the invention of graphite sticks or pencils for drawing. Van Eyck (1390-1441) might have made the very detailed drawing in preparation for his famous Man in a Red Turban. The pose is the same. The turban is the same. But there are significant differences.

The faces are not quite the same, and the men wear different coats. All artists are apt to make changes between model and finished product. The most astonishing difference is the greater completeness of the silverpoint. This old man has hands, a quill pen, and paper. The oil does not. Was the London painting once larger?

Looking at the silverpoint, several questions pop up. Is the coat the man is wearing of the van Eyck period? Does the quality match the Flemish painter? Is the paper of the period?

When Nat sent me information about the drawing it came with a very long, comprehensive essay of authenticity by a well-known German scholar who specialized in the period. The expert went into comprehensive detail, including analysis of the paper and watermarks. He had no doubt that the drawing was a genuine van Eyck.

Unfortunately, when critics and authorities die, the value of their opinions diminishes or may perish altogether. The probable reason: the scholar is no longer around to be questioned.

Was that certification really his? Had he changed his opinion?

Jan van Eyck, Old Man with a Turban, silverpoint drawing.

Jan van Eyck, Man in a Red Turban, possibly a self-portrait, now in the National Gallery, London.

The silverpoint drawing reputedly came through a modern branch of the Sforza family of Italy, whose progenitor Ludovico Sforza (1452-1508), the first Duke of Milan, was renowned for his art collecting.

The drawing needed more recent certification. Certified, it would be worth a fortune.

My friend Nat Leeb brought the silverpoint to America, and we consulted Adelyn Breeskin, America’s authority on Mary Cassatt, at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of American Art. Previously she had been the Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the first woman in America to head a major art museum.

For best expertise, Adelyn recommended we take the drawing to curators at the Fogg Museum, Harvard University. Off we went to Boston.

The Fogg kept and studied the drawing for a long time before returning it. Paper experts there confirmed that the paper was from the period. They could not say for certain that the drawing was by Jan van Eyck.

Why not? They had nothing against the drawing. But there are virtually no other van Eyck drawings extant to which they could compare it.

Where is the silverpoint now?

What has happened to it?

Who owns it?

I have no idea. I can’t ask Nat. He died two decades ago. But somewhere someone or some museum owns a fantastic drawing that probably was by van Eyck. It may have been so certified in these later years.

Of all the drawings I have ever held in my hands or seen on a wall, this one was my favorite.

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About Lawrence Jeppson

Lawrence Jeppson is an art consultant, organizer and curator of art exhibitions, writer, editor and publisher, lecturer, art historian, and appraiser. He is America's leading authority on modern, handwoven French tapestries. He is expert on the works of William Henry Clapp, Nat Leeb, Tsing-fang Chen, and several French artists.

He is founding president of the non-profit Mathieu Matégot Foundation for Contemporary Tapestry, whose purview encompasses all 20th-century tapestry, an interest that traces back to 1948. For many years he represented the Association des Peintres-Cartonniers de Tapisserie and Arelis in America.

Through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the American Federation of Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, and his own Art Circuit Services he has been a contributor to or organizer of more than 200 art exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Taiwan. He owns AcroEditions, which publishes and/or distributes multiple-original art. He was co-founder and artistic director of Collectors' Investment Fund.

He is the director of the Spring Arts Foundation; Utah Cultural Arts Foundation, and the Fine Arts Legacy Foundation

Lawrence is an early-in-the-month home teacher, whose beat is by elevator. In addition, he has spent the past six years hosting and promoting reunions of the missionaries who served in the French Mission (France, Belgium, and Switzerland) during the decade after WWII.

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