369 Art twins

Like the conjunctions of stars and planets, artists can become aligned so closely that you can’t see the difference between one and another. When that happens, the result can be greater than the sum of the parts. Schwartz looks at two Italian and two Dutch pairs of artists who entered into bondings of that kind.


James Somers reported in The New Yorker on 10 December 2018 that in March 2000 Google was facing likely doom –

burning through its funding into oblivion. […] In October, its core systems, which crawled the Web to build an “index” of it, had stopped working. Although users could still type in queries at google.com, the results they received were five months out of date.

The system, and the company, were saved by the research of a pair of programmers named Sanjay Ghemawat and Jeff Dean. They discovered that the fault lay not in the code, where everyone had been looking for half a year, but in the hardware. Somers phrases things cautiously:

When a supernova explodes, the blast wave creates high-energy particles that scatter in every direction; scientists believe there is a minute chance that one of the errant particles, known as a cosmic ray, can hit a computer chip on Earth, flipping a 0 to a 1.

He does not say that this actually happened, only that “Working ninety-hour weeks, [Ghemawat and Dean] wrote code so that a single hard drive could fail without bringing down the entire system.” It took a few readings before I realized disappointedly that Somers was fudging the key factor, that the programmers had not found the cause for the malfunction but only came up with a workaround to neutralize its effects. I still don’t know whether exploding supernovas are out to flip the bits on my smartphone.

But that was not the main point of the article. Under the title “The friendship that made Google huge,” Somers profiles the work relationship between the two men. They were so close that they actually worked at one computer together, with Sanjay typing and Jeff backseat-driving.

Although developers sometimes talk about “pair programming”—two programmers sharing a single computer, one “driving” and the other “navigating”—they usually conceive of such partnerships in terms of redundancy, as though the pair were co-pilots on the same flight. Jeff and Sanjay, by contrast, sometimes seem to be two halves of a single mind. 

Somers cites books on this kind of creative partnership: Michael P. Farrell, Collaborative circles: friendship dynamics and creative work and Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of two: finding the essence of innovation in creative pairs, where the joint efforts of artists come into discussion.

During the six-year collaboration that gave rise to Cubism, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque would often sign only the backs of their canvases, to obscure which of them had completed each painting. (“A canvas was not finished until both of us felt it was,” Picasso later recalled.)

I read the article on my tablet in bed on a three-day trip to London. That afternoon Loekie and I went to the National Gallery to see the exhibition on Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1435-1516), and there, lo and behold, were a Sanjay and Jeff of the quattrocento. This gave me the chance to check the twinning thesis.




Andrea Mantegna, The agony in the garden, ca. 1455-56
London, National Gallery
Giovanni Bellini, The agony in the garden, ca. 1458-60
London, National Gallery

The classic comparison is of their two Agonies in the garden, in which Bellini inhabits the spirit of his older colleague (and brother-on-law). Agony – is paragony also a word? They took each other as paragons, through decades to come, in spiritual as well as stylistic terms. The innovation they co-created – allow me to get away with myself for once – was a melding of the forms of classical antiquity with the sanctity of Christianity and the illusionary power of descriptive art. They set a standard to match, but no one attempting to do so understood the mix of values of their work, none had their sensitivity to mystery, their feeling for numinousness.

Andrea Mantegna, The presentation in the Temple, ca. 1454
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
Giovanni Bellini, The presentation in the Temple, ca. 1470-75
Venice, Pinacoteca Quirini Stampalia

My favorite of their paired works, for their evocation of the tenderness and tragedy of mortality, is of the Madonnas below. These comparisons indeed suggest that Mantegna and Bellini can be seen as two halves of a single mind, as much as their eyes and hands may differ. 


Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and sleeping Child, early 1460s
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Andrea Mantegna, Madonna of the cave, ca. 1488-90 Florence, Uffizi

The knee-jerk art-historical reflex is to emphasize the differences between the two, which I think is a pity.

That reflex doesn’t work, however, in some later artistic twinnings that have long intrigued me. The Google story stimulated me to look for whatever turbocharging they may have furthered.


Giorgione? Titian? Sleeping Venus?, 1508? 1511? 
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie!

The question marks in the caption say enough. Towards the end of the cruelly short life of Giorgione (1477/78-1510), his artistic personality was so intertwined with that of Titian (1485/90-1576) that even contemporaries were unable to distinguish them from each other. From The dictionary of art:

The Notizie (notebooks) of the Venetian patrician and connoisseur Marcantonio Michiel, compiled between 1521 and 1543, and containing descriptions of the most important private art collections in Venice, provide the most detailed and reliable source of information on the work of Giorgione. […] the Sleeping Venus is generally identified with a picture attributed by Michiel to Giorgione, but of which he said that a figure of Cupid (now overpainted) and the landscape were completed by Titian; a minority of critics, however, attribute the work in its entirety to Titian.

The innovation of the poetic Giorgione and the sensuous Titian in this stunning painting was to take seriously the erotic power of the goddess of love. They took away her usual attributes while giving her an irresistibly tempting body and a dream life who wouldn’t want to share. Blurring the boundaries between divinity and humanity, imagining and portraying, they lost track of the boundaries between each other.

There are many uncertainties in attribution that do not involve this kind of far-reaching symbiosis. (Master-pupil relations often create authorship conundrums, but here we are talking about the interaction of equals.) The next instance of that degree of intimacy that haunts me is the relation between Rembrandt (1606-69) and Jan Lievens (1607-72) about the year 1630.


Rembrandt? Lievens? Old woman with scarf: the artist’s mother? ca. 1630
Great Britain, Royal Collection

This painting has a gilt-edged attribution, as few old masters have. “On the back is the CRbrand of Charles I and a label recording that it was […] presented to Charles I by Sir Robert Kerr [as a Rembrandt] some time before 1633, when he was created Earl of Ancrum.” (Christopher White, in his catalogue The Dutch pictures in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen [1982].)

In a royal inventory finished by 1639 by a compiler who knew his onions it is listed thus:

Oliver Millar, “Abraham van der Doort’s catalogue of the collections of Charles I,”
Walpole Society 37 (1958-60)

This did not keep the Rembrandt Research Project, after respecting the historical attribution reluctantly in volume I of A corpus of Rembrandt paintings, to remove it from his oeuvre in volume II and give it to Jan Lievens, an opinion shared by others. You can see the problem by looking at these two paintings from the same time, each by one of them.

Rembrandt, Old woman praying, ca. 1630
Salzburg, Residenzgalerie
Jan Lievens, Old woman, ca. 1629-30
Kingston, Ontario, Agnes Etherington Art Centre

This is a far from unique case. There are other paintings, even more drawings and believe it or not etchings as well that cannot be attributed to the one or the other young master with complete assurance.

What did Rembrandt and Lievens hatch out of their special tie? Nothing very poetic or even technical. It was more a fighting spirit that kept both of them working at the top of their game for the rest of their lives.

The last example is the closest pair of all, the husband and wife Jan Miense Molenaer (1610-68) and Judith Leyster (1609-60).


Jan Miense Molenaer, Boy with cat, ca. 1635
Epinal, Musée Departemental des Vosges
Judith Leyster, A boy and a girl with a cat and an eel, ca. 1635
London, National Gallery

As their marriage in 1636 approached, Judith’s subjects and style crept further and further in the direction of Jan Miense, while his work took on characteristics of hers. Judith had been active as an artist since 1629, but her stream of signed works came to an abrupt end in 1636. A sentimental explanation could say that her loving husband did not want her to have to work any more, and freed her for household and children. But Jan Miense Molenaer was not that kind of guy. He was a selfish sleazeball always walking away from debts he incurred and inciting accusations of cheating, lying and bullying, up to and including physical violence. A relatively mild case in point was an auction that he held in 1636 at which the grand prize was won by his mother. When that year he married the most talented woman painter of the seventeenth century in Holland, he will have wanted not to relieve her of the drudgery of the studio but to get the most out of her capacities. And that “most” lay in her ability to paint pictures that could be sold as Jan Miense Molenaers. The highest known price paid in her time for one of her paintings was eighteen guilders; for his one thousand.

There is no doubt in my mind (in this I am not alone, but some colleagues disagree) that after her marriage Judith Leyster continued to paint – to paint Jan Miense Molenaers, even if only in part. She became one of the many woman artists whose achievements were subsumed under the name of a more famous man. The upshot of the creative collaboration between these two was exploiting to the max the bankability of a hyped reputation.

Which of the values engendered by these inventive pairs had the greatest impact on the subsequent history of art? I’m afraid it was Jan Miense Molenaer and Judith Leyster’s.

© Gary Schwartz 2018. Published on the Schwartzlist on 30 December 2018.


This column is dedicated to Isabel Bader and to the memory of her husband Alfred Bader (1924-2018), who died on 23 December. For his accomplishments and his significance for art history and museums, see https://hnanews.org/dr-alfred-bader-1924-2018/. One of the many donations of the Baders of Dutch paintings to museums is the painting of an old woman by Jan Lievens, illustrated above, to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1941 Queen’s accepted Bader, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, as a student. His gratitude in later years was expressed in myriad donations and endowments.

With his attachments to Dutch art, to art history, museums and Judaism, and with the intensity with which he pursued his interests, Alfred meant a lot to me.

In the same week, I lost – I feel it as a personal loss – Amos Oz. In 1958-59 I lived in the Jerusalem he evokes so movingly in A tale of love and darkness, one of the books of my life.

At year’s end, I hope that you, like Loekie and me, can look back with little regret and look forward with eager anticipation.


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1 thought on “369 Art twins”

  1. Pissarro and Cezanne. Girtin and Turner. Van Gogh and Gaugin, for a while. Valloton and Vuillard, to a degree.

    It’s a fascinating topic because it speaks to a pattern that is actually remarkably frequent. There are also other instances from computing: Gates and Allen, Jobs and Wozniak, Brin and Page. Thanks for raising this.

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