An artist’s copybook from the 17th century led its donor, visiting Art History faculty member Perkins Foss, and Penn State colleagues to the discovery of an attribution and the debunking of a family myth.
When Foss donated the book to The Eberly Family Special Collections Library in the fall of 2013, he didn’t know the book’s significance until he examined it closely along with Robin Thomas, associate professor of art history, and Sandra Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts.
Foss acquired the book when his grandmother died in 1969, and he inherited the library of her late husband, Pennsylvania artist William Henry Kemble Yarrow (1891–1941).
A student of Thomas Hart Benton in the 1920s, Yarrow was born in Media, Pa., and trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. When he moved to Florence in the 1920s to paint, he also began collecting books, including the particularly rare one that Foss donated to Penn State.
“In those days you would go around to these little curio shops and find things of interest, and he had a good eye,” said Foss. “It’s what is known as a copybook, one that enables an artist to literally copy gestures as well as details of such elements as hands, eyes and mouths. In all too many cases, such books end up in the hands of dealers who will cut them up, frame them individually and sell them each for great sums,” he explained.
According to Thomas, when he saw the book, he immediately recognized its significance. “I knew it was special because the vellum cover had splotches of paint on it. You could tell it was well-used and well-loved, and that itself speaks of a remarkable history.”
He continued, “On the frontispiece, which is dedicated to the Duke of Mantua, in very small letters is the name Johannus Francilus Barberius Centen. It didn’t ring a bell immediately because it was in Latin and wasn’t a familiar artist’s name. So we started leafing the pages, and I see this head turned in three-quarters profile with this great coif of hair, and I immediately know that it’s Guercino’s Samson Captured by the Philistines from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.”
A scholar of the Italian Baroque period, Thomas—who spent a year at the Met as an Andrew W. Mellow Fellow—went online and immediately found the painting with the head from the copybook.
“So then the mystery started to unravel,” Thomas said. “I thought Centen from the frontispiece may mean the town of Cento, and there’s only one famous artist from Cento, and that’s Guercino. The thing is that Guercino is a nickname meaning squinty-eye, and you can see in his self-portrait in the National Gallery that he had a squinty eye,” he explained. “He’s one of the top five painters of the Italian Baroque and had connections with engravers. He was an artist/businessman, and his personal account books survive.”
According to Stelts, Thomas is not just an art historian, but a “book person.” “He brings his classes to Special Collections and asks his students a very important question: who was this book made for?”
In the case of Foss’ book, it was made for artists. “Princes and libraries didn’t collect them,” said Thomas. “It’s a miracle that it survived, and we are so fortunate that it did, and that Perk donated it to the collection.”
Stelts said the Special Collections Library has a tradition of collecting these types of artist manuals. “This one is very rare. In fact, it is one of only five books like it in Worldcat’s Library Database. The other four are at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harvard University, the Boston Athenaeum and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Only one other copy has both sections bound together as one piece like ours, and it is in the National Gallery,” noted Stelts.
Discoveries like this don’t happen everyday, explained Thomas. “This is one of those experiences that you can only have at a research university where people with different specializations come together to share their expertise.”
Ever the art historian, in the process of researching Yarrow and his copybook, Foss accidently debunked a family myth about the artist. “Yarrow painted the murals in the Princeton University gymnasium in 1936. The largest commission in his life, they suffered a tragic fate when the gym burned to the ground in 1946. The story was that he died of a broken heart when the gym burned. It turns out it didn’t burn down until four years after he died,” explained Foss. “We had to face the fact that sometimes a story gets shifted around over time, and we were all a bit disappointed by that.”
To view a gallery of the copybook in the Special Collections Library, visit http://bit.ly/PerkinsFoss.