Preventing A Case of Mistaken Identity

written by Beth on November 23, 2012 in Content with 2 comments

Have you ever been the victim of mistaken identity? Or even identity theft? In real life, it’s bad enough. But how about if your identity was mixed up long after your death? It could easily happen, all you need is the same name as someone else and before you know it, your identities are intertwined.

There are many cultural institutions across Europe working on digitising their collections. But it isn’t just about taking a snap of an old painting – along with the image, many details are recorded, such as names, artists, dates, materials, and more information about an object, like for example, who the person in a painting is, and what relationship they have to the artist, or with the painting’s owner.

But how do our digitisers, curators and researchers really know that they’ve got the right information?

Well, Piotr Kopszak of the National Museum of Warsaw asked himself this very question in order to prevent a case of artistic mistaken identity.

Partage Plus is a project that contributes to Europeana by providing digitised Art Nouveau material. One of the items that has been brought into Europeana is this one – a 1911 portrait of Zofia Brzeska by Polish-Armenian artist, Teodor Axentowicz.

Zofia Brzeska, by Teodor Axentowicz, from the National Museum of Warsaw

Brzeska – does that name ring any bells? If it does, you might well be thinking of the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915)?

Here’s a picture of him…

Photograph of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, from Ezra Pound’s book ‘Gaudier-Brzeska’, published in 1916.

And if you know a little about him, you might know that the ‘Brzeska’ part of his name was taken from his companion, one Zofia Brzeska. Zofia was a Polish novelist, twice Henri’s age when they met. Although they never married and had an unusual relationship, each took the other’s surname, both becoming Gaudier-Brzeska.

So, the woman in the picture above is Henri’s Zofia, right? The dates align, Zofia was Polish, the painter was Polish-Armenian, and oh yeah, the names are identical. So it must be.

Or maybe not. Piotr dug a little deeper…

Piotr went back to the inventory of the National Museum of Warsaw to look at the entry for Axentowicz’s painting. Here, he found out that the painting was donated to the National Museum in 1932 by Zofia Brzeska and her husband Jan Żarnowksi. This means it couldn’t possibly by Henri’s Zofia, who died in a mental asylum in London five years earlier, in 1927. So there are two women named Zofia Brzeska, both Polish, both around at the same time in history, but only one a dear friend of Henri. Mystery solved.

As art becomes more readily available and shareable online, it’s easy to make assumptions which are then shared as the information is passed around. Including birth and death dates along with people’s names can really help. Careful research like Piotr’s means two things – one, that the right information goes along with the right image wherever possible, and two, that Henri gets the right girl.