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Unraveling the Mystery of the ‘Laughing Boy’ Painting

In late December, Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) received word that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had awarded the institution a $350,000 grant to continue work on its Art Tracks project. After the celebrations died down, and we took a breath, we realized that we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Art Track’s mission over the last year and a half has been to build software tools to turn provenance texts—the lists of previous owners usually found at the back of an exhibition catalogue—into structured data. We’re doing this so that we can use provenance to ask better questions about the collection, and to learn new things about it. Turning provenance into structured text means that all of the pieces of data that make up a provenance record, like owners names, acquisition methods, and dates, are all recognized as being the same pieces of information across all records. That way you can compare a name to a name, a date to a date, a place to a place, and ask more detailed questions like, “Which artworks were in France in 1920?” across all 30,000+ records. To do this, lead developer David Newbury built a series of software libraries and a user interface for writing provenance that we’re calling Elysa (the name has a reason, which is a story unto itself). If you want to look under the hood, all the code is available at the CMOA GitHub account.

The next phase will be funded for two years. We’re keeping the band together—and probably taking it on tour. David Newbury will keep pushing us forward on the technology front; Lulu Lippincott will be our font of knowledge for, well, pretty much everything; Costas Karakatsanis will carry on his tireless pursuit of provenance; Travis Snyder will keep our source of truth at its truthiest; and Neil Kulas will be our institutional helmsman. Your humble author will continue filing software bugs, sanity checking data, noodling in research, and other sundry tasks.

This second phase of Art Tracks is focused on spreading our software tools, workflows, and standard across the industry. And to do that, we’re using the collection—actually, collections—as a conduit.

Thomas George Baring, 1st Earl of Northbrook (1826–1904). (Courtesy of Mayo College/Wikimedia Commons)

For Lulu’s spring 2017 exhibition, a group of works once owned by a single family emerged that reflected the themes she was exploring. We’ll be looking at the Baring family, later to include the Earldom of Northbrook, of which Thomas George Baring was the first. For brevity, however, we just refer to the project as the Northbrook collection.

This collection is remarkable in a few ways. First, it was extensive. Secondly, it included artists of many schools as opposed to focusing on one area, movement, or artist. Third, it is exceptionally well-documented, owing to the family’s banking wealth and role in the British colonization of India and British political system. Since most works in the show will come from CMOA’s permanent collection, we were pretty surprised to find six seven (more on that strikethrough shortly) Northbrook works in our collection.

You’d think, given a size, lengthy description, provenance, and sometimes an image, that it’d be a walk in the park to track down pictures. Well, a lot happens over 126 years, including artworks slipping off into private collections, burning in fires (at least two that we’re aware of), drastically changing attributions, new titles, and restoration/conservation/overpainting.

When we submitted the grant, I had successfully located about a third of the works from the catalogue, and had stumbled across another hundred plus that were not listed in the catalogue but had been in the collection of a member of the Baring family at some point. Not too shabby, I thought, and so at the end of June I put that to bed.

Once we were awarded the NEH grant, it was time to revisit my massive spreadsheet. So I fired up the world’s most glorious invention, the Internet Archive, and searched for the Northbrook catalogue again. In the 78 results for Northbrook there are three separate versions of the 1889 catalogue, one uploaded by the California Digital Library, and two from the Getty Research Institute. Until this point, I had just been using *a* version of the catalogue, assuming it hadn’t mattered. But for some reason, I clicked on a version of the catalogue that had been uploaded by the Getty on October 15, 2015. I started from the back of the catalogue, intending to work my way in reverse through my spreadsheet…but I started to notice that there were an awful lot of annotations. Annotations that I had never seen before. Annotations that seemed terribly descriptive and wonderfully specific related to dates of sales, and owners.

Unknown Italian, Shepherd Boy with Recorder, ca. 1700–1720. Carnegie Museum of Art, J. Willis Dalzell Memorial Collection, bequest of Mrs. J. Willis Dalzell.

Annotations are a provenance researcher’s Holy Grail. If you’re lucky, they were made contemporaneously with the catalogue, sometimes by the person whose stuff was being sold. If you’re Powerball lucky, they were written legibly. If you’re “don’t stand next to me in a thunderstorm” lucky, they’re accurate, legible, and the annotator is identified. Reader, this is the latter scenario. The Internet Archive metadata recorded the annotator as none other than Sir Ellis Waterhouse. There’s no restrained way to say it—this is a very big deal.

I pulled Lulu into my office and showed her the catalogue, and she was elated. We’re always concerned with the accuracy of information, and Lulu informed me that Sir Ellis was the most trustworthy of trustworthy sources. Going on that, I went on my merry way, joyfully mining Waterhouse’s notations to located works I had previously been unable to find.

And then came 231, “Laughing Boy,” supposedly by Murillo. My early research had tentatively identified this painting, owned by the National Trust in the UK as being 231. The picture seemed right subject-wise, but there were problems. The dimensions were off by enough to be concerning. The published provenance seemed to definitely preclude it from being in the Northbrook collection. It was on canvas, whereas the Northbrook work was on panel. I had emailed the curators of Mompesson House, and was awaiting correspondence but assumed the silence was the opposite of a confirmation.

But Waterhouse’s annotation triggered a “it’s coming from inside the house!” moment. Beside the entry was a crystal clear annotation of “Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh.” How could that be? We’ve gone through our database and our works pretty thoroughly. Surely I would have seen a Murillo boy with some pan pipes that was owned by a powerful British aristocratic family. Perhaps Sir Ellis is mistaken?

But I had no time to investigate because I had to be in an Art Tracks bi-weekly meeting to discuss the future of the project. So I took a screen capture, printed it, and sprinted to the meeting. In the meeting, someone asked how many works from the Northbrook catalogue we owned. “Six,” the crowd replied. “Actually, can we talk about that after the meeting?” I said.

Detail of Sir Ellis Waterhouse’s annotation. (Image via Internet Archive)

Concluding our meeting, Lulu and Costas came to look at my print out. Lulu couldn’t recall seeing the painting, and the description didn’t fit any of our known unknowns. We roped in David and the four of us adjourned to Lulu’s office to chew over the question.

We dove into the collections database with fuzzy searches. We searched deaccessioned items. We searched loans. We searched by Murillo, school of Murillo, circle of Murillo, “boy,” “laughing,” “pipes.” Nothing. We were beginning to despair that Sir Ellis could indeed be fallible, or that something had happened with this painting before the era of electronic databases, in which case, locating it would be very, very difficult.

Costas then took a different approach and searched the dimensions of the painting as recorded in the catalogue. That yielded a smaller field of paintings. And then there he was. Accession 29.2.16, bequeathed to the Department of Fine Arts of the Carnegie Institute (now CMOA) by Mrs. J. Willis Dalzell.

The attribution has been demoted from Murillo to “unknown Italian,” and the title has changed to Shepherd Boy with Recorder. But the dimensions and materials match. The composition follows the description. And when we pulled the paper file for this work (remember how fun those are?), we knew the Northbrook connection was solid. The file contained document after document confirming the provenance. So why hadn’t I been able to find it in the first place?

Ellen Baxter, chief conservator at Carnegie Museum of Art, examines the painting Shepherd Boy with Recorder, pointing out a problem area to provenance researcher Costas Karakatsanis and collections database associate Tracey Berg-Fulton. When the painting was recently taken out of storage to aid Art Tracks research, Baxter had to repair several lifting flakes of paint near the center of the canvas. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Well, part of that is a bit of a digital blind spot. The electronic museum collection database is a fairly new invention. CMOA migrated its card catalogue information to our first database, somewhat ominously called the VAX, in the early 1990s. When Shepherd Boy was migrated, the provenance read “The Donors, Pittsburgh.” And when we migrated away from VAX to KE-EMu, our current software, in the early 2000s, the same scant provenance from VAX was copied over, with no mention of Northbrook.

Because Shepherd Boy with Recorder was last exhibited in 1954, its paper file and the provenance therein hadn’t come to the surface yet. It’s a bit like a Christmas present you hid last December reappearing in July. We’ve now got tons more documentation and research to go through, photographs to take, conservation needs to assess, and an attribution to research. Costas has already given Shepherd Boy with Recorder a much fuller and far more accurate provenance.

Label that appears on the back of the frame for Shepherd Boy with Recorder. (Tracey Berg-Fulton/Carnegie Museum of Art)

So, we have 6 7! works from the Northbrook catalogue, and thanks to Waterhouse’s meticulous documentation, and the efforts of the library community to digitize these things, we’re able to find other Northbrooks in other collections.

The plan is to use these identified works from the collection to test our software and to try to tell the story of a distributed collection. All works have at least one common provenance party (the Baring family), but where else have they been together? And how did they get to their current home? What are the events—economic, political, and personal—that make those collections come together and break apart? Who knows what we’re going to find, but we’ve got a great start.

Art Tracks is an ongoing series that explores Carnegie Museum of Art’s software development project of the same name, which turns provenance texts into structured and discoverable data. To read past installments, visit the archives.

  • Tracey, Thanks so much for this fascinating story. I had the privilege of having lunch at Ellis Waterhouse’s home in 1979 and seeing his astounding library. He was a legendary book collector and bought whole libraries. There are stories of him wiring successful bids to London while traveling in Egypt or elsewhere. He had converted his garage to a library with a professional-quality multiple stack system (he didn’t drive so he could devote the space to books rather than cars). We climbed ladders to get from one level to another. He was in a three-piece suit and no doubt I was in my usual trashy hand-me downs. He also had an encyclopedic memory, and a visual memory to match, so it didn’t surprise me that he would remember this relatively obscure painting and that it was housed in the Carnegie Institute. Congratulations on the grant and keep up the good work!

  • Will

    Many thanks for sharing this story and congratulations on making such a meaningful contribution to art scholarship with ArtTracks. As a former employee, if my memory is reliable (a dubious proposition), there was an earlier step in the provenance of the collections management system data in its journey from paper files to its current state. Prior to the VAX, there was the Wang. As I recall, the museum registrars were already keying basic collections data into the Wang when I started working there in 1985. I believe the Wang project was the brain child of the early-adopter director at the time, Jack Lane, and not much loved by the overworked registrars of the day.

    How information migrates and potentially changes from medium to medium and platform to platform over time would be an interesting subject for some nerdy grad student to research some day. In addition to transcription errors, the way that data is rendered, and perhaps interpreted, can shift in subtle ways as data models, metadata standards, terminology, and museum practice evolve. Digital images can be inadvertently reversed or inverted or misfiled. There is also a phenomenon similar to the Google effect (if it’s not on the internet in the first page of search results, it may as well not exist), in which one comes to rely on the database as as the go-to immediate pathway to information, perhaps overestimating how much of the paper-based record has actually been entered by one’s predecessors.

    But I digress. Your project admirably brings the fruits of your rigorous efforts into the digital world, where it can be studied and mined and trusted by researchers everywhere. The NEH is to be commended for funding it. My hat’s off to you and the team.