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Two developments in the no-show Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi saga

The art world is like no other. It goes its own way. It makes (and sometimes breaks) its own declared rules. Politicians scarcely dare touch it. Lawyers do well on it. It is often averse to disclosure and transparency and it is always full of surprises: since our 18 September post, there have been two spectacularly dramatic developments concerning the marketing and the appearance of the (still un-exhibited) Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, which work appeared from nowhere in 1900 and has now rocketed from a $750 appraisal to a $450 million sale and elevation to the Louvre in barely a decade.

How? The most effective way to improve a picture’s standing and value is to change its appearance in the names of “conservation” and “restoration” – the sanctified procedures that facilitate the “discoveries” on which new evaluations may stand. In effect, restored works are new works that have shed old selves and reputations, thereby inviting re-appraisals in a new milieu. In technical parlance “conservation” is the overall process of transformation commonly described in quasi-medicalese as a “treatment” following state-of-the-art “diagnostic” technical analysis. The term “restoration” got a very bad reputation: when this Salvator Mundi was being downgraded from Luini to a Boltraffio copy, picture restorers had been dubbed “picture rats”. It is now confined to describing the late stages of conservation where conservator/restorers pick up brushes and paint towards the “recovery” of art historical authenticity. With this particular Leonardo upgrade, the changes of appearance were protracted and under-reported. Even less examined or reported were the picture’s geographical art market origins.

In “How the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi became a Leonardo-from-nowhere” we noted failed attempts by journalists, authors and researchers to identify the auction at which the Salvator Mundi had reportedly been sold for $10,000 to a “consortium” – which is not a “ring” – of buyers who had bid by proxy in 2005. How, in the world’s most technically advanced society in our digitalised era could records of a public auction and an auction house itself disappear? We asked of the picture:

“How had it been listed? Who sold it? When? Where? Many have searched and no one has found answers but this serially redone as-if-from-nowhere work has been sold twice already – with a different face of Christ each time – for a total of over half a billion dollars”

We noted that despite its unverifiable origins, this Salvator Mundi had been showcased as a Leonardo by the National Gallery in 2011-12 and then sold privately the following year by Sotheby’s for $80 million to the owner of a string of freeports who immediately sold it on to a Russian oligarch for $127 million. That sale was made under a nondisclosure agreement which, somehow, was back-dated by the vendors to include the identity of the auction house from where the picture had been bought eight years earlier. In 2017 after further (covert) restoration it was sold by Christie’s, New York, for $450 million. We asked if the initial 2005 opacity on ownership had passed through the National Gallery and into the art market because, on 9 October 2011, the Sunday Times had reported:

“For a few weeks in London you will be able to see the Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) up close. It might be your only chance. Much of the painting’s history remains obscure. Its ownership is a closely guarded secret. Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, is representing the owner or owners – the official line is it is a ‘consortium’. Why all the secrecy? ‘It’s just privacy and security’, says Simon, ‘One doesn’t want people knocking on the door.’”

PERSISTING ART MARKET OPACITY

Six years later, by courtesy of super-diligent investigations by both a newspaper and the author of a forthcoming book on the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, many answers have emerged on the 2005 sale (see below). At the same time, a long-running legal dispute over the manner of the Salvator Mundi’s 2013 New York private sale has flared into a legal action against Sotheby’s in the U.S. As Bloomberg and The Art Newspaper report (“Billionaire Slaps Sotheby’s With $380 Million Lawsuit”; and “Russian billionaire Rybolovlev sues Sotheby’s for $380m in fraud damages”), it is claimed in a New York lawsuit that the Salvator Mundi’s 2013 buyer, Yves Bouvier, had been materially assisted by Sotheby’s in what Rybolovlev describes as the “largest art fraud in history” by acquiring paintings at lower prices than he represented before selling them to Rybolovlev at unduly marked up rates, fraudulently pocketing millions for himself.

Rybolovlev’s widely reported legal action in New York against Sotheby’s, New York, for $380 million of damages, specifically charges the auctioneers with having knowingly and intentionally bolstered the plaintiff’s “trust and confidence in Bouvier and rendered the whole edifice of fraud plausible and credible” by brokering certain sales and inflated valuations.

Above, Fig. 1: Reports of the Rybolovlev v. Sotheby’s action carried by the Times and the Daily Telegraph on 3 October 2018.

SOTHEBY’S DEFENCE

The Antiques Trade Gazette reports that Bouvier’s legal representatives declined to comment on the latest case (“Sotheby’s refutes $380m fraud claim filed in New York court”). Where Rybolovlev had believed Bouvier to be negotiating with sellers on his behalf in return for a commission, Bouvier’s legal representatives claimed that because there had been no written agreement appointing Bouvier as an agent to Rybolovlev, their client had “acted as an independent seller transacting at arm’s length with Rybolovlev”. However, as the Art Newspaper reports, in addition to spectacularly large mark-ups, Bouvier was indeed charging Rybolovlev a commission fee: “some of the works in question include Gustav Klimt’s Wasserschlangen II (1904) which Bouvier bought in 2012 for $112m before selling it to Rybolovlev for $183.8m plus $3.6m in commission”. The Art Newspaper also reported earlier pre-emptive auction house moves to stymie Rybolovlev:

“Sotheby’s jointly sued Rybolovlev with Bouvier in Geneva in 2017 in order to block a lawsuit the Russian oligarch was planning to file in the UK. Since then, however, Rybolovlev has been granted the use of confidential documents from Sotheby’s to build his case by a New York court. The complaint filed in Manhattan on Tuesday yesterday likely stems from this development, though the documents remain publicly undisclosed.”

This is a case of potentially enormous importance in a trade that was traditionally conducted on gentlemanly agreements within a single country but now increasingly straddles borders around the globe. If, for example, the U.S. courts should find in favour of Rybolovlev, would the consortium of vendors who sold privately for $80million in 2013 under a non-disclosure agreement (only to see the painting resold immediately for $127 million), also have a case against Sotheby’s, New York? Certainly, as Professor Martin Kemp alludes in his latest book, Living with Leonardo, a sense of grievance resides in that quarter:

“In November 2016, an article in The New York Times reported the latest developments: three ‘art traders’ (Robert Simon, Warren Adelson and Alexander Parrish) were disconcerted to find that painting was ‘flipped’ by Bouvier for $47.5m more than their selling price. Was Sotheby’s a knowing party to the resale? The auction house claimed that it was not, taking pre-emptive legal action to block any law suit by the ‘traders’…”

THE FORMERLY UNDISCLOSED 2005 AUCTION HOUSE SALE

Previously, we have chided Kemp for seeming to make light of the fact that no visual record existed of the picture either when sold at Sotheby’s, London, for £45 in 1958 or at some untraceable place in the U. S. in 2005:

“Given that we do not know the identity of the 2005 vendor or the venue of the sale and given the still sticky varnish then present on the New York/Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, it could be useful to establish the identity of the previous owner who might well have information on previous restorations and photo-records of the painting from 1958 onwards.”

The next day (19 September 2018), The Wall Street Journal reported its discovery of the 2005 sale location (“How a $450 Million da Vinci Was Lost in America —and Later Found”). The hugely informative article by Denise Blostein, Robert Libetti and Kelly Crow, raises further questions – but first, it also carries an important reproduction of the painting when framed and on offer in 2005. This new image can now be set in its historic context.

THE SALVATOR MUNDI’S EXTENDED, EVER-MORPHING, VISUAL NARRATIVE:

Above, Fig. 2: A detail from the catalogue to the 9-10 April 2005 sale at the St. Charles Gallery auction house, New Orleans, showing a work to be sold from the estate of a Baton Rouge business man Basil Clovis Hendry Sr.

It is clear – even on the small scale, low-resolution catalogue photograph above – that the painting’s appearance had changed considerably at some point (or points) after the earliest known photograph when in the Sir Francis Cook collection (Fig. 3, below, left). Unfortunately, the 2005 vendor has yet to speak and we do not know whether any changes to the painting had been made while in the Cook collection, or by Sotheby’s (London) ahead of the 1958 sale to “Kuntz”, or by the Kuntz family and relatives at some point between 1958 and 2005.

Above, Fig. 3: Left, the photograph of the painting when in the Cook collection and judged to be a work of Bernardino Luini; right, the former Kuntz family and then Basil Clovis Hendry Sr. estate painting, as in the 2005 St. Charles Gallery catalogue.

With this new photo-record the extent of successive restoration transformations in the painting’s 1900 to 2017 journey from a Luini to a $450 million Leonardo can better be appreciated.

In Fig. 4, above, in the top row we see, successively: 1) the c. 1900 Cook collection photograph; 2) the 2005 New Orleans sale catalogue photograph; 3) the painting as when taken in 2005 (still sticky from some recent activity) to the New York studio of the restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini; and, 4) the 2007 record of the painting after it had been stripped and had its panel repaired. Aside from areas of total paint loss, how much of the original paint surface had been lost? If hardly any at all, as was once claimed, why so much subsequent repainting? If the original surface had been much-abraded, was due acknowledgement made of the extensive subsequent artistic changes on a single restorer’s judgements and painting? (The brushes used for this extended repainting were offered on Ebay but failed to sell.) Had all bidders in 2017 been aware of the extent to which the restorer distressed her own extensive new painting so as to confer a spurious impression of antiquity to it? (See below.) How many who bid for this painting in Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales were aware of the ratio of old to new paint?

In the second row above at Fig. 4, we see successively: 5) the painting in 2007 after Modestini’s first campaign of restoration repainting and when about to be taken to London for examination at the National Gallery by a select group of Leonardo experts who had been sworn to confidentiality; 6) the painting in 2011 after its second campaign of restoration and as exhibited at the National Gallery for the first time as a Leonardo in the gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition; and, 7) in November 2017, as sold at Christie’s New York, for $450 million after a further (covert) campaign of restoration in which the globe and the draperies at Christ’s left shoulder were radically changed.

It is not known whether the painting had been restored in 2012-13 after the National Gallery exhibition and before the opaque private sale at Sotheby’s, New York. In December 2017 (after the painting had been sold for $450 million) Christie’s, New York, acknowledged that the work had undergone further restoration by Dianne Modestini ahead of the November 2017 sale (see Dalya Alberge, “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years” and our “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is”.)

THE STRIPPING-DOWN AND REPAINTING METHOD USED ON THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI PAINTING:

“The initial cleaning was promising especially where the verdigris had preserved the original layers. Unfortunately, in the upper parts of the background, the paint had been scraped down to the ground and in some cases to the wood itself. Whether or not I would have begun had I known, is a moot point. Since the putty and overpaint were quite thick I had no choice but to remove them completely. I repainted the large missing areas in the upper part of the painting with ivory black and a little cadmium red light, followed by a glaze of rich warm brown, then more black and vermilion. Between stages I distressed and then retouched the new paint to make it look antique. The new colour freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image. At close range and under a strong light the new background is obvious, but at only a slight remove, it closely mimics the original…Most of the retouching was done with dry pigments bound with PVA AYAB. Translucent watercolours, mainly ivory black and raw siena, were used for final glazes and to draw [false age-] cracks…”

The above account of the repainting was delivered at a conference in the National Gallery, London, during the 2011-12 Leonardo in Milan exhibition, by Dianne Dwyer Modestini. It was later published as “The Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered History, technique and condition” in 2014 in “Leonardo da Vinci’s Technical Practice – Paintings, Drawings and Influence”, ed. Michel Menu, Paris. It covers only the first six years of restoration up to 2011 and the National Gallery exhibition. So far as we know, no accounts have been given of the subsequent restoration work.

THE WENCESLAUS HOLLAR ETCHING PROBLEM

When this particular Leonardesque Salvator Mundi was included in the National Gallery’s Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition and catalogue it was, as previously shown, presented as the original autograph Leonardo prototype for all of the other versions. In support of that claim, this version was held to have been a Leonardo painting in the collection of Charles I that had (probably) passed down from the French royal descendents of King Louis XII, who, it was suggested against contrary evidence, had commissioned Leonardo to produce the picture. As previously seen, it is now counter-claimed – again on no evidence – that although the painting had not passed down through the French royal family, it had been appropriated by Charles I from the Hamilton collection. In addition to the disintegrating provenance that buttressed the Leonardo endorsements of the National Gallery, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s between 2011 and 2017, there remains the plain visual objection that the Louvre Abu Dhabi painting is simply not consistent with Hollar’s 1650 etched copy of a Salvator Mundi painting then taken as a Leonardo.

Above, Fig. 5: Successively, from the left: 1) Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1650 engraved copy of a painting believed to be a Leonardo; 2) the 1900 Cook collection painting when attributed to Luini; 3) the former Cook painting when offered for sale in 2005 from the Hendry estate; 4) the former Cook/Hendry painting when restored by Modestini and exhibited in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 Leonardo show; 5) the painting in 2017 when further restored by Modestini and sold by Christie’s, New York.

SECOND TIME LUCKY

The Cook/Kuntz/Hendry painting is not the first of the score or so Leonardo school Salvator Mundis to be attributed to Leonardo himself. As previously discussed, the so-called de Ganay Salvator Mundi (below, left) was attributed to Leonardo in 1978 and 1982 and it enjoyed a greatly more plausible French lineage.

Above, Fig. 6: Successively from the left: 1) the de Ganay Salvator Mundi; 2) the Hollar 1650 etching; 3) the Cook/Kuntz/Hendry Salvator Mundi which emerged without history in England in 1900.

The compositions of neither painting above are entirely consistent with that of the Hollar copy but the de Ganay version comes closer in a number of crucial respects: its Christ has much greater sculptural presence and pictorial lucidity; its (true) left shoulder drapery has a more angular, less rounded configuration; its long, downwards-tapering, heavily bearded face is an altogether more prominently assertive feature within the painting (- and clearly was not designed to sink into the kind of “out-of-focus” aerial recession as characterised and applauded by Martin Kemp who takes this quasi-photographic effect as a confirmation of Leonardo’s hand in the Abu Dhabi picture); and, on a small but highly expressive detail, the corners of the mouth are more upturned.

As previously discussed, there is only one respect in which the Abu Dhabi picture is more compatible with the Hollar: the hand and globe are equally tightly tucked into the bottom right-hand corner of the composition. As shown previously and below at Fig. 7, within that local coincidence, nothing approaches a “fit” between the Hollar and Abu Dhabi images.

In the three-part diagram above, a tracing of the Abu Dhabi picture’s figure (black line) and format (red box) is laid over the Hollar etching in three different positions.

In the diagram, above left, the traced outline of the Abu Dhabi painting is positioned over the Hollar image so as to align their respective and distinctive right-hand edges. That edge is a critical consideration because it had not been cut down (as the left-hand edge has been) and it shows that the painting’s author ineptly ran out of space when painting the truncated thumb that sticks out at a right angle from the hand holding the globe. This feature is utterly anomalous. Had this painting been Leonardo’s own prototype for all other versions, why had no one copied it?
In this arrangement we can see that although the globe in the Hollar is larger than that in the Abu Dhabi picture, their circumferences coincide at one point. However, when so-aligned, everything else is misaligned. If the fingers of the blessing hand are aligned, as in the second overlay, above, centre, there is also a correspondence with the outline of the tops of the heads. In the overlay above right, where the respective left-hand edges are aligned, everything is misaligned.

Above, Fig. 8: Left, the de Ganay Salvator Mundi as published in 1982; right, the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi as sold in November 2017.

In addition to earlier comments on the de Ganay and Abu Dhabi globes, we reproduce four self-explanatory graphics below that show the hand/globe configuration in the de Ganay picture to accord more closely with the Hollar etching configuration than does that of the Louvre Abu Dhabi painting. These illustrations are the work of a Japanese painter, Hikaru Hirata-Miyakawa, who has long-engaged with Leonardo’s painted images. He writes:

“Regarding the comparison of Hollar’s etching to the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi and de Ganay Salvator Mundi, I have juxtaposed them using Photoshop. I have found that, as with the positions of the left hand, the shape and areas of reflections on the Hollar and the de Ganay globes are quite similar. Whereas, the Abu Dhabi globe does not show any reflection of the light source at all – except for the three white dots that remind me of the tiny holes for holding bowling balls. To make the comparisons I confined the images strictly to the globe and its supporting hand. While it was necessary to adjust the image sizes to make clear comparisons, I have not changed any ratios – the width and height ratio is intact and no manipulation was made to the images.”

PRESENT POSITIONS ON THE LOUVRE ABU DHABI SALVATOR MUNDI IN THE WAKE OF RECENT DISCLOSURES:

1 There is nothing to confirm that Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1650 etched copy of a Salvator Mundi painting was made from the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture.

2 There is no evidence that the painting sold in 1651 from the estate of Charles I as “A peece of Christ done by Leonardo” was either the painting copied by Hollar in 1650 or the painting acquired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017.

3 There is no evidence to support suggestions that the painting in Charles I’s collection is the painting later acquired for the Sir Francis Cook collection in 1900.

4 There is no evidence to support suggested claims that the painting in Charles I’s collection had been in French royal collections, let alone commissioned from Leonardo by Louis XII as suggested in the opening of Christie’s, New York, 2017 provenance:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649)…”

5 No one has ever explained why Leonardo might have painted a prominently raised hand of Christ with two fingers that are artistically compatible with those of the Mona Lisa and three other digits that are ill-drawn, un-anatomical and consistent with no Leonardo work.

6 We do not know what, if any, provenance was provided by Sotheby’s, New York, when what is now the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture was sold privately in 2013 to Yves Bouvier. The contractual nature of Bouvier’s relationships to Sotheby’s and to the collector Dmitry Rybolovlev has yet to be determined by the courts of law in New York.

7 We now know, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, that the auction house in New Orleans at which the New York consortium/Rybolovlev/Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi was reportedly sold in 2005 for $10,000 on a $1,200-1,800 estimate (after being privately appraised for the vendor at $750) was the St. Charles Gallery branch of the New Orleans Auction Gallery in New Orleans. The New Orleans Auction Gallery reportedly went into bankruptcy proceedings and later came under new ownership as the New Orleans Auction Gallery. The Wall Street Journal reports that the director of marketing and public relations at the present New Orleans Auction Gallery has said that the new company has no records from the previous company of the same name and that: “We are not associated with that company at all”. This means that there was no possibility for the 2005 vendor to bring an action for negligence against the earlier New Orleans Auction Gallery. It means that there is presently no way of identifying/verifying/establishing who was the proxy for the consortium said to have bought the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture for $10,000 in 2005. If this is the case today, what was the situation in 2011-12 when the picture was exhibited at the National Gallery; in 2013 when Sotheby’s, New York, sold the picture privately to the fast-flipping Bouvier; and in 2017 when the picture was sold publicly by Christie’s, New York? If answers cannot be given to such questions, could anyone today challenge our 2014 contention that “As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting” (“Art crime”, Letter, the Times, 13 August 2014)?

THE OTHER LEONARDO-FROM-NOWHERE

In 1998 a drawing was put on the market by Christie’s, New York, as: “German School, early 19th century” and “the property of a lady”. When, some years after the sale, the work was said in the press to be a Leonardo worth $150-200 million (as the so-called “La Bella Principessa”) on fingerprint evidence (- see “PROMOTING THE DRAWING THAT CAME FROM NOWHERE”) the lady concerned disclosed her identity and brought an action for damages against the auction house on what was then only a claimed valuation on a proposed attribution, not a market-established sale. Only then was it learnt what the first buyer, a New York dealer, had not known: the vendor, Jeanne Marchig, was the widow of Giannino Marchig who was the drawing’s only owner and a painter/restorer (of Leonardo, among others) who had been an intimate of Bernard Berenson, helping him to conceal his collection from the Germans during the War. When the drawing’s second purchaser, the collector/dealer, Peter Silverman, and the Leonardo specialist, Professor Martin Kemp, trawled the Berenson archives together in search of a reference to the drawing they drew a blank. That drawing remains without history outside of the artist/restorer’s studio and, physically, it remains, as far as we know, unsold in a Swiss freeport. Such is precisely the kind of information to which potential buyers should rightfully be privy.

On the Salvator Mundi, the Wall Street Journal has said: “Mr. Simon says he has been unable to disclose details of the 2005 sale because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed when he sold the painting in 2013.” In the April 6 Antiques and Arts Weekly, Dr Robert Simon was asked: “Can you say where you found Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’?” He replied:

“Alex and I acquired the painting at an estate auction in the United States, but we’ve never divulged the location of the auction. We were not permitted to, according to the terms of the confidentiality agreement we signed at the time we sold the painting.”

Whatever purpose might have been served by the 2013 nondisclosure agreement with Sotheby’s, the painting’s origins had been unclear even before it was exhibited as a Leonardo at the National Gallery in its 2011-12 Leonardo in Milan exhibition. In the National Gallery’s 2011 catalogue entry it was said only that the Salvator Mundi was from a “Private collection”. In October 2011, the Sunday Times reported: “Luke Syson [the show’s curator] is one of the few people who knows who owns the picture. ‘We couldn’t exhibit it otherwise. It’s not being wafted to us in a brown envelope.” (Kathy Brewis, “Leonardo? Convince Me”, the Sunday Times, 9 October 2011.) Brewis wondered about the ownership and whether the National Gallery was taking a risk putting the painting on display, “so soon after its authentication”. A month afterwards the mystery of ownership remained. In the Times (“It’s kind of scary – I wrapped it in a bin liner and jumped into a taxi with it”, 12 November 2011), Ben Hoyle reported:

“Robert Simon has always hero-worshipped Leonardo da Vinci. When the New York art historian was 15 and a small-scale art dealer, he made a ‘pilgrimage’ to the artist’s birthplace in Vinci, in Tuscany. In his 20s he almost wrote his doctoral thesis on Leonardo’s followers, but was dissuaded by the immensity of the task. So when some old friends in the art world came to Mr Simon six years ago with a crudely restored picture that they had bought, he wondered if he was getting carried away when he started to speculate that it might be by one of the great man’s apprentices…He now has a stake in the picture as ‘sweat equity’ for the work he has done on it…”

Whatever the precise arrangements of ownership with the 2005 acquisition, it must be asked why the National Gallery agreed to participate in this public secrecy on a painting whose (contested) Leonardo ascription was being supported by the gallery’s director, by one of its curators and by one of its trustees.

A FURTHER THREAT TO ART WORLD TRANSPARENCY

The present lack of transparency is likely to increase with the growing practice of settling international art market disputes not through open courts but behind closed doors with lawyers working with conflicted parties on mutually confidential “mediations” or “arbitrations”. In London on 3 October 2018, an international art lawyers’ symposium on the resolution of art world and cultural heritage disputes was jointly organised by the School of International Arbitration (SIA), Queen Mary University of London, and the Switzerland and Singapore-based arbitration and mediation centre of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). The event was (generously) hosted in Park Lane by Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, America’s second biggest law firm which is famed for its federal government connections and which employs over a thousand lawyers worldwide. A former partner, Robert Mueller, is Special Counsel to the investigation into Russian interference in the last U.S. presidential campaign. Although much interesting material was disclosed at the symposium about the nature and successes of these procedures, the resolutions of no specific art world disputes were identified because of their built-in confidentiality agreements. It might be the case that the new practices will favour the big guys over the little guys – who necessarily will forfeit their strongest card – the capacity to raise institutionally embarrassing press coverage. It might not. The problem is that no one will have any way of knowing, while both parties to settlements will be able (privately) to hint at satisfaction with the invisible outcome. No one will be publicly embarrassed, chastened, admonished, exonerated or vindicated. Virtue will be unrewarded because unrecognised.

In “SECRET DEALS AND THE ARTS CLUB” we said that since our first warning in 2014 of the threat to market confidence posed by the art world’s toxic attributions, and our specific call that year (in the above-mentioned Times letter) for increased transparency through a statutory requirement that vendors should “disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art”, Georgina Adam had written in her 2017 book Dark Side of the Art Boom, that:

“At its base, the Bouvier/Rybolovlev dispute was about the nature of their business conducted within a market that has always thrived on secret backroom deals. By keeping vendors and buyers apart – they may never know who the other is – and insisting on discretion, agents, dealers, advisors can use this anonymity to their advantage. Various reasons can be put forward, from the need for security to the desire to avoid family quarrels or the taxman, to the risk of someone else bagging the work for sale. In the Bouvier/Rybolovlev case, one of Bouvier’s emails about a Magritte, said: ‘I must carry out this [negotiation] with the greatest discretion to avoid drawing attention to the painting and its owner; the risk is that we could lose it at auction’.”

Paintings can only be “lost” at auctions if others are prepared to pay the vendor more. It would seem that, aside from facilitating stealth manoeuvres, under privately conducted sales a larger sum of monetary value is likely to accrue to the buyer and a smaller one to the owner/vendor. Traditionally, auction houses’ first loyalty has been to the sellers: by going to an open competitive market, the highest possible price is achieved for a given work – that is the promise. By comparison, the deal for buyers is less assured: the small print insists that it is for buyers to satisfy themselves that works offered for sale are as they are described to be by the auction house – descriptions are not guarantees. Were auction houses to favour big, regular buyers over vendors they would jeopardise their own reputations. In his latest book, Martin Kemp discloses that when “La Bella Principessa’s” first vendor, Jeanne Marchig, publicly filed a suit against Christie’s in 2010 and again, on appeal, in July 2011, the auction house settled out of court by donating an undisclosed sum to the vendor’s own animal charity even though, as he adds:

“It has been reported to me that anyone who asks Christie’s what they now think is told privately that the portrait is a forgery.”

Michael Daley – 11 October 2018


How the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi became a Leonardo-from-nowhere

If it’s not over in opera until the fat lady sings, it’s not over in art attributions until the paint dries and the provenance settles. In art historical disputes over the origins (provenances) or conditions (restorations) of art, the weight of academic study and curatorial politics has assumed a greater importance than the dwindling creative/technical expertise of living artists. That this imbalanced dynamic is culturally destabilising, can perfectly be seen in the Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga. Following a scholar’s recent re-attribution of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi to Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini, dedicated supporters of the $450million painting are re-writing its provenance in the wake of a second scholar’s newly discovered documents. The painting itself has not been seen since it was sold at Christie’s, New York, on 15 November 2017 and it is not clear when it might be seen again – the Louvre Abu Dhabi indefinitely postponed its planned launch of the painting a day ahead of a visit by the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to mark the announcement of the museum’s programme of events for the next year.

The first question here is stark: Is the picture that was sold for nearly half a billion dollars an entirely autograph painting by Leonardo or a dressed-up school work? The second question is: Had a proper art historical case been made for this painting before it was exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery as a Leonardo? In our view, the latter had not happened, partly because no attempt had been made, and partly because on a reading of the available historical evidence, the Leonardo case could not be made. On the former question, the Vienna Times reported scholarly concerns on 17 September 2018 (“What Happened With the 450 Million Dollars Painting”):

“Is there anything wrong with the painting that was auctioned at the Christie’s New York in November 2017 for the world record price of 450 million dollars? Experts suspect that the image of Christ had been doctored before sale. When it was exhibited at the National Gallery London in 2011, there were some doubts: the pedantic Leonardo would never have painted the folds of the robe behind the glass ball, ignoring the refraction of the light. At the 2017 auction, the wrinkles suddenly looked ‘right’. In the magazine ‘Art’ the German specialist Prof. Frank Zöllner (62) [The author of the catalogue raisonné Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings] wrote about Leonardo: ‘The question arises whether the restorers responded with a modification of the folds to the objections of the critics.’ So, a manipulation to seduce connoisseurs and drive up the price? Zöllner: ‘An absurdity, if that happened.'”

On the pre-sale re-restoration, see Dalya Alberge – “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo Da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in last five years” – and our: “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is.”

WHAT HAPPENED?

From the first this work has been soaked in mystery. Professor Martin Kemp discloses in his latest book Living with Leonardo: Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond that it: “crossed Robert’s [Robert Simon] path in 2005 when it came up for sale at a regional auction house in Louisiana. Robert and his fellow New York art dealer Alexander Parrish, who had also noticed it, thought it might be a bit better than it superficially looked – without imagining that it might be the original. They decided to bid by proxy, and met with success, apparently acquiring it for less than $10,000, which at the time would have seemed like quite a high price.” “Apparently”? For how much? How had it been listed? Who sold it? When? Where? Many have searched and no one has found answers but this serially redone as-if-from-nowhere work has been sold twice already – with a different face of Christ each time – for a total of over half a billion dollars, first in a private sale by Sotheby’s in 2013, reportedly for $75-80 million to the owner of a string of free ports who immediately sold it on to a Russian oligarch for $127 million, and then, famously, by Christie’s, New York, for $450million in 2017. Did that initial opacity pass freely through the National Gallery and into the art market food chain? It might seem so: when the painting was taken to the National Gallery for a private viewing by a select group of experts, “All of the witnesses were sworn to confidentiality”, Kemp has disclosed, “and the painting travelled back to New York with Robert. It was becoming a Leonardo.” The invitation to view, appraise and perhaps authenticate flattered: “We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

Kemp believes that the National Gallery had not included another Leonardo attributed work he supports (the so-called “La Bella Principessa” drawing) in the 2011 Leonardo show because the curators did not accept its attribution and he now feels that that rejection had highlighted: “the rationale for the inclusion of the Salvator Mundi. Was it on the market? Would exhibiting it mean that the National Gallery was tacitly involved in a huge act of commercial promotion? It seemed highly likely that it was also ‘in the trade’. All I knew at this stage was that it was being represented by Robert Simon. He told me that it was in the hands of a ‘good owner’ who intended to do the right thing by it, and I did not inquire further. I was keen to consider the painting in its own right, not in relation to its ownership. I speculated, of course, that Robert might have a financial interest, perhaps a share in its ownership; and I assumed he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf. But the gallery was assured that the painting was not actively on the market. Understandably keen to exhibit, they were happy to accept this assurance.”

Above, Fig. 1: Part of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting (as shown on television) when it arrived in 2005 (still sticky from a previous restoration) at the New York studio of the restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini.

Above, Fig. 2: Left, the screen grab of the 2005 state; centre, the picture as exhibited as an autograph Leonardo painting in 2011-12 at the National Gallery ; right, the picture as sold at Christie’s, New York, in November 2017 after further and recent restoration repainting.

Above, Fig. 3: Left, the head as in 2011-12 when at the National Gallery; right, the head in 2017 when sold at Christie’s, New York.

Above, Fig. 4: Left, the face as in 2011-12 at the National Gallery; right, the face as sold st Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

Above, Fig. 5: Top, the eyes after cleaning but before any repainting; left, the face, as in 2011-12; right, the face, as in 2017.

Above, Fig. 6: Far left, the face, as in 2005; left, the face as 2007 after the panel had been repaired and cleaned; centre, the painting in 2008 when taken to London for a private viewing at the National Gallery; right, the face as exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12; far right, the face as when sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2017.

GROWING THE PROVENANCE

We had warned ahead of the picture’s 15 November 2017 sale that the provenances compiled by the National Gallery in 2011 and Christie’s, New York, in 2017, were inflated and overly-reliant on the unpublished researches of one of the first consortium of owners (see “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”):

“…this work, now unequivocally described as a fully autograph Leonardo painting that is the artistic equal of the Mona Lisa, first materialised in 1900 when bought as by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini (- it was later taken to be a copy after Boltraffio). That purchase, and what followed immediately afterwards remained in the realm of verifiable facts until the painting went missing [after 1958] before reappearing in 2005. What was suggested to have happened before 1900 is speculation and/or contention. The first reference to such a Leonardo subject is in 1651. Christie’s provides the following provenance:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to
Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649), Greenwich;
Commonwealth Sale, as ‘A peece of Christ done by Leonardo at 30- 00- 00’, presented, 23 October 1651, as part of the Sixth Dividend to
Captain John Stone (1620-1667), leader of the Sixth Dividend of creditors, until 1660, when it was returned with other works upon the Restoration to
King Charles II of England (1630-1685), Whitehall, and probably by inheritance to his brother King James II of England (1633-1701), Whitehall, from which probably removed by
Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), or her future son-in-law, John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1648-1721), and probably by descent to his illegitimate son
Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield, 1st Bt. (c. 1706-1774); John Prestage, London, 24 February 1763, lot 53, as ‘L. Da. Vinci A head of our Saviour’ (£2.10).
Sir [John] Charles Robinson (1824-1913), as Bernardino Luini; by whom sold in 1900 to
Sir Francis Cook, 1st Bt. (1817-1901), Doughty House, Richmond, and by descent through
Sir Frederick [Lucas] Cook, 2nd Bt. (1844-1920), Doughty House, Richmond, and
Sir Herbert [Frederick] Cook, 3rd Bt. (1868-1939), Doughty House, Richmond, as ‘Free copy after Boltraffio’ and later ‘Milanese School’, to
Sir Francis [Ferdinand Maurice] Cook, 4th Bt. (1907-1978); his sale, Sotheby’s, London, 25 June 1958, lot 40, as ‘Boltraffio’ (£45 to Kuntz).
Private collection, United States.
Robert Simon, New York.
Private sale, Sotheby’s, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Pre-Lot Text
Property from a Private European Collection

“Thus, from a claimed execution either before or after 1500 (the supporters are divided on a possible position within Leonardo’s oeuvre) it is said to have passed through four centuries via a ‘(Possibly) Commissioned’; ‘Possibly by descent’; ‘by whom possibly brought to England’; ‘probably by inheritance’; ‘from which probably removed’; ‘and probably by descent’ to 1900. It then took a further 111 years for this work to gain accreditation as a Leonardo when it was included in the National Gallery’s special exhibition Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan after a long and highly problematic restoration.” Emphases added.

On 2 February 2018, in “The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is”, we held the National Gallery’s 2011 provenance to have been similarly problematic:

“This Leonardo ascription has been made on almost no published scholarship. It rests on a largely unstated and, therefore, unexamined art critical case. Apart from the restorer’s report and the National Gallery exhibition catalogue’s entry by its curator, Luke Syson, almost nothing, so far as we know, has been published in support of this Leonardo. Christie’s lot essay appealed to the authority of the unpublished researches of one of the original owners, Dr Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, and to [the restorer] Diane Dwyer Modestini’s and Syson’s accounts when they, too, both acknowledged indebtedness to the researches of Simon. After twelve years, serial restorations and two sales at a combined total of over half a billion dollars, those researches have yet to be published… Luke Syson writes:

“‘The re-emergence of this picture, cleaned and restored to reveal an autograph work by Leonardo, therefore comes as an extraordinary surprise’ but, he adds, of Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraved testimony: ‘None of this, of course, is evidence for the picture’s autograph status. After all, the pictures by pupils copying Leonardo’s design may sometimes have been rather good, and one such might easily have been owned by Henrietta Maria.’ Quite so, and in view of Jacques Franck’s account [that Leonardo had not painted a prototype Salvator Mundi because he was otherwise engaged and devolving painting to his studio – see below] … that very possibility, as advanced by Ludwig Heydenreich, is the first mountain that any autograph Leonardo Salvator Mundi aspirant must be seen to have scaled. It is now six years since Syson alerted us that ‘This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others’ but he gave little indication of any corroborative evidence being to hand. It would sometimes seem that Simon’s researches on the New York candidate echo or adapt the extensive researches earlier conducted by Joanne Snow-Smith in her support of the unsuccessful Paris candidate, the so-called de Ganay Salvator Mundi. If Syson should prove to have been a dutiful student of Simon we might be in for a daisy-chain of hypotheses in which awkward and peculiar features are advanced as material corroborations with rhetorical flourishes. Syson ends his account thusly:

“’Snow-Smith has shown that King Louis XII and his consort, Anne of Brittany, were particularly devoted to Christ as Salvator Mundi, and that they could connect this cult with the Mandylion of Edessa twice-over we now see. Given the date – around 1500 – of Leonardo’s preparatory drawings [only two sheets of drapery studies, one of which is thought not to be entirely autograph], the style of the picture and its association with a French princess [Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria], Louis and Anne become the most likely patrons for Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, probably commissioning the work soon after the conquest of Milan and Genoa. This would therefore be one of the French commissions mentioned by Fra Pietro da Novellara. And it was perhaps to accommodate their wishes that Leonardo based Christ’s features, the set of the eyes, the heavy lower lids, and especially his smoothly arched eyebrows [sic] down into a long nose, on the Christ of the Mandylion of Edessa.’”

“How can you extract a ‘would therefore be’ from a ‘could’, a ‘most likely’, and a ‘probably’? In lieu of a single hard shiny fact, we are offered a forest of fancies, maybes, perhaps’s and scholarly borrowings.” Emphases added.

THE FRA PIETRO DA NOVELLARA CONNECTION

When Luke Syson claimed that the now-Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi had “therefore been” one of the French commissions by King Louis XII and his consort mentioned by Fra Pietro da Novellara he risked readers confounding his “therefore” with a proof rather than a contention. In a footnote, Syson cites paintings (of only recent provenances) that “must also” have derived from this Royal commission. One, the Young Christ by Marco d’Oggiono in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, is discussed below at Fig. 14. On the precise testimony of Fra Pietro da Novellara, see Jacques Franck, below.

ALL CHANGE

When the Leonardo scholar Matthew Landrus recently contended that most of the upgraded Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo’s assistant, Bernardino Luini (the very artist under whose name the secure provenance began in 1900 – see “Leonardo scholar challenges attribution of $450m painting” and “Salvator Mundi: Why Bernardinino Luini should be back in the frame”) he was disparaged by his former teacher, Martin Kemp, at the Edinburgh Festival, and on CNN, who reported:

“Others are in less doubt. Curator of Italian Paintings at London’s National Gallery [sic], Martin Kemp, sent the following statement to CNN Style by email: ‘The book I am publishing in 2019 with Robert Simon and Margaret Dalivalle (…) will present a conclusive body of evidence that the Salvator Mundi is a masterpiece by Leonardo. In the meantime I am not addressing ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price.’”

Kemp’s disinclination to address “ill-founded assertions that would attract no attention were it not for the sale price” marked a change of policy and showed a touch of humbug. Last year, immediately ahead of the sale that produced the astronomical price of the Salvator Mundi, Kemp engaged polemically with those who rejected the picture’s Leonardo attribution: “I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.” As for the long-forthcoming Book That Will Answer All Doubters, its co-authors failed to meet a Yale University Press deadline to publish in time for the 2011-12 National Gallery Leonardo show, in part, Kemp now discloses, because “I was unconvinced that all the authors actually had anything to say.”

THE JEREMY WOOD WALPOLE SOCIETY FINDINGS

Certain discoveries in Jeremy Wood’s Walpole Society article “Buying and Selling Art in Venice, London and Antwerp… c.1637-52” have thrown the earlier Salvator Mundi provenances of the National Gallery and Christie’s, New York, into question. Because so much credence is (rightly) attached to documentation, the sudden discovery of a parallel never-seen but documented ghost painting has undermined official accounts of the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture’s history. Within a single country at the same historical moment there are now two records of a Leonardo painting in the Collection of Charles I and two records of a Leonardo Salvator Mundi painting in the (nearby) Hamilton collection. With the Charles I collection, the first record is in the 1649 inventory of Charles I’s possessions drawn up in the year of his death. It is not of a Christ as Salvator Mundi but was recorded simply as ‘A peece of Christ done by Leonardo’ when sold in 1651. It tells us that Charles I had had a painting of that description but not when or how it had been acquired. The second and later record of 1666, as disclosed in Martin Kemp’s new book, is a work in the numbered list of the “King’s Closet” in Whitehall and “featured as number 311: ‘Leonard De Vince O.r Savio.r w.th a gloabe in one hand & holding up y.e other’.” Today, thanks to Wood’s researches those two records are balanced by the discovery that a ‘Christ with a globe in his hande done by Leonardus Vinsett’ was in the Chelsea home of James, 3rd Marquis, later 1st Duke of Hamilton, between 1638 and 1641. A second record further testifies to a Salvator Mundi in the Hamilton collection in 1643, as is discussed below.

The four records of two Salvator Mundis attributed to Leonardo in two important collections might be taken to show that two Leonardo Salvator Mundis co-existed in England at that time. But records of two Leonardo Christs cannot safely be taken to confirm that two Leonardo paintings of Christ were present in England. Nor need it mean that one painting was a Leonardo and the other not – they might both have been misattributed. Max Friedlander warned that “The inventories of princely galleries – such as those of Margaret of Austria, Vicereine of the Netherlands, or of King Charles I of England…are to be utilized sceptically and to be taken seriously only to the extent that facts derived from style criticism do not contradict them.”

LEONARDO HAD NO TIME TO PAINT

In part the destabilisation stems from an emerging contrast between the unexpected abundance of records in mid-seventeenth century England of an attributed Leonardo picture and the complete absence in early sixteenth century Italy of any record or mention of a Leonardo Salvator Mundi. Not only is there no documentary record of Leonardo ever having painted a Salvator Mundi prototype, in material/visual terms, there are no characteristically faithful copies of the kind executed from such autograph Leonardo paintings as the Mona Lisa and The Virgin and St. Anne. The day before the 15 November 2017 sale at Christie’s, New York, we contrasted that marked absence of copies with the plethora of variants (more than twenty) of a Leonardesque Salvator Mundi – all of which seemingly derive from little more than a couple of drapery studies that have been attributed to Leonardo. This might all indicate, as Heydenreich had concluded after a most exhaustive study, that while Leonardo – a notoriously fastidious and slow artist – had made drawings for his school, he had not painted a Salvator Mundi. We reported then that Jacques Franck, the expert of Leonardo’s painting techniques and a restoration adviser to the Louvre, had noted that the logistics of Leonardo’s life at the time were known to have made painting all but impossible:

“By 1500 onwards, the period in which the painted panel is said to have been executed, for want of time Leonardo produced few works. Fra Pietro da Novellara, who visited his studio in April 1501, reported: ‘His mathematical researches have so much distracted him that he can’t stand the brush’, and, he added, ‘Two of his pupils make copies to which he adds some touches from time to time’. In 1501, he was commissioned to produce a ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’ by Florimond Robertet (the French King Louis XII’s secretary) at the time when he was already creating both the major group ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’ and the phenomenally accomplished ‘Mona Lisa’. Both panels were seen during their executions in October 1503 by Agostino Vespucci, an assistant of Machiavelli at the Signoria in Florence but he, too, made no reference to a Salvator Mundi. Giorgio Vasari says of the ‘Mona Lisa’s’ execution that Leonardo, as a meticulous and slow-working painter had ‘toiled over it for four years’. Between May and August 1502 until early 1503 Leonardo was committed with Cesare Borgia as an architect and general engineer in the Marches and Romagna. He was then fully employed by the City of Florence during the Summer of 1503 as a military architect and, two or three months later, he worked fully on the commission of a huge mural (the now destroyed ‘Battle of Anghiari’) until late May 1506, before travelling between Florence and Milan up to mid 1508, because of his appointment as painter and engineer to the French King while serving Charles II d’Amboise, the new governor of Milan. Because of such taxing commitments – and all of the above were in addition to his intense scientific researches and literary activities – Leonardo increasingly resorted to workshop productions from 1500 onwards. The ‘Salvator Mundi’ must, of necessity, be thought to be one of those works and, given the preceding it is very likely that a fully original version never existed.”

That was then. Franck was speaking from memory. He has now revisited the source and adds:

“Novellara’s text says (letter to Isabella d’Este of 14 April 1501): “…if he could free himself from his obligation to His Majesty the King of France without disgrace, as he hopes to do within a month at the most, he would be ever so ready to serve your Excellency more than anyone else in the world” (“…se si potea spiccare da la maestà del Re di Franza senza sua disgrazia, como sperava, a la più longa fra meso uno, servirebbe più presto Vostra Excellentia che persona al mondo”). In the two letters written by Fra Pietro to Isabella on the 3rd and 14th April 1501, this is the only mention regarding Leonardo’s commitment with the French King. No mention that the “obligation to the King” in question is a painting. The other French commission described very precisely by Isabella’s emissary in Florence is the small devotional Madonna painted for Florimond Robertet, the King’s secretary (the Madonna of the Yarnwinder). But it wasn’t a royal commission. Another painting described in this famous correspondence is the Saint Anne in its preliminary graphic stage (cartoon): Novellara does not say who commissioned it. In other words, no hint about a Salvator Mundi, even as a possibility, to be connected to Louis XII and Anne of Brittany in Novellara’s above-mentioned letters.”

AN ATTEMPTED PROVENANCE SWITCH

The response of the supporters of the Abu Dhabi painting to Jeremy Wood’s disclosure of twin records of a rival candidate painting of a Christ with a globe in the Hamilton collection is concerning. Margaret Dalivalle, a former Martin Kemp student who has been conducting provenance research for some years on the Abu Dhabi picture, seems to have been the first properly to spot the potentially game-changing significance of Wood’s research findings. Alison Cole, the editor of the Art Newspaper, reported on 30 August (- “Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi: expert uncovers ‘exciting’ new evidence”) that Dalivalle finds Wood’s discovery of the Hamilton picture “exciting” and says “I immediately recognised the significance of one item hanging in the Lower Gallery: ‘Christ: with a globe in his hande done by Leonardus Vinsett’”.

However, before any open scholarly discussions and evaluations of the two now-rival recorded candidates have taken place, Dalivalle has placed this reading on that most significant finding:

“The painting was in a collection closely, almost incestuously, related to the Royal Collection; the king, according to a document of 18 October 1638, expressly wished to have the pick of paintings bought by Hamilton in Venice, threatening the imposition of customs duty, and the king and queen’s predilection for Leonardo is documented. Therefore, I consider there is a strong possibility that this painting was seen at Chelsea House and chosen by the king at some point between 1638 and 1641, finding its way to the queen’s apartments at Greenwich.”

Thus, the Hamilton picture would now find itself located in the royal collection as an earlier incarnation of what is held to be the Abu Dhabi Leonardo picture. In the absence of any visual records such a switch might be thought plausible on circumstantial grounds but the suggestion is made against the testimony of another Wood document that makes clear that the painting could not have been purloined by Charles I between 1638 and 1641.

THE WOOD/HAMILTON DOCUMENTS

Pace Dalivalle’s reading of the earlier document, Wood discloses that in 1643 Hamilton’s collection was crated in order to be sent to Scotland. The move was blocked in Parliament but one case contained a “Christ Holding up his two fingers.” A Christ with two fingers held up in blessing testifies no less to a Christ as Salvator Mundi than does a Christ with a globe. That the picture was in Hamilton’s possession as late as 1643 makes a subsequent transfer to the royal collection greatly less likely: the following year the Queen (Henrietta Maria) and the copyist Wenceslaus Hollar both fled to Antwerp. Was Charles I seizing paintings at that turbulent moment – even assuming that the Hamilton pictures had been un-crated? In any event, we have a doubly confirmed Hamilton Salvator Mundi in 1643 – just six years before the first record of a Leonardo in the Charles I collection. Either two attributed Leonardos ran in parallel or the Hamilton picture was snatched for the royal collection shortly before the execution of Charles I. Because there is no record of a switch between 1643 and 1649 does not, of course, mean that it could not have taken place but much hangs on the question.

While leaving the question open, Alison Cole has pointed out (re Hollar’s 1650 copy of a Salvator Mundi) that there is another possibility:

“Wood and Dalivalle have also discussed other possible hypotheses… After James Hamilton’s execution in 1649, his brother, the 2nd Duke, transported a large portion of his collection to the Netherlands to be sold. Could Hamilton’s Salvator Mundi have been part of this consignment, and could this explain the “how and the why” Hollar etched it “from the original” in Antwerp at that precise time? (Indeed, in 1649 and 1650, Hollar made a number of etchings after Italian paintings that were available to him in the original.)”

That would be to say: the twice-recorded Hamilton Salvator Mundi then stayed in the collection after 1643 until it was sent to Antwerp to be sold in 1649, the year of Charles I’s execution. This possibility is being dismissed: Cole further reports that Dalivalle places this hypothesis among what she terms the “red herrings” to be addressed in her contribution to the long-forthcoming (now Oxford University Press book) Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi and the Collecting of Leonardo in the Stuart Courts that she is co-authoring with Robert Simon and Martin Kemp. That dismissal is premature and question-begging. It also offers a degree of protection to the now-challenged claim that the Abu Dhabi picture had been copied in 1650 by Wenceslaus Hollar – see below.

THE END OF THE FRENCH ROYAL CONNECTIONS IN THE SALVATOR MUNDI PROVENANCE

For the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture’s supporters, situating the Hamilton picture within the royal collection would compensate for the loss of the painting’s supposed French royal origins in the official provenances. Margaret Dalivalle, in talking to the Art Newspaper , has now disclosed that:

“I have found no evidence that the Salvator Mundi was brought by Henrietta Maria from France; it belonged to her [only] by dint of the fact that it was recorded in a property of her jointure in 1649.”

As seen, it has not been established that the Hamilton Salvator Mundi had entered the royal collection at all. The previously suggested arrival of the painting at court with Henrietta Maria in 1625 had comprised the lynchpin of the Abu Dhabi painting’s 2011 and 2017 provenances – those supposed initial double royal connections were flaunted in Christie’s 2017 global marketing pitch (see – The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga: Three Developments).

In the 2011-12 National Gallery exhibition catalogue Luke Syson said (of the copyist Wenceslaus Hollar) “The several connections with the Queen suggest that the Salvator Mundi is likely to have come to England when she married Charles in 1625, and was originally the property of the French Royal family; several of the best copies have a French provenance.” Emphases added. There were multiple problems with that account. First, the above described absences of records in Italy. Second, the nature of the visual testimony of the Hollar copy, as discussed below. Third, the now Dalivalle-confirmed absence of any evidence that Henrietta Maria had previously owned and brought a Leonardo Salvator Mundi with her from France when she married Charles I in 1625. In consequence, the opening sequence of Christie’s 2017 provenance below evaporates:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649)…

Without the previously implied royal pedigree the open question of when or whether the Hamilton painting entered the royal collection becomes pressing, because, as Martin Kemp ackowledges, despite all Dalivalle’s researches, nothing links the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting to anything beyond the painting’s entry into the Cook collection in 1900:

“We could not be absolutely sure that Charles’s Leonardo was the same as ‘Robert’s’ [Robert Simon and others’] Leonardo, rather than one of the copies, but it seemed highly likely. Margaret was subsequently able to track the picture back to the beautiful Queen’s House in Greenwich, where it was in one of the ‘closets’ of Queen Henrieta Maria…she was also able to track its later history though not yet as far as the Cook collection.”

The Greenwich record was dated 1666 when Henrieta Maria had fled England in 1644. Whichever picture was then present, it could not have been copied by Hollar in his 1650 etching because he and Henrietta Maria were then in Antwerp (and perhaps later, on one account, in France), and for reasons given it was unlikely to have been the Abu Dhabi picture. In truth, we have no idea which of several possible paintings was recorded by Hollar.

Without a secure Hollar connection, the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi’s provenance begins only at 1900, four centuries after its supposed execution. The pre-1900 history which Dalivalle has failed to establish is itself highly problematic. It is not known from whom, where or when the picture had been acquired by Sir Charles Robinson who bought the work as a Bernardino Luino for the Cook Collection. We have been informed (as has Robert Simon) that an English fossil-hunter, Thomas Hawkins (1810-89), seems to have donated a “Leonardo Salvator Mundi” in 1848 to a church in Birmingham. That church was closed down in 1895, at which date its collection was presumably disbursed. Had Robinson bought the Abu Dhabi picture from that church? Or, were there two claimed Leonardo Salvator Mundi versions then at large in England? Or three – the whereabouts of a third version formerly in the Worsey and Yarborough Collections is presently unknown…

The Cook collection picture’s provenance ran into the ground in 1958 when sold by Sotheby’s for £45. Between 1900 and 1958 no one thought the New York, now Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi to be a Leonardo. Christie’s 2017 sale provenance ended: “Kuntz, Private Collection USA”. Kemp suggests that this might have been a punning play on the German word for art, and Sotheby’s have no additional information on Kuntz. That trail should not be given up lightly.

Wiki has an entry on a US artist Roger Edward Kuntz, a talented painter who wavered between abstraction and representation and died in 1975. In the early 50s he and his wife travelled for four months in Europe so that he could visit museums. They had a daughter in 1951. If Kuntz, an artist with a “pensive, thoughtfully naturalistic sensibility” made another European trip in 1958, might he have had £45 (at that date about a month’s wage for an unskilled worker in Britain) to spare on an old Italian painting? Roger Kuntz died in 1975 but was succeeded by his wife and daughter. If not that particular Kuntz family, what of others in the United States? As previously reported, our colleague Alexa Tzarnas has identified a Kuntz family in Louisiana who used to be avid collectors of paintings, antiques and historical documents. Rosemund E. and Emile Kuntz had two sons, one of whom donated a majority of their collection to Tulane University in New Orleans. Given that we do not know the identity of the 2005 vendor or the venue of the sale and given the still sticky varnish then present on the New York/Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, it could be useful to establish the identity of the previous owner who might well have information on previous restorations and photo-records of the painting from 1958 onwards.

THE WENCESLAUS HOLLAR 1650 ETCHING OF THE LEONARDO SALVATOR MUNDI – AND THREE PROPOSED PAINTINGS THAT MIGHT HAVE PROVIDED THE MODEL

Above, Fig. 7: The Wenceslaus Hollar etching which carries in (Latin) the following inscription: “Leonardo da Vinci painted the original from which Wenceslaus Hollar etched [this copy] in 1650 Anno Domini”

The Hollar copy (above) is being treated today as if unquestionably a record of the painting in the collection of Charles I but certain difficulties with this assumed relationship were acknowledged by Luke Syson:

“Hollar must have made a drawing of Leonardo’s painting while he was still in England, when it still belonged to the King and Queen. This drawing then formed the basis of the print, an image that had come to have additional associations for the Catholic Henrietta Maria.” Emphases added.

Against Syson’s suggestion that Hollar had made a drawing before 1644 and taken it with him to Antwerp, keeping it for at least six years before making an etching from it in 1650, we return to the Alison Cole/Jeremy Wood hypothesis that the Hamilton Salvator Mundi had been among the large proportion of the collection sent to Antwerp to be sold in 1649. On this proposed account Hollar would have had no need to work from a six or more years old drawing at a time when he was making copies of other Italian paintings in Antwerp. The inscription on the etching itself suggests that it was made from the painting itself rather than from memory and an old drawing:

Leonardo da Vinci painted the original from which Wenceslaus Hollar etched [this copy] in 1650 Anno Domini”.

Before looking at the etching itself in relation to rival paintings with a view to formulating some “style criticisms”, there is a third candidate Salvator Mundi painting to be considered. That is the so-called “de Ganay Salvator Mundi” which painting was presented in 1978 and 1982 as the original Leonardo Salvator Mundi by the art historian Joanne Snow-Smith (with, it was posthumously stated, the endorsement of Ludwig Heydenreich). Its claims merit consideration if for no other reason than that aspects of Snow-Smith’s account have been incorporated in the Simon/Syson/Christie’s/Kemp accounts – and most especially her claim of French royal origins for the painting. Moreover, the de Ganay and the Abu Dhabi versions are the two Salvator Mundi paintings that offer the most credible “fits” with the 1650 image produced by the accomplished draughtsman/copyist Wenceslaus Hollar. As will be seen, neither version achieves a full match but they depart from the Hollar record in different ways.

In support of her attribution Joanne Snow-Smith suggested this chronology:

“1506 – Leonardo’s second Milanese period begins upon return to Milan at invitation of Louis XII. Active at the court of Charles d’Amboise, the French governor of Milan;
1507 – Louis XII in Milan with Jean Perréal, his court painter. Leonardo appointed painter and engineer to the King;
c. 1507-08 – Commission for the Salvator Mundi given to Leonardo by Louis XII;
c. 1510 – Preliminary drawings in red chalk on red-prepared paper for a Salvator Mundi, now at Windsor Royal Library, begun;
1510-13 – Salvator Mundi in Leonardo’s studio in Milan. Copies made by pupils in various stages of completion;
1513, Spring – Salvator Mundi completed by Leonardo by order of Louis XII. Given to French general for delivery to Louis XII in France;
[…] 1514 – January 9, Anne of Brittany, beloved wife of Louis XII, dies at Blois. The King presents Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi to a Franciscan convent of the Order of Saint Claire in Nantes as votive funerary offering for her soul. Painting remains cloistered until late 19th-early 20th century…”

In support of her claim of a French-owned painting as the subject of Hollar’s etching, Snow-Smith imagined a trip along the Loire by Henrietta Maria:

“There were along the course of the Loire convents of the Order…and making such a trip may well have been suggested to Henrietta Maria by…further impetus for a journey to Nantes would have been supplied by the fact that her mother, Marie de’ Medici, had in 1626 laid the cornerstone of the convent there. It is suggested that Henrietta Maria requested Hollar to accompany her in the role of court etcher. There is no question but that his sense of duty to the family he loved so well would have induced his acceptance. Whether they stayed in Nantes in the convent of the Visitation or of the Calvairiennes need not concern us. Suffice it to say that in either place she would have heard of the Salvator Mundi by Leonardo cloistered in the Clairician convent in that city…and it would certainly be understandable that she…would have wished Hollar to copy for her a painting in which the kindness and love of the ultimate justice were expressed with such strength, tenderness and pathos…” Emphases added.

Even if we discount Snow-Smith’s imaginary journey, Hollar’s presence in France in 1650 is credible – his etchings were published in Paris. Given Hollar’s close connections with Henrietta there are thus two locations in which he might have etched the Salvator Mundi – Antwerp or Nantes. In Antwerp, he might conceivably, on Syson’s account, have made it from a drawing made in London six or more years earlier if a salvator Mundi had entered the royal collection before 1644, or from the Hamilton Salvator Mundi; or, in Nantes from the de Ganay Salvator Mundi.

With the Abu Dhabi Leonardo attribution the etching’s testimony is double edged: there are, for sure, clear general correspondences – as there are with the de Ganay version – but Hollar’s 1650 recording of painting of a Christ as Salvator Mundi is different in significant stylistic respects from the Louvre Abu Dhabi picture. Greatly compounding the problem today of plausibly attaching rival documentary records and accounts to the sole etched copy, is the fact that the Abu Dhabi painting has itself borne rival appearances since it emerged in 2005 – and has existed in two distinct states in the last five years. As seen at Fig. 6 above, those appearances are: the painting as it was when it first appeared in 2005 still sticky from some previous treatment; as it was in 2007 after being cleaned and repaired; as it was in 2008 when part-restored and first taken to London for appraisal by a select group of Leonardo experts; as it was when further repainted and taken back to London in 2011 to be included in the National Gallery Leonardo exhibition; and, as it was when yet further restored by Christie’s ahead of the November 2017 sale.

This shifting appearance poses an acute problem for supporters: with which state/version of the Abu Dhabi picture might the Hollar etching be considered to show a better correspondence? Is it that seen when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12, as below left at Fig. 8? Or is it that seen at Christie’s, New York, in 2017, as below right at Fig. 8? If the latter, had Christie’s requested the original restorer to work further on the painting to that end?

“STYLE CRITICISMS” AND CERTAIN VISUAL DISPROOFS

Above, Fig. 8: Top, Leonardo’s face of St. Anne (on the Louvre’s The Virgin and St Anne with Child), before cleaning, left; after cleaning, right; above the Louvre Abu Dhabi face of Christ, left, as exibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12, and, right, as when sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2017

In the double comparison above we see the destructive and reconstructive faces of picture restoration. At the top, pictoral values are depleted by cleaning (“abraded” is the commonly encountered official euphemism). In the before and after comparison of the Salvator Mundi we see the superimposition of a more marketable state by repainting (officially, “retouching”) an earlier National Gallery endorsed appearance. The extent of this pictorial transformation is only demonstrable because the long 2007-2017 restoration was temporarily halted to allow the painting to rub shoulders with Leonardo and others at the National Gallery in 2011-12.

Above, Fig. 9: Left, the de Ganay Salvator Mundi; centre, the Wenceslaus Hollar etched copy; right, the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi.

While both above paintings depart from the Hollar copy, they do so differently. Such variations speak against the Abu Dhabi painting being an original autograph prototype for all others. In one respect, Hollar comes close to recording a unique feature of the Abu Dhabi picture – the closely cropped composition around the hand holding the orb in the bottom right-hand corner of the composition – see Fig. 11. Against that local similarity, the Abu Dhabi picture departs from Hollar (and all other painted versions) with its aberrantly wide, chipmunk-like face. In every other version, Christ has a long narrow face that tapers downward from the widest point at about the level of the eyes. Uniquely, the Abu Dhabi face is widest at a level a little above the mouth. It also lacks the pronounced beard that was recorded by Hollar and is widely encountered among the variants. Such icongraphic deviations make it inconceivable that the Abu Dhabi picture was recorded by Hollar in 1650.

Above, Fig. 10: Top, left, the 1650 Hollar etching; top, right the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi, as it was when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12. Above, left, a portrait of Henrietta Maria by van Dyck; above right, a copy by Hollar of a similar van Dyck portrait of Henrietta Maria.

When comparing etchings to paintings allowances have to be made for restoration injuries and falsifications to the latter and for the fact that copyists do not make “photographically” accurate facsimiles. Nonetheless, claims that Hollar’s copy was made from the Abu Dhabi painting are insupportable. In his 2011 catalogue entry, Luke Syson acknowledged that “the fit” between the print and the painting was not a complete one:

“It has always seemed likely that Leonardo painted a picture of Christ as the Saviour of the World. In 1650 the celebrated printmaker Wenceslaus Hollar signed an etching of Christ raising his right hand in blessing, holding a transparent orb in his left, with a nimbus of light behind his head: the image was taken he states, from a painting by Leonardo. Though Hollar was generally well-informed, this would not be enough on its own to prove that an autograph picture by Leonardo had once existed…Though Hollar’s Christ is very slightly stouter and broader, the two images coincide almost exactly. The draperies are just a little simplified and there is no glow of light around Christ’s head. Otherwise the newly discovered painting has the same…etc.”

Hollar recorded three sources of light in the picture he copied, not the single ineffectual one encountered in the Abu Dhabi painting. Hollar’s overall disposition of tonal values is greatly more vivacious and lucid. Light falling on Christ from above left creates a consistent shift from the (viewer’s) brightly lit left side of Christ to his shaded right side. Variations of shading on the drapery at Christ’s left shoulder cause the figure to turn away from the viewer and recede into shadow. Christ, emits his own illumination. So does the globe as light accumulates around its circumference. The inner fold on the drapery of Christ’s raised arm casts a shadow on the tunic’s folds. In Hollar a clear, plastically expressive distinction exists between the arm’s draperies and the tunic. Throughout, Hollar recorded a progressive disposition of lights and darks to establish form and space. Although the above Hollar van Dyck copy is not taken from the adjacent van Dyck painting it demonstrates how faithfully Hollar captured Henrietta Maria’s mouth’s upturned corners. Had he made his copy from the Abu Dhabi picture, would he have turned the corners of Christ’s mouth upwards? On the superiority of the print over the painting in 2011, see below. But first, hear Leonardo on his lights and shades:

“The primary purpose of the painter is to make a plane surface display a body in relief, detached from the plane, and he who in that art most surpasses others deserves most praise, and this concern, which is the crown of the science of painting, comes about from the use of shadows and lights, or, if you wish, brightness and darkness. Therefore whoever avoids shadows avoids what is the glory of the art for noble minds, but gains glory with the ignorant public, who want nothing in painting but the beauty of colour, altogether forgetting the beauty and marvel of depicting a relief on what in reality is a plane surface.”

Above, Fig. 11: Left, a detail of Hollar’s 1650 etching; right, a detail of the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi as it was when offered for sale by Christie’s, New York, in November 2017.

It strikes again how greatly more vivacious and lucid is the etched copy than the Abu Dhabi painting. It might be objected that painters work on a larger scale and have greatly more pictorial weapons at their disposal than the tones of etchers who must say everything with monochromatic drawing and shading. But, as seen, Leonardo embraced such pictorial self-restraint as the most precious tool in the painter’s box.

We mentioned the coincidence of design and composition in this section of the painting: the knuckles of the hand rest in both cases on the bottom of the composition and the protruding thumb seems equally constrained. Those coincidences notwithstanding, even in this section the differences are legion. In the painting the thumb is cropped at the picture’s edge – and not because the picture was trimmed. The panel had been set in its frame and only then prepared for painting, as a build-up of priming and paint along the edge testifies. Whoever painted this picture was careless with its design. It is possible that the artist had transferred a cartoon onto a too-small painting and ran out of space along the right-hand edge. This Salvator Mundi figure is not just cropped above the waist as are a number of Leonardo figures, it is also severely cropped on both sides. Such a design would not be shocking in our age of photography but it was unprecedented in Leonardo’s own finished work. While there are similarities in this corner, they are confined to the design alone and not to the content within.

Uniquely, in Abu Dhabi picture the visible palm of the globe-supporting hand is massive and anatomically indeterminate. Professor Kemp holds that this unclarity is a pentimento and, hence, a token of authenticity. But the hand was drawn differently in all other versions, including Hollar’s. Everywhere else it is optically compressed towards the circumference of the globe. Why would every school work have thus made Leonardo’s clumsily drawn effort more optically sophisticated? Why did everyone else “correct” the drawing of the thumb by placing it on a diagonal, not horizontal, axis? The prevalent top left down lighting caused three reflections in a diagonal row on the surface of the globe Hollar copied. The globe itself (necessarily one of glass on that scale, not of polished rock crystal, as Kemp insists) is radiant in Hollar: dark at its centre and with light accumulating around its circumference. Kemp remarks that he has “been asked on more than one occasion why the drapery behind the sphere is so little affected by what is in effect a large magnifying lens.” He answers that Leonardo would not have concerned himself with such natural phenomena out of respect for “decorum – that is to say pictorial good manners”. It is a stylish answer but it ignores a point I had made when the National Gallery exhibition opened (“Leonardo viewed in a curious light”, letter, The Times, 12 November 2011). Namely, that in Hollar’s copy “the folds of the drapery on Christ’s left shoulder are shown to be bent when viewed through the glass sphere.” Kemp’s ex cathedra pronouncement collides with the artistic/material facts of a work of art. This is not a question of what Leonardo would or would not have done. It is a question of what Hollar did when copying a painting he believed to be a Leonardo. As previously published and shown below, in Hollar the sweeping curve of a fold on the shoulder drapery is seen to be deflected inside the globe – and a shift of direction in a drawn image cannot be gainsaid: if a convex fold of drapery becomes concave while seen through a glass orb, that is a graphic fact, not a possibly, a perhaps, a likely or maybe. If Hollar had been copying the Abu Dhabi painting, why would he have rendered a sophisticated optical phenomenon that was not present in the painting before him?

Above, Fig. 12: Left, an illustration of a rock crystal sphere in Martin Kemp’s book Living with Leonardo; right, the globe in the now lost Salvator Mundi that was formerly in the Worsey and Yarborough Collections, England.

Kemp writes that the most satisfactory facet of his own research concerned his hunch the globe was made of rock crystal. He looked at specimens of crystal spheres – all small – and realised that large crystal spheres would “exhibit both inclusions and jagged cleavage planes, compromising the ‘purity’ for which the best crystal is prized.” On the abnormally large hand seen through the globe, he writes:

“I had toyed with the idea that the double image of the of the heel of Christ’s right hand [sic] visible through the sphere might be the result of the double refraction characteristic of rock crystal; but the optics would not work. The apparent doubling is almost certainly another pentimento.”

The above crystal sphere Kemp examined at Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History was under two inches wide and therefore “quite large as such spheres go”. Reproducing the lighting direction in the Abu Dhabi picture had confirmed that there should have been (as there is in Hollar) a shiny highlight in the upper left:

“He is unlikely to have left this out, and it seemed likely that the raised area of white pigment had been abraded off at some point in the painting’s chequered history.”

Above, Fig. 13: In the top row diagrams we see, left, how, in Hollar, the globe’s reflected lights are aligned with the directional lighting and not as found in the 2017 state of the Abu Dhabi picture on the right. We see on the left (black dotted line) how the sweeping curved fold of drapery is deflected when viewed through the globe. While Kemp says that the original properly placed highlight on the globe must have been abraded off, he offers no explanation for the three randomly placed, unaligned “reflections” that emerged during the cleaning. If they were not added during the past restoration they must have been painted out previously. As seen in the television screen-grab at Fig. 1, there was no trace left in place of any impastoed white reflections when the painting was presented for restoration in 2005. One correspondent (Dr. Stefaan Missinne) has suggested that the three present lights were a depiction of a cluster of stars seen in the Southern hemisphere that had been noted in Italy in 1503. If these now miraculously recovered lights had been integral to the Abu Dhabi painting all along, they too would indicate that Hollar had made his 1650 copy from some other painting. Curiously, an alignment of lights like that seen in Hollar is present in the now lost Salvator Mundi that was formerly in the Worsey and Yarborough Collection in England (as seen above at Fig. 12).

Our glass sphere shown above is also no more than two inches in diameter. In the lower image above it rests on the photocopied sheet of diagrams that is shown here above, top. The white space between the two copied images on the sheet appears as two curving lines when viewed through the globe. We can see here how the differing degrees of refraction depend on the position within the globe. The curvature is least pronounced at the globe’s centre and increases as it approaches the circumference. The deflection on the drapery that was recorded in Hollar’s etching is consistent the distortions in evidence in the glass sphere above.

Above, Fig. 14: Left and centre, The Young Christ by Marco d’Oggiono in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, as seen before and after restoration; right, Marco d’Oggiono’s The Young Christ in the Fundación Lázaro Galdianiano, Madrid.

Luke Syson cites the Galleria Borghese picture above left and centre as a work of about 1500 that is clearly derived from the Abu Dhabi painting. The Madrid Young Christ picture, above right, was included in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 Leonardo in Milan exhibition as a newly attributed work of Marco d’Oggiono. Unlike the Abu Dhabi picture, its whereabouts in the 20th century are known. Indeed, its history is confined to that century. A work in oils on beech, its literature begins in 1910 as “circle of Leonardo” (Meier-Graef) and in 1932 it was elevated to Ambrogio de Predis by Berenson. More recently, in 1981, it was moved to “pseudo-Boltraffio” by Romano. In 1985 the “pseudo-” was dropped by Ballarin. In 1985 Marani (who has been said to support the Abu Dhabi picture) re-attached the “pseudo-”. In 1990 Baudequin gave it to Marco d’Oggiono but the following year Brown preferred Ambrogio de Predis and was supported in this by Ruiz Manero in 1996 and by Fiorio in 2000. In 2004 Saguar Quer gave it unreservedly to Boltraffio – and with “a detailed provenance” which, presumably, had not gone further back than 1910. In 2005-6 Marani suggested “a Milanese artist close to Leonardo”. In 2006-07 Danieli settled for “a Lombard painter close to Boltraffio”. (In art historical circles, “Pseudo-“ is sometimes used as polite way of saying “not kosher”.)

In the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition catalogue this work is dated to c. 1490-01 and assigned to Marco d’Oggiono by Antonio Mazzotta who notes that “this is a [Leonardo] pupil’s skilful combination of workshop models and techniques, with such a commitment to ‘academic’ rules and his master’s ideas, that the pupil here seems to be acting, in the words of William Suida, ‘as Leonardo’s right hand’.” Mazzotta points out that this work has previously been given to Boltraffio – “a hypothesis explicable in the light of its high quality and of Marco’s close working relationship with him in the 1490s. Indeed, there are many features here that evoke Boltraffio’s work: the lighting and structure of the head, hair and neck are similar to his Madonna of the Rose; the swathe of drapery over the shoulder and concertina folds of the shirt recall his early drapery studies…”

Mazzotta is somewhat back-handed in his support: while Marco’s “greyish skin tones” are similar to Boltraffio’s, the latter is more elegant and controlled. “The rather too prominent eyes are typical of Marco d’Oggiono: the sfumato modelling is applied like make-up, though the eyelids remain both flat and puffy. As a result, Marco loses control of Christ’s expression, which is at the same time melancholic and slightly gormless, an expression that strongly resembles that of the sitter for the Archinto Portrait…” The latter, a National Gallery painting in oil on walnut, was included in the 2011-12 exhibition as Marco d’Oggiono. Its literature began with Morelli in 1880 – “inadvertently by Amrogio de Predis” and at the same time “as by Bernardino dei Conti”, the latter ascription being re-affirmed by Morelli five years later…The literature ended with Syson in 2004 as “attributed to the Master of the Pala Sforzesca”.

Within this moveable feast of attribution, Marco d’Oggiono’s Madrid and Rome “Young Christs” might yet be taken as a benchmark indication of the painterly skills found in Leonardo’s studio between c. 1490 and c. 1500. Both of these school works (or pseudo-school works) reflect Leonardo’s own long-standing aversion to frontal or profile figures. Leonardo was an arch repudiator of archaistic (and, in anticipation, 20th century Modernist) affirmations of the picture plane within a painting. The planar picture surface was no more than a necessary convenience for Leonardo’s compulsion to display bodies in relief and detached from the plane. That he must have been party to the plethora of archaistic Salvator Mundis is not disputed and many see his hand in parts of the Louvre Abu Dhabi painting. Had he gone so far as to have painted an entire fully-realised autograph departure from his very hard won accomplishments it would have constituted a pictorial reversal of noteworthy surprise. Not only has there been no whisper of such an upheaval, nothing survives of any contribution other than the two sheets of drawn studies shown below.

Above, Fig. 15: The two sheets of drapery studies attributed to Leonardo and taken as preparatory studies for the Leonardesque Salvator Mundis. The main study for the costume seems taken from a garment suspended on a hanger, not worn by a person. That flattening arrangement seems to have transported itself to the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi. In the Hollar copy the concertina folds form groups that swell and catch the light accordingly. It is striking that greater variation of lighting is present in the studio work shown at Fig. 16, below, than in the now much-restored Louvre Abu Dhabi painting.

Above, Fig. 16: Top, a detail of the c. 1490 Spanish “Young Christ” of Marco d’Oggiono; above, a comparable detail from the Abu Dhabi painting.

Martin Kemp, who has championed both of recently attributed works in which Leonardo is claimed to have embraced the picture plane (- the Abu Dhabi painting and the profile drawing he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”), suggests that the Salvator Mundi appealed to its first buyer, the Russian oligarch Dimitry Rybolovlev, because “he had earlier collected Eastern Orthodox icons, and it is not difficult to see how the typically hieratic, frontal presentation of holy figures in Russian devotional images would have resonated powerfully with the traditional composition and spiritual power of the Salvator Mundi.” When addressing the painting’s spatially disjointed parts, he offers a quasi-photographic rationale:

“I wondered why Christ’s soft-focus features contrasted so strongly with the precise definition of his right hand. Was it simply a question of condition? It was true that the face was quite abraded; but even the best-preserved parts, such as his left eye, seemed blurred. Or was it was photographers call the depth of field problem? If a camera lens is physically or digitally focussed on a form at a certain depth in a scene, objects closer or further away will be out of sharp focus – increasingly so as they are more distant from the focussed zone.

“Depth of field is in photography is an anachronistic concept when looking at a Renaissance painting. However… [Leonardo] explored the reasons why vision worked less than perfectly under different circumstances. He stated that something would not be seen well if much too close, and it would lose clarity as it moved further away (though he did not have any sense that the lens of the eye focuses our vision). He realized that there was an optimum distance at which some something would be seen most sharply. Christ’s hands are at that distance. The softening of Christ’s more distant facial features works to define depth in an image that is otherwise very shallow, and serves brilliantly to evoke the otherness of Christ’s gaze.”

Kemp, presumably, is talking about the painting as when sold last year, not as it was when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011. His “vari-focal” thesis addresses neither the evidence of Hollar’s copy nor the transformation by restoration the painting underwent from 2006 to 2017. On Kemp’s schema the tip of the nose would be in sharper focus than any other part of the face. In truth the most obtrusively sharp distinction encountered on this inconsistently rendered face remains the emphatic and anatomically ill-drawn crease above the true left eyelid at the brow. Where Kemp talks of the “softened” “otherness” of Christ’s gaze, he does not address the fact that the irises in Hollar eyes were not dreamily forward-looking but cast rightwards almost as if looking over his raised blessing fingers. There is no hint of an overhanging upper lip in Hollar, his lower lip protrudes. Throughout the etching, light falls even-handedly so as to illuminate by light and shade the three-dimensional forms of the figure. A full range of tones renders the blessing hand “emphatic” but it is no more so than the forms of the face. In fact there is a parity of graphic force between the hand, the face and the orb and the only retiring passage falls between, in the treatment of the costume. But even in that recorded quiet zone if we look at the Leonardesque concertina folds in the two comparative details above, who would say that the Louvre Abu Dhabi displays superior artistry?

Above, Fig. 17: Top, a detail, of Leonardo’s La belle ferronnière of about 1493-1494; above, a detail of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Leonardo Salvator Mundi which is generally dated by its supporters as c. 1500. For Kemp it is taken as c. 1504-1507, having been painted between the Mona Lisa of c. 1503-1516 and the St. John the Baptist of 1513-1516. Viewing drapery seen in the earlier Leonardo La belle ferronnière, could anyone hold that the Salvator Mundi drapery above showed superior painting technique or a more vividly tangible body?

Above, Fig. 18: Top, the Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi detail; above, a detail of the Mona Lisa. Quality aside, what would explain the manifest differences of age in the two details? Why has the paint cracked so markedly in one work and retained such a youthful bloom in the other?

Above, Fig. 19: A detail, top, of a copy of Leonardo’s (then-unfinished) Mona Lisa that has been attributed to his assistant Salai; above the detail of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi. Although the flesh passages in the two works are comparably smooth, bland and unblemished, could anyone claim that the handling of the hair, the knot patterning and the drapery folds in the Salvator Mundi is superior to that seen in the copy above?

More detailed examinations of parts of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Salvator Mundi painting will be carried in future posts.
Past posts, in chronological order, were:

23 October 2017 – Leonardo, Salvator Mundi, and an “unusual lapse”
14 November 2017 – Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation
02 February 2018 – The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is
12 February 2018 – A day in the life of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Annexe’s pricey new Leonardo Salvator Mundi
27 February 2018 – Nouveau riche? Welcome to the Club!
11 March 2018 – The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi

Michael Daley, 18 September 2018


The Leonardo Salvator Mundi Saga: Three Developments

“The more I read it, the more it looks probable.”

Above, Salvator Mundi, the painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and sold at auction in 2017 for $450 million. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images – as published on 2 April 2018 in Buffalo News

The sensational Mail Online story (“EXCLUSIVE: The world’s most expensive painting cost $450 MILLION because two Arab princes bid against each other by mistake and wouldn’t back down (but settled by swapping it for a yacht”) discussed here in this News & Notices post, has been questioned or disparaged by a number of commentators but not directly challenged by Christie’s, so far as we know. On March 30 Bendor Grosvenor wrote (“Who underbid the Salvator Mundi?):

“I’m sceptical about this version of events. First, the source seems determined to prove mainly that the picture is somehow ‘not worth’ what it made – the figure of $80m is mentioned – when there were other underbidders up to the $200m level. Second, I’ve been told that the underbidder to $400m was not from the Middle East, from a source who would know.”

Had Grosvenor’s source been correct and the Mail’s story, thus, been seriously misleading, one would expect Christie’s’ lawyers to have demanded either changes to the online article or its removal. Grosvenor’s seeming partisanship on the Salvator Mundi case takes two forms. As well as knocking the knockers, he hypes his brother-auctioneers’ hype, as, on November 12 2017 (“Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ to be sold at Christie’s”):

“I love this video of people seeing Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi. Christie’s say 20,000 have been to see the painting on its world tour. I’ve been impressed by how Christie’s have marketed the picture – in fact, I’d say that they’ve taken marketing Old Masters to a whole new level. A well deserved AHN pat on the back to all involved. The sale is on Wednesday 15th November. Anyone care to make a prediction?”

On November 16, the day after the $450m sale, Grosvenor was ecstatically supportive (“’Salvator Mundi’ – the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction”):

“Christie’s just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off. They marketed the picture brilliantly – the best piece of art marketing I’ve ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN congratulates them all.”

Pace Grosvenor and his sources, questions on Christie’s marketing of the Salvator Mundi persist. The whispering campaign against the Mail’s disclosures has not worked. In this weekend’s Financial Times the author Melanie Gerlis closed her art market column with the item below:

As things stand, no one has disproved the Mail’s suggestion that the (disputed) Leonardo Salvator Mundi has been swapped for a luxury yacht. In her book Art as Investment, Gerlis noted that because the “worth and price are known to only a few” in an art market that is underpinned by a lack of “verifiable and meaningful data”, those looking to art purely as a secure investment “might first consider looking elsewhere.”

With the Salvator Mundi, some 13 years after its emergence, we still do not know when, where and by whom the painting was bought. There have been many conflicting accounts on the work’s ownership (see below). In the April 6 Antiques and Arts Weekly, the New York dealer Dr Robert Simon was asked: “Can you say where you found Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’?” He replied:

“Alex and I acquired the painting at an estate auction in the United States, but we’ve never divulged the location of the auction. We were not permitted to, according to the terms of the confidentiality agreement we signed at the time we sold the painting.”

The sale was conducted privately in 2013 through Sotheby’s when it was acquired by the “Freeport King”, Yves Bouvier, who was acting as an agent for the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev. Did Sotheby’s insist that the origin of the picture not be disclosed? Or Bouvier? Whomever – the enforced confidentiality clause was made eight years after the claimed discovery/acquisition in 2005. However constricting the terms of the 2013 sale agreement might have been, they could hardly account for the non-disclosure of the owners’ identities for the previous eight years – including the time the picture spent in the National Gallery. When the Salvator Mundi was about to enter the Gallery’s big Leonardo show in 2011 as an autograph Leonardo, the Sunday Times reported:

“Its ownership is a closely guarded secret. Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, is representing the owner, or owners – the official line is it is a ‘consortium’.”

Why, then, did the National Gallery agree to participate in this secrecy on the ownership of a painting whose (contested) Leonardo ascription had been supported by the gallery’s own director; by one of its curators; and, by one of its trustees?

Another of the scholar-supporters of this upgraded Leonardo is Professor Martin Kemp. In 2011 Kemp told the Sunday Times how he had been invited to view the work by the National Gallery (“there’s something it’s worth you coming in to look at”, was how Kemp put it). Kemp described entering the National Gallery’s conservation studios and joining “a little group of people, including some Leonardo scholars from Italy and America, and Robert Simon.” Robert Simon had been accompanied on that trip by the Salvator Mundi’s restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini. In 2012 Modestini would deliver a paper on the picture’s (then) two restoration campaigns at a conference held in the National Gallery.

FRESH CLAIMS

On April 6 Buffalo News reported that Dianne Modestini was to speak on April 9 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo State and was about to make two new claims.

First, that she and her late husband, the restorer Mario Modestini, had entertained no doubts that this was an autograph Leonardo painting: “We were completely convinced and we felt that we could justify this to anyone without sounding like idiots.” This goes further than Modestini’s 2012 paper: “…when I first saw it I never imagined what would transpire with this lovely but damaged painting on panel…I wasn’t aware of a lost, much-copied Salvator Mundi by Leonardo and I was perplexed. I showed the painting to my then 98 year old husband, Mario…He looked at it for a long time and said, ‘It is by a very great artist, a generation after Leonardo’.”

Second, that no technical evidence had emerged to confirm authorship by Leonardo. Modestini reportedly said that what made her so sure was not “the discovery of any single clue attributable to the master’s style or any technical element of the painting that could be traced to his hand, but rather the quality of the painting”. There was “no under-drawing for example, that was Leonardo’s drawing style, or anything like that. The pigments are the pigments that any one of his contemporaries could have used, and did.” This attribution was entirely a matter of judgment: “the quality of the painting, the sort of old-fashioned connoisseurship and skills, which art historians have always used to make an attribution, were in the end the telling factor for us.”

Those present at her lecture might have learnt why a painting that had so soon revealed itself as an autograph Leonardo to two experienced restorers and in which “apart from the discrete losses, the flesh tones of the face retain their entire structure, including the final scumbles and glazes” had needed a third campaign of restoration with substantial repainting of the face, some time between 2016 (when the Qataris reportedly turned down a private offer of the painting for $80m) and the spectacular $450m sale at Christie’s on 15 November 2017 amidst modern works, not old masters.

A NEW BOOK – FURTHER COMPLICATIONS

Above: left, Peter Silverman, the owner of the drawing “La Bella Principessa”; right, Professor Martin Kemp, author of the 2010 book “La Bella Principessa” – The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: as published in Martin Kemp’s Living With Leonardo

Professor Martin Kemp has published a new book (Living with Leonardo – Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond) in which he pays a back-handed compliment to ArtWatch in his second chapter: “Theirs has been the most sustained and fully researched of the hostile polemics”. Elsewhere he launches a series of slurs against three named ArtWatch UK contributors and officers in defence of his own support for two recently attributed Leonardos, the Salvator Mundi painting, and the mixed media drawing on vellum glued onto oak, that he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”. The slurs will be refuted, but we note here that Kemp has now provided a fuller, and apparently verbatim, account of the National Gallery’s invitation to him to view the Salvator Mundi:

“On 5 March 2008, my birthday, an email arrived, announcing the appearance of a new Leonardo – a painting rather than a drawing […It] came from a well known source: Nicholas Penny, then director of the National Gallery in London.

“I would like to invite you to examine a damaged old painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi which is in private hands in New York. Now it has been cleaned, Luke Syson and I, together with our colleagues in both paintings and drawings in the Met, are convinced that it is Leonardo’s original version, although some of us consider that there may be [parts? – Kemp’s parenthesis] which are by the workshop. We hope to have the painting in the National Gallery sometime later in March or in April so that it can be examined next to our version of the Virgin of the Rocks. The best preserved passages in the Salvator Mundi panel are very similar to parts of the latter painting. Would you be free to come to London at any time in this period? We are only inviting two or three scholars.”

The following observations on that stage of the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo accreditation might be made:

1) The method of inviting successive select groups of scholars to see and appraise the painting in the prior knowledge of others’ support for the new attribution might be thought to have fallen short of the National Gallery’s own practices. When Nicholas Penny, as a curator at the National Gallery, proposed the Northumberland version of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks as the original painted prototype of the very many versions, he first published a thorough and well-received scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine, and later invited a group of some thirty Raphael scholars to discuss the matter during a day-long symposium at the National Gallery.

2) With this Salvator Mundi upgrade, none of the fifteen or so invited experts has published a case for the attribution. Robert Simon has yet to publish the researches to which both Modestini’s restoration report and Luke Syson’s exhibition catalogue entry were indebted. It is not clear whether Modestini was present when the painting was examined at the National Gallery. Kemp writes in his new book:

“No one in this assembly was openly expressing doubt that Leonardo was responsible for the painting, although the possibility of participation by an assistant or two was generally acknowledged. I sensed that Carmen [Bambach, of the Metropolitan Museum drawings] was the most reserved about the painting’s overall quality. A general discussion followed. Robert Simon, the custodian of the picture (whom I later learnt was its co-owner), outlined something of its history and its restoration. He seemed sincere, straightforward and judiciously restrained, as proved to be the case in all our subsequent contacts…”

Carmen Bambach rejected the Leonardo attribution in a 2012 Apollo review of the National Gallery exhibition and gave the painting to Leonardo’s student Boltraffio. Ironically, the Times reported on 9 April 2017 that Kemp has now demoted the Hermitage Museum’s Litta Madonna (which was included as a Leonardo in the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition) from Leonardo to Boltraffio.

3) After seeing the Salvator Mundi next to the National Gallery’s version of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (which is to say, its second version), Dianne Modestini was inspired to change the appearance of the former:

“There were actually two stages of the current restoration. In 2008 when it went to London to be studied by several Leonardo experts, there was less retouching. I hadn’t replaced the glazes on the orb, finished the eyes, suppressed the pentimenti on the thumb and stole, and several other small details but, chiefly, the painting still had the mud-coloured modern background that was close in tone to the hair. Two years later I was troubled by the way the background encroached upon the head, trapping it in the same plane as the background. Having seen the richness of the well-preserved browns and blacks in the London Virgin of the Rocks and based on fragments of the black background which had not been covered up by the repainting, I suggested to the owners that it might be worthwhile to try to recover the original background and finish the complete restoration.”

Thus, Modestini had intervened radically on the painting shortly before it was included in the National Gallery’s major 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition and two years after it was appraised by selected Leonardo scholars at the National Gallery.

4) Restoration campaigns, like wars, are easy to start. In 2012 Modestini acknowledged an ambition to finish a “complete restoration”, after seeing the National Gallery’s restored Virgin of the Rocks. Permission, she recalled, was granted to strip and repaint the entire background:

“The initial cleaning [i. e. paint and varnish removal] was promising especially where the verdigris had preserved the original layers. Unfortunately, in the upper parts of the background, the paint had been scraped down to the ground and in some cases the wood itself. Whether or not I would have begun had I known, is a moot point. Since the putty and overpaint were quite thick I had no choice but to remove them completely. I repainted the large missing areas in the upper part of the painting with ivory black and a little cadmium light red, followed by a glaze of rich warm brown, then more black and vermilion. Between stages I distressed and then retouched the new paint to make it look antique. The new colour then freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image.”

5) “Restorations”, which might more accurately be described as “stripped and painted re-presentations commissioned by owners”, are rarely straightforward and unproblematic. Modestini made her decisions in the sincere belief that the London Virgin of the Rocks is an entirely autograph Leonardo painting and therefore a reliable guide to her own interventions on the Salvator Mundi. However, that Leonardo attribution has only been widely thought to be the case since the painting’s recent restoration. Kenneth Clark, when director of the National Gallery thought otherwise. In 1944 he said of the head of the picture’s angel: “This is one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable, not only in the full, simple modelling, but in the drawing of the hair. The curls around the shoulder have exactly the same movement as Leonardo’s drawings of swirling water. Beautiful as it is, this angel lacks the enchantment of the lighter, more Gothic angel in the Paris version…” Of the head of the Virgin, Clark wrote:

“…It is uncertain how much of this replica [of the first, Louvre, Virgin of the Rocks] he [Leonardo] executed with his own hand, and this head of the Virgin is the most difficult part of the problem. It is too heavy and lifeless for Leonardo and the actual type is un-Leonardesque; yet it is painted in exactly the same technique as the angel’s head in the same picture; and that is so perfect that Leonardo must surely have had a hand in it. Both show curious marks of palm and thumb…made when the paint was wet, and no doubt covered by glazes long since removed. This perhaps is a clue to the problem. A pupil did the main work of drawing and modelling, and before the paint was dry Leonardo put in the finishing touches. Most of these have been removed from the Virgin’s face but remain in the angel’s, where perhaps they were always more numerous.”

Above, top: The head of the Virgin in the National Gallery’s (second) version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, as published in 1944 in Kenneth Clark’s One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery. Above, the Head of the Virgin as published in the 1990 re-issue of Clark’s “Details” book and, therefore, after its post-war restoration by Helmut Ruhemann but before its more recent re-restoration by Larry Keith (in which the mouth of the Angel was altered, on Luke Syson’s advice, as discussed here in “Something Not Quite Right About Leonardo’s Mouth ~ The Rise and Rise of Cosmetically Altered Art”).

Above, the face in the accredited Leonardo da Vinci Salvator Mundi, as exhibited, left, in the National Gallery in 2011-12, and, right, as when sold at Christie’s in November 2017.

In 1990 the National Gallery remarked that “as a result of” the picture’s 1949 restoration “the differences between the heads are perhaps less apparent”. That being so, either one face had received new glazing or the other had lost original glazing. For Kemp, a crucial technical proof of Leonardo’s authorship of the Salvator Mundi is the fact that technical examinations had disclosed that “As is generally the case with Leonardo, infrared rays delivered the most striking results. It was good to be able to see that the artist had pressed his hand in to the tacky paint above Christ’s left eye – which we have seen to be characteristic of Leonardo’s technique.”

THE UNDERSTANDING TODAY ON THE SALVATOR MUNDI’S OWNERSHIP BETWEEN 2005 AND 2013

In his seventh chapter (“The Saviour”) Kemp twice discusses the ownership of the Salvator Mundi. He does so first with regard to the exclusion from the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition of the “La Bella Principessa” drawing (– whose Leonardo ascription he has energetically advocated):

“This episode highlighted the rationale for the inclusion of the Salvator Mundi. Was it on the market? Would exhibiting it mean that the National Gallery was tacitly involved in a huge act of commercial promotion? It seemed highly likely that it was also ‘in the trade’ [like the ‘La Bella Principessa’]. All I knew at this stage [2011] was that it was being represented by Robert Simon. He told me that it was in the hands of a ‘good owner’ who intended to do the right thing by it, and I did not inquire any further.”

So, it would seem that the National Gallery had not disclosed the identity of the owner/owners to the scholars it invited to appraise the painting. Kemp continued:

“I was keen to consider the painting in its own right, not in relation to its ownership. I speculated, of course, that Robert might have a financial interest, perhaps a share in its ownership; and I assumed that he was gaining some kind of legitimate income from his work on the picture’s behalf. But the gallery was assured that the work was not on the market. Understandably keen to exhibit it, they were happy to accept this assurance…Might the Salvator have been less well regarded if its messy sale [in 2013, privately through Sotheby’s] to Bouvier [for $80m – $68m in cash and a Picasso valued at $12m, according to Georgina Adam in her “Dark Side of the Boom” book] and its resale [to Dimitry Rybolovlev for $127.5m] had been apparent before its public debut [at the National Gallery in 2011-12]? It has turned out to be a substantial mess. In November 2016, an article in The New York Times reported the latest developments: three ‘art traders’ (Robert Simon, Warren Adelson and Alexander Parrish) were disconcerted to find that painting was ‘flipped’ by Bouvier for $47.5m more than their selling price. Was Sotheby’s a knowing party to the the resale? The auction house claimed that it was not, taking pre-emptive legal action to block any law suit by the ‘traders’….It was however a great surprise to find that the Salvator was to be sold at Christie’s in New York on 15 November 2017 at a mega-auction of celebrity works from the modern era. The auctioneers sent the painting on a glamorous marketing tour of Hong Kong, San Francisco and London. I was approached by the auctioneers to confirm my research and agreed to record a video interview to combat the misinformation appearing in the press – providing I was not drawn into the actual sale process.”

Where would we be without a free and vigilant press? Where, precisely, is the $450m Salvator Mundi today?

Michael Daley, 10 April 2018


The $450m New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part II: It Restores, It Sells, therefore It Is

ITEM 1: “Thomas Campbell, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, held that while the price was ‘eye-popping, it should come as no surprise in a market where speculation, marketing and branding have displaced connoisseurship as the metrics of value’. Todd Levin, an art adviser, told the New York Times: ‘This was a thumping epic triumph of branding and desire over connoisseurship and reality.’” – The Guardian 16 November 2017

ITEM 2: “The freakish sale of the Leonardo work – or, according to the detractors, the remains of a historic picture very partially by Leonardo and very largely by the hand of skilled restorers – caused not only incredulity and amazement but also a sort of stunned revulsion. This, some people felt, was just too mad. It was perhaps the first inkling that a market that is undeniably exciting and exhilarating might be on the edge of becoming seriously troubling.” – “The $400m question”, Jan Dalley, the Financial Times, 9/10 December 2017

ITEM 3: “Questions about Salvator Mundi’s authenticity, quality, and physical state were no match for the drive to possess this singular trophy. The acquisition also uniquely encapsulated art’s evolving role in the manufacture of soft-power and negotiation of geopolitics.” “The Year in Visual Culture”, an Artsy editorial, 22 December 2017 [emphasis added]

ITEM 4: “As Christie’s aggressively marketed Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi before the work sold for an astonishing $450m last November, the art world raged anew with questions about the painting’s attribution– even though London’s National Gallery had largely settled the debate by including the work in its 2011-12 Leonardo show.” – Judith H. Dobrzynski, The Art Newspaper, January 2018 [emphasis added].

ITEM 5: “The painting Salvator Mundi will be shown at The National Gallery, London, exhibition: “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan” from 9 November 2011 – 5 February 2012.
Leonardo is known [sic] to have painted the Salvator Mundi – an image of Christ holding a globe, with his right hand raised in blessing. The version in a private collection in New York was shown after cleaning to the Director of the National Gallery and to the Curator of the exhibition as well as to other scholars in the field. We felt that it would be of great interest to include this painting in the exhibition as a new discovery. It will be presented as the work of Leonardo, and this will obviously be an important opportunity to test this new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s. A separate press release on the Salvator Mundi is issued by the owner.”
– A National Gallery press statement, July 2011

ITEM 6: “By 1500 onwards, the period in which the painted panel is said to have been executed, for want of time, Leonardo produced few works. Fra Pietro da Novellara, who visited his studio in April 1501, reported: ‘His mathematical researches have so much distracted him that he can’t stand the brush’, and, he added, ‘Two of his pupils make copies to which he adds some touches from time to time’. In 1501, he was commissioned to produce a Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Florimond Robertet (the French King Louis XII’s secretary) at the time when he was already creating both the major group The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’ and the phenomenally accomplished Mona Lisa. Both panels were seen during their executions in October 1503 by Agostino Vespucci, an assistant of Machiavelli at the Signoria in Florence but he, too, made no reference to a Salvator Mundi. Giorgio Vasari says of the Mona Lisa’s execution that Leonardo, as a meticulous and slow-working painter had ‘toiled over it for four years’. Between May and August 1502 until early 1503 Leonardo was committed with Cesare Borgia as an architect and general engineer in the Marches and Romagna. He was then fully employed by the City of Florence during the Summer of 1503 as a military architect and, two or three months later, he worked fully on the commission of a huge mural (the now destroyed Battle of Anghiari) until late May 1506, before travelling between Florence and Milan up to mid 1508, because of his appointment as painter and engineer to the French King while serving Charles II d’Amboise, the new governor of Milan. Because of such taxing commitments – and all of the above were in addition to his intense scientific researches and literary activities – Leonardo increasingly resorted to workshop productions from 1500 onwards. The Salvator Mundi must, of necessity, be thought to be one of those works and, given the preceding it is very likely that a fully original version never existed.” – Jacques Franck, “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”, 14 November 2017

ITEM 7: “The Board asked to be reminded of the Gallery’s policy on display of loan paintings which were or had been for sale. The Deputy Director confirmed that the Gallery would not display on long term loan any painting which was known to be for sale. In relation to exhibition loans, the Gallery would weigh up the advantage to the exhibition in including it: the benefit to the public in seeing the work and its contribution to the argument and scholarship of the exhibition as a whole. The work would be included solely on its own merits. The argument for the inclusion of such a work would usually be presented in the exhibition catalogue.”Minutes of the National Gallery Board of Trustees – July 2011

ITEM 8: “One scholar [invited to see the Salvator Mundi] said that the consortium had turned down an offer of $100m for the painting. ‘I was told they’re asking $200m for it’” – Milton Esterow, “UPDATED: A Long Lost LeonardoARTnews, August 2011

“It’s a historic moment: we’ll wait”, said Christie’s Global President and auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkänen, when bidding dried on the New York Salvator Mundi at the 15 November 2017 sale of modern art. It was certainly unprecedented. In the excitement no one noticed (or divulged) that what smashed records and had sleeper-hunting dealers swooning over prospective $1billion privately-owned Leonardo studio works was not the last Leonardo in private hands, let alone Leonardo’s male “Mona Lisa”, as Christie’s claimed, but, rather, a switch in which a twice-restored and substantially repainted work (Fig. 1, below left), which no expert between 1900 and 2007 had ever thought a Leonardo, was re-presented in a further cosmetically-restored and modernised form – “Every generation finds its own Leonardo”, it has been remarked. (See Fig. 1, below right). To put it another way, what fetched nearly half a billion dollars was the third state of an intermittent twelve-year long twenty-first century restoration-in-progress during which the restorer had first re-restored her own restoration after looking at the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery, and then re-restored it again at some undisclosed point or points between February 2012 and November 2017.

A RESTORATION SWITCH

01 New Fig. 1 double zoll

Above, Fig. 1: The attributed New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi as exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12, left; and, right, as sold by Christie’s New York on 15 November 2017. The picture above right is not the same as that above left. (To see how the two halves of the face are now disconnected, see Fig.17 below.) So when; on whose authorisation; and, on what rationale was the one eclipsed by the other? The Salvator Mundi returned to New York in 2012 from the National Gallery and was sold the following year for $80m to a Russian collector’s agent. Had it been re-restored before that 2013 sale? Or while in Russia? Or when at Christie’s prior to its 15 November 2017 sale?

The first two restoration campaigns between 2005 and 2010 were said to have recovered a Leonardo but we do not know who first thought or said this. We do know that before 2007 none of the parties involved in the upgrading attribution thought the picture a Leonardo – not the then owners (a consortium with two identified members); not the restorer, Dianne Dwyer Modestini; not the restorer’s husband, [the now late] Mario Modestini. Mario, a man with an experienced Leonardo eye who had been commended by Berenson to clean the Kress pictures, who had attributed the Ginevra de Benci to Leonardo, who had reputedly brought a restoration-wrecked Rubens back from the dead, and who had wept for half an hour after seeing the National Gallery’s restoration-ruined pictures, thought the painting by a great artist a generation after Leonardo. In 2012 Frank Zöllner, the author of Leonardo’s catalogue raisonné (who had not been consulted on the new work’s authorship) saw the restored picture’s sfumato as being closer to a talented Leonardo pupil of the 1520s than to Leonardo himself. Zöllner further felt that the very extensive restoration of this “badly damaged painting” had made any assessment of the original condition extremely difficult.

Christie’s spoke of an unusually broad consensus of expert support but the group consulted was small – approximately fifteen compared with the thirty invited to appraise the version of the Madonna of the Pinks that was upgraded to Raphael after a National Gallery symposium and a major scholarly article in the Burlington Magazine (February 1992). With this Salvator Mundi upgrade, none of the invited experts has published a case for the attribution but the ascription was endorsed by the National Gallery and the picture was included in its major 2011-12 “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” exhibition as “a work in which Leonardo set out to make his divine inspiration obvious to all”.

What had the undisclosed subsequent third restoration hoped to achieve – a better-than divinely inspired Leonardo? If an institutionally-celebrated Leonardo can be improved by a restorer, is the restorer a better artist than Leonardo – or a medium through whom he still paints? A question that might be considered is: Was the latest re-restoration undertaken to bolster an attribution rejected by four scholars in 2012 when reviewing the National Gallery exhibition, and challenged the year before – without apparent reply – in three Times letters (see Fig. 16 and ITEMS 5 and 7 above).

02 Fig. 10 garethHead 05 - to common areas after distortion

Above, Fig. 2: Detail – left, the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi, as at the National Gallery in 2011-12 and, right, as when up for sale at Christie’s New York on 15 November 2017.

Christie’s 2017 lot essay noted a “completion of conservation treatment in 2010” and gave no hint of a post-2012 restoration. Even though the painting had been known since 1900 in England as a Leonardo school work, had been rejected by Bernard Berenson, and had been spurned in Sotheby’s saleroom by Kenneth Clark in 1958 when it fetched £45, the National Gallery gave no hint of any further need for restoration when discussing the painting in its catalogue entry in 2011. Shortly before November 2017 the latest unacknowledged transformation was hiding in plain view in a subliminally brief time-lapse video puff where the painting morphs “miraculously” to a religiose musical accompaniment from its 1913 condition into its most recently restored state. This marketing wizardry can still be seen on the Guardian’s website here.

EVIDENCE OF AN UNDISCLOSED CAMPAIGN OF ALTERATION

03 New Fig. 2 Drapery detail as restored 2007-2011, left

Above, Fig. 3: Left, the drapery at the left shoulder of Christ, in 2011-2012 at the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition; and, right, in Christie’s 15 November 15, 2018, sale.

In December 2017, Christie’s was presented with photographic evidence assembled by Dr Martin Pracher, a German Lecturer in technical art history, and an assessor of paintings’ condition, that showed changes to the shoulder drapery between 2012 and 2017. A spokeswoman disclosed that the picture’s original (2005-10) restorer, Dianne Modestini, had worked on the painting “Prior to its presentation for sale at Christie’s”. (See “Auctioneers Christie’s admit Leonardo da Vinci painting which became world’s most expensive artwork when it sold for £340m has been retouched in the last five years”.) Specifically: “Modestini partially cleaned the passage of paint in the shoulder and the dark streaks disappeared”. The spokeswoman added: “To imply something incorrect has taken place would itself be incorrect”. The recently “disappeared” folds, it was insisted, were not folds but “dark streaks” that appeared accidentally during the 2005-2010 restoration.

WHEN IS A STREAK NOT A STREAK?

In support of this claim, Christie’s cited part of the restorer’s report – “The Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci rediscovered History, technique and condition”. The auction house declined to supply the whole report to the Daily Mail even though it had been presented at a National Gallery conference in 2012 and published in 2014 in Leonardo da Vinci’s Technical Practice: Paintings Drawings and Influence, Edited by Michel Menu, Hermann, Paris. This selective presentation of a documentary record was seriously misleading. It was true that Modestini had claimed in her report that the changes were not changes to the forms of the drapery – “the black streaks at the [true] left shoulder of the Salvator Mundi’s blue mantle are not pleats…They are marks caused by the deterioration of the blue pigment made from the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli…” – but that claim was quite implausible because material decomposition cannot mimic artistic designs and, besides, it was abandoned by Modestini herself in the same report when she acknowledged that the changes were changes to the drapery. The changes, she explained, were unintended consequences of invasive cleaning solvents: “Unexpectedly, the shadows of the folds over the proper left shoulder… became progressively stronger.” [Emphasis added.] Of those shaded folds: “I did not reinforce them… the effect of normal solvents, acetone, mineral spirits and ethyl alcohol mixtures, the initial varnish, and intermediate local varnishes containing ethyl alcohol, reformed the blanching to some degree…”

Photographic evidence published in Modestini’s report offers some credence to her solvent-led explanation (see Figs 5-7) but Christie’s December 2017 response strained credulity further with the extended claim that Modestini’s cleaning solvents, having first made visible what had been invisible, had recently made invisible what they had made visible a decade earlier. We sketch an alternative and more plausible hypothesis.

CHANGED DRAPERY DESIGN

06 [6] three shoulders (3)

Above, Fig. 4: In this greyscale sequence, we see the shoulder as exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12, left; as seen, centre, at Christie’s November 2017 (after Modestini’s only recently acknowledged intervention); and, right, as in an earlier infra-red image.

THE SALVATOR MUNDI ATTRIBUTION PROBLEM

In view of this work’s extraordinary recent conservation history and its extremely poor provenance, there are only two possibilities to entertain:

1) This work was, since its discovery in 1900, an unrecognised autograph Leonardo that had suffered massive restoration injuries and adulterations in the past, all of which, since 2005, have been successfully mitigated/masked/ by a single restorer’s further repairs and repainting, some of which have been recorded and some not.

2) This picture is a school work on which the master (Leonardo) intervened in one or two places and is not, therefore, a finished and entirely autograph Leonardo painted prototype for the group of twenty or so Leonardesque Salvator Mundi versions.

If we are to talk Leonardo da Vinci, we must talk of supreme painterly accomplishment. If we are to talk of an autograph painted protoype by Leonardo we should identify derivations from it in the many other Leonardesque Salvator Mundis and demonstrate a parity of artistic qualities with those encountered in historically recorded bona fide Leonardo paintings. If we are to talk Leonardo on the back of an only very recently upgraded, greatly injured and much restored painting, we must first talk of picture restoration’s methods, consequences and role in attribution upgrades.

WHAT RESTORERS DO (WRONG)

Restorers undo and redo pictures. The first is quasi-archaeological and risks misdiagnosis and abrasive/chemical injuries. The second is reconstructive in a quasi-artistic sense and risks adulteration or falsification.

Restorers strip off what they judge inauthentic and paint-on what they think might recover/simulate lost original and authentic appearances. The former is notoriously if not inherently destructive because restorers bear down with their solvents and scalpels on picture surfaces which carry artists most considered and final adjustments (see comments at Fig. 9). The latter is a fraught, presumptuous ambition that can be exercised with greatly varying levels of skill and artistic/anatomical comprehension (see figs. 10 and 11). Restorers are forever debating the ethics of attempting to reconstruct with their own modern materials the lost original surfaces of paintings. Whatever their outcomes, for good or ill, restorations facilitate attribution upgrades because “restored” works become new, hitherto-unseen works with “out-of-history” states that permit experts to discard previous judgements without professional embarrassment.

THE NEW YORK SALVATOR MUNDI’S CHANGING APPEARANCE

05 [5] three shoulders (2)

Above, Fig. 5: The drapery at the left shoulder of Christ. First left, as seen in 2005 when the Salvator Mundi was taken by one of its then owners, Robert Simon, an old masters dealer, to Modestini’s studio. Second left, in 2007 when the panel had been repaired and stripped of varnish and repaint. Third left, as exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery. Right, as sold at Christie’s in November 2017.

In 2012 Dianne Modestini reported the picture’s arrival at her studio in 2005: “I shudder to think what might have been used. There was relatively recent varnish, sticky and uneven, and some crude retouches which may have been done by the owner or a local amateur.”

04 New Fig. 3

Above, Fig. 6: In the top, left, row we see the drapery folds as exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011-12 and, right, as when sold at Christie’s in 2017. Anyone might establish the extent of the changes by simply tracing photographs as above, middle row. Recent digital advances have made it possible to “subtract” a former state from a later one and represent the “differences” as dark shapes on a light ground, as above, bottom row, right, in a graphic prepared by Gareth Hawker. That graphic indicates with the clarity of a brass rubbing the location of material that had been added within the confines of the shape of the blue drapery. Moreover, visual appraisals of the 2011 and 2017 states of the painting show that changes had not been confined to the shoulder drapery but were present throughout the painting. In the details shown above, for example, it is apparent that the circumference of the orb has been strengthened by darkening (as is discussed below).

THE FULL TIMELINE

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Above, Fig. 7, top row: First left, an engraved copy of 1650 by Wenceslaus Hollar of a Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo in the collection of Charles I. Second left, a 1913 photograph of the present Salvator Mundi when in the Cook Collection, England. Third left, the Salvator Mundi as it arrived at Modestini’s studio in 2005. Right, the Salvator Mundi in 2007 after it had been repaired and cleaned.

Above, Fig. 7, bottom row: First left, the Salvator Mundi in 2007 after it had been repaired and cleaned. Second left, the Salvator Mundi in 2008, after its first restoration and when about to be taken to the National Gallery. Third left, when exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011. Right, as when sold at Christie’s in November 2017.

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Above, Fig. 8: Top, one of the then owners, Robert Simon, holding the painting at his home the night before taking it to be viewed by a number of Leonardo specialists at the National Gallery, London, in 2008; above, the painting being examined in the National Gallery in 2011. (See “Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ painting took a winding 60-year path from under $200 to a record-breaking $450 million”)

In the sequence above we see the painting near the end of its first stage of restoration in 2008, top, and, below it, at the end of its second stage of restoration in 2011. Here we use the term “restoration” in the specialised sense of restorers who often draw a distinction between cleaning (stripping down) and repainting (which they euphemise “retouching”). In such trade usage the term “restoration” is applied to the post-cleaning repainting, not to the whole treatment. Injuries can occur in both the stripping and the reconstructive stages.

THE TWO PRINCIPAL TYPES OF PICTURE RESTORATION DAMAGE

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Above, Fig. 9: The face of St Anne in Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne before restoration, left, and after restoration, right. (See “Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre”.)

Restorers exult in liberating paintings from predecessors’ repainting, it being a principal justification for new restorations. The photographically demonstrable cumulative net result of successive restorations is the routine scrubbing away of pictorial heritage. With photo-records of modern paintings which can often be seen in their original untouched conditions, we still encounter the same long-standing patterns of destruction, as here shown with artists like Renoir and Klimt. (See “THE ELEPHANT IN KLIMT’S ROOM” and “Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone”)

WHAT RESTORERS DO AFTER STRIPPING PICTURES DOWN

Because of the decline in traditional art teaching practices the pool of painterly expertise is dwindling and for many restorers today conducting their own repairing stage, after stripping off earlier repairs, can induce panic (a workshop conference was called recently to enable restorers to pool experiences, swap recipes and “learn by looking and listening [in a] welcoming and supportive environment”). For more confident practitioners the occasion can unleash over-reaching quasi-artistic ambitions.

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Above, Figs. 10 and 11: However good their intentions, however avowedly “ethical” their professional codes, restorers, like forgers (who are often themselves restorers or ex-restorers), cannot avoid leaving personal imprints and those of their cultural milieus in their repainting. The more ambitious the aspirant, the more deficiencies of artistic reading and anatomical understanding can be imposed on mute works of art. The Louvre Veronese restorer above seemed in thrall to the pneumatic forms and miniaturised features of Botero. That such eccentric aesthetic predilictions should ever have been institutionally authorised might augur badly for the Mona Lisa herself in a Louvre Museum today where curators are binging on radical restorations as they play catch-up with the technological adventurism long-encountered in British and American museums.

MODESTINI’S METHODS ON THE SALVATOR MUNDI

Dianne Dwyer Modestini is a highly skilled and highly regarded restorer who teaches at the prestigious Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She is also refreshingly frank. In her 2012 report on the New York Salvator Mundi, she gives a more detailed account of her actions and the problems she encountered than is commonly recorded in restoration reports. She disclosed that her initial (2005-10) restoration was a two-stage affair. What is at issue here is not one of brutal cleaning or ham-fisted technique but, rather, of very great painterly skill applied on a conviction of authorship that is arguably unsound and in a treatment that may or may not have been entirely of her own making. She discloses, for example, having taken guidance from Luke Syson, the organising curator of the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition. Earlier, Syson had instructed a National Gallery restorer to alter the expression of the angel’s mouth in the gallery’s version of Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks by removing a piece of ancient paint that had survived an earlier restoration by a National gallery restorer now notorious for his policy and muscular advocacy of “total Cleaning”. (See: “Something Not Quite Right About Leonardo’s Mouth ~ The Rise and Rise of Cosmetically Altered Art”.)

After the repairing and cleaning stages (2005-2007), Modestini worked for three years with her paint brushes on a picture that she, the owners and an accumulating group of experts increasingly took to be an autograph Leonardo painting. In a television interview she characterised her repainting as an attempt to “help it as much as you could while not in anyway suppressing this extraordinary virtual quality that it had”. Her goal of assisting a badly damaged work was executed slowly with fine brushes and synthetic paint:

“Most of the retouchings were done with dry pigments bound with PVA AYAB. Translucent watercolours, mainly ivory black and raw siena, were used for final glazes and to draw cracks. For the black background both AYAB and Maimeri Colori per restauro were used. Except for the background I mainly used treble 0 sable watercolour brushes in a series of vertical passes until the areas of loss matched the surrounding material.”

Restorers draw fake age cracks onto their own new painting to conceal its whereabouts – or, as they euphemise, to “integrate” it with surviving original paint. Forgers sometimes produce overall fake cracks by this method and sometimes they scratch them into the paint and rub dirt in. With restorers, no less than with forgers, the intention is to deceive the viewer by conferring an air of antiquity and an illusion of unbroken pictorial integrity. When the National Gallery restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors its restorers justified their deceiving false painted cracks on the ground that they had photographed their actions and that the photographs were held in the painting’s dossiers. The then director of the Gallery, Neil MacGregor, defended fresh reconstructive painting but did concede that “recovering the intentions of a long-dead artist is a complex and tentative business”. (See “The New Relativisms and the Death of “Authenticity”.)

Dianne Modestini’s notion of help without suppression is oxymoronic: you help or enhance by applying new paint onto…the surface you have stripped…and, thereby, suppress or amend the values you have revealed – why else would you intervene with paint at all? Conceptually speaking, restorers treat or present this part of their work work as a matter-of-fact mechanical/optical process when what you do is determined by what you think, how you see, how you “read” visual phenomena, how art historically informed you are, and, to an invevitable degree, by the professional circumstances under which you are operating. If you think and are assured that you are working on a Leonardo, how can you do other, in conscience, than steer the picture towards a more satisfactory realisation of your conception of that artist’s work?

There is another specific danger: if you apply lots and lots of paint over a long period you produce a progressively altering painting that is not only based on your own initial assumptions but one that is increasingly being made in accord with your own previously incorporated modifications. By stealth you confer a superimposing material form of your own conception of what the work should be like and should further become. Apart from any guidance that may be being given by others in the studio, this work is otherwise done privately, free from external professionally disinterested appraisal and artistically informed criticism. Modestini disclosed in a television interview that she became greatly attached to the painting and found her eventual separation from it emotionally painful.

On the extent of her retouching, Modestini said that aside from damage resulting “from past cleanings [which] can be seen in some passages where the final modelling is lost…” elsewhere, “apart from the discrete losses, the flesh tones of the face retain their entire layer structure, including the final scumbles and glazes. These passages have not suffered from abrasion; if they had I wouldn’t have been able to reconstruct the losses. The blessing hand is intact.” Thus, the initially declared object of retouching was simply to bring discrete losses up to the values of surviving original paint and, in places, to reconstruct assumed lost final modelling layers. Crucially, the face was said to require no reconstruction or repair of any sort, aside from to certain clear and self-contained losses. On that account, the face as exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery should have looked (largely) as it had emerged from cleaning by 2007. And, certainly, there should have been no difference between the face as exhibited at the National Gallery in 2011 and as sold at Christies in 2017. This was not the case (see Figs. 17-19). Modestini disclosed in 2012:

“There were actually two stages of the current restoration. In 2008 when it went to London [see Fig. 8] to be studied by several Leonardo experts, there was less retouching. I hadn’t replaced the glazes on the orb, finished the eyes, suppressed the pentimenti on the thumb and stole, and several other small details but, chiefly, the painting still had the mud-coloured modern background that was close in tone to the hair. Two years later I was troubled by the way the background encroached upon the head, trapping it in the same plane as the background. Having seen the richness of the well-preserved browns and blacks in the London Virgin of the Rocks and based on fragments of the black background which had not been covered up by the repainting, I suggested to the owners that it might be worthwhile to try to recover the original background and finish the complete restoration.”

MAKING “A DIFFERENT ALTOGETHER MORE POWERFUL IMAGE”

With her decared ambitions to finish a “complete restoration”, after seeing the National Gallery’s restored Virgin of the Rocks, Modestini begins to take an overarching artistic possession of the painting as a painting. Permission, she recalled, was granted to strip and repaint the entire background:

“The initial cleaning [i. e. paint removal] was promising especially where the verdigris had preserved the original layers. Unfortunately, in the upper parts of the background, the paint had been scraped down to the ground and in some cases the wood itself. Whether or not I would have begun had I known, is a moot point. Since the putty and overpaint were quite thick I had no choice but to remove them completely. I repainted the large missing areas in the upper part of the painting with ivory black and a little cadmium light red, followed by a glaze of rich warm brown, then more black and vermilion. Between stages I distressed and then retouched the new paint to make it look antique. The new colour then freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image.”

SO WHY CHANGE THE OVERALL APPEARANCE OF AN ACREDITED LEONARDO?

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Above, Fig. 12: In this sequence we see how the face’s distinctive bug-eyed, long thin bent-nosed monkey-like anti-classical appearance on acquisition in 2005 had persisted throughout the 2008 visit to the National Gallery and into the 2011-12 stay in the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition.

What might account for the substantial covert post-2012 re-restoration? In the absence of information and reports we must speculate. It can be said that for the credibility of so elevated an ascription as an entirely autograph Leonardo da Vinci it is imperative that a clear “fit” be evident with secure works within Leonardo’s oeuvre. Anything anomalous or discordant becomes a threat that must be explained away by being incorporated as an especially confirming feature within the attributed work’s New Narrative . For example, when Professor Martin Kemp was actively engaged as an advocate of another proposed Leonardo, the mixed media drawing on vellum he dubbed “La Bella Principessa”, he contended that atypical or previously unknown features (including working in a medium “that has not previously been seen”) can safely be taken as a “new facet” of the artist’s engagement with his circumstances. Perhaps. But when a work has been specifically likened to the greatest and most maturely sophisticated works of Leonardo the bar has been set extremely high and the scope for great surprises is reduced. For the owners and professional champions of this Salvator Mundi – a work that was very soon afterwards to be offered to the market – the scholarly rejections that attended the National Gallery exhibition might have seemed disappointing, if not alarming.

Today we see three principal cross-linked concerns with the painting that has recently sported two separate identities – the one displayed at the National Gallery and the one worn for the recent sale. The problems are: the painting’s appearance; its (lack of) provenance; and the (over-heated) means of its promotion and accreditation.

GHOST SCHOLARSHIP

This Leonardo ascription has been made on almost no published scholarship. It rests on a largely unstated and, therefore, unexamined art critical case. Apart from the restorer’s report and the National Gallery exhibition catalogue’s entry by its curator, Luke Syson, almost nothing, so far as we know, has been published in support of this Leonardo. Christie’s lot essay appealed to the authority of the unpublished researches of one of the original owners, Dr Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, and to Modestini’s and Syson’s accounts when they, too, both acknowledged indebtedness to the researches of Simon. After twelve years, serial restorations and two sales at a combined total of over half a billion dollars, those researches have yet to be published. It is impossible to know whether or not weaknesses in the two published accounts derive from or fairly reflect Simon’s still unpublished material but dangers must lurk in an unexamined triangulated loop of research in which much seems to be assumed or borrowed and from which little concrete evidence emerges – and where caveats abound. Luke Syson writes:

“The re-emergence of this picture, cleaned and restored to reveal an autograph work by Leonardo, therefore comes as an extraordinary surprise” but, he adds, of Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraved testimony (see below): “None of this, of course, is evidence for the picture’s autograph status. After all, the pictures by pupils copying Leonardo’s design may sometimes have been rather good, and one such might easily have been owned by Henrietta Maria.” Quite so. And in view of Jacques Franck’s account above (ITEM 6), that very possibility, as advanced by Ludwig Heydenreich, is the first mountain that any “Autograph Leonardo Salvator Mundi” aspirant must be seen to have scaled. It is now six years since Syson alerted us that “This discussion anticipates the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon and others” but he gave little indication of any corroborative evidence being to hand. It would sometimes seem that Simon’s researches on the New York candidate echo or adapt the extensive researches earlier conducted by Joanne Snow-Smith in her support of the unsuccessful Paris candidate, the so-called de Ganay Salvator Mundi (see Fig. 13). If Syson should prove to have been a dutiful student of Simon we might be in for a daisy-chain of hypotheses in which awkward and peculiar features are advanced as material corroborations with rhetrorical flourishes. Syson ends his account thusly:

“Snow-Smith has shown that King Louis XII and his consort, Anne of Brittany, were particularly devoted to Christ as Salvator Mundi, and that they could connect this cult with the Mandylion of Edessa twice-over we now see. Given the date – around 1500 – of Leonardo’s preparatory drawings [only two sheets of drapery studies], the style of the picture and its association with a French princess, Louis and Anne become the most likely patrons for Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, probably commissioning the work soon after the conquest of Milan and Genoa. This would therefore be one of the French commissions mentioned by Fra Pietro Novellara. And it was perhaps to accommodate their wishes that Leonardo based Christ’s features, the set of the eyes, the heavy lower lids, and especially his smoothly arched eyebrows [sic] down into a long nose, on the Christ of the Mandylion of Edessa.” Emphases added.

How can you extract a “would therefore be” from a “could”, a “most likely”, and a “probably”? In lieu of a single hard shiny fact, we are offered a forest of fancies, maybes, perhaps’s and scholarly borrowings.

THE HOLLAR AND DE GANAY CONNECTIONS

Even if the claimed correspondence between the New York Salvator Mundi and Hollar’s etched copy had been visually compelling – which on many counts it is not – the etching’s ascription to Leonardo would still need treating with caution. Max Friedlandler warned in On Art and Connoisseurship: “The inventories of princely galleries – such as those of Margaret of Austria, Vicereine of the Netherlands, or of King Charles I of England…are to be utilized sceptically and to be taken seriously only to the extent that facts derived from style criticism do not contradict them.” With the New York Salvator Mundi’s countless stylistic incompatibilities, attempts to press a correspondence with the Hollar are quite counter-productive.

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Above, Fig. 13: Top row, left, the “de Ganay Salvator Mundi” (the painting had formerly been in the collection of the Marquis de Ganay, Paris); top row, right, the 1650 Hollar etching. Bottom row the New York Salvator Mundi in 2011, left; and in 2017, right.

The de Ganay picture, top left, was proposed in a scholarly article in 1978 and a book of 1982 to be an original Leonardo painted prototype for around twenty Leonardo-like Salvator Mundi paintings. That attribution did not find general favour but the case advanced for it by the scholar Joanne Snow-Smith provided a template for the New York Salvator Mundi. It, too, was said to have been the painting etched by Hollar, above, top right. Its material composition was also said to have passed the technical tests of its day. Its paintwork, too, betrayed no discernable brushwork – in this last respect both of the proposed Leonardo protypes are physically unlike such secure but heavily cracked bona fide Leonardo works as the Mona Lisa and the St. John the Baptist.

While both of the two painted versions shown above, left, are said to have provided the model for Hollar’s etching, in neither case is this plausible. Both have the complicated and rather ugly configuration of drapery folds at the true left shoulder in which a horizontal fold runs below the below the shoulder creating an epaulette-like touch of power-dressing that is not present in Hollar’s copy. The alteration of the New York version’s shoulder drapery thus might be thought to have conferred two stylistic benefits: it makes a closer fit with the Hollar copy and it puts distance between itself and an earlier failed contender as an original painted prototype by Leonardo.

The 2012-17 repainting might be thought to have brought other benefits vis-à-vis the very marked departures from the Hollar seen in the New York Salvator Mundi. In the etching there are two principal sources of light: a strong, top left corner-down natural light source that imparts a pronounced chiaroscuro on the figure (– and even an unremarked cast shadow from the raised arm) and, a source of radiance (“nimbus”) behind Christ’s head. Although the newly imposed uniform blackness of the background is counterproductive in terms of the claimed correspondence with the historic Hollar copy, the recent general beefing-up of tonal contrasts – and particularly so with the foreground arm drapery and the orb – has mitigated to a considerable degree the previous deadening flatness (of which we have complained see: “Mystery over Christ’s orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci painting”.)

The face in the Hollar is long thin, bearded and tapering, as is that in the de Ganay painting. In contrast, the face in the New York picture emerged from the first restoration with an entirely disqualifying lopsided shape that was markedly wider at the jaw than at the cheekbone and thus combined a chipmunk-like aspect with a monkey nose. The latest post-2012 shading on the face of the New York picture has served to narrow the lit lower face and make the overall aspect more symmetrical. Similarly, Modestini’s widening of the right nostril aperture (see Fig. 19) masks another anatomical solecism in a purportedly hierarchic frontal classical face, which, Modestini assures us was “deliberately adapted by Leonardo from a Byzantine prototype and also used by Giotto in the Peruzzi Altarpiece in Santa Croce, with which he was certainly familiar…” Similarly, too, for Syson the question is re-begged: “the face of Christ – rigid, symmetrical, absolutely frontal – is deliberately archaic. He seems to have been aware of the central panel of a polyptych ascribed to Giotto and his workshop…” Two asserted “deliberatelys” do not a secure fact make. The idea of Leonardo as a backward looking archaistic figure is a notion that finds realisation in only two works: the proposed Leonardo drawing “La Bella Principessa” – which has no history before its emergence in 1996 from the studio of a painter who became a friend of Berenson and a restorer of …Leonardo, among others; and, the recently upgraded New York Salvator Mundi. The argument is circular. If ever Leonardo might have been tempted to do a frontal, backward-looking hierarchic face of Christ it would have been on his triumphantly frontal, wall-asserting mural The Last Supper. Instead, of course, he carved space by playing every head and limb off against the unseen picture plane.

THE PROVENANCE

Without the Hollar connection this Salvator Mundi’s provenance begins only at 1900 four centuries after its supposed execution. The pre-1900 history is problematic. It is not known from whom, where or when the picture had been acquired by Sir Charles Robinson who bought the work as a Bernardino Luino for the Cook Collection. We have been informed that an English fossil-hunter, Thomas Hawkins (1810-89), seems to have donated a “Leonardo Salvator Mundi” in 1848 to a church in Birmingham. That church was closed down in 1895, at which date its collection was presumably disbursed. Had Robinson bought it from that church? Or, were there two claimed Leonardo Salvator Mundi versions then at large in England? To complicate matters, the whereabouts of a third version formerly in the Worsey and Yarborough Collections is presently unknown. So there might have been three Leonardo Salvator Mundi candidates in 19th century England.

The Cook collection picture’s provenance ran into the ground in 1958 when sold by Sotheby’s for £45. Between 1900 and 1958 no one thought the New York Salvator Mundi to be a Leonardo. Christie’s 2017 sale provenance ended: “Kuntz, Private Collection USA”. Sotheby’s have no additional information on Kuntz. Wiki has an entry on a US artist Roger Edward Kuntz, a talented painter who wavered between abstraction and representation and died in 1975. In the early 50s he and his wife travelled for four months in Europe so that he could visit museums. They had a daughter in 1951. If Kuntz, an artist with a “pensive, thoughtfully naturalistic sensibility” made another European trip in 1958, might he have had £45 (at that date about a month’s wage for an unskilled worker in Britain) to spare on an old Italian painting? Roger Kuntz died in 1975 but was succeeded by his wife and daughter. If not that Kuntz family, what of others in the United States? A Kuntz family in Louisiana used to be avid collectors of paintings, antiques and historical documents. Rosemund E. and Emile Kuntz had two sons, one of whom donated a majority of their collection to Tulane University in New Orleans. As things stand we do not know the identity of the vendor in 2005 or the venue of the sale – which might seem odd in the world’s most information-rich country in the twenty-first century. Given the still sticky varnish present on the New York Salvator Mundi in 2005 when the painting was bought for $10,000, it could be useful to establish the identity of the previous owner who would have information on the previous restoration and very possibly photo-records of the painting from 1958 onwards.

THE SALVATOR MUNDI’S APPEARANCE

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Above, Fig. 14: Details of the Hollar etching and the 2017 version of the New York Salvator Mundi.

If the removal of the “epaulette” and the rounding off of the shoulder brings the painting a little closer to the etching, the painted orb has become even more at variance. In the Hollar copy the orb accumulates light around its circumference in contrast to the pools of darkness at its centre but that symbolic tonal logic is inverted in the New York painting and the line of three reflected lights on the surface recorded by Hollar contrasts with a triangular configuration which some see as a depiction of stars in the southern hemisphere but which again, is nowhere else encountered. As if oblivious of all this conflicting testimony, Syson writes of the New York painting’s orb: “This perfect sphere is seen both to contain and transmit the light of the world.” And again, against visual evidence he writes: “Moreover, Christ’s hand remains miraculously undistorted. Leonardo has therefore created an object that would be understood as a piece of divine craftsmanship, but still be his own invention. Never did he make the connection between his own creativity and God’s more explicit.”

A key part of the case advanced for the New York version is that it contains a number of pentimenti. Luke Syson writes “There is, for example a major pentiment in the thumb of Christ’s proper right hand, and other, lesser adjustments of the contours elsewhere (such as in the palm of the left hand seen through the transparent orb).” Syson contends that such are typical of Leonardo and would be surprising “in a copy of an existing design”. He fails to explain why, had this painting provided a fully realised painted prototype for all the other versions (as opposed to having provided studies and possibly a cartoon, as other have concluded), no other version depicted the hand holding the orb in the manner of the New York picture – as we discussed in Part I and will examine further in Part III. No other version shows as much of the palm of the hand and all show what little is seen of the hand and the thumb itself to be on a rising diagonal (see Fig. 15), as does the Hollar copy. Perhaps Robert Simon has assembled in his researches an explanation for how it came about that Leonardo painted a hand, as presently in the New York version, and how, then, when Hollar copied it a century and a half later, he opted to make it both smaller and rotated from its horizontal axis to a diagonal one? Modestini describes the collective thinking/handling of one of the other changes of position:

“A pentimento of the thumb [on the blessing hand] appeared as soon as the varnish was removed. It had been covered over by successive layers of background paint and, when these were scraped off, was itself damaged in the process. It was never a complete thumb, only the bright pink underpaint, rather amorphous because of the damage. Normally I like to see pentimenti, sometimes veiling them slightly if they are too prominent and disturb the image. In this case I tried various solutions, including: reconstructing it, after which it was too assertive; toning it down with dark translucent glazes; pushing it back with scumbles containing green to subdue the bright pink. It never looked right and interfered with the well-preserved hand. I was greatly relieved when Luke Syson agreed that, under the circumstances, it could be completely suppressed.”

015 orbs

Above, Fig. 15: In the top row above we see how greatly more commanding and authoritative is the design and sculptural massing of forms in the small etched copy by Hollar than in the much larger New York painting. It is inconceivable that Hollar, if copying the New York picture, would have changed so many aspects of the design and so greatly intensified the overall theatre of lighting and form-evoking shading. In the Hollar we see the central drapery ridge descending from the shoulder in a convex sweep before entering the orb’s circumference and then abruptly inverting from convexity to concavity – which aspect it maintains throughout its passage within the orb until, on exiting, it immediately reverts to convexity. In the centre of our own glass “orb” (which lies on the surface) in the lower picture we see how the narrow parallel white division between the two photocopied diagrams at first disappears from view and then reappears, within the orb curving outward slightly on one side and more dramatically so on the other before beginning to converge at the approach the circumference. If the New York painting were a Leonardo that had been copied by Hollar, how likely would it be that the latter copyist took the liberty of making a more complex and scientifically astute optic within the orb than was present on the painting he believed to be by Leonardo?

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Above, Fig. 16: Left, two ArtWatch letters to the Times on the orb; right, Professor Martin Kemp’s endorsement of the Salvator Mundi’s Leonardo attribution, as set out in the 2011 edition of book Leonardo. His illustration, being that of the 2011 state, is now obsolescent. His dating (c. 1504-07) places the picture chronologically (and therefore stylistically) between the Mona Lisa and the St John the Baptist. In an earlier entry in his book’s “Gallery”, Kemp also endorses the mixed media drawing on vellum glued onto an oak panel which he dubbed “La Bella Principessa (Portrait of Bianca Sforza?)” – see Fig. 20. He dates that proposed Leonardo at c. 1495-6 in tandem with the beginning of Leonardo’s Last Supper. He states as fact that this drawing had been cut from the Warsaw copy of the Sforziada produced for Galeazzo Sanseverino. He and the owner of the drawing each made a trip to Warsaw with a National Geographic crew to locate the spot in the codex from which the sheet was cut. They both found the spot, or rather, two different spots. Kasia Pisarek established that neither could have been the case because the book had been bound with five double stitch holes, when the drawing has only three single holes. (See “Fake or Fortune: Hypotheses, Claims and Immutable Facts”)

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Above, Fig. 17: In this split image above we see the 2011 face on the left, and the 2017 face on the right. We can see the extent to which Modestini has intensified all the values present in her first version: she has lightened her lights and darkened her darks and warmed the hue of the cheeks. This rouging of the flesh is at variance with the face of the Mona Lisa. In effect, Modestini has treated her own 2011 second-state painted restoration as if it were an etcher’s proof and worked afresh on the plate before pulling a new, further worked-up state with intensified pictorial vivacity. In doing so she demonstrates a painterly expertise that is rare among restorers today and a sophisticated pictorial sensibility. However it is one, as shown below, deployed to arbitrary and ahistorical purposes.

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Above, Fig. 18: In the top row detail of St. Anne, we see how a major bona fide Leonardo in the Louvre has borne the commonplace “reductive” pictorial material-shedding brunt of radical restorations. Restorers, when challenged on their sculpturally flattening modernist impositions, invariably insist that what critics lament as losses were no more than dirt, disfiguration and arbitrary alien accretions. Curators should know better and for the longest time in the 20th century those at the Louvre did do so. In the bottom progression we see how Modestini avoided one picture restoration affliction only to effect another by imposing a ceaselessly-evolving painterly elaboration which comes to constitute a series of variations on a theme.

19b

Fig. 19, above: As mentioned, when considering great artists the primary evaluation must always be one of artistic quality. In Part III we examine the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi with regard to the great bona fide Leonardo works to which it has been likened. Here, above, we show a close-up of Christ’s (changing) face as seen in 2012 left, and 2017, right. Above it we show the eyes as in 2007 when cleaned but not yet repainted. The attentive viewer will see how Modestini has variously changed the expression of Christ by: raising the right-hand side of the parting line of the lips; by de-fluffing some of the beard on the left upper mouth; and, by further adjusting the misaligned eyes. There is as yet no published record or account of the reasons for making these changes. As seen, Syson saw in the (2011) eyes of this Salvator Mundi Leonardo’s accommodation with the wishes of certain historical figures with whom no connection has been established. We do have Modestini’s account of the induced appearance of the eyes, as they were seen in the 2011-12 National Gallery exhibition:

“Since both eyes have been abraded, the left one to a greater degree than the right, the ambiguity between abrasion and highlight made the restoration extremely difficult and I redid it a number of times. As little as possible was done to the left eye. No attempt was made, for example, to emphasize the pupil which is reasonably well preserved in the right eye. Carefully following the remnants of original, which contain a line of drawing to place the lower lid, resulted in eyes of slightly different size; the left is smaller than the right. Imposing a more logical or definite shape caused the eyes to completely change character.”

revised 20

Above, Fig.20: Left, the cover of Joanne Snow-Smith’s 1982 book THE SALVATOR MUNDI OF LEONARDO DA VINCI; Centre, the cover of the owner’s account of his (so far vain) quest to authenticate the “La Bella Principessa” drawing; Right a poster for a talk given by one the original owners of the New York Salvator Mundi at the 2014 Annual Brunch for Friends of the Uffizi Gallery.

Michael Daley, 2 February 2018


Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation

The Art Newspaper reports that questions of authenticity, provenance and attribution constitute the greatest risks to the art market according to 83% of wealth managers and 81% of art professionals (“Ultra-rich will spend $2.7 trillion on art by 2026 says Deloitte”).

Fig. 1 proceedings0003

Fig. 2 20171114_095353_003 (2)

Above, Figs. 1 & 2: ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No.31 and its lead article. For membership details please contact Helen Hulson at hahulson@gmail.com .

In our current Journal (above) we carry a report on the crisis triggered by the collapsing numbers of scholars who possess specialised expertise in particular artists and fields, and on whose authority and powers of appraisal the art market relies. Scholarly shortcomings are also evident in a widespread disinclination to conduct rigorous, visually comparative interrogations of restored and/or attributed works – perhaps out of deference to institutionally-powerful picture restorers who nowadays call themselves Technical Art Historians. Some museum curators openly farm out responsibility for attributions…to private collectors. At elevated scholarly levels the highest ascriptions are sometimes attached to what are only the best surviving versions of lost works.

TELL-TALE CROPPING

The late Sir Denis Mahon supported as original and authentic a version of Annibale Carracci’s Venus, Adonis and Cupid, of c. 1588-90 until the Prado restored its own version and declared it the authentic original. Mahon saw vindication in an instantly switched allegiance:

When I first wrote about this composition, some fifty years ago, my observations on style and chronology were based not on the Prado painting, since this was as yet unknown, but on the excellent early copy in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and on the preparatory drawings for the figure of Adonis in the Uffizi. When the Prado painting was first published in 1965, by Pérez Sánchez, it was gratifying to realize that, although all those of us who concerned ourselves with Emilian painting had mistakenly assumed that the Vienna picture was Annibale’s original, one’s intuitions about the importance of the work and where it fitted in the artist’s evolution were confirmed.”

So that was alright then? No. Sir Denis was parading methodological laxity. Even before the Prado picture emerged, he should have appreciated that an old engraved copy testified that the original work was larger and compositionally richer than the cropped version he was espousing. Cropped digits and limbs are so commonly encountered in copies as to constitute attribution alarm bells. They are found (as we showed in “Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship”) in works given to Caravaggio, Rubens and Leonardo. Just as the thumb on Christ’s left hand in the New York Salvator Mundi is inexplicably cropped (- and nowhere addressed), so are Samson’s toes in the National Gallery’s Rubens Samson and Delilah and so are the legs and part buttocks of a slain infant in the Old Masters world record-beating Lord Thomson Rubens Massacre of the Innocents. In the National Gallery’s (second) version of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks, the foot of the infant Baptist runs off the painting whereas it falls comfortably within the edge of the composition in the unquestionably autograph first version in the Louvre. It is being claimed that the New York Salvator Mundi (Fig. 3) is the prototype original for all other versions when it is in fact the only version to carry a cropped thumb (see Fig. 4). Did every other artist ignore/correct a mismanaged painted prototype composition by Leonardo?

Fig. 3 salvator mundi untitled - Copy

Fig. 4 three thumbs

Above, Figs. 3 and 4: Top, the New York Salvator Mundi which, since 2011 has been attributed to Leonardo (photo. courtesy of Christie’s); Above, details left, of the so-called de Ganay Salvator Mundi; centre, of the Detroit Institute Giampietrino Salvator Mundi; and, right, of the New York, Leonardo Salvator Mundi.

Fig. 5 two leos

Above, Fig. 5: Left, the proposed but rejected de Ganay Leonardo Salvator Mundi; right, the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi.

THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE NEW YORK SALVATOR MUNDI

The New York Salvator Mundi is billed as a miraculous once-in-a-century discovery when it is the second such claimant drawn from a pool of more than twenty clearly Leonardo-derived and sometimes partially Leonardo-assisted Salvator Mundis. In 1978 and 1982 Joanne Snow-Smith, with the support of the Leonardo scholar Ludwig Heydenreich, proposed that the de Ganay Salvator Mundi (above, left) was the original autograph Leonardo prototype for all other variants.

Earlier, Heydenreich had concluded on the evidence of the various treatments seen in this group – which included the then lost, now New York Salvator Mundi – that Leonardo had more likely executed designs or a cartoon to inform his assistants and associates than to have executed a finished painted panel.

THE LEONARDO SALVATOR MUNDI FIELD

Although the quality here is very poor we reproduce below at Figs. 6–10 all of the reproduced images included in Heydenreich’s neglected but, as Frank Zöllner holds, “enduringly significant” 1964 study “Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’”. The initial images set the scene and context of the subject, others are examples of the score or more Salvator Mundi works now associated with Leonardo.

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

Fig. 10 110002 - Copy

Above, Fig. 10: This image is crucial to the attribution, being the two (Windsor Castle) drapery studies that comprise the entire extant material evidence for Leonardo’s involvement in the genesis of the large associated group of Salvator Mundi works. Characteristic Leonardo drapery fold motifs in the two studies recur in varying ways in many but not in all of the associated works. These two sheets provide a small base for a claimed Leonardo attribution for a particular painting. At the heart of this present (contested) Leonardo Salvator Mundi attribution is, therefore, the question of whether Leonardo provided further designs, studies, cartoons and some painterly assistance to his students (as Heydenreich held and Frank Zöllner now holds), or whether Leonardo painted a prototype painting which provided the basis for all of the many variant Salvator Mundis. What is for sure is that there exists no study by Leonardo for an otherwise out-of-character fully frontal view of Christ’s face, or for the distinctive and recurrent hand/orb motif.

This quest for an autograph prototype Leonardo painting might seem moot or vain: not only do the two drapery studies comprise the only accepted Leonardo material that might be associated with the group, but within the Leonardo literature there is no documentary record of the artist ever having been involved in such a painting project. The first record of a work of this subject by the (attributed) hand of Leonardo occurs only in the 17th century in England.

THE OPPORTUNITY FOR LEONARDO TO PAINT A SALVATOR MUNDI

That there should be no more than a couple of drapery studies and absolutely no mention of Leonardo’s involvement on such a painting fits with records that do exist of his activities at the post-1500 period. Jacques Franck, the expert of Leonardo’s painting techniques and a restoration adviser to the Louvre, notes that:

“By 1500 onwards, the period in which the painted panel is said to have been executed, for want of time Leonardo produced few works. Fra Pietro da Novellara, who visited his studio in April 1501, reported: ‘His mathematical researches have so much distracted him that he can’t stand the brush’, and, he added, ‘Two of his pupils make copies to which he adds some touches from time to time’. In 1501, he was commissioned to produce a ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’ by Florimond Robertet (the French King Louis XII’s secretary) at the time when he was already creating both the major group ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’ and the phenomenally accomplished ‘Mona Lisa’. Both panels were seen during their executions in October 1503 by Agostino Vespucci, an assistant of Machiavelli at the Signoria in Florence but he, too, made no reference to a Salvator Mundi. Giorgio Vasari says of the ‘Mona Lisa’s’ execution that Leonardo, as a meticulous and slow-working painter had ‘toiled over it for four years’. Between May and August 1502 until early 1503 Leonardo was committed with Cesare Borgia as an architect and general engineer in the Marches and Romagna. He was then fully employed by the City of Florence during the Summer of 1503 as a military architect and, two or three months later, he worked fully on the commission of a huge mural (the now destroyed ‘Battle of Anghiari’) until late May 1506, before travelling between Florence and Milan up to mid 1508, because of his appointment as painter and engineer to the French King while serving Charles II d’Amboise, the new governor of Milan. Because of such taxing commitments – and all of the above were in addition to his intense scientific researches and literary activities – Leonardo increasingly resorted to workshop productions from 1500 onwards. The ‘Salvator Mundi’ must, of necessity, be thought to be one of those works and, given the preceding it is very likely that a fully original version never existed.”

THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF THE NEW YORK SALVATOR MUNDI

Christie’s lists a broad group of international scholars and experts to whom the painting had been shown at various points between 2007 and 2010, which is to say only after “the initial phase of conservation” had been completed between 2005 and 2007. It says also that there exists a “broad consensus that the Salvator Mundi was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, and that it is the single original painting from which the many copies and student versions depend” with most placing it in the later 1490s while some date it slightly later and believe it to have been painted over a number of years. The following experts are listed:

Mina Gregori, Nicholas Penny, Carmen Bambach, Andrea Beyer, Keith Christiansen, Everett Fahy, Michael Gallagher (restorer), David Allan Brown, Maria Teresa Fiorio, Martin Kemp, Pietro Marani, Luke Syson and David Ekserdjian.

However, of the thirteen, one, Carmen Bambach, can hardly be considered a supporter of an autograph Leonardo attribution. In a review in Apollo, February 2012 (“Seeking the universal painter”) she wrote:

“The attribution of the Salvator Mundi…is an important addition to the scholarship, but requires a more qualified description, for its severely damaged original painting surface exhibits a large proportion of recent integration [i. e. new, superimposed painting]. In the present reviewer’s opinion, having studied and followed the picture during its conservation treatment, and seeing it in context in the [National Gallery’s 2011-12 major Leonardo] exhibition, much of the original surface may be by Boltraffio, but with passages done by Leonardo himself, namely Christ’s proper right blessing hand, portions of the sleeve, his left hand and the crystal orb he holds.”

Of the remaining twelve, how many have written publicly in support of an unreserved Leonardo attribution? We recently asked one of those listed if he supported the Leonardo attribution unreservedly but have yet to receive a reply. One seeming casualty of the (heavy) promotion of the Salvator Mundi as the last chance to buy a Leonardo is the mixed media drawing on vellum known as “La Bella Principessa”. Is that work no longer on the market? Its Leonardo ascription was supported by two of those listed in support of the Salvator Mundi – Mina Gregori and Martin Kemp, but then, two listed supporters of the New York painting, David Ekserdjian and Pietro Marani, have roundly rejected the “La Bella Principessa” – as presumably also did Luke Syson and Nicholas Penny when the work was excluded from the National Gallery’s 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition to the annoyance of its owner and its scholarly advocates.

In addition, there is a glaring absentee on the Christie’s list – the author of the catalogue raisonné Leonardo da Vinci – the Complete Paintings and Drawings, Frank Zöllner. In the revised 2017 edition of his book, Zöllner says in his entry on the New York Salvator Mundi that while it surpasses the other known versions in terms of quality, nonetheless, it:

“also exhibits a number of weaknesses. The flesh tones of the blessing hand, for example, appear pallid and waxen as in a number of workshop paintings. Christ’s ringlets also seem to me too schematic in their execution, the larger drapery folds too undifferentiated, especially on the right-hand side. They do not begin to bear comparison with the Mona Lisa, for example. It is therefore not surprising that a number of reviewers of the London Leonardo exhibition initially adopted a sceptical stance…(Bambach 2012; Hope 2012; Robertson 2012; Zöllner 2012). In view of the arguments put forward to date and the above-mentioned weaknesses, we might sooner see the Salvator Mundi as a high-quality product of Leonardo’s workshop, painted only after 1507, on whose execution Leonardo was substantially involved. It will probably only be possible to arrive at a more informed verdict on this question after the results of the painting’s technical analyses have been published in full (Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon 2017).”

In his book’s revised 2017 preface, Zöllner writes:

“With regard to Leonardo da Vinci’s oeuvre, finally, the most sensational discovery to date has been the Salvator Mundi… The painting of Christ making the sign of the blessing has been known to art historians [only] since the start of the 20th century but subsequently disappeared from view. In 2005 it appeared on the art market and in 2011 was presented to the public in a spectacular exhibition in London (Syson/Keith 2011); since then its attribution to Leonardo da Vinci has been the subject of heated debate. This attribution is controversial primarily on two grounds. Firstly, the badly damaged painting had to undergo very extensive restoration, which makes its original quality extremely difficult to assess. Secondly, the Salvator Mundi in its present state exhibits a strongly developed sfumato technique that corresponds more closely to the manner of a talented Leonardo pupil active in the 1520s than to the style of the master himself. The way in which the painting was placed on the market also gave rise to concern.”

The long-promised delivery of the Dalivalle/Kemp/Simon technical accounts has now retreated to 2018 – seven years after the work was exhibited as a Leonardo in London and five years after it was first sold (for $80m) as a Leonardo. In 2012, Charles Hope wrote (New York Review):

“Much more suspect, however, is a recently cleaned painting of Christ as Salvator Mundi from a private collection. This was recorded in a print of the mid-seventeenth century, and the composition is known in other versions. But even making allowances for its extremely poor state of preservation, it is a curiously unimpressive composition and it is hard to believe that Leonardo himself was responsible for anything so dull.”

As shown below, the print (Fig. 11a) mentioned by Hope is crucial to the New York Salvator Mundi enjoying any provenance prior to 1900.

A HEAVILY-HYPED SALE AND THE NEW YORK SALVATOR MUNDI’S SCANT PROVENANCE

A sleeper-hunting dealer/blogger has written: “I’ve been impressed by how Christie’s have marketed the picture – in fact, I’d say that they’ve taken marketing Old Masters to a whole new level. A well deserved AHN pat on the back to all involved.” Christie’s, New York, is offering the work it describes as “The Last da Vinci” on November 15 2017 in a sale of contemporary art:

“Salvator Mundi is a painting of the most iconic figure in the world by the most important artist of all time,” says Loic Gouzer, Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, “The opportunity to bring this masterpiece to the market is an honour that comes around once in a lifetime. Despite being created approximately 500 years ago, the work of Leonardo is just as influential to the art that is being created today as it was in the 15th and 16th centuries. We felt that offering this painting within the context of our Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale is a testament to the enduring relevance of this picture.”

Few will likely be persuaded that Leonardo exerts as much influence on today’s artists as on those of his own times, and some might feel that removing the work from the context of an old masters sale will be helpful to its chances, given its heavily damaged condition and its very recently and substantially reconstructed twenty-first century appearance. There are other problems. The first concerns provenance, where the facts come late and are grafted onto a daisy-chain of hypotheses, claims and assumptions.

As mentioned, this work, now unequivocally described as a fully autograph Leonardo painting that is the artistic equal of the Mona Lisa, first materialised in 1900 when bought as by Leonardo’s follower, Bernardino Luini (- it was later taken to be a copy of a copy by Boltraffio). That purchase and what followed immediately afterwards are in the realm of verifiable facts until the painting went missing before reappearing in 2005. What is suggested to have happened before 1900 is speculation and/or contention. The first reference to such a Leonardo subject is in 1651. Christie’s provides the following provenance:

“(Possibly) Commissioned after 1500 by King Louis XII of France (1462-1515) and his wife, Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), following the conquest of Milan and Genoa, and possibly by descent to
Henrietta Maria of France (1609-1669), by whom possibly brought to England in 1625 upon her marriage to King Charles I of England (1600-1649), Greenwich;
Commonwealth Sale, as ‘A peece of Christ done by Leonardo at 30- 00- 00’, presented, 23 October 1651, as part of the Sixth Dividend to
Captain John Stone (1620-1667), leader of the Sixth Dividend of creditors, until 1660, when it was returned with other works upon the Restoration to
King Charles II of England (1630-1685), Whitehall, and probably by inheritance to his brother
King James II of England (1633-1701), Whitehall, from which probably removed by
Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester (1657-1717), or her future son-in-law, John Sheffield, 1st Duke of Buckingham and Normanby (1648-1721), and probably by descent to his illegitimate son
Sir Charles Herbert Sheffield, 1st Bt. (c. 1706-1774); John Prestage, London, 24 February 1763, lot 53, as ‘L. Da. Vinci A head of our Saviour’ (£2.10).
Sir [John] Charles Robinson (1824-1913), as Bernardino Luini; by whom sold in 1900 to
Sir Francis Cook, 1st Bt. (1817-1901), Doughty House, Richmond, and by descent through
Sir Frederick [Lucas] Cook, 2nd Bt. (1844-1920), Doughty House, Richmond, and
Sir Herbert [Frederick] Cook, 3rd Bt. (1868-1939), Doughty House, Richmond, as ‘Free copy after Boltraffio’ and later ‘Milanese School’, to
Sir Francis [Ferdinand Maurice] Cook, 4th Bt. (1907-1978); his sale, Sotheby’s, London, 25 June 1958, lot 40, as ‘Boltraffio’ (£45 to Kuntz).
Private collection, United States.
Robert Simon, New York.
Private sale; Sotheby’s, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Pre-Lot Text
Property from a Private European Collection”

Thus, from a claimed execution either before or after 1500 (the supporters are divided on a possible position within Leonardo’s oeuvre) it is said to have passed through four centuries via a “(Possibly) Commissioned”; “Possibly by descent”; “by whom possibly brought to England”; “probably by inheritance”; “from which probably removed”; “and probably by descent” to 1900. It then took a further 111 years for this work to gain accreditation as a Leonardo when it was included in the National Gallery’s special exhibition “Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan” after a long and highly problematic restoration.

THE HOLLAR RECORD

Fig. 11 b

Above Fig. 11: Left, the Hollar copy declared by the engraver to be of a Leonardo; right, the New York Salvator Mundi

The 2011-12 London National Gallery Leonardo show catalogue entry on the New York Salvator Mundi was written by the (then) National Gallery curator Luke Syson, who acknowledges indebtedness to “the more detailed publication of this picture by Robert Simon [the then owner] and others…to be presented in a forthcoming book.” At first, Syson is dismissive of the seventeenth century engraved copy by Hollar which had been cited in 1978 and 1982 in support of the de Ganay version (Fig. 5a) on the grounds that the copyist, Wenceslaus Hollar, “might very well have been copying a copy.” Indeed. However, two paragraphs later Hollar commands centre stage:

“The re-emergence of this picture, cleaned and restored to reveal an autograph work by Leonardo, therefore comes as an extraordinary surprise. Though Hollar’s Christ is very slightly stouter and broader, the two images coincide almost exactly…There can be no doubt that this is the picture copied by Hollar.”

The general extent to which the Hollar copy fits the present New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi is (as seen above) is considerable, as Syson notes, but then, so too is the number of ways in which it departs from that record. Both will be examined in Part II.

Michael Daley, 14 November 2017


Fakes, Falsifications and Failures of Connoisseurship

2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of ArtWatch International and, today, the tenth anniversary of the death of its founder, Professor James Beck. This year, the eleventh anniversary of Beck’s From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis, will see the ninth annual James Beck Memorial Lecture (in London) and publication of the proceedings of the 2015 ArtWatch UK, LSE Law, and the Center for Art Law conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship” – which examined the crises from the perspectives of artists, scholars, scientists, and lawyers.

During the early 1990s Michelangelo restoration battles we soon saw misattributions and restoration injuries as twinned failures of connoisseurship. Subsequent events confirmed that analysis and vindicated our warnings on toxic attributions [1]. Our recent protracted silence covered studies of the present fakes/connoisseurship malaise and the results will be published during the year.

Fig. 1 890
Fig. 2 2vvv

Above, Figs. 1 and 2: restoration degradations to two Klimt paintings – his Danae of 1907-08, as seen before 1956 and today; and his oil on canvas Portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, as seen, left in 1905 when not-yet finished and subsequently in 1911, pre-1956 and today.

The starburst of exposed fakes that brought down New York’s (unrepentant) House of Knoedler, embarrassed ancient firms like Colnaghi’s and venerable publications like the Burlington Magazine has also humiliated the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, the Van Gogh Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On 11 April the FBI warned there could be hundreds more fakes in circulation in addition to the forty the agency has identified from a single forger who donated works to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Had the FBI prosecuted the forger Ken Perenyi there might have been as many embarrassments again [2]. The problem of fakes occurs online, on land, and at sea outside of legal jurisdictions, as Anthony Amore has shown in his 2015 compendium of scams, The Art of the Con.

Fig. 3 72

Above, Fig. 3, Klimt’s 1907-08 The Kiss, (detail) as seen before 1956 (top) and today.

With fakes and restoration injuries, the latter are greatly more destructive. Misattributions can be corrected, money can be paid back. However it might be ascribed at a given moment, the work of art – the art object – remains its own prime document (insofar as restorers permit). Sometimes restoration injuries are localised within a work, sometimes they are overall and catastrophic. Successive damaging restorations compound injuries and falsifications irreversibly (as seen above with Klimt and below with Renoir, Degas and Michelangelo). Slow cumulative damages are perhaps more serious than abrupt aberrant mistreatments that draw immediate notice. Scholars who shy from considerations of condition [3] must proceed on the premise that what is today is what originally was – an untenable view given that every restorer loves to undo and redo the works of predecessors but does so at a yet further remove from the work’s original condition and artistic milieu.

RESPONSES TO THE PRESENT ATTRIBUTIONS CRISIS

Responses to the attributions crisis have ranged from panic through self-exculpation and blame-casting to denial and cheerleading assurances of future streams of discoveries from sleeper/hunters. This is not an exclusively art market problem. Its roots are deeper and wider. The market trades objects on what others claim them to be. There has been concern among leading experts over the trade’s capacities of recognition and discrimination because of a precipitate decline in hands-on objects-informed expertise within the academic and museum spheres which have traditionally underpinned market activity [4]. Where Sotheby’s swiftly refunded purchases and took technical precautions, public museums are still flaunting restoration-wrecked pictures [5] and dubious attributions [6]. Much of art historical academia absents itself, fretting over alleged “engendered gazes”, for example, while missing (or disregarding) restoration-wrecked Renoirs and Klimts.

Fig. 4 kli

Above (top), Fig. 4, Klimt’s portrait of his niece Helene in 1956 and in 2007. Above, a detail of Klimt’s Judith II (Salome) of 1909, as published in 1956 (left) and in 1985 (Gustav Klimt ~ Women).

Below (left), Fig. 5, a detail of Renoir’s La Loge, as seen in 1921 and in the Courtauld Gallery’s 2008 exhibition catalogue Renoir at the Theatre – Looking at La Loge.

Fig. 5 renoi

MUSHROOMING MARKETS

Without the cover of museums’ previously thought invincible technical authority, the mechanics of error are suddenly in plain view. To repeat our warnings, three years ago in “Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship” we wrote:

“‘Buy land’, Mark Twain advised, ‘they’re not making it anymore’. This logic ought to apply to the old masters but does not. Land makes sound investment not only because of its scarcity and its potential for development but because, in law-abiding societies, it comes fixed with legally defendable boundaries… Attributions, however, are neither guaranteed nor immutable. They are made on mixtures of professional judgement, artistic appraisal, art critical conjecture and, sometimes, wishful thinking or deceiving intent. They remain open to revision, challenge, manipulation or abuse… as some buyers later discover to their cost. Buyers are advised in the small print to beware and proceed on their own judgement… few people would dream of buying a house without legal searches and a structural survey.”

Eleven years ago we noted: “…The artists themselves may be dead but their works proliferate. As recently as the 1960s, 250 sheets of drawings were accepted as authentic Michelangelo. Today, over 600 sheets are. Such increases are fed not so much by forgery or the discovery of genuinely long-lost original works (both of which occur) but by a too-ready upgrading of copies, or studio works, to ‘original’ status.” [7.]

Fig. 6 letters

Three years ago we warned that buying old master paintings could be riskier than buying second-hand cars and asked for vendors to be required to disclose all that is known about a work’s provenance and restoration history (13 August 2014, letter, the TimesFig.6, above). At the time we received silence. This month the art market blogger, Marion Maneker, complained (Art Market Monitor, 2 May 2017) that:

“The Financial Times has yet another ‘How Transparent Is the Art Market?’ story written by an announced participant in an upcoming art market regulation conference revealed in the pages of the Financial Times the week before. Considering the amount of interest the FT has shown in regulating the art market, one would expect the international business newspaper to have some proposals about how to police the trade.” See Georgina Adams, “How transparent is the art market”. Where Maneker complained: “The closest the story comes to offering ideas is to compare the art market to the second-hand car market (unfavorably)” Adams had quoted two art world players who so liken the art market:

“The fundamental problem, according to the FBI’s art and antiquities special agent Meredith Savona, is the lack of records of ownership. ‘Even for cars, I can see who owned it for a certain period of time,’ she says. ‘In the art market there is nothing, no regulation. If someone will not tell you who was the previous owner there’s a reason. There needs to be a way of having records maintained for, say 20 or 30 years.’ This chimes with the stand taken by Nanne Dekking, a Dutch entrepreneur whose start-up Artory aims to bring more transparency to the market through catalogue raisonnés and provenance research – ‘In Holland there is a digital registry for second-hand cars – it’s obligatory to register, so if you buy a car you know exactly what you are getting’, he says. ‘…That’s the kind of transparency we’re after.”

In 2013 Dekking was appointed Sotheby’s Executive Vice President and Vice Chairman, Americas after eleven years with Wildenstein & Co. He is a board member of the Authentication in Art group which first welcomed and then rejected a proposed paper we had offered on the flaws of Technical Art History for a forthcoming AiA conference. We see open and freely published debate as a precondition to reforming a system that is proving unfit for purpose.

PROVENANCE RESEARCH

Georgina Adams also reported calls for a levy on art sales to fund independent bodies to establish and maintain standards in the protection of buyers but such suggestions, in our view, are unworkable. The art market is global and increasingly an arena of private/secret transactions. Taxes are levied by governments. How and by whom would levies be collected around the world, pooled and then disbursed? Who would guarantee the independence of such bodies? Would they be national or international and to whom would they be answerable? Would they charge fees to offset their own costs? Less problematic, much cheaper and perhaps more to the point would be for governments to give buyers enshrined statutory rights to be informed about what should appropriately be known when buying a work of art. Presently, vendors enjoy de facto rights not to disclose their identities; not to disclose how often and to what extent works have been made over by restorers.

CONCEALMENT OF IDENTITIES

In 1998 a pastiche Leonardo drawing was put on the market by Christie’s NY as “German School, early 19th century” and “the property of a lady”. When the work was claimed to be a Leonardo worth $200million (as the so-called “La Bella Principessa”) the lady concerned disclosed her identity and brought an action for damages against the auction house on what was only a claimed valuation, not a sale. Only then did we learn that the vendor was the widow of a painter/restorer (of Leonardo, among others) who had been an intimate of Bernard Berenson, helping him to conceal his collection from the Germans during the War, and the drawing’s only known owner. When the new owner, and Professor Martin Kemp, an AiA board member and a leading advocate of the Leonardo attribution, trawled the Berenson archives together in search of an earlier reference to the drawing they drew a blank. The drawing remains without history outside of the studio of the artist/restorer who is said to have restored it. Such is precisely the kind of information to which potential buyers should rightfully be privy.

THE LAW, SECRECY AND MAKING THE BONA FIDE FAKE

When the Art Newspaper examined the legal ramifications of the current crisis (“It’s time the art market got tough on fakes” 2 February 2017) it found no appetite for either external regulation or self-policing and a blithe acknowledgement that bad restorations convert bona fide pictures into effective forgeries:

“At the annual art-crime symposium held in November at New York University, participants agreed that the culprit was the market’s notorious secrecy. But discussions revealed deep divisions about what should be done. Insurers, auction houses, dealers and other players each have their own interests to protect in a market where, as one participant remarked, the ‘level of greed…is so great’.
‘Information is the currency of the art market,’ said lawyer Steven Thomas, the head of the art law practice at the Los Angeles law firm Irell & Manella. He offered an example showing how information was withheld in trying to close a sale. When one of his clients learned that an impressionist painting he was interested in had been restored so extensively it was no longer considered authentic, he confronted the dealer, a prominent New York gallerist. ‘Oh, you found out,’ was the cavalier response. Such is the attitude in a market where the burden of due diligence as a practical matter may fall on the buyer.”

ACKNOWLEDGING RESTORATION INJURIES TO SAVE AN ATTRIBUTION – AND THE PARAMOUNT IMORTANCE OF PHOTOGRAPHIC RECORDS

Secrecy on condition can tempt owners. Duncan Phillips privately admitted that his great Renoir The Luncheon of the Boating Party (detail below, Fig. 7) was so mauled by two pre-eminent restorers that it was rejected as authentic when loaned to the Louvre:

“Fortunately we were able to put them right because our friends had taken the precaution of filming their work on the canvas. I have a copy of the film which you’re welcome to view. In it you’ll notice actual colour stains coming off on the cotton swabs. But please, for God’s sake, don’t report this tragedy. It’s too dreadful.” [8.]

Today one can see on the painting where a colour in one part was introduced into the cracks of another area – and yet Phillips’s widow, Marjorie, wrote in her 1970 memoir Duncan Phillips and his Collection “the Sheldon Kecks, outstanding restorers, operated on the Renoir successfully!” We have asked the Phillips Collection’s director several times to see the film and the painting’s restoration records but always without reply. At the National Gallery, under the directorships of Charles Saumarez-Smith and Nicholas Penny, we were given permission to examine the historic and conservation dossiers of paintings with the kind and helpful assistance of the gallery’s librarians and archivists. In contrast, when we asked to see the records of the Bellini/Titian The Feast of the Gods at the National Gallery, Washington, the conservation department refused outright. A curatorial department was more open and supplied good-quality pre and post-restoration photographs of the painting’s states which enabled us to demonstrate losses of value during the cleaning (as at Fig. 8 below). We learn that a member of the gallery’s conservation staff keeps more sensitive photographic records at home for fear that they “might fall into the wrong hands”.

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Above, Fig. 7: a page in the Autumn 2007 ArtWatch UK Journal published in memory of James Beck who died on 26 May 2007. In the same journal we published a comparison of a detail of the Feast of the Gods, as taken before cleaning (left) and after cleaning but before repainting – see Fig. 8, below:

Fig. 8 x bellini

SPURIOUS CONSERVATION SCIENCE

Fig. 9 all renoirs

Above, top, Fig. 9: a detail from the National Gallery’s Renoir The Umbrellas before cleaning (left) and after cleaning in 1954. Below, Fig. 10, the face, after cleaning and restoring.

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It should be clear to any scholar or connoisseur of paintings that the National Gallery cleaning was injurious, that the picture’s values and relationships were degraded and deranged – and yet the technical promises underpinning the restoration were “top-of-the-range” and authoritative. Cleaning was preceded by a physical and a chemical analysis of the painting by two gallery scientists who concluded that an “extremely thin” natural resin varnish could safely be removed “by solvents of a strength well below that likely to attack the paint film, which is resistant to the solvent action of pure acetone.” The scientists offered an additional assurance: “In the hands of a competent restorer [Norman Brommelle, husband of the National Gallery’s head of science, Joyce Plesters, was chosen] there is no reason to fear that the paint layers will be disturbed in the course of cleaning. Since, in this particular picture, there is no evidence of a linoxyn film, nor the presence of any resin in the medium, there is, in our opinion, no need to adopt any special precaution.”

Brommelle reported that the varnish was removed with a 3:1 turpentine/acetone mixture containing a small percentage of diacetone alcohol and that the last traces were removed with toluene but no one explained why an extremely thin varnish layer of no great antiquity needed to be removed. The cracks seen above at Fig. 10 were products of the cleaning (some local cracking had occurred previously where the canvas vibrated against a central stretcher bar on its regular exchanges between London and Dublin. (Technical information by courtesy of the National Gallery Conservation Department.)

THE TECHNICAL AND SCHOLARLY UNDERWRITING OF A FAKE AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY

Fig. 11 OG 2 no 17 two gents together

One of the recently disclosed fakes, an “Orazio Gentileschi” (above right at Fig. 11 next to an authentic work), had been accepted by the National Gallery on a loan from its owner. When the now rejected no-history painting was withdrawn, the gallery justified its inclusion with the claim (Antiques Trade Gazette): “The gallery always undertakes due diligence research on a work coming on loan as well as a technical examination.” After this historical and technical examination, the Gallery label declared that “the poetic depiction of ‘David Contemplating the Head of Goliath’” had been produced by Gentileschi “for a collector’s cabinet” – an unsupported claim that, like “made for private devotion”, often serves as a flag of convenience for small recently-discovered old works without histories.

Fig. 12 OG 4 no 19 close ups

Above, Fig. 12, here we see a detail (top left) of the real Gentileschi David and (top right and below) the loan accepted as authentic by the National Gallery. If, instead of whatever technical and art historical examinations were carried out, the Gallery had run a few simple photo-comparative checks of the kind shown here, it should have been obvious to anyone with an alert eye that the picture in the top left had been the bona fide historical prototype for the other, markedly inferior and modern-looking, version. Qualitatively, they are not remotely co-equals: the one is a crude pastiche of the other. In every detail the chasm of quality should have identified the loan as a pastiche.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF (UNACKNOWLEDGED) RESTORATION INJURIES

Although this impostor has now been rejected from the National Gallery there is no redress for individual badly restored bona fide works – and often not even an acknowledgement of their plight. Nor is there any apparent means of stemming the swelling tide of destruction that masquerades as a conservation service while delivering incremental degradations of pictures, such as those that can be shown to have taken place in less than a century on what is now the Denver Art Museum’s Degas’ superb pastel and charcoal The Dancing Class or Dance Examination of 1880 below at Fig. 13. The first photograph in the sequence was published in 1918 (Degas, Paul Lafond) when the drawing was not yet forty and therefore likely to have been in an original or near-original state. The third photograph was published in 2002 in the catalogue to Degas and the Dance, a sponsored travelling exhibition organised by the American Federation of Arts (- the “the prime movers”), the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show was curated by the leading Degas specialists Richard Kendall and Jill Devonyar.

Fig. 13 vvvv

The sequence of states at Fig. 13 above resembles a succession of an etching’s proof states in reverse: the most complete condition is seen in the oldest record and the most debilitated state is recorded most recently. If we make the most direct comparison with the earliest and the most recent records of this drawing, as at Fig. 14 below, the differences become startling and heartbreaking. What happens to one artist happens to all in turn, as was most shamefully seen to Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel – see Fig. 15 where an early Anderson photograph of a lunette is shown with its post-restoration state. By such simple comparative means we can see/demonstrate that Degas and Michelangelo have not been restored or conserved so much as subjected to a cultural pathology – an infantile revulsion at or terror of darkness and a failure to appreciate that darkness, as artists appreciate, confers brilliance and radiance. Without shadows to relieve lights there is no great vivacity – art’s life-affirming gift. Our historic cultural legacy is being made over into a blander, more homogenised arbitrary colourfulness. With so much value and vivacity already lost in the Dance Class’s first century, who, if offered the chance, would today vote for “More of the same, please” in the next? Restorers can never put the clock back. They can only offer more of the same: yet further intensifications of hue and losses of form and space-creating tones.

Fig. 14two degas exams
Fig. 15 crocetti lunette b and a

THE INCALCULABLY VALUABLE TESTIMONY OF PHOTOGRAPHS

Photographic reproductions do not have to be taken as absolutely faithful replications to have great value as record – why else would they be published and consulted in such great numbers? They are particularly eloquent as witnesses when seen in company with predecessors and successors, because the patterns that successive images make disclose the truth about present conditions. The net consequence of restorations during the last much-photographed century can be seen/shown to have been gravely damaging, effectively washing away art’s pictorial strength, disrupting the internal relationships of individual works, rendering oeuvres capriciously erratic and incoherent and, thereby, creating spaces, opportunities and, even, seeming precedents for misattributions and outright fabrications.

COLOURS V TONES

Although we do not have a colour photograph to match the black and white Durand Ruel photograph published in 1918, we can, by juxtapositions, estimate the degrees of loss today. At Fig. 16 below, the top comparison shows that the bump on the head of the woman in the upper right-hand corner was formerly a red feathery hat decoration. It now survives as a smear of colour that, tonally, is almost indistinguishable from the wall behind. We can see in the greyscale comparison at the bottom that the red decoration had originally been given a halo. On his own declared pictorial statagems, we might deduce that Degas had used the pocket of red to create a triad of local counterpointing primary colours: red feathers, ochre spots and an intense dark blue ribbon bow. Certainly, speculations aside, since that date the ineffably soft back of the standing dancer’s tutu has both hardened and become see-through. The feathered, layered back of the bending dancer’s tutu has, on some bizarre and alien tidy-minded logic, been reduced a ghostly but sharp-edged right angle. Degas is leaving us, involuntarily. He learnt and extracted much from photography. Is it too much to ask that all scholars use our very great resources of photography and historic photographic evidence to calibrate the injuries done to his oeuvre and therefore more fully appreciate and give due account of Degas’ great and supremely fresh and audacious genius?

Fig. 16 missing red

Certainly, the most urgent single reform needed in today’s crisis of connoisseurship lies in increasing the accessibility of photographic records of condition and treatments. In an age of electronically transmissible, high quality photographic images this would be easier to achieve and more instructive than ever before. There are no good reasons for institutions, owners and dealers continuing to sit on such material and thereby prevent people from seeing what’s what.

Michael Daley, 26 May 2017

Coming next: Degrading Degas and Michelangelo

ENDNOTES:

[1] We first used the term in connection with the so-called Stoclet Madonna, the Metropolitan Museum’s attributed Duccio, in “Toxic Attributions?” The Jackdaw March/April 2009.

[2] “In the end, after a five-year investigation and a mountain of evidence collected, no one, neither the two ‘conspirators’ nor I, was ever charged with a crime or indicted” – so wrote Ken Perenyi, in his 2012 memoir Caveat Emptor, p. 312.

[3] One scholar who has engaged on this territory with his pioneering book Condition:The Ageing of Art, Paul Taylor, incurred immediate wrath from some restorers who would claim monopoly rights on all discussions in the field, but a firm welcome elsewhere. Apollo noted that “There are unquestionably many art critics and even academic art historians for whom the material context of art, and particularly flat art, has become a rarefied field. That needs to change, if we are not to see total severance between those who work to preserve physical objects and those who claim to construe their meanings.”

[4] In a paper delivered at the ArtWatch UK/LSE/Centre for Art Law December 2015 conference (“Throwing the baby out with the bathwater”), Brian Allen, a former director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art (1992 to 2012) and Chairman of the Art Fund observed: “…increasingly, the only young connoisseurs emerging are to be found in the commercial art trade and this surely cannot be a desirable state of affairs. It might be argued that many of the best ‘eyes’ have always been in the art trade but, until recently, there was always a body of disinterested academic ‘experts’ to counterbalance commercial self-interest…” In the March 2017 Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, the paper’s Chairman and a former curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, discloses that the V&A now considers the giving of opinions a drag on its curators’ time and devotes only three hours a month to it when, in the 1990s, it reserved two afternoons a week to telling the public what their heirlooms were. In the same issue of the Art Newspaper Mark Jones, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, said that expertise, by which he meant “the ability to recognise and identify objects, surmise their history from their appearance, tell the genuine from the false and make judgements about quality” has become patchy, even rare, in museums. Mark Jones was the curator/organiser of the British Museum’s legendary 1990 exhibition “Fake? The Art of Deception”, the catalogue of which remains a seminal study in the field.

In response to Mark Jones the dealer Peter Nahum wrote in the April 2017 Art Newspaper (letter, “Dealers and curators should work together to spot fakes”):

“The art forger Shaun Greenhalgh and his father George visited my gallery in 1984. It was after 6pm and they offered me a painting they said was by Samuel John Peploe, for which I gave them a cheque. As soon as the banks opened at 9am the next morning I cancelled the cheque and called in the police. I was the first to report the family from Bolton for purveying a fake, 16 years before their arrest.

“When they were finally arrested, my cheque was still on their desk. I also advised Bolton Museum on the purchase of the painting by Thomas Moran and subsequently saved them from buying a fake watercolour purportedly by the same artist.

“I have long campaigned for the art and antiques trade and academics, especially those in museums, to work more closely together. Our job, as dealers, is to defend our clients against the legion of fakes and wrongly catalogued items on the market. As we are personally financially responsible for all transactions we make and advise on, we are the most vulnerable and, by necessity, the most careful. As a result we are often best placed to authenticate works.

“Academies and museums obviously have great experts on their staffs, but their prime focus is the history and provenance of objects and thus their visual skills often take a secondary position. When both professions work together, mistakes are lessened.

“I have made it my mission to track down and report those who make fake art, as they are the bane of our lives and can cost those who buy art a great deal of money. They are simply con-men extracting money from innocent people by deceit.

“As dealers, academics and collectors, we are all motivated to push the boundaries of our knowledge, and thus all of us are vulnerable to those who wish to take money under false pretences. We have to be constantly on our guard as each one of us will fall into one of the fakers’ traps sooner or later – we are all human after all.

Thus, I applaud Mark Jones’s article: scholarly research is flourishing but curators’ ability to judge an object’s quality is not (The Art Newspaper Review, March, p.13) with two main comments. The painting by Samuel John Peploe was not sold, and academics have rarely been the greatest visual judges – that is more our job than theirs. That does not mean that there are not great visual experts in academia – of course there are – it simply means it has never been their primary function.

Peter Nahum.

Peter and Renate Nahum Agency (the Leicester Galleries), London.”

[5] See “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures” and “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners” and THE ELEPHANT IN KLIMT’S ROOM and, finally, “Now let’s murder Klimt”.

[6] The National Gallery includes one of its most dubious and controversial attributions – the Rubens Samson and Delilah – in its list of 30 “must-see” pictures. There are more than twenty secure and superior works by Rubens in the gallery including the magnificent Minerva protects Pax from Mars (‘Peace and War’). When controversy broke over the attribution in 1997 the gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, placed a statement next to the painting to explain why it looked like no other Rubens in the collection. Two special issues of the ArtWatch UK Journal have been devoted to this picture’s problems. See: “The Samson and Delilah ink sketch – cutting Rubens to the quick” and “Art’s Toxic Assets”

The National Gallery’s highlights list also includes the restoration-wrecked Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian, on which, see: “The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators

[7] “Oh Blessed Honthorst”, Michael Daley, ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21 Spring 2006 – a Rubens special issue dedicated to the National Gallery’s ascribed Rubens Samson and Delilah), p.4.

[8] As reported by Alexander Eliot, a former Time magazine art critic, in “A Conversation about Conservation”, The World and I (Volume: 15), June 2000.


Connoisseurship: Examinations, Debates and Snap Visual Responses

23 November 2016

The rising tide of old master “sleepers” and “discoveries” carries great dangers and demands snap judgements. Some candidates for upgrades intrigue, some look dubious, some scream “Fake!” Last week two cases caught our eye.

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Fig. 1, above. Fig. 2, below. The newly discovered “Lost” Van Gogh sketchbook (above, top) rang our and many other fake bells. Then came a report that a small “Florentine School” painting on a €3-4k estimate fetched €375k at auction as a sleeping Filippino Lippi (above, Fig. 1). A link to another small work attributed to the artist at the North Carolina Museum of Art (Fig. 2, below) showed pronounced, seemingly reassuring correspondences, but something jarred.

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On connoisseurship we hold that every claimant work should be rigorously “interrogated” in three crucial respects. Technically, in its physical composition; by documentation on its known or claimed histories (provenance); and, above all, by visual analysis because, in the visual arts, every picture is its own prime historical document and its inbuilt historically-generated artistic relationships constitute the primary subject of art critical appraisal and evaluation.

Failure to excise bad attributions deceives the public and corrupts oeuvres. A good picture has nothing to fear from challenges. No amount of scrutiny constitutes a threat as good pictures outlive their doubters and can fight another day. Argument is healthy and a successfully repulsed challenge can increase understanding and enhance a good picture’s lustre.

Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook

no-5-cover-of-vincent-van-gogh-the-lost-arles-sketchbook

Above, Fig. 3. The controversial lost-but-now-found Van Gogh sketch book above is by Professor Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a Van Gogh authority whose claims of authenticity are supported by Ronald Pickvance, author of Van Gogh in Arles, but the cover’s supposed Van Gogh ink self-portrait announces itself as a draughtsman’s pastiche, as Mark Hudson noted in the Daily Telegraph (“A romantic story but can it really live up to its promise?”, 16 November 2016).

no-6-two-vincents

Above, Fig. 4. Simply by placing the supposed Van Gogh self-portrait next to an autograph portrait, immense and glaring differences become apparent: the author of the “discovered” drawing has abandoned symmetry with eyes of radically different sizes and a nose that seems product of a car crash. Throughout, the author mimics Van Gogh’s pen marks without comprehension of his form, power of design, and psychological acuity.

no-7-four-reproductions

Above, Fig. 5. Instead of a form-camouflaging jumble of marks, the bona fide Van Gogh disports five graphically discrete component parts: a light-coloured jacket; a dark shirt and scarf; a varied but, on aggregate, mid-toned face; a light-toned hat with some mid and dark-toned form articulating shading; and, throwing all other values into relief, an agitated but tonally cohering background. Each of these spheres is allotted its own graphically purposive notations. The four images we show above for comparison are easily found online in historically successive reproductions. While these reproductions vary considerably, the force and artistic coherence of Van Gogh’s graphic intent and method shines through all.

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Above, Fig. 6. If we place the bona fide Van Gogh between the clumsy mimicking newcomer and a masterpiece of the greatest graphic brilliance – van Dyck’s etched self-portrait – it is clear that the Van Gogh has more kinship with the latter than with the former.

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Above, Fig. 7. And if we compare the Van Gogh with an entirely autograph van Dyck etched state of a figure we find a common use of a toned background that throws both subjects’ flickeringly brilliant lights and darks into relief.

The Van Gogh Museum’s objections to the “Lost Arles Sketchbook” and its track record on Van Gogh attributions

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Above, Fig. 8. Prof. Welsh-Ovcharov (top) has responded to the Van Gogh Museum’s dismissal of the drawings with a rebuttal and a challenge to debate – thereby showing conviction and good faith. Her publisher reportedly characterises the proposed debate as “an opportunity to shed light on the conditions under which the Van Gogh Museum is claiming the de facto right to a monopoly of attribution.” This is a common plaint against authorities that block would-be, high-value attributions but our impression of the museum’s judgements is favourable.

In 2006 a Van Gogh – The “Head of a Man” owned by the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia (above left, on an easel) – was challenged by the art historian and Sunday Times art critic Frank Whitford when the portrait was loaned to an exhibition in Edinburgh. The newspaper asked our opinion and, when we demurred, sent a (revelatory) high resolution full colour compilation of all of Van Gogh’s painted portraits. We supported Whitford, saying to the newspaper (as reported in ArtWatch UK Journal, Spring 2008):

“The specific warning signs that should have alerted the buyer are:

“1] It is unique in Van Gogh’s portrait oeuvre

“2] It does not fit in the stylistic chronology that exists within that oeuvre. Compare it for example with the brushwork, colours and ‘attack’ of the Old Man with Beard, painted the year before that is in the Van Gogh Museum, and the Portrait of Camille Roulin painted a year or so later and that is also in the museum. There is an enormous but clear and logical development between those two pictures, from thick, laboured, relatively coarse brushwork to much more refined and ‘decorative’ marks – but both are entirely consistent and ‘all-over’ in their treatment.

“3] If its provenance goes back no further than Germany in the late 20s or early 30s, that is particularly unfortunate. Germany at the time was notorious for the certification by scholars (for a fee or sales cut) of dud works. The dealer René Gimpel has referred to the scandalous ‘amounts obtained by means of certificates given daily by German experts to German dealers. Just as there were paper marks, so there are paper canvases, an easy way of bringing dollars into Germany…The German title of Doktor impresses the Americans. The museums are even more intent than the collectors on defending their fakes or their mistaken attributions….’ By coincidence, in the current ArtWatch Journal [No 21], Kasia Pisarek cites the case of the great Rubens scholar Ludwig Burchard who issued so many optimistic certificates that he was unable ever to write his definitive book on the artist…She has identified over 60 Burchard attributions that have subsequently fallen. It was Burchard who first upgraded to Rubens the Samson and Delilah that is now in the National Gallery.

“I would add that the fact that it seems to be admitted that it is a cut-down canvas that was glued onto a panel compounds suspicions… Why should a (presumably) then only forty years old canvas, have needed gluing onto a secondary support? It might be worth asking the Gallery curators if any scholar has questioned the picture publicly or privately.

“It may be coincidence, but two of the pictures that ArtWatch has challenged in our own National Gallery, the Rubens Samson and Delilah and the Raphael Madonna of the Pinks, no longer retain their original backs. The former was planed down to 2 or 3mm thickness and glued onto a sheet of blockboard; with the latter, the family of restorers who sold the picture in the 19th century had (most unusually) polished the back of the panel thereby removing all historical evidence.”

As we have seen more recently, the claimed lost Leonardo drawing “La Bella Principessa” that emerged anonymously in 1998 had been glued to an old oak panel. Gluing canvases or drawings onto boards conceals half the material evidence. On 3 August 2007 Andrew Bolt reported in the Australian Herald Sun:

“The curious thing about the National Gallery of Victoria’s fake van Gogh is how easily it was spotted as phoney once it went on tour…. For more than 60 years this painting hung in the NGV without anyone screaming ‘Fake!’ True, a few experts now say they had their doubts, but it was only when the NGV proudly loaned its ‘van Gogh’ to Scotland’s Dean Gallery last year that the painting was denounced. Three British critics took one look at it and snorted… Even then, there were some back in Melbourne who couldn’t accept the evidence of their own eyes, as ABC Television’s 7.30 Report found:

“‘Two of the critics include Michael Daley from ArtWatch UK and Times art critic Frank Whitford. But Robyn Sloggett [an art authentication expert at Melbourne University] has questioned their expertise. ROBYN SLOGGETT: I don’t think either of them are Van Gogh experts, certainly not known to be such…[Director of the National Gallery of Victoria] DR GERARD VAUGHAN: It is a slightly offbeat picture. It doesn’t fit into the natural progression of Van Gogh’s work at that time because it was a moment in late ’86 and into early 1887 where he was experimenting with two or three different styles. In many ways, this is slipping back into his earlier realist style of the mid 1880s where he concentrates and uses these earthier ochre colours. It is a transitional picture.’”

“Conceived at special moments” and “sometimes repeating, sometimes anticipating themselves” are commonplace apologias for disqualifying incongruities in upgrades. In 1997 and 2000 the National Gallery claimed its Rubens Samson and Delilah did not look like any other Rubens in the gallery because it was “the only work in this collection typical of the artist when he had returned from Italy in 1608”. In truth the painting was unlike the (secure) one that immediately preceded it and unlike the (secure) one that immediately followed. If a Rubens, it would be the only one on which he employed flat brushes and painted finger tips with rectangular highlights. During ABC Television’s 7 August 2006 programme (“NGV’s Van Gogh Labelled a fake”), James Mollison, a former NGV director said: “This picture has been doubted by people very often.”

The upshot of the controversy was that the NGV director announced that such was the gallery’s confidence that the painting would be submitted (voluntarily) to full technical examination at the Van Gogh Museum. A year later the Herald Sun reported the attribution’s demise at the Van Gogh Museum:

“The Dutch team used X-radiograph, digital photographs, light microscopy and paint and thread analysis. Among conclusions were: THE work’s ground layer of white paint is not found in Van Gogh’s Antwerp and Paris works. ITS use of pure ochre is not found in other Van Gogh work. THE portrait shows just the top of the man’s shoulders. Van Gogh usually showed more of the clothes. “A COMBINATION of a fairly coarse and detailed painting style”, with more detail in the mouth, eyes, skin and beard than Van Gogh used. NO reference to the portrait or the sitter in Van Gogh’s extensive letters. The experts also noted no record of the work could be found before 1928, when it appeared at Berlin’s Galerie Goldschmidt and Co.”

The Rubens Samson and Delilah emerged in Germany the following year at Van Diemen and Benedict where it was offered as a Honthorst before being upgraded by Ludwig Burchard. Previously it had been attributed to Jan van den Hoecke, a follower of Rubens. Burchard had recently upgraded the supposed Rubens ink sketch design for the Samson and Delilah (see Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship ~ Part II: Paper – sometimes photographic – Fakes and the Demise of the Educated Eye ).

The Newly Upgraded Filippino Lippi

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Above, Fig. 9. At first glance the awakened “Filippino Lippi” (above right) seems more plausible than the new Van Gogh drawings – especially when linked to a work attributed to the painter at the North Carolina Museum of Art (above left). In terms of palette, condition and design the two seem as peas in a pod but this closely related pair triggers no recollections of anything similar in the artist’s oeuvre. If their strikingly common format suggests original incorporation in a larger work, disjunctive variations in their parapet walls and stone inscription tablets dispels the possibility. Most inexplicably of all, the new upgrade is incongruously modernist in its emphatic planar and ‘on-the-picture-surface’ geometrical vocabulary.

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Above, Fig. 10. In 1901 the painting of Saints Uraldus and Fridianus was sold (not as a Philippino Lippi but as a Masaccio) to an English aristocrat, the Earl of Ashburnham. As with the recently proposed Haddo House Raphael (Fig. 10 above), there is little on the panel’s back other than a label in English for an exhibition of “Early Italian Art” (Fig. 10 top). For the Carolina Saint Donatus, the museum offers only a date – “circa 1490” – and the identity of the picture’s donor, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Such lacunae are perplexing because Filippino Lippi is a well-chronicled artist whose securely attributed works might easily be brought into direct comparison with the two more recent attributions.

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Above, Fig. 11. The backs of attribution upgrades often prove problematic, and none was more so than the small panel “discovered” as a Duccio Madonna and Child (above right) in 1904 after having been bought in an antiques shop in Italy. It was then rarely seen until bought with fanfare (but no technical examinations) for $50m in 2004 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a blind “treaty” sale conducted by an auction house among a few leading museums shortly after the picture was withdrawn from an imminent comparative exhibition of Duccio and his followers that would have introduced the painting to many scholars for the first time and in an instructive context. That withdrawal – despite the painting’s inclusion in the catalogue – might have been made out of fear of repeating the demise of the owners’ second Duccio, as described below.

The back of the tiny picture had been cradled with no fewer than eight mahogany bars and when these were later removed at the Met. a hand-written ascription to Duccio’s pupil “Segna” was found on the bare poplar wood from which painted work had been stripped. The Met Duccio contained modern wire nails, a fact not acknowledged in the museum’s post-purchase technical examination reports. When we asked after the antiquity of the nails the museum claimed they had been inserted as repairs after the panel had been cradled in the 1930s. As “proof” of that unsupported chronology it was said that one of the nails had entered one of the mahogany bars. However, as we pointed out, the head of that particular nail had been visible on the front of the frame throughout all of picture’s photographically recorded history and, while some nail heads were visible most were not and therefore had been applied before the (now heavily distressed) frame was gessoed and gilded. Thus, the panel arrived in the world at the beginning of the 20th century with modern nails intersecting a cradle that concealed an awkward ascription on a stripped-down back.

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Above, Fig 12. A face painted in the 14th century by a follower of Duccio (identified by Pèleo Bacci as Segna) is shown above to the right of the face of the Met’s Duccio as it was before restorations established the blue of the Virgin’s mantle to be azurite, not the requisite ultramarine. No one ever suggested that the painting on the right was by Duccio and no one judged the Met’s picture an autograph Duccio before Bernard Berenson’s wife (Mary) in 1904 with the support of Berenson’s protégé Frederic Mason Perkins. An earlier suggestion had been that it was a work of Sano di Pietro, as Frances Vieta discovered in researches at the Frick Library, New York, that were kindly made available to us.

In 1933 Perkins attributed a second Madonna and Child to Duccio and persuaded the then owner of the Met.’s Ducio (the Belgian collector, Adolphe Stoclet) to buy it. In 1989 that Duccio was loaned to the Cleveland Museum of Art and was there identified on technical examination by Gianni Mazzoni as a fake by Icilio Federico Joni who ran a forgery factory fronted by middlemen, one of whom was Berenson’s protégé Frederic Mason Perkins.

no-15-before-and-after

Above, Fig. 13. A cult of Supreme Art Historical Importance was activated around the Met. Duccio and part of this mythology rested on the picture’s supposedly miraculously well-preserved, little-restored, condition. Comparison of the photographs above showing its present state (right) and an earlier state (left) discloses how extensively the work has been repainted – note the altered design of the dominant eye, and the extensive reworking of the veil. The potentially falsifying nature of restorations when determining attributions remains a conspicuously under-examined area – as does the extent and nature of repainting on stripped-down “sleepers”. (But see “A restorer’s aim – The fine line between retouching and forgery”. For a fuller account of the Met.’s Duccio difficulties, see Michael Daley: “Buyer Beware”; “Good Buy Duccio?” and “Toxic Attributions?” in the Jackdaw magazine issues of Nov/Dec. 2008, Jan/Feb. 2009, and March/April 2009.)

The Newly Upgraded Filippino Lippi (continued)

no-16-filippino_lippi_007

Above, Fig. 14. With the two small “Filippino Lippi” pictures at Fig. 9 and below, top, said to have been painted between 1490 to 1494, precise stylistic comparisons can be made with securely attributed works in the oeuvre. What is believed to be Filippino Lippi’s self-portrait above was executed by the artist in 1481-1482 in the Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

no-17

Above, Fig. 15. Filippino Lippi’s Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard of 1480-86 was said by Bernard Berenson (in his 1938 revised Drawings of the Florentine Painters) to comprise “Filippino’s masterpiece, the last picture in which he is still a pure Quattrocentist, in which there is no sense of the Baroque.” Is it conceivable that some years later this artist painted the two small pictures shown here above the Apparition? Berenson reports that Filippino went on to betray excesses, not to purge and severely abstract his pictorial vocabulary: “Filippino’s Baroque, however had little in common with the qualities of the genuine [Baroque] style, and much with its worst vices. These were the sins of extravagance, of wantonness – the vulgarity of the newly enriched, who feel life is enhanced by the mere act of showy spending.”

no-18-books

Above, Fig. 16. At the top we see how Filippino Lippi painted books before 1486 in his Apparition of the Virgin to St Bernard and before his lapse into Baroque excesses. In this secure work we not only see great technical accomplishment but a fascination with the very means by which books were stitched together in assembled folded sections. Is it conceivable that after this tour de force celebration of the book binder’s craft skills Filippino should have been satisfied with the out-of-perspective simplifications of books in the Saint Uraldus? While the opened book has been painted in utter ignorance of book binding methods, the ochre coloured book at the bottom left of the pile has managed to anticipate to a remarkable degree the appearance of a neat modern machine-bound book.

no-19-two-faces

Above, Fig. 17. Again, does the chasm of technique and sophistication in this further comparison from the Apparition and the Saint Uraldus not strain credulity at claims of a common author?

no-20-filippino_lippi_santo_spirito

Above, Fig. 18. By 1493-94 the artist had completed his Madonna and Child with St Catherine of Alexandria and St Martin of Tours as above and we see precisely the over-elaboration Berenson castigated as Filippino’s squandering “like a nabob with a heady disorderliness all the decorative motives which the heritage of antiquity, the hard earnings of his precursors, and his own fancy had put into his hands.”

no-21-fig-21

Above, Fig. 19. How conceivable is it that Filippino might, at the same short period, have made two so diverse treatments of a man parting drapery with an advancing left arm as in these two paintings? In the one the “Blanket-like drapery dear to Filippino” (in Berenson’s term), curves, twists and folds naturally across the body, while in the other it moves as if fabricated by a former sheet metal worker with little regard for any underlying body, or even for the means by which the glimpsed parts of the (wildly varying) decorative border of the cope might ever have been united as woven material. Why the arbitrary, asymmetrical placement of indeterminate embroidered decorations on the cope’s border? What holds the cope together? Is it a giant garnet or ruby, or a small tambourine? Where else in Filippino might we encounter such flattening abstractions and lax indeterminacy of depiction?

no-23-tracing-copy

Above, Fig. 20. If the logic and treatment of Saint Donatus’ cope border (above, left) seems plausible and suitably understated, what might have carried the same artist to the Byzantine and conceptually irresolvable twin conundrums of the cope border as encountered on Saint Uraldus (above right)? What accounts for the very different depictions of the inscribed tablets on the parapet wall? If that of Saint Donatus is somewhat overly monumental and set uncomfortably close to the top of the parapet, at least it is sculpturally resolved and satisfactorily symmetrical along its horizontal axis with its twin decorative “butterfly wings” termini. Why, then, would the twinned tablets of Saints Uraldus and Fridianus meet in the middle with single butterfly-wing termini while leaving blank endings at the outer edges of the picture’s composition? Why are these two inscribed tablets skimped and devoid of projection when the saints above are greatly more dynamic and humanly engaged – almost as if in anticipation of Raphael’s later depicted dialogue between Aristotle and Plato?

Below, Fig. 21. What theological reading of Saint Uraldus’ life prompted the vast frilled neck lizard-like display of the cope’s pink lining below? If intentionally “Baroque” in its explosive ostentation and theatrical impact, why, then, its implausible combining with a geometric severity of draperies that are more snapped than folded?

no-23-frilled-lizzard

With such bizarrely anomalous visual constructs, might it not be prudent to consider the waking “Filippino Lippi” sleeper as a possible product of the late 19th and early 20th century Italian forgeries boom that was tailor-made for British and American collectors? We know that many skilful artists were employed in that trade because when the Italian Government proposed stringent export taxes in 1903 to stem the country’s out-flow of art treasures, the Florentine art dealers association petitioned that the new laws would throttle the large and thriving trade in forged art and antiquities for foreign collectors. (Where did all those often excellent works go?)

At the December 2015 ArtWatch UK/LSE Law/NY Center for Art Law conference Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship (the proceedings of which will be published shortly), Professor Charles Hope pointed out how effectively 20th century scholarship had winnowed previously overblown numbers of Titians, Raphaels and such. Markets are good things and the London art market has long been a very good (much envied in Europe) force for Britain, but there are developing dangers. If perceptions were to grow that previously downgraded works are being systematically rehabilitated through “sleeper-discovery” mechanisms at a time when leading houses are fighting to the death for pole position on market share, confidence in the lots on offer might evaporate. Already, certain external structural changes are weakening the London market’s traditional and much-valued symbiotic relationship with disinterested scholarship. Increasing litigation by owners against dissenting independent scholars suppresses debate and frank expert appraisal. In a paper at our conference (“Throwing the baby out with the bath water – the Demise of Connoisseurship since the 1980s”), Brian Allen, former director of studies at the Mellon Centre, warned that recent changes of philosophy and views on connoisseurship in the academic world are greatly reducing the traditionally available body of disinterested academic expertise that counterbalances purely commercial interests:

“In my own field of British art the number of so-called ‘experts’ has now diminished alarmingly as the older generation dies off not to be replaced. It seems extraordinary to me that major artists such as Stubbs, Wright of Derby and Sir Thomas Lawrence, to name but three, don’t have an acknowledged expert to whom one can turn for a reasonably reliable, independent opinion. And this has also certainly happened in other specialist fields… Younger scholars nowadays, especially those in the universities, have almost no contact whatsoever with the art trade compared to fifty years ago. Yet for many years it was perfectly possible for the two worlds to co-exist harmoniously.”

Michael Daley 23 November 2016


Chartres’ Flying Windows

18 February 2016

By Florence Hallett

When in 2014, six stained glass windows were removed from Canterbury cathedral to star in an exhibition at the Getty Museum, California and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, it seemed that the Rubicon had been crossed. As the Met boasted in its exhibition publicity, this was the first time that the windows had left the cathedral precincts in their 850-year history; now, they were not only to be removed, but removed far away and subjected to the extreme risk of air transportation.

In the past, various circumstances have led to the temporary removal of stained glass, with routine cleaning and maintenance the most common cause, followed by war and conflict. During the Reformation and the English Civil War and more recently during the Second World War, glass was, on occasion, removed and stored to protect it from danger.

This is of course, fundamentally different to removing glass in order to put it on display in museums thousands of miles away and thousands of miles apart. The glass at Canterbury, made by men alive at the time of Thomas Becket’s death in 1170, had seemed as immovable as the cathedral itself, a building old enough to have more in common with the rivers and hills than the relative transience of bricks and mortar. It is fair to say that the very fact of their transatlantic tour has changed the character of these windows irrevocably.

Art up in the air

Some 20 months ago, as the Canterbury glass touched down in New York from the Getty in California, we asked how in the middle of the one of the worst years in aviation history the Met could be confident of the safety of air transportation [How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures]. As we begin 2016 fresh with the news of recent air disasters, aeroplanes have not seemed more dangerous in decades – indeed, on February 15th this year, the Art Newspaper reported that American Airlines and seven others are being sued over damage to a Lucio Fontana sculpture when it was flown from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.

And yet, preparations are underway for another cargo of stained glass to take to the skies, as windows removed as part of the controversial, wholesale restoration of Chartres cathedral form the centrepiece of an exhibition originally scheduled for 2016, but currently postponed, to be hosted by an as yet undisclosed US museum.

As at Canterbury, the removal of the Chartres glass for restoration has been taken as a convenient opportunity to send it overseas. Where we speculated as to whether the Church had received any payment for the loan of the Canterbury windows (a question to which we still do not have a definitive answer), in the case of Chartres, just such a transaction is known to have taken place.

A fund-raising quid pro quo

While the cost of the controversial repainting of the cathedral’s interior has been met by the French state and donors including Crédit Agricole, Caisse Val de France et Fondation, and MMA assurances, the restoration of the cathedral’s famous glass has been funded in part by the American Friends of Chartres (AFC), an organisation that works “to raise awareness in the United States of Chartres Cathedral and its unique history, sculpture, stained glass, and architecture and their conservation needs”.

Based in Washington, the AFC has ambitious plans to fund the restoration of the cathedral’s windows and sculptures. In 2013 it announced on its own site, and via the crowdfunding website razoo.com, that in return for funding the restoration of the Bakers’ Window (two lancets and a rose in the nave), the 13th-century glass would travel to a US museum. Indeed, the still extant webpage makes explicit the nature of the exchange, proclaiming:

“American Friends of Chartres INVITES YOU to Restore and Bring to the United States a 13th-Century Stained Glass Window for Museum Exhibit

WELCOME TO AMERICAN FRIENDS OF CHARTRES’ UNPRECENTED [sic] PROJECT: THE RESTORATION OF A MEDIEVAL STAINED GLASS WINDOW FOR EXHIBIT IN AMERICA.

In appealing to members of the public to donate to the project, the AFC invokes American efforts to save Chartres from destruction during World War Two, treating the fundraising project as the corollary of the cathedral’s status as “a wonderful testimony to the friendship between the French and American people. The French people honor every year the memory of the Americans who contributed to saving the cathedral from destruction at the end of WWII.” But why, if the AFC is so concerned for the welfare of the cathedral, must the glass be removed from the building, and subjected to a transatlantic tour?

Speaking to French Morning in 2014 about the plans to exhibit the windows in the US, Dominique Lallement, the president of the AFC said: “The lancet windows measure more than 6 meters in height, which means there will have to be a structure built similar to the cathedral to accommodate them.” Given the success of the Canterbury exhibition, which represented a huge coup for the Met, already notorious for its ability to secure rare loans from reluctant lenders, the Chartres exhibition is likely to be equally high-profile, on a scale indicated by the planned construction of a special display area within some as yet un-chosen or unannounced venue.

A “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”

Perhaps the significance and sensitivity of the deal were indicated by the official reaction to architecture critic Martin Filler’s heartfelt but thoughtful attack on the repainting of the cathedral interior. In his blog on the New York Review of Books website, Filler expressed shock at the “scandalous desecration of a cultural holy place”, and accused the French government of breaching the international rules of conservation established in the 1964 Charter of Venice.

As Filler’s article spread around the internet, those in charge of the restoration were notable for their silence. Patrice Calvel, the architect who oversaw the project prior to his retirement over three years ago was high-handed in his dismissal of Filler, saying that he had never heard of him. He had previously refused to respond to a highly critical report in Le Figaro, telling the Guardian that its author Adrien Goetz “has no competence in this matter.”

From the horse’s mouth…

Less reticent than the architects and restorers, however, was Caroline Berthod-Bonnet, who at the time was head of fundraising at Chartres, but has since left the role. Speaking to the Guardian in response to Filler’s blog she asked: “What will be the effect on our sister organisation in the United States, which is raising money to restore stained glass windows to be displayed in the US?”

By highlighting the link between the restoration project as a whole and the loan of the glass to the US, Berthod-Bonnet’s comment cut to the heart of the matter, but without providing any plausible justification for so rash and ill-advised an operation. In fact, the only extended defence of the repainting project has come from Professors Madeline H. Caviness and Jeffrey F. Hamburger, American academics and members of the AFC’s advisory panel, the organisation masterminding the loan of the glass to the US. Responding to Martin Filler via the New York Review of Books website, they adopted a tone of weary condescension, describing Filler as “well-meaning but also misinformed”, conjuring up a picture of a hopelessly deluded aesthete, clinging to a romantic but impossible vision of glorious decay.

Revelations beyond restorations and recreations

Professor Hamburger has been a loyal supporter of the Chartres restorers, writing a second defence of the project for Apollo last April, in which he argued that “The restoration of the false masonry proved more of a revelation than a restoration, let alone a recreation”. Either naive or a wilfully blinkered interpretation of the flimsy evidence produced in support of the work, Hamburger’s statement ignores the complexities of the material evidence that exists while also dismissing out of hand the ethical, philosophical and aesthetic problems this project presents.

Hamburger and Caviness are keen to put distance between the deal struck in relation to the windows and the restoration project overall, but the relationship between glass and masonry is so thoroughly entwined, on every level, that they are not entirely convincing. Stained glass is such an intrinsic and essential aspect of any Gothic building, as exemplified at Chartres, that common sense dictates that any programme of cleaning and restoration must take into consideration both elements.

Accordingly, the rationale put forward by Hamburger and Caviness in support of the restoration hangs on the relationship between glass and masonry, and they insist that: “Combined with the restoration of the windows, the restoration of the original color scheme in fact enhances the perception of color in the windows.” In both intellectual and practical terms, the projects to repaint the masonry and to clean the windows are mutually and irrevocably dependent.

Such interdependency seems also to extend to the fundraising projects relating to Chartres. In their response to Martin Filler, Hamburger and Caviness emphasised that the AFC “raises funds only for the restoration of the windows” but fail to explain the function of this arbitrary divide. Dominique Lallement, president of the AFC, told us: “To the best of my knowledge, no donor to American Friends of Chartres is supporting other aspects of the restoration”. But records of donations made to the cathedral’s funding organisations over the past five or six years suggest that there has been overlap between the funding of different aspects of the restoration. In addition, there seems to have been professional overlaps among key players.

The Revelation Brokers

Both the president of the AFC, and its former vice-president, the late Pierre Louis-Roederer, are listed as donors to Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde (CSM), AFC’s sister organisation. In addition, the president of CSM, Servane de Layre-Mathéus is an honorary member of the Board of Trustees at the AFC, a position which affords no voting rights. Today, CSM raises money for the restoration, principally, of stained-glass windows but has also funded work on the organ, the steps to the high altar and the liturgical furniture in the choir and has a more general role in co-ordinating fundraising efforts made on behalf of the cathedral.

While recent fundraising efforts have focused on the restoration of the glass, in the lifetime of the current programme of works its scope has been broader. Indeed, CSM newsletters of March 2008 and February 2009 explain that in addition to financing the restoration of stained-glass windows, it contributed the full cost of a trial restoration of the Chapel of the Apostles (the axis chapel). This trial, completed in 2009, involved the application of a latex peel to reveal “the traces of old polychrome decorations” beneath layers of dirt. The 2008 newsletter anticipates that “The experience gained from these important preliminary works should enable the Monuments Historiques division of the Ministry of Culture to undertake the far more ambitious program of restoration of the vaulting of the nave.”

Asked to what extent donors to AFC are also involved in funding other areas of the project, Dominique Lallement said: “our fundraising activities are totally separate, as well as the use of our funds. To the best of my knowledge, CSM is also working only on the restoration of the stained-glass windows. CSM finances a percentage of the restoration costs of certain windows, and AFC finances other windows. Thus, for our first project, AFC financed 50% of the restoration costs of the 5 lancets of the South Portal, and the French Government financed the other 50%. For our second project, AFC finances 100% of the restoration costs of Bay 140, the Bakers’ Window.” While both CSM and AFC now confine their activities to the glass, CSM’s funding of a trial that informed the restoration overall, seen in light of the close working relationship between the two organisations, and the crossover of personnel, surely undermines the rather curious attempts to separate the work on the windows from the project as a whole.

Just as the French restorers have failed to respond to criticisms regarding the treatment of the cathedral’s walls, AFC have adopted a similar approach when it comes to sharing information on the cleaning and restoration of the windows. When we asked AFC to supply us with high-resolution files of their photographs showing the removal of the Bakers’ Window in Bay 140, Craig Kuehl of the AFC replied: “Before we provide the photos, we’d like to see your draft article, especially the references to the photos. Otherwise we can’t give the authorization.”

As advisors to the AFC, Hamburger and Caviness’s defence of the restoration programme clearly cannot be separated from the AFC’s prestigious and lucrative coup to bring the glass to the USA. The anxiety expressed above by chief Chartres fundraiser Catherine Berthod-Bonnet, seems astute in hindsight, having anticipated the wider consequences that such negative publicity could bring to the entire project – a project that, in truth, extended far beyond the cathedral itself and into an intended commercial deal with an American museum.

A petition demanding an immediate halt to the restoration work was started in the autumn by American student Stefan Evans and has attracted such high-profile signatories as Professor Sophie Guillouet, an art historian at the University of Rouen.

Watchdogs that Don’t Bite

The petition argues that the 1964 Charter of Venice – a document setting out internationally agreed principles for the care and restoration of ancient buildings – has been breached, and makes particular reference to articles 3 and 6. Article 3 stipulates that “The intention of conserving and restoring monuments is to safeguard them no less as works of art than as historical evidence”, a guideline that would seem to have been compromised at Chartres not just because distinctions between building phases have been muddied, but also because evidence of 800 years of aging has been removed.

Article 6 states that: “The conservation of a monument implies preserving a setting which is not out of scale. Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and colour must be allowed.” Critics argue that current interventions alter the relation of mass and colour fundamentally, and indeed, it could be argued that this is outcome is in fact the primary objective of the project.

In addition, article 11 appears to address the specific actions taken at Chartres, and emphasises the importance of seeking expert opinions beyond that of the person in charge of the project: “The valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration. When a building includes the superimposed work of different periods, the revealing of the underlying state can only be justified in exceptional circumstances and when what is removed is of little interest and the material which is brought to light is of great historical, archaeological or aesthetic value, and its state of preservation good enough to justify the action. Evaluation of the importance of the elements involved and the decision as to what may be destroyed cannot rest solely on the individual in charge of the work.”

Given the concerns about the Chartres project raised by experts from around the world, the onus would seem to be on ICOMOS to investigate allegations of such a serious breach or breaches of the very charter that serves as the foundations for the organisation’s existence. But as the charter makes clear that each country is responsible “for applying the plan within the framework of its own culture and traditions” there is little prospect of any meaningful intervention from ICOMOS.

The plight of Chartres is further highlighted by the case of a member of the public who petitioned the European Parliament in 2013, demanding an immediate stop to the restoration at Chartres. A document issued on 31 January 2014, states “The European Union’s competence in the field of cultural heritage is limited.” Despite co-funding the restoration of Chartres, “the Commission cannot interfere in the way national cultural heritage is protected.” The petitioner, an Italian named Marta Mariani, was told that responsibility for the project lies with the French government and the regional prefecture. As neither international outrage nor a petition have so far elicited anything more than disdain from the French authorities, it is clear that no institution has either the teeth or the will to act.

STOP PRESS: At 17.33 today, in answer to an email of 14 February, Florence Hallett was notified by the American Friends of Chartres that:

“The exhibit of Bay 140 which had been envisaged will not take place because of cost reasons. And, to answer your question, of course all the proper authorizations from the French Ministry of Culture and other authorities had been secured by the DRAC-Centre Val de Loire, which had been nominated by the Ministry of Culture to execute the project. All the arrangements for the exhibit of Bay 140 would have been contractually arranged between the DRAC on behalf of the French authorities and the cultural institution that would have exhibited the window. American Friends of Chartres would not have been part of these contractual arrangements.”

Florence Hallett is architecture and monuments correspondent at AWUK and visual arts editor at theartsdesk.com

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: Top, part of the Belle Verrière window at Chartres Cathedral.
Above, Fig. 2a and 2b: Part of Belle Verrière window, as seen before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right).

CAN YOU SPOT THE DIFFERENCE ABOVE?

The ‘after-cleaning’ photograph on the right is taken from the website of the “American Friends of Chartres”. It is said of the cleaned state of the window:
“Meanwhile, here is a look at the newly restored Belle Verrière window with the Blue Halo Virgin which is perhaps the most famous stained glass at Chartres. The startlingly bright colors, including the famous Chartres blue, just pop out at you.”
19 February: Although this ‘after-restoration’ image is of low resolution the comparison of pre- and post-restoration states is highly disturbing and we accordingly requested a high quality photograph of the Bakers’ window which, on restoration, was to be dispatched to an American museum. The American Friends of Chartres have declined to send one. Instead, they have in effect erected a Catch 22 obstacle, saying: “Show us what you’ll be saying in your article and photo-captions and we will then decide whether or not to supply them”. As Mr Kuehl presumably appreciated, we cannot possibly comply with such an irrational and perverse requirement – we can only comment on that which we can see. We therefore draw attention to the cautionary disparity between the Belle Verrière window before its treatment and afterwards on the available, already published photographs. In our organisational experience, reluctance on the part of restorers to supply high quality directly comparable before- and after-treatment photographs is almost invariably an indication that damage has occurred during treatment. There is much talk of ethics in conservation practice. If such is to have substance it is imperative that records of all of the various states of works be freely available to interested parties – how else might errors be detected and injurious procedures halted?

WHAT CAN BE SEEN TODAY?

Certainly, on the evidence of the comparative photographs shown at Figs. 2a and 2b, there would appear to have been substantial losses of colour on the Belle Verrière window during its “restoration”. The claims on the American Friends of Chartres website that the colours are startlingly bright and that the colours now pop out are both vulgar and imprecise. Why should the colours of the glass at Chartres startle anyone? Why should colours that previously were both individually strong and collectively harmonious (as seen at Figs. 1 and 2a) have ceased to be so as a result of a restoration? With regard to the reliability of photographic evidence in these matters, we refer the reader/viewer to an earlier, and grotesquely bungled restoration, that of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Above, Fig. 3: Top, a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right). Above, a section of the Belle Verrière windows at Chartres Cathedral, as seen before restoration (left) and after restoration (right).
We see at the top a small section of Michelangelo’s ceiling (as it was first published in 1988) with the pre-restoration state on the left and the post restoration state on the right. We recognised instantly on the evidence of this single photo-comparison that Michelangelo’s painting had been damaged by the removal of painting (chiefly black) with which he had strengthened shadows and modelling and, even, added details (such as veins on the oak leaves). At the time, the restorers and their art historical advisers all insisted that the removed paint had not been paint, that, rather, it had been arbitrary accumulations of soot and discoloured varnish that had built up over the centuries to produce…precisely the features which Michelangelo’s contemporaries had copied in engravings and drawings. We commented then on the preposterousness of that claim – which we have demonstrated many time since on this site. The comparison of the glass at Chartres, as seen before and after after restoration above, and at Figs. 2a and 2b, most disturbingly suggests similarly adverse restoration consequences. If the American Friends of Chartres will not permit proper visual appraisal of the consequences of a restoration funded by themselves through US tax-exempt donations, the French authorities should feel honour-bound to do so. [NB in the original version of this post we mislabelled the glass at Figs. 1 and 2 as being part of the Bakers’ window. Michael Daley, 19 February.]
Above, Fig. 4: An American Airlines plane. See left for an account of damage to a Lucio Fontana sculpture when it was flown from Paris to the Armory Show in New York last year.
Above, Fig. 5: Chartres Cathedral
Above, Fig. 6: View looking west showing the painted masonry against the uncleaned masonry.
Above, Fig. 7: Detail showing the repainted masonry.
Above, Fig. 8: View looking SE showing painted and unpainted areas adjacent to each other.
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Views of west end before restoration and painting.
Above, Fig. 11: View of west end after restoration and the painting of fictive masonry.
Above, Fig. 12: The west door before treatment.
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: A detail of the west door before (top) and after (above) treatment.


The Conservation Laundering of Illicit Antiquities

29 March 2015

by Einav Zamir

Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles [Fig. 2], once hailed as the “heroic warrior against plunder,” [Endnote 1] was indicted in 2005 for violations against Italy’s cultural patrimony laws.[2] True became the first American curator to face such charges [3] — not coincidentally, it was also the first time that a source country had the means, financially and politically, to investigate and prosecute violations of their cultural patrimony laws [4]. The Swiss police and Italian Carabinieri’s raid on Giacomo Medici’s warehouse in Geneva a decade earlier [5] exposed an elaborate system, designed to avoid suspicion from authorities [6]. The subsequent investigation threw a spotlight onto the dubious activities of museum curators.

Conversely, restorers are rarely expected to account for their participation in concealing the evidence of clandestine excavation. Articles and books that focus on conservation’s role in the illicit trade of artifacts often take a very sympathetic stance — according to these accounts, conservators are unwilling participants, forced to comply with faulty acquisitions policies and overly aggressive museum personnel.

In many cases, this is certainly true. When the Getty’s Conservation Institute was asked to examine the infamous Aphrodite of Morgantina [Fig.3] before the Getty finalized its purchase, the staff observed that the object had been broken into three sections and speculated whether this was done by looters. They also noticed fresh dirt in some of its crevices, and Luis Monreal, the director of the institute, subsequently advised John Walsh, the Getty’s director, and Harold Williams, CEO of the Getty Trust, not to acquire the statue [7]. Nevertheless, no one alerted the authorities. Instead, the object was cleaned and restored, effectively removing the physical proof of its origin. Clearly, protesting to the museum board was not enough.

Of course, this issue is hardly cut-and-dry. According to Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method, and Decision Making by Chris Caple, there are two reactions a conservator might have when presented with a potentially looted object. He or she may choose to conserve it, thereby ensuring that information about the object, though devoid of archaeological context, becomes available to the public [8]. In an interview for the New York Times, Timothy Potts stressed, “If [the ancient art] goes on view with other like objects, then scholars get to see it and study it; the public gets to come; the claimant, if there is one, gets to know where it is and file a claim.” [9] Whether this information is enough to ensure an object’s return to a source country is questionable, however. It took over twenty years for the Getty to return the Aphrodite of Morgantina, and that was only after the raid on Giacomo Medici’s warehouse and increasing demands from the Italian government and numerous media outlets.

If a conservator turns away a looted object, however, he or she may be dooming it to obscurity, thereby diminishing the possibility that it will ever be returned. According to Jason Felch, author of Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World’s Richest Museum, “Lots of museum folks are unhappy because of the so-called orphan issue, and pressure is mounting.” [10] This pressure is likely felt both by museum curators and their colleagues in conservation. According to Caple, if a conservator refuses to work on an artifact, he or she denies it any “respectability.” He notes that it is difficult to deny an object in need of care, and that “refusal to treat one object will do little to suppress the trade in stolen or looted art.” Caple concludes by stating that “often the conservator’s suspicions may only be aroused during the conservation process,” [11] thus giving the conservator an out. Yet, if a curator suspects that an object has been looted, even after that object has made its way into the collection, he or she is expected to alert the authorities. Conservators are not held to the same standard. In a recent interview, Oscar White Muscarella, archaeologist and outspoken opponent of the antiquities trade, stated, “If someone is asked to conserve an object, and then he is asked to report on it, he doesn’t have to discuss that it’s a plundered object in his technical report — it’s a given that if it’s not from an excavation, it’s plundered.” He later added, “Conservators are as honest or dishonest as any other craftsman, but they contend that they’re scientists, and therefore, not dishonest.” [12]

Even the ethical codes of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) do not strictly prohibit the conservation of stolen objects. Article II of the AIC “Code of Ethics” states that “all actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it.” [13] However, their “Guidelines for Practice” stipulate that a member need only be “cognizant of laws and regulations that may have a bearing on professional activity,” [14] and it is merely recommended, not mandated, that “conservation professionals report suspected violations of applicable laws to the proper authorities.” [15] Similarly, one of the IIC’s primary goals as outlined in its “Memorandum of Association” is to “maintain standards in the practice of conservation and to combat any influences which would tend to lower such standards.” [16] Taking part in the laundering of illicit objects could be considered a blow to such principles. Yet, their mission to “take any action conducive to the bettering of the condition of Historic and Artistic Works,” [17] coupled with a rather vague definition of “standards of practice,” leaves a wide gap for interpretation. One might reasonably infer that “any action” includes the preservation of looted antiquities in order to safeguard their physical condition.

Jeanette Greenfield, author of The Return of Cultural Treasures, believes that “the purity of purpose of the conservators is to restore, protect and preserve objects…. Their work is a necessary singular task regardless of the method of acquisition. That is a separate legal matter for which the museums should be answerable.” [18] However, the conservator, as Professor Ricardo J. Elia of Boston University points out, should realize that his or her obligation is not to the object in its physical form, but to its overall integrity as a record of cultural history. [19] Because of this factor, loss of context outweighs any perceived gain in performing restorative work. “No self-respecting professional should have anything to do with the antiquities market,” he argues. “You are either with the looters or against them.” [20] There are a growing number of conservators who seem to agree with this sentiment. Catherine Sease advocated in 1997 for a more stringent code of ethics among conservators. In particular, she believed that grassroots efforts, including the refusal to work on objects of dubious origin, have the potential to change future endeavors of both museums and the dealers who supply them. [21] More recently, at the Appraisers Association of America’s annual conference in 2011, James McAndrew, a forensic specialist, delivered a keynote address entitled “A Decade of Transition in the Trade of Art and Antiquities,” in which he discussed the issues surrounding the conservation of looted art. [22] However, the question remains whether refusal to work on such objects is enough. Museum professionals, regardless of their rank, should also consider making their objections more public. From a purely practical standpoint, one must realize that many conservators will find it difficult if not impossible to do either. According to Elizabeth Simpson, an archaeologist and professor who has also been a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “those employed as conservators by museums and private collectors are likely to lose their jobs if they don’t toe the line.” [23] Several conservators who were contacted about this article declined to comment on the issue, supporting Simpson’s contention.

While it is clear that Marion True participated in the acquisition of looted artifacts, many believe that she became a scapegoat for an issue affecting several major institutions. Violations of the 1970 UNESCO convention were, and still are, widespread. As Felch states in his book, “True, at once the greatest sinner and the greatest champion of reform, has been made to pay for the crimes of American museums.” [24] Curators are held responsible for what has become a collaborative offense — anyone who has knowledge or suspicion of illegal activities, regardless of their intentions, should be expected to take action. According to Felch, the only way to ensure future adherence to ethical codes is by promoting “vigilance and education of the museum-going public about these issues. Museums will stop buying loot if and only if they feel the practice is culturally unacceptable in the public’s eyes.”[25] It would seem that the solution, much like the problem itself, needs to be collaborative.

ENDNOTES

1 Stanley Meisler, “Art & Avarice: In the Cutthroat Art Trade, Museums and Collectors Battle Newly Protective Governments Over Stolen Treasures.” Los Angeles Times Magazine, 12 Nov. 1989: 8.
2 Sharon Waxman, Loot: The Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 305.
3 Italy v. Marion True and Robert E. Hecht, Tribunal of Rome. 13 Oct. 2010. IFAR: Art Law & Cultural Property Database. 30 Feb. 2012. .
4 Peter Watson, and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities, from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (New York: BBS Public Affairs, 2006), 28.
5 Neil Brodie, “Uncovering the Antiquities Market,” in The Oxford Handbook of Public Archaeology, edited by Robin Skeates, Carol McDavid, and John Carman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 247.
6 Tom Bazley, Crimes of the Art World (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 129.
7 Ralph Frammolino, “A Goddess Goes Home.” Smithsonian Magazine Nov. 2011: 43.
8 Chris Caple, Conservation Skills: Judgement, Method, and Decision Making (New York: Routledge, 2000), 194.
9 Hugh Eakin, “U.S. Museum Guidelines Defend Ties to Collectors.” New York Times. 28 Feb. 2006. .
10 Jason Felch, “Getty Policy.” Message to Einav Zamir. 19 Apr. 2012. E-mail.
11 Caple, 194.
12 Oscar White Muscarella, Telephone conversation with Einav Zamir. 25 Jul. 2012.
13 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, AIC Code of Ethics And Guidelines For Practice (Washington, D.C., 1994).
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Memorandum of Association (London, 1992). Originally signed in 1950, amended in 1959 and 1992.
17 Ibid.
18 Jeanette Greenfield, email to Einav Zamir. 7 Aug. 2012.
19 Ricardo J. Elia, “Comment on “Irreconcilable Differences?”: Scholars for Sale.” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 18 (2007): 17.
20 Ibid., 18.
21 Catherine Sease, “Conservation and the Antiquities Trade.” Journal of the American Institute of Conservation 36.1 (1997): 56.
22 Appraisers Association of America, “2011 National Conference.” Accessed 25 July 2013. .
23 Elizabeth Simpson, email to Einav Zamir. 6 Aug. 2012.
24 Felch and Frammolino, 312.
25 Felch, “Getty Policy.”

Einav Zamir is a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin and a former director of ArtWatch International, New York.

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: Looters’ pits at the archaeological site of Isin, Iraq.
Above, Fig. 2: The Getty Museum, unlike institutions such as the Met or the British Museum, is a fairly new establishment. Confronted by an enormous endowment that needed to be spent within a limited amount of time, they aggressively acquired antiquities throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Dubious collecting practices led to both a criminal trial against Marion True, then curator of the Getty Museum’s Classical Art department, and negotiations for the restitution of forty ancient objects to Italy and Greece. Since then, the Getty has adopted a new acquisitions policy with far greater restrictions than the policies of many other comparable institutions.
Above, Fig. 3: The so-called “Aphrodite of Morgantina” from the fifth century BCE, was acquired by the Getty Museum despite its dubious origins for the sake of expanding the collection. The Museum purchased the goddess in 1988 for eighteen million dollars from Robin Symes, a former antiquities dealer who spent seven months in prison in 2005 for involvement in Medici’s illicit operations. It remained on display at the Getty Villa until 2010, returning to Italy in May of 2011. It is now on view at the Museo Archeologico Museo in Aidone, Sicily.
Above, Fig. 4: The Euphronios krater presents one of the most infamous cases of the trade in looted antiquities. It was removed from an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri in 1971 and sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972 by Robert E. Hecht, who claimed to have purchased it from a Lebanese art dealer. After incriminating evidence turned up describing the circumstances of the sale of the krater, Italy demanded the return of the vase, and the Met entered into negotiations with the Italian government. The Met returned the Euphronios krater to Italy in 2008..
LOOTERS, THEIR CLIENTS AND THEIR MARKETS:
“Aggressive collecting curators were more than a little larcenous. To land something great, they were perfectly willing to deal with shady characters. Though they wouldn’t, they could tell you every smugglers’ ploy ever concocted. In extra-legal matters they could be sophisticated, but they were often naive about the subtleties of bargaining…An intact red-figured Greek vase [the Euphronios krater – at Fig. 4] of the early sixth century B. C. could only have been found in Etruscan territory in Italy, by illegal excavators…”
– Thomas Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (1967-77), in Making the Mummies Dance, N.Y. 1993, pp. 309 and 69.
“A RARE Greek Sculpture worth up to £2m was smuggled into Britain after being looted from a UNESCO world heritage site in Libya, a court heard yesterday.” ~ The Daily Telegraph 28 March 2015.
Above, Figs. 6 and 7: The Spring 2015 issue and contents of the ArtWatch UK members’ journal. On travel risks, see Introduction. For membership details, please contect Helen Hulson, Membership Secretary, at hahulson@googlemail.com
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship ~ Part II: Paper (sometimes photographic) Fakes and the Demise of the Educated Eye

7 January 2014

“…Works on paper, however, have not been so completely studied and categorised, so there remains scope for mis-identification and skulduggery.”

~ Michel Strauss, “Pictures, Passions and Eye: A Life at Sotheby’s”, London, 2011.

An anonymous bidder has reportedly acquired a manuscript by the late forger Eric Hebborn for more than sixty times its reserve price – “Mystery bidder buys forger’s key to fakes in top museums”,

The Times, 25 October 2014.

“The only attributions that I have discussed neither in the text nor in the Catalogue Raisonné are of drawings. We have no assurance that any of Domenico’s drawings has survived. None was given to him in Berenson’s Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1938) or by Salmi (1936 and 1938). The ascription of a group of drawings to Domenico by Degenhart and Schmitt (1969) lacks credibility, and scattered earlier attributions by Wickhoff (1899), Böck (1934), Geiger (1948), and Grassi (1961) seem equally implausible. The absence of drawings – Domenico Veneziano must have been a tireless as well as a brilliant draftsman – is the oddest of the many gaps in our knowledge of this great artist.”

~ Hellmut Wohl, “The Paintings of Domenico Veneziano”, Oxford and New York, 1980.

“The state of methods and protocols used in attribution is a professional disgrace. Different kinds of evidence, documentation, provenance, surrounding circumstances of contexts of varied kinds, scientific analysis, and judgement by eye are used and ignored opportunistically in ways that suit each advocate (who too frequently has undeclared interests). Scientific evidence is particularly abused in this respect. The status of different kinds of evidence is generally not acknowledged, particularly with respect to falsifiability. It is generally true to say that the most malleable of the kinds of visual evidence are those that bear in most specifically on issues of attribution (e.g. the individual artist and precise date), while those that are least malleable (e.g. pigment analysis) are only permissive (i.e. nil obstat) rather than highly specific. I will attempt to bring some systematic awareness into this area, which is a necessary first step in establishing some rational protocols. The case studies will be drawn from Leonardo.”

~ Martin Kemp, a synopsis for a paper – “It Doesn’t Look Like Leonardo” – delivered on May 7th, 2014 at a congress at the Hague on “Authentication in Art: What happens when the painting you are buying, selling, investigating, exhibiting, insuring – Turns Out to be a Fake or a (Re)Discovery…”

In the early 1990s we noted that damaging restorations and misattributed works stemmed from common failures of visual discrimination, or lapses of connoisseurship – which are the same thing. Almost an entire generation of scholars had swallowed official defences of the controversial Sistine Chapel restoration and, generally, had seemed to have stopped appraising restorations – and especially those at the National Gallery (London) where cleaning controversies had run from the institution’s earliest days. In the late 1960s, the gallery had broken the spirit of many scholar-critics with its artful spinning of the (ruinous) restoration of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne as a triumph of the restorer’s art (see …Titian and Great Women Conservators). In 1977 a former director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, declared picture cleaning to have been a battle won by restorers and pro-cleaning museum curators like him.

Scholarly failures to respond to restoration-induced injuries ran in tandem with failures to “read” pictures when assigning authorship. The National Gallery’s curators had made extraordinary contortions to sustain the attribution to Michelangelo of an unfinished painting (The Entombment of Christ) that was clearly the product of two separate hands working perhaps a generation apart. At first it was claimed that the two radically different manners of painting stemmed from separate campaigns of work by Michelangelo, one during 1504-08 before work began on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and another sometime after 1515. In the first stage of work, it was said, Michelangelo had painted smooth and enamel-like, as in the Doni Tondo of c. 1507. In the second stage his looser freer brushwork was said to reflect the experience of having painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Later, it was claimed that this unfinished painting in two styles and manners had been entirely painted by Michelangelo when he was only twenty-five years old in 1500. Cecil Gould had held that such technical and stylistic anomalies stemmed from the fact that the young Michelangelo was: “…ranging forwards or backwards within his own development, reworking one motive…or anticipating another”.

The doyen of British Michelangelo scholarship, Michael Hirst – a key supporter/adviser of the Sistine Chapel restoration – has endorsed this reading (of Michelangelo’s sole authorship). Professor Hirst’s stance in both cases seems visually obtuse: during the restoration Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings had lost many unquestionably original features that had been copied during his own lifetime; the Entombment’s so-called “anticipations” were not of Michelangelo’s subsequent work but of later work by artists like Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo (who were both six years old at the time – see Figs. 7 and 8). We said of such visually unsupported hypotheses: “The fact that our scholars and technical experts flit quite so promiscuously through time and space might suggest uncertainty of connoisseurship and ability to ‘read’ paintings” (“How to Make a Michelangelo”, Michael Daley, Art Review, October 1994). We had appealed earlier that year to the authority of the educated eye in the May issue of The Art Newspaper in response to a restorer’s hostile review of the James Beck/Michael Daley book Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal:

“…this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.”

Three years later, in connection with another visual evidence-denying National Gallery attribution (its Rubens Samson and Delilah) we wrote: “In recent years the art of connoisseurship has become entangled with the scientific analysis of paintings. Problems of attribution, once resolved by the educated ‘eyes’ of individuals, are increasingly seen as the property of interdisciplinary teams of curators, restorers and scientists who enjoy the technical, financial and professional support afforded by large museums. But how sound are the new procedures – and how reliable are the published accounts given of them?” (“Is this really a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Art Review, July/August 1997).

Mixed campaigning results

After two decades of campaigning on these cross-linked issues, there are signs of resurgence in old-style connoisseurship – or at least, of support in principle for it. In May 2014 the Mellon Centre hosted a conference titled “The Educated Eye? Connoisseurship Now” and one speaker, Bendor Grosvenor, the editor of the Art History News blog, cited the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling as proof of failures of connoisseurship among restorers. At the same time, the art market is processing more upgraded and elevated studio works and copies than ever before, almost always doing so on the authority of some conservation “investigations” and treatments. “Rediscovered” Rubens’s, van Dycks, Michelangelos, Caravaggios or Leonardos are appearing on an almost monthly basis. Autograph preparatory drawings or studies have undergone similar expansions: with Michelangelo, where only 250 sheets of drawings were accepted in the 1960s, over 600 sheets are accepted today. In the same month, as indicated above, a congress was held on the great problems of establishing authenticity today: “Authentication in Art: What happens when the painting you are buying, selling, investigating, exhibiting, insuring – Turns Out to be a Fake or a (Re)Discovery”.

It is hard to exaggerate how far and how fast we have moved away from visually alert and sound scholarly practices. In 1980, as the Sistine Chapel restoration began, Hellmut Wohl published a monograph on Domenico Veneziano as a study of Florentine art in the early Renaissance. It was the fruit of three decades of researches. As indicated above, Professor Wohl made no attempt to discuss drawings that had been attributed to the artist for the simple reason, he explained, that surprising as it was, there was no evidence that any (of the very many) drawings he must have made had survived. In his catalogue raisonné, Wohl discussed sixty-two attributions to Domenico, his workshop and his immediate followers, which he considered to be apocryphal. The force of that analysis is still accepted (see caption at Figs. 4a and 4b). His study offered no new attributions or documents and confined itself to a re-examination of the artist himself through his known works, documents and sources in the light of various art historical readings. Judging Domenico to have been one who was “centrally involved in the artistic process of his time and place”, Wohl began his study not with consideration of the artist’s early works but of his St. Lucy Altarpiece, which stands chronologically and conceptually at the centre of his extant oeuvre. His reason for doing so was because the work’s sacra conversazione and predella “provide the richest, most complex and most revealing testimony of the anatomy of his art.” In discussing this crucial work, Wohl saw that it was artistically imperative to acknowledge its condition:

“In its original state the sacra conversazione, which was drastically overcleaned at the end of the nineteenth century, must have been one of the most luxurious examples of tempera painting in its time. Even in its present condition we can follow the shaping of its forms in untold layers of brushstrokes, responsive to the subtlest directional nuances, and weaving a pattern within which each form emerges as spatially alive and as a bearer of light.”

If this seems like exemplary visual and conceptual analysis, it gets better:

“The nature of Domenico’s modelling is such that light seems to be embedded in the fabric of each coloured surface – a method which is one of the unmistakable indications of Domenico Veneziano’s hand, and one that contributed much to that ‘change of vision’ by which the figure was no longer seen in isolation, but as part of a given field,’ which Offner (1924) recognized in Piero della Francesca…”

Such writing and scholarship not only illuminates, it arouses curiosity, whets the visual appetite, makes one want to see for oneself. There are fourteen excellent black and white plates of the altarpiece in Wohl’s book. The now forever restoration-damaged work itself is in the Uffizi, Florence – the scene of this particular crime against art: it had been in a good state until taken to the Uffizi, where, as the scholar Cavalcasselle had protested it had been subjected to:

“so disgraceful a cleaning and to so many retouchings as to lose much of its original quality, and thus to produce a disagreeable impression, having been left with a cold tonality, with its paint surface laid bare (‘posto allo scoperto’) unevenly in several places, and gone over.”

Wohl meticulously and eloquently lays out the hazards to interpretation that are presented by bad and restoration-damaged condition:

“The present condition must be kept in mind as a corrective in estimating style. The blue mantle covering the knees of the Virgin has been reduced to a state of semi-transparency, its barest patches have been filled in with a flat tone that roughly matches the remaining original blue. The Virgin’s dress and part of the mantle around her left arm are similarly worn. The extent of the damage to the faces of the Virgin and the Child can be gauged from the relative rigidity and opaqueness of their expressions as compared with the mobility and subtlety of expression in the head of Madonna at I Tatti. The transparent veil which originally covered the hair and forehead of the Virgin has disappeared except for a remnant of its fringed border on her shoulder. The niche behind the Virgin, especially its shell, is so heavily repainted that it no longer functions properly as a hollow in the pictorial space. The figures of the saints have suffered somewhat less, the Baptist very little. The habit of St. Francis is worn in the shadows, and there are repairs above his tonsure and around his ear and lower lip. There is damage along the left edge of the face of St Zenobious. The contour of his skullcap has been redrawn. The dress and mantle covering the shoulder of St. Lucy are very threadbare. The contour of her profile has been reinforced, and her face retouched, especially to the left of her eye. The background above and to the right of her head is also extremely thin. The effects of the ‘disgraceful’ nineteenth-century cleaning and retouching of the sacra conversazione are not, however, confined to these areas, where they are particularly conspicuous, but show throughout the panel…”

If a scholar could still write so aptly and freely in 1980, how had the cat got the tongues of so many by 1990? Why had so many been blind or indifferent to the even more disgracefully injurious and art historically corrupting “restoration” of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling? Is it not shaming to the profession that it took a sculptor, Venanzo Crocetti (who had worked as a young man on the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling during the mid 1930s), to blow the whistle in the 1980s? Is it not shaming to the profession that when James Beck, an esteemed scholar and a brilliant, popular teacher at Columbia University, sided with the artist critics of the restoration and advanced an art historically informed critique that the art historical sky fell on him?

Crocetti’s testimony on the AB 57 cleaning method (a thixotropic cocktail of solvents and detergents) then being used on Michelangelo had been as percipient as it was damning. He noted that while the first 3 minute-long application left the frescoes looking cleaner, the second on the following day left them with altered and considerably degraded colours. He believed that the first applications effectively “degreased” the surfaces leaving them open to greater penetration by the second applications. He was convinced that the immediately apparent visual effects of these twin applications would not be their final outcome. He argued – correctly, it has turned out, see below – that their corrosive actions would continue because of the absorption of the water rinse operations (after each application of the chemically-loaded thixotropic gel) to a depth of half a centimetre. Some days after the second applications he noticed (from the scaffold itself) the appearance of “whitish oxidations of variable intensity” over large zones. These have been reappearing throughout on a massive scale since 2010 and have created panic measures and diversionary technical “initiatives” at the Vatican. (See “Michelangelo’s disintegrating frescoes” and “Sistine Chapel frescoes turning white”.) The official explanation for the oxidations is that they are caused by the combination of humidity given off by the press of visitors (up to 2,000 in the chapel at any one moment) and the atmospheric pollution in the chapel itself. At least as likely a cause is that the humidity is activating the water-soluble ammonium and sodium salts that were washed into the fabric of the frescoes.

The unfounded restoration premise

Crocetti considered the restorers’ claimed discovery of “stratifications of dirt gathered on the frescoes over the centuries” to be both exaggerated and misleading, and he held that the early photographs of the lunettes by Anderson made the extent of this exaggeration clear. He believed that the ferocity of the AB 57 cleaning agent made any finely tuned cleaning gradated to meet local conditions impossible. He believed that the greatest injury was to the chief feature of the frescoes – their disposition of lights and shades, and not their local colours. He believed that the restorers, in their pursuit of more intense colours, had penetrated the frescoes to their brighter, less modulated preparative layers. He felt confident that he had seen at first-hand how, with “cleaning”, the figures in the lunettes had been remade, becoming “false in form and colour” alike. He saw that many of the shadows from which the figures had formerly emerged had simply disappeared. He saw that corrections which Michelangelo had, with mastery, made invisible, had been exposed. Above all, he confirmed that the condition of the frescoes had remained “excellent” at the time of the restoration, and that this in part had been due to the absorption over the centuries of greasy substances of chapel smoke which had “strengthened the colour. Leaving upon it a glittering shift of the lightest varnish [thereby counterbalancing] the aridity and fragility” of old fresco. Having worked on the restoration in the 1930s and known Michelangelo’s work intimately, he found himself in despair.

We believe that today’s independent scholars are even shyer to speak against bad restorations and misattributions because of the above mentioned grip of restorers, scientists and curators in museums under the new collective ground rules of the so-called Technical Art History. This hybrid activity is not so much art history as an art historical gloss that is put on whatever state pictures are left in by museums’ technical ‘conservators’ whose own actions, for art-political reasons, can never be gainsaid. This collectivist or interdisciplinary practice precludes external input and appraisal and does not recognise the legitimacy of other independent sources of disinterested criticism. It may also be because many scholars and curators today have been educated under the so-called New Art History – a species of study that seems to leave students ideologically averse to the very notion of connoisseurship – which practice is held synonymous with snobbery, amateurism and art market shenanigans. For scholars in today’s academic world, it would seem to be professionally safer to view art through the distancing sociological prisms of Marxism, Feminism and such, rather than to heed and appraise its physical and, therefore, aesthetic condition (which action can upset owners, public or private). it can seem safer, too, not to scrutinise attributions (which can upset owners, public or private). In some countries, and the USA in particular, scholars harbour legal anxieties about challenging an attribution.

Running the Risks

At our annual memorial lecture (see CODA below) in honour of Professor James Beck of Columbia University, the Renaissance scholar and founder of ArtWatch International, a modest prize is awarded for services to art in memory of a another founder member of ArtWatch, the painter Frank Mason. In 2014 the prize was awarded to Martin Eidelberg for the launch of his excellent Watteau Abecedario, a developing online catalogue raisonné of the artist. In an ArtWatch International interview, A Weight of Evidence, Professor Eidelberg said of the problem of misattributions:

“First of all, the oeuvres of Watteau’s followers have been clouded over because works not worthy of their master have been assigned to them in a haphazard manner. It takes time to sift it all out. Wrong attributions have serious repercussions for our understanding of these artists. Impartiality is the key to it all. The dealer, auction house, and collector alike don’t want to hear bad news about paintings being downgraded. That’s one of the major dangers these days for the catalogue raisonné-er. There are cases where people whose works of art were downgraded became belligerent or litigious. Legislation currently pending in the New York State Assembly would prevent people from suing someone who is preparing a scholarly catalogue raisonné just because they disagree with your opinion.”

On the reluctance of some scholars to say as much as they might on the subject of attributions and misattributions and the possible effects of the pending New York State legislation, Eidelberg noted:

“There are important questions surrounding this pending New York legislation. Whom will it protect? Will it protect only an art historian working in New York State? Or will it protect Americans in general? And what about on the international scale? I don’t think France or Germany will abide by New York State legislation. That needs to be dealt with. What if an ordinary person like myself, who has no financial investment, gets involved in a lawsuit? The expense involved is incredible. Lawyers charge several hundred dollars an hour, and a case can go on for several years. The opposition can wear you down just by the incredible demands they put on your lawyer, whom you are financing. And if you win, what do you win? You don’t win money to pay even for your legal representation. That is a serious issue, because there are a lot of people in the art world who are dealing with large sums of money. When a painting sells for millions of dollars, there is strong motivation for wanting positive attributions.”

The Consequences of Bad attributions

One reason why professional neglect of condition is so unfortunate is that paying due attention to it increases capacities and skills when making or appraising attributions. It is too easy to mock the notion of the connoisseur. If its more peripheral exponents can sometimes resemble the narrator of the classic Croft Original Sherry advertisements (“One instinctively knows when something is right”) we should note that Daumier’s depictions were as affectionate and respectful as they were wry. Those collectors and dealers who can identify not only the author of an engraved print but its state and edition have eyes and scholarly expertise running in harmony. The high costs of neglecting the development of the ability to recognise by eye the difference between one thing and another in an otherwise very similar grouping; and of vacating the entire arena of condition to restorers who, like the professional aristocrats they have been allowed to become, never apologise for or acknowledge any of their errors, has become apparent within the last two decades at the Sistine Chapel where what little was left of Michelangelo’s work is now disintegrating. Any professional culpability for this outcome, however, would be joint and not restricted to the restorers (who, for all we know, may have been “under orders”). The initial, almost universal art historical acceptance of the apologia for the visible consequence of that restoration’s singular cleaning method, as offered by the Vatican and its prominent adviser/supporters, permitted a contested folly to continue when it might still have been halted. The original peddling of claims to have discovered a “New Michelangelo” (for whom no corroboration is to be found in art history or in the many copies that were made of the Sistine Chapel ceiling) was as egregious a pollution of scholarship as the actions of the restorers were artistically destructive.

If, as might seem to be the case, many of today’s art historians still cannot recognise a gross adulteration that left Michelangelo’s ceiling as a false witness to its own original state, how likely are they to be able to distinguish between an autograph work and a very good studio copy – or a clever forgery? In a field where, as every blockbuster exhibition and new monograph now testifies, the consequence of successive restorations is that the great majority of works have been left as restoration-reduced shadows of their former selves, how are scholars to formulate and retain mental pictures of an artist’s distinguishing “bedrock” traits so as to avoid errors of attribution? With so many now many-times restored and progressively adulterated works failing to resemble their original selves, scholars are effectively left making judgements on the authority of works that have themselves become partial fakes. In an aesthetically corrupted critical milieu fakes can be extremely seductive. They spring fully-formed with artfully planted reassurances (see below and Fig. 1). They enter our world not emaciated and debilitated by successive restorations but freshly minted and at the peak of their calculatedly deceiving powers. When scholars lack the confidence even to acknowledge the grossest restoration injuries and adulterations; when they have lost the habit of appraising condition, how secure might their critical defences be against outright forgeries?

The value of fake drawings

Drawings, as the former auctioneer Michel Strauss has noted, are an especially sensitive and forgery-prone sphere, being both easier and cheaper to produce than paintings or sculptures. They can also be more pernicious in their effects. A badly attributed, supposed preparatory drawing can trigger a chain of misattributed paintings (as with the National Gallery’s Rubens Samson and Delilah and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Rubens Massacre of the Innocents). And, yet, visual warnings are always present: the supposed preparatory drawings on which questionable painting attributions stand frequently display features that are unusual or unprecedented within the artist’s oeuvre. The National Gallery’s Michelangelo Entombment and its Rubens Samson and Delilah are two such cases – see below and opposite. With the latter, the supposed original sketch drawing shows distinct signs of being a 20th-century forgery, as does also the recently claimed Leonardo drawing that has been dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by its principal art historical supporter, the Leonardo authority, Professor Martin Kemp (see below).

With drawings, the need to maintain vigilance against fraud is particularly urgent precisely because the field itself is insufficiently studied. As for the success of forgeries (which always seems inexplicable and incredible in retrospect) Michel Strauss offers this explanation for the phenomenon of initial too-ready acceptance of problematic works:

“It is a strange and curious factor that looking now at de Hory’s fakes, they seem so facile and such obvious, unlikely pastiches. It turned out that Frank Perls, with whom I compared notes, and I, were the only ones, to my knowledge, among many experienced international experts and dealers, who sussed him out at that time. I can only explain this as an example of the herd instinct: if one accepts, then the rest will follow…”

Artists’ assistance on spotting fake drawings

Fortunately, in the detection of fake drawings, much assistance can be had from artists (whose own eyes are constantly educated through engagement in the practices of art). Drawings are the most purely autographic category of visual works – successful artists might delegate parts or stages of paintings to assistants but rarely do so at the crucial designing or drawing stages. The skilful faker may get many things right but to escape detection he (- it invariably is a he?) needs to get everything right. Conversely, the connoisseur needs to spot only a single disqualifying error. This task should be made easier by the fact that drawings are the most direct and speedy manifestations of thought and purpose. How plausibly a drawing speaks of its role as an aid to the production of another and more substantial work constitutes a crucial indicator of authenticity. The forger might mimic a given artist’s graphic effects but, like a restorer (which he often is) he can never enter the mind of bona fide creative artists so as to grapple with and replicate an original and imaginative purposive graphic intent.

By long tradition artists have been outspoken on dud attributions. In the early 1900s the artist, M. H. Spielmann, F.S.A., wrote a series of articles for The Magazine of Art, which he edited. In one, “Art Forgeries and Counterfeits”, Spielmann listed no fewer than eight members of “the picture-trickster’s profession”. His second category was that of The Cleaner, who “unhappily includes the restorer; and both, in the vast majority of cases are the sworn enemy of a picture’s quality. Though the cleaner may skin the picture of its glazes as well as of its dirt and discoloured varnish, though he may destroy the work of art, aesthetic criminal though he be, he is, more’s the pity, no law-breaker. He may scrape a picture to the under-painting, and he may ‘restore’ what was never there; still, in the eyes of the law, he is as honourable as the original artist.”

Another forgery specialist was The Monogrammist, a student and scholar of art history who “knows exactly how an artist signed his name at different periods of his career, in what portion, on what spot…in what manner…” His cousin The Sealer acquires “quite a little gathering of […] seals from the most important collections, and he can then command a fair price for attaching one or other of his ‘certificates of quality’ to any picture that may be brought to him for the purpose.” The erudite old Genealogist then steps in: “to make things more certain still. He, too, is a student of the movement of art, and he uses his knowledge to determine what lineage he may safely attribute to a picture, and what he may not attempt…”

Scholars beware

Spielmann articulated the most critically instructive category of all, that of The Portmanteau Picture, the work in which motifs plundered from a number of authentic works are fused into a temptingly plausible synthesis. If a work looks reassuringly familiar at first glance it might well be because, in its component parts, it is already familiar from a number of “borrowed” sources. In the case of the putative Leonardo “La Bella”, a useful question to consider would be this: “If a twentieth century forger had wished to produce a profile female portrait in the manner of Leonardo, where would he most likely have found useful motifs that might plausibly be assembled into an identikit Leonardo-like whole?” (We suggest a number of candidate works opposite.)

If there is one source of advice potentially more helpful to connoisseurs than that of an artist, it is that of an artist gone-bad. There is a literature of garrulous fakers who have exulted in their powers to deceive professional experts. One, the notorious forger of drawings, Eric Hebborn, single-handedly left a small library of instructions to forgers and connoisseurs alike. In his 1997 The Art Forger’s Handbook, Hebborn effectively provides a Guide for the Connoisseur on the detection of fake drawings.

TWO CASE HISTORIES

In art criticism, as in the appraisal of restorations, comparisons can be instructive. In the previous post we discussed a “van Dyck” drawing that became a Rubens ink sketch and, a “Veronese” – from the same dealers – that collapsed after sixty years and presently stands on offer as an attributed Agostino Carracci. Here, we reconsider that supposed, upgraded and now accepted Rubens ink sketch which recently sold for more than £3 million, along with a claimed autograph Leonardo, the so-called “La Bella Principessa” which sold in 1998 as a not-Leonardo for $21,850. On its current Leonardo claims it has been estimated, perhaps optimistically, to be worth some £150 million.

The two attributions were made nearly a century apart. While the now-Rubens has been officially accepted with the previously described chain of consequences, the latter is locked in an increasingly acrimonious international battle for critical acceptance. In both cases, espousal of the work has generated implausible art historical narratives and an over-riding of technical and aesthetic alarms. In both, indications of modern forgery are present, and – apropos Hebborn’s disclosures – in both there happens to be a strong close-by candidate as a potential forger.

The history or “provenance” of two dubious works

Both drawings were foundlings deposited on the art market’s doorstep. The now-Rubens ink sketch emerged in dealers’ hands in 1926, as a van Dyck (it is initialled V. D.) and with no history of prior ownership or existence, some 316 years after its presently claimed date of execution. The would-be Leonardo appeared in 1998 – a full five centuries after its now-claimed 1496 execution – and, again, with no history of prior ownership or existence. It was offered in a 1998 sale of old master drawings at Christie’s in New York as “German School, early 19th century” and “the property of a lady”. It only later transpired (after a vain legal tussle launched against Christie’s by the anonymous vendor on hearing of the drawing’s claimed worth of £150 million) that the lady in question was Jeanne Marchig.

Giannino Marchig

Jeanne Marchig was the widow of the painter and restorer Giannino Marchig (1897-1983). For some years she had been selling works under cloak of anonymity from her late husband’s collection to fund animal charities. Marchig was said by his widow to have kept the now-claimed Leonardo drawing in a portfolio and to have held it to be by Domenico Ghirlandaio (see Fig. 5). As the only known owner of a work with a five centuries-long provenance lacuna, Giannino Marchig must be considered as a potential Leonardo forger. He was a talented artist who worked with facility in a variety of manners and showed in his own drawings a fondness for female figures with faces in profile (see Fig. 17). He had studied in the studios of artists in Trieste and became Professor of Drawing at the Florence Academy of Fine Arts in the 1920s, immersing himself in works that reflected his studies of the old masters. After achieving some success as an artist, winning prizes, exhibiting in Paris, Berlin and the USA, as well as participating in the 13th Venice Biennale in 1922, in the 1930s he met Bernard Berenson and, thereupon, switched from art to art restoration and publishing. He spent the war assisting Berenson who had remained in Italy under aristocratic protection. At the end of his war time diaries (written in 1947 and published in 1952 as Rumour and Reflection) Berenson thanks his “dear friend, the delicate restorer and picture expert, Giannino Marchig” for helping to conceal his collections from the Germans.

The Berenson connection hardly augurs well for the drawing. Kenneth Clark, himself a former assistant of Berenson, recalled in 1977 how the great scholar “sat on a pinnacle of corruption” and that “for almost forty years after 1900 he did practically nothing except authenticate pictures”. Clark knew of what he spoke: his own extremely youthful positions as director of the Ashmolean Museum and then of the National Gallery had been achieved on the commendations of Berenson’s partner in attributions, the dealer Lord Duveen. In the 1950s, after some sort of crisis, Marchig abandoned Italy and moved to Geneva where he met his wife, Jeanne, and began practising as an international picture restorer.

(It should be said that none of the above was known when “La Bella” first began to attract support as a Leonardo, and that one of the drawing’s earliest advocates, Nicholas Turner, a former curator of drawings at the British Museum and the Getty Museum, has a courageous record of challenging misattributed drawings in museums – including those of Eric Hebborn. If the present battle between camps of experts over this proposed attribution is sharply contested and heated, it is being fought by all parties as a matter of scholarly/artistic judgement and advocacy.)

The spectre of forgery

Although the identity of the vendor emerged late, among the chief present supporters of the Leonardo attribution, Professor Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte of Lumiere Technology (the joint authors of the 2010 book The Story of the New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci: La Bella Principessa – see review opposite), have said that: “At the time of the writing of the book, the ownership of the portrait before 1998 was not known, leaving it’s supporters open to the charge that it might be a recent forgery undertaken with knowledge of modern technical examinations of Leonardo’s paintings – even though the modern technical examination of the portrait itself seemed to preclude this.” Given those initial suspicions, it might be wondered how the subsequent disclosure of an intimate connection with a restorer and confidant of Berenson had laid them to rest.

For Kemp and Cotte, the fact that Marchig had “worked internationally as a respected restorer, and in 1976 undertook major conservation on one of the two prime versions of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, then owned by Wildenstein’s in New York”, the possibility of the drawing being a modern forgery can now be ruled out. This is upside down: when artists work as restorers on old master paintings, they are licensed precisely to forge original work at their “retouching” stages. (At the National Gallery, restorers even paint false lines of craquelure onto their own fresh and speculative synthetic repaints, in a technique known as “deceptive retouching”). Marchig’s experience of working on one of the two prime versions of Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder would hardly disqualify him as a forger able to work “with knowledge of modern technical examinations of Leonardo’s paintings”.

The material composition of the drawings

With both the “Rubens” and the “Leonardo” drawings only the front of the sheet can be examined. Both have been glued onto secondary supports. The “Rubens” ink drawing has been glued onto a second sheet of paper. The visible side of the second sheet is heavily abraded in a manner that might suggest a ham-fisted attempt at its removal. In one corner, part of this “backing” sheet has been removed, exposing (unintelligible) chalk lines on the “recto” of the ink drawing. It is never safe to take signs of age and previous treatments as proofs of antiquity, let alone of authenticity. In his section “Creating an atmosphere of age” (p. 51) of The Art Forger’s Handbook, Hebborn writes:

“If our work is to convince it must have a feeling of having a past. That is to say it should show signs of having been through the hands of former dealers and collectors…Three forms of protection for drawings have traditionally been used: pasting them into albums, putting them into mounts for storage in boxes, and framing them…the most obvious sign of a drawing having once been stuck down is when the work is still attached to the page of an album. This, of course, is very easy for us to imitate. We simply paste our drawing on a blank page taken from an old book. A nice refinement is to show signs of another drawing having once been stuck on the back of the page, and to do this you really do stick a drawing on the back. Wait for a week or so until the ‘old’ glue or paste has hardened, then remove the drawing. There is no need to be over-careful about this procedure. If you should leave a little of the paper of the drawing adhering to the mount, or of the mount to the drawing, it adds a very convincing touch…”

An unusual support

The claimed Leonardo “La Bella” is made with three coloured chalks, body colour and brown ink on a sheet of vellum. That is to say, this work was executed in mixed-media of a kind nowhere encountered in Leonardo and on a support never encountered in Leonardo. Much has been made of the fact that it has been established by Cotte’s technical examinations and by some astute art historical research that the vellum may be of a late 15th century origin, one of a number of vellum leaves – some of which were blank – removed at an unknown date from a Renaissance volume or “codex” held in Poland. If correct, this circumstance would be no proof of the authenticity or antiquity of the drawing that is presently found on the only recently encountered sheet. Even if the presently hypothecated origins and antiquity of the support were somehow to be established, neither the date when the sheet might have been removed (by knife or razor) from the book, nor that of the drawing executed upon it would be known. By coincidence, Jeanne Marchig was Polish and, it has been said, an artist of sorts herself. She proudly preserved the box of pastels with which she said Giannino restored the “Principessa”. So, the Marchigs themselves claim responsibility for a restoration that might otherwise have implied a degree of antiquity in the drawing and the fact remains that the first and only known owner of this supposed Leonardo of 1496 was a 20th-century artist/restorer whose widow put works on to the market anonymously.

Wide margins of error

In addition to Pascal Cotte’s “La Bella” examinations, carbon dating tests of the drawing’s vellum support were made by the Zurich Institute for Particle Physics. The dating itself came with a customarily wide margin of error. There was said to be a 95 per cent probability of the vellum having been made at some point between 1440 and 1650. Note: in betting parlance, this is to say only that the odds, on this technical evidence, were three to one against it having been made before or by 1496, the now-contended date of execution. Suggestions that this analysis has somehow determined “once and for all” that the drawing is not a later pastiche are hardly credible. Kemp himself says no more than that the carbon dating “greatly diminishes the possibility of the drawing being a clever forgery”. Much, too, has been made of the fact that this drawing bears signs of age and restorations, but old supports can be bought and “evidence” of restoration can easily be forged (see below).

Cod antiquity and dodgy backs

This particular vellum sheet has been glued onto an old oak panel – on the face of it, an improbable and inappropriate treatment, given that wood expands and contracts and would therefore threaten to tear or buckle an affixed sheet. The presence of the panel is taken by Pascal Cotte to testify to the drawing’s antiquity:

“The vellum was at some point laid down on an old oak board, which has been repaired on two occasions with butterfly joints. Jeanne Marchig identified the later pair of untinted joints as characteristic of those made by hand by Giannino. The portrait has been subject to at least two campaigns of restoration, including that by Marchig over 50 years ago. It seems likely that the vellum had been laid down on the panel long before it entered his hands. On the reverse are two customs stamps: DOUANE CENTRALE/ EXPORTATION/ PARIS. This stamp seems to have been introduced in 1864 but it is unclear when it ceased to be used in this form. The likelihood is that it is not later than the early 20th century. In any event, the stamps indicate the presence of the panel in France, presumably with its attached portrait and probably framed (as indicated by the brown paper strips around its margins). Whether it was owned for a period in France or imported temporarily is unclear.”

Again, nothing here helps to establish the antiquity let alone the authenticity of the drawing. The unsupported phrases,“seems likely” and “presumably”, have little force because anything can be stuck to anything at any point. In terms of making an attribution, the primary support (the vellum), and the secondary support (the panel), should be kept conceptually apart. The source of neither has been established and nor has the date at which they came together. All that we know is that if Marchig had repaired splits in the panel as well as carrying out one of the “restorations” on the drawing, his finger prints are everywhere on this artefact. His widow advanced no information on any possible owner before her late husband but did once hint that it might have been “acquired” from Berenson’s collection. Berenson himself had been taken in by forged paintings and kept one of them in his home as a means of testing the art critical credentials of his visitors. Nothing material here might refute a suggestion that Marchig was the drawing’s author, working on old vellum that was at some point attached to an old, previously repaired and labelled panel, thereby conferring a spurious antiquity and concealing the back of the vellum.

From the time the work was presented by Marchig’s widow for sale in 1998 no owner has thought to remove the vellum from the panel as a precautionary conservation measure or to permit an examination of the sheet’s recto. Cotte says of this: “Unfortunately, since it is laid down on panel (and separation would be hazardous) the verso of the vellum is not visible”. Hebborn commends the acquisition of old panels to forgers:

“…and this brings us to one of the big problems with panel pictures: their tendency to bend out of shape or split due to changes in humidity. The best precaution against warping and cracking is to use thoroughly seasoned wood, and no wood is more seasoned than that of a truly old panel picture. Artistically worthless old pictures on wood do come up for sale from time to time, and these provide the support that suits our purpose best. Panels from old furniture are also desirable. Unfortunately they are no less desirable to our colleagues engaged in the making of new ‘antique’ furniture, so we have to pay quite a lot for them…Just like old paper, old panels and canvases need no ageing…”

Left-handedness

Much has been made of the seeming left-handedness of the drawing’s author when such indications are easily forged (sheets can be rotated). The hatched shading of the background was not spontaneously drawn in the manner seen, for example, in Leonardo’s drawing at Fig. 18, but comprised a careful, deliberate “inking-in” of previously drawn ultra fine chalk lines. How often, if ever, did Leonardo work in such a slow and deliberated manner carefully and fastidiously shading in one medium and then even more fastidiously covering and concealing his first efforts? For a copyist or a forger to proceed in such a cautious manner would be quite unremarkable.

Uncharacteristic features

Drawings that are said to have been made as preliminary studies for what are problematic upgraded paintings commonly contain features found nowhere else in the claimed master’s oeuvre. Two drawings have been especially associated with the National Gallery’s Entombment (see Fig. 7). One is widely accepted as autograph and the other is not. The two are drawn in different manners that correspond to different stages of Michelangelo’s graphic evolution (the earlier being in ink, the later in chalk) and they have been dated as being as much as thirty years apart – which constitutes a considerable problem as claimed preparatory studies for a painting which itself is now said to have been entirely made by Michelangelo when he was twenty five and had not yet started drawing in chalk. The more challenged of the two, an ink drawing, is claimed to be a study for a kneeling figure in the painting, but even supporters of its attribution acknowledge that it contains problems as a Michelangelo: it is clearly drawn from a girl, not from a man; it is drawn very carefully on a pink ground in three separate stages; the plane of the ground is, uncharacteristically for Michelangelo, indicated; its Michelangelo ascription has often been challenged. Bernard Berenson took it to be by Passerotti or to be an engraver’s copy.

Although it is owned by the Louvre, it is not accepted as a Michelangelo by the museum. As with the supposed Rubens Samson and Delilah ink sketch, its chief perceived qualification is its close resemblance to a figure in a separately problematic and challenged painting. Both of these challenged and problematic National Gallery paintings (the Samson and Delilah and the Entombment) happen to lean on their problematic and challenged supposed preparatory ink sketches. Thus, the attributions of both drawings stand in circular fashion on their close resemblance to figures in the challenged paintings. As attributions, these two drawings and two paintings are as sand built upon sand.

A once well-accredited “Portmanteau” fake goes down…

Less than four years after the publication of Hebborn’s guide to connoisseurs and forgers, another small profile portrait, A Young Woman (Fig. 1), was down-graded at the Detroit Institute of the Arts to “Imitator of Verrocchio” (after sixty-five years good years as a Leonardo/Andrea del Verrocchio), by David Alan Brown, curator of Italian Renaissance art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Brown describes the painting as having been revealed as “a probable forgery by its anachronistic materials and unorthodox construction” (– see the catalogue to the Washington National Gallery of Art’s 2001-02 exhibition, Virtue and Beauty, p. 18). Thus, this work can now be considered a product of the 1930s, the period when Marchig was working for Berenson. One disqualifying feature that it has in common with “La Bella Principessa” is its depiction of an abnormally beefy “stevedore’s” arm in a young woman.

“La Bella Principessa” (13 x 9 and 3/4 inches) and A Young Woman (14 and 1/4 x 10 inches) are small works on panels of almost identical format. The “unorthodox construction” of A Young Lady really does seem to have been most unorthodox, even in the realm of the forged. Technical examination shows it to have been painted on “what appears to have been photographic paper applied to a wood panel that was repaired before it was readied for painting”. Also working against any possible retention of a Verrocchio or Leonardo attribution is the fact that at least one of the pigments on the painting is modern – zinc white. Further, what is described by Brown as “preliminary” examination disclosed the fact that worm-holes, which appeared to testify to the antiquity of the panel, had been filled before the gesso ground was applied.

Hebborn had another word to say on the importance of obtaining old wood. In his section “Ageing old panels” he advised “If you have not been able to procure a period panel, then you must find the oldest wood available. Even for a decorative painting, plywood and such stuff is anti-aesthetic, so at least have sufficient respect for your work to get a real piece of timber. This acquired, you may make worm holes and darken the wood to match the age required. Nevertheless, there is no way that these things can be artificially achieved well enough to deceive the connoisseur.”

The Detroit Young Woman was acquired in 1936. It was one of a group of three works judged by the Detroit Institute’s Director, W. R. Valentiner, to be (“tentatively”) by Leonardo. Valentiner was struck – and reassured – by a similarity between the curls in the painting and those encountered in both Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci painting and the Verrocchio marble Bust of a Lady in the Frick Collection (Fig. 2), which attribution is doubted by Nicholas Penny, the director of the National Gallery, London. Carter Alan Brown suspects that “further examination” might confirm that the painted profile of A Young Woman was indeed made over a photograph of the profile of the Frick’s marble Bust of a Lady. In truth, the reassuring curls, properly read, constitute a disqualification – see opposite.

How to obtain old paper

As for the no-provenance van Dyck drawing that was immediately upgraded to a no-provenance Rubens, obtaining paper of the desired antiquity (it was described simply as “laid” paper by Christie’s) would have posed no problem for an early 20th century forger. As Hebborn testifies:

“The best places for handling genuinely old sheets of paper prior to buying them are: the saleroom, where you can rummage through the unframed lots of prints and drawings; the print-seller, who has similar folders of unframed pictures, and the antiquarian bookseller, where you may find the end-papers more interesting than what lies between them…Books are particularly useful for the beginner because the date and the place of publication are normally to be found on the title page, and these more often than not indicate the date and the provenance of the paper on which it is printed…”

Previous restorations

The ink drawing on the “Rubens” sheet bears little sign of restoration or rubbing – the ink lines have a lovely glossy chestnut colouring – but the sheet on which the drawing was made shows signs of acute physical distress for reasons described opposite. Concerning wear, tear and earlier restorations, Hebborn counsels that old drawings must always show signs of rubbing. This may be achieved for drawings in soft media by “a soft cloth (an old woollen sock serves admirably)”, and for ink drawings by means of “a gentle rubbing with pumice powder or the application of the very finest grade of sandpaper”.

Potential executors of fakes

A question often posed by defenders of challenged attributions is: “If not by artist X, then by which other artist?” This ploy precludes the possibility of the author being a forger. A question that might always be considered prudent with unsupported attributions that emerge from nowhere centuries after their supposed creation is: “If not by artist X, then by which artist, copyist or forger?” Although it is not necessary to identify a faker when suggesting that a work might be a forgery, it so happens that in both of our cases a highly graphically competent artist and teacher of art hovered close by at the moments of “discovery” in 1926 and 1998 respectively.

The then van Dyck but now-Rubens and the then Veronese but now hopefully-Agostino Carracci emerged in the hands of a firm of dealers “R. W. P. de Vries, Amsterdam”. There were two R. W. P. de Vries’s. Reinier Willem Petrus de Vries Senior lived from 1841 until 1919 and was a respected antiquarian dealer (chiefly books and maps but also drawings and other works of art). With relatives, he ran the firm “R. W. P. de Vries, Amsterdam”. When de Vries Snr. died the firm continued until its liquidation in 1933. Reinier Willem Petrus de Vries Junior was born in 1874 and lived until 1953. He was a talented painter, graphic artist, book cover designer, print-maker and author. Like Giannino Marchig, de Vries Jr. was also a teacher of drawing (at a high school in Hilversum from 1913 to 1953).

We have no firm grounds for suggesting de Vries Jr. to be the author of the now-Rubens Samson and Delilah ink drawing that has sold for over £3million to an anonymous buyer, or of the no longer-Veronese drawing, but given that there are strong grounds for considering the Rubens drawing to be fake (see right), and that de Vries Jr. was, at the time the drawing emerged in his family’s business, a fifty-two year old teacher of drawing, he might properly be considered a candidate, if only because he was perfectly placed both to acquire the necessary materials to forge period drawings, and to offload them safely onto the market. Even if the firm was generally honourable, would it be inconceivable for an in-the-family forger to be indulged in a certain extra-curricula activity?

In any event, for reasons given in the previous post the drawing is quite implausible as a Rubens first-thought sketch. What makes it such an immediate suspect as a forgery (quality aside) is that when it came onto the market from nowhere it contained a feature that is nowhere encountered in Rubens’s many surviving ink sketches: a drawn enclosing box that implies a pre-determined format for the painting, and an artistic intention on Rubens’ part from the very beginning to crop the toes of Samson in just the manner of those found in a painting that was very shortly to come onto the market, not (yet) as a Rubens but as a Honthorst. This might have been taken as a coincidence, were it not for the fact that the immediate upgrading of the Honthorst painting to Rubens was made on the authority of the then recently upgraded drawing. The scholar who upgraded the painting, Ludwig Burchard, was the man who had upgraded the ink drawing from van Dyck to Rubens – and he is now known to have made many (over sixty) Rubens attributions that have subsequently fallen. Moreover, in upgrading the drawing and the painting, Burchard knew that the two contemporary copies of the original and long lost Rubens’ Samson and Delilah painting show that the toes of Samson had not been cropped at all; that they were set well and comfortably within the painting. The persisting institutional determination (despite informed protests) to retain the attribution of this implausible drawing, and of the equally implausible painting it was swiftly pressed to validate, has generated a sub-set of scholarship that flies in the face of visual evidence. That this untenable position is held without any attempted account being offered for the contra-testimony of the two contemporary copies of the original painting speaks of a contempt for the historic record and a preparedness to lower the bar of artistic quality for inclusion within within Rubens’ oeuvre.

Barriers to any acceptance of La Bella Principessa

As for for the so-called “La Bella Principessa” being an autograph work by Leonardo da Vinci, there is a single feature in it that should be seen by any educated eye to be instantly disqualifying – the drawing of the subject’s eye. This particular eye is so anatomically weak and ill-conceived; so out of perspective; so improperly wandering in its gaze; so planar and “Cubist” in its articulation; and, so comprehensively out of character with both Leonardo’s treatment of eyes and those of other artists working within the strictly regulated female portrait profile type that generated entirely sideways-on elevations of the head and bust of young ladies in emulation of likenesses on ancient coins, as to be inconceivable as a work of the period let alone one executed by Leonardo. At the supposed date of execution (1496), the profile portrait type attempted in “La Bella Principessa” had virtually run its course. By that date portraits – and most especially Leonardo’s own – favoured more complex perspectives and increased levels of psychological engagement with the subject. One Leonardo scholar, Frank Zollner, sees Leonardo’s 1478-1480 painting Ginevra de’ Benci (Fig. 3b) as the point at which Leonardo broke away from “the profile view traditionally employed in Florence for portraits of women” in favour of the three-quarters view, previously the preserve of portrayals of men, and in order to impart “a pyschological dimension to his sitter – something that would become the hallmark of Renaissance portraiture”. If Leonardo really had opted to work against his development and artistic practice by working within an archaistic form he had superseded, in this proposed drawing he would have been eclipsed by lesser artists, as is shown right.

The fact that in addition to its technical shortcomings, this singular drawing resembles nothing within (or adjacent to) Leonardo’s oeuvre obliges Martin Kemp to make his art historical case for its inclusion on the grounds that it “reveals a previously unknown dimension in the way in which he [Leonardo] fulfilled his duties at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza”. This hypothesized rationale for a (regressive) departure within Leonardo’s oeuvre is given a defence that might itself be taken for special-pleading: “Any important new work, to establish itself, must significantly affect the totality of Leonardo’s surviving legacy over the longer term.” Acceptance of this drawing would certainly expand that totality but it would do so in an art historically injurious manner.

This previously unknown work and its hitherto unsuspected manner of working which a (minority) group of scholars would situate within the oeuvre is a mongrel work. It is a drawing that thinks it might also be a painting. In terms of graphic and pictorial laws it is neither fish nor fowl but something of both. That this conflation is a not a product of Leonardo’s hand is evident in the laboured, stilted and monotonously uniform handling. It purports to constitute a kind of “presentation” drawing of which Michelangelo made a (dazzling) few but Leonardo none. The depicted figure is static, ponderous and matronly for a supposed child bride who had died by her fourteenth year (see Figs. 23a – 24b).

The anatomy is poorly realised and evasively handled – where might the arm be situated? And what are its dimensions? The drapery is perfunctorily and unconvincingly evoked and might seem positively designed to shirk the problem of depicting a convincing arm that would give life and expression to the pose (see Figs. 22a and 22b). The pose here is bereft of lateral movement in the body/neck/head equation. This is true even of the individual features of the face’s profile where the features seem to be individually conceived and stacked one on top of another rather than to mark the “terminus” of a unique and humanly distinctive head, as seen for example in Figs. 20, 21, 23a and 25. There is nothing to convince one that is a drawing made from life. The treatment of the coiffure is monotonous and crude. In its formulaic treatment it is bereft of the adornments that are characteristic of this particular portrait type which fused notions of the classical “ideal” and literary “virtues” with ostentatious displays of wealth. (See Figs. 21, 25, 27 and 28b.)

As if in an insurance policy safeguard against this glaring lacuna Martin Kemp assigns a second, alternative historical moment of execution, suggesting that this may not, in fact, have been a drawing made from life in celebration of a fabulously privileged child bride, but was instead a commemorative work made after her death. If it had been so the question would arise how might so-detailed and laboured a study of a head have been made from memory? Or was it made after some other, now-lost, portrayal? If one dons a forger’s hat and asks which other works a twentieth-century forger might have selected to assemble a “portmanteau” image for such a purpose, it is quite easy to identify candidates – see Figs. 20, 21, 23a, 25 and 27.

Some might be bemused that among many experts, a small group should have become such impassioned partisans of so eccentric and problematic a work. Perhaps Michel Strauss has it right: there exists an ingrained human herd instinct to which even the most distinguished figures might not be immune. Perhaps the indicator of inauthenticity lies in this: although the quality varies, with every other work of this type shown here, something novel, fresh or idiosyncratic is brought to the party. Not one work looks as if derived from any other, or from any small group of others, or – and least of all – from “La Bella Principessa”. Did Leonardo ever make a portrait of a woman that made no waves; that left no trace; and that aroused no comment in half a millennium?

CODA

The Inaugural James Beck Memorial Lecture

Our annual memorial lecture (which alternates between London and New York) is given by distinguished scholars in honour of Professor James Beck of Columbia University, the Renaissance scholar and founder of ArtWatch International. The inaugural lecture was given most fittingly in London in June 2010 by Hellmut Wohl, a scholar whose methodological rigor and scrupulous connoisseurship is widely considered by his peers to be exemplary (as in the review below, and the caption at Figs. 4a and 4b ). Professor Wohl’s lecture, “The Integrity of the Work of Art: The case of the Early Michelangelo”, comprised a demolition of a group of early Michelangelo attributions and it was published in the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 27, as shown on this attached pdf.

Review of Hellmut Wohl’s The Paintings of Domenico Veniziano by Anne Markam Schulz, in the June 1981 Art Bulletin.

Anne Markham Schulz, an independent scholar and Visiting Scholar at Brown University, is a prolific author of books on Italian Renaissance sculpture, including Antonio Rizzo: Sculptor and Architect (1983) and Giambattista and Lorenzo Bregno (1991). Her Art Bulletin review began:

“This monograph is exemplary in every way, it treats with respect the works of a supreme painter and by way of its percipient and lucid analyses of their techniques, style, and iconography demonstrates their high artistic worth. It is thorough: there is no source of information it overlooks and every particle of evidence provided by the documents, the sources, the paintings themselves and the works of Domenico’s contemporaries is made by judicious scrutiny to yield its quota of meaning. To the extent that words can interpret the characteristics of a painter’s style, this book does so. That Wohl should have conceived this a goal worth pursuing he no doubt owed to the tutelage of Richard Offner, under whom his dissertation on Domenico Veneziano was prepared many years ago; indeed, Offner’s scrupulous method informs this book. For Wohl, as for Offner, definition is its own justification: Domenico’s art is not correlated with historical events, and even its impact on contemporary artistic currents is narrowly portrayed. But to have explicated, to the extent possible, the subject of each painting, when and under what circumstances it was made, the sources and the characteristics of its style, and the evolution of its composition, is to have amply fulfilled the obligations of a monographer.”

Michael Daley

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A RECENTLY EXPOSED FAKE LEONARDO/VERROCCHIO
Above, Fig. 1: A Young Woman bought in 1936 by the Detroit Institute of Arts as a work by Andrea del Verrocchio or Leonardo da Vinci. The attribution was made on the strength of correspondences with a sculpture in the Bargello (Fig. 3a) which is given to Verrocchio (or, sometimes, Leonardo), and with the treatment of curls in Leonardo’s painting Ginevra de’ Benci (Fig. 3b).
Following technical examination, this work is now described as being by an “Imitator of Andrea Verrocchio in about 1880-1920” – a polite, museum-world way of saying “it is a rotten forgery”.
Above, Fig. 2: A marble bust at the Frick Collection, A Young Woman, given to Andrea del Verrocchio.
After an early challenge, the Verrocchio attribution was reasserted on the bust’s remblance to the Bargello Lady with a bunch of Flowers in Florence (Fig. 3a) which most scholars accept as a product of Verrocchio’s maturity at c. 1475 (although some attribute it to Leonardo, as shown below). Nicholas Penny challenges the Frick Verrocchio’s attribution on its author’s interest in “evanescent effects” and the extensive use of drilling in the hair. Eleonora Luciano, in the catalogue to the Washington National Gallery 2001-2002 exhibition, “Virtue and Beauty”, adjudicates as follows:
“While the Frick lady is more softly modelled, especially in the face, and endowed with a greater gentility of expression than the Bargello sitter, her affinity to the latter is evident in the overall proportions of the head and torso. Perhaps some shop intervention may account for the less innovative character of the sculpture and the more extensive drilling of the hair.”
However, the marked differences of appearance and handling in the two sculptures do not speak of a lack of care or finesse but of different sensibilities and purposes. Aside from the uncertainties of authorship, scholars variously date the Frick bust to the 1460s, the 1470s and, to c. 1480.
Above, Figs. 3a and 3b: Left, the Lady with a Bunch of Flowers. Right, Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci (hypothetically extended).
Some have attributed the Bargello sculpture to Leonardo on the grounds that its subject was Ginevra de’ Benci, the subject of Leonardo’s painting at Fig. 3b. In Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture, 2010, Gary M. Radke holds that the works show differences between the two artists that emerged in the mid-1470s. Against this, it has been suggested that the painting might have borne a closer relationship to the sculpture with a possible inclusion of hands in a fuller length treatment. A study of hands by Leonardo was incorporated in a hypothetical and digitally realised extension of the painting by David Alan Brown (Fig. 3b). Against that, Frank Zollner sees the painting as marking the point (1478-1480) at which Leonardo broke away from “the profile view traditionally employed in Florence for portraits of women” in favour of the three-quarters view in order to impart “a pyschological dimension to his sitter – something that would become the hallmark of Renaissance portraiture”.
Above, Figs. 4a and 4b: Left, the right-hand side (here mirrored) of the Frick A Young Woman; right, the Detroit A Young Woman.
The Detroit young woman’s remarkably close correspondence with both the Frick bust’s profile and the curls on Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci might have aroused suspicion rather than reassurance. Pronounced correspondences with traits found in different works are classic give-away signs of “Portmanteau Forgeries” in which disparate motifs are individually mimicked and fused into a synthetic whole. With the (now all but acknowledged) existence of a photograph of the Frick bust under the Detroit painting, another more credible explanation for the stylistic correspondences is to hand: a forger, painting over a photograph of the Frick sculpture, embellished his handiwork by mimicking (too-profusely – see below) Leonardo’s painterly treatment of curls in the Ginevra de’ Benci.
Caution might have been thought the more urgent given the great popularity of this portrait type at the turn of the twentieth century which triggered what Alison Wright (in her 2005 monograph The Pollaiuolo Brothers) describes as “a market for copies, fakes and over-ambitious attributions”. Dr Wright cites Hellmut Wohl’s monograph on Domenico Veneziano in which he “listed the myriad attributions under which surviving Florentine female profiles have passed…”, and gives thanks that “Wohl’s study absolves me from a repetition of this unrewarding task.”
Above, Fig. 5: Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1488-1490 Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
Below, Fig. 6: The obverse (here mirrored) of a bronze medal of c. 1486 attributed to Niccolo Fiorentino. This tiny portrait might suggest that the forger of the Detroit lady at Fig. 1 was not a hair-dresser. As evident at Figs. 4a and 4b, the sculptor clearly understood that the curls belonged to hair drawn from the temples and allowed to hang like spaniels’ ears. The forger, not appreciating the logic of this fashion, carried not-hanging but sprouting curls around and onto the nape of the neck – a fatal, hirsute solecism because in this portrait type the hair from the top and back of the head was drawn tightly together and braided before being assembled into a decorative, be-jewelled ‘sculptural’ arrangement, as both the Frick sculptor and the medallist below appreciated. Modern forgers – like restorers – rarely grasp Renaissance connections between the thing depicted and the thing made. They also suffer the handicap of having to depict portraits not from life but on impoverished, out-of-period assumptions. They betray wider and more profound deficiencies of aesthetic and cultural understanding when, as here, they fail to appreciate the symbolic role and plastic purity of the unnaturally long columnar neck on which is counter-pointed, Brancusi-like, the richly adorned head and coiffure. Hairy necks were not considered emblematic of spiritual purity and classical grace in young Renaissance ladies. As Ingres noted, “Never is a woman’s neck too long”.
ANTICIPATIONS OR RECAPITULATIONS?
Above, Fig. 7: A comparison of two drawings said to have been made in preparation for the National Gallery’s Entombment of Christ which is given to Michelangelo, as discussed left.
Below, Fig. 8: An accompanying comparison in the Art Review of a detail from the unfinished Entombment (left) which painting, despite being in two distinct hands, is now given to Michelangelo in 1500, and (right) a mirrored detail from Rosso Fiorentino’s The Betrothal of the Virgin of 1523.
Current claims that the attributed author of the “Michelangelo” had, at the age of twenty-five, somehow anticipated by a quarter of a century the design and forms of the later Mannerist artist are not credible.
REVIEW:
The Story of The New Masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci – La Bella Principessa – The Profile Portrait of a Milanese Woman
Martin Kemp and Pascal Cotte, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2010
ISBN 978-1-444-70626-0
New Leonardo da Vinci Bella Principessa confirmed
Lumiere Technology Press Release
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Top, the Kemp/Cotte book and, above, the eye of the so-called “La Bella Principessa”
The closer one looks, the more apparent it becomes that this eye was not drawn by Leonardo. The perspective is wrong for the formal type of this work. This strictly sideways-on portraiture enforced a uniformity of perspective over all parts and required an eye that looked straight ahead. Here, the eye has shifted from that straight-ahead gaze. It is not drawn in strict end-on elevation, but as if seen from a slightly higher and more frontal viewpoint, thereby showing the edge of the lower lid – much as in this author’s drawing at Fig. 30 in which, because the perspective was not strictly in profile, both of the ridges that border the philtrum (the vertical groove under the nose) are visible, and the lashes of the second eye have moved into view. The appropriate, sideways-on treatment of the visible eye is encountered in every other Renaissance profile portrait shown here. The eye of “La Bella” is a disqualifying aberration.
The lower lid of “La Bella” is far too thick and far too planar in its construction (i. e. it is almost Cubist in its severity). Worse, there is no sense of the eye’s anatomical function and physical properties. Leonardo, a supreme anatomist, appreciated that the eye is an orb set in a protective socket bounded by the brow, the nose and the cheekbone. It is further protected by retractable flesh in the form of the upper and lower lids. When drawn back to expose the iris and pupil, the lid coverings bulge softly and form little pouches, even in the very young. Because the eyeball is relatively hard, its softer, fleshy protective covering takes its forms from that ball – which is to say, it takes on a double curvature and never the crystalline forms seen on “La Bella Principessa”.
This drawing possesses no such anatomical grasp. Ergo, it cannot have been drawn by Leonardo. From the far too-thick and planar edge of the lower eyelid, the flesh drops away abruptly like cliff but then fizzles into a fudged ambiguity. No attempt is made to articulate the demarcation found in Leonardo’s faces between the flesh of the cheek and that of the lower lid (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14). The author of “La Bella Principessa” was not alert to Leonardo’s treatment of those differences.
Above, Figs. 11a and 11b: Left, a diagram traced over a reproduction of the eye to indicate the excessively, straight-edged, angular and planar method of depiction. Right, the resulting diagram.
Above, Figs. 12, 13 and 14: Three pairs of eyes painted by Leonardo. Respectively, from the top, these are those of:
The Lady with an Ermine of 1489-90;
The Belle Ferronniere of 1493-4;
and, The Mona Lisa of 1502 onwards.
If “La bella Principessa” were to be accepted as a Leonardo of 1496 it would mean our believing that Leonardo first depicted eyes in the manner seen in the first two of the above paintings and that he then abandoned his developing manner during a brief Cubist period, before reverting a few years later to his earlier artistic evolution, so as to produce the even softer, more “evanescent”, more curvilinear eyes of the Mona Lisa. Seen gainst the manifest stylistic progression in the treatment of Leonardo’s eyes in the above three paintings, the manner encountered in “La Bella” is neither part of that progression nor compatible with its – or any other Leonardo – eyes.
Above, top, Fig. 15: The (true) right eye of The Lady with an Ermine
Above, Fig. 16: The eye of “La Bella Principessa”
In the Kemp/Cotte book, Pascal Cotte writes that “Leonardo understood the anatomy and inner workings of the human eye” and, that “Despite differences in media, for instance, the elements of the eye are constructed with a distinct and identical logic” in both of these eyes.
Cotte is a brilliant (and charming) man whose invention of the multi-spectral camera has revolutionised the capacities of photography and earned him a place in its history. Unfortunately, there are two problems here. First, methodologically, the comparison is loaded in “La Bella’s” favour. That is, of the three painted works we illustrate above, it is compared with the earliest one, which was made six or seven years before the supposed date of “La Bella” and is the most ‘linear’ of the three in its treatment of forms.
Second, even on this comparison, the crucial tell-tale differences are stark and counter-productive. Cotte shows in his detailed, point by point comparisons that his own eye is not sufficiently attuned to detect and indentify crucial pictorial differences in ostensibly similar images.
We would expect that a forger would attempt to mimic features in extant Leonardos, but what always betrays such efforts is the extent to which they fall short of completely successful mimickry and thereby introduce fatal differences.
Cotte claims and diagrammatically pinpoints six of what he takes to be “identical” features. In his first example, “The outer corner of the eyelid (1)”, he does not notice that while in the Leonardo the point at which the lower eyelid runs under the upper is not delineated and pinpointed but is only implicit in the softly melded tones. In the “La Bella” by contrast, this lower lid is articulated by three individually distinct and sharp straight lines. There is one for the edge of the upper eyelid; one for the outer edge of the lower eyelid; and, a third line that drops as a perpendicular so as to establish a sharp and entirely un-Leonardesque facet at the side of the lower eye. This treatment is a travestying simplification of form.
Cotte’s second point draws attention to the fact that in both images the inner edge of the lower eyelid meets the lower edge of the iris. This is certainly the case, but Cotte does not notice that in the Leonardo that edge is shown to curve because of the form of the eyeball, and not to run in a straight line, as in “La Bella”.
In his third point, “The fold of the upper eyelid”, Cotte does not notice that in the Leonardo eye that particular fold again follows the form of the eye’s orb (is in fact dictated by it) and that it drops as the upper lid ceases to be visible. In contrast, in “La Bella”, at the point where the upper lid ceases to be visible, the line of demacation does not curve downwards but takes off upwards in a short sharp and straight little graphic flourish that, once again, is quite detached from the forms and the constructional logic of the eye. And so on, and so forth. Perhaps the most serious omission, is that it is not noticed that in “La Bella” the iris is drawn with an emphatic bounding line that imparts flatness and makes it resemble a metal washer, rather than the translucent, reflective and doubly curved surface that it comprises – and which Leonardo so brilliantly captured in his depictions of eyes.
Above, Fig. 17: A drawn portrait (mirrored and of low resolution) by the painter/restorer Giannino Marchig.
We see here Marchig’s fondness for female profiles and his insecurity when placing eyes. Just as in “La Bella Principessa”, this eye has a small, “piggy” aspect – which trait subverts his more generally confident graphic treatment. We also see in Marchig’s own drawing that hatching need not all run in the same direction. Nicholas Turner, one of the first scholar/supporters of “La Bella”, took its “extensive left-handed parallel hatching (most conspicuous in the background behind the girl’s profile)…” to be second only to the drawing’s quality as proof of “Leonardo’s authorship (however extraordinary such a conclusion might seem on the face of it)”. The phrase “on the face of it” resonates.
Above, Fig. 18: A Leonardo ink study for a head of Leda.
This image at Windsor is, as the Poussinist, David Packwood, observed on his Art History Today website, a “wonderful drawing…a meditation on the movements and rhythms of nature captured in the elaborate coiffure of the woman. When Leonardo drew hair he studied in line and mass the dynamics of water and the wind.”
The drawing’s animation is indeed truly remarkable. Much of the exhilarating graphic dynamism stems from the speed and confidence of drawing and from the great directional variety of hatching (i.e. showing both “left” and “right-handed” hatching) which is used not only to shade but also to indicate the directional curvature of a form’s surfaces (as in the neck). Such graphic vivacity contrasts greatly the consistently uniform, officiously “left-handed” directional hatching of “La Bella Principessa”. Even though left-handed draughtsmen (like this author) naturally favour a top-left to bottom-right stroke, their drawing hands rotate easily at the wrist so as to give different directions to hatched strokes, as required. Repositioning the arm by moving the elbow outwards, makes yet other directions of hatching realisable. Further, hatching can be given virtually any direction for left or right-handed draughtsmen by the simple expedient of rotating the sheet. Disney cartoon artists used to (may still do) draw on sheets fixed to inset circular surfaces on drawing boards that rotated freely enabling any part of an image to be made swiftly and boldly with an optimal stroke.
Above, Figs. 19 and 20: Top, a detail of “La Bella Principessa”. Above, a corresponding detail of Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s Profile of a Woman (oil on panel), Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan. (Note, respectively, the anatomically incorrect and correct placements of the eyes.)
The similarities of profile treatment in these two works tell against “La Bella” the precision of whose profile reads as an assembled succession of autonomously conceived shapes – a kind of ‘identikit’ composite. These discrete portions do not flow together in a manner that conjures a vivid sense of an individual personality, as found in the Pollaiuolo and other portraits shown here. Rather, they resemble graphic inventions, not observed anatomical features. In the Pollaiuolo profile the outer contour does not seem “an abstracted thing in itself” but a by-product of the forms of the head; a record of the succession of points at which the forms turn away from the viewer’s gaze. Note how lucid and plastically expressive is Pollaiuolo’s delicate shading around the eye, as compared with that of “La Bella” where the author had been unable to resolve the form of the brow and the position of the eyebrow. While it can easily be imagined how “La Bella’s” author might have taken Pollaiuolo’s portrayal as a template for a profile variation, it is stylistically inconceivable that Pollaiuolo might have used a “La Bella-like” image to the same end. It might seem remiss of Martin Kemp not to have introduced this particular Pollaiuolo work – arguably the finest and the most beautifully resolved example of the type – into his discussions of “La Bella”.
Alison Wright’s account of the Pollaiuolo Profiles examines the extent to which they were physically accurate records or products of idealised conventions. For example, she questions whether or not the suprising number of “prominent overbites” encountered in Florentine female subjects of the 1460s and 1470s reflected familial relationships or (as she favours) were incorporated because the trait “must have been considered attractive”. However, her excellent sequence of plates of profiles by the brothers shows that this was not a uniformly “applied” feature – and, certainly, much of the portraits’ force stems from their plausible, vivid and attractively human presence. By comparison, “La Bella’s” features seem pedantically laboured.
Above, Fig. 21: Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza, c. 1493, by Ambrogio de Predis, The National Gallery of Art, Washington.
We believe that this work (and, specifically, its costume) may have provided a key part of the forger’s ‘armature’ for “La Bella Principessa”. In many respects, “La Bella” can be seen as a skimped or condensed variant of features found in this (and other) authentic works. Certainly, Martin Kemp acknowledges “La Bella’s” close similarities with this portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza. He holds that “La Bella” is a wedding portrait of another and younger member of the Sforza faimily, Bianca, the illegitimate daughter of Ludovico Sforza, who was the uncle of Bianca Maria. The daughter Bianca was married in 1496 at 13 or 14 years of age. Bianca Maria’s portrait is thought to have been made around the time of her wedding in 1493 when she was 21 years old. In the catalogue to the (London) National Gallery’s 2011-12 Leonardo exhibition, Arturo Galansino said of Bianca Maria’s portrait that the artist’s focus on the sumptuous clothes testified to the luxury of “the most opulent court in Italy”. How credible can it be, therefore, that the strikingly impoverished, jewellery-free attire of Bianca had been comissioned in celebration of the wedding of the Duke’s own daughter to a powerful ally? Kemp hedges against this implausibility with a further suggestion that the portrait might, instead, have been a memorial record made after her death – which followed very shortly after her wedding: “It may be that the restraint of her costume and the lack of jewellery indicates that the portrait was destined for a memorial rather than a matrimonial volume”.
Kemp’s twin-hypotheses rest on many begged questions: “If the Leonardo drawing [i.e. “La Bella”] is Bianca, it is likely to date from 1495-6″. Aside from the weakening “if”, and “is likely”, “La bella’s” problems force Kemp into circumnavigation: “In style, it seems at first sight to belong with his earlier works rather than to the period of the Last Supper.” The recurrence of such phrases as “on the face of it” and “at first sight” is not reassuring and the net effect is that a drawing is being presented as an entirely autograph Leonardo that might have been executed from life as a wedding celebration, or, was made from some other image or memory as a funerary memorial; and that, which ever might have been the case, it was executed in an either early or late Leonardo manner. But which?” Was it a wedding celebration in a late manner – or a memorial in an early manner? Again, how plausible is it to suggest that after executing the revolutionary (and non-profile) portraits of the Lady with an Ermine (1489-90) and The Belle Ferronniere (1493-4), Leonardo, when asked to celebrate a wedding (or mark a death) would have resorted to such an archaic formula? Such art historical problems are dwarfed by the purely visual ones.
Above, Figs. 22a and 22b: Tracings taken from the Portrait of Bianca Maria Sforza by Ambrogio da Predis (left), and “La Bella Principessa”, the claimed Leonardo portrait of Bianca Sforza (right). With both tracings pencil shading has been added to indicate the respective treatments of the arm.
This costume of “La Bella” is not just bereft of sumptuous adornments, it is quite implausible as costume. It is clearly not drawn from life – the costume conceals rather than discloses. Its gross simplification smacks of a forger ‘faking it’ and looking for short-cuts that might evoke an impression of the requisite period and class. The overly-emphasized, shield-like one-piece unit of sleeve and shoulder-covering does not follow the form of a young subject – as in the manner seen, for example, in Fig. 21 above and in Figs. 6, 5, 24a and 25a. This section of drapery carries insufficient shading to indicate the position and the width of the arm. This obfuscation is in marked contrast with the lucid treatments seen in the Ambrogio above at Fig. 21; the Domenico Ghirlandaio at Fig. 5; and the Raphael (former Mino da Fiesole) at Fig. 26. The single triangular split through which an undergarment (chemise) is glimpsed on the sleeve of La Bella is the most perfunctory, non-form-disclosing, artistically lazy minimum that might allude to what was clearly an artfully contrived restrained eroticism in the highest fashions of the period and place. The portrait of Bianca Maria (Fig. 21) is said by Kemp to have been painted, probably, around the time of her betrothal in 1493 to the Holy Roman Emporer Maximilian I, when she was twenty-one years old. With the drawing of Bianca (aka “La Bella”) being said by Kemp to have been made on her marriage in 1496 when she was thirteen or fourteen years old, is it conceivable that a girl of that age would have had so matronly a figure? Compare “La Bella” with the portrait (now given to Raphael) at Figs 23a and 26.
Above, Figs, 23a, 23b, 24a and 24b: The Pollaiuolo and Raphael works, left; “La Bella Principessa”, right.
Above, Fig. 25: A portrait of Beatrice d’Este tentatively attributed by Martin Kemp to Ambrogio da Predis. In discussing this portrait and its opulent costume and jewellery, Kemp suggests a third possible reason for the restraint of finery in “La bella”:
“When set beside the pearl- and gem-festooned creations worn by Bianca Maria and Beatrice, the hair of ‘La Bella’ is finely and formally dressed, but relatively modest in its materials. Surprisingly, she has no jewellery. And her dress, with its simple triangular aperture, has none of the knotted ties that adorn the costumes of the two other Sforza ladies. Leonardo has consciously simplified the costume and accoutrements, compared to the other court portraits, possibly because the context was one in which less ostentation was fitting.”
Thus, we have three explanations for two possible contexts in which Leonardo is claimed to have opted (of his own volition?) to strip a very grand young lady of the customary accoutrements of her most elevated and powerful family. At this point it might be wondered what, if anything, would count for Kemp as evidence against his proposed attribution. Is it really conceivable that Leonardo might had (uniquely) been permitted to act on a notion that ostentation was un-fitting in an image made to celebrate an extremely grand wedding?
Above, Fig. 26: Raphael (but formerly Mino da Fiesole and “sixteenth century Florentine”), A Young Woman in Profile, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
In the 2001-2002 “Virtue and Beauty” catalogue, David Alan Brown says of this (cropped) study of c. 1504 made with chalks and partly reinforced with ink, that it reflects the transforming study Raphael had made of Leonardo. Did the young Raphael really have to show Leonardo, as “La Bella” would suggest, how the lines of drapery might assist a depicted realisation of the forms and posture of a young girl, so as not to conceal them in armadillo-like encasements of implausible costume? Note, in this respect, how beautifully the top edge of the bodice serves to launch the journey across the forms of the upper body, from the breast, over the shoulder, and down and around to the shoulder blade – in precisely the form-describing convention that was seen in the tiny bronze relief (at Fig. 5) a full decade before the claimed date of “La Bella Principessa”.
Above Fig. 27: A detail of a painting (Portrait of a Woman, in the Bibliotecca Ambrosiana, Milan) that is said by Martin Kemp to be by an unknown artist, possibly Lorenzo Costa, and possibly to be a portrait of Anna Sforza.
Although Kemp holds that the above portrait “bears a close relationship to ‘La Bella'” and concedes that the subtlety of the profile is greater than that normally found in Leonardo’s followers, he moves it away from Leonardo’s orbit with his suggestion that, although authorship is a puzzle, “it might have been made by an accomplished artist working outside Milan (e.g. Lorenzo Costa)”. On the strength of his own “might have been”, Kemp then feels assured that “this would explain why it it does not fit convincingly into the work of Leonardo or his contemporaries”. But why should it not? He concedes that its knotted ribbons are beautifully characterised. He counter-implies that the hairnet (“caul”) is inferior to that in La Bella when the knots in the Milan picture (above) are supremely well realised, being individually perfect with each and every one showing how two pairs of two strands of material produce a knot that is larger than the individual bands of material – unlike the inconsistently sized knots of “La Bella” below at Fig. 28a. In any event, more generally, this work has been attributed to Ambrogio da Predis – and sometimes to that artist with Leonardo’s own participation.
Below, Figs. 28a 28b: Left, a detail of La Bella Principessa. Right, a detail of Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s Profile of a Woman.
Above, Figs. 29, 30 and 31: Top, a detail of Portrait of a Woman (- as discussed at Fig. 27).
Centre, an ink drawn illustration of 1991 by Michael Daley, published in The Independent in celebration of a newly cultivated rose.
Above, a detail of “La Bella Principessa”.
A NOTE ON THE PHYSICAL CONDITION OF AN INK DRAWING
Above, Fig. 32: The former (attributed) van Dyck drawing that was upgraded to Rubens and accepted as his preliminary ink sketch for Rubens’ (lost) original Samson and Delilah painting. It was sold at Christie’s on July 10th for a world record Rubens drawing price of £3,218,500 despite many problems which include:
1) It is too poor to be by Rubens. Note Delilah’s right arm; note the barber’s legs, which are splayed as if in jumping a hurdle; note the barber’s left arm where the artist could not decide whether it was to be bare or partially enclosed within a piece of drapery which has no counterpart on the right arm and no connection with any drapery on the torso.
2) It would suggest that Rubens designed the picture to be enclosed within a specific format, the right-hand edge of which would crop Samson’s toes in a manner that is not encountered in the original Rubens painting where, as previously shown, Samson’s foot was painted whole and set well away from the edge of the painting.
3) It emerged without provenance in 1926 with another un-provenanced “Veronese” drawing that has subsequently fallen. The Samson and Delilah drawing emerged shortly before the appearance of the studio work with the cropped foot that is now held by the National Gallery to be the long-lost original Rubens – even though it lacks that painting’s original (and twice-recorded) complete foot.
4) None of the presently claimed suite of three Samson and Delilah works (the ink sketch, the oil sketch and the finished painting) emerged before the 20th century and none did so as a Rubens. All three were upgraded without any provenance. The ink sketch and the finished painting have lost or concealed backs. The back of the oil sketch is visible but it shows that the panel was made of a (soft) wood found in no Rubens panel. The drawing, as mentioned, has been glued onto a second sheet of paper which covers all but a small corner of the ink sketch’s verso. It is, therefore, impossible to learn what might or might not have been on what is presently presented as the back of the ink sketch – but which might originally have been the verso of some other work altogether. It is not possible to see if anything might have been present on the backing sheet because its visible surface has been abraded and its reverse is concealed.
5) The most disturbing feature is the ruled box that bounds and constricts the drawing. It might be thought to be a later box made by a framer prior to mounting, and, therefore, not part of the original drawing. Determining whether or not this was the case is impossible because the sheet of paper was trimmed immediately outside the edges of the ruled box, leaving no way to determine whether the drawing once extended beyond its present confines. Examination of the edges of the sheet produces incongruous and conflicting evidence. In parts, the ruled box appears to have been integral to the drawing itself and must, therefore, have been made before the drawing was laid onto the present second backing sheet. At the same time, parts of the ruled box would seem to have been drawn after the sheet was laid down because some of the ruled lines run over losses on the upper sheet and onto the backing sheet (see Fig. 34 below). Other breaks in the sheet have resulted in misaligned ruling (see below). This is perplexing and concerning: the forger Eric Hebborn has disclosed that pasting a drawing onto a second sheet can be a forger’s ruse to prevent any examination of a verso by holding the sheet up to the light (or by placing it on a light box).
Above, Fig. 33: In this detail of the bottom right-hand corner of the drawing, the vertical edge of the ruled box can be seen to pass over Samson’s foot and then over tears in the sheet of paper (and onto the exposed surface of the backing sheet). This would seem to suggest that the drawing had first been cut down through Samson’s foot and then pasted onto a backing sheet before the ruled border was made.
Above, Fig. 34: In this detail of the left-hand edge, a tear to the left and slightly above Delilah’s elbow disrupts lines within the drawing but the rule on the left passes over the tears and onto the backing sheet. In other words, the chronology was as follows: 1) the drawing was made; 2) the sheet was injured; 3) the torn sheet was pasted down onto a second sheet; 4) the left hand rule was drawn, passing over both the original sheet and the sheet to which it was attached.
Above, Fig. 35: In this detail from the drawing’s bottom edge, the ruled border is seen to be broken in several places as if the sheet had been injured prior to or during pasting. No attempt has been made ink over these broken and mis-aligned sections of border. It is possible that these injuries were made in accord with Hebborn’s instructions on the “ageing” of paper: “…Finish this process by rubbing the edge between your thumb and forefinger. This is the time it might be accidentally torn but no more than is necessary to match it with the other edges. You can take a nick out of the two corners with your thumbnail or round them off with the edge of a razor…”
The intended or accidental net result of the treatments and presentation of this drawing is an implicit suggestion that its author had intended the foot to be cropped in exactly the manner found in what is now the National Gallery’s painting. At the time this drawing upgraded to Rubens, a studio copy was about to come onto the market as a Honthorst fifty years after it had been de-accessioned (as a copy) from the Liechtenstein Collection. This painting was swiftly upgraded from Honthorst to Rubens by Ludwig Burchard on the authority of the present ink drawing which Burchard himself had only recently upgraded from van Dyck to Rubens. While the painting had been a “disappeared copy” for half a century, the drawing had no history at all on its emergence.
Thus, Burchard who is now known to have misattributed over sixty works to Rubens, upgraded in close succession both of the works with cropped toes, even though he knew that both of the contemporary copies made after Rubens’ original and long-lost Samson and Delilah painting had shown that Samson’s toes had not been cropped. Institutional attempts by three museums to maintain the credibility of Burchard’s twin Samson and Delilah attributions against challenges have generated poor and self-contradictory scholarship.
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Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship

30 September 2014

“Buy land”, Mark Twain advised, “they’re not making it anymore”. This logic ought to apply to the old masters but does not. Land makes sound investment not only because of its scarcity and its potential for development but because, in law-abiding societies, it comes fixed with legally defendable boundaries. Karl Marx, plundering English classical economists, held that all value is unlocked by human labour – but all labour does not generate equal values. In given periods and places all painters work pretty much with the same materials but their artistic transformations of those materials are various and unequal in accomplishment and merit. Such differences drive reputations and hence the market value of artists’ works but they do so in ways that are intrinsically problematic.

Artists’ reputations may or may not endure. With many surviving works the identities of authors are either not securely established or entirely unknown. In such cases paintings are appraised and then attributed to particular artists or schools. Attributions, however, are neither guaranteed nor immutable. They are made on mixtures of professional judgement, artistic appraisal, art critical conjecture and, sometimes, wishful thinking or deceiving intent. They remain open to revision, challenge, manipulation or abuse. The experts who make attributions exist in professional rivalry with one another (sometimes with vehemence) and while their disagreements are signs of art critical health, a consequence is that legal guarantees for attributions are untenable and non-existent, as some buyers later discover to their costs. Buyers are advised in the small print to beware and to proceed on their own judgement. With art, as we recently pointed out (see Endnote 1) it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting (- and few people would dream of buying a house without legal searches and a structural survey.)

“Scientific” red herrings

In recent years attempts have been made to impart quasi-legal assurances to attributions by appealing to the authority of supposedly “scientifically verifiable” technical proofs. The exercise is vain and, technically, philistine: by its very nature, art is not reducible to scientifically quantifiable component parts. The technical evidence cult reflects a collapse of confidence in powers of connoisseurship on the one hand and a grab for cultural and institutional power by technocrats and bureaucrats on the other. The new hybrid discipline “Technical Art History” in which restorers, conservation scientists and curators pool expertises in attempt to arrive at professionally impregnable positions, has proved pernicious. Art-politically, this united front seeks to neutralise all charges of art critical and methodological failure with professional mystification and displacement activities – by fostering a “closed-shop” mentality and claiming that its mysteries are beyond the reach of any outsiders [2]. The new technocrats insufficiently appreciate that paintings are no more and no less than the products of artists who, working by brain, eye and hand, fix values and the relationships between values so as to produce specific and unique artistic effects that can be comprehended by others using eyes and minds in response. In the visual arts the visual should remain paramount – what you see is what it is about. Art loving viewers and professional art experts alike might be said to have duties of appropriate response to art itself and not to its shadows and encumbrances. It is the optically perceived quality of artists’ artefacts that drives reputations and market values. Understanding art is not the same thing as poking and poring over the component parts of its fabric – let alone presuming, as “restorers” (or now, “conservators”) perpetually do, to undo and redo its features at regular intervals. What matters is what you see, not what might be said or thought to lie under the surface.

Managing lapses of connoisseurship

This is not, of course, to say that technical examinations can serve no purposes. Rather, it is to say that in matters of art attribution and appreciation technical examinations of the physical composition of works might supplement informed visual appraisals but they cannot stand in lieu of them. Nor can the supposedly disinterested and neutral character of technical examinations themselves be taken at face value. In practice, with every technical investigation and its resulting “findings”, someone, some institution, some interest group, has commissioned/conducted the exercise and controlled its dissemination. Paintings in powerful institutionally-protected locations (particularly major museum) can be afforded dispensations from otherwise injurious findings [2]. It sometimes seems that just as banks are now too big to be allowed to fail, so big museum attributions cannot be allowed to fall, whatever evidence and arguments accumulate against them [3], for fear of undermining public, political and art market confidence.

Follow the money and look at the drawings

Concerning the frequency of art world upgrades, it would seem easier to grow old master drawings than paintings. Where only 250 sheets of drawings were attributed to Michelangelo in the 1960s, today that oeuvre has been expanded to over 600 sheets. Although drawings do not command the high prices of paintings they can greatly assist their attributions. In the late 1920s a firm of antiquarian dealers in Holland, R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam, sold a number of old master drawings some of which have ended in museums, and two of which concern us here (Figs. 1 and 2). Neither of these had a provenance (i.e. a proven history of previous ownership). Both had simply materialised in the dealers’ hands with old master attributions. The first sold in 1927 for 26 florins (guilders), some € 235.80 at today’s values. The second sold two years later for 750 florins, some €6,801.91 today. The first was attributed to van Dyck, the second to Veronese. Neither attribution survived and the original perplexing ratio of value between them (which approached thirty to one) has reversed dramatically.

The Veronese attribution crashed in 1984 when Richard Cocke published his catalogue raisonné Veronese’s Drawings and dismissed the drawing with the single (apt) sentence: “The heavy forceful cross-hatching in the drapery and the forms of the head and hands have nothing to do with Veronese.” That drawing sold in 1991 at Christie’s for £7,000 as “attributed to Agostino Carracci”. In contrast, the former van Dyck drawing morphed into the work that sold at Christie’s on July 10th as an autograph Rubens ink sketch for a world record Rubens drawing price of £3,218,500. The former “van Dyck” has thus enjoyed a 14,000-fold increase of value since 1927.

The extraordinary success of the van Dyck that is now a Rubens was due only in part to Christie’s masterful promotion. It was very much on the strength of its current art-historical position that the drawing was drum-rolled as the starred lot in a sale of part of the prestigious I. Q. van Regteren Altena drawings collection. Most helpfully of all, the drawing was precisely characterised as Rubens’s “first thought” preparatory ink sketch for the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting (Fig. 4). Notwithstanding its anomalous traits (see our previous post), its artistic shortcomings and its dubious provenance, the drawing remains bolstered by its crucial allotted role in a sequence of three Samson and Delilahs, two of which have been acquired by museums (Figs. 3 & 4). Although Christie’s July 10 sale realised more than twice its highest estimates and broke many records for individual artists, only one of the top ten works went to an art gallery or museum. Two were sold on to the trade. Seven, including the Samson and Delilah drawing, went to anonymous individuals.

Making four Rubens’s

Christie’s catalogue entry burnishes the drawing’s pedigree with upbeat optimism. It is said for example: “When I. Q. van Regteren Altena bought the drawing in 1927, he listed it in his inventory under its traditional attribution to Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). That attribution also accounts for an earlier owner’s inscription of the letters ‘V.D.’ in the lower left corner.” What traditional attribution? Which earlier owners? Christie’s account of the provenance begins: “with R.W.P. de Vries Amsterdam; from whom purchased by I.Q. van Regteren Altena on 20 December 1927 for 26 guilders (‘387.t. A. v. Dijck. Samson & Delilah’)”. And that is all. There had been no previous owners and no evidence exists of any “traditional” reception as a van Dyck – or anything. Any suppositions aside, all that can safely be said is that this drawing emerged from nowhere at a time when forgery was rife and the art world suffered from what Bernard Berenson [!] described as “the universal tendency to ascribe a given work of art to the greatest artist to whom wishful thinking and excited imagination can ascribe it.” (“Essays in Appreciation”, 1958, p. 95.)

Christie’s entry continues: “With the emergence of the finished painting and the connected oil sketch the drawing’s significance rapidly became apparent.” There was no rapidity and the claimed significance is mythic. The supposed second stage oil sketch or modello did not appear until 1966. The claim that, “The picture of Samson and Delilah was only rediscovered in 1929”, also misleads. The painting was not “rediscovered” as a Rubens. It had never been a Rubens. When it appeared in 1929 it was, just like the ink drawing three years earlier, without provenance and it was not judged a Rubens by its German dealers, Van Diemen and Benedict, who were offering it as a Honthorst. It was later upgraded to Rubens in a certificate of authenticity by Dr Ludwig Burchard and it then sold in 1930 to August Neurburg, a German tobacco magnate.

Burchard was a leading Rubens scholar, but today his attributions have a notoriously poor record [4]. Far from the ink drawing being corroborated as a first stage sketch by the arrival of the painting, Burchard had upgraded the painting on the authority of the drawing which he had himself upgraded to Rubens in 1926. In Christie’s catalogue the drawing’s “Literature” begins with Burchard’s attribution: “L. Burchard, ‘Die Skizzen des jungen Rubens’ in Sitzungsberichte der Kunstgeschichtlichen Gesellschaft, Berlin, 8 October 1926, p. 30, no. 2.” At that date no one had previously owned or discussed the work. Burchard thus upgraded a drawing that had never been exhibited and was in a dealer’s hands without any provenance. Notwithstanding his claims on behalf of the drawing, in 1927 both the dealer selling and the collector buying still held it to be a van Dyck.

When the modello eventually appeared in 1966 it had no provenance. Its history consisted of a hearsay account (from the anonymous lady vendor) of an ancestor said to have bought the work for a few shillings in an antique shop in York during the 1930s because she liked the frame. This supposed Rubens oil sketch had been painted on a support that is found in none of the artist’s oil sketches – on a soft, conifer wood, not on his customary oak panel. Its appearance was, for a Rubens oil sketch, disturbingly close in design and effects to those of both the ink drawing and the finished painting (see Figs. 2, 3 and 4). Its arrival completed an unicum in Rubens’ oeuvre: a suite of stages of work without evidence of development. Notwithstanding that problem, the modello on the wrong wood was given to Rubens by Christie’s themselves, to join the company of a panel painting whose back, it later emerged, had disappeared in an operation for which no one acknowledged responsibility, and a drawing whose back was concealed by being pasted onto a second sheet even though it bore drawing itself. The modello sold to a London gallery for £24,000, going to a private collector before passing through Agnews to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1972. The last of the trio to emerge, this technically problematic work-without-provenance was the first to achieve museum status. At some point, pieces of wood were removed from its sides (creating a closer compositional alignment with what is now the National Gallery painting) and, at another, the Cincinnati museum claimed the panel to be oak. Presently the wood is not identified, the work being described as on “panel”.

Why? Why? Why? Delilah?

In July 1980, the supposed third stage, the Samson and Delilah painting, was sold by Neurburg’s heirs through Christie’s to Agnews, acting on behalf of the National Gallery, for a then Rubens world record price of £2.53m. In 2002, with two parts of the Samson and Delilah trio now secure in museums and the third in a respected private collection, Sotheby’s sold a painting, The Massacre of the Innocents (see Fig. 13), as an autograph Rubens on the back of its perceived shared characteristics and collections history with the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah for £49.5m, to Lord (Kenneth) Thompson. Even though those paintings are riddled with problems (see “Is this really a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Art Review, July/August 1997, and “Is this a Rubens?” Michael Daley, Jackdaw, October 2002), and the Samson and Delilah had been challenged for over a decade [5], the price was an outright old masters’ world record. Thompson loaned the Massacre to the National Gallery and then bequeathed it to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, thereby making it publicly available and greatly enhancing its pedigree. Thus, today, three high valued well-placed but individually problematic museum Rubens’s owe their positions to a belated acceptance of Burchard’s initial attribution of what is still a privately (but now anonymously) owned ink drawing.

Who cut Samson’s toes?

The reason why all of these subsequent Rubens upgrades rest on the authority of this ink drawing is because of a glaringly anomalous feature in the National Gallery painting – the fact that the toes of Samson’s right foot are cropped by the edge of the picture. This was not because the panel had been trimmed at some point. Rather, it is because the painting simply stops disturbingly, inexplicably, at the beginning of the toes. Thus, without the drawing’s seeming testimony that Rubens had planned to crop Samson’s toes by cropping his own initial design within a precisely drawn ruled box that anticipated (even before he had executed an oil sketch) the final format of what is now the National Gallery painting, that painting could never have been attributed to him. This is so for reasons that are implicit in Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity. It read:

“The photographed painting on the other page is one of Peter Paul Rubens’ major works from the time of the master’s return from Italy. It must have been painted in 1609 or 1610. With Rubens’ agreement, Jacob Matham reproduced the painting with a copper engraving around 1615. As witnessed by the inscription of the painting, the picture at that time was in the possession of Antwerp mayor Nicolas Rockox. Indeed, the inventory of Nic. Rockox’ estate, dated 19 Dec. 1640, lists the picture as “Eene schilderne…(Annales de l’Academie d’Archaeologie de Belgique, Anvers 1881, p. 437). On pp. 143-44 in vol. I of 1886, the five-volume catalogue of Rubens’ work by Max Rooses, the painting is described in detail as number 115, based on the Matham engraving and mentioning the Rockox inventory. The picture itself remained as unknown to Rooses as to all literature since. It is further notable that a picture of an interior by Frans Francken (Pinakothek Munchen No 720), which appeared to be of mayor Rockox’s living room, showing the painting in pride of place above the mantelpiece, while in an adjoining room is the picture of the “Doubting Thomas” which we know Rubens painted for Rockox. According to S. Hartveld of Antwerp, the room with the mantelpiece exists even today in the Kaiserstraat in Antwerp where Frau Gruter-Van der Linden now lives in the Rockox house. A sketch for the Samson picture (pen, varnished, 16.4 x 16.2) is in Amsterdam in the collection of Mr J.Q. Regteren, Altena. The picture is in a remarkably good state of preservation, with even the back of the panel in its original condition.” [By courtesy of the National Gallery Archives Department.]

Note, even as Burchard asserts that this is the original painting of the subject that Rubens is known to have made shortly after 1608, he acknowledges that the original painting itself had universally been understood to have been lost since 1641. (To this day, despite detailed and sustained searches, nothing connects the present version to the original painting.) Crucially, Burchard also acknowledges that the appearance of the original Samson and Delilah had been recorded in two contemporary copies, one of which had been supervised by Rubens. Both of these copies by two artists who likely worked decades apart, testify that Samson’s original right foot had not been (improbably) cropped at the toes, as in the National Gallery version, but had originally been painted intact and set comfortably inside the composition and consistently with the artist’s known manner. See, for example, the almost contemporary, probably pendant (and near mirror-image compositional group) Cimon and Pero – “Roman Charity”, at Fig. 9.

A perplexing silence

It was in defiance of such hard historical testimony that Burchard claimed his own upgraded ink drawing to be not only by Rubens but, specifically, to be his preliminary sketch for the former Honthorst painting that is now in the National Gallery. When attributing that painting to Rubens Burchard executed a sleight of hand by implying but not stating that the ink drawing (which had only recently been sold as a van Dyck) was by Rubens. The truth is this ink drawing-from-nowhere and without-history had needed to exist if the Berlin Honthorst were to be presented remotely credibly as a Rubens. Had Burchard sincerely believed that the cropped-foot drawing was Rubens’ original ink sketch, he would have felt himself the agent of a remarkable double art historical coup: first, for having identified a famous masterpiece that had been lost for 289 years; second, for having further established that both of the contemporary copies of that original Rubens’ painting (through which it had been known for centuries), had been compositionally misleading in identical manners.

Conspicuously, Burchard trumpeted neither of these “discoveries” [6]. His diffidence contrasts markedly with the reaction of the day’s leading Vermeer scholar, Dr. Abraham Bredius, who believed in 1937 that he had found an unknown Vermeer (in what was the first of a stream of Han van Meegeren fakes). Firstly, Bredius’ certificate of authenticity was ecstatically and unreservedly fulsome: “…I found it hard to contain my emotions when this masterpiece was first shown to me and many will feel the same who have the privilege of beholding it. Composition, expression, colour – all combine to an unity of the highest art, the highest beauty”. Secondly, he rushed news of his discovery onto the scholarly record via the Burlington Magazine (“A New Vermeer”, November 1937).

If Bredius betrayed credulousness as an eighty-two year old scholar, what of Burchard’s manoeuvres as a forty-four year old at the peak of his powers? It can only be said that suspicions are in order. When, shortly after the First World War, the great German scholar, Wilhelm von Bode, was reproached for having certificated an implausible Petrus Christus, he replied, “You don’t understand the intricacies of the German language. After a brief description of the subject I say ‘I have never seen a Petrus Christus like this!'” (- “The Partnership”, Colin Simpson, 1987, p. 240). One must suspect that Burchard’s twinned and circular Rubens attributions were made sotto voce out of fear that his “attributional” heist might be exposed by anyone with an alert eye who appreciated that it is surprisingly common for later copies of original works to be cruder compositionally cut-down and abridged versions – and who would, therefore, recognise the “Honthorst” as a prime member of that type.

We have found that not only are such insensitively truncated pictures frequently encountered (in Rubens twice-over with the Samson and Delilah and the Ontario Massacre, and in artists like Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci – see opposite) but, also, that with a little effort they can in almost every instance be shown to post-date the superior models and prototypes from which they derive. As shown opposite, in copyists’ hands, no part of an original composition can be considered sacrosanct. As well as toes, dogs’ noses and cupids’ wings, even portions of dead infants have been cropped to fit pre-existing images to new supports and formats. Mistaking a copy for an absent original is one thing. Disregarding clear and contrary historical evidence, as Burchard would seem to have done, is another altogether. Knowingly elevating adulterated versions to a master’s oeuvre pollutes the well of scholarship and ultimately threatens the credibility of the field.

Such lapses of critical judgement are as common in appraisals of restorations as they are in the making of attributions. How much or little of an original surface has survived the vicissitudes of time and “conservators” attentions might seem a lesser matter but it is not. Professional art critical failures to spot the tell-tale differences between autograph and studio works are the twins of failures to recognise restoration-induced injuries. The differences of states within individual works can be as pronounced as the differences between autograph and studio works (see Figs. 28a, 28b, 29 and 30). Failures of judgement in both areas are frequently found in even the most high-ranking individual scholars.

Making two Caravaggios in one decade

Within little more than a decade the late Sir Denis Mahon upgraded two pictures to autograph Caravaggio status. This might seem unremarkable given that Mahon was a prolific finder/maker of old masters. What is remarkable is that he did so with two versions (of more than a dozen) of the same painting – Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. This Caravaggio survives in two formats, one being a truncated version of the other. Mahon managed to endorse one version of each type, doing so in the wake of two “investigative” restorations in which each team claimed revealed authenticity on the basis of its own “discoveries”. (Mahon had serious form in the double attributions stakes – we discuss opposite a painting of Annibale Carracci where he authenticated one version and later suavely switched to another, less abridged, picture. See Figs. 25-30.)

During the first restoration in 1993 in Dublin, a long-attributed Honthorst copy was found to have been made largely without revisions and it was declared the original autograph Caravaggio by Mahon precisely by virtue of its revisions-light painterly fluency. This version was of the truncated type. In Rome in 2004 Mahon conferred autograph Caravaggio status on a work from Florence (where acquired from the Sannini family) that was found to have been made with many and major revisions taken to be “serious afterthoughts as was Caravaggio’s wont”. This version was composed in the larger format and Mahon reportedly said he had “no doubt that this was now the original work”. Dublin was not best pleased and Mahon promptly rowed his position back and claimed that both versions were now original but that one was rather more so than the other. (See “New twist in the tale of two Caravaggios”, Daily Telegraph, 17 February 2004; “A dangerous business”, Michael Daley, letter, Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2004; and, “The real Caravaggio is . . . both of them” Daily Telegraph, 20 February 2004.)

Like the two R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam drawings, the two “autograph” Mahon Caravaggios have enjoyed unequal fortunes. In 1993 the (revisions-light) Dublin Caravaggio was loaned to the National Gallery in London and then, permanently, to the National Gallery in Dublin. The later 2004 Florence/Rome Caravaggio with numerous major revisions and other “cast iron” technical proofs enjoyed no institutional protection, being still in private hands. Its cause seems to have fallen into abeyance following legal disputes over ownership. In 2005 the initial 1993 “discovery” of the now institutionally protected Dublin Caravaggio (Mahon enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the National Gallery in London, as a trustee and as a generous benefactor-in-waiting) became the subject of an illuminating, if somewhat parti pris book, “The Lost Painting”, by Jonathan Harr.

In an epilogue, Harr has described a falling-out over the ownership of the Florence/Rome version. Technical examinations of the painting were ordered by court prosecutors without the knowledge of the owners. They were carried out by Maurizio Seracini, a leading private technical diagnostician who has examined something like half of Caravaggio’s output. The pigment Naples Yellow, which contains the metal antinomy, was found. Because that pigment is presently said not to have been used on paintings before 1630 (or “from around 1620”, according to Wikipedia), and therefore twenty years after Caravaggio’s death in 1610, Seracini held the painting inauthentic. Harr accepts the force of this technical testimony and, concluding that Mahon had demonstrably blundered in his support for the Rome/Florence painting, imagines that that old scholar’s long-time adversary, Roberto Longhi, might now be enjoying “a mirthless laugh” over Mahon’s discomfiture. The conclusion was hasty and perhaps too trusting of technical testimony.

It is certainly the case that the presence of a modern, manufactured pigment within the fabric of a supposedly old painting can safely be considered fatal to an attribution. However, Naples Yellow is not a product of a known and precisely dated modern manufacture – such as Prussian Blue of 1704 – it is ancient and greatly pre-dates Christ. Harr acknowledges that the pigment is found on a painting of 1615 by Orazio Gentileschi – just five years after Caravaggio’s death. Harr further reports that traces of this pigment had been found on another Caravaggio, his Martydom of St Ursula, which is owned by Banca Intesta in the Palazzo Zevallos, Naples. He reports a suggestion that the offending material might have come from an 18th century restoration that had subsequently been removed. Such hypothetical exculpation would only be necessary if claims that Naples Yellow could not have been used by anyone before 1630 were Gospel and if the painting’s attribution was insecure. Neither is the case. The Martyrdom is one of Caravaggio’s most reliably and completely documented works so there can be no question about its authenticity. Further, it was almost certainly his last work. It was recorded as still being wet in May 1610. If this painting contains antimony, and unless evidence exists to support the former existence of a now entirely disappeared 18th century restoration, we should accept that this material has now been found in two Caravaggio paintings and adjust the technical literature chronologies accordingly.

In this episode, we see that negative hard “scientific evidence” can be discounted on the basis of assumptions, hunches, and suspicions. We also see that the claimed chronologies of materials within the literature of technical analysis are moveable and, only ever, provisional feasts. (For such chronologies to be considered reliable it would be necessary for every painting in the world to be analysed at the same time by the most advanced technologies – and even then, subsequent technical advances would require further examinations: it is common for old formerly “advanced” tests to be re-run in conservation departments when new and improved apparatus become available.) We have asked Seracini, in the light of Harr’s comments, if “it is still the case that the presence of antimony is considered an absolute technical disqualification in paintings made before 1630?” Meanwhile, Jacques Franck, the Consulting Expert to The Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at The University of California, Los Angeles, advises that:

“The best scientific bibliographic reference concerning the history and chemistry of pigments over here is: J. Petit, J. Roire, H. Valot, “Des liants et des couleurs pour servir aux artistes peintres et aux restaurateurs”, EREC éditeur, Puteaux, 1995. Regarding Naples yellow, it says: ‘(Lead antimonate yellow) was rediscovered in Europe at the end of the Middle-Ages and was later mentioned in a document dating from 1540, “Pirotechnia”. The oldest recipes, written in 1556-1559, were supplied by Cipriano Piccolpaso…who was a painter of ceramics”

Although those recipes were indeed written primarily in connection with ceramics, given that they existed before Caravaggio’s birth (1571) it should never have been insisted that knowledge of them could not have been obtained by contemporary painters. As it happens, a study on Lorenzo Lotto’s pigments was made in connection with the exhibition “Lorenzo Lotto” (Venezia, 1480 – Loreto, 1556-57) at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome in spring 2011. On that occasion, more than fifty Lotto paintings spanning from 1505 to around 1556 were studied using non-invasive techniques by Maria Letizia Amadori, Pietro Baraldi, Sara Barcelli and Gianluca Poldi. The authors’ report (pages 2 and 19):

“About yellows, he uses both lead-tin and lead-antimony (Naples yellow) pigments, the latter found by XRF, in works starting from 1530 to the last years: it can be related to the ‘zalolin da vasarj’ cited by Lotto in 1541 in his account book (Libro di spese diverse)”, and, “As XRF analyses show, in some works, starting from 1530 to the last years of the century, also lead-antimony (Naples yellow) pigments, can be found, together with the previous yellow or almost alone: they can be related to the “zalolin da vasarj” cited by Lotto in 1541 in his account book (Libro di spese diverse).”

Thus, the presence of antimony would seem not to have given grounds for dismissing the Florence/Rome version of the Taking in the courts. Perhaps we can see that it might have been more to the point for the courts to require the production of the best possible photographs of as many of the versions as possible to permit visual comparisons of the two rival versions. There are many indications of the limitations of modern conservation practices to be had in Harr’s fascinating account. On page 169 he describes an encounter between the Dublin National Gallery of Art’s two picture restorers, Andrew O’Connor and Sergio Benedetti (who had re-attributed the Hontorst Taking to Caravaggio, and who had experienced “a fleeting moment of doubt” about his attribution while cutting ever larger ‘windows’ through the painting’s varnish):

“One day, about three weeks after the painting’s arrival, O’Connor and Benedetti crossed paths in the studio. Benedetti was staring at the painting. He stood with his arms crossed, his eyes narrowed in concentration, his mouth compressed into a frown. ‘Look at the arm of Judas’, Benedetti said to O’Connor. ‘What do you think?’ O’Connor studied the painting. ‘What are you getting at?’ he asked. ‘It seems too short, doesn’t it?’ said Benedetti. It did…O’Connor realised that Benedetti was wrestling with his doubts. ‘Well’, said Benedetti finally, ‘he wasn’t a perfect anatomist. He made other errors like this. In the Supper at Emmaus, the apostle’s hand is too large.’”

In this recollection we might be witness to a double failure of art critical methodology. Given his doubts, Benedetti might have assembled all available photographs of the many versions of this painting to determine whether or not the short-coming that concerned him was unique or common to (some or all) other versions. A greater lapse may be evident in the fact that while Benedetti expressed anxiety over the arm of Judas, he seems not to have done so over the compositionally and emotionally more important advancing left arm of the fleeing St John who is seen behind Christ and Judas. In the Dublin version, the arm of St John is cropped above the elbow and not above the wrist as it is in the Florence/Rome version. (On the compositional function of the arm in the Florence/Rome version, see comments at Figs. 21 and 22.)

To repeat what should be self-evident: pictures are made to be looked at. When, as with this Caravaggio, multiple versions exist we should make hard detailed visual comparisons of each against the others, if necessary (and it could hardly be otherwise when so many versions exist) by photographic means. When later copies or engravings exist we should make careful comparative estimations of their relationships to the various contenders. Whenever there are cut-down versions of more expansive compositions, we should always consider which state is likelier to have been the primary and which the secondary one. Visual comparisons in attributions, as in restorations, are of the essence. They should never be neglected, let alone discounted, on the authority of some technical evidence that may or may not be soundly framed; that may or may not be selective or loaded in its presentation; and, that will, in any event, soon be rendered obsolete by more up-to-date equipment. The informed human eye is our best “diagnostic tool” in the study of art and will remain so no matter how much money and resources might be thrown into technical studies. It remains the greatest tragedy that Bernard Berenson so badly debased his own critical currency with his shady Duveen dealings. On the primacy of the visual in visual art forms he was peerless:

“I am here concerned with names in painting. When I pronounce the words Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giorgione, Durer, Velazquez, Vermeer, Ingres, Manet, Degas and hundreds of others, each stands for certain qualities which I expect to find in a painting ascribed to them. If the expectation fails, then no argument, no documentary evidence, be it biographical, historical, psycho-analytical, or radiological and chemical will persuade me.”

That was and is how it should be.

Michael Daley

ENDNOTES:

1 The Times, letter, 13 August 2014:

“Sir, Gerald Fitzgerald (letter, Aug 12), misses an important point when calling for a tiny levy on art sales to fund an independent centre for provenance research. Although such a levy might cost only .05 per cent of annual art sales, currently standing at some $60 billion, if effective, such a centre would reduce the supply of works on the market by something like 40 per cent – at least in the view of the late Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The art world is very quick on its feet: when calls were made in the 1930s for an independent centre of art restoration research, then director of the National Gallery in London, Kenneth Clark, promptly established a department of conservation science in order, as he later confessed, to ‘have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to “prove” that every precaution had been taken’. Although self-policing may be an unrealistic ambition, governments could help considerably and at little cost by making it a statutory requirement that vendors should disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art. As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting.”

Michael Daley, Director, ArtWatch UK, London

2 The Massacre of the Innocents which came up at Sotheby’s on 10 July 2002 as a very recent Rubens upgrade is a case in point of misleading assurances and over-ridden technical evidence. In a long sale catalogue entry it was said that technical analyses and condition reports had been commissioned and that these were available on request. The implication was clear: we have exercised all possible due diligence and this painting has emerged with flying colours. That implicit reassurance evaporated on a close reading of the material – as we reported in the October 2002 Jackdaw (“Is this £49.5 million painting by Rubens?”). The reports were, by their nature dense and couched in technical language. Nonetheless they clearly contained information that was highly injurious to the attribution and to the picture’s claimed early dating of c. 1609-11. One technical fact alone should have sunk the attribution. It was found in the last paragraph of the last report. As we put it: “The author of a report on the tree-ring dating…concludes that a date of execution for the picture only becomes ‘plausible from 1615 upwards’.” In other words, the panel on which this picture was painted could not have been manufactured at the time the picture is said to have been painted – and this dating could not be amended because, like the Samson and Delilah, the picture was only remotely credible on stylistic grounds if seen as the product of a (fancifully claimed) brief stylistic abberation in Rubens’ oeuvre said to have occurred on his immediate return from Italy in 1608. As well as being on wood that was too recent, the picture contained the wrong materials: “A pigment, orpiment, that is found in no Rubens is present here. A second pigment, smalt, said to have been in use ‘mainly in the mid-seventeenth century’ and which seems only to be found in Rubens’ later works is also present. The orpiment yellow is anomalous not only in its presence but in its manner of application – it is mixed with lead-tin yellow. Such a combination is said to be ‘unusual since it was considered unstable’ and, even, to be a practice ‘not encountered in 17th century works’”. This was not just a twice-over dead attribution: “Speaking of Rubens’ debt to classical sources, the anonymous author of the catalogue entry correctly concedes, ‘one of the background figures appears to derive from the Borghese Gladiator’. There follows immediate self-disavowal: ‘it cannot’ so derive, he/she contends, because ‘though famous in subsequent centuries, the Borghese Gladiator was not excavated until late in 1611”. This painting on the wrong (too recent) wood, with what would normally be considered disqualifying (out of period)materials, and which contained a miraculous allusion to a future event, was presented to the world as a major art historical discovery. That “discovery” had taken place very shortly before the sale. The upgrading of this centuries old studio work had been made by just five experts only three of whom were identified. We put the question: “Can it be right that we are all being asked to share this leap of faith when the experts, displaying a seeming ignorance of – or disregard for – so much germane material evidence, have yet to declare their hands or publish accounts of their vital endorsements?”

3 Jonathan Harr reports in his 2005 account of the upgrading of a Honthorst to Caravaggio (“The Lost Painting” p. 222) that when the picture, The Taking of Christ, was examined at the National Gallery in London it was found that its ground (priming layer) was anomalous: Ashok Roy, the head of science, observed, as Harr reports, that “the composition of this particular ground was strange – ‘bizarre’ was the word used. It contained reds and yellows and large grains of green earth, a pigment composed of iron and magnesium. Grounds usually contained lead-based pigments and calcium, which dry quickly. Green earth dries slowly. This primer looked to Roy like a ‘palette-scraping’ ground – the painter had simply recycled leftover paints from his palette board to make the priming layer.” Well, yes, someone evidently had – but what in Roy’s detailed technical analysis of the ground might have suggested that on this occasion Caravaggio had departed from his own habits in order to do so? When the painting was exhibited in a special exhibition (“Caravaggio ~ The Master Revealed”) at the National Gallery of Ireland in 1993, the catalogue gave a different spin to Roy’s research: “Analyses have shown that the ground is composed of a brown pigment, heterogeneous and unevenly applied. Several pigments were mixed with it: lead white, red and yellow ochre, umber and large granuli of green earth.” On a casual reading: impressive and reassuring technical detail and expertise. No mention of bizarreness. No acknowledgement of what was for Dr. Roy, a perplexing departure from Caravaggio’s known practices. On page 160 Harr reports that Sergio Benedetti (the Dublin National Gallery of Art restorer who first made the attribution)“saw immediately that the painting had been relined at least once before” and judged the present lining canvas to be at least a hundred years old. In the National Gallery catalogue Benedetti reported that “the picture has undergone at least three interventions, probably accompanied each time by a relining of the canvas. One of these linings caused a shrinking of the surface in some limited areas.” What is not said is that Benedetti two of the three-plus hypothecated linings had been made by Benedetti himself the first having caused cracking. Harr reports that after the first lining “There is much dispute about what happened next. For Benedetti, restoring the Taking of Christ was the greatest moment in his professional career, and to this day he adamantly denies that he had any problem relining the painting. O’Connor and others at the gallery, however, tell a very different story. According to them, he came close to ruining the painting.” Andrew O’Connor, the Gallery’s chief restorer, said that Benedetti had elected to use a densely-woven Irish canvas rather than wait for an appropriately matching loose-weave canvas to arrive from Italy. When Michael O’Olohan, the gallery’s photographer, who had made detailed photographic records of every inch of the picture’s surface, saw the painting immediately after its first relining, he could not believe his eyes and recalled “There were areas that had hairline cracks, like a sheet of ice that has started to melt, a flash of cracks all over it. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.” O’Connor explained that because the Irish canvas was densely woven, “it did not absorb the [water-based] glue at the same rate as the old Italian canvas. It had not dried properly and had contracted, pulling with it the Italian canvas and raising ridges, small corrugations, in the paint surface. Along these corrugations, the paint layer had cracked and lifted.”

4 In the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21, (“The ‘Samson and Delilah’ ~ a question of attribution”), Kasia Pisarek wrote: “Dr. Ludwig Burchard was an active Rubens attributionist in Berlin before the Second World War and in London afterwards. Several paintings formerly attributed to Rubens’s school or studio or even to another artist (such as Sampson and Delilah), were reinstated by Burchard as by the master. I traced many of his attributions – he was not infallible in his judgement and changed his mind. Surprisingly, over 60 pictures attributed by Burchard to Rubens were later down-graded (in Corpus Rubenianum) to studio works, copies or imitations.”

5 The principal challenges to the attribution came from two artist/scholars, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, author of the award-winning 1995 book “The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt”, and Kasia Pisarek whose 2009 doctorate dissertation was entitled “Rubens and Connoisseurship ~ On the problems of attribution and rediscovery in the British and American collections (late XIX – XX c.)”. In 1986 Euphrosyne Doxiadis began researching the painting’s credentials with fellow art students Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson. Their findings were compiled in a report submitted to the National Gallery in 1992 and which is now held in the painting’s dossiers. (It is also available online at this site: www.afterrubens.org.) Their challenges to the attribution were covered in reports in the Times (“Artists raise fresh doubts on gallery’s Rubens masterpiece”, 22 September 1996, and “Expert denounces National Gallery’s Rubens”, 25 November 1996), and in The Independent on Sunday (“Tell-tale sign that £40m Rubens could be a copy”, 21 May 2000). Researches begun in 1990 by Kasia Pisarek prompted two articles on 5 October 1997 by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (“A Rubens or a costly copy?” and “National’s £40m Rubens could be fake”). In the latter article, the then director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, conceded that “the scholar raises some serious questions that I cannot easily answer”.

6 As Dr. Pisarek put it in the ArtWatch UK Journal 21 (“The ‘Samson and Delilah’ ~ a question of attribution”): “Both the rediscovery and the sale of this early Rubens masterpiece should have been well publicised in the press, yet there are no records of it in any art magazine (I checked most art journals published in 1929-30). However, other, even minor, Rubens discoveries could easily be traced (‘Forgotten Rubens found in Austria’ – Art News, 1930; ‘Van Diemen sells notable Rubens’ – Art News, 1931 etc.) Strangely, the Samson and Delilah was not even included in Valentiner’s ‘Unknown Masterpieces’, co-edited with Burchard, and published in 1930, which presented important little-known and rediscovered paintings. Dr. Burchard only wrote about it briefly in 1933, and only in a short note.”

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Above, Fig. 1: A chalk drawing that originated with the firm R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam in 1929 and sold as a Veronese for 750 florins (guilders) or some €6,801.91 at today’s exchanges.
Below, Fig. 2: An ink and wash drawing that originated with the firm R.W.P. de Vries of Amsterdam in 1926 and sold the following year as a van Dyck for 26 florins (guilders), or some €235.80 at today’exchanges
Above, top, Fig. 2: The ink and wash drawing sold on 10 July 2014 as a preliminary ink sketch for Rubens’ Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, middle, Fig. 3: An oil painting on panel that sold at Christie’s for £24,000 in 1966 as Rubens’ oil sketch (or modello) for what is now the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, Fig. 4: The oil painting on panel sold for £2.53m at Christie’s in 1980 to the National Gallery as Rubens’ original Samson and Delilah.
The three works above are claimed to comprise an entirely autograph suite of successive stages of Rubens’ treatment of Samson and Delilah.
Above, top, Fig. 5: An engraved copy (here as a mirror image) made in c. 1611-14 of Rubens’ (now lost) original Samson and Delilah painting.
Above, Fig. 6: A detail of a painting (made before 1640) by Frans Francken of the original Rubens Samson and Delilah as it was displayed in the home of his friend and patron Nicolaas Rockox. This painting and the engraving above both show that Samson’s right foot was originally intact and set comfortably away from the edge of the painting.
Above, top, Fig. 7: A larger detail of Frans Francken’s c. 1630-35 oil painting A Feast in the House of Nicolaas Rockox, showing the original Rubens Samson and Delilah in pride of place in Rockox’s home.
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery Rubens’ Samson and Delilah when on loan in 2007 to what is now the Rockoxhuis museum, Antwerp.
Above, top, Fig. 9: Rubens’ painting Cimon and Pero – “Roman Charity” of 1611-13 (here as a mirror image) in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
Above, Fig. 10: The National Gallery Samson and Delilah painting.
Comparison of the two works shows in the former, the exceptional grace, composure of design and warmth of colouring for which the artist is revered, while the latter asserts an uncharacteristic stridency that required the National Gallery to posit a “special-but-brief” stylistic Rubens interlude.
Above (left) Fig. 11a: Cimon’s feet, as painted by Rubens. Above (right) Fig. 11b: The right-hand edge of the National Gallery Samson and Delilah.
It is not credible to suggest than an artist so brilliantly attentive to feet and hands might have painted the foot encountered in the National Gallery.
Above, top, Fig. 12: The version of Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents that is owned by the Musée des Beaux-arts in Brussels.
Above, Fig. 13: The version of Rubens The Massacre of the Innocents loaned to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.
Just as the National Gallery’s The Virgin of the Rocks (below) is a cut-down replica version of the Louvre’s Leonardo original, so the Ontario Massacre of the Innocents is a cut-down version of the larger canvas at the Musée des Beaux-arts in Brussels. Although now said to be a “studio replica” the latter was judged original by such eminent Rubens authorities, as Gluck, Held, Van Puyvelde and Michael Jaffé.
The cropping of motifs in the Ontario version seems particularly insensitive as it includes the two murdered infants who, in the Brussels version, were depicted whole and set (like Samson’s original toes) comfortably inside the edge of the painting. How likely is it that Rubens would have cropped his figures in this manner or, if by chance he had, that a copyist would presume to extend and make whole his composition ?
Above, Figs. 14a and 14b. The regretably unequal photographic quality of this comparison does not mitigate the disturbing cropping of the infants in the Ontario version (left) which, like the National Gallery Samson and Delilah, spent many years as studio copy in the Liechtenstein Collection.
Above, top, Figs. 15a and 15b: Left, the Louvre’s original Leonardo da Vinci The Virgin of the Rocks; right, the National Gallery’s later version of the painting.
Above, Figs. 16a and 16b: The infant St. John in Leonardo’s The Virgin of the Rocks (left) and (right) the infant in the National Gallery’s later version of the painting.
In the latter we encounter an uncharacteristic indifference to design, sloppiness of treatment and iconographic brutality in the depiction of an infant saint. While the securely autograph Louvre painting has never been in question, considerable argument has arisen over the extent to which Leonardo’s hand is present in the National Gallery version.
In the catalogue to the National Gallery’s 2011-12 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci ~ Painter to the Court of Milan”, the gallery’s head of restoration, Larry Keith, (who had restored the Virgin of the Rocks prior to the exhibition), was in no doubt that the London version was entirely autograph. He wrote of “discoveries” made in the course of restoration:
“…What we discover is a painter firmly grounded in traditional practice who was able to stretch his methods and materials to express unprecedented intellectual and artistic concerns. However, these painterly interests were only a part of a larger pursuit; he believed that careful observation of all manner of natural phenomena was essential for both new knowledge and a deeper understanding….The National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks is a painting that is at once unique and highly representative of how Leonardo worked. Produced in fits and starts over the last 15 or so years of a commission that took 25 years to complete, it is a composition of the most artful complexity and an image where local colour was sublimated to the newer demands of tonal unity…The National Gallery Virgin of the Rocks…is manifestly uneven in finish and execution but, perhaps, paradoxically, this quality allows us to explore key issues in his painterly practice – methods, materials, collaboration, delegation and finish – and thereby understand better the larger question of the relationship between his painting techniques and his artistic intent…”
Needless to say, this conviction that the picture is an entirely autograph, unique-but-representative Leonardo is not universally accepted. Even at the National Gallery, Leonardo’s authorship has not always been accepted. In 1947 the curator Martin Davies took issue with the picture’s very many doubters (who included the recently former director of the gallery, Kenneth Clark):
“It has to be admitted at the outset that the identification of Leonardo da Vinci’s pictures is by no means the sure and simple thing one might think. It is a fact that there exists no picture of his Milanese period that has not at one time been rejected by famous critics; except for the Cenacolo, which is ruined, and hardly suitable for stylistic criticism at all! The whole subject of Leonardo’s style is therefore somewhat doubtful; but in the particular case of the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery, there has been a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it…”
Davies believed the critics to be wrong, but in making his case he conceded many things germane to our concerns here. He acknowledged that this painting was a replica and that it was “quite likely under these circumstance that he [Leonardo] had no great interest in the work”. Although a replica in the sense that Leonardo had been obliged to paint a second version of a commission, Davies draws an ingenious distinction: “the picture is not simply a replica” because so much time had passed that Leonardo had left one artistic era and entered another, making “the picture […] the replica of a work in an older and different style”. Leonardo’s new style “was perhaps expressed rather imperfectly, because the picture is a replica.”
The National Gallery’s suggestion that its “Rubens” Samson and Delilah does not look like any of its twenty-odd secure Rubens’s because he had worked for a brief period in a style like none of his others was a desperate denial of the fact that its “out-of-style” traits stem from its true status as a replica. A more frank acceptance of the Virgin of the Rocks’ acknowledged replica status might might have spared decades of convoluted apologias. Where Larry Keith sees in the Virgin of the Rocks material evidence throughout that “careful observation of all manner of natural phenomena was essential for both new knowledge and a deeper understanding”, another student of Leonardo and Nature, Ann Pizzorusso (who trained as a geologist before becoming an art historian) took an entirely contrary view. For Pizzorusso, the gallery’s claims of some radical shift of style as a means of accounting for the London picture’s problems were entirely and demonstrably without foundation. She was clear on this site that no shift of style could account the picture’s problems because none had occurred:
“Using a date of 1510 for the Virgin and St. Anne and a date of 1483-86 for the Virgin of the Rocks, both in the Louvre, we have proof that Leonardo did not change his style, and that, if anything, he became more fanatical in his quest for geologic accuracy, developing new paints and techniques for natural depiction and driving his students to deliver the most accurate depiction of nature in their own works. So we must ask the question ‘How and why could Leonardo have changed his style to produce a work so lacking in geological and botanical accuracy as the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery in London?’ There is no evidence Leonardo changed his style and now, with the recently cleaned Virgin and St. Anne, we have that proof. We also know that his students were inculcated with his passion for accurate depiction of natural objects so we must also exclude his students as authors of the National Gallery work.”
Writing nearly a decade earlier than Davies, Kenneth Clark, discussed the head of the angel in the London Virgin of the Rocks in his 1938 book of (marvellous black and white comparative photographs) “One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery”. Of the angel’s head, he wrote “This is the one part of our Virgin of the Rocks where the evidence of Leonardo’s hand seems undeniable…” For Clark, changes in Leonardo’s work over the years were evident, but unlike Davies later and Keith much later, he seems not to have seen evidence of the Later Leonardo equally and everywhere across the painting. For Clark, this curate’s egg of a picture was, in only select parts, very, very good indeed. Of the angel’s head:
“Beautiful as it is, this angel lacks the enchantment of the lighter more Gothic angel in the Paris version. It embodies the result of Leonardo’s later researches in which ideal beauty and and classic regularity of chiarascuro were combined, with a certain loss in freshness, but with an expressive power which almost hypnotized his contemporaries.”
Clark was onto something interesting when speaking of Leonardo’s “hand” – the characteristic touch and surface of his paintwork. It so happens that there was a tool to hand that could have been the greatest boon to those charged with making attributions: high quality micro-photography. Clark, as his own two books of National Gallery details show, was certainly alert to the potency of high quality photographs but he used his comparisons of details to flag up differences between artists in their treatments of similar subjects. That was a perfectly interesting and instructive application. He overlooked, however, the possibility (and the great profitability) of taking, assembling and collating many thousands of details from the most secure, “Gold Standard” paintings, so as to create visual benchmark indicators of artists’ distinctive methods. (Just imagine Morelli and His Ears in an era of digital photography and computers.) If the failure to pursue such programmes in the immediate impoverished years after the Second World War might be excusable, what excuse exists in today’s digital era? The pioneering photographs (shown here at Figs. 18 and 19) by Professor A. P. Laurie in his 1949 book “The Technique of the Great Painters” constituted a perfect template for a means of more accurate visual appraisals – we surely have fewer excuses today than any generation in history for stumbling as if half-blind through the minefield of attribution?
Below, Fig. 17: Martin Davies’ 1947 large format essay on the gallery’s Virgin of the Rocks carried 16 highly informative plates (including this one below of the infant St. John which appears to suggest multiple but vain attempts to keep the toes within the picture?
Above: an unexplained cropped foot
DOGS THAT DON’T BARK
Below: an almost never-used photographic method of comparing brush strokes
Above, Fig. 18: Professor A. P. Laurie explained the significance of this pair of spliced photographs in his 1949 book “The Technique of the Great Painters”:
“This illustration is a photomicrograph of the highlight on the shoulder of [Rembrandt’s] Woman Bathing, National Gallery, No.54. The patch pasted on is from a photomicrograph of a picture whose attribution had to be tested. It will be seen that the brushwork is identical in both cases. It is possible for a skilled forger to imitate a signature, but it is quite impossible to combine the quality of the paint, the nature of the brush, and the handling of the painter, so as to reproduce this complete identity.”
Below, Fig. 19: Prof. Laurie explained the significance of the brushwork below in these terms:
“There is a very interesting portrait of Verdonck [in the National Gallery of Scotland] holding in his hand the jawbone of an ass. It was known from an engraving that such a picture must have existed, but it had apparently disappeared. The Edinburgh gallery possessed a picture by Frans Hals of a man holding a wine glass in his hand. An X-ray revealed that underneath the the wine glass was a painting of the jawbone of an ass which had been painted out by some restorer and replaced by the wine glass. On careful cleaning, the restorer’s work was removed…[this photomicrograph reveals] the rapidity with which Frans Hals laid in stroke after stroke with absolute certainty. In fact the painting seems to be alive, and one can almost see the brush moving over the surface. it would be impossible to mistake this work for the brushwork of Rembrandt…”
Above, Fig. 20:“From Duccio to Raphael ~ Connoisseurship in Crisis”, James H. Beck, Florence, Italy, 2006
In this his last book, the late Professor James Beck of Columbia University, and the founder of ArtWatch International in 1992, wrote:
“Two paintings, a mini aspiring Raphael da Urbino Madonna and an equally tiny aspiring Duccio di Buoninsegna Madonna were sold for record prices in 2004. The first was bought by London’s National Gallery and the second by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. These objects and the mode in which their attributions to their famous presumed authors were achieved document a breakdown in modern connoisseurship. The two objects represent a total expenditure of public money exceeding 100 million dollars for pictures the size of a sheet of paper. These remarkable sales could not have transpired without the participation of art experts whose role was indispensable in offering authentifications of the pictures. This book will seek to define the system of attributing works of art, examine the methodology, treat in depth case studies of recent connoisseurship including the two pictures just mentioned. In addition to what is regarded as a monumental failure on the part of the experts, the use and misuse of public funds is an issue that lies just beneath the surface.”
Above, top, Fig. 21: The version of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ in the National Museum of Art, Odessa.
Above, top, Fig. 22: The version of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ that was formerly in the Ladis Sannini collection in Florence; was then restored in Rome and authenticated by Sir Denis Mahon; and, is presently being held during legal proceedings.
This small pair of photographs from 1967 is sufficient to show the profound compositional consequences of an extension of one work or a truncation of another. Regardless of the photographs’ poor quality and regardless of the paintings’ relative merits, (both of these, incidentally, have been supported as autograph), the question can be posed in the abstract: Which of the two compositional formats is likelier to be the prime version? Further, if Caravaggio had painted in the truncated format, would he or a copyist then likely have added an extension to the arm of the fleeing disciple in another version? Our feeling is that the Florence format has to be considered to be superior compositionally; more dynamic dramatically; less like a stiff and claustrophobic tableau; and, altogether more expressive of the magnitude of the pandemonium and horror that attended Judas’ fateful act. Whether the Florence picture is the original autograph version has to be established but reports of its pronounced revisions weigh in its favour. Desperately needed is a collation of high quality photographs of all the versions of the paintings, along with detailed photographs of the same, or greater, quality of those published by Prof. Laurie.
Above, Figs. 23 and 24: The Dublin and Rome/Florence versions of Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, as reproduced in the Daily Telegraph. Sir Denis Mahon deemed both of these works – at the same time – to be the Caravaggio original.
Above, Figs. 25 and 26: The Prado’s Annibale Carracci’s Venus, Adonis and Cupid, of c. 1588-90, top, as photographed in 1965 (by Hauser y Menet) and before restoration; and, above, as seen after a restoration funded by The Fundación Reale.
Of the two versions (see a detail of the rival Vienna picture below at Fig. 28b) Mahon has supported both as the authentic original work – but this time did so consecutively, not simultaneously, as with the Caravaggio Taking. He championed the Vienna picture until the Prado one emerged. Unabashed, he saw merit in his own mistake, saying (in the 2005 exhibition catalogue) of his critical re-positioning :
“When I first wrote about this composition, some fifty years ago, my observations on style and chronology were based not on the Prado painting, since this was as yet unknown, but on the excellent early copy in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and on the preparatory drawings for the figure of Adonis in the Uffizi. When the Prado painting was first published in 1965, by Pérez Sánchez, it was gratifying to realize that, although all those of us who concerned ourselves with Emilian painting had mistakenly assumed that the Vienna picture was Annibale’s original, one’s intutitions about the importance of the work and where it fitted in the artist’s evolution were confirmed.”
This was dissimulation: had Mahon been alert to what might be called The Problem of Arbitrary and (otherwise) Bizarre or Inexplicable Croppings, he would have spotted the tell-tale warning in the cropped nose of the hound on the right of the Vienna version. This would have been the more likely had he consulted, as well as figure studies in the Uffizi, the etched copy of the original made in of 1655 by Luigi Scaramuccia (see Fig. 27, below). This delightful record shows not only that the hound’s head (like Samson’s toes elsewhere) had been set comfortably inside the picture, but, also, that the landscape at the top right was more extensive and contained an architectural feature (doubtless of some iconographic significance). Curators and restorers too often disregard the testimony of graphic artists, when, within their limits and styles, they are essentially respectful of the works they were paid to copy. (A copyist inclined to go his own way would likely get less not more employment.)
Below, Fig. 27: Luigi Scaramuccia, Venus, Adonis and Cupid, 1655, second state, The British Museum (here mirrored).
Above, Figs. 28a and 28b: Details of the Prado’s Carracci Venus, Adonis and Cupid (left), and the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum version (right).
If Mahon corrected one error with this painting, he perpetuated others. The catalogue to the exhibition that celebrated the Prado’s restoration, produced the customary self-congratulatory sponsor’s waffle (here The Fundación Reale). Less forgivable was Mahon’s claim that the restoration helped establish the date of the original work. Mahon had been a belligerent champion of National Gallery restorations when at their worst in the post-war years, mocking, in tandem with the gallery’s head of science, the objections of scholars like Sir Ernst Gombrich (who had to wait a third of a century for a full technical vindication of his objections – see How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich and 24 November 2011)
What is unsaid in the hype of big business-sponsored restorations, is that a restorer can never recover what has been lost and that by cosmetically dressing up degraded works, imparts a spurious simulation of health and historical veracity. No restoration exhibition should ever take place without the inclusion of all extant visual records of the work(s) in question. If we disregard the testimony that exists in this area, we enter a world of “art conservation” make-believe. In doing so, we leave ourselves ill-quipped to address the most urgent questions of attribution and condition. Sadly, with this Carracci painting, the two versions have experienced what restorers euphemistically call “different conservation histories”. Which means is that they have suffered to varying and unequal degees, physical assaults on their fabrics and their pictorial skins. We are all obliged to acknowledge and address these terrible truths. Not least because all the inherent difficulties of making attributions are exacerbated by these various histories of “treatments”. On the testimony of the etching, it would seem that the Vienna hound lost considerable shading to the side of his head, while his elaborately jewelled collar survived much better than that seen in the Prado version. This tells us that neither work remains a true witness to its own original self and that, therefore, theories and judgements made on the basis of the pictures’ present selves should come with careful qualifications and health warnings, and not with some facile celebration of glorious recoveries.
The differences that restorations make to individual pictures can be as great or greater than the differences that might originally have existed between an authentic original work and an extremely high quality copy of it. It should be accepted that one of the consequences of past restorations is that making sound appraisals of the merits of once closely related versions of paintings is made the more difficult. Some indication of how dramatically transforming restoration treatments can be can be might be gauged by the pair of details below (Figs. 29 and 30) from the Prado’s records of the same painting. Properly read, their inclusion, and that of the two states of the Scaramuccia etching in the Prado exhibition catalogue might constitute a most useful contribution to knowledge and understanding in this arena.
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“Art’s Toxic Assets” ~ Announcing a new ArtWatch UK website

20 September 2014

We have opened our website on a new address:

http://artwatch.org.uk

The new site has two additional features. First, a dedicated, one-click NEWS & NOTICES box to carry short, topical items. (Our first announcement is of the sixth annual James Beck memorial lecture which is to be given on 6 November in New York.) Second, a PREVIOUS ARTICLES feature. This provides a rapid means of locating (visually, as well as by titles and by dates) any and all previous posts in easy one-click succession. All articles previously published on this site are now available on the new site and carry down-loadable printer-friendly pdfs.

We launch the new site with an examination of problematic attributions in the museum world and on the wider art markets (“Art’s Toxic Assets and a Crisis of Connoisseurship”). We challenge the attributions of four works – three Rubens’s and a Caravaggio – all of which are professionally supported and are now housed in public museums. We argue that such misattributions are products of unsound and insufficiently-examined modern practices of connoisseurship and art critical methodology. Further, we show how shortcomings of visual appraisal evident in the mis-attributions of individual works are also widely encountered in professional failures to recognise and acknowledge restoration-induced injuries in pictures. Holding that these failures of artistic appraisal are present in both art restoration and art attribution and considering them to be two sides of the same debilitating coin, we warn that their frequency and their magnitude now threaten the credibility of the wider art market itself (as might be seen, for example, in the collapse of the Knoedler Gallery), and that they do so in much the same way that the successive and unchecked incorporation of “toxic assets” within investment dealings ultimately led to the recent collapses of confidence in major financial institutions and markets.

To read the article and to visit the new site, please click on:

http://artwatch.org.uk

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: “From Duccio to Raphael ~ Connoisseurship in Crisis”, Florence, Italy, 2006, the last book of the late Professor James Beck of Columbia University and the founder (in 1992) of ArtWatch International.
Above, Fig. 2: The Massacre of the Innocents, which sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 as a Rubens for £49.5m even though it contained pigments said never to have been used by the artist, and an allusion to an antique sculpture (the Borghese Warrior) that had yet to be excavated. Furthermore, the earliest plausible date for the manufacture of the panel on which it was painted had been found during technical examinations by a leading international authority on oak panels to have been five years too recent for the attributed date of this work.
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The Samson and Delilah ink sketch – cutting Rubens to the quick

10 July 2014

Today, in a sale of old master drawings (and on an estimate of £1.5m -£2.5m), Christie’s is offering large claims for the artistic and historical significance of a small (roughly 16cms square and shown here at Fig. 1) pen and brown ink drawing:

“This is the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London (inv. NG 6461), and it was followed by a modello oil sketch now in the Cincinnati Art Museum (inv. 1972.459). Commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), who was Rubens’s most important early patron, this powerful composition dates from shortly after the artist’s return to Antwerp from Italy, where he had been from 1600 until 1608, and provides a valuable insight into his developing style and preparatory processes.”

This account is conventional but, nonetheless, contentious. No hint is given that the relationships between these three linked works are highly problematic or that all three have suffered cuts or thinning. The authorship of this group has been contested for over two decades. On February 19 2004 the Daily Telegraph published a letter from ArtWatch on the painting’s problems (“Is the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah another copy?) We have published two special issues of the Artwatch UK Journal mounting challenges (Figs. 2 and 3) and have written a number of articles on the subject for the Art Review. The principal challenges to the attribution came from two artist/scholars, initially, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, whose findings (made with fellow artist Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson) were compiled in a report (see this website) that was submitted to the National Gallery in 1992 and later covered in the Times and the Independent. In 1997 researches by Kasia Pisarek, prompted two articles by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (“A Rubens or a costly copy?” and “National’s £40m Rubens could be fake”). In the latter article, the then director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, conceded that the evidence “is respectable, and the scholar raises some serious questions that I cannot easily answer”. Those questions have never been answered. In October 1997 the National Gallery issued a press release in which it was said that:

“Debates of this sort require patient consideration of different sorts of evidence. The best format is for this evidence to be presented at some length for public discussion – and the National Gallery will be arranging such a lecture and debate over the next few months.”

A debate that has yet to take place

Within a few days the commitment was dropped when the press release was re-issued and the debate never took place. To this day there remains an enormous accumulation of problems with the National Gallery’s “Rubens” Samson and Delilah and, therefore, with its two closely associated works – the ink drawing and the oil sketch. All three works, which are dated to 1609-10, have unusual and anomalous features – and all appeared only in the 20th century. The modello arrived last without name or history in 1966 and was upgraded by Christie’s to Rubens even though it is painted on a soft wood and not the oak which Rubens invariably used.

Ludwig Burchard’s cunning plan?

Behind the successful 20th century elevation of this trio, is the fact that both the drawing and the large finished painting in the National Gallery were attributed to Rubens barely two years apart by the same man, Ludwig Burchard. Burchard was a great authority on Rubens who, notoriously, was unable to publish his life-long Great Work on the Artist for fear of having to de-attribute very many paintings for which he had supplied unwarranted certificates of authenticity. In the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21(Spring 2006) Kasia Pisarek, whose PhD Dissertation was on Rubens and Connoisseurship, identified over sixty Burchard Rubens attributions that had subsequently been demoted in the Corpus Rubenianum itself.

Dr Pisarek felt that the year of launch for the picture now in the National Gallery might be signicant. As she put it:

“That year 1929 was not free of strange coincidences. By a bizarre stroke of luck, the painting re-emerged 48 years after its disposal by the Prince of Liechtenstein in Paris in 1881 (not 1880, as is commonly said), the exact same year as the deaths of the Prince Johannes II, the previous owner of the painting, and of his picture adviser Wilhelm von Bode, the then General Director of the Berlin Museums. The former died in February 1929, the latter a month later, in March. Moreover, we know that the Prince himself had weeded out a considerable number of pictures, Samson and Delilah included. He also financed many research projects, and the collection was accessible to scholars. The art historian Wilhelm von Bode published (in 1896) the first comprehensive and illustrated book on the Liechtenstein collection, so he could have been aware of the Samson and Delilah’s disposal. Why didn’t he identify the picture as the long lost Rubens if he was also a Rubens expert and had even co-signed certificates of authenticity with Ludwig Burchard?

In 1927 the drawing was bought from a private collector by a scholar of drawings and prints, I.Q. van Regteren Altena, for 26 guilders as a Van Dyck (whose initials it still bears). It was promptly upgraded to Rubens by Burchard, who then cited it as such in his 1930 certificate of authenticity for the Honthorst on offer by a Berlin dealer that is now in the National Gallery as an entirely autograph Rubens.

A precursor or a successor – or both?

It is claimed that Rubens’ characteristic stylistic development through stages of work is evident in the three works’ sequence, when the essential motif remains remarkably constant throughout. In fact, the modello (see Figs. 5 and 7) is so like the finished work that one supporter of the attribution, the former senior curator of the National Gallery, David Jaffe, has suggested that this oil sketch might be a ricordoa record of the finished painting[!] However, if the presently accepted 1, 2 and 3 sequence of drawing, oil sketch, finished painting were to become 1, 3 and 2, it would make nonsense of the National Gallery’s technical reports which stated that the finished picture’s uncharacteristic thin, swift and little-revised paint work – paint work which today remains preternaturally fresh and unblemished (see Figs. 10 and 11) – was a product of the fact that Rubens had made such an unusually complete and resolved oil sketch that he had been able to paint the larger panel (which, the gallery claims, itself resembles a large sketch) out of his head and at a stroke and without any need for his customary revisions. Then again, the ricordo suggestion constitutes, perhaps, a kind of insurance policy, a way of covering against the possible outcomes of an eventual debate and presentation of evidence? If so, the sequence 1, 2, 3 and 2 again, would make a kind of institutional sense? This might indeed constitute a veritable “belt and braces” insurance: given that the gallery has admitted that its large finished panel is so very swift and sure-footed in its execution (or uncharacteristically sloppy and out-of-character to its critics), that it is itself but an over-blown sketch, the formulation 1, 2/4, 3/2 and 2 might serve perfectly to cover all eventualities.

The evidence of our eyes

The Samson and Delilah ink sketch, as a drawing, lacks the customary force, focus and eloquence of design seen in Rubens’ initial compositional ideas (- see Figs. 8b, 9a and 16). This supposed preliminary study has a curiously finished, pictorial air. Iconographically it has a pronounced “portmanteau” quality, showing, for example, Delilah’s draped right leg as seen in the secure Rubens oil sketch of 1609-10, The Taking of Samson in Chicago, while her draped left leg is as seen in the insecure National Gallery picture. Most disturbingly (to this draughtsman, at least) is that fact that when looking at the drawing in the flesh it is impossible to read an order or purpose to which its many and various components might have been made or to locate the essential, determining compositional and figural point at which Rubens always and brilliantly drove (see Figs. 8b and 16).

A ruled ink border surrounds and compositionally confines the ink and wash drawing (Fig. 1). When seen in reproduction, this border gives an impression that Rubens designed a format from the outset precisely in order to achieve an effect that is the single most problematic feature of the finished painting – the fact that the toes on Samson’s right foot were cropped at the edge of the painting. The border, like the drawing, is drawn in brown ink but clearly, as Christie’s describes, it can be seen by eye to comprise later framing lines. However, while this usage is seen to be common in the collection where the drawing has lived since 1927 – and while the border lines themselves can be seen to pass over a number of tiny losses on the edges of the sheet – the particular placement of the border is disquieting because the sheet on which the drawing was made has been trimmed at either the outside edges of the border or even within the border lines themselves. Why and when was this done? While some of the ink lines of the drawing can be seen by eye to run into the ruled borders, we cannot calculate where they might have terminated because of the severity of the sheet’s cropping. For whatever reason, this is now an artificially constrained and possibly edited image.

Flouting historical evidence

While the toes on Samson’s right foot are cropped at the edge of the National Gallery painting (Fig. 12), both of the contemporary copies that were made of the original Rubens painting show the foot, as painted by Rubens, to have been both whole and set well within the right-hand edge of the painting (see Figs. 4, 5 and 6). It is hard to see on what grounds this testimony might be disregarded: the first copy, an engraving (see Fig. 14), was made in c 1613 and very possibly under Rubens’ instruction. The second was a painting in oil commissioned by Rockox to show off his collection of paintings in the grand salon of his home (see Figs. 6 and 13). Is it conceivable that he – and Rubens, who was still alive – would have permitted a man famous for the accuracy of his records, to make a gratuitous, out-of-character “improvement” to the Rubens painting that occupied pride of place above the mantelpiece? Because of the inked box and the trimmed sheet it is not possible to determine whether the drawing’s author might originally have drawn the foot whole.

The panel support of the modello, as reproduced in the catalogue (see Fig. 7), is seen to have been cropped on its vertical edges since being sold to the Cincinnati Art Museum by the removal of two strips of wood, thereby conferring a clear crop onto Samson’s foot and bringing it into accord with the foot seen in both the National Gallery picture and the ink drawing. At one point the Cincinnati Museum claimed that the oil sketch’s panel was made of oak. When the picture was loaned to the National Gallery we asked if the panel was oak or softwood. It was not possible to say, we were told, because the back of the frame was enclosed and the gallery was not permitted to remove it. The museum today ducks the issue by saying that its painting is “on panel”.

The National Gallery’s picture was doctored at some undisclosed point by planing rather than cutting. The gallery restored the picture after purchasing it and reported that the panel had been planed down to a thickness of 2-3mm and set into a sheet of block-board. We knew for technical reasons that that was most unlikely: block-board is held together by its outer veneer layers and cutting one of them away would have had catastrophic structural consequences. When pressed, the gallery acknowledged that the planed-down panel had in fact been glued onto, and not set into, a larger sheet of block-board, with its edges being concealed by a bevelled putty. The restorer, David Bomford (now of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), said in his report, that the planing had taken place at some point in the early twentieth, or possibly during the late 19th century. That, too struck us as improbable: could there be no record of the back of a panel bought for a world record price (£2.5m) for a Rubens? Had the gallery not made a record of condition when the picture was loaned to it before the sale at Christie’s? We asked Neil MacGregor, if the gallery had any record of the back – and he said not. We asked if we might see picture’s conservation dossiers and there found Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity, which described the panel as being intact and in excellent health.

At Christie’s we asked, and were kindly permitted, to examine the back of the drawing which is said to bear other drawings. A little (unintelligible) drawing is present but most of the surface bears the remains of a second sheet of paper to which the ink sketch had once been pasted. Effectively, the drawing’s verso is invisible – just as is the back of the National Gallery’s picture, any evidence on which has ceased to exist.

As for the contention – made against the evidence of the contemporary copies – that Rubens deliberately cropped Samson’s toes at every stage of the work, we know that he was very attentive to his toes. When drawing one of Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, he ran out of room on the paper for the toes on one of the feet and then drew them separately elsewhere on the sheet. On his return from Italy, and virtually simultaneously with working on the Samson and Delilah, Rubens made the magnificent Michelangelesque study of a nude man kneeling shown at Fig. 17. On that sheet, the right foot was truncated by the edge of the paper and, again, Rubens redrew the whole lower leg so as to include the foot and toes.

What kind of artist was Rubens?

The National Gallery has admitted that its painting is not typical of Rubens’s oeuvre, which fact it attempts to explain by claiming that immediately after his return to Antwerp from a long stay in Italy, Rubens was working “experimentally”. Unfortunately, it so happens that at the date of the Samson and Delilah’s execution, Rubens was also working on the very large altarpiece The Raising of the Cross (see Fig. 10). No one has ever suggested that that great work occupied a position in some experimental mode. To the bizarre and unsupported suggestion that Rubens, on his return from Italy, simultaneously worked experimentally and not-experimentally within the same brief period, Christie’s lend support with a contention that:

“The exact date of Samson and Delilah is unclear, partly because Rubens experimented with two very different approaches to the same subject in these post-Italian years.”

The truth is that attempts to keep this Burchard-initiated show on the road require that everything today be considered part of a moveable feast. It is neither a satisfactory situation nor a tenable position. Attribution is a difficult and taxing activity at the best of times and there is no shame in admitting error – and least of all with Rubens. As we put it in the 2006 Spring Journal:

“The upgrading of copies or studio works to autograph status frequently flouts the most elementary visual and methodological safeguards. Identification of the autograph hand of a master requires a ‘good eye’, sound method, and a recognition that comparisons are of the essence, that like should be compared with like. Procedural fastidiousness and visual acuity are nowhere more essential than with Rubens, who not only ran a large studio of highly talented assistant/followers but who famously placed a very high premium on studio works that had been modified or finished off by his own hand. When wishing to claim unreserved autograph status for a ‘Rubens’, it would seem imperative that some plausible connection between the aspirant and an unquestionably secure work be established. With the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah, exemption is claimed on grounds that this work was special product of a peculiar moment in the artist’s career. Unfortunately for the attribution – and the picture’s supporters – this special ‘moment’ coincides precisely with a work of bedrock security – The Raising of the Cross of 1609-1610. An artist’s designs and motifs are easily replicated – and with Rubens, were often intended to be so ‘in house’. Pronounced similarities of subject matter or motif, therefore, are no guarantors of authenticity. What is most distinctive to a master and impossible to replicate – even by close associates within his own studio – is what is termed his touch, his individual, characteristic manner and speed of execution. Artistic mastery lies in some particular combination of technical fluency and commanding thought. The quality of an artist’s thoughts and his authorial ‘fingerprints’ are certainly made manifest in and through material – it cannot be otherwise – but only in material as handled, not in terms of its intrinsic, chemically analysable composition. A flat-footed analysis of the material components of pictures can no more corroborate authorship than they can validate a restoration. There are no material tests for authenticity…”

Update:

16.00, 10-07-14. The editor of Jackdaw, David Lee, writes to point out that, R W P de Vries, the person who sold the Samson and Delilah ink sketch produces this note, when Googled:

“Reinier Willem Petrus de Vries Jr. (Amsterdam , March 3, 1874 – Hilversum , 27 May 1953 ) was a Dutch artist. He was a painter , illustrator , book cover designer , and made ??etchings and woodcuts . He was a student at the State Normal School in Amsterdam, obtained his MO drawing. From 1913 to 1935 he was a teacher at a secondary school in Hilversum.”

The Jackdaw’s distinguished editor reflects: “An artist and secondary school teacher who flogs drawings. Not exactly what you’d expect…” No, indeed, but precisely the kind of thing about which we have learned not to expect to be given information.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: The pen and wash brown ink drawing that is said to be “the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London”.
Above, Figs. 2 and 3: The covers of ArtWatch UK journals given to discussions of the attribution of the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah panel painting.
Above, Figs. 4 and 5: The two centre spread pages of the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21, showing the connections between: Rubens’ two oil sketches of Samson being taken and of being blinded; the engraved copy of the original, now lost, Rubens Samson and Delilah made by Jacob Matham, c. 1613; part of Frans Francken II’s painting of The Great Salon of Nicolaas Rockox’s house with Rubens’ original Samson and Delilah, as seen above the mantelpiece at some point between 1615 and 1640; the ink sketch said to be Rubens’s original design for the National Gallery Samson and Delilah; the Samson and Delilah painting on panel at the National Gallery; and, the panel at the Cincinnati museum that is said to be either a preliminary sketch for the National Gallery Samson and Delilah painting or a record of it made afterwards.
Above, Figs. 6 and 7: The presentation in Christie’s sale catalogue of a detail (top) of Frans Frankens’ copy of the original Rubens Samson and Deliah; and (above), the Cincinnati panel as seen after strips of wood on the vertical edges had been removed, producing a more emphatic cropping of Samson’s toes.
Although the Francken painted record testifies to the original ‘wholeness’ of Samson’s foot, the catalogue entry does not discuss this awkward evidence. Nor is the fact of the reduction by the removal of two vertical strips on the Cincinnati panel discussed.
Above, Figs. 8a and 8b: showing a detail (left) of the Samson and Delilah ink sketch, and (right) a detail of Rubens’s ink drawing at the Washington National Gallery, Venus Lamenting Adonis, of c. 1608-12. We find the suggestion that Rubens might have been drawing during this period in two such radically opposed styles, and with such great disparities of accomplishment, to be simply beyond belief. Nowhere does one see in Rubens’ drawings arms that appear to have digested or acquired disconnected pieces of drapery of the type seen on the barber’s left arm and Delilah’s right arm in the Samson and Delilah ink sketch.
Above, Figs. 9a and 9b: Left, a detail (flipped) of the British Museum’s Rubens Venus Lamenting Adonis, and (right) a detail of the Samson and Delilah ink drawing.
Above, Figs. 10 and 11: Top, an indisputably autograph version of Rubens’ striking blond female head type, as seen on his The Raising of the Cross altarpiece, and, above, in a version of that type found in Delilah’s head on the National Gallery panel. Aside from uncertainties of drawing in the National Gallery head, the differences of paintwork and evidence of age in the two works is striking.
Above Fig. 12: The National Gallery Samson and Delilah, as reproduced in our Journal No. 21.
Above, Fig. 13: A detail of Frans Francken’s record of the original Rubens Samson and Delilah, as reproduced in our Journal No. 21.
Above, 14: Jacob Matham’s engraved copy in a late impression of c.1613 with added hair on Delilah’s neck (and here flipped) of the original Rubens Samson and Delilah, as produced in our journal.
Above, Fig. 15: A greyscale version of the Samson and Delilah ink sketch.
Above, Fig. 16: The British Museum’s Rubens c.1608-12 ink drawing Venus Lamenting Adonis.
Above, Fig. 17: Rubens’ study Nude Man Kneeling at the Museum Boymans, Rotterdam, which includes a drawing made separately of the right leg so as to show the foot and toes. This drawn study was made in preparation for Rubens’ painting of 1609, The Adoration of the Magi. It therefore shows that, as with Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross, Rubens returned from Italy saturated in Michelangelo and classical sculpture, pounding with energy, enthusiasm and inspiration, and altogether in no need of engaging in “experimentalism” of the kind fancifully attributed to wrongly upgraded works.
Julian Held (who accepted the Samson and Delilah ink sketch) wrote of the Nude Man Kneeling in his critical catalogue in Rubens ~ Selected Drawings:
“L. Burchard alone (Cat.Exh.London, 1950) seems to doubt the early date of this drawing, which has always been connected with the Adoration of the Magi of 1609 in the Prado (KdK.26)…there is every reason to assume that the drawing in Rotterdam, as well as the one in the Louvre, was made in 1609 when Rubens prepared the Madrid Adoration”
Held also accepted the Cincinnati oil modello/ricordo even when made aware that it was, unprecedentedly, painted on soft wood and not on an oak panel.
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Sistina Progress and Tate Transgressions

6 June 2014

The tide continues to run against supporters of the Vatican’s 1980s and 1990s restorations of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, but it looks as if the National Gallery’s technical conservation division might be about to attempt a last-stand defence of the proclaimed “Gloriously Recovered Colours” that were said to have resurrected a “New Michelangelo”. An exhibition at the Gallery, Making Colour (June 18 to September 17), is to examine the stuff of pigments, in the course of which… Michelangelo is to be enthroned among the great colourists Titian, Turner and Matisse. The manoeuvre shows signs of back-firing.

The Times’ art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston was healthily wary and alert to art world conservation politics when previewing the exhibition (“True colours: from Titian to Turner”, The Times, 31 May 2014):

“It is wilfully provocative to put a sculptor most famous for his pallid stone carvings on a list of the world’s greatest colourists. But his Sistine Chapel paintings – coming together as they do to create the single greatest pictorial scheme of the Italian High Renaissance – are among the most vibrant works of western art ever created. And after a recent and highly controversial restoration in which solvents were used to strip away half a millennium’s worth of accrued candle smoke and grime – and with it, many argue, the artist’s own shadowy subtleties – Michelangelo is being reassessed. Every book on this artist will have to be rewritten declare historians who marvel at the newly revealed drama of vivid colour. Others, however, remain not just sceptical but deeply dismayed at the irreversible damage that the cleaning has done.”

Even the restoration-friendly Art Newspaper carries seditious words on conservation and the Sistine Chapel in its current (June) issue. The spat that we reported between Bendor Grosvenor (“Art historian, dealer and broadcaster”, of the Philip Mould and Company gallery), and Martin Myrone (“Lead curator, pre-1800 British art at Tate Britain”), at last month’s Mellon Centre conference on connoisseurship and educated eyes, is re-run in the Art Newspaper under the heading: “Do we need a return to connoisseurship?” Dr Grosvenor’s latest comments on restoration and connoisseurship are, however, almost cryptically condensed. They read in full:

“I despair at seeing a picture over-cleaned through a conservator’s misunderstanding of how an artist worked, and the removal of an original glaze in the belief that it is either dirt or over-paint (the Sistine Chapel is the most depressing example of this).”

For the record, Dr Grosvenor’s Mellon Centre mea culpa of May 2nd was delivered as follows:

“And to show why I think that connoisseurship has such a valuable role to play in conservation, let me mention what is – let me end with what is probably the most single important painting in Western art history: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. I recently went to Rome and saw the ceiling for the first time, and as I was standing underneath it with my binoculars, being jostled this way and that by the crowds, I am afraid I got a terrible shock. I always used to think that critics of the Sistine Chapel restoration were being slightly myopic, or a little bit obsessive, and that trained restorers surely at this level were infallible, and couldn’t possibly damage pictures. But how wrong I was! The Sistine Chapel has been subjected to the most brutal over-cleaning imaginable. I don’t mean the exposure of the bright colours which we see looking so nice here, which most people fixate on, but the actual removal, through simple abrasion with solvents and a rough sponge, of the crucial darks and shadows which gave the ceiling so much meaning and form. Though we don’t have time to go into the debate here as to whether Michelangelo worked a secco on the ceiling or purely in fresco it seems to me that the whole approach to the cleaning of the ceiling was fundamentally misunderstood. But my contention is that if the restorers had, in fact, been real trained connoisseurs of Michelangelo’s work and were not just pure technicians and had a feeling and an eye for how Michelangelo intended his pictures to work they might not have made the same mistakes. And I don’t think I can really make a greater example of why connoisseurship matters. Thank you very much.”

The now linked battles over art restoration and connoisseurship are intensifying. (We are intrigued to know what Dr Grosvenor thinks of the Philip Mould gallery’s own picture cleaning methods. We do know that even when restorers aim to remove just “varnish”, real paint often comes off in the wash – as seen at Figs. 12 and 13. Would the risks not be all the greater when restorers are removing what they take to be “re-paints” from pictures in a hunt for better work underneath?) The museum world’s phoney “Culture Wars” between a supposed but now mythic Art Establishment (look at the recent membership of the Royal Academy and its Summer Show banner “Discover the new; discover the now”) and the Tate and State-pampered, edgy, head-banging contemporary art sensationalists is masking a fundamental art world schism that shows signs of turning ugly. Dr Grosvenor’s ideologically opposite number at both the Mellon Centre conference and the Art Newspaper forum, was Dr Martin Myrone – who happens to have hit the headlines. Tate Britain is mounting an exhibition of British folk art (see “Tate Britain rejects ‘elitist’ Old Masters as Turner makes way for thatched king”, the Times, 5 June 2014). Tate’s press release declared “British Folk Art will include surprising and diverse examples of British folk art, from rustic leather toby jugs to brightly coloured ships’ figureheads. The imposing larger than life-size thatched figure of King Alfred created by master thatcher, Jesse Maycock, in 1960 is one of the exhibition’s highlights.”

News of this exhibition almost caught us off-guard: when Tate spokespeople witter about “diverse” and “surprising” things, we instinctively reach for our cultural pistols, so to speak. But for once, the artefacts clearly are of interest (see Fig. 11) and worthy of attention. The bone cockerel shown in the Times is, in its wit, force and verve of plastic articulation, the superior of the over-sized blue cockerel presently occupying the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square – which itself is the best of a very long, very bad bunch of occupants. The straw man, likewise is, with its subtle, ominously Germaine Richier-like weight-shifting presence, more than an expressive sculptural match for, say, Sir Anthony Gormley, R. A.’s turgid “Angel of the North”. In short, we have no problem with the subject of the exhibition: quality is, as quality is found. No problem, that is, except this: the Tate is not parking this exhibition in Tate Modern’s vast halls or spinning it as an overdue and welcome blast against the enfeebled self-indulgence of today’s decayed fine art tradition. Instead, it treats this folk art as vindication of that very sector (because Tracey sews and Grayson potters) and is using it as yet another way of denigrating and humiliating odious, elitist Old Masters. (One more sign, perhaps, of the un-wisdom of permitting one man an unbroken, guaranteed-for-life, twenty-six years long reign of tenure at the Tate?)

Insofar as Dr Myrone’s dense sub-Marxian jargon in the Art Newspaper permits appraisal, it would seem that his antipathy to the notion and practice of connoisseurship is deep and visceral. As he puts it in the Art Newspaper:

“…Instead, contriving the resuscitation of connoisseurship on the basis that its worth is self-evident may be retrogressive, obscuring the stakes and investments actually brought into play as the different parties involved (academics, curators, dealers and so forth) establish their relative authority and their claims to public attention…Arguably, the only thing that now distinguishes connoisseurship as such is the element of economic and social purposefulness, its specific role as a way of talking about art and asserting aesthetic merit in terms which are readily translatable into economic value. The language of connoisseurship is simply more compliant to the needs of the market than other forms of historical discussion, which may be more open-ended and questioning, less certain about the judgement of value.

“Moreover, allowing the issues of authenticity and authorship to overshadow all the other issues and questions around historical works of art risks impoverishing our understanding and enjoyment of art’s rich histories and our ability to communicate this in genuinely open-minded, engaging and thought-provoking ways. There is nothing, I think, radical or outrageous in pointing out that connoisseurship has served to reinforce social difference and further material interests over history.There are numerous studies which testify to this. What would be absurd would be to claim that this has somehow stopped in the present age and that connoisseurship is now absolutely removed from struggles over cultural authority…”

What is so sad and alarming is that art professionals working in the most elevated art institutions should be so antipathetic to art as art. As for lucre, they are happy to pursue careers and draw salaries working among art as long as it can be made instrumental – serve some “enlightened” progressivist, consciousness-altering, society-levelling social force. This is sad because it is philistine. It fails to respond directly, unashamedly, unapologetically to art itself. It is dangerous because should such blinkered aversions gain an absolute upper hand, cultural repression would result. Dr Myrone is clearly a conscientious man with the interests of the common weal at heart. But if we were to deny contemplation of the highest, the best, and the most life-enriching art to all, we would gain nothing and simply add cultural and personal impoverishment to existing social ills.

This antipathy to connoisseurship must be defused. First, let us recognise that it really doesn’t necessarily come with snooty baggage or an eye on the financial main chance. That, at heart, it is a perfectly simple, decent and desirable matter; that it is comprised of nothing more odious than an ability to discern qualities that are of value. Second, that every art school lecturer used to recognise “the hand” of every student. We say “used to” because artistic hands are only evident when common cultural purposes are pursued through limited artistic means (as when all art students drew and drew from the same casts or figures). If scrunching paper and blinking lights count as art today then connoisseurship is already dead – and Dr Myrone can chill. He may, on the other hand, already be halfway to connoisseurship himself – in the Art Newspaper, he also writes:

“It is perfectly possible to talk about technique, authorship, authenticity and quality without recourse to the rubric of connoisseurship. Moreover, the application of skill in these various matters is part of the every day work of the art historian and curator, tending in practice to be rather modest and mundane. It is just part of the job.”

Well, which is it to be? If connoisseurship is being done routinely, albeit under a different name, what is the problem? And why should we not talk about the doing of it, on the assumption that some may be doing it better than others?

In art practice itself, every proper artist is a connoisseur, not least of his own work. Every teacher forms preferences and will see more of value in the productions of one student over another. That is connoisseurship in action. Nothing to be ashamed about. When teaching in art schools it is not unheard of to encounter a student from Eton or from the Old Kent Road. Proper professional concern for quality and talent puts the Old Etonian on a level playing field and at risk of being outclassed by the greater talent of someone from nowhere. Dr Myrone complains, as reported in the Times, “We have rested much more on the idea of a canon of great masters, a Hogarth-to-Turner story…it is a fairly narrow kind of canon. A select few artists have been elevated, but there is a whole world of making and physical production which is really exciting.” And so there is – but what humbug: narrow canons? How many working illustrators, film animators or car designers win Turner Prizes or get elected to the Royal Academy? Is everything really of equal value to the Tate? Are all avant gardists of the same merit? On what basis, then, are the Turner Prizes awarded? If someone scrubs a painting and features come away, as was the case with the group of lads holding a ladder at the top of Fig’s. 7 and 8, would it be a good and desirable thing if art historians lacked the critical visual ability to notice – or the courage to speak out? Dr Grosvenor has at last cottoned on to the menace – is Dr Myrone still not up to it? Has he not yet come across the excellent post on Grumpy Art Historian which carries this helpfuly clarifying comment:

“Why cannot the art historian emulate [the archaeologist] and treat all images simply as artefacts of a given culture? I think the answer is simple. Such pretended scientific objectivity would rapidly lead to the suicide of our subject. On a purely practical level the archaeologist is saved from the agony of selection by the relative scarcity of his evidence. We are in a very different position. Once we decided not to make any distinctions between painting ceilings or, for that matter, assembly halls, we would be so swamped with material that Michelangelo’s or Wren’s creations would be lost in an ever-swelling card index”

Michael Daley

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Above, Figs. 1, 2, 3 and 4: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Libyan Sibyl, as seen before and after restoration in colour (Figs. 1 and 2), and in greyscale (Figs. 3 and 4).
Above, top, Fig. 5: The Sistine Chapel ceiling as seen after cleaning in the 2006 Scala book The Vatican Museums ~ Masterpieces from the Incomparable Papal Collections. The book carries this statement-in-brief of the enduring official account of the restoration: “It took nine years from 1980 to 1989, for the restorers to rid the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the accumulated grime of centuries to recover the original bright colouring, allowing us to enjoy these extraordinary figures once more.”
Above, Fig. 6: A detail, as recorded in a large-scale lithograph of the entire ceiling that was printed in twenty-one colours on two sheets of paper. The lithograph measures 1,027 x 470mm and was made from an 1853 drawing by Pratesi by C. Köpper, under the art direction of L. Gruner and supervision of J. Storch at Winckelmann and Sons, Berlin.
(The lithograph is reproduced in Michael Twyman’s stunning A history of Chromolithography as described in our previous post.)
The testimony of this large-scale work which faithfully recorded the Ceiling’s then chromatic and tonal relationships is immensely valuable. Partly because it shows all of Michelangelo’s upper walls and ceiling frescoes simultaneously on the same plane and without any perspectival distortion (and, thus, in a manner that was inconceivable photographically), but more especially because it captured the hierarchy of tones and colours which progressed from the darker more subdued lower sections (seen in this image in its outer parts) toward the brightly lit ‘windows’ which cut through the illusionistic architecture and permitted the biblical scenes to be set in the sky or out in the wider world. This single image gives the lie to the original claims of the restorers – and their once-numerous supporters – that the shading in Michelangelo’s frescoes had not been a deliberate artistic intention, but was simply the arbitrary consequence of accumulations of soot and varnish. That claim was always preposterous – but it explains why, even to this day, some supporters of the restoration cling to the once-confident and near-universal belief that the “transforming” (i.e. artistically devastating) effects of the cleaning constituted an almost God-given revelation. The ‘political’ need for this restoration to be defended at all costs has inflicted considerable theological collateral damage as well as immense artistic damage.
Above, Figs. 7 and 8: A section of the upper-right corner of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement wall, before cleaning (top) and after cleaning (above). Again, looking at the areas and the scale of the shading that was lost here, makes clear how absurd was the claim that Michelangelo had originally painted as as in the cleaned state at Fig. 8, and, then, centuries worth of grime had conspired to alter Michelangelo’s painting so as to bring it to the condition see at Fig. 7.
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: The head of a boy seen in the Sacrifice of Noah scene on the ceiling, before cleaning (top) and after cleaning above.
Above, Fig. 11: Part of the Times’ coverage of Tate Britain’s new exhibition “British folk Art” (“Tate Britain rejects ‘elitist’ Old Masters as Turner makes way for thatched king”).
Above, Fig. 12: Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate since 1988, (as drawn by Michael Daley for the cover of Jackdaw No 5, February 2001: “Serota a dangerous dictator?”).
A RECENT RESTORATION “DISCOVERY”: WHAT COMES OFF IN THE VARNISH REMOVAL WASH
Above, Figs. 12 and 13: A painting – View of Scheveningen Sands, by Hendrick van Anthonissen – as seen (top) before “varnish removal” at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the art conservation branch of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and after cleaning (above).
View of Scheveningen Sands is on permanent display in the Fitzwilliam Museum in the recently refurbished gallery of the Dutch Golden Age, which reopened on 3 June.
Cambridge University’s Varsity website reports that whilst removing the varnish from this painting, the restorer, postgraduate student Shan Kuang, discovered that “a figure started appearing standing directly on the horizon line [of the sea].” And then, soon after, the fin of the whale was discovered, being at first thought to be the sail of a ship. However, eventually, the body of the stranded whale was fully revealed…and another glorious restoration discovery and Good News Story had been made and announced to the world.
…AND, YET ANOTHER RESTORATION DISCOVERY:
“Paris Street; Rainy Day” – now not!
The Wall Street Journal reports that The Art Institute of Chicago’s six-month restoration of Gustave Caillebotte’s 1877 painting revealed surprises. A previous restoration left the sky “duller and more one-dimensional [sic]”. As a result of the varnish removal – and the removal of what was taken to be an earlier restorer’s repaint in the sky – curators now believe Caillebotte is likely to be viewed more as an Impressionist and less a traditional realist. Moreover, the restorer said that Caillebotte had not (as had been thought) depicted a generic rainy day in this bustling street scene near the Gare St. Lazare. Instead, he had had in mind “a precise moment right after the rain has stopped and the sun is trying to break through” — which is why everyone in the picture continues to walk around with umbrellas up. To the present restorer, this newly recovered state of the painting constitutes “the kind of specificity that was a hallmark of the Impressionists”. Another great conservation-led advance for scholarship, then.
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Ghosts in the Lecture Room: Connoisseurship and the Making, Appraising, Replicating and Undoing of Art’s Images

18 May 2014

On the 3rd of May, the Mellon Centre hosted a lively conference on the divisive subject of art connoisseurship – “The Educated Eye?”, now available on Webinar (http://new.livestream.com/accounts/7709097/connoisseurshipnow). Yesterday, a three-day congress opened at the Hague on “Authentication in Art” (7-9 May) carrying the subtitle “What happens when the painting you are buying, selling, investigating, exhibiting, insuring – Turns Out to be a Fake or a (Re)Discovery…” A small ground-breaking exhibition with bearing on the two conferences (“Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess” – see below and Figs. 1 and 2) is running at the Soane Museum until May 31st.

Curating the Future

The question mark in the Mellon Centre’s conference title, reflects persisting antipathies to connoisseurship, which practice/discipline/pose nonetheless shows signs of rehabilitation. The conference proved admirably even-handed “ideologically” but somewhat constricted in its composition and terms of engagement.

The first speaker, Dr Stephen Deuchar, a former director of Tate Britain who has followed a former chairman of the Tate’s board (David Verey) into the Art Fund’s management, might be taken to represent the official modernist/progressivist museum world establishment. In his paper, “Connoisseurship Now: Some Thoughts”, Dr Deuchar disclosed that the Art Fund no longer confines itself to helping museums buy great works of art that might otherwise be lost to the nation, and now, for example, has contributed “generously” towards something involving the conceptualist Martin Creed (who turns lights on and off), even though no object will be acquired. Gifting this munificence to the Tate required Deuchar (and, perhaps, his chairman?) to step aside from the trustees’ deliberations.

There were two problems with Deuchar’s position. First, in espousing a Connoisseurship of The New-and-the-Forthcoming, the curator effectively operates blind in bandit territory. As the National Gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, has pointed out, it takes time to evaluate new art, we cannot yet know how it will compare with other art that will shortly follow, or with other yet-to-be-seen contemporary art. Second, his position is old hat and inadvisable: in the 1960s and the 1970s critics championed contemporary art not on quality but on the degree to which it “challenged” existing art practices. So-called “New Activities” were heavily promoted by such critics and curators as Richard Cork and Sir Nicholas Serota of the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, the Whitechapel Gallery and, for the last twenty-six years, the Tate. With the dismantling of quality as the principal criterion of judgement, and with the aid of the state-funded, respectability-conferring Arts Council, new activities soon became official activities, leaving most fine art practices and practitioners marginalised. Few noticed that “fine art” had cut itself off from related design and craft activities, and from its own history, to become a cosseted licensed playground where rules were the property of “artists” who played by no rules.

Culturally determinist Marxist art historians (like John Berger and, for a while, Peter Fuller), had gone further; had become more mystical and taken to praising art that they judged to have “anticipated the future”. Insofar as art might ever be said to do such a thing, it could only be seen to have done so in retrospect. When asked to comment on the significance of the French Revolution, the connoisseur of history, Mao Tse Tung, replied, “It’s too soon to say”.

The New Art History

The Mellon conference pitted (trade) chalk against (museum) cheese with Dr Bendor Grosvenor of the Philip Mould gallery and Dr Martin Myrone, a Tate curator and champion of the New Art History which pursues the socially signifcant in favour of the aesthetically desirable (“The Limit of Connoisseurship”). In the course of his conceptually suave paper, “Why Connoisseurship Matters”, Dr Grosvenor made two startling disclosures. First, having just seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, he now appreciates that the critics he had held to be “myopic” – were right all along: Michelangelo’s work has indeed been ruined. Second, that he stands behind restorers to prevent them from destroying glazes on Van Dyck paintings. (See Figs. 12a to 15.)

Dr Myrone declared allegiance to the New Art History where the social has routed the aesthetic. The resulting knock-about reminded this observer of days on the New Left in the late 1960s when Kim Howells, a rebellious Hornsey College of Art student (but later a New Labour government junior minister), wanted all potentially saleable object-based art to be outlawed – unlike the “democratising” mass medium of TV in which he was dabbling. When we asked Howells how he regarded Goya’s Horrors of War etchings, he replied that, although in sympathy with the works’ politics, the fact that they were printed on paper, “which is a capitalist commodity”, meant that they, too, would have to go. Dr Howells later grew up artistically and, as a visiting minister to the Tate, left a rude comment on a Turner Prize exhibition. Soon after, he lost his place in government.

Parts and Wholes

The afternoon session paired Spike Bucklow, the Hamilton Kerr Institute’s Senior Research Scientist (“Connoisseurship, technical knowledge and conservation”), and the British Museum’s head of prints and drawings, Hugo Chapman (“Dodging the label connoisseur from Christie’s to the British Museum”). Mr Chapman told how, when working in trade (Christie’s), he had been advised to describe himself as “an expert” rather than a connoisseur. It seems that the public can more easily forgive mistakes made by the former. Chapman told a story about a librarian who once hid a key drawing from an artist’s box when showing it to a scholar, and then, when duly reviewing the scholar’s book, professed himself astonished that no mention had been made of the said drawing.

The Hamilton Kerr conservator opted to address small things because “fragments are easier than wholes”, while the embarrassed-connoisseur attempted (more sensibly) to make artistic sense of the whole effects of drawings, and to understand, thereby, how they were executed. Dr Bucklow first showed how eloquently cracks on paintings can testify to a picture’s age, medium, underlying support, country of origin and so on. Having thus demonstrated an evidently usefully diagnostic tool (a kind of Connoisseurship of Cracks), he dismantled his own edifice by demonstrating how the vagaries of individual works’ histories and compositions so complicate the system as to render it effectively useless.

Mr Chapman, while conceding the very great difficulties of making sensible identifications of authorship in drawings, described how he tried to establish Michelangelo’s authorship of a drawing by considering its overall relationships and effects. In a nod towards Myrone’s position, he conceded that because many works in collections are ephemera, it would be futile to attempt to establish authorship of every piece of paper, even though such works often have great social significance and interest.

Salvage Operation

In the final paper (“New Connoisseurship, Old Europe, and the Future of Art history”), Professor Liz Prettejohn, head of York University’s Department of Art History, made a spirited attempt to retain a still-vital discipline that might be free of the more toxic ingredients of past connoisseurship practices. Prof. Prettejohn’s credentials in this respect were well established by a demonstration of her undergraduate response to a formal analysis test set by an old-style connoisseur professor. Prettejohn showed a Rembrandt etching about which students who had been reared exclusively on the study of modern art had been able to volunteer only that it was “old” and “probably Victorian”.

A Missing Link

This constructive, even illuminating, conference had two constricting deficiencies. First, connoisseurship’s purpose was largely confined to determining authorship, with, Dr Grosvenor’s startling asides apart, no consideration given to the urgent need to appraise restorers’ often radically transforming changes – an unforgivable lapse given that unsound attributions can always be corrected, while bad restorations are forever. Second, no artists contributed to this conference. While all speakers addressed the problem of producing an Educated Eye, none seemed aware that nothing educates the eye faster than producing or copying art. With artists, critical faculties were developed in academies and art schools by doing rather than by reading about or simply looking at. Listening to conscientious people grappling with the difficulties of connoisseurship while seemingly indifferent to or ignorant of art practices and blasé about restoration injuries, left an impression of a profession viewing fundamental problems through the wrong end of a telescope.

It is no accident that artists have initiated most of the great picture-cleaning controversies. Those who create art best identify injuries to it. The present state might easily be corrected: it would take small resources to have student scholars make brief drawn copies of the works they study, thereby appreciating art’s vital mind/eye/hand connections. Appreciation and discrimination may be of the theoretical essence in connoisseurship, but taken alone, without knowledge of and engagement with art’s practices, they leave practitioners susceptible to the traditional charge of being pretentious poseurs.

Drawn to Distinguish

Hugo Chapman’s sound quest to grasp the logic of the whole triggered theoretical and practical thoughts. Drawing provides the best route into questions of connoisseurship, being the most private, direct and likely entirely autograph form of image-making. If trainee art historians were required to make different types of drawing, even for brief periods, it would be incalculably helpful in establishing connections between historical artefacts and their original purpose.

Students might, for example, practice drawing as Rodin did with his famous late quick figure studies – never taking their eyes off the model while enclosing a complete figure with a swift continuous contour. Rodin did so, he explained, to fix in his memory the unique total effect of the body – its gestalt – and to test his own grasp of the miracles he had observed. The means required for drawing are miniscule: an American newspaper illustrator who illustrated first night performances of plays concealed a small pad and a very short pencil in a jacket pocket so that he could make discretely drawn notes of the actors to use later to prepare his finished illustrations.

By helping to fix images in the mind, drawing is the very opposite of taking photographs, which practice can evade thought and appraisal. Rodin once reproached himself for having failed to appreciate that the most important part of a head lay not in any of its individual features but in the manner in which they were all fused into a whole. In perverse contrast, the decision to restore the entire cycle of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes was made not on any analysis of the whole and its internal relationships but on the basis of brief chemical tests made on a single lunette (the sections of wall above the arched windows in the Chapel) that happened to be within the reach of restorers who were working on minor frescoes. Misplaced faith in the validity of those “scientific” tests (of an insufficiently tested cleaning agent – it was later discovered to have etched the surfaces of stone, producing corrugations that scattered light, rather than to have cleaned them) permitted the Vatican’s curators and restorers to launch a cleaning programme on the entire fresco scheme with uniform and pre-determined applications of a single, ferocious stone-cleaning material (a soda, ammonia and detergent cocktail) even though, to those with eyes to see, the lunettes had played a subdued and subordinate role to the ceiling proper in Michelangelo’s grand scheme. (See Figs. 4 to 9.)

There is a another way

By all accounts, the finest, least controversial, most sensitive picture restorer working in Britain in the 20th century was the German émigré, Dr. Johannes Hell. His method was utterly respectful of the whole and overall effects of pictures. Dr Hell had trained first as a fine artist and then taken a doctorate on Rembrandt’s drawings. He deplored restorers’ practice of cutting “windows” through (assumed) dirt and varnish until bright colours and light tones are exposed (as at Fig. 7). He worked overall on the entire surface of a picture with the mildest solvents so that no optically and conceptually deranging relationships could emerge. His slow method was made slower by frequently “resting” a picture to give it time to air out, so that no corrosive solvents might accumulate within the paint layers. With Hell’s method in mind, it can be painful to consider the haste in which today’s restorers procede with their swabs, acetone, scalpels and “windows” when in pursuit of more authentic and original paint underneath a picture’s surface.

Connoisseurship in action

We take a degree of pride in the fact that the (proper) exercising of connoisseurship has been alive and flourishing within this organisation for over two decades. From its inception in 1992, Artwatch has deployed aesthetic discrimination and visual analysis in demonstrations of injuries made during “conservation treatments”. Specifically and in terms of methodology, we have done so by the correlation of photographic records of the pre and post-restoration states of works. (This website was custom-made to carry directly corresponding images side by side or in continuous vertical sequences so as to facilitate the most directly revealing visual comparisons.) In the Witt Library, we see photographic records that do not just assist the making of attributions but that also record the progressive debilitation of paintings over successive restorations. We notice that the difference between an authentic work and a close copy can be far smaller than that between an authentic work seen before and after a bad restoration. Dr Grosvenor really did not need to wait until he could join the scrum in the Sistine Chapel to appreciate that Michelangelo’s work has been ruined – he needed only to study the countless pre and post-restoration photographic records that we have carried on this site and had described earlier at length in the 1993 (James Beck and Michael Daley) book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”.

The nature of evidence

Defenders of restorations often say that they cannot be judged on photographic evidence. In other regards, art dealers have great faith in the veracity of photographs – they will bid online on the strength of a single photograph. Bernard Berenson preferred to examine Michelangelo’s ceiling by looking at large photographs in books rather than by eye when craning his neck in the chapel. We should be clear on two points: there are no good grounds for disregarding photographic proofs of restoration injuries; the kind of evaluative test that Prof. Prettejohn’s old style connoisseur teacher devised for undergraduates might just as profitably be applied to analysing the differences between pre and post-restoration conditions. (See “An Old Style Connoisseur Test for Undergraduate Art Historians:” opposite.)

For all the social alertness of the New Art Historians, little comment has been made on the major organisational and “ideological” changes within the museum world over the last half century or so. In our view, the failure of scholars and curators to heed artists’ complaints stems from the fact that they have allowed themselves to become dependent on the technical expertise of the very many restorers who have become institutionally embedded throughout the museum world. It is now restorers not painters who pontificate on the making of paintings. It is they who insist that photographic records of their own “treatments” may not be held up and used in evidence against their actions.

Speaking generally, as an organisation, we are bemused by a profession that uses photographs for all manner of curatorial, scholarly and critical ends except for the indentification of restoration injuries. Scholars now routinely revise their own professional scholarly accounts in order to bring them into line with restorers’ latest, often radical, transformations. In the published accounts of restorers and curators alike, nothing ever counts as an injury – every change is presented with drum rolls as a “discovery”. Whole steamships, Vermeer necklaces and sheep can go missing without an art historical murmur or any ruffling of connoisseurs’ feathers. Even in terms of attributions, Artwatch has been pro-active on the connoisseurship front.

The misappliance of science and early calls for the the return of connoisseurship

While protesting since the early 1990s against the cult of “scientific” conservation and its disparagement of “subjective” aesthetic judgements, we have throughout commended a return to proper and rigorous applications of connoisseurship. In the October 1994 Art Review article “How to Make a Michelangelo”, we suggested that “The fact that our scholars and technical experts flit quite so promiscuously through time and space might suggest uncertainty of connoisseurship and ability to ‘read’ paintings”. Three years later, in connection with another National Gallery attribution, we wrote: “In recent years the art of connoisseurship has become entangled with the scientific analysis of paintings. Problems of attribution, once resolved by the educated ‘eyes’ of individuals, are increasingly seen as the property of interdisciplinary teams of curators, restorers and scientists who enjoy the technical, financial and professional support afforded by large museums. But how sound are the new proceedures – and how reliable are the published accounts given of them?” (Art Review, July/August 1997, “Is this really a Rubens?”).

In truth, it might fairly be said that the campaigning essence of Artwatch has been a constant assertion of the primary value of visual connoisseurship – see also, “Is Michelangelo’s Entombment in the National Gallery by Michelangelo?” by James Beck in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, CXXXVIII, 1996. We have devoted two entire ArtWatch UK journals to critiques, successively formulated and advanced by the painter/scholars Euphrosyne Doxiadis and Dr Kasia Pisarek, of the National Gallery’s Rubens “Samson and Delilah” attribution. The title of the last book (2006) by ArtWatch’s founder, the late Prof. James Beck, was “From Duccio to Raphael: Connoisseurship in Crisis”. It received few reviews – and no mention at the Mellon Centre conference.

A connoisseur of Ephemera

No mention was made, either, of a remarkable new work of scholarship published last year by the British Library and the Oak Knoll Press in the USA – Michael Twyman’s “A history of chromolithography ~ printed colour for all” – which we first encountered in the Institute of Conservation’s Chantry Library, Oxford. The ingenious lengths to which printers went in the pre-photographic era to replicate any image, and all things in the world, in reliable colour on multiple, co-ordinated slabs of stone is truly astonishing to behold (see Fig. 3). It is impossible to exaggerate either the illuminating usefulness of this major, beautifully produced book, or the sheer delightfulness of its immense pictorial riches. For those who might feel that a major tome on a history of a printing method might make for dull or excessively technical reading, we would urge, “think again”: here are to be found ephemera (printed bills, advertising cards and the likes) alongside early pioneering hand-drawn attempts faithfully to produce such elusive epically heroic fine art subjects as paintings by Turner and Michelangelo. The faithfulfulness of the attempts to replicate the values of the most hallowed artists summoned applications of great sensibility and powers of aesthetic discrimination. Here, the connoisseur, the scholar, the social historian, the technical historian and the lover of fine drawing and colouring might all feast together, in awe at the dedication, the talent, the artistic insight found in an unsung publishing trade.

We were delighted, for example, to find so full an account of the production of Robert Carrick’s 30 x 44 inches 1852 chromolithographic copy of Turner’s “ Rockets and Blue Lights…” made in no fewer than fourteen colour separations (see Fig. 9). That faithfully made, expensive and then state of the art record (“the only perfect reproduction of a picture ever issued” – as it was claimed to have been in 1900) testifies indisputably to the destruction of the principal boat in the painting on which we have commented a number of times, most recently on the obtuse (or brazen) presentation of this wrecked picture as a jewel in Turner’s crown – see “From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures”.

Even more importantly, there is also reproduced, in its entirety, a massive 1,027 x 470 mm (40 by 27 inches) faithful cartography-like, on-the-flat, full colour image of 1852-53, that simultaneously depicts the entire curving geometries of Michelangelo’s combined ceiling and upper walls decorations (see Figs. 4 to 8). We had never before seen this work in its entirety. It reproduces every single figure (there are over three hundred) and architectural motif Michelangelo depicted. Most preciously of all, this encyclopaedic record testifies to the hierarchy of values within which Michelangelo situated his images.

By capturing the tonal and chromatic logic of the whole, not the fragment, of Michelangelo’s murals, this hand-drawn lithograph corroborates precisely the written testimony of the painter Charles Heath Wilson who examined the ceiling on a special scaffold in the 19th century. All parts of this great pictorial ensemble were not equal in their treatment. The “outer” section (as here seen at Figs. 4 and 5) was the semi-circular sections of painting made around the windows on the upper walls (the lunettes). They were the darkest passages of painting. They contained in their illusionistic recesses (see Fig. 7) depictions of the ancestors of Christ. This dark band of human figures set Michelangelo’s work apart from the wall paintings below – as did his great escalation of scale in his figures. Far from being an arbitrary but precisely situated zone of dirt, as the Vatican authorities preposterously and against all scholarly records claimed, this dark zone served aesthetically and symbolically as a kind of visual plinth for the even more monumental figures and the Divine Events depicted above on the ceiling. The next row comprised an architectural screen against which Michelangelo’s stupendous giant prophets and sibyls were set and relieved in the brilliant cinematic, shadows-casting light we have previously described. Above them, set in the sky glimpsed through illusionistic apertures in ceiling’s architectural scheme are the biblical scenes and the depictions of God Himself – Whose restoration injuries we have also chronicled. Today, by the miracles of our technology, we can see and move around the entire, now restoration-ruined surfaces of the Sistine Chapel, but the Vatican will not release a TV film made in the 1960s of the pre-restored state. Recent technical advances have carried us into a world where it is possible to produce perfect facsimiles not only of images but of three-dimensional objects and, even architectural spaces and forms.

CODA

The small exhibition currently showing at the Soane Museum shows three-dimensional realisations of graphic inventions of Piranesi by the foundation Factum Arte. A full size replica made by the foundation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt was unveiled this week. It was reported by Peter Aspden in the Financial Times “Fit for a king: Tutankhamun’s replica burial chamber”(see Fig.). Such technical capacities for replication raise issues that we will explore in coming posts. This fertile new territory is one for which scholars and connoisseurs will be ill-prepared to assess for as long as they ignore the mistreatment of unique and historic art objects by technicians who transform them into synthetic, polished replications of their (assumed) original autograph states. This website launched in 2010 with a discussion on authenticity in art and music (“The New Relativisms and the Death of ‘Authenticity'”). It did so in response to a restorer’s imposition (in new but deceivingly aged and cracked paint) of a piece of computer-generated “virtual reality” onto Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Connoisseurship is more urgently needed today than ever.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Top, a page of a review by Daisy Dunn (April issue of Standpoint magazine) of the Factum Arte “Diverse Maniere: Piranesi, Fantasy and Excess” exhibition at the Soane Museum, London, showing the gilt seashell-based chair that has been realised from an engraved design by Piranesi. At Fig. 2, above, we see a preliminary computer generated realisation of another Piranesi design – for a coffee pot – that was subsequently replicated in three dimensions and is now on show at the Soane Museum.
Above, Fig. 3: An illustration from Michael Twyman’s “A history of Chromolithography” (p. 452), showing a 1904 photograph (Modern Lithographer, vol 1, no. 4, April 1904) of printers at Messrs. W. H. Smith & Son’s chromolithographic establishment, London, moving a lithographic stone weighing about half a ton.
Above, figs. 4 and 5: Top, a detail, and, above, the whole of a lithograph printed, probably, in twenty-one colours on two sheets of paper, showing the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling and adjoining sections of the chapel’s upper walls and windows. The lithograph measures 1,027 x 470mm and was made from an 1853 drawing by Pratesi by C. Köpper under the art direction of L. Gruner and supervision of J. Storch at Winckelmann and Sons, Berlin.
The lithograph is reproduced in Michael Twyman’s “A history of Chromolithography”, with the image running across the book’s centrefold as seen here at Fig. 5.
Above, Figs. 6a and 6b: Left, the section of wall and ceiling in the Sistine Chapel that adjoins the wall of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (here seen the thin dark strip on the right of the photograph). In this photograph, taken before the last restoration, we still see the dark zone of the lunettes which set Michelangelo’s frescoes apart from those on the walls below, much as had been reproduced in C. Köpper’s 1852-53 lithograph shown above at Figs. 4 and 5. Fig. 6b: The photograph on the right was taken after the cleaning of the lunettes and the ceiling, but before the cleaning of the Last Judgement. We see here how the former clear pictorial articulation between Michelangelo’s wall painting and that by others below it has been erased. At this stage, the not-yet-cleaned Last Judgement, seen in the bottom right-hand corner, is glaringly out of tone with the rest of Michelangelo’s work.
Above, Fig. 7: A test cleaning strip made on a lunette, to show the effects of the AB57 cleaning gel when left in place for varying lengths of time.
Above, Fig. 8: One of the ancestors of Christ depicted by Michelangelo on the lunettes (the sections of wall that surround the tops of the Sistine Chapel’s arched windows), as recorded before cleaning (left) and after cleaning (right).
This photo-comparison was one of a number of such published in a December 1989 article, “SALVIAMO ALMENO il Giudizio Universale”, in the art magazine Oggi e Domani by the sculptor Venanzo Crocetti. As a young man Crocetti had worked on a restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the 1930s and was one of the earliest critics of the last restoration. His photo-comparison shows the inversions of relative pictorial value that occurred; where what was once darker-than, becomes lighter-than, and vice versa; when, if the work had simply been cleaned, the lights would have become lighter and the darks would have become darker. Such inversions of pictorial value only arise when paint is lost. And, yet, in defence of this cleaning, one of the co-directors of the restoration, the Vatican Museums’ curator, Fabrizio Mancinelli, claimed that his cleaning had led to the “surprising conclusion that the kind of suggestive painting by shadows for which Michelangelo was admired until a few years ago was essentially the product of candle-smoke and still more of glue varnishes”.
Above, Fig. 9: Turner’s painting Rockets and Blue Lights as reproduced in Michael Twyman’s “A history of Chromolithography” (p. 592). This image shows the final stage of proofs (the strip to the left contains one of a pair of registration marks showing fourteen intersections that co-ordinated the printing of the fourteen colour stages) of a copy of the painting made by Robert Carrick and printed by Day and Son in London, 1852. The image is 760 x 565mm.
It was unusual for important, original works of art to be brought to the chromolithographers’ studios because of the obvious dangers. Michael Twyman reveals in his chapter “Visuals and the Visualiser” that in the case of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights, this was done by William Day of the firm Day & Son because the printing and publishing house wished to make a reproduction that would serve as a demonstration of the firm’s capabilities in chromolithography.
Above, Figs. 10 and 11: Top, the illustration by Jenny Nyström for the cover of “Snövit: Barnens Julkalender”, as on the book’s 15th edition in 1914. Above, left column: top, the “Snövit: Barnens Julkalender” cover, in its 1914, 15th edition, when chromolithographed in five colours with mechanical tints; above, detail. Above, right column, top, the “Snövit: Barnens Julkalender” cover, in its 1917, 18th edition, when printed photo-mechanically, in relief and in three colours; above, detail
Both illustrations as reproduced in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography.
An Old Style Connoisseur test for undergraduate art historians:
Compare the two sets of details of Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle, (shown left before cleaning, and, right, after cleaning) in terms of: a) their relative vivacity as image and as a portrayal of the subject; b) their tonal gradations; and, c) their colouring.
Above, Figs. 12a and 12b, top, and 13a and 13b, above: Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle. The details on the left are as reproduced in the Tate Gallery’s 1992 catalogue to the 1992-1993 exhibition organised by Andrew Wilton, “The Swagger Portrait”. The details on the right are from the catalogue to the Tate Gallery’s 2009 exhibition, “Van Dyck in Britain”.
Above, Figs. 14 and 15: Van Dyck’s portrait Lucy Percy, Countess of Carlisle, top, detail as in the Tate Gallery’s catalogue to the 1992 “The Swagger Portrait” exhibition; above, the same detail from the Tate Gallery’s 2009 exhibition, “Van Dyck in Britain”.
The Continuing Questions for Undergraduates here are: e) Are the drawing and the modelling in the flesh areas clearer and stronger on the top detail or that immediately above? f) Could the removal of discoloured varnish alone account for the dramatic chromatic change in the fabric of the dress? g) Was any other colour than blue discernable in the dress as seen before restoration? h) Has any loss of velatura occured in the course of the cleaning? i) Are all the changes that have occured in this painting attributable to a straightforward removal of surface dirt and discoloured varnish? j) Can we expect the painting to return to its previous subtlety and richness of colouring – and strength of modelling – when its present varnish discolours?
A brilliant tour de force:
Above, Fig. 16: “Brilliant flambé vase”, plate 46 of S. W. Bushell’s Oriental ceramic art (New York, 1897), lithographed by C. Thurwanger, August 1891, and printed in twenty-eight colours by L. Prang & Co., Boston. 330 x 212mm. (As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 547, and by courtesy of The Winthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.)
Above, Fig. 17: A plate from A history of chromolithography (p. 609), showing two proof stages of the lithograph shown at Fig. 16. The upper image here shows part of the key-line drawing made to guarantee the perfect registration of all twenty-eight coloured stages of the printing. The key-line drawing contains two rows of spaces to record the individual colours used to make the image. The lower image shows the final proof when all twenty-eight colours have been printed. It also contains the record of every individual colour and tint used in the row of colour tablets, and below that is seen the successive build-up of colouring as each stage is completed.
Above, Fig. 18: The Lithographic artists’ room of the Dangerfield Company’s works, St Albans. From L. Gray Gower, “How a chromolithograph is printed”, Strand Magazine, February-July1904 (as published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 417).
Above, Fig. 19: Emilio L. Tafani, oil painting of a lithographic studio. Probably the painting exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, 1944 as “The mystery of the craft”. 785 x 1,140mm. (Courtesy Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading). As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of Chromolithography, p. 557.
An Original Drawing Redrawn – and how!
Above, Fig. 20: An original drawing for “Tokyo white figure”, plate 96 of S. W. Bushell’s Oriental ceramic art (New York, 1897), signed “Jas & C Callowhill” and marked up with trim marks and outline colour tablets. (Courtesy Walters Art Museum, Baltimore). As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 548.
Above, Fig. 21: “Tokyo white figure”, plate 96 of S. W. Bushell’s Oriental ceramic art (New York, 1897), printed in about nineteen colours by L. Prang, Boston. Image 363 x 182mm. As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 548.
Above, Figs. 22 and 23: Details of a printed key-line drawing and the finished chromolithograph for a Christmas Card, designed by Rebecca Coleman and printed in sixteen colours by Raphael Tuck & Sons,1881. Both 45 x 68mm. As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 565.
Death to world imperialism:
Above, Fig. 24: Dimitrii Moor, “Death to world imperialism”, published by the Vyacheslav Polonsky’s Litzidat (Literature and Publishing department of the revolutionary Military Administration of the Soviet Republic), c. 1919. Printed in five colours from ink-drawn stones, with stippling. Sheet 1,100 x 748mm. (Courtesy David King Collection, London). As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 279.
Above, Figs. 25 and 26: Histoire des quatre fils Aymon (Paris: H. Launette, 1883), illustrated by Eugène Grasset. The plates made and printed by Charles Gillot using the “gillotage” process patented by his father, Firmin Gillot. Second title-page printed in four colours. Page 280 x 227. As published in Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography, p. 321.
Above, Figs. 27a and 27b: The cover wrapper of Michael Twyman’s A history of chromolithography
Below, Fig. 28: The FT Weekend Magazine (Supplement of the year), April 19/20 2014, carrying Peter Aspden’s report “Fit for a King”.
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How the Metropolitan Museum of Art gets hold of the world’s most precious and vulnerable treasures

13 April 2014

An exhibition of stained glass that has been removed from “England’s historic Canterbury Cathedral” has arrived at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, after being shown at the Getty Museum in California. The show (“Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters”) is comprised of six whole windows from the clerestory of the cathedral’s choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. These single monumental seated figures anticipate in their grandeur and gravity the prophets depicted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They are the only surviving parts of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, once one of the most comprehensive stained-glass cycles known in art history. (See Figs. 1 – 5.)

The Met boasts that this exhibition of “Masterpieces of Romanesque art…represents the first time they have left the cathedral precincts since their creation in 1178-80”. Who, then, gave permission for the loan of such fragile, precious and architecturally integral material?

The New York Times says of the exhibition that it “Seemed to have been beamed down from on high”, when it undoubtedly had been flown and vibrated down from on high in an aeroplane. The museum world repeatedly offers assurances that modern air transport is perfectly safe for moving treasures around, even though, as the world now well appreciates, aeroplanes do sometimes crash or disappear. Aside from in-flight hazards, works of art get taken by roads to and from airports where they disappear from curatorial view and supervision into high-security cargo depots, sometimes being injured by forklift trucks, and the like, in the process.

The bureaucrats of “Glasgow Life” who administer Glasgow’s museums recently argued (successfully) in Scotland’s Parliament that, as Sir William Burrell had permitted loans from his bequeathed collection within Britain, and as the most dangerous part of lending works is dismantling them in one place and reassembling them in another, overturning his prohibition on foreign travels would be no more dangerous than moving works within Britain. The bureaucrats were similarly successful in overturning Burrell’s prohibition on lending certain categories of fragile works at all, within or outside Britain, such as glass, tapestries and pastels, by arguing that advances in modern packaging skills meant that even the most fragile work could now safely be moved subject to prior conservation examinations.

With the Burrell Collection we know precisely who will carry responsibility for any future travel injuries or losses but with the Canterbury treasures, who at the Cathedral (or in the Church) would take responsibility were these windows to be harmed or lost during their trans-Atlantic travels?

Were these windows insured for their travels, and, if so, what price was put on them?

Has the Church received any payment for this loan, and, if so, how much?

Were the six windows which travelled from London to California and from California to New York flown in separate aeroplanes – as were the three (of ten) gilded panels from Ghiberti’s Florence Baptistery doors (dubbed “The Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo) when they were sent from Florence to Atlanta; from Atlanta to Chicago; from Chicago to the Metropolitan Museum, New York; from New York to Seattle; and, finally, from Seattle back to Florence? (See Figs. 6 and 7.)

The Metropolitan Museum seems to be a common destination point on many of the most ambitious and hazardous inter-continental tours of art (it will receive the current Tate show of Matisse’s monumental, previously too-fragile to loan, cut-out paper works). In the case of the Burrell Collection even before the Scottish Parliament had heard all the evidence arrangements for an international tour of works were in motion. On 10 September 2013, Joan McAlpine, SNP, the Chair (“Convener”) of the scrutinising Parliamentary committee, disclosed in The Scotsman that “Sir Angus Grossart was giving some hints [the day before, during evidence to the committee’s first session] of the kind of people he’s been speaking to in terms of a world tour…I know they’re talking to the Met in New York, and from the point of view of the people at Glasgow Life, that’s an opportunity to enhance the reputation of the collection, the city and Scotland.”

Crucially, Grossart’s moves were not being made under the aegis of the Burrell Trustees, who are charged with protecting the collection according to the terms of Burrell’s fabulously generous bequest (the 8,000 bequeathed works still constitute the largest gift ever made to a city), but by “Glasgow Renaissance”, an interceding body set up by Glasgow Life expressly to “oversee the Burrell Collection’s immediate future”, advise on the refurbishment of the leaking building which has suffered decades of neglect, and to facilitate the fund-raising, profile-heightening international tour of key works. Sir Angus Grossart, a member of Glasgow Life’s board of directors is the appointed chair of Burrell Renaissance.

In January 2013 it was reported (Herald Scotland) that the first, six months-long stop of the tour would be at the British Museum, whose director, Neil MacGregor, had been co-opted by Glasgow Life to serve on Burrell Renaissance (– as had been his fellow Glaswegian, Lord Kerr, the deputy chairman of Scottish Power). Grossart claimed in evidence given to the Scottish Parliament’s Burrell committee that no conflict of interest existed because no other venue in London had been thought appropriate to receive Burrell works – which is to say, not the Victoria and Albert Museum; not the Royal Academy; nor even the Hayward Gallery where an exhibition “Treasures from the Burrell Collection” was mounted in 1975.

When we appeared for ArtWatch UK as one of only two opposing witnesses before the Scottish Parliamentary committee (the other being Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection), we pointed out that the Metropolitan Museum’s present director, Thomas Campbell, had said of a major exhibition he had organised, “No one but the Met could have pulled off the exhibition of Renaissance tapestries we had a few years ago…We bribed and cajoled and twisted the arms of institutions around the world – well, we didn’t bribe of course – but politically it was very complicated negotiating the loan of these objects, which came from the British Royal Collection, the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Vatican and were just all absolute masterpieces.” (“Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art”, Danny Danziger, 2007, p.40.)

It will now be greatly less complicated for Burrell’s fragile glass, tapestries, lace and pastels to be sent to the Metropolitan Museum – or anywhere else. Where Jeremy Warren of the Wallace Collection had testified “It is disingenuous to suggest that when one moves a 500-year-old tapestry from one country to another – perhaps taking it across the Atlantic – one is not shortening its life”, Councillor Archie Graham, Glasgow Council’s deputy Leader and the chairperson of Glasgow Life, thrilled at the prospect of “unlock[ing] the potential of this outstanding collection” and of being able thereby to “realise the full benefits of his gift.” We were not surprised to read Jackie Wullschlager’s report in the Financial Times (“Scottish independence”, 5/6 April 2014) that within months of overturning Burrell’s terms of bequest, a themed exhibition of works from within the collection (“Bellini to Boudin: Five Centuries of Painting in the Burrell Collection”) should open with all of Degas’s “glorious, delicate, light-sensitive” pastels shown in their entirety for the first time in a gallery in which water was dripping from the still unfixed roof “the day before” the show opened – that is to say, opened while on the watch of co-opted art world big-wig guarantors, the likes of Sir Angus Grossart and Mr Neil MacGregor. We did not, however, expect, when opposing the attempt to harvest the benefits of a collection bequeathed to the city of Glasgow, so soon to see the Church of England recklessly playing the same value-harvesting game with an irreplaceable part of the fabric of a cathedral and of our national heritage.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Figs. 1-5: Windows removed from Canterbury Cathedral that depict the Ancestors of Christ and are presently on show at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, after an earlier exhibition at the Getty Museum, California. The Ancestors shown here are, successively from the top, Lamech (detail), Jareth, Lamech, Noah and Abraham.
Above, Figs. 6 and 7: Top, one of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s monumental gilded bronze doors (“The Gates of Paradise”) for the Baptistery in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence during restoration. Above, one of the three (of ten) panels that were unveiled in Florence in 1452 and were sent on tour to Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Seattle in the United States during 2007 and 2008. This panel is Ghiberti’s famous perspectival tour de force depiction of Jacob and Esau. It was said that the purpose of the exhibition was as a way of saying thank you to the young Americans who helped in Florence after the damaging floods of 1966, and, as “a way of allowing a wider audience to view the impressive abilities of the Italian restorers who have returned Ghiberti’s masterpiece to its original [sic] splendor through more than twenty-five years of painstaking and careful work.”


How ‘good taste’ destroyed art

7 April 2014

Florence Hallett writes:

The wretched prospect of an altarpiece deliberately diminished as a result of an historic acquisitions policy dominates the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance. The exhibition presents the weaknesses of the Gallery’s collection of German Renaissance paintings as a consequence of nineteenth century taste, which overwhelmingly favoured Italian art. The surviving panels from the late fifteenth century Liesborn Altarpiece were bought by the Gallery in 1854 on the instructions of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, the acquisition causing such public uproar that an Act of Parliament was passed to allow its resale. But instead of selling all the panels together, the Gallery retained eight so that the already fragmented altarpiece was, in effect, flung to the four winds. The altarpiece has been reconstructed for this exhibition, the National Gallery’s eight panels accompanied by monochrome reproductions of those held by other museums and making a sorry, perhaps even repentant, sight.

Florence Hallett is a freelance writer on art.

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Above, Figs. 1 to 4 showing the whole (top) and three section details (above) of the fifteenth century Liesborn Altarpiece which has been reconstructed for the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance. The monochrome reproductions represent panels sold by the National Gallery shortly after its purchase in 1854; they highlight the extent to which an already fragmented object was further diminished. (Photograph by courtesy of the National Gallery.)
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From Veronese to Turner, Celebrating Restoration-Wrecked Pictures

24 March 2014

Part 1: Veronese into Botero

A rupture between words and pictorial realities has emerged in the museum world. It is the product of an over-heated international scramble to produce blockbuster exhibitions. After prising and pulling together works from many quarters, curators of temporary exhibitions write as if blind to the most glaring differences of condition and as if ignorant of all restoration-induced controversies. This widespread critical failure to address the variously – and often very recently – altered states of pictures corrupts scholarship and confers international respectability on damaging local restoration practices. In doing so, this effective pan-national conspiracy “not to notice” also compounds and sanctions the general reluctance of museums ever to acknowledge their own errors in the “conservation” treatment of art. The injuriousness of so much picture restoration is more the product of aesthetic/artistic incomprehension than of any self-agrandising intent. If every unhappy restoration is unhappy in its own way, so to speak, with Veronese, the best balanced of all painters, the most commonly encountered crime against his art is the debilitation of his firm plastic grip by restorers in hot pursuit of brightened and heightened colours.

The catalogue to the National Gallery’s show “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” provides a usefully explicit and clear-cut case in point. Its text is entirely the work of the show’s “guest” curator, Xavier Salomon. The National Gallery’s director, and fellow Veronese authority/champion, Nicholas Penny, declares the catalogue “a significant book”. Formerly of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum, and presently the chief curator of the Frick Collection, New York, Dr Salomon has (with the National Gallery’s own ten Veroneses) assembled no fewer than fifty, often very large, works. Salomon describes his own catalogue/book as both a general introduction for the public and a work offering “stimulating and original insights for experts and longstanding lovers of Veronese’s work”. In doing so, he claims that:

“The two over-arching principles in the selection of paintings for the London exhibition have been quality and condition, in order to show Veronese’s art at its best.”

We recognise that (as Dr Penny once acknowledged to us) it can be impolitic as well as seem ungracious to attack the conditions of generously loaned works. However, given Salomon’s own declaration on the importance of condition – which he reiterates as being “crucial” – we must assume that he is untroubled, for example, by the present condition of the Louvre’s Veronese The Supper at Emmaus and that he is happy for it, along with all other works in this compilation, to be seen as both of the highest artistic quality and in the best possible physical condition.

Concerning the condition of this particular painting, among many procedural shortcomings present in the course of its recent treatment at the Louvre (as here reported in December 2010), the restorers were discovered by our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, to have repainted a face twice within five years, on each occasion atrociously, and the second time in a secret intervention at which no records were made (– see below and Figs. 1 to 4b ). Far from alerting neophyte visitors or readers to this picture’s now grossly adulterated state, Salomon specifically praises its “opulent and majestic” overall effect; its “superb” portraits; and its details in which “Veronese reached a level of poignant harmony that was unprecedented”. This is an exhibition and an issue to which we will return but, first, another wrecked painting that is presently being flaunted in London calls for attention.

Part 2: Smoke into Steam

Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights

An extraordinary publicity barrage accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner & The Sea” blockbuster. It centred on a single painting – the artist’s Rockets and Blue Lights. The decision to favour that particular wrecked and challenged work passed beyond the brazen. As Maurice Davies observes in the spring issue of Turner Society News:

“The most unnecessary loan is Rockets and Blue Lights … The catalogue talks diplomatically of ‘alterations to some areas of the painted surface.’ It is in fact so horribly damaged that there’s little value in seeing it in the flesh. ArtWatch talks of the picture as an example of ‘the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions.’ It would have been quite enough to include a small illustration in the catalogue and move swiftly on.”

That painting is held by the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA (see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”). We first discussed its restoration fate in an article published in the winter 2003 ArtWatch UK journal by the painter Edmund Rucinski who disclosed that the restorer, David Bull, had not only removed the surviving remains of one Turner’s two steamboats but had defended his decision on the grounds that the boat had probably been some later restorer’s invention – even though the existence of a second steamboat was confirmed by the plural “steamboats” in the picture’s full title: Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, and by visual records of the painting, as shown below right.

As we later reported in the summer 2005 ArtWatch UK journal, the picture had been restored in preparation for its inclusion in a travelling exhibition (“Turner, The Late Seascapes”) which began at the Clark Institute and moved first to Manchester and then to Glasgow. It was said that seventy-five per cent of the picture’s surface (which had last been restored and relined in 1963-64 by William Suhr) was repaint and that by removing this paint Turner’s own brushwork would be liberated. What was “liberated” was a wrecked work in which a boat disappeared and the dark coal smoke from its funnel was converted into a white water spout. Despite this pictorial corruption, when the picture came to Britain, the Tate issued a press release in which it was claimed that:

“One of the stars of the show is Turner’s dramatic Rockets and Blue Lights (Close to Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840, which has recently undergone major conservation and is a loan from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, USA.”

In 2003 Eric Shanes, of the Turner Society, wrote (TLS 19 December) that although the painting had long been a physical wreck, “until its recent ‘conservation’ it at least constituted a pictorially coherent image. Now it’s right half has been entirely rubbed away, leaving an incoherent shambles that not only bears no similarity to Turner’s original but looks like nothing else in the artist’s oeuvre…”

Shanes later took a more indulgent stance towards the Clark Institute. Writing in the May 2005 Apollo, he held:

“…Yet if we adopt a wider perspective it is easy to see that the Clark Institute found itself in a fairly impossible situation in 2003: it was damned if it restored the painted and damned if it didn’t.”

This seemed to assume the institution had to send the painting across the Atlantic to Manchester and Glasgow. It did not. On October 28th 2003 the Times had reported the disclosure by Selby Whittingham that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had refused to lend its Turner Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – Typhoon coming on to the Clark exhibition because when it had returned from a loan to the Tate, the previously sound picture had been found damaged and “extremely unstable” (see below). By 2005, the incoherent work that had borne no resemblance to anything in Turner’s oeuvre in 2003 had, for Shanes, staged a partial recovery, becoming a presentable work once again, albeit if accompanied by a health warning:

“Without doubt the Clark Institute can validly argue that Rockets and Blue Lights is once again fully a work by J. M. W. Turner, possibly for the first time in well over a hundred years. But quite evidently, the museum also faces the concomitant duty to be absolutely honest with its public by making it abundantly clear that the Turner now seen by that clientele is but a shadow of its original self. To claim otherwise is very dangerous…”

Institutional intransigence

When on October 15th 2003, the Times reported the article we were about to publish by Edmund Rucinski, Libby Sheldon, a paint materials historian at University College, London, said: “It’s good that [institutions] are being challenged. It makes them take more care. Organisations like ArtWatch, irritating though they are to institutions, are a good watchdog”. In response, a spokeswoman for the Tate Gallery which had extolled the restoration of Rockets said “We don’t want to comment further.” The Tate might have been sanguine about British newspaper reports of criticisms because elsewhere in the press the gallery’s hyperbolic estimation of Rockets, as transmitted through its press release, found many echoes among art critics:

“…this show contains some of the most extraordinary passages of painting ever applied to canvas. Its centrepiece, the recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights… is an unbelievable vision of swirling blue, orange and white light thrusting through fog [Sebastian Smee, Daily Telegraph]; Easily the most stunning picture in the show is Rockets and Blue Lights…The canvas has been given a restorative makeover…Turner’s brushwork is revealed in all its glory” [Lynne Walker, the Independent]; Most splendid…is the dramatic and recently restored Rockets and Blue Lights, a picture so spectacular, that like the shadowy group of figures on the foreshore, you can only stare and wonder [ Rachel Campbell-Johnson, the Times].”

Just as exhibition organisers might seem incapable of spotting or acknowledging an abused picture, so it would seem that the temptations (or the pressures) to lend precious and vulnerable works of art remain irresistible for many institutions. On 24 October 2007 we wrote in a letter to the Daily Telegraph:

“The Mellon Center’s decision (report, October 17) to break its own rule never to lend Turner’s fragile ‘Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet-Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’ seems perverse: only seven years ago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston lent its Turner ‘Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying, Typhoon coming on’ to the Tate. On its return to Boston, that painting was found to have suffered losses of paint and to be in an ‘extremely unstable’ condition. A Tate Spokeswoman said: ‘It arrived here safely…Its condition was stable…However, Turner’s paintings are notoriously unstable’. This being so, why are trustees and curators prepared to take such risks with priceless works of art?”

When asked why no records had been kept of the second bungled repainting of the Veronese face in the Supper at Emmaus, a Louvre spokeswoman described the second restoration attempt as one in which the picture was simply being spruced up (“bichonnée”) and added, “That’s why you cannot find it in the painting’s dossier”.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: A detail of the Louvre’s Veronese The Supper at Emmaus, as published in the catalogue to the National Gallery’s Credit Suisse sponsored exhibition “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice”.
Above, Figs. 2a and 2b: Photographs (as supplied to Michel Favre-Felix) showing the group of the mother and children on the right hand side of Veronese’s The Supper at Emmaus. Fig. 2a (left) shows this group before the painting’s recent restoration and Fig. 2b shows it afterwards.
Among the many injuries evident in this photo-comparison, notice the reductions of sparkle and vivacity in the treatment of draperies, when, if disfiguring varnish and dirt alone had been removed, the former vivacity of those passages that was present and evident – even under discoloured varnish and dirt – would reasonably be expected to increase, not diminish. On the logic of restoration’s own declared practices, such reversals require explanation from both restorers and (supervising?) curators alike. Notice, too, the weakening of the modelling of the heads and, once again, the reductions of former tonal contrasts when increases of tonal ranges should be expected to follow a cleaning, not their compression.
Above (top), Figs. 3a and 3b; above, Figs. 4a and 4b: Fig. 3a shows the head of the mother before the recent restoration. Fig. 3b shows the head after cleaning and after the first of its two (disastrous) repaintings. Fig. 4a shows the head after the second repainting (and as reproduced in the new National Gallery catalogue).
In the early post-war years the great French scholar René Huyghe (rightly) complained of the tendency of overly-invasive “Anglo-Saxon” restorers in London and the USA to impose entirely inapproriate modernist values on the old masters. How depressingly ironic it is, therefore, that restorers working within the Louvre should now be permitted to impart to a Veronese head (as seen at Fig. 4a) the bloatedly pneumatic forms found in the playful spoof Mona Lisa painted by Fernando Botero shown above at Fig. 4b.
Above, Figs. 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9: Examples of the use of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights in the promotional campaign that accompanied the launch of the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition “Turner and the Sea”.
Above, Figs. 10, 11 and 12: Coverage in the ArtWatch UK Journals 19 and 20 of the last restoration of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights.
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights after its 1963-64 restoration by William Suhr (top); above, Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights after its restoration by David Bull in preparation for the Clark Institute’s travelling exhibition “Turner, The Late Seascapes”.
Above, Figs. 15, 16 and 17: A sequence of photographs showing the disappearance of one Turner steamboat (on the right) and the grave weakening of the second. Top, Fig. 15, the now “disappeared” steamboat as recorded in Robert Carrick’s 1852 chromolithographic copy of Turner’s Rockets and Blue Lights. Centre, Fig. 16, the steamboat as recorded in a photograph of 1896 (shown by courtesy of Christie’s). Above, Fig. 17, the section of the sea formerly occupied by the steamboat, as left after the last restoration.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Mantegna’s Dead Christ : They Know Not What They Do

13 March 2014

The first curators and directors of museums and galleries were titled “Keepers”. It was a nicely ungrand reminder that the curator did not own but was merely required to guarantee the safe-keeping of collections. Those modest days are past. Today’s museum is no longer the means by which interested members of the public are granted access to fine collections of art in circumstances conducive to tranquil contemplation and reflection. The Modern Museum is an instrument wielded simultaneously (and rarely coherently) on behalf of assorted vested interests. Governments can treat museums as tools of social engineering. Sponsors can use them as means of burnishing tarnished corporate personas. For many groups and interests they constitute both job-creation schemes and marketing or catering opportunities. Possession, notoriously, is nine parts of the law and today’s museum directors and curators often act as if, for the duration of their tenures of office, they themselves own the works. For some, art collections constitute harvestable assets, a kind of tradable currency that can project institutional and personal brands/egos onto the global stage. No one retains a career interest in leaving well alone. Even when they are not being shuttled around the world, pictures can be physically or virtually “restored” so as to generate newsworthy “discoveries” and dramatically upgraded attributions. Even when circumstances preclude the generation of physical transformations and excitements, curators can, as our colleague, Michel Favre-Felix, the president of ARIPA (Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique), here discloses, deploy purely “presentational” techniques to identically detrimental effects. [M. D.]

Michel Favre-Felix writes:

In her desire to give “more visibility” to Mantegna’s Dead Christ (see Fig. 1), the iconic masterpiece of the Brera’s magnificent collections, the museum’s director, Sandrina Bandera, could have given carte blanche to a trendy museum designer or to a provocative artist. Instead, she chose the movie-maker Ermanno Olmi as “a humanist concerned by the human tragedies and a humble artist who would not try to hold his own with the painting.” [See, bottom right: Endnote 1.]

The result, as seen since late December, is that the Dead Christ is now housed in a special crypt-like dark room, stripped of His historic frame and visually isolated by spot-lighting, as if now embedded into a monolithic black wall – and at a height of only 67 cm from the ground. (See Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.) This presentation is intended to be permanent and the film-maker, humility notwithstanding, declares “This will last: I will fight for it”. [1] (See Figs. 6 and 7.)

While not doubting the sincere empathy of the 83 years old film director with Mantegna’s tragic moving image, likely created in the mid-1480’s, after the loss of his two beloved sons, his declared ambition, after a “deep intellectual research” (“profonda ricerca intellettuale”) to “present the painting just as its creator wanted” [2] cannot be accepted. To begin with, Ermanno Olmi holds that “the frame was a nuisance. It is a painting that would have been hung upon Mantegna’s bed or on its side, not a decoration.” [1] This discarding of the frame (see Fig. 8) is a matter of no regret for the Brera, which states that it was documented “only” from the XVIth century. However, the idea that a religious painting rightly becomes a “decoration” as soon as it gets a frame is a post-modern conception that rests on an inability to comprehend how paintings were conceived and viewed in the religious climate of the 15th century.

Far from being an alien ornamental addition, the frame is a device that serves as a gateway marking a separation between the surrounding real/material world and the depicted ideal world. It marks the step away from our daily views into the world of artistic and spiritual contemplation – both a border and a bridge: the intermediary moment that permits the introduction of the “epiphany” of the image.

Decorum was, on the contrary, a native part of the religious display and sincere piety was expressed through the enriched appearance of images. Dismissing “decoration” with Mantegna, who gave unequalled expressive importance to decorative elements in his own art by elevating ornamentation to the highest degree of artistic and spiritually expressive means, is singularly regrettable. (See Figure 9, which shows the outstanding subtlety and complexity of Mantegna’s design and its interrelationships between the carved gilded architectural frame and rich depicted ornaments.)

Clearly, in his quest of the essence of the image, Olmi felt compelled to “liberate” the Dead Christ from any kind of “decorum”. Instead, by acting without any self-critical distance, he has merely wrapped the sacred image in the stereotypical “decorum” of our modern times: the non-framing of modern paintings and the omnipresent practice, in books and on computers screens, of reproducing old paintings without their frames. Such a reading might have been acceptable had the museum announced: “this is the creative movie-director’s own personal vision of the painting”. But M. Olmi claims to have “recovered” Mantegna’s original intentions by means of new historic-scientific deductions.

He does so with contradictory explanations. First, he asserts that, historically, “this painting has not been painted to be exhibited for all to see but was intended to remain hidden from any external sight”. [3] (Giovanni Agosti, the art historian and Mantegna specialist at Milan University, refutes this account.) Why, then, has Olmi gone to such lengths to give “more visibility” to the painting – which was the very aim of the Brera’s project?

Other inconsistencies stem from Olmi’s singular and highly specific conviction that the raison d’être of the Dead Christ was to be a private devotional image positioned on the side of the artist’s bed at 67 cm from the ground – at which height he claims to insure a “correct” prospect for a viewer not in the bed but in a standing position next to it. As Olmi argues: “If I have placed the painting at 67 cm from the ground it is because, when it is placed at the eyes level, the Christ looks deformed and stunted as if he was hanging by his arms. It is true that one could feel inclined to kneel, but the viewpoint that I impose is not religious. It is the most adequate with the view chosen by Mantegna.” [1]

The film-director’s attempts to “correct” the prospect with his disconcerting and precise 67 cm calculation fails to address the long established but puzzling fact that at least two, contradictory prospects were used in the construction of the scene. Actually, Mantegna’s representation is not bound to a formulaic appliance of mathematical prospect but, rather, used an expressive, sensitive one (in accordance with Alberti’s conceptions). Should the Brera’s visitors be instinctively inclined to kneel, M. Olmi might consider that they might instinctively be right, and that he is intellectually wrong.

Let us test Olmi’s calculations. The painting would have hung near Mantegna’s bed, at 67 cm from the floor, as a devotional image for his own kneeling prayers. Nevertheless, the artist would have set the “correct” prospect for the viewpoints of rare visitors to his bedroom. And thus, every day, Mantegna, while kneeling would have, on Olmi’s account, seen no more than a “deformed and stunted” Christ. That the Brera also asserts that this level is “the same that the artist wanted ” [4] only illustrates the well-known phenomenon of collective misleading.

In truth, Mantegna’s intentions are implicit within the painting. The key is the position of the three lamenting figures at the Christ’s side. These three mourners (the Virgin, St John and the Magdalena) are not standing but kneeling. A recently rediscovered ink drawing, dated to the 1460’s and which may be thought to be part of Mantegna’s own steps towards his final composition shows figures, standing and leaning around the Christ (see Fig. 10). As Mantegna eventually chose kneeling figures, he thereby rethought the prospect. The resulting unusual viewpoint in the Brera masterpiece makes sense when we realize that it represents the prospect drawn from a position similar to that of the three mourners: Mantegna places the spectator as a fourth mourner looking from a similar kneeling position and point of view (See Fig. 1).

Now, there are not so many plausible solutions. In the first, the painting is positioned near the ground, hypothetically as in the artist’s bedroom or – in another hypothesis – as it might have been placed on Mantegna’s grave. In both cases the spectators are rightly situated when kneeling. But a museum is not a church, nor a graveyard, nor an artist’s bedroom. In another reading, the painting hung at eye level and the standing spectators share the sight of the kneeling mourners. Although dashing the Brera’s hopes to revolutionize the traditional display, this solution works perfectly and is consistent with other sight level solutions by Mantegna, as can be seen in his “Wedding Chamber” of 1465-1474 in the Ducal palace of Mantua (See Figs. 11, 12 and 13).

The only wrong choice is that of M. Olmi. Andrea Carandini, the archaeologist president of the Italian equivalent of the British National Trust, put it trenchantly: “this means placing the body of Jesus at the level of the genitals that have everything except eyes” [5]. The Italian professor further slammed Olmi’s failure to understand what a painting is and is not, by confounding an artistic representation of the sepulchre with a mimicked reproduction of a sepulchre room.

Of Olmi’s overly theatrical design, Carandini stresses that the painting is now dematerialized and degraded to a projected image. This new projected slide effect of the Dead Christ offends art historian Philippe Daverio who complains of a present resemblance to the reddish glow of a Pizza furnace [1]. Personally, I am even more struck by the similarity with a movie screen. Could it be that M. Olmi does not realize that he is here replicating the very situation, so familiar to him, of a cinema showing in the dark? Should a row of cinema chairs be put in the present gallery, the seated spectators would be at the perfect height for looking at his Dead Christ film.

As for the Brera’s desire to increase the “visibility” and to recover the “true” (original) the viewing of the Dead Christ, such aims coincide with current (controversial) definitions of contemporary restoration, which pretend to increase the “legibility” of the artwork [6] and to reveal its “true” colours, by some supposed recovery of its original state.

As with the numerous controversial restorations that have been the subject of critical analysis by ArtWatch and others, hypotheses that are cast up as alleged discoveries are given the status of facts and misleading calculations are supplied for “scientific” proofs. Ambitious restorations and spectacular displays alike are – however awkward their results – made in the name of retrieving the artist’s original intentions.

In both cases, close analysis shows a contemporary aesthetic prevailing over the artist’s own original one. Professed humility in restorers and exhibition designers is unable to constrain the contamination of the past by our present artistic prejudices. By similar processes, through invasive restoration or intrusive display, the old masterpieces are modernized and thus, for ongoing decades or even irreversibly, falsified.

Michel Favre-Felix

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, circa 1480, distemper on canvas, 68 x 81 cm, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.
Above, Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5.
Fig. 2: The Dead Christ (top) isolated in the dark – in the forefront, Bellini’s Pietà. (Source: arte.sky.it.)
Fig. 3, 4 and 5: Other views of the painting embedded into the black wall. Source for Figs. 3 and 4: Milano.corriere.it
Above, Fig. 6: Ermanno Olmi in his new and, he hopes, permanent display in the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano.
Above, Fig. 7: Ermanno Olmi during the presentation of his new display and debate held in the Sala della Passione of the Brera Palace on the 12th of December 2013. Source: Milano.corriere.it
Above, Fig. 8 Mantegna’s masterpiece with its frame, before December 2013. Source: lacittanuova.milano.corriere.it
Above, Fig. 9: a detail of the central panels of Mantegna’s The San Zeno Altarpiece of circa 1457-1460. This work of tempera on panel (the whole altarpiece being 480 x 450 cm) is housed in the San Zeno basilica, Verona. Source: en.wikipedia.org
Above, Fig. 10: A study for a Lamentation of Christ, circa 1460, ink on paper, 15,1 x 10 cm, Private collection. For further details : http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/27819 Source: thehistoryblog.com
Above, Figs. 11 and 12: A view of Mantegna’s the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi) 1465-1474, frescoes, Ducal Palace, Mantova, indicating (top) the elevated viewpoint of the frescoes.
Above, fig. 13: A detail of Mantegna’s the Bridal Chamber (Camera degli Sposi).
CODA:
Above, Fig. 14: Mantegna’s Ecce Homo, circa 1500, distemper and gilding on canvas, 54 x 42 cm, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.
This distemper painting by Mantegna is one of the best preserved paintings in the world. It has never been lined. It has never been varnished and, so, has never been “dis-varnished”. It retains its original panel on which the original canvas is glued only by its edges [7]. Crucially, we can see that this miraculous survivor of Mantegna’s art displays the same subdued tones (albeit in even smoother and more delicate manner) as those found in the artist’s Dead Christ (Fig. 1). As works painted with pigments bound in distemper (glue) not oil or tempera or resin, both the Dead Christ and the Ecce Homo belong to a kind of painting that inevitably looks slightly muted and darkened and which cannot be enhanced or “brought out” by any restoration means. Disappointing as this might be to the curators of the Brera, no cleaning could ever uncover – as is otherwise invariably promised by restorers – any bright colours under its subdued looking tones. Those tones are the birthmarks, the intrinsic pictorial characteristic of the distemper painting technique. However, it might seem that for the resourcefully modernising contemporary curator, the physical impossibility of brightening and colourising an historic work, need constitute no obstacle. As the above described (mis-)treatment of Mantegna’s Dead Christ demonstrates, other substitute technological subterfuges exist in the displaying of paintings. The increasingly frequent curatorial resort to historically and artistically falsifying theatrical/cinematic/virtual techniques might deserve further commentaries.
ENDNOTES:
[1] ”Le « coup » du Christ”, by Philippe Ridet, Le Monde, 15/02/2014 [2] The Brera’s website [3] “Capolavori meditazione da”, Francesca Bonazzoli, Corriere della Sera, 3/12/2013 [4] “Brera, «processo» pubblico per il Cristo del Mantegna ”, Giacomo Valtolina, Corriere della Sera, 13/12/2013 [5] “Un Mantegna da vedere in ginocchio”, by Andrea Carandini, Corriere della Sera, 11/12/2013 [6] For critical studies of the use of this term in conservation, see: Salvador Muñoz Viñas, Contemporary Theory of Conservation, , Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005, and, Hiltrud Schinzel, “Visibility of Restoration – Legibility of Artworks : the Topicality of Compromise”, in Visibilité de la restauration, lisibilité de l’œuvre, 5th colloquium ARAAFU, 2003 – Debate in the Italian restoration review Kermes n°44, 2001 / n°47, 2002 / n°50, 2003, with Antonio Natali, Giorgio Bonsanti, James Beck, Anna Maria Maetzke, Walter Schudel et al) [7] Andrea Rothe, “Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi”, Historical Painting Techniques, Materials and Studio Practice, The Getty Conservation Institute, 1995


Good Science; Over-Reaching Science; Over-Promoted Science.

24 February 2014

On February 10th the Daily Telegraph published a letter from a professor of chemistry at University College London (Robin J. H. Clark) questioning the relationship between art and science in general terms and with regard to a supposed Chagall painting featured on a recent BBC Fake or Fortune television programme. Prof. Clark expressed particular concern over art world failures to heed the testimony of available scientific techniques.

In the late 1980s the UCL chemistry department had developed a non-invasive technique (“Raman microscopy”) for identifying both natural and synthetic pigments within paintings. Because the latter have known dates of invention, their presence in a picture can establish the earliest date at which it could have been produced. This technique is said by Prof. Clark to have been known to Sotheby’s by 1992. The Chagall painting, he pointed out, could have been exposed as a fake at any point in the last 20 years. He further reported that the painting was exposed as a forgery in his UCL laboratory in July last year in the presence of its owners and the presenters of Fake or Fortune:

“I am disappointed that neither of the presenters of Fake or Fortune made this clear. The conclusion that the painting is a forgery is based on our spectroscopic results, which showed that at least two of the key pigments had not been synthesized until the late Thirties, putting the earliest date for the painting at 1938, long after the supposed date of 1909-10.”

Because of the unequivocal nature of those technical findings, Prof. Clark (rightly) observed that the Chagall Committee in Paris, to which the painting was sent, had no option but to confirm the forgery. He also asked how art historians might be encouraged to read science journals so as be informed about “significant developments in science as applied to arts”. In part, his question is fair and urgent. The art market’s notorious governing trade dictum is caveat emptor (buyer beware) – while auctioneers and dealers may take every pain to verify their claims, it is ultimately for buyers to satisfy themselves that attributions and conditions are as described. Auctioneers can only submit works to (possibly disqualifying) technical analysis with owners’ permission. Dealers who buy at auctions almost invariably have works restored but are not required, when selling works on, to disclose which if any tests may have been run.

Support on the extent to which scientific (and also historical and visual) evidence is ignored or manipulated in the interests of “boosting financial rewards in attributing paintings to particular masters” was given in an Observer interview on February 23rd (“Revelealed: the art experts who pass fakes as authentic”) by Professor Martin Kemp, a Leonardo specialist. In the same report by Dalya Alberge, Nicholas Eastaugh, a leading independent scientist (of Art Access and Research), described the present climate as being both without standards and “totally unregulated. It’s a Wild West.”

However, much as we sympathised with Prof. Clark’s impatience with some art world practices, we could not endorse his call for a blanket acceptance of all scientific methods presently being applied to works of art. As we put it in a letter to the Daily Telegraph (published 12 February):

“Professor Robin Clark (letters February 10) calls for developments in science to be applied to art. If sound science is underused by the art trade, more questionable ‘scientific studies’ have been used for many years to offer assurances that picture-cleaners’ solvents have been a safe method of stripping varnishes and repaint from old pictures. As the current issue of the journal of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works makes clear, the understanding in the art and museum world since the Sixties of how solvents work has been seriously flawed scientifically. Because important intermolecular interactions have been ignored, the theoretical model used cannot predict, as assumed, the actions of solvents on the underlying paints.”

History teaches that the many cumulative “scientific” defences of restorations have best been treated with scepticism. In 1977 Kenneth Clark admitted founding the National Gallery’s conservation science department precisely to bamboozle critics and dupe the public. In later years the Gallery pioneered a new mongrel discipline known as Technical Art History in which curators, conservators and conservation scientists pool expertises so as to arrive at some seemingly “scientifically underpinned” consensus on aesthetic decisions. In reality curators were glossing authority already-ceded to restorers. As the National Gallery restorer Helmut Ruhemann wrote in 1968: “Although the art historians in charge of pictures are officially responsible for the policies regarding cleaning, they naturally form their ideas in the first place from what they are told by their restorers.”

In its guides to conservation the National Gallery presently claims that while its restorations are carried out for aesthetic rather than conservation purposes, and while each restorer imposes a personal aesthetic taste on pictures, it considers all aesthetically various outcomes to be equally valid so long as they have been carried out “safely”. The contention that the (claimed) safety of cleaning methods can underwrite conflicting aesthetic outcomes is a non sequitur. Besides which, no claims have proved more unreliable than those of cleaning solvents’ safety.

The crucial and sometimes wilfully over-looked cultural truth is that there are no properly scientific means of comprehending art’s variously created aesthetic values and relationships. When reiterating this point in our post of 7 February 2014 (“From the Horse’s Mouth ~ Seventy years of worthless ‘science’ and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents”) we were able to disclose the most recent and most damning evidence of the un-soundness of past scientific endorsements of picture-cleaning solvents.

Notwithstanding these spectacular technical reverses, this month the press has been chocked with uncritical “Good News” accounts of scientific advances in the arts. Most newspapers and the BBC carried claims that scientists had “digitally reconstructed” the original appearance of a Renoir painting in which a former pink background had faded. By coincidence, this claimed miraculous virtual recovery had also been made by “a technique known as Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” carried out at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The BBC reported that “Northwestern University chemist Prof Richard Van Duyne pioneered SERS. He said the Renoir demonstrated why the Raman technique was fast becoming an invaluable tool for studying artworks: ‘You get tremendous information about the origins of the painting, the techniques of the artist, an understanding of the fading mechanism, and the ability to restore the painting.’” Note that speculative hypotheses are now being presented as sound platforms for restorations. In the art world it is frequently the dogs that don’t bark that matter most. Note that this wonder technique which addresses changes resulting from natural causes would seem to have no powers or potential with regard to the more common and much more seriously deleterious man-made changes made by restorers. Given that both types of injury are easily evident by eye to anyone lifing a picture out of its frame (see Figs. 2 and 3), the silence of “science” on the latter injuries can only seem self-compromising .

In a letter to the Times (February 17) we protested:

“The claim that scientists have recreated the original appearance of a Renoir painting (‘Laser technique shows masterpiece as Renoir intended’, Feb 14) is unfounded. All elements of a picture undergo natural changes over time. To these, further unnatural changes are added by restorers and their invasive paint-penetrating solvents. Compensating for a single faded pigment does not constitute a recovery of a picture’s original appearance. Rather, it offers a further falsification: a single artificially simulated ingredient within a remaining, generally altered and debilitated surviving whole.”

Our letter was accompanied by one from a Professor of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Imperial College London, making a far-fetched claim that the fact that a synthetic red dye used in paintings had also helped in the discovery of an important white blood cell constituted an unusual “bridging [of] fine art and science”.

While Raman microscopy could certainly disprove the claimed date of the fake Chagall, it seriously misleads the public to present speculative and hypothetical digitally manipulated reconstructions as if literal recoveries of original conditions. On February 22nd the Economist reported an account of another digital re-mastering of real paintings delivered at this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Economist too saw a bridging of the divide between art and science, which it likens to a resolution of the science/art schism of which the chemist and novelist C. P. Snow complained in his famous 1959 lecture “The Two Cultures”. The report also reveals, however, that what was presented as a recovery of the murals’ original conditions was in fact a double hypothetical reconstruction. Not only had Rothko’s colours faded, so too had those of the contemporary photographs of his murals that were to serve as the basis for a digital re-mastering of the actual paintings. Despite the methodologically dubious procedure of digitally re-mastering actual paintings on the back of digitally re-mastered photographs, there was customary breathless admiration for this latest claimed technical miracle:

“In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos […e]ach had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.”

There was no discussion of the consequences of viewers’ bodies blocking the projected “correcting” coloured lights. What we are witnessing in this heavily promoted technical bonanza is not a genuinely increased understanding of art by courtesy of scientific advances. If the attempt to increase public understanding of the degree to which even quite modern paintings have suffered alterations since their executions was a real ambition of museum staffs and conservation scientists, it would be imperative for them to discuss (and demonstrate) the largest single source of alterations and adulterations: “restoration” treatments. In the absence of such an agenda, what we see unfolding is a cultually diversionary Big Push by certain professional groups into new and uncontroversial employment pastures where the potential pickings and funding opportunities are immense – there is scarcely an old picture in existence where some pigments have not faded. This virtual remastering show is one that could run and run. But who might fund and who might execute research into all those paintings that suffered far more grievously from the chemical coshes of restorers?

The real problem in the arts is not an insufficiency of technical or scientific assistance. It is deeper and more fundamental. Its root lies within institutional withdrawals from exercising properly critical considerations. The non-appliance of due critical practices is long-standing. There were uncritical responses in the late 1990s when (as we reported in our first post) the National Gallery used a computer-manipulated photograph of an actual skull as the basis for a hypothetical virtual reconstruction of missing parts in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” which led to the redrawing of Holbein’s skull in defiance (or ignorance) of the perspectival systems of the artist’s times. More recently, the Tate repainted large lost parts of a flood-damaged work on the basis of early colour photographs in the course of a “restoration”. In our uncritical, increasingly “virtual” cultural universe it is more urgent than ever that museum curators should return to acting primarily on sound scholarly appraisals and aesthetically informed insights, and that they should not further devolve their responsibilities to technicians who may or may not be properly alert to matters aesthetic and artistic.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Fig. 1: Above, top, Marc Chagall’s “Reclining Nude 1911” which is said to have been the source for the fake Chagall, “Nude 1909-1910” (above), as reproduced together in the Sunday Telegraph (2 February 2014).
An entire programme in the BBC’s Fake or Fortune series was spent examining the technical composition and the provenance of the fake version (which, incredibly, was dispatched to the Chagall Committee in Paris which not only declared the work a dud but threatens to have it destroyed) when a single glance at the two works should have been sufficient to establish that both cannot be by the same artist. Where that of 1911 displays a boldly deconstructing and reconstructing treatment of forms and spaces that is expansive and pictorially dynamic (as well as being massively indebted to Picasso’s then recent and revolutionary cubist works), the other is manifestly derivative and feebly handled, leaving the picture’s subject looking not so much set in a specially re-ordered non-Euclidian space, as pasted onto a monotonously and repetitively drawn and coloured theatrical back-cloth.
Above, Fig. 2: a detail of a Turner water-colour in the British Museum which had been protected from light damage at the left edge by the frame. (See plate 5 in the “Museum Environment”, 1986, Butterworth-Heinemann.)
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Frans Hals’ “Banquet of the Officers the St. George militia company”, showing a strip of original green glazing that had been protected from restorers solvents by the frame.
Above, Fig. 4: the much reproduced Renoir, “Madame Léon Clapisson” (here as on the BBC) showing the painting in its present condition at the Chicago Art Institute on the left, and in an attempted digital reconstruction of its original (1883) condition on the right.
Above, Figs. 5, 6 and 7: details, top and centre, of “Madame Léon Clapisson” as found today, showing along the picture’s top edge a surving strip of an originally pink background achieved with a glaze of carmine lake, or cochineal, pigment. Scientists have used the investigative method known as “Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS)” in an attempt (above, at Fig. 7) to recreate the picture’s original appearance.
There has been no mention in any reports on this attempted reconstitution of some consideration having been given to changes in the painting that had occurred not as a result of exposure to light but as a result of exposure to restorers’ solvents, swabs and scalpels.
The painting itself and the virtual reconstruction is presently on exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute. The exhibition was supported by research funding provided by the Getty Foundation, the Grainger Foundation, the David and Mary Winton Green Research Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is said that with “this new knowledge and new technologies such as nanotechnology, laser light, and advanced image processing software, the conservation department has been able to reconstruct the work’s original colors in a full-scale digital reproduction.”
A PIONEERING DIGITAL ATTEMPT TO RECOVER A PICTURE’S ORIGINAL CONDITION AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY (LONDON)
Above, Fig. 8: The National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” attributed to Pedro Campaña.
Above, Fig. 9: The near contemporary copy of the National Gallery’s “The Conversion of the Magdalen” that was made by Luca Longhi and is presently in the Villa Borghese Collection, Rome.
The National Gallery claims credit for pioneering the new collective discipline known as Technical Art History. A key weapon in its long, proselytizing campaign has been the publication since 1977 of an annual report dedicated to conservation activities – its Technical Bulletin. The issue of 2001 (Vol 22) carried an article “Colour change in The Conversion of the Magdalen attributed to Pedro Campaña” that was jointly authored by Marika Spring, Nicholas Penny, Raymond White and Martin Wyld. Spring and White were members the science department, Penny was a curator, and Wyld was the head of conservation. It was thus a textbook collaborative effort made under the rules of Technical Art History.
The combined expertises were brought to bear on a striking problem with the painting’s physical and optical conditions: there had been severe deteriorations in the colours of many of the draperies, not least in those of Christ. Many draperies were now brown or yellow-brown, where once they had been blue, green or red.
Microscopic samples were taken from some of the figures and analysed in an attempt to identify their pigments and to “investigate whether there was any peculiarity in the technique and the materials that could have caused such serious degradation.” Highly detailed examinations established that the blue pigment – smalt – had deteriorated; that a red lake pigment (likely containing dyestuff from the cochineal insect) had faded; and that green glazes containing copper had turned brown. None of these changes were remarkable in themselves, except, perhaps, in their extent.
What was remarkable was that an attempt was made to reconstruct the “altered colours by digital imaging”. It was explained that the changes which had destroyed the picture’s balance of colours had to be accepted as irreversible. Nonetheless, the attempt was made to gain some impression of the original appearance by manipulating a digital image of the painting – specifically, “by applying image-processing techniques”. Clearly, in such an exercise, the nature and type of image-processing software used would be of crucial methodological significance – how and in what manner was the base digital reproduction of the picture to be manipulated?
Explanation seemed to be to hand in a footnote [27]. Alas, it read flatly as follows: “The technical details of the process of reconstruction of the colours by image processing on the digital image will be described elsewhere.” No less disturbing than having to take the means and manner of the manipulations on trust, the account that followed of the factors of consideration suggested a Technical Art Historical methodology more Heath Robinson Contraption than Hi-Tech Sophistication.
Because the original colours no longer exist on the painting, some simulacrum of each had to be produced to feed into the image-manipulating software. Thus, “colourimetric measurements on painted-out samples matching the pigment mixtures and the layer structures were used as a reference.” Clearly, achieving a reliable point of colour reference was vital to the integrity of the exercise. But how reliable were the painted-out samples? Not very, it seemed on the authors’ own account:
“For the smalt and red lake pigments this posed some problems. Smalt manufactured to a nineteenth-century recipe is available today, but contains a higher percentage of cobalt than than smalt in sixteenth-century paintings and none of the impurities that are commonly found in the glass.” Notwithstanding these departures from the original materials used on the painting, this smalt was used for the base references. Because the modern smalt is much stronger in colour than that of the sixteenth-century, an attempt was made to correct (lessen) its force by adulterating it with “finely ground alumina” in attempt to “to try to simulate the colour of the sixteenth century smalt”. Confidence in this adjustment was not high because “this is a difficult judgement to make, since in paintings of the period smalt has always degraded.” Had the painting been a seventeenth-century work the exercise would have been easier because by then the smalt was commonly mixed with lead white pigment, which afforded some protection. Even though this work was not of the seventeenth-century, samples from that period were used a guide reference in the digital manipulations.
Establishing a reference point for the original lake pigments was no less problematic: “Comparison with the deep shadows on Christ’s red robe, which retain their red colour, made it clear that the hue of the test plate was more purple than the red lake in the painting…” And what of the outcome of this, at best, approximate method?
Above, left, Fig. 10a: the computer-manipulated attempt to recover the original colours of Christ’s draperies.
Above, right, Fig. 10b: a detail of the Borghese Villa copy shown above at Fig. 9.
It probably goes without saying that the figure of Christ seen at Fig. 10a seems a most implausible reconstruction. It is claimed by the authors, however, that: “The deeply saturated colours which replace the deteriorated brown, although rather flat because of the loss of the modelling which cannot be reconstructed, balance well with the well-preserved draperies painted with vermilion and ultramarine.” Given that, on the authors’ own admission, the simulated blues and reds are significantly different and more intense pigments, how credible can this claimed correspondence of colours seem?
The article concludes on an assertive note of self-satisfaction: “The detailed technical examination of the ‘Conversion of the Magdalen’, and the process of reconstruction of the colours in the digital image, has produced some deeper insight into how the deterioration of pigments has affected the colours in the painting.”
This was followed by a claim that is quite remarkably at odds with the visual evidence presented (see Figs. 10a and 10b): “Although the strong and deep colours of the reconstruction initially seemed rather startling, they receive strong support from comparison with the Borghese version of the painting [shown here at Figs. 9 and 10b] – which is especially gratifying since the reconstruction was made before the transparency of the Borghese version was available to us.” Given that the Borghese version is on all accounts markedly better preserved that the London picture, what might explain the former’s richer, warmer red drapery and darker, more sombre blue drapery?
Although the authors express themselves as being satisfied with the accuracy of the reconstructed colours, they do concede other problems: “The reconstruction is not, of course, an accurate portrayal of the original appearance of the painting – the lost modelling in some of the draperies cannot be recreated…”
Thus, we see that this exercise has been directed at a single component part of the painting – its self-contained areas of local colours – and that, in the execution, that part has been wrenched from any relationship with the picture’s tones, shading and modelling. This severance is painfully evident in the comparison at Figs. 10a and 10b. It would beggar belief that the National Gallery’s experts could see any sort of vindication for their efforts in the Borghese version were it not for that institution’s by now too-deeply ingrained to be recognised tradition of pursuing autonomously bright colours during restorations at the expense of form and pictorial coherence. Not only are the colours of the Borghese drapery more sombre and chromatically integrated – and jointly more skilfully integrated with the plastic values – but we see also in the National Gallery picture a characteristic debilitating weakness of modelling in the too-brightly scrubbed surfaces of the flesh areas. (It is depressing beyond belief that our national pictorial vice should recently have crossed the English Channel and now be menacing Leonardos at the Louvre.)
It might be contended that we are not comparing like with like. As the authors point out, the one work is a not an altogether strict copy of the other. Moreover, the Borghese version is acknowledged to be in superior condition: “the better condition of areas painted in red lake in the Borghese painting is strong evidence that it has not been subjected to such harsh environmental conditions as the National Gallery painting…The Borghese picture has spent almost all its life in two collections in the same city, whereas, the National Gallery’s picture has belonged to at least half a dozen collections and has passed on at least three occasions through the art trade, but too little is known about the conservation history of these paintings, and the conditions in which they have been kept, to explain the difference in preservation.” The euphemistic use of the term “environmental” in lieu of “restorational” and the sly allusion to possible bad restoration experiences at the hands of the “art trade” cannot gainsay the fact that there is abundant evidence of works held at and restored within the National Gallery suffering catastrophic losses in the course of a single in-house restoration – as the before restoration (left) and after restoration (right) comparative details of Rubens’ portrait of Susannah Lunden (shown below at Figs. 11a and 11b) testify.
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From the Horse’s Mouth: Seventy years of worthless “science” and reassurances on the safety of picture cleaning solvents

7 February 2014

In our post of 4 February 2014, we challenged the “conservation science” said to have delivered absolute physical safety and absolutely aesthetically and historically correct recoveries of the original condition of pictures during restorations at the Louvre. How could this be so, we countered, when directly comparative photographs recording the pre and post-restoration states of Leonardo’s “The Virgin with Child and St. Anne” showed such clear evidence of injuries? At the time of that controversial 2011 restoration (which prompted resignations by two leading authorities from the restoration’s own advisory committee) we were assured that the Louvre’s varnish removal techniques were so advanced and precise that an imperceptible microns-thin film of original varnish had been left in place. How, therefore, it was asked, could the restorers possibly have damaged the painting? This is a common ploy and we were no more persuaded by it than we had been twenty-five years earlier when restorers of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling claimed to have left a thin protective layer of “original patina” on the ceiling.

To the contrary, we held that when claimed “science” conflicts with the evidence of our eyes, the eyes should have it:

“The currency with which artists work is values and the relationships between values. Through these they work by eye to produce artefacts which fix and carry their intentions, so that they might subsequently be optically apprehended by others. In the production of a painting, every last feature is a product of thought. But every judgement, evaluation and adjustment is transmitted exclusively through human sight, and not, as techno-conservationists might prefer, through sub-atomic particles of matter, complex chemical formulations or other mystifying hi-tech red herrings.”

We reminded viewers of the butchery – no other word suffices – witnessed during the cleaning and repainting of a Veronese head at the Louvre. When that “restoration” was challenged, the Louvre’s restorers made a second (this time secret and unrecorded) attempt to put matters right. They failed and grossly compounded the original blunder (see the lower sequence of photographs at Fig. 3). On such a track record, we suggested, it was surely provocative of the museum to announce not only another Leonardo restoration (his “La Belle Ferronnière”), but even a desire to restore the desperately fragile “Mona Lisa” (details of the mouth of which we show at Figs. 1 and 2).

Yesterday evidence came in that suggests that some restorers may now be doubting their own earlier propaganda. The new (January 2014) issue of the IIC’s journal Studies in Conservation – which describes itself as “the premier international peer-reviewed journal for the conservation of historic and artistic works” – is devoted to “paintings…a subject that has been discussed in publications over many years and frequently”. Indeed it has – and this issue contains a bombshell for much of that earlier research and its implicit reassurances.

It is contained in an article titled “Parametrization of the solvent action on modern artists’ paint systems”. For long-term students of such “Technical Art History” studies, the article begins with what can only be considered a professional confession:

“Effective and responsible use of solvents is an essential skill of a conservator or restorer. The complexity of the solvent processes in the field of conservation/restoration arises from the intent to selectively remove surficial components of a paint build-up without affecting underlying strata. High demands are thus set on the restorer/conservator with respect to specific knowledge on the dissolving properties of a wide range of materials. Owing to the complexity of the solvation and dissolving processes several approaches have been made to simplify solvent action and deliver some selection criteria to the restorer. The ternary ‘Teas chart’ (Teas, 1968) is the most widely applied solvent classification scheme in conservation…even though the system does not permit the prediction of material solubility. With the ternary Teas chart it is not possible to map the solvent action quantitatively…This is due to the fact that the system ignores important intermolecular intereactions. With this simplification, the relation of the individual paramaters to the total strength of interaction is lost. In addition, while this system describes the solvents’ properties, it does not deliver information on material solubility.” (Emphases added.)

Well, so much for that Great White Hope of restorers over the last forty-odd years. In conservation’s technical literature, confessions are delivered only when fresh technical hopes and promises are to hand (as in Fig. 8). And, thus, here we find: “It is a first step towards the development of a systematic tool aimed at the responsible and reliable use of solvents in the field of conservation/restoration.” A bit late in the day for a “first step” towards responsible and safe practice?

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Details of the mouth of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” showing the badly fractured “topography” of the paint and varnish layers. In view of the results shown below of the recent cleaning of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St. Anne”, it is impossible to consider the prospect of a restoration of this painting with anything other than absolute dread. By what means might an attempt be made to separate the infinitely subtle brown modelling of the mouth from the ancient varnishes in which they are presently incorporated?
Fig 3: The cover of the Artwatch UK members’ journal which discussed recent botched restorations at the Prado and the Louvre
Above, Figs. 4, 5, 6 and 7: Comparative details of St Anne in Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St Anne” showing the head before and after its recent “cleaning” and “restoration”. In each pairing, we see more substance, more shading, more modelling before the “technically advanced treatment”.
Above, Fig. 8: Above: an advertisement in Studies in Conservation, the journal of The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Volume 42, Number 4, 1997.
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The Futurist Louvre and Leonardo’s Fate: nothing ventured, nothing lost

4 February 2014

The more indefensible their restorations, the more museum regimes dig in and shut their ears to criticisms. (With bad restorations the eyes, too, often seem to have been shut.) Given the controversial outcome of the Louvre’s 2011 restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child With St. Anne”, it might seem a provocative defiance that the museum should so soon announce that it is not only about to restore another Leonardo (his “La Belle Ferronnière”), as was reported in the Wall Street Journal on 1 February 2014 (Da Vinci Code Red: Restorations Spur Debate), but also the desperately vulnerable “Mona Lisa”.

Vincent Delieuvin, the curator driving (or heading) the restorations, makes a number of claims that lack foundation in the Wall Street Journal article. We had not dared to touch this Leonardo previously, he reportedly says, but now restoration techniques have improved to the point where the museum thinks them safe – even for the Mona Lisa which has become “yellowish and very dark”. The history of modern restoration is peppered with facile claims of technical “advances” that were rushed untested on to great works of art, soon to become the acknowledged follies of yesteryear. (We have often wondered whether the credulous techno-enthusiasts of Futurism, which movement died a swift death, had not migrated into art conservation.) Of what do these latest claimed advances consist? Have they arisen since the 2011 restoration of the “Virgin and St. Anne”, the controversial treatment of which provoked resignations from the restoration’s own advisory committee (as we reported on 28 April 2012 – “Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration”).

On the “La Belle Ferronnière” Mr Delieuvin holds that “The many layers of darkened varnish added over the centuries are getting old and make the painting dark and yellowish”. Such phobic/alarmist language is a constant feature of the would-be restorer’s rationale. After restoration, Mr Delieuvin predicts, the “contrasts and colours will come out again; so will the feeling of movement”. A long-standing (French) charge against intrusive restorers was that in their haste to “liberate” colours and dispel all signs of age in what are old paintings, they remove original material and impart a falsifying, historically inappropriate modernity. Restorers of every generation have insisted that their “advanced science” can prove that no original material was lost. In so saying, they demonstrate cultural naivety and failures to comprehend the nature of that of which art consists and the artistic and art historical, not “techno/scientific”, terrain on which all restoration evaluations should properly be conducted.

Restoration disputes stem from losses of perceived artistic values. Although artists certainly work with and through materials, the materials are not ends in themselves, or even vehicles of intrinisic value. Rather, they are the means by which the “stuff of art” is given fixed material expression. The currency with which artists work is values and the relationships between values. Through these they work by eye to produce artefacts which fix and carry their intentions, so that they might subsequently be optically apprehended by others. In the production of a painting every last feature is a product of thought. But every judgement, evaluation and adjustment is transmitted exclusively through human sight, and not, as techno-conservationists might prefer, through sub-atomic particles of matter, complex chemical formulations or other mystificatory hi-tech red herrings.

Thus, to take Mr Delieuvin’s promised delivery of increases of “contrasts and colours” in the pending Leonardo restoration, we can anticipate the outcome to some considerable degree by applying those very criteria to the last restored Louvre Leonardo, the “Virgin and St. Anne”. On that work it is clear that while an increase in the brightness of colours occurred, it was at the expense of a catastrophic reduction of contrast and strength in the tones by which the heads had been modelled and given corporeal form, as the Poussin scholar, David Packwood, very generously acknowleded on his (excellent) website Art History Today (“Aesthetic Appraisal and the Restoration Process”):

“I’m looking with growing horror at images of pre and post restoration images of the Leonardo Virgin and St Anne in the Louvre. They can be found here, in an article by the head of ArtWatch, Michael Daley. In a balanced and thoughtful post on restoration culture, Michael Daley highlights its real dangers, clearly evident in this latest example…”

When appraising restorations it is essential to do what museum curators and restorers are so clearly reluctant to do in their own catalogues and publications: place directly comparable photographs of before and after cleaning states in the closest possible proximity. This facilitates direct optical appraisal – which is the only methodologically sound and appropriate means of evaluating a work whose appearance has been transformed by a technician’s swabs, solvents, scalpels. It is never possible to compare a restored painting with its own pre-restoration condition because that is irreversibly effaced in the process. Photographs must therefore stand in lieu.

In every photo-comparison shown here of details from the “Virgin and St. Anne”, it is clear to any educated eye that the tonal range that was formerly visible has been massively reduced. This, ipso facto, is a proof of artistic injury: “dirty varnishes” could not have disported themselves in such a manner as to enhance the effects of Leonardo’s own handiwork. Moreover, the values and relationships of values that were perceivable through the varnishes before restoration would, on Mr Delieuvin’s own optical schema, be expected to emerge from a “cleaning” with greatly enhanced, not reduced, power and vivacity – in short, while the lights would certainly be expected to emerge lighter, the half tones and darks should also be strengthened and not diminished – as seen right.

Consider the comparison of the Virgin’s eyes at Figs. 5 and 6. Such has been the loss of modelling-by-shading that the face is reduced to a mask-like reminiscence of its former self. The now obtrusively dark slits of the down-cast eyes are no longer subsumed within the previous anatomically descriptive overall shading of eye sockets. Had Leonardo really painted the face as is presented today as “recovery”, it would be for the restorers, curators and trustees of the Louvre to explain how it was that dirty varnish had formerly imparted superior, Leonardesque traits to the master’s own handiwork. It would also need to be explained why Leonardo might have been content to leave two versions of the pupil of the Virgin’s right eye simultaneously visible on his finished picture.

If we consider the comparison shown at Figs. 7 and 8 of the Virgin’s lower face, another aspect of injury is apparent. That is, as the half-tones have receded under the force of swabs and solvent, the resulting increased zones of brightness leave the face looking looks both fatter and flatter. It is hardly heresy to suggest that Leonardo used shading to turn the surfaces of his heads away from light and into shadow. What kind of benefit, then, has been gained by delivering a lighter, brighter, flatter Leonardo? For what reason and on whose authority was the expression of the Virgin’s mouth altered?

As our colleague at ARIPA, Michel Favre-Felix, disclosed a few years ago, in the Veronese head shown in Figs. 10 to 13, we find evidence of a Louvre house-style of cleaning and repainting that imposes crass puffed-up modernist forms and redrawn and re-modelled features on Renaissance heads. This bizarrely unwarranted policy is accompanied by a cavalier disregard for the norms of museum-world conservation record keeping (as is evident in the Louvre spokeswoman’s reported comments at Fig. 11). The Louvre, as today constituted, is doing indefensible things to the art it holds and feels no obligation even to record or report them. The tragedy is that until quite recently this museum was a model of restoration restraint and a reproach to other institutions. Today, along with with its bonanza of destructive restorations, increasingly we find intrusive and vulgar commercial exploitation by Big Sponsors: “Another Restored Leonardo, Another Sponsored Celebration – Ferragamo at the Louvre”. To think that such a great institution could sink so swiftly into meretricious stewardship and displays of bling.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Figs. 1 and 2: Details of the mouth of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” showing the badly fractured “topography” of the paint and varnish layers. In view of the results shown below of the recent cleaning of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St. Anne”, it is impossible to consider the prospect of a restoration of this painting with anything other than absolute dread. By what means might an attempt be made to separate the infinitely subtle brown modelling of the mouth from the ancient varnishes in which they are presently incorporated?
Above, Figs. 3a and 3b; Figs. 4a and 4b; Figs. 5, 6, 7, and 8: Comparative details of St Anne in Leonardo’s “The Virgin and St Anne” showing the head before and after its recent “cleaning” and “restoration”. In each pairing, the before cleaning state is either to the left or above the post-restoration image.
Above, Figs. 9a and 9b: The head of Leonardo’s Virgin shown before (left) and after (right) treatment.
Above, Figs. 10, 11, 12 and 13. Fig 10: The cover of the Artwatch UK members’ journal which discussed recent botched restorations at the Prado and the Louvre. Fig. 11: Coverage in The Week of Dalya Alberge’s 13 June 2010 Observer article “Louvre masterpiece by Veronese ‘mutilated’ by botched nose jobs”. Figs. 12 and 13: The Louvre’s mutilated Veronese head before (top) and after (above) its covert and unrecorded double restorations.
Below, Figs. 14a and 14b: The mutilated Louvre Veronese head (left), and the homage to the “Mona Lisa” by Botero (right) to which the several-times adulterated Veronese head now bears a strong resembance in its puffed-out forms.
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THE FATE OF SCULPTURES AT: 1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2) The British Museum; 3) The National Museum of Kolkata; 4) The Academy of Art in Perugia; And, the Burrell Collection next?

20 January 2014

STOP PRESS: On Tuesday January 21st the Burrell Collection (Lending and Borrowing) (Scotland) was passed in the Scottish Parliament without a vote. Barely half a dozen MSPs attended. They unanimously supported the Bill (although one called for some published account of the proposed £45m development plan). There is no minimum number of votes necessary for a bill to gain approval.

Neil MacGregor and Thomas Campbell, the directors respectively of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will now be able to make arrangements for the first two stops in the planned international tour of plum Burrell works to help raise £45m to repair and refurbish the Burrell Collection building, the roof of which has been left leaking for decades. The desultory non-debate took place during an international spate of damaged sculptures.

Accident at Perugia

As we reported on 14 October 2013, when Canova’s sculpture The Killing of Priam was being detached from the wall of the Academy of Art in Perugia to be shipped to an exhibition at Assisi, just 24 kilometres away, it was dropped and smashed beyond repair (as Tomaso Montanari had recently disclosed). The removal operation was headed by the shipping company Alessandro Maggi di Pietrasanta.

Accident at Kolkata

On 14 January this year, the Art Newspaper reported another catastrophic accident, this time at the National Museum of Kolkata where a rare 2,000 years old carved lion was dropped and smashed when being moved within the museum during renovation (see Figs. 1 and 2). The Art Newspaper was quick to claim that the accident “highlighted a shocking lack of professional procedures for handling antiquities at Indian museums” but many major well-resourced and staffed western museums have proved accident-prone in their treatment of sculptures in recent years – and in one respect, as discussed below, the Kolkata museum procedures would seem superior.

Accidents at the British Museum

Consider first the record of the British Museum. In the 2007 book “The Museum: Behind the scenes at the British Museum” (written to accompany a fawning ten-part BBC television series), it is said that:

“Sending precious ancient objects around the world is all very well in theory, but in reality it’s a massive operation fraught with practical and official difficulties. Before any loan is considered, the British Museum has to be certain that the destination museum can provide the right conditions and security. ‘We can only lend responsibly’, says Neil MacGregor. ‘The museums we’re sending to have to be able to ensure their safety. Beijing now has a museum that can accept international loans: it’s new, and it reaches international standards, and it’s very pleasing that they chose to open it with an exhibition of British Museum treasures. Shanghai, being a more cosmopolitan city, has had a good museum for a long time – and there are places opening up in the Chinese provinces that we’ll be happy to work with. It’s easier and safer to transport these big, valuable objects now but it’s just as important to be certain that they’ll be safe at the other end.’”

With regard to safety, as we reported on 6-8 September, when, in 2006, the British Museum packed the peerless and desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings (see Figs. 8 and 9) and sent them all by lorry to Luxembourg from where they were flown to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 11 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s doorways were too low. No one, it seems, had thought to measure either the doors or the packing cases.

It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door”. This meant “that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs. Even then we had to unpack three of the modules to get a bit more clearance”, said the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day, in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes (see “The Museum”, BBC2, 2007).

When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” The injuries have not been identified and no photographs of them have been published. When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they in turn would not pass through the door of the reading room – even when the door’s frame was removed.

Accidents at the Metropolitan Museum

As for the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Burrell Trustees will have further grounds for qualms when considering authorisation of loan requests to that venue. In 2008 an Andrea della Robbia terra cotta, St. Michael the Archangel, fell from the walls and smashed (see Fig. 4). So far as we know, it has not yet been repaired and returned to view.

Six years earlier, in 2002, a much larger and art historically more important sculpture, Tullio Lombardo’s life-sized carved marble Adam (Fig. 6) – the first monumental, classically inspired nude of the Renaissance – also fell to the ground and smashed into many pieces (see Fig. 7). It did so when its stand collapsed. We must assume that like the Andrea della Robbia, this work, too, has still not been repaired and returned to the gallery. On 28 January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times that neither of the Met’s smashed Renaissance sculptures were back on view (“Despite Assurances, Met Finds Artworks Aren’t restored Overnight”). The Museum’s press office has not responded to either of our inquiries last week on the present condition and whereabouts of the two Renaissance sculptures. At the time of its collapse in 2002, the Met said that the Lombardo would be back on display in two years time. Fortunately, both of these accidents occurred after hours and when no visitors were present. In both cases no museum staff witnessed the accidents.

Unlike the Kolkata Museum (and the National Gallery in London, which supplied ArtWatch with photographs of the painted panel by Beccafumi which was dropped and smashed when being dismounted from a temporary exhibition within the gallery), the Met permitted no photographs to be taken of the Tullio Lombardo sculpture, which witnesses reported to have been smashed into hundreds of pieces.

The Met defends both that original suppression of evidence and the continuing secrecy surrounding the two restorations. In January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported that the unusual seclusion in which the Lombardo restoration was being carried out had generated suspicions that the sculpture is beyond repair. This lack of institutional transparency was defended by the chairman of the museum’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, Ian Wardropper, on the grounds that seeing images of broken sculptures would be “detrimental to museumgoers’ ability to appreciate such pieces once repaired”. Mr Wardropper suggested on that occasion that the work was probably three years from re-emerging and he attributed the increasing length of time to an original decision to restore the statue “in the most meticulous and durable way possible.”

The Met believes itself to have been hampered in its goal, Mr Kennedy reported, because “few pristine life-size museum marbles like the Adam have ever shattered, so reliable technical information about restoring one is limited.” Nonetheless, Mr Wardropper was bullish about the significance of the protracted restoration. A large insurance pay-out had been made (the size of which the Met also declines to disclose), and it was decided to use this money for a monumental restoration research project on the best means of repairing smashed carvings.

It has been promised that at the restoration’s end, the repaired and cleaned work will be unveiled as the centrepiece of a special exhibition to be housed in a new gallery dedicated to the Venetian Renaissance. That the work itself is of great art historical and artistic significance is not in dispute (see comments at Fig. 6). At the same time, consideration might be given to the artful propagandistic means by which museums can contrive to present the eventual recovery of needlessly or carelessly lost or damaged works as Public Relations Triumphs – see “Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”.

In January 2010 the Met’s then new director, Thomas P. Campbell, said that after initial doubts he fully supported the lengthy restoration: “The sculpture is 500 years old. Whether it’s off display for eight years rather than five is insignificant.” The sculpture is now at least 521 years old and has been off display for twelve years. We are told that research carried out on the safest means of pinning fragments of marble together has established that the most commonly used material – stainless steel – has the great disadvantage of having greatly more tensile strength than the marble itself. It is not clear why this “discovery” required such lengthy and expensive research: it has long been recognised that the iron pins used to re-assemble the Parthenon during its 1930s restoration had resulted in fractures of the marble, either as a result of earth tremors or the expansion of the iron through rusting (the restorers had not followed the ancient Greek practice of encasing the iron in lead to prevent corrosion). The consequence of using steel (or titanium, as is now being used on the Parthenon) for pinning today, is that when sculptures are next dropped or severely shaken, the pins can shatter the marble from within, introducing many more and greatly more serious injuries. It should, therefore, go without saying that moving stone works that have been repaired with metal pins inescapably compounds the risks.

Even if the vote in the Scottish Parliament should go in favour of Glasgow Life’s attempt to overturn Burrell’s wishes and binding instructions against foreign travels, the trustees of his collection might nonetheless, when considering authorising a loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reflect on the fact that the Lombardo sculpture was smashed only because (as we had reported in the ArtWatch UK Journal 17 in 2002) it had been removed in 2000 from the cherry-wood pedestal on which it had (presumably) stood since its 1936 acquisition by the Met, and placed on a modern conservation-standard base and shallow plinth constructed with MDO (Medium Density Overlay Plywood). At that time, the then director, Philippe de Montebello, promised that, after an anticipated two years restoration, “The figure will stand again on a solid pedestal and, frankly, only the cognoscenti will know.” A dozen years on, that claim has yet to be tested. What can be said, is that the sculptures at the Burrell Collection presently stand securely on wonderfully stable stone bases (see Figs. 11 and 12) and, as ArtWatch pointed out to the Scottish Parliamentary hearing on September 19th, they would remain safely so if “as we most strongly urge, the Parliament rejects the request to overturn Burrell’s still perfectly well-founded prohibition on foreign travels for works in collection.”

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Smashed at the National Museum of Kolkata
Above, Figs. 1 and 2: A 2,000 years old carved Rampurva Lion Capital that was smashed when being moved during renovations at the Kolkata (“Calcutta”) museum. Photos by courtesy of www.ndtv.com
Smashed at the Academy of Art in Perugia
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Canova’s plaster maquette of The Killing of Priam, a Homeric episode which together with other famous scenes of classic literature inspired Canova in one of his most famous series of bas-reliefs.
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 4: Andrea della Robbia’s glazed terra-cotta relief, Saint Michael the Archangel, which fell from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and smashed (fortunately, overnight when the museum was free of visitors). As Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times of 2 July 2008, the work appeared to have flipped and landed on its back sparing absolutely catastrophic damage and leaving what a museum spokesman described as “eminently restorable” fragments. The museum issued a statement claiming that: “while the Metropolitan routinely and thoroughly inspects its pedestals and wall mounts to reconfirm their structural integrity, it will initiate a reinvigorated museumwide examination as expeditiously as possible in the days that follow this unfortunate accident.” (The Met has not answered our inquiry as to the present condition and whereabouts of the sculpture.)
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the dust-wrapper on Patricia Fortini Brown’s 1996 and 1999 book Venice & Antiquity – which work, the author writes, was a response to a challenge posed by “the issues raised in David Lowenthal’s stimulating and unabashedly eclectic book The Past is a Foreign Country (1985)…”
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 6: Tullio Lombardo’s carved Adam from the tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin which was built in 1488-93. Professor Brown says of this figure:
“Tullio’s work represents a new level of engagement with the Latin past. Not only is he the most classical of any Venetian artist to date, but he directs his archaeological tendencies towards highly original solutions…”
Still in “restoration” after twelve years
Above, Figs. 7 and 8: From left, Tullio Lombardo’s “Adam” before it was damaged in the Metropolitan Museum, and virtual images (Ron Street/Metropolitan Museum of Art) of restoration and of degrees of stress.
Requiring that “a few little conservation things” be done at the British Museum
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Top, the Assyrian Nimrud Palace wall reliefs gallery at the British Museum which was stripped down and sent to Shanghai; above, a Nimrud Palace carving of a winged genius.
It is hard to see the removal of those reliefs from that gallery as constituting any other than a trauma. As the museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day describes it:
“The Nimrud Palace wall reliefs are mounted on brackets that are fixed to the wall, then the brackets are covered over with plaster for display purposes. So first of all we have to cut away the plaster, then extract the reliefs from the wall, remove the brackets and get the objects on to a forklift truck. They go straight on to what we call a module – an L-shape stand made of MDF and pine – that holds and supports them , so you can forklift them without actually touching them. The reliefs are made of alabaster which scratches very easily, so you need to minimize the amount of handling…”
Above: Figs. 11 and 12, classical antiquities (presently) safe and secure at the Burrell Collection Museum.
TURNERS STOLEN FROM THE TATE WHEN ON LOAN TO A PROVINCIAL MUSEUM IN GERMANY
A “Genuine” Tate Good News Story
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: Top, Nicholas Serota (centre) and his two (now departed) lieutenants, Sandy Nairne (left) and Stephen Deuchar (right) at a press conference in December 2002 celebrating the recovery of two stolen Tate Turners after the payment of a ransom of over £3m; above, a report in the Daily Telegraph of the role played by the Tate’s chairman of trustees, Lord Myners, in the recovery of the two Turners that had been stolen when loaned in 1994.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


NEW YEAR REPORT

6 January 2014

Assaults on History: Dishing Donors; a Vatican Wobble; and, Reigniting an Old Battle of Hearts, Minds, Interests and Evidence

We had a good and eventful campaigning year in 2013. At home, ArtWatch was invited to speak in the Scottish Parliament for the interests of art and against a municipal arts bureaucracy seeking to overturn a prodigiously generous benefactor’s wishes and instructions in order, effectively, to reward its own negligence with an extension of powers and a major capital project (without clear costing). Our views on this proposal were carried in the October Museums Journal, the December Apollo (see Burrell pdf) and in the Sunday Times (Scotland). We found ourselves in the midst of a high-level museum world schism.

MacGregor versus Penny

Speaking for the overturning of Sir William Burrell’s terms of bequest was the Glaswegian director of the British Museum and former director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor. Mr MacGregor had agreed (presumably with the blessing of his trustees) to be co-opted as an adviser and declared partisan onto a Glasgow Life body – “Burrell Renaissance”. In support of Glasgow Life’s ambitions, MacGregor expressed with characteristic (lawerish) eloquence impatience with the length of time in which The Living might find themselves governed by the Wishes of the Dead. The present director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny (a scholar, rather than a populariser of others’ scholarship) spoke no less eloquently in opposition: “What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of the donor. Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past.”

Parliamentary Concerns

The matter will come before the Scottish Parliament this month. Intriguingly, one of the members of the parliamentary committee that scrutinised the Burrell Lending request from Glasgow Life, Gordon MacDonald, SNP MSP, told yesterday’s Sunday Times (Scotland) that: “I too was concerned at the cost of £45m bearing in mind that Kelvingrove refurbishment cost £29m and they raised £2.5m from sponsorship and donations. The major work at the Burrell is a complete new roof and removal of lecture theatre to create new gallery space. Both of which will be costly, but £45m?”

Fresh Crimes Against Art and History

Internationally, two recent horrifically destructive mural restorations (the first in Spain and another in China, see Figs. 1 to 4) had reminded many of the great Sistine Chapel cleaning controversies of the 1980s and early 1990s (see “Restoration tragedies”). In January 2013 we were drawn back into that monumental Sistine Chapel restoration controversy (which had triggered ArtWatch’s founding in 1992) by an official acknowledgement that Michelangelo’s stripped-down ceiling frescoes were prey to failures of environmental regulation that were being exacerbated by swelling visitor numbers. We had warned against such failures twenty years earlier: “Artificially induced changes in moisture, heat and patterns of air convection can themselves do gross damage…The most obvious risk is that external air-borne pollutants will be pulled in.” (“The Physical Condition of the Sistine Ceiling”, Chapter IV, p.122, Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal, London, 1993.)

An Old Crime Implodes

At the beginning of last year, Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, insisted that whatever the problems, visitor numbers could not be restricted: “We have entered the era of large-scale tourism, and millions want to enjoy our historical culture. Limiting numbers is unthinkable.” Today, the unthinkable may be on the cards. Paolucci acknowledges in this month’s Art Newspaper that the huge increases in visitor numbers (5,459,000 last year from 4m the year before) constitute his biggest practical problem:

“…The sheer numbers can be damaging, especially in the Sistine Chapel, which everyone wants to see. At the height of the season it gets 20,000 to 25,000 people a day, all breathing out carbon dioxide and vapour and bringing in dust. We are employing Carrier, a top US firm [who donated and installed the presently failing system] to work out a method of dealing with humidity; otherwise we will have to limit numbers… (Emphasis added.)

On January 2nd Paolucci expressed further concerns in a Vatican museums press release: “I’m asking myself what will happen during the coming Easter holidays and the great canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. This will bring to Rome an immense mass of Catholics from every part of the world. Such extraordinary numbers oblige one to make some fundamental and priority considerations. The objective must be from now on to observe constant maintenance and preventive conservation of the Heritage. To do so we must provide ever more important resources.” At the same time, Paolucci promised that, after 3 years of work, all will be ready in May for the “improved air conditioning, reduction of pollutants and humidity control of the temperature.”

Antonio Paolucci, a distinguished Renaissance art scholar (and student of Roberto Longhi), might be thought to be in an impossible position as director of the Vatican’s museums. Presently, Michelangelo’s frescoes are being devoured by pollution and condensation that are the inescapable by-products of permitting the Sistine Chapel to serve as a tourism cash cow. At the time of the last restoration of the ceiling, the Vatican’s finances were a source of scandal (one of its bankers had been found hanged on a bridge in London). On December 7/8 last year the Financial Times reported “The Vatican bank was established to serve the work of the Catholic Church around the world. It has now become synonymous with financial scandal. An 11-month FT investigation reveals the extent of mismanagement at the Euros 5bn-asset bank and the murkiness of its operations that finally led regulators, international agencies, big banks and even Pope Francis himself to take action.” (Rachel Sanderson, “The Scandal at God’s Bank”.) In this climate, is cutting back visitors really an option? For that matter, is the new air-conditioning system promised for May capable of coping with yet further increases of visitors of the kind indicated by Paolucci?

In the absence of dramatic reductions of visitor numbers (which must presently be netting in excess of £75m p.a.) it is hard to see how any amount of conservation tinkering might resolve the present crisis. It would never be logistically possible to seal every visitor inside a “moon-suit” that would prevent the destructive cycles of evaporation and condensation that were already known in 1993 to be creating continuous migrations of salts and vapour within the frescoes. (At that date it was established that some 425 kilos of water were being pumped into the chapel’s microclimate by the daily total of 17,000 visitors. On today’s visits that volume of water must reach 600 kilos per day.)

No increase of expenditure could reverse the initial un-wisdom of stripping Michelangelo’s frescoes down to the bare plaster, thereby both bowdlerising his art and exposing its remains to environmental degradation. No expenditure could put back the glue painting with which Michelangelo had modified and intensified the sculptural presence of his figures and the unprecedented dramatically illuminated theatre which they occupied. Those characteristics had startled and awed his contemporaries. They were repeatedly recorded in copies made in Michelangelo’s own lifetime and for centuries afterwards (see, in particular the late 18th century copy opposite at Fig. 8).

The Vatican is presently attempting to rebuild the relationship between the Church and contemporary art that was sundered 200 years ago. It is a noble aim but it will remain a vain one until the corruption of art history that followed the restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling is acknowledged and addessed. What Michelangelo achieved on the ceiling was unprecedented and precious: a profoundly spiritual fusion of the human and the divine that was rendered corporeal and situated in a palpable space contiguous with our own. Scholar supporters of the restoration claimed in defence of the emasculation of that original stupendous and unique achievement that we could now make “more sense” of Michelangelo; that we could now see a clearer link between his art and that of the inferiors who preceded and followed him. As long as the Church continues to endorse so unfounded, untenable an account, it will be in no moral position to forge any constructive relationship between itself and today’s artists.

If the cash flow is to be maintained and if Michelangelo is to be preserved, there would seem to be only one conceivable solution: as with other environmentally vulnerable archaeological/artistic sites, a full-size, absolutely faithful facsimile of the chapel will have to be built as a destination for the ever-swelling press of tourists. Creating an alternative “virtual” chapel might seem a shocking prospect and a colossal admission of failure but would it be more unpalatable than proceeding with the proposed plan described in our previous post to turn the remains of Michelangelo’s own frescoes into a “virtual” colourised caricature of themselves with 7,000 individually attuned colour-enhancing LED lights that would flood the ceiling with an artifical and chromatically falsifying light ten times more powerful than today’s? Building a facsimile to draw the tourists would mean that what survives of Michelangelo’s original work might then be left in peace, as it is, and once again in a congenial, stable climate.

Further and Fresh Doubts

On November 30th Peter Aspden, the Financial Times’s culture correspondent, declared that the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes (“the most important such project in recent history”) had been a “crushing disappointment”. Recalling that before restoration the frescoes had been “more real, more subtle, more moving”, Aspden noted that arguments in defence of the restoration “have been rebutted, with no little ferocity.” If Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes remain the worst case of injuries suffered in the great post-war restoration bonanza, they are not alone. Fortunately there are increasing signs of doubts about modern restoration procedures elsewhere. Consider this further critique of picture restorers that emerged from a most surprising quarter on December 17th:

“…The problem is, each generation of conservators has always thought that they, uniquely, had the definitive solution to fixing works of art. In the world of pictures, today’s conservators spend much of their time undoing the earlier, bad restoration of their predecessors. For example, the dreadful wax re-lining technique all the rage only a generation or so ago is now routinely removed, as over time the wax creates a dull, thick layer which affects the paint surface. Before that, there was a fashion for planing down pictures on panel, and laying them onto canvas, with all the attendant holes and large losses that entailed (see for example the poor Bridgewater Raphaels in the National Gallery of Scotland). More recently, conservators thought they had invented a synthetic varnish that didn’t go yellow with age. But now we are discovering that it just goes grey instead. So the pictures have to be cleaned all over again. It’s a fact that over the course of art history more damage has been done to pictures by those claiming to be ‘conserving’ them than anything else. We can only wonder which of today’s foolproof conservation techniques will have to be rectified by tomorrow’s restorers. Sometimes I think it’s all a giant, inter-generational job creation scheme by some shadowy, global conservator’s union.”

We had noted on 12 July last year that “There has never been a make-work project like art restoration”, and earlier, on 17 March 2011, that “Art conservation is now a substantial vested interest, a business with a shifting ideology that serves as self-promotion… Regardless of conservators’ good intentions, the fact remains that their treatments alter the material fabric and aesthetic appearance of works of art. Alterations are made on promises to prolong life, prevent deteriorations and recover original conditions, when history repeatedly shows contrary outcomes”. Although we greatly welcome the recent tacit endorsement, its source is perplexing. The author, Bendor Grosvenor, made these remarks on his (lively and informative) blog, Art History News.

Art Market restorations

Mr Grosvenor, a modern historian by training, has for a number of years worked as a researcher and, latterly, as a second pair of eyes for the Mayfair art dealer, Philip Mould, who happens to be a highly active “stripper-downer” of paintings in search of something better and more valuable underneath. In countless BBC television programmes, in his 1995 book Sleepers and in his 2009 book Sleuth, Mr Mould has been a most effective propagandist for today’s professional restorers, of whom Grosvenor evidently now entertains doubts. Mould himself has conceded with increasing frequency that great risks attend the stripping down of paintings. When asked recently on the best method of cleaning pictures, he replied somewhat flippantly “With spit and polish” and made no mention of the solvents – principally acetone – and scalpels used by his own restorers. (We have been haunted for some years by advice given on how to remove nail varnish when no acetone nail varnish remover is to hand: brush on fresh nail varnish, leave for a few moments and then wipe off. The acetone in the new liquid varnish swiftly dissolves the old hard varnish enabling both to be removed with the same cloth.)

Concealment and Disclosure

With the public museum sector we feel compelled to examine the bizarre and perverse phenomenon of promoting demonstrably wrecked paintings in special loan exhibitions. One such is the Clark Institute’s Turner “Rockets and Blue Lights”, which work is once again being promoted in Britain as the Belle of Turner’s Ball, this time at the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s “Turner and the Sea” exhibition. As our colleague in New York, Ruth Osborne, has established, another such restoration-wrecked picture hangs in the Frick Collection as an autograph Vermeer (“Vermeer Interrupted: A Study of Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl Interrupted at Her Music’ at The Frick Collection”). The Frick has refused to release to ArtWatch an archive photograph that shows the frequently undone and redone picture at its most pictorially deranged and incoherent “in-restoration” state. A copy of that photograph is held by the Getty Institute but it cannot be released because of the Frick’s enforcement of copyright ownership. All but the most informed visitors to the Frick will likely have no inkling of what lies beneath the present surface. Where Philip Mould seeks to identify and uncover works of quality that have been distorted by later accretions (- the art trade’s “sleepers”), the Frick presently conspires to pass off tricked-up underlying pictorial carnage as Vermeer’s own handiwork.

The Frick is not alone. The Phillips Collection in Washington has repeatedly spurned our requests to examine the conservation and filmed records of the Kecks’ ruination of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Museums have grown bolder in promoting their own conservation efforts, sometimes placing restorers behind glass walls to permit public scrutiny. This seeming increase of public accessibility can have an ulterior motive: one leading international conservator disclosed that the practice serves to prevent embarrassing public outbreaks of shock and indignation when familiar works are unveiled after long incarceration in conservation studios. A Turner painting currently undergoing such public exposure is running at the Bowes Museum where the restorer is presently taking a break after encountering difficulties not identified by preliminary “scientific investigations” – the very type of investigation in which Philip Mould has expressed great confidence.

As we have seen in a number of televised Mould restorations, carrying out preliminary scientific tests does not eliminate surprises in the course of restoration once restorers start swiftly cutting through varnishes with their swabs and solvents to get to the paint underneath. We remain sceptical of the value of preliminary scientific or chemical analyses, not least because, as in the case of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the analysis said to “prove” the artist had not completed his frescoes with glue-based painting conflicts with other more relevant – and, in fact, irrefutable – proofs of the kind often demonstrated on this site, as here today at Figs.13, 14 and 15.

ArtWatch has another full and ideologically challenging year ahead but a first priority will be to demonstrate the extent to which naïve and misplaced faith in today’s restorers can make professional monkeys of scholars, curators and trustees.

Michael Daley

Comments may be left at: artwatch.uk@gmail.com

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Above, Fig. 1: The now notoriously “restored” wall painting of Christ (Ecce Homo), seen here before (left and centre) and after (right) treatment. (See The “World’s worst restoration” and the Death of Authenticity, and The Battle of Borja: Cecilia Giménez, Restoration Monkeys, Paediatricians, Titian and Great Women Conservators.) The fame of the incident led to a great increase of visitors to the parish church in Borja, Spain. The church imposed an entrance charge. At the end of December the parish priest was arrested for what the Daily Telegraph reports as “suspicion of misappropriating funds [£174,000], of money laundering and sexual abuse”.
Above, Fig. 2: The Daily Telegraph’s report of 23 October 2013 on the Chinese Government-approved, £100,000 restoration during which a Qing dynasty temple fresco was entirely obliterated by luridly colourised repainting. This crime against art and heritage came to light when a student posted comparative photographs online. In the resulting furore, a government official from the city responsible for the temple described the restoration as “an unauthorised project”.
Above, Figs. 3 and 4: The Telegraph reported that Wang Jinyu, an expert on fresco restoration from the Dunhuang Academy, had said the intervention could not be called “restoration, or [even] destructive restoration” because “[It is] the destruction of cultural relics since the original relics no longer exist”. It was noted that the case had echoes of a headline-grabbing incident last year when an elderly parishioner performed “a disastrous restoration” on a 19th century fresco of Christ in the Spanish town of Borja. One Chinese website user wrote. “They have turned a classic painting into graffiti. It looks like something out of Disneyland, doesn’t it?”
Above, Fig. 5: Above: Michelangelo’s prophet Daniel from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, before (left) and after (right) cleaning. The great brightening of colours, simplifications and flattening of design, and destruction of shading and modelling that occurred during restoration led many to complain of the “Disneyfication” of Michelangelo’s work. Note particularly here the loss of folds on the drapery over the shoulder to the left, and the loss of the previous dark shadow to the right of that drapery. Supporters of the restoration defended such alterations on the grounds that Michelangelo had originally painted over-brightly and without chiaroscuro in order that his images would “read” through the gloom of a smokey, candle-lit chapel. Today, despite the creation of a hugely increased chromaticism during the restoration, the Vatican authorites are contending that there needs to be a ten-fold increase in the (artificial) lighting of the ceiling because the present lighting creates a “low-contrast twilight that fails to bring out the colours in Michelangelo’s masterpiece”. Have the colours faded to a tenth of their previous intensity over the last twenty years?
Above, Fig. 6: A greyscale version of Fig. 5. The contention that Michelangelo’s work needs ever-more artificial illumination is ironic – and, in truth, confessional. When his painting was originally unveiled in 1512, observers were stunned not by any brilliance of colouring (no one mentioned his colouring) but by the fact that the artist had given such great emphasis to light and shade, and to “sculptural” modelling in between his great tonal contrasts, that his figures appeared real, not painted, and that they seemed to be occupying real space and not merely decorating surfaces. Experts marvelled that such were Michelangelo’s powers of design that surfaces on the ceiling that were actually advancing towards the viewer, appeared to recede because his his brilliantly conjured illusion of perspective. This novel and revolutionary development was recognised for nearly five centuries…until the last restoration. There ar