Art research leads to surprising results

Jessica Meis ’19 removes a Sonnenschein collection drawing from its mount so that she can photograph the drawing discovered on the back.

One of the most successful Cornell Summer Research Institute 2016 projects came from the Department of Art and Art History.

During their 10-week project Jessica Meis ’19 and Steven Coburn ’18, in collaboration with art history professor Christina Penn-Goetsch, examined the college’s Sonnenschein art collection.

The collection was put together by Edward Sonnenschein and his wife, Louise, in the 1920s and 1930s. It consists of 58 European drawings from the 16th to the 19th century, largely done in Italy and France, with others from England, Holland, and the United States. It was given to Cornell by their son, Robert, sometime in the 1950s, says Penn-Goetsch.

In 1997 Cornell engaged a Chicago firm to do an assessment of the collection. The resulting report included an overview of each piece, along with an estimate of its value.

Significant discoveries

digital liberal arts research project resulted in some surprising and significant discoveries about the artworks.

“What our research found were some major mistakes in the assessment,” Penn-Goetsch says. “Some works were misattributed and misdated. The students carefully recorded the watermarks on the paper and cross-referenced them with a catalog of known watermarks of the period to learn the date and place of the drawing’s creation. It was a classic example of research in art history.”

Steven Coburn ’18 and Jessica Meis ’19 take pictures of Sonnenschein collection drawings that will be uploaded to the website.
Steven Coburn ’18 and Jessica Meis ’19 take pictures of Sonnenschein collection drawings that will be uploaded to the website.

Among the surprises was a drawing of Saint Sebastian that was misattributed or vaguely attributed to “an imitator of Guido Reni,” a famous Italian painter who lived from 1575 to 1642. Meis discovered it was actually done by Simone Cantarini, who lived from 1612-1648. She also discovered that Cantarini used the same model in other drawings.

Penn-Goetsch is currently working with Meis and Coburn as they prepare a physical and digital exhibition of the collection, set to run from March 26 to April 19 in McWethy Hall’s Peter Paul Luce Gallery.

“It’s very rare for students in their second year of college to curate any kind of exhibition,” Penn-Goetsch says, “and even more so when they’ve done such meaningful research on the images.”

WEB EXTRA: See a video on the Sonnenschein Collection project.