The Allendale Nativity - connoisseurship and controversy

December 23, 2011

The subjective nature of assessments made towards authorship of artworks has been an enduring controversy. In an age before technical examination played an increasing role in art analysis, a specialised mode of visual analysis served as the key means of determining the author of a piece. This method, known as connoisseurship is still a central component in art analysis today. The history of this mode of examination is not without its disputes.

Among the most famous cases of disputed authorship concerns the painting now known as the Adoration of the Shepherds. Prior to a catalogue publication in 1979, it was referred to as the Allendale Nativity, in reference to it being previously owned by the Allendale family in Yorkshire, England.

Although not derived from the Allendale family collection, three other paintings seen to be related to the Allendale Nativity were hence referred to as the Allendale Group : the Benson Holy Family and The Adoration of the Magi, now at the National Galleries in Washington and London respectively, and the Vienna version of the Adoration of the Shepherds.

An unfinished Giorgione or a later copy? The Vienna Adoration

Among the most enigmatic and fascinating areas of study in Renaissance art revolve around Titian's early years, which are reported to have involved a period of collaboration with Giorgione. As is the case in much of our perception of the era, the descriptions in Vasari's Lives serve as a general foundation for our knowledge. This area of study holds something of a magical allure - and is particularly attractive to commentators with a predilection for the visually oriented fields of iconography and connoisseurship. As the records from this period are vague to the point of being inconclusive, a semblance of a final statement can only be reached by viewing and testing the objects themselves, and others like them - either from the same period or by the same artist(s).

In the case of the Allendale Nativity, a clash of opinions occurred between Joseph Duveen, a prominent British art dealer, and Bernard Berenson - a pioneer in connoisseurship. This allows a fascinating case study on the subjective aspects of connoisseurship, highlighting a dilemma which affects the art market and academic attribution research to this day.

Adoration of the Shepherds
National Gallery Washington inv. 1939.1.289
90.8 x 110.5cm
Oil on poplar
Listed as an autograph work by Giorgione at the National Gallery Washington

Attribution history
The authorship of the Allendale Nativity was a matter of great debate between critics, art dealer Joseph Duveen and connoisseur Bernard Berenson. Keen to secure its purchase and resale to a prominent American collector, Duveen promoted the panel as a Giorgione. The reasons for this seem only partly related to the critical opinion on the piece ; correspondence between Bernard Berenson and art collector Duncan Phillips reveals that one of the interested parties, the Mellon Trust, already had three Titians and would be less interested in another. It was hoped by Duveen and supporters of the Giorgione attribution that Berenson could be made to acquiesce to Giorgione's involvement, "no matter how little". (Samuels) In 1957, Berenson shifted his attribution to Giorgione, with elements by Titian. Current consensus argues for Giorgione as sole author of the Washington piece. More recently, Giorgione specialist Professor Jaynie Anderson submitted the Vienna Adoration as an unfinished version created at the same time.

Stylistic - theme and compositional style
Scenes depicting the Adoration of the Christ child are common in Renaissance art. As reported by Emile Male, the history of scenes depicting the Nativity are likely have origins in the Eastern Churches, with examples seen across the Middle Ages in Coptic and Byzantine images. 

Encaustic Nativity icon c.7-9th century. St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt

Iconographically, a manger depicting the Holy Family, with Christ in swaddling clothes is a constant - as are representations of an ass and oxen. Those paying tribute to Christ vary, with variations of the Magi or shepherds depicted, this theme being adapted from Biblical and extra-Biblical sources. Male, further clarifies,

The representations of the Nativity and the bringing of the good tidings to the shepherds correspond so exactly to the most solemn moments of the Christmas festival, the midnight mass and the mass at dawn, that further comment is unnecessary.

Although its original patron is unknown, the small dimensions of the Allendale Nativity suggest it was intended as a private devotional piece, rather than an altarpiece component. The most significant stylistic consideration in this instance is the composition, divided into three key areas - the cave and pastoral scene in the background, with the Nativity group in the foreground. The mode of colour used and the dominance of landscape have resulted in a Venetian author to be most commonly identified, usually to Giorgione, young Titian or Sebastiano del Piombo. The dominance of the cave is noteworthy, with supporters of the Giorgione attribution often demonstrating parallels seen in the Three Philosophers.

Documentary sources
Among the great difficulties of studies devoted to early Titian and Giorgione is a scarcity in documentary evidence. Of the archival materials reported for this piece, neither is entirely conclusive, requiring a degree of extrapolation by commentators. Anderson in particular has made much use of the letter to Isabella d'Este in 1510, sent in response to her request to track down a Giorgione painting depicting a night scene, or notte. This action was taken with the knowledge that Giorgione had passed away and this "very beautiful and unusual" work may have remained in his workshop.

In his response, Taddeo Albano, acting on her behalf in Venice reported Giorgione had created two night paintings, but these were already with their respective owners. The letter also describes these works as being in a disparate state of completion:

Most illustrious and honoured Madama mia,
I have spoken in your interests to some of my friends who were very intimate with him, and they assure me that there is no such picture among his possessions. It is true that the said Zorzo painted a notte for M. Taddeo Contarini, which, according to the information which I have, is not as perfect as you would desire. Another picture of the notte was painted by Zorzo for a certain Vittore Beccaro, which, from what I hear, is finer in design and better finished than that of Contarini. But Beccaro is not at present in Venice, and from what I hear neither picture is for sale, because the owners have had them painted for their own pleasure, so that I regret I am unable to satisfy Your Excellency’s wish.
[November 8, 1510]

Anderson interprets this as being a reference to two versions of the same painting being produced - which she surmises to be the Vienna and Washington variants of the Adoration respectively. (see also technical analysis below).  This has not been met with universal approval among scholars. Although Nativity scenes were often depicted at night, this is not suggested in either version of the Adoration. Notably absent are depictions of a night sky or stars, or a mode of lighting or warmth often seen in such scenes. Correggio's well known later Adoration is popularly described as La Notte, but it is distinctly a night scene, with the Christ child itself an illuminating source. No such effect is seen in the Allendale or Vienna versions. More discernible in the Washington version, the rendering of shadows on the figures is also consistent with the sky in the left portion of the painting being the light source.

Correggio's Adoration in Dresden, also known as La Notte c.1528-1530

Prior to 1845 Unknown via documentary sources

1845 Sold by Cardinal Joseph Fesch [d.1839], Rome

1847 Sold by Claudius Tarral, Paris

Allendale Family Ownership. Bretton Hall, Yorkshire, England 
1847 Purchased by (Banting) for Thomas Wentworth Beaumont [d. 1848]
by inheritance to son WB Beaumont, 1st baron Allendale [d.1907]
by inheritance to son WCB Beaumont, 1st viscount & 2nd baron Allendale [d.1923]
by inheritance to son WHC Beaumont, 2nd viscount & 3rd baron Allendale [d.1956]

1937 Sold to Duveen Brothers, Inc., London

1938 Sold by Duveen to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York

1939 Gifted by Kress to the NGA

Visual and technical analysis (formerly reported as connoisseurship)
Anderson reports that the underdrawing of the Vienna version is closer to the final design of the Washington version. X-ray analysis indicates more lead white underneath present blue. X-ray and Infrared photography demonstrated the undersurface of river bank structure in Vienna variant is noted as being similar to Washington version, although final expression of Vienna version is different on the surface. Anderson clarifies,
The underdrawing revealed by the infra-red reflectograph of the Vienna Adoration is especially important on the Vienna panel, for it is indeed characteristic of underdrawing of other paintings of the Allendale group. The contours of figures are drawn with the point of a brush or in larger strokes in a liquid ink, at time heavily expressed even to the point of clumsiness. The lively extemporization in both versions seem to have been painted side by side in the early stages, there is no evidence to suggest that the Vienna version is a copy of the Washington one. There are pentimenti in Vienna, and the pentimenti suggest that this is another version of the Adoration made commonly with the Washington version, but for some reason never finished.
While also acknowledging Anderson's findings, the 2006 catalogue accompanying the Washington exhibition offers a different perspective,
The general relationship between the Washington and Vienna paintings is easy to ascertain: the latter is indeed a copy of the former, though a somewhat unusual one...After taking over the composition  the author of the Vienna version then went on to rework it... as in the case of the tree with a rounded top on the left, which has been transformed in the copy into two slender insubstantial saplings. Thus there can be do doubt that the Vienna version comes after the Washington one and imitates it, though it has been difficult up to now to establish how much time separates the two.
In these instances "scientific analysis" is offered with a degree of surety that suggests the interpretation of these findings is uniform across observers. This unfortunately can not be said with any degree of confidence, as appraisal of the elements such as mode of drawing and temporal relationships are still a highly subjective exercise. Past and contemporary scholars have, not surprisingly, expressed a feeling that the Vienna version is a workshop, or later copy even as far forward as the seventeenth century. In this instance some dating evidence on the panels in question may be more revealing.

 The Allendale Nativity. Top: X-radiograph Bottom: Infrared reflectograph

Suggesting dates from IR scans and X-ray results is an exercise in interpretation that may not produce consistent results between observers. Cross-sectional analyses of pigment and ground layers, including chemical comparison may prove more useful to verify the common timeline theory. In the 2006 catalogue for the NGA exhibition, some further insights are given in a section dedicated to Venetian artists' technique by Oberthaler and Walmsley,
The version in Vienna...was attributed to Giorgone very early. The painting is usually judged to be unfinished, but its damaged condition complicates this issue. Furthermore, the relationship between the two paintings has never been fully clarified: Did they emerge simultaneously? Is one a copy? Superimposition of tracings of the paintings shows a close, almost total, correspondence of the two compositions. Although underdrawing can barely be detected in the infrared reflectogram of the Vienna picture, a pentimento seen with infrared reflectography and x-radiography shows the tree on the left in the Vienna painting was originally very much like the one in Washington; this supports the idea that the two works emerged simultaneously.

In the same catalogue, further insights are provided into Giorgione's technique, revealed via cross-sectional analysis of pigment samples. Whilst used to great effect in demonstrating Giorgione's use of layering of different coloured pigments in the Allendale Nativity, there was unfortunately no direct cross-sectional comparison made to the Vienna piece. As noted by Berrie and Matthew,

Artists even began to change the color entirely from one layer to the next, painting pink or red glazes under glazes of ultramarine, as seen, for example in the Virgin's mantle in the Adoration of the Shepherds ("Allendale Nativity")...

A clearer position on the common source for the Washington and Vienna versions may be suggested  by comparisons of this type made across sections of each piece.

Evolution in mode of reporting
There has been a steady rise in scholarship dedicated to Giorgione, with recent exhibitions and publications of catalogues attempting to account for new technical data. It is fascinating to note the evolution of reporting for contested attributions. Noting the above reports from modern catalogues, let us compare this statement by Berenson in correspondence with Duncan Phillips,
I am convinced that I could persuade you that though the Allendale picture is as Giorgionesque as you please, it has no touch of Giorgione's own hand...My proofs? They are in my own head...[and] cannot easily go into words, for they come from that sixth sense, the result of fifty years' experience whose promptings are incommunicable.
This was accompanied by a reported five pages of analysis. Even acknowledging the benefits of hindsight, and modern access to better images and technical data, we must still puzzle at the confidence with which observers make their statements, often written as fact. Berenson was himself to modify his attribution for the Allendale Nativity, giving it to Giorgione in 1957, noting the "Virgin and Landscape probably finished by Titian". (Samuels)

Berenson in the Villa I Tatti gardens in March 1911

As my own exploration into the mode of reporting of attributions deepens, the gaps between evidence presented and the convictions held by those presenting them seem problematic. It is one thing to believe in your work, it is another thing to be able to reproduce its result and convince others of its validity. Less interested in the social history of an artist or documentary sources, Berenson's approach focused directly on the object. Berenson seemed most fond of the method applied by Giovanni Morelli, a trained physician and connoisseur with a penchant for judging the quality of artists from their skill and consistency in rendering anatomical features. Although his famous lists of attributions have not proved infallible, Berenson's legacy is significant, with the Harvard Villa I Tatti center outside Florence still devoted to Renaissance Studies.

The future of connoisseurship?
A consideration of where connoisseurship fits within the study of art history is a hot topic today, and an increasing point of public interest as seen on shows such as the BBC's Fake or Fortune. The difficulty in navigating documentary, technical and visual factors seems to advocate for a specialised mode of training that incorporates the benefits of art historical knowledge with the acute visual and technical awareness of a conservator. This needs to be coupled with a sound methodology that enables less assumption and more certainty based on a higher degree and quality of compared factors. The evolution of this field is promised via ongoing technical advances and key publications clarifying new methodologies. 

Recommended reading
Those interested in learning more about the meaning and iconography of the Allendale Nativity are invited to read the delightful follow up post at Giorgione et al by Dr Francis P. DeStefano link

Adoration of the Shepherds. NGA Washington website. Provenance data. Accessed 23 December 2011 link

Anderson, J. entries for the exh. cat. Giorgione. Myth and Enigma. ed. S. Ferino-Pagden and G. Nepi Scirè. 2004. pp.173, 202-205

Berrie, BH, Matthew LC. Venetian 'Colore' - Artists at the intersection of Technology and History.   Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting (exh. cat). Brown, DA, Ferino-Pagden, S et al. Yale University Press. 2006. pp.302-304

Brown, DA, Ferino-Pagden, S et al. Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting (exh. cat). Yale University Press. 2006. pp.116-120

Cartwright, JM. Isabella d'Este - Marchioness of Mantua. J. Murray. 1903. pp.390-391 link

DeStefano, FP. Due Notte. Giorgione et al. Accessed December 23 2011 link

Male, E. Religious Art in France in the Thirteenth Century. Dover. 1913. p.179 link

Nelson, RM, Collins KM. Holy Image, Hallowed Ground - Icons from Sinai. Getty Publications. 2006

Oberthaler, E. Walmlsey, E. Technical studies of painting methods. Brown, op.cit.  pp.295-296 link

Samuels, E. Bernard Berenson - The Making of a Legend. Harvard University Press. 1987. pp.432-439

Image notes
Washington Adoration - high resolution version available via Kress Collection link
XR/IR/Cross-sectional Scans via exhibition catalogue (see Brown in refs)
Vienna Adoration - via wikimedia commons link
Three Philosophers - sourced via wikimedia commons link
Benson Holy Family - high resolution version available via Kress Collection link
Adoration of the Magi - high resolution version available via National Gallery London link
Correggio's Adoration/La Notte - via wikimedia commons link
Berenson at I Tatti image - via wiki link

3PP would like to thank Dr. Francis P. DeStefano for his generous sharing of resources used in compiling this report, and Dr. Edward Goldberg for his kind assistance and advice.


Dr. F said...


Thanks for another careful and comprehensive post. As far as attribution is concerned it seems as if scientific analysis has not shed much light on the painting.

Stylistically, Giorgione has moved the Holy Family off-center and the shepherds approach from the left. Joseph wears a golden cloak as a sign of his royal lineage.

It's amazing that Albano knew exactly what Isabella meant by "notte," but no one has been able to figure it out since. When Isabella received a Nativity from Giovanni Bellini she put it in her bedroom, not in her camerino.


Unknown said...

Cheers Frank - and thanks again for your valuable assistance - my own library on Giorgione is not as complete as on Raphael!

The scientfic modalities available in art history rarely take us to an actual author - they are more often than not better at excluding pieces from a disparate time period, with the detection of materials in pigment not known to exist at the time in question, for example.

There would be some value in a cross-sectional comparison of a few samples from the Washington and Vienna panels. If there were consistencies in application of paint/glazes and their constituent materials, it would go some way to support Professor Anderson's common origin theory. From the resources I had access to, I could not determine that such a comparison had been performed.

Interestingly, the Vienna version has a much earlier known provenance, being noted in the Della Nave collection in the 1630s, and hence acquired by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, explaining its eventual location in Vienna of course. It was likely captured by David Teniers in his amazing record of that collection, though I havent been able to spot an image of it yet.

Kind Regards

Alberti's Window said...

This case study seems to be a particualrly interesting example of Duveen vs. Berenson. That quote by Berenson about his "sixth sense" is quite interesting, too. Did you get a chance to read Berenson's five pages of analysis? I would be interested to know a bit about his reasoning and arguments. Is it based on composition? Or color?

Unknown said...

Hi M! Ive only seen selected quotes of the "five pages". From what I did see, composition and colour were of course large components.

From an authorship perspective, its value is debatable, especially given the Berenson did a full 180 degree turn on his estimation of Giorgione's involvement!

Kind Regards

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