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Posts tagged “Larry Keith

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.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Could the Louvre’s “Virgin and St. Anne” provide the proof that the (London) National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” is not by Leonardo da Vinci?

12 June 2012

When the National Gallery’s restored “Virgin of the Rocks” was pronounced an entirely autograph Leonardo we were left reeling with incredulity. Picture restorers rarely decline opportunities to claim “discoveries” but could they really be claiming an ability to make a picture an autograph Leonardo simply by thinning its varnish? During the media frenzy of the National Gallery’s £1.5bn Leonardo blockbuster, its chief restorer, Larry Keith, was asked if a distinctive Leonardo brushstroke had emerged. “No”, he said, proof of authenticity lay in the picture’s internal relationships. Given that those relationships differ markedly from the ones present in the Louvre’s unquestionably autograph “Virgin of the Rocks”, what accounted for the discrepancies? The then curator, Luke Syson, replied that Leonardo’s style had, in the London copy, become abstracted, less naturalistic and more “metaphysical”. This seemed fanciful: had not all of Leonardo’s pictures carried a beguiling air of the metaphysical – and had this quality not derived from the artist’s preternaturally intense engagement with natural phenomena and the mysterious powers which operate through them? Had a new corroborating body of drawn studies emerged? The Gallery admits that not only is there no identifiable Leonardo brushwork but that the picture itself is “manifestly uneven in finish and execution” and that there has been “a good deal of agreement that Leonardo himself painted little or none of it”. When we asked if any securely autograph Leonardo paintings shared these newly claimed characteristics, Syson said that they were also found in the “Last Supper”, when only 20% of that large, fragmented, degraded, many-times restored, de-restored and re-restored mural survives – and when its recent restorers “discovered” that it had originally been choc-full of tiny naturalistic details (curtain hooks, slices of lemon, reflections on glassware, tablecloth patterns and so forth). Above all, the National Gallery’s latest upgrade flew in the face of – and seemingly sought to circumnavigate – a landmark 1996 article by a geologist (and now art historian), Ann Pizzorusso, who has shown that while the rock configurations in the Louvre version were entirely consistent with precise formations found in nature and in Leonardo’s own studies, those seen in the London version were found in neither. (See Pizzorusso, “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, The MIT Press, Vol. 29, No. 3, and “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks”, in Leonardo Magazine, Vol. 29. No. 3, 1996, pp. 197-200.) Here, Pizzorusso presents further elegant demonstrations of the London picture’s non-autograph status that are manifest in the (recently restored) late Leonardo masterpiece, “The Virgin and Child with St Anne”.

Ann Pizzorusso writes:

London’s National Gallery recently announced that its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”, previously attributed to various artists who worked in Milan, was now, after being cleaned, solely the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The National Gallery supports its claims by stating that the work represents a change in style and that the geology in the picture is rendered in a more abstract, monumental style (see Appendix A).

While art historians have long discounted the National Gallery’s version as one by Leonardo, the Gallery has now discounted centuries of scholarship with their new interpretation and subsequent attribution of the painting to Leonardo. What is most ironic and troubling about the National Gallery’s position is that there are reams of contractual documents which still exist today documenting a 25 years long lawsuit concerning the two versions of the painting and which show, unequivocally, that Leonardo did not paint the version in the National Gallery. Prof. Charles Hope, a former director of the Warburg Institute, London, and an expert in notarial Latin states that there is no doubt that Leonardo painted the first version and not the second (New York Review, 9 February 2012).

While we may be able to forgive the National Gallery for not being up on notarial Latin, there is no excuse for their proposal that Leonardo changed his style. In the decades in which I have studied Leonardo from all aspects (we must remember, Leonardo did not consider himself primarily a painter) one thing stands out in all his works—a fidelity to nature and a lifelong effort to depict natural objects as realistically as possible.

The father of Leonardo studies, Carlo Pedretti, in his book analyzing Leonardo’s nature drawings, “Leonardo da Vinci Nature Studies from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle” (with a forward written by Kenneth Clark, a former director of the National Gallery in London), devotes the entire volume to discussing Leonardo’s preoccupation with natural objects and his fanaticism in attempting to depict them as realistically as possible. This passion was imparted to his students, Francesco Melzi, Cesare da Sesto, Giovanni Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono. So much so that a drawing of a Tree (RL 12417), long thought to be by Leonardo, was later attributed to Cesare da Sesto and a view of Amboise (RL 12727) to Francesco Melzi. In analyzing the works of Leonardo’s students one can see that they have followed Leonardo’s technique and depicted natural objects as realistically as possible. They had obviously heard quite a bit of ranting by Leonardo about “Botticelli’s bad landscapes” (see Appendix B).

Another reason why Leonardo’s approach is reflected in his art is that he was born in the transitional era of the late Middle Ages, an age still filled with superstition and fear, especially about such things as mountains, natural catastrophes and death. He grew up leading the way into the Renaissance, faced all these fears, and debunked them. He travelled extensively in the Alps outside of Milan taking note of nature and geology. He noted landslides and torrential flooding with its associated damage (see Figs. 3 & 4), he dissected corpses to provide the most accurate depiction of human anatomy we have ever had until relatively recent times. His work as engineer, geologist, botanist and astronomer cannot be disconnected from his work as an artist (see Figs. 8 & 9). To understand Leonardo, one must understand him completely. And to understand him completely is not difficult. He has written everything down. He was faithful to nature. If one applies just that one rule to Leonardo da Vinci, looking at his work from a scientific standpoint, the answer is crystal clear: fidelity to nature is a Leonardo trademark that can be used to determine the authenticity of his work.

Now that we have seen that the National Gallery has preferred not to acknowledge the work of many esteemed Leonardo scholars, maybe looking at the recently cleaned “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” in the Louvre will change its mind (see Figs. 1, 7, 10, 11, 14, 17, & 21). The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, dated to about 1510, came later than the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”. We do not know how much later, as the National Gallery has now dated the initiation of its version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” as 1491/2-9 and its completion to 1506-08. Professor Hope, in his review of the notarial documents regarding the lawsuit states that the National Gallery version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” could not have been painted before 1508.

If we use the 17 year time period (1491-1508) which the National Gallery cites for its “Virgin of the Rocks”, it would mean Leonardo was painting the “Last Supper” (1492-7/8), completing the Burlington Cartoon (1499-1500 or 1506-08) and the “Virgin of the Rocks” at the same time. On page 96 of Kenneth Clark’s book entitled “Leonardo da Vinci” he indicates that Leonardo was exceptionally busy. Apart from the first “Virgin of the Rocks” his time was taken up with work for the court. He was the court limner and also painted two portraits of the Duke’s mistresses Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli. With these portraits, we would be up to five major works in progress by Leonardo if we include the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.

This being said, all of these works being done at nearly the same time gives us the perfect opportunity to appraise, determine and evaluate the stylistic traits of the artist at that period of his career. In looking at the Burlington Cartoon and the “Virgin and St. Anne”, both are rich with geologic detail and accuracy. Leonardo has risen to new heights in his portrayal of landscape elements. His talent and passion are vividly displayed in the Burlington Cartoon and he reaches a level of sophistication, subtlety and accuracy in rendering the geology in the “Virgin and St. Anne” which had never been seen before (see Appendix C).

The St. Anne is a geologic tour-de-force. In fact, Leonardo experimented extensively on developing paints and a technique for depicting the pebbles of agate, chalcedony and marble at the feet of the Virgin and St. Anne (see in particular, Figs. 1 & 21). Leonardo writes in his notebooks about his efforts and how satisfied he was to have developed an approach to rendering the pebbles in such a realistic fashion. In fact the entire painting is one geologic treat after another. He had spent years in the Alps so he knew the landscape and geology exactly. With his newly developed technique for painting marbleized pebbles he was delighted (- see Appendix D).

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.

It would be best for the National Gallery to reopen the case for the attribution of the work to Leonardo. Hundreds of years of scholarship by Leonardo critics as well as the words and the works by Leonardo himself should not be discounted. The National Gallery does a disservice to those who have worked so hard to come up with incontrovertible evidence regarding the attribution of this work and most of all the National Gallery does a disservice to Leonardo himself.

Ann Pizzorusso

Appendix A

The National Gallery’s claimed shift within Leonardo’s oeuvre

“We know that Leonardo’s painting technique gave priority to the figures. The Virgin is designed first, as she is in so many of his drawings, and the landscape seems to flow from her. Since Leonardo saw the painter’s acts of creation as analogous to God’s, his generation of the landscape in the Virgin of the Rocks and the absolute, unalterable perfection of the Madonna at the center could be understood as precisely connected with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. But the appearance of the Virgin and her companions, and of the plants and rocks, are different, in the two versions: the theological meaning of his stylistic choices has shifted slightly. In the Louvre picture Leonardo relies on entirely naturalistic tactics to give the picture its spiritual flavor: the sinless beauty of the Virgin becomes the same kind of truth as the natural beauty of the irises nearby. But in the London Virgin of the Rocks, the Virgin and Christ are supernatural, the world around rendered notably less naturalistically, the rocks are straightened to become great columns; the flowers appear to be ideal composites of the leaves and petals of real plants. Tackling the theme for a second time, Leonardo chose to show the viewer not just a vision of the Virgin Mary, but Gods’ perfect ideas for everything around her. What we are shown here is an ideal world made before the physical creation of our own imperfect cosmos, before the need for humankind’s salvation.”

The National Gallery catalogue, “Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan”, page 174.

Appendix B

Leonardo on Botticelli’s bad landscapes

“He is not universal who does not love equally all the elements in painting, as when one who does not like landscapes holds them to be a subject for cursory and straightforward investigation-just as our Botticelli said such study was of no use because by merely throwing a sponge soaked in a variety of colours at a wall there would be left on the wall a stain in which could be seen a beautiful landscape.”

Leonardo da Vinci, from: “Treatise on Painting”, the chapter on Criteria and Judgments, the subsection “How a painter is not worthy of praise unless he is universal”.

Appendix C

Walter Pater

“Saint Anne–that delicate place, where the wind passes like the hand of some fine etcher over the surface, and the untorn shells are lying thick upon the sand, and the tops of the rocks, to which the waves never rise, are green with grass, grown fine as hair. It is the landscape, not of dreams or of fancy, but of places far withdrawn, and hours selected from a thousand with a miracle of finesse. Through Leonardo’s strange veil of sight things reach him so; in no ordinary night or day, but as in faint light of eclipse, or in some brief interval of falling rain at daybreak, or through deep water.”

Walter Horatio Pater, “The Renaissance, Studies in Art and Poetry”, The Echo Library 2006, page 54.

Appendix D

Carlo Pedretti

“The movement of the fifteenth century was twofold; partly the Renaissance, partly also the coming of what is called the ‘modern spirit’, with its realism, its appeal to experience. It comprehended a return to antiquity, and a return to nature. Raphael represents the return to antiquity, and Leonardo the return to nature. In this return to nature, he was seeking to satisfy a boundless curiosity by her perpetual surprises, a microscopic sense of finish by her finesse, or delicacy of operation, that subtilitas naturae which Bacon notices. So we find him often in intimate relations with men of science – with Fra Luca Paccioli the mathematician, and the anatomist Marc Antonio della Torre. His observations and experiments fill thirteen volumes of manuscript; and those who can judge describe him as anticipating long before, by rapid intuition, the later ideas of science. He explained the obscure light of the un-illuminated part of the moon, knew that the sea had once covered the mountains which contain shells, and of the gathering of the equatorial waters above the polar.

“Notebooks and sheets of about 1508 contain a number of notes on ‘mistioni’ (mixtures), a plastic material of his own invention with which he aimed at imitating the colour and design of semi-precious stones. He describes his production process and how, once the objects were thus produced, he spent much time finishing them with his own hand to a smooth and glossy surface…At the same time he was much taken by anatomical studies, so that when he described the production process of his ‘mistioni’ he came to specify the effect that was to be achieved: ‘…then you will dress it with peels of various colours, which will look like the mesentery of an animal’.

“In 1502, Francesco Malatesta wrote Isabella d’Este that Leonardo had looked at many of the Medici gems and objets d’art made of stone. Leonardo praised ‘the one of amythyst or jasper as Leonardo baptized it, because of the admirable variety of its colours’”.

Carlo Pedretti, Leonardo, A study in Chronology and Style, London, 1974, pages 132-137.

Ann Pizzorusso

For an in-depth comparison of the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks see:

www.leonardosgeology.com

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

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Above, Fig. 1: St. Anne’s feet and pebbles – a detail from the Louvre’s recently restored “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”.
Above, Fig. 2: The treatment of rocks seen at the base of the National Gallery’s the “Virgin of the Rocks” as seen before the recent restoration.
Above, Fig. 3: A detail of Leonardo’s “A rocky ravine”, a pen and ink drawing in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen. In a note by Per Rumberg in the catalogue to the National Gallery’s 2011-12 “Leonardo da Vinci – Painter at the Court of Milan” exhibition (p. 184), attempt is made to accomodate the drawing within the new “metaphysical” reading of the Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”. The drawing itself, however, remains awkwardly elusive and “controversial” in terms of chronologies and its geological testimony. It has variously been dated from the early 1470s to the 1490s. The Gallery takes a “Goldilocks” option and settles for “about 1480-83″.
It is acknowledged that the drawing bears a “particularly striking” relation to the Verocchio “Baptism of Christ” on which Leonardo worked in the late 1470s. This relation is granted to demonstrate Leonardo’s “lifelong fascination with natural phenomena” (of which Ann Pizzorusso has frequently spoken). An ingenious – but ultimately vain – attempt is made to fit the drawing to the National Gallery’s version of the “Virgin of the Rocks”:
Although the appearance of the precipice in this drawing is similar to geological formations that occur on the banks of the Arno near Florence, the overall composition also relates to formulae seen in contemporary painting and prints”. With that linkage and one bound, as it were: “This coexistence of the real and the imagined is particularly interesting when considering the relevance of this sheet to the [London] “Virgin of the Rocks”.
Specifically, “The precipice, with its distinctive cluster of vertical pinnacles leaning against a clif”, it is said, “anticipates the mystical landscape in the [London] altarpiece”. But insofar as it might be thought to do so, it anticipated that of the earlier Louvre version rather sooner – unless one maintains that the unquestionably autograph Louvre version was not yet sufficiently mystical. In any event, this “mystical/not-mystical” construct founders on hard geological fact when “another detail” of the drawing – “the curved strata on the bottom of the river bed” is admitted to bear “a close resemblance to the stratified layers of rocks forming the ledge in the foreground of the Louvre version of the picture” while no such configurations are present in the London picture.
Above, Fig. 4: In the catalogue to the Louvre’s celebration of its restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” (La Sainte Anne ~ l’ultime chef-d’oeuvre de Leonardo de Vinci), this astonishing drawing – also from the Royal Collection at Windsor – is reproduced. Dated to 1500-1510, it testifies to Leonardo’s enduring fascination with stratified sedimentary rocks which, here, are shown subject to further “liquefying” geological forces. As Pizzorusso argues, it would indeed be hard to imagine a more disabling lacuna in the London “Virgin of the Rocks” than this lack of such rock strata.
Above, top, Fig. 5: the bottom of the Louvre “Virgin of the Rocks”; middle, Fig. 6, the bottom of the London “Virgin of the Rocks”; bottom, Fig. 7, the base of the Louvre’s “Virgin and St. Anne”.
In this chronological sandwich, the central picture, sans stratified rock formations, is the clear “odd man out”. If the Syson/Keith hypothesized philosophical shift were accepted, it would be, as Pizzorusso points out, imperative to explain why Leonardo abandoned his rock preoccupations in the London picture only to resume and carry them to the new and unprecedented technical heights achieved in the “Virgin and St Anne”. The “theological”/conceptual apologia for the London picture’s long questioned properties, simply does not withstand visual scrutiny. To attribute some elevated expression of the “supernatural” to the generalised, botanically-imprecise plants in the London picture (“the flowers appear to be ideal composites of of the leaves and petals of real plants”) is implicitly to slight Leonardo’s corpus of plant studies, when no one – not even Durer – has equalled the sense he bestowed of life itself upon the humblest plant.
More damaging than the deficiencies of the component parts of the London picture, is the overall slovenliness of its dispositions, the absence of Leonardo’s miraculous, sure-footed placements evident above in both Louvre pictures. The London picture is full of clumsinesses. The bloated, formulaic depictions of plants are carelessly strung along the foreground without apparent thought, purpose or design. The infant is bloated; the drapery incoherent and chromatically at war with aerial perspective; the rocks little more than a shorthand.
Above, left, Fig. 8: A sheet of studies, that has been dated to “about 1487-90”, from the Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France (B fol. 14r), showing Leonardo’s study of violets and designs for a means of soldering lead roof coverings.
Above, right, Fig. 9: A detail of the sheet at Fig. 8.
Above, left, Fig. 10: The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, as recorded in a postcard of 1900.
Above, right, Fig. 11: The “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, as recorded after its recent restoration at the Louvre.
What is striking in this photo-comparison is the greater sense of spatial depth and plastic articulation in the earlier record. There is today, markedly less sense of the conflicting cruciform sweeps of diagonals, where we formerly saw a more pronounced swing down from top right at the crown of the tree, through St. Anne’s (then more forcefully drawn and shaded) left arm and elbow, through the successive arm/knee/arm/knee configuration of the Virgin, down to the placement of St Anne’s feet on the then more brightly “spotlighted” left section of the rocky foreground. Against that progression, we better saw in the earlier state how Leonardo had orchestrated a countervailing upper left to bottom right sweep through the principal heads and the arms of the Virgin and the Child, down to the rump and tail of the lamb – a movement that was decisively echoed and enforced by the parallel diagonals of the Virgin’s right leg and St. Anne’s left leg.
The postcard is reproduced in the catalogue to the Louvre’s recent “La Sainte Anne ~ l’ultime chef-d’oeuvre de Leonardo de Vinci” exhibition. Needless to say, it is not shown next the post-restoration state of the painting today. If restorers were recovering not shedding pictorial values, would they not be as tempted as we to show such helpful historic photo-comparisons?
Above, left, Fig. 12: The Louvre’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, by Leonardo.
Above, right, Fig. 13: The National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, by whomever.
Above, left, Fig. 14: The recently restored “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”.
Above, right, Fig. 15: a contemporary copy (1508-1513) of the “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” from the Armand Hammer Museum of Art, the University of California.
It might be noted that in the copy, the central background rocky outcrops flanking the head of St. Anne are darker than those seen in the Leonardo today – as were those of the picture itself as seen in the 1900 photograph at Fig. 10. More noteworthy perhaps, is the treatment in the copy of the rocky foreground. At the left we see a fairly attentive attempted repetition of the detailed strata and pebbles of the original work, but curiously, as work proceded to the right, interest seem to wane and the artist resorted to the lazy rounded rocky shorthand used throughout in the London “Virgin of the Rocks” as seen here in close-up at Fig. 16.
Above, Fig. 16: A detail of the National Gallery “Virgin of the Rocks”.
Above, Fig. 17: A detail of the Louvre’s recently restored “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”.
A comparison with the testimony of the postcard at Fig. 10 would suggest that (as with the dance floor seen in Renoir’s “Dance in the City” in the previous post) the ground plane has suffered considerable abrasion. The limbs and tail of the lamb would seem to have been weakened and particularly so in the case of the drawing and the modelling of the right foreleg which crosses the Virgin’s drapery.
Above, Fig. 18: A detail of the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.
It seems astonishing to us, on artistic grounds, that this passage of painting could be held to be the work of Leonardo. In her 1996 “Leonardo’s Geology: The Authenticity of the Virgin of the Rocks“, Pizzorusso says of this work:
An observer with some knowledge of geology would find that the rock formations…do not correspond to nature; most of Leonardo’s drawings and paintings do. It seems unlikely that Leonardo would have violated his knowledge of geology in favour of abstract representation, considering that he executed an even more geologically complex picture – the “Virgin and St. Anne” (1510) – after he had completed the National Gallery painting.”
Above, Fig. 19: Unfortunately, the attribution of slack and shoddy painting to a great master is not without precedent at the National Gallery. Here we see at the top, a fragment of a niche sculpture of Venus and Cupid shown in the background of a large panel painting of Samson and Delilah that was given to Rubens in 1930 in a certificate of authentification written by the Rubens scholar Ludwig Burchard. On the strength of that certificated attribution, the work was sold in 1980 to the National Gallery for a then world record Rubens price (and then second highest price for any painting) and has been upheld as an autograph Rubens ever since. By contrast, the image at the bottom is a passage of painting from the left wing of the securely documented and autograph Rubens panel “The Raising of the Cross”. As was discussed in a special issue of the ArtWatch UK Journal of Spring 2006, the “Samson and Delilah” has been dated at the National Gallery to 1609 and “around 1610” – and therefore effectively to the same date as the “Raising of the Cross” of 1609-1610. The photographs, and the different levels of handiwork that they record, speak for themselves. In 2005 a dedicated website was established in opposition to the attribution.
Above, Fig. 20: A much-injured fragment of tablecloth decoration on Leonardo’s “Last Supper”.
Above, Fig. 21: A detail of the Louvre’s recently restored “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”.
In her 1996 MIT article, Pizzorusso noted that:
Leonardo’s observational knowledge of geology is far more accurate that of Renaissance theorists who hypothesized and discoursed rather than observed.”
Moreover, she continued, Leonardo’s:
extraordinary knowledge provides us with an unbiased method of distinguishing his work from that of his many imitators and followers. Precise geology is, in this case, an index of authenticity. It serves as Leonardo’s inimitable trademark.”
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Rocking the Louvre: the Bergeon Langle Disclosures on a Leonardo da Vinci restoration

28 April 2012

ArtWatch has been haunted for two decades by a nearly-but-not-made restoration disclosure. In the 1993 Beck/Daley account of the Nippon TV sponsored Sistine Chapel restoration (Art Restoration: The Culture, the Business and the Scandal), we reported that in the late 1980s Leonetto Tintori, the restorer of Masaccio’s “Trinity” in the Santa Maria Novella, Florence, and a member of the international committee that investigated the controversial cleaning, had “urged the Sistine team privately to preserve what he termed ‘Michelangelo’s auxiliary techniques’ which in his view included oil painting as well as glue-based secco” (p. 111). What we had not been able to say was that Tintori (who died in 2000, aged 92) had prepared a dissenting minority report expressly opposing the radical and experimental cleaning method.

Shortly before the press conference called to announce the committee’s findings, Tintori was persuaded by a (now-deceased) member of the Vatican not to go public with his views. He was assured that his judgement had been accepted and that what remained on the Sistine Chapel ceiling of Michelangelo’s finishing auxiliary secco painting would be protected during the cleaning. With a catastrophically embarrassing professional schism averted, the restoration continued and the rest of what Tintori judged to be Michelangelo’s own auxiliary and finishing stages of painting was eliminated. Without knowledge of Tintori’s highly expert dissenting professional testimony, the public was assured that despite intense and widespread opposition the cleaning had received unanimous expert endorsement. Critics of the restoration were left prey to disparagement and even vilification.

On January 4th, we noted that in the widely reported schism that emerged at the Louvre with the resignations of Ségolène Bergeon Langle, the former director of conservation for the Louvre and France’s national museums, and, and Jean-Pierre Cuzin, the former director of paintings at the Louvre, from the Louvre’s international advisory committee on the restoration of Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, it had been recognised that the resulting crisis of confidence was of a magnitude not seen since the Sistine Chapel controversy. Restoration advisory committees are not imposed on museums and customarily they serve as political/professional fig leaves. In the wake of the Louvre committee resignations, embarrassed and perhaps panicky members of the museum’s staff offered self-contradictory and unfounded assurances (see below). In January, the Louvre’s head of painting, Vincent Pomarède reportedly claimed that “The recent cleaning was absolutely necessary for both conservation and aesthetical reasons.” This assurance proved unfounded on both grounds. Pomarède added that no member of the committee “has ever said that the cleaning was not prudent and had gone too far technically.” One has now done so – publicly – and left museum restorations under an unprecedented spotlight.

During an earlier cleaning controversy at the Louvre, Edgar Degas threatened to produce an anti-restoration pamphlet that would be what he termed a “bomb” – but he never did so, so far as we know. Now, as Dalya Alberge reports in the Guardian, the French Le Journal des Arts yesterday published an interview with Ségolène Bergeon Langle of truly momentous if not incendiary consequence (see below). We learn that her resignation came after no fewer than twelve letters requesting information on the restoration’s course went unanswered; that it was made in specific and pointed protest against the use of retouching pigments whose safety had not been proven; and, that the Louvre’s public claims of some pressing conservation need to remove the varnish were false, having been made despite it being known within the museum that any potential threat to the paint came not from the varnish but from a single faulty board in the picture’s panel which was reacting to the museum’s insufficiently stable environmental conditions. Perhaps most disturbingly serious for art lovers are Bergeon Langle’s disclosures that along with old (but nonetheless still protective) varnishes, original material of Leonardo’s was removed – against her advice – from the painting; and, aesthetically, that it is confirmed that the modelling of the Virgin’s face was weakened (see Figs. 1 and 2; and, for weakening to the modelling of St. Anne’s face, Figs. 12 and 13).

That the Louvre authorities would not inform even so distinguished a member of its own advisory committee might suggest either that the restorers had not known in advance what they would be doing to the painting; or, they feared that disclosure of their intentions would provoke opposition within the advisory committee. Either way, this was clearly an unacceptable (if not improper) way for a museum to execute irreversible alterations to one of Leonardo’s most advanced sophisticated, complex and problematic works. To Bergeon Langle’s now public “insider” criticisms, additional detailed material to highlight further Louvre procedural shortcomings and misrepresentations to the press and to the public will shortly be presented by Michel Favre-Felix, the president of the Association Internationale pour le Respect de l’Intégrité du Patrimoine Artistique (ARIPA). Favre-Felix is also to call formally for the establishment of a national scientific ethics committee that would be independent of museums and their restoration teams and be charged with re-examining the conservation file on the challenged St. Anne restoration.

A second member of Louvre’s advisory committee, Jacques Franck, the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique, has said to the Guardian that a restoration likely to generate such disapproval from leading figures should never have been undertaken in the first place and, given that Ségolène Bergeon Langle is unquestionably France’s highest authority on restoration matters, her alarmed protest is therefore one that should mean a lot to both Leonardo scholars and art lovers the world over.

Unfortunately, the restoration-induced changes on the St Anne are not unprecedented. It is Art’s general tragedy that while scholars have quietly enlarged the oeuvre of Leonardo over the last century and a half, restorers have repeatedly swabbed and scritched away at the surviving fabric of those precious works – sometimes to an astounding degree, as with the “Last Supper” in Milan. With the National Gallery’s substitute version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” we have seen how the distinctive Leonardesque expression on the angel’s mouth was altered (without any acknowledgement) despite the fact that a distinguished scholar and former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, had seen the angel’s face as being “the 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”. It is a matter of note that four of the most enthusiastically supportive members of the Louvre advisory committee were drawn from the curators and restorers who were directly responsible for the London and Milan Leonardo restorations.

Of Leonardo’s accepted earlier paintings, in 1939 Kenneth Clark lavished especial praise on the treatment of modelling found on two portrait heads – and in his enthusiasm, he awarded the palm of best preservation to both of them. The “Ginevra Benci”, then in the Liechtenstein Collection but now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, was judged “the best preserved of all Leonardo’s early pictures”; one that “shows most clearly his intentions at this period”; and, one where “within the light oval of the face there is very little shadow, and the modelling is suggested by delicate gradations of tone, especially in the reflected lights.” Clark thrilled to the great refinement of execution: “We see a similar treatment of form in Desiderio’s low reliefs, controlled by the same sensibility to minute variations of surface. There are passages, such as the modelling of the eyelids, which Leonardo never surpassed in delicacy, and here for once he seems to have had none of that distaste for the medium which we can deduce from his later paintings, no less than from contemporary descriptions of his practice.” Ever aesthetically alert and deft, Clark saw all of these ultra-refined technical devices as being entirely “subordinate to the feeling of individual character with which Leonardo had been able to charge his portrait, so that this pale young woman has become one of the most memorable personalities of the Renaissance.” (We are grateful to Carroll Janis for drawing attention to this passage.)

Clark’s alertness to the physical/aesthetic characteristics of Leonardo’s hand was to the fore in his reflections on the “Portrait of a Musician” at the Ambrosiana in Milan. In the “subtle luminous modelling” of its head and its “delicate observation of light as it passes across the convex forms”, this work could only be “by Leonardo’s own hand alone and unaided” and it was “very similar to that of the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks”. As it stood before 1939, this too was “perhaps the best preserved of Leonardo’s paintings”, and in it we were then able to “learn something of his actual use of pigment, elsewhere obscured by dirty varnish, and we see that it was less smooth and ‘licked’ than that of his followers.”

Ironically, Clark, with his pathological aversion to “dirty” varnish (which is to say, old varnish on an old painting on an old support), was more responsible than anyone for the subsequent museum restoration/stripping mania. Looking around today’s museums, it is hard not to conclude that Clark might have been more careful in his wishes. Bergeon Langle’s warning against the modern addiction to penetrative imaging systems is particularly apt and timely: the hyper-active restoration changes (see right) made to the modelling and to the expression of those precious living Renaissance faces have cumulatively thinned and abraded pictures surfaces and material components and thereby remorselessly pushed great paintings into sad resemblances of their own infra-red under-states (see particularly, Figs. 4-11 and 19 & 20). Technical curiosity kills more than cats. In the case of Leonardo it has contrived to pull that artist back from his own increasingly lush highly-wrought subtly atmospheric shading towards the brilliant but thinner decorous linearity of Botticelli, when any comparison of the “Mona Lisa’s” hands with those of Leonardo’s “Annunciation” would have warned precisely against such perverse and regressive adulterations.

The interview given to Le Journal des Arts of 27 April, by Ségolène Bergeon Langle read as follows:

Why resign from the Louvre’s scientific advisory committee for the St Anne? “In January 2011 the committee had agreed on a gentle cleaning of late varnishes and the removal of the stains on the Virgin’s cloak. Yet, between July and October 2011 a more pronounced cleaning was done and presented as ‘necessary’, which I objected to. I was then faced with people who would oppose my position, which is technical and not based on aesthetics. My 12 letters [to the Louvre] asking for precisions on some aspects of the cleaning process and on the materials to be used for retouching, remained unanswered. I had to resign (on December 20th, 2011) to be heard just on one specific point: the Gamblin retouching pigments were not to be used since their innocuousness is not proven. Right from the beginning, false ideas have been put forth, like calling ‘repaints’ original retouches by Leonardo in the work’s early stages, or to attribute flaking in the paint layer to the ‘contracting varnish’, a [consequence that was] actually due to the sawing up of the wood [panel]…”

What do you think of the work done? “In my opinion, the precautionary principle hasn’t been respected. We must face the fact that the Virgin’s face is less modelled now. The cleaning should never have gone so far. However, I was happy that the grove [of trees] be preserved and, also, the ground’s material constituents that some ‘felt’ not original (though between January and April 2011 a brown-greenish section of the ground, located below St Anne’s elbow had been removed already). Besides, another matter of much controversy, the whitened layer on Christ Child’s body, has mistakenly been understood as a late varnish [that has] gone mouldy. I’m inclined to believe it was an irreversibly altered [original] glaze and, therefore, I have recommended that it be preserved, but nobody would hear me.”

The current Leonardo exhibition implies that his other paintings in the Louvre should be cleaned also. How do you feel about that? “Just not to do it, by all means! The original flesh paint in the St John-the-Baptist, being rich in oil, displays a significant network of drying cracks and might be fragile in the event of cleaning. For sure, scientific methods are essential but they need sound interpretation and wisdom dually… To date, there is too much boldness originating mistakes and an alarming fascination for infra-red investigation whereby are revealed under-layers that were never meant to be seen.”

Michael Daley

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

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Above, Fig. 1: The Virgin (detail) from Leonardo’s “Virgin and Child with St. Anne”, before restoration.
Above, Fig. 2: The Virgin (detail) after restoration.
Above, Fig. 3: Left, the short Louvre catalogue, published in 2012 after the restoration; right, a plate of the same heads published in 1992.
Above, left, Fig 4: Leonardo’s “The Musician” as published in 1945. Above, right, Fig. 5: an infra-red photograph of the musician published in 2011.
Above, Fig. 6: The musician, as in 1945. Above, right, Fig. 7: the musician, as published in 2011. By any optical appraisal, it can be seen that Leonardo’s painting presently stands somewhere between its 1945 self and an infra-red photograph of itself.
Above, Fig. 8: The musician, detail, as recorded in 1945.
Above, Fig. 9: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 10: The musician, detail, as recorded in 1945.
Above, Fig. 11: The musician, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 12: The eyes of St. Anne, in Leonardo’s “Virgin and St. Anne”, before its cleaning at the Louvre.
Above, Fig. 13: The eyes of St. Anne, as found after the picture’s cleaning at the Louvre.
Above, Fig. 14: The eyes in Leonardo’s “Ginevra Benci”, as seen in Bode’s 1921 Studien über Leonardo da Vinci.
Above, Fig. 15: The eyes of “Ginevra Benci”, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 16: Andrea del Verrocchio’s “Flora”.
Above, Fig. 17: “Ginevra Benci”, detail, as seen in 1921.
Above, Fig. 18: “Ginevra Benci”, detail, as seen in 2011.
Above, Fig. 19: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Above, Fig. 20: The musician, detail, as found in 2011.
Can all the photographs in the world be wrong?
Might anything ever count as a fair demonstration of a restoration-induced injury?
Can no curator or trustee appreciate the inherent physical dangers when allowing restorers, who work with sharp instruments and highly penetrating solvents from the top down, to act upon pictures which artists have built from the bottom up in order to leave their finest and most considered effects exposed at the picture’s surface? Can no one in authority appreciate that every authorised restoration is an accident waiting to happen?
Does no curator ever wonder what has happened to eyebrows and the shading around eyes – and mouths, and nostrils – when pictures are “cleaned” or “restored”? Does no curator appreciate the vital function that shading serves for artists who are attempting to capture from nature, or to evoke imaginatively, a precise and specific personality, state of mind, engagement with the world? Does no curator recognise the tell-tale signs when restorers subvert artistically conjured forms and change the expression on subjects faces?
Would Kenneth Clark, if he were alive today, still consider “Ginevra Benci” and “The Musician” to be Leonardo’s best preserved works – and if not, why not? In the art trade it is recognised that the best preserved works are those that have been preserved least often by “conservators” and “restorers”. Why do people who are charged with protecting art in within the museum service so often take a contrary view? What supports their apparent belief that a much or a radically restored work may count as a “best preserved” specimen?
They all use the words freely, but do any Leonardo scholars, or Leonardo exhibition organisers, truly comprehend the vital conceptual connection between an artist’s system of illusionistic shading and the forms that sculptors literally build? Are any scholars prepared to discuss the manifest changes to Leonardo’s works that emerge in each successive monograph? The elephant in the art restoration room is this: while photography and book reproduction methods improve ceaselessly (see in particular the excellent and instructively enlarged photographs in Giovanni Villa’s Leonardo da Vinci – Painter, The Complete Works), authors themselves habitually refrain from discussing the nature of the often profoundly altered states to which their photographs testify. Ségolène Bergeon Langle, a conservation scientist, has bravely lifted the lid. Will others now discuss what lies below?
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.


Something Not Quite Right About Leonardo’s Mouth ~ The Rise and Rise of Cosmetically Altered Art

2nd January 2012

In the conservation of art, the impulse “to do” is the most dangerous of all. There are so many ways in which picture restorers can, through misreading or misunderstanding, injure art. Unfortunately, there are also many ways of promoting injuries as triumphs. Worst-case injuries can be spun as dramatic “discoveries” and “recoveries”. With the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration – perhaps, an all-time worst case – the last stages of Michelangelo’s sculptural painting were washed away with oven-cleaner-like chemically-laced thixotropic pastes and copious applications of rinse-water (see Fig. 1 and our earlier post). To sanction the unexpected and unprecedented changes, a “New Michelangelo” of art history-changing, colouristic brilliance was invoked. The surprise outcome was presented, post hoc, as having demolished the “Darkness Fallacy” and the “Sculptural Fallacy” of Michelangelo’s legendary, much-copied and commented-upon work. Less technically experimental methods can also produce serious alterations during a single intervention (see Figs. 2 & 3). Not always immediately noticeable but ultimately no less invidious are the cumulative “Chinese Whispers” changes made as successive restorers undo and redo their predecessors’ work. A case in point of the latter – and of the defences that get offered – can be seen in successive treatments of the London version of Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.

The cult of unexpected and dramatic discoveries grew out of earlier (spurious) claims of scientifically underpinned restoration methodologies. “Picture surgeon” restorers mimicked the conventions and vocabularies of medicine with its “diagnoses”, “research”, “interns” and “treatments”, and ended by believing their own easel-side manners and propaganda. In truth, they have always more closely resembled cosmetic surgeons and it makes cultural sense to consider these twin spheres together. Both promise to reverse Time’s effects. With both, adverse consequences are often slow to be recognised. With human cosmetic surgery, everyone has recently learned of the horrors of industrial-grade silicone breast implants and Trout Lips. News has recently begun to emerge of the unanticipated consequences of radically invasive attempts to put the very fabric of paintings into perpetual good health. The National Gallery now concedes that its former penchant for ironing large masterpieces (like Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”, Seurat’s great “Bathers”, and Sebastiano’s “The Raising of Lazarus”) onto sheets of industrially manufactured pressed-paper (Sundeala) boards has bequeathed pictures that can no longer be moved safely.

Both zones of surgery prove prey to stylistic fashions as the distinctive nips, tucks and nose-jobs of one period swiftly become démodé. A worst-case example of multiple botched treatments occurred recently at the Louvre. It was reported in the French and British press, in our Journal (see Fig. 3) and in our post of 28 December 2010. The Louvre’s controversial restorations continue to make headlines. One of our greatest concerns is that no picture restorer ever seems able to resist undoing and redoing (Fig. 4) the painted interventions with which predecessors left their imprints on masterpieces. That there may be some cultural/pathological root to such tampering should perhaps be considered. It sometimes seems as if restorers reward or indulge themselves with a little fancy creative brushwork after the tedium of a long cleaning. In 1998, a restorer, John Dick, working on Titian’s “Diana and Callisto” at the the National Galleries of Scotland told Scotland on Sunday (29 March 1998):

Most of the areas I will be painting are so small I will not have to invent anything. I will simply have to match the colours to the original. It will be more difficult when it comes to improving Titian’s contours, which I know I will be tempted to do, but which can be dangerous. I will consult with other conservators and with the director [Timothy Clifford]. In the end, a decision has to be taken but if it does not look good it can always be taken back off again.”

Whether restorers are taking off or putting on, restorations never take place in vacuums. There is always a context that is comprised of a singular balance of forces and interests. These forces are various and competitive, being sometimes personal, sometimes professional, sometimes institutional; sometimes local, sometimes national, sometimes international; sometimes technical, sometimes philosophical; sometimes political, sometimes financial. But if there are rival, inter-acting sociologies or cultures of restoration, these always find expression in the individual acts of restorers upon individual, unique and historical works of art. It is therefore incumbent on those who authorise or sanction restorations to permit/guarantee absolute transparency in restoration procedures and methodologies. In this respect the National Gallery has recently made enormous strides. Under the Gallery’s present director and its previous director, ArtWatch UK has been given full and generously helpful access to conservation and archival records. The Gallery publishes in its annual Technical Bulletins much material on its own workings in conservation. Nonetheless, some old habits die hard. The best-reported conservation activities in the bulletins tend to be in the most neutral areas – in technical analyses of materials, applications of imaging systems, and so forth. The least adequately reported activities are precisely the crucial hands-on physical interventions of restorers.

Over the years, we have formed an opinion on this lacuna. There is a problem for the Gallery in fully acknowledging and showing what individual restorers do, because they do different things, each according to his own inclinations and talents. Taking the recent restoration of the “Virgin of the Rocks” as our case in point, let us first look in from “the outside” at the broader context. As we have discussed before, this was a restoration whose celebration (in what was to become a £1.5 billion exhibition) was planned before the restoration itself had even begun. As we have also previously discussed, the Gallery has proudly published its policy or “philosophy” of restoration treatments. Its handbook “Conservation of Paintings” acknowledges that pictures are now “changed primarily for aesthetic reasons” (p. 53) and (p. 45) that restorations are carried out on the “aesthetic objectives of those responsible for the cleaning”. Moreover, (p. 53) although the “different aesthetic decisions” taken by individual restorers produce results that “may look very different”, all of such different outcomes are “equally valid”, provided only that they have been carried out “safely”. These are alarming claims: in matters of aesthetic and artistic integrity, the “safety” or otherwise of the cleaning materials is a red herring: if pictures end up looking different, they are different, and these differences are material and irreversible.

The proof of the National Gallery’s restoration pudding is in the eating – which is to say, in our looking. In the Gallery’s current Technical Bulletin (Vol. 32), Larry Keith, Ashok Roy, Rachel Morrison and Peter Schade, say of the restoration of the “Virgin of the Rocks” that while its practical intent was “primarily aesthetic” it also served to provide an example of the Gallery’s interdisciplinary approach:

Whenever possible, major restorations are intended as the hub of a wide range of research activity that sees curators, scientists and restorers working together – increasingly alongside colleagues from other institutions”.

The significance of such extra-conservational purposes of restorations should not be overlooked or underestimated: much of the credit for the present historically unprecedented coralling of quite so many Leonardos in one place at one time, has been given to the international connections and diplomatic skills of Gallery staff, as seen in their increasingly close relations with other major institutions such as the Louvre. As it happens, the relationship with the Louvre is proving more problematic and embarrassing than the Gallery might have anticipated. It has recently been reported that among the membership of an international advisory committee set up by the Louvre to advise on and monitor the restoration of Leonardo’s “The Virgin and Child with St Anne”, the two members who proved the most enthusiatic advocates of a more, rather than a less, radical cleaning of the painting, have been the National Gallery’s head of conservation, Larry Keith, and the curator of the current Leonardo blockbuster, Luke Syson.

One of the calling cards that Syson and Keith will have had on the international advisory committee has been the generally ecstatic art-critical reception of the restoration of the “Virgin of the Rocks” and of the blockbuster exhibition it had kick-started. Richard Dorment’s praise for the restoration was unreserved:

This sense of interaction is palpable too in the National Gallery’s version of the Virgin of the Rocks, which until its recent cleaning was considered to be a slightly inferior version of an altarpiece in the Louvre. But when it emerged last year from the studio of Larry Keith, the National Gallery’s director of conservation, the refinement of the detail, depth of field and exquisitely calibrated tonal harmonies made it apparent that only Leonardo could have painted it, with little or no intervention from his studio assistants.”

How remarkable, perhaps, that so many people could now see, having been told what was to be seen, what so few, unaided, had seen before – an iffy, “not-altogether-Leonardo” had not only beome an “altogether-Leonardo” but a Leonardo that was now more than a match for the previously superior Leonardo. But Dorment’s acceptance of the claimed elevation would have been sweet music to Gallery ears – as must also have been his drum roll for the blockbuster show’s creation and his apparent endorsement, even, of its terrifyingly hazardous back-scratching corrolaries:

Earlier this week, the National Gallery in London announced a historic collaboration with the Department of Paintings at the Louvre. The French have agreed to lend their version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks to the eagerly awaited Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that opens at Trafalgar Square in November. A few months later, the English will repay the debt by sending Leonardo’s highly finished preparatory drawing The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist (the Burlington House Cartoon) to Paris, where it will hang in close proximity to the painting it was made for, which is owned by the Louvre.”

Leaving aside the risks of lending the hitherto unlendable Cartoon, with the restoration of the London “Virgin of the Rocks”, we had initially been somewhat reassured to have been told that this was not to be an aggressive restoration; that while it would greatly thin the varnish applied by Helmut Ruhemann in 1949, it would not entirely remove it. (Pace the Art Critics, it has never been made clear how a cleaning that ran from November 2008 to May 2009 and that had not removed all of the previously applied varnish, might somehow have disclosed an entirely autograph status throughout a picture that was variously painted and unevenly finished.) When it went back on show after its “moderate” cleaning, old anxieties flared: it was evident that, with its now violently assertive blues, the picture had not returned to its previous post-cleaning appearance in the 1950s and 1960s. For the latest detailed accounts of the restoration and for photographic records we turned to the current Technical Bulletin (No. 32).

Comparing the large image of the angel’s face that is carried on the cover of the present Bulletin, with the best previous images (seen at Figs. 5 – 8), it was apparent that changes had occurred in this important and sensitive area. The most dramatic of these was to the most expressive feature – the angel’s mouth. With Leonardo, of all artists, a degree of circumspection in the restoration of his mouths might be expected. (Who would lightly change the expression of the “Mona Lisa”?) Instead, we encountered a full-blooded change to the design of a mouth on a face that had been held by one scholar and former director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, to be exclusively the handiwork of Leonardo himself and the section of the painting in which the artist’s finishing glazes had best survived: “this is the 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.” Where Clark had seen a clear superiority in the head of the angel over that of the Virgin, in the 1990 re-publication of his book, a note was added saying that “As a result of the cleaning of the altarpiece in 1949 the differences between the heads are rather less apparent.”

The recent redrawing and remodeling during a restoration has cast the far side of the mouth downwards and left the upper lip no longer tucking enigmatically into the cheek in the manner so frequently encountered (see photographs, right) as effectively to constitute a trademark Leonardo/Leonardo school signature. The photographic evidence raised two questions: What had been done? Why had it been done? We returned to the Technical Bulletin.

No answers were to be found. There was no explanation because there was no mention or account of any change having been made to the mouth. As so often, the Bulletin’s authors favoured the general over the particular. We learnt that “The intent of the cleaning was to effect the desired aesthetic improvement through the reduction of the old varnish, not simply to remove it, and in the main a very thin remnant of that layer…remains on the picture.” This deepened the mystery: if a thin layer of Ruhemann’s 1949 varnish had remained over the face, and if this layer had not been injured during the latest cleaning, why should any features have needed changing at all?

We asked the restorer, Larry Keith, if he had made any retouchings to the face of the angel. He replied that he had, but said that these had been confined to areas of damage and or abrasion. Specifically, he said that he had not introduced any new elements. This seemed at variance with the photographic record, insofar as we were in possession of it. That the mouth had changed was beyond doubt: we had record of its condition in photographs of 1938 (Fig. 5) and 1947 (Fig. 6). When Kenneth Clark’s 1938 book of details of paintings in the National Gallery was reissued in 1990 it was with new (this time, colour) photographs. We thus had a record (Figs. 5 & 6) of the angel’s face before the Second World War and, crucially, before Helmut Ruhemann’s 1948-9 restoration. We had a record of 1990 that showed the post-Ruhemann state (see Fig. 7). The mouth might have been weakened by Ruhemann (see Figs. 15 & 16) but its disposition – which had conformed to that seen in an x-ray photograph of 1947 (Fig. 19) – had survived. Ruhemann had, however, chiselled away the end of the nose so as to bring it inside the contour of the face (Figs. 5, 6 & 7), as is the case with the angel in the Louvre version (Figs. 9 & 10) but was seen not to be the case in the 1947 x-ray photograph of the London picture (Fig. 19). Keith has retained Ruhemann’s revision of the nose which had undermined (for reasons to be examined on another occasion) the coherence of the head’s perspective .

Clark’s book had again been re-issued in 2008, this time with distinctly superior new, digital colour photographs (see Fig. 8). At this late date, the mouth showed no change. So when, in November 2008, Larry Keith’s restoration began, the published photograph of that year effectively constituted a pre-treatment record, and the cover photograph of the angel on the current Technical Bulletin constituted a post treatment record. In between the two, the changes to the face had occurred. (To show the changes to the mouth more clearly, the painter Gareth Hawker tonally adjusted the 1938, 2008 and 2011 photographs seen at Fig. 4 so as to bring them to some tonal parity.) In view of the dramatic change to the mouth and the absence of any signs of losses or abrasions that might have preceded the repainting, we requested photographs of the angel’s face taken immediately after cleaning (but before retouching), and after retouching. These were kindly supplied. They confirmed that the mouth had been changed by retouching (see Figs. 17 and 18) but the pre-retouching photograph gave no indication of injuries or losses that might have required treatment. We therefore asked Keith, on what basis he had made his painted changes to the mouth (and elsewhere). He did not reply.

Some weeks later Luke Syson replied on Keith’s behalf, saying that as the curator of the work, he had been responsible for monitoring and advising on all aspects of the restoration and was therefore the person carrying the responsibility for answering all questions, including our own, about the restoration. Unfortunately, in this professional capacity, the curator, too, preferred to talk in the generality and to explain the restorer’s approach to the painting “as a whole”. I replied that, on the evidence of the Gallery’s two photographs, it was clear that features in the angel’s mouth which had survived both the Ruhemann cleaning and Keith’s own cleaning had been painted out. Would he explain, I asked, the thinking behind the alterations, and why changes to so sensitive and highly expressive a feature had not been discussed or acknowledged. I added that in my examination of the Gallery’s conservation dossiers I had encountered other instances of un-discussed and un-acknowledged changes made by restorers – including a major change to the Leonardo Cartoon.

In replying, Syson first said that he had reviewed the photographic evidence but could see no evidence of any deviation in Keith’s retouching from the procedure that he (Syson) had previously described. This was a depressingly circular bureaucratic response. Our concern had not been over command and management procedures at the Gallery, but over actual changes to specific and crucial features of a major and unique historical painting. Syson then claimed that the photographs showed that a single small damage had been revealed in Ruhemann’s 1949 cleaning and that he had retouched it. Keith, Syson added, had removed that single retouch to a small damage, in order to retouch it himself on the evidence provided by the surrounding undamaged paint. But this simply conjures a fresh mystery: how can noe restorer’s substitution of one small retouch of a single small loss by another restorer, have caused a mouth that formerly turned upwards at its extremity and tucked into a cheek, to turn downwards and cease to tuck into the cheek? However this might have happened – and clearly, something happened – where is the record of it?

As if in anticipation of such a question, Syson adds in conclusion, and in returning to his homebase circular bureaucratese explanations:

Since this, as I’ve stated, is entirely in line with the approach taken elsewhere in the picture, there has been no need separately to document this part of the work.”

Between 1945 and 1994, Vermeer’s poor “Lady Seated at the Virginal” received no fewer than nine bouts of “treatment” – including being lined twice within three years. The last treatment (in 1994) was entered into the conservation dossier as “Retouching in face and neck corrected (Bomford) Surface cleaned, revarnished“. No photographic record of this intervention was to be found. When asked, the restorer, David Bomford, said that this was because: “there were no real changes – it was simply a matter of glazing a few small sections of the previous retouching which had discoloured slightly.” When our colleague, Michel Favre Favre-Felix, of ARIPA, noticed the second repainting in 5 years of the Veronese mouth shown in Fig. 3, and asked to see the Louvre’s documentation on it, he was told there was none because the repainting was but a “localised intervention“. A Louvre spokeswoman later described it as a simple sprucing-up (“bichonnée”) and added triumphantly: “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: Detail of Michelangelo’s “Erithraean Sibyl” on the Sistine Chapel celing, before cleaning (left), after cleaning (right).
Above, Fig. 2: Cleanings at the Metropolitan Museum (top) and the National Gallery (bottom), as shown in the programme to the 2001 ArtWatch UK lecture, “Light for Art’s Sake”, by (the late cinematographer) Jack Cardiff.
Above, Fig 3: ArtWatch UK coverage of “restoration” changes made to major Titian and Veronese paintings at the Prado and the Louvre.
Above, Fig. 4: Changes made to the mouth and nose tip of the angel in the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks” in the course of two restorations (see left and below).
Above, Fig. 5: The face of the angel in the National Gallery’s version of Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, as published in 1938 (before either of its two post-war restorations) in Kenneth Clark’s book “One Hundred Details from Pictures in the National Gallery”. For a comparable detail of the angel in the Louvre’s version of the painting, see Figs. 9 & 10.
Above, Fig. 6: The face of the angel in the National Gallery’s “Virgin of the Rocks”, as published (on glossy paper) in the gallery’s 1947 account by Martin Davies of the documentary evidence concerning the picture. That account, and its 16 large plates (see Fig. 19), shortly preceded the restoration of the painting, by Helmut Ruhemann, in 1949. Note how clearly the nose touches the contour of the face. Compare this with the x-ray photograph in Fig. 19 and the nose/contour relationship after Ruhemann’s restoration seen in Figs. 7 & 8.
Above, Fig. 7: The face of the National Gallery’s angel, as shown in the gallery’s 1990 re-publishing of Kenneth Clark’s 1938 book of details, with later corresponding colour photographs. Those later photographs, taken together with original 1938 plates, enable the reader to gauge the effects and consequences of many post-war restorations within the gallery. For a discussion of how those results were viewed within the National Gallery itself, see our post of 24 November 2011.
Above, Fig. 8: The face of the National Gallery’s angel, as shown in the 2008, second re-publication of Kenneth Clark’s 1938 book of details. For this edition, clearly superior digital photographs were taken at the Gallery. For a discussion of the differences between the two editions, see left. For a discussion of the Gallery’s present, high photographic standards, see Gareth Hawker.
Above, Fig. 9: The face of the angel in the Louvre’s version of Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.
Above, Fig. 10: A detail of the face of the Louvre angel, showing heavy craquelure. This cracking was almost certainly a consequence of the painting having been transferred, by restorers at the Louvre, from its original panel to a canvas in 1806. The fragilty of its surface may, however, have helped protect the painting from campaigns of cleaning and “restoration”.
Above, Fig. 11: Leonardo da Vinci’s c. 1510-15 black chalk study “The Head of St Anne” (reversed) from the Royal Collection, Windsor.
Above, Fig. 12: Detail (reversed), of Leonardo’s study “The Head of St Anne”. Note the distinctive Leonardo treatment of the (viewer’s) left side of the mouth. This drawing – a later Leonardo chalk study – was made long after the painting of the Louvre version of the “Virgin of the Rocks” and after the London version. The upwards zig-zagging design of the foreshortened far side of mouth as it tucks into the forms of the cheek, is effectively a life-long Leonardo/Leonardo School trademark signature. It is, for example, also seen below (albeit in slightly less pronounced manner) in a much earlier study that was made before the Louvre painting and, specifically, for it.
Above, Fig. 13: Leonardo’s “Study for the Angel’s Head in the Virgin of the Rocks”, the Louvre. This drawing of 1483, in the Turin Royal Library, was made in silverpoint on a light brown prepared paper, for the final painted head seen here at Fig. 9.
Above, Fig. 14: A detail of Fig. 13. Note the number and the various permutations of lines defining the shape and positioning of the cheek/chin profile contours; the nose; and the mouth. Those variations and explorations might be compared with the final painted version of the face seen in Figs. 9 & 10.
Above, Fig. 15: A detail of the plate of the National Gallery angel’s head as published by Kenneth Clark in 1938 and showing the then configuration of the mouth.
Above, Fig. 16: A detail of the updated 2008 photograph of the National Gallery angel’s head, as shown in the second re-issue of Kenneth Clark’s book of details. This photograph shows the painting after its restoration by Helmut Ruhemann in 1948.
Above, Fig. 17: A detail of the the National Gallery angel’s head, as supplied by the Gallery and showing the painting as seen after its latest restoration (which began in 2008) when the picture had been cleaned but before it had been retouched.
Above, Fig. 18: A detail of the the National Gallery angel’s head, as supplied by the Gallery and showing the painting as seen after its latest cleaning and after the subsequent retouching. Notice the changes introduced to the far side (on our left) of the mouth, on the upper lip and, particularly, its new relationship to the forms of the cheek.
Above, Fig. 19: An x-ray photograph of the National Gallery angel’s head, as published by the gallery in its 1947 account of the documentary evidence concerning the picture by Martin Davies. (In the current Technical Bulletin there is another, perhaps more recent, x-ray photograph that clearly shows the cradle at the back of the panel. In a second version, the visual “interference” of the cradle has been digitally suppressed.) See Fig. 6 for the appearance of the face before either of the last two restorations and notice here the consistent design of the mouth, as seen right-through all the paint layers, and the clear upward tilt of the far side (to our left) of the mouth.
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wibble!