Scientists Reveal A Major Art Fake…Or Copy?

We all know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Someone who likes your mobile or your jacket, then goes out and gets the same one, is paying you a great compliment. In consumer culture, this is not difficult where many copies of the exact same thing are easily manufactured and purchased. In the collecting world however, when works of art are rare, things can prove a bit more tricky. Fortunately, scientists are stepping up to help historians sort out the flatterers and the fakers.                          
It is no exaggeration to state that the work of the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) is among the most recognizable in Western history. Love it or hate it, once you have seen one of his paintings, Bosch’s work is virtually impossible to forget. His visions of Heaven and Hell, and his pictorial commentaries on human foibles and failings, are often crammed with action, like a “Where’s Waldo?” for adults. They have even found their way into popular culture, being referenced by everyone from Metallica to Michael Jackson to “The Simpsons”.

Although Bosch’s work was prized during his own lifetime, it was not until the reign of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) that owning a Bosch painting became a significant international status symbol. Spain ruled The Netherlands at this period – as well as about half the planet for that matter – and being very interested in the arts, Philip kept aware of what his wealthier subjects were collecting. He himself decided to collect several of what he was told were Bosch’s most seminal works, and eventually found himself in competition with other wealthy and powerful individuals who wanted to copy him and emulate his taste.

The problem with this, as you might perceive from the dates when these two men lived, is that by the time Philip came to the throne, Bosch was long dead. The king was obviously unable to meet or commission works from the artist directly, meaning he had to rely upon the representations of others that a particular work was by Bosch. And as we have just learned this week, on at least one significant purchase, His Most Catholic Majesty got duped.

The Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) is a group of international experts who have spent the past six years studying every available painting, drawing, and sketch known or suspected to be by Bosch. The researchers used not only their own experience and judgment as art experts, but also worked with closely with scientists to take advantage of technological advances available for the study of objects.  By using means such as infrared reflectography, high-resolution scanning and photography, and high-powered microscopic analysis, they were able to get as close a look as possible at these works of art.     

Although they will not formally publish their findings until January 2016, the BRCP has now determined that one of the major works purchased by Philip II for his collection is not actually by Bosch. Based on their analysis, the BRCP believes that the painting “The Seven Deadly Sins and The Four Last Things” (c. 1500), currently hanging in The Prado Museum in Madrid, was painted by one of Bosch’s pupils, rather than by the master himself.  The work of this student was so superficially similar to that of Bosch, that he often signed his pieces with his teacher’s name. Closer scientific examination enabled by the technology described above revealed that this work was not by Bosch himself. As of yet, The Prado has not commented on the BRCP’s announcement.

It could be that this unknown painter exercised that impulse which we considered above, i.e., that copying someone else is a way of flattering them. Yet here, one suspects that the artist was not so much interested in flattering his teacher, but rather in taking advantage of the desire of collectors to flatter each other. Because everyone wanted a Bosch painting, but Bosch himself only produced a limited number of paintings during his lifetime, this unknown artist was able to fill a commercial gap. True, it was not at all unusual at this time for popular artists to have studios filled with assistants, copying their works for sale to collectors, with the artist himself putting on the final touches. However in this case, it doesn’t seem as though Bosch himself had anything to do with this particular piece.

While for Bosch scholars and museums which own works purported to be by him the BRCP study will prove to be of major significance – no doubt The Prado, which has not yet commented, is hugely disappointed – discoveries like this are not really all that unusual anymore. For the past decade or so, it seems as though major findings in the art world are being announced practically every week, thanks to working collaborations between the art and science communities. Such research adds greatly to our knowledge about the works of art which we preserve in our museums and galleries.

Perhaps more importantly, these discoveries force us to reexamine what we think we know about the people who created, commissioned, and collected these pieces. We may never know for certain if this was intended as a copy or a fake. However from what we are able to piece together about the story of this particular work of art, we can see how human nature, particularly when it comes to flattery and acquisitiveness, does not change very much, no matter how many centuries go by. And that is something which Bosch himself, that master of portraying man’s weakness, would no doubt appreciate.    

Masterpieces in Madrid: Rogier van den Weyden Exhibition Announced at The Prado

Now may be a very good time for you to schedule a trip to Madrid. Today the Prado has announced a major exhibition featuring three of the most important paintings by the 15th century Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden, arguably the greatest of all Netherlandish artists of the Middle Ages. The occasion is the display of his recently restored “Crucifixion” altarpiece from the Escorial, which will be exhibited alongside the Prado’s famous “Deposition” and the “Miraflores Altarpiece” from Berlin for the first time, along with other, accompanying works to provide context.

Of the three, I have only seen van der Weyden’s “Deposition” in person, and it is not what you might think. This is not some small, delicate little jewel, like a page from an illuminated manuscript. The thing is HUGE; the figures look like painted works of sculpture, rather than flat images on a flat surface. It is a miracle of Medieval art.

This and indeed many other aspects of these three magnificent paintings are better perceived in person rather than in photographs. However in this instance, I think the images of all three of these works should give you pause to consider visiting the Spanish capital this Spring. Or at least, gentle reader, you ought to consider getting a copy of the exhibition catalogue.


The Deposition


The Miraflores Altarpiece


The Escorial Crucifixion

Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece

Readers may recall a piece I wrote some time ago about an Old Master painting which may or may not be by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez.  “The Education of the Virgin” was donated to Yale not quite a century ago, and lay forgotten in the basement storage area of the university art museum for many years, until an art historian there first attributed the piece to the painter.  Although more and more experts have come to accept it, the attribution has remained controversial ever since.

Now, as part of the picture’s international exhibition travels to Madrid, Seville, Paris, Minneapolis, and back to New Haven, following its cleaning and restoration, a symposium has been announced for October 15-17 in Seville.  Experts will gather in the Andalusian cultural capital to examine the piece, and debate whether the painting is indeed by Velázquez or not.  If you are an art history nerd, as I am, you would love to be a fly on the wall for this.  If you are not, then you might conclude that these sorts of arguments really don’t matter.  Yet in truth these issues really are important, for several reasons.

From a purely economic standpoint, there is a huge difference between owning an original work of art by a well-known artist, and owning one by an unknown or lesser-known artist.  We might like to think that a quality work of art can stand on its own, without attribution, and sometimes it does.  However more often than not, whether you are talking insurance values or auction prices or ways to draw in the public, art from the hand of someone prestigious is always going to command a higher value than if the same work of art was created by an unknown.

Think about how this works on a more pop culture level.  I can draw fairly well, as it happens, and I might be able to do a fairly accurate drawing of Snoopy or one of the other Peanuts characters. But would you really pay the same price for my work, whether to own it or go see it in an exhibition, as you would for one that came from the hand of Charles Schultz himself?  Part of the value in a work of art lies in the intangible connection to something larger than the work itself provides at first glance.

This brings us to the larger issue, which is the importance in Western culture of understanding artistic development.  Unlike in many other artistic traditions around the world, Western artists have spent centuries adapting and changing how they and we see things.  Many cultures value an exact or near-exact continuity with the past, so that the differences between works of art created in one century and another are so slight, that it would take a serious expert to be able to discern the differences between them.

In addition, many times artists in other cultures did not date or sign their works, thus leaving their identities unknown to history.  While not all Western art is signed, we do have a long history from the beginning of Western culture of artists proudly placing their names on their paintings and sculptures.  We actually know the names of some of the most famous painters and sculptors of Ancient Greece, for example, even if in many cases their works only survive in copies.  When an artist did not sign his work however, historians and experts can look at works that are known for certain to be by that artist, and compare styles, techniques, and methods with the piece that is being examined; such is the case with the attribution of “The Education of the Virgin”.

One way to go about doing this is by getting a good sense of how that artist and his world changed over time.  If you look at an image of The Education of the Virgin created 100 years before this purported Velázquez, say this French example [N.B. yes, I realize it’s not entirely fair to compare these, but bear with me], there is a movement in the later work away from the rigid formality of the earlier.  This was mirrored in Western society of the time, as everything from clothing to homes, government, technology, and business, became more recognizable to us living in today’s culture, even though we are still far removed from it.

What’s more, often an individual Western artist himself could and did change quite a bit during his career.  Look at how Raphael painted the Madonna and Child when he was a young artist of 20, versus how he painted them as a mature artist of 30, a mere decade later, and you can see the dramatic difference.  If you were unaware of all of the works of art that Raphael painted between these two pictures, growing and changing as he experimented and studied, chances are you would never have guessed that they were by the same person.  Thus, art history in the West is often a combination of detective story, painstaking research, and really knowing your subject inside and out.

Whatever the result of the conference in Seville, the prospect of determining that this is a very early work by Spain’s most important artist, a man who influenced everyone from Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, is very exciting.  It shows us not only how accomplished he really was at a young age, but it helps us to understand why his career catapulted so quickly, leading him to become the official painter for the Spanish court.  I’m looking forward to learning of the outcome from the experts.

"The Education of the Virgin" Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617) Yale University Art Gallery

“The Education of the Virgin” Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617)
Yale University Art Gallery