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.