They Blew It: The Met Loses A Rubens

Those of us who follow the art world, even if only to a limited extent, are often dismayed to find ourselves confronted by glowing evaluations of poorly executed work. Part of the problem in this regard is the disastrously bad level of art education which most American children have been receiving in school over the past 40 years, thanks to an art establishment which seems incapable of agreeing on teaching anything of value. The problem is, the same slipshod attitude toward art history and appreciation may be having a negative influence on our artistic institutions as well.

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece discussing the fact that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears to have no end of rich suitors plying her with gifts. Of course, The Met seeks to prove herself to be just as attractive to tech and media barons today, as she was to industrial titans a century ago. Yet in seeking to stay current, one wonders if she may be falling into the trap described above, spending too much time on keeping up with the youngsters, and too little on actually caring for her treasures.

For many years, The Met owned a painting supposedly by the great Peter Paul Rubens, the Dutch master of Baroque painting. The portrait of a young girl, believed to be one of Rubens’ daughters, was not hugely appreciated in its time at the museum; when an art expert decided it was not by Rubens, the Met decided to sell it, so as to gain more money and space for other objects. This is a practice known as deaccessioning, and it happens in museums more often than you might think.

When the painting went up for sale, the initial sales estimate proved to be a bit too low, because others were convinced the portrait WAS a genuine Rubens. Since being sold the piece has been restored to the listing of works by the great Old Master painter; indeed, it is now on display in the artist’s former home in Antwerp. The painting provides a fascinating, informal insight into the family life of a man who was himself larger than life, one of the most professionally successful artists who has ever lived.

This has been called “the biggest deaccessioning blunder of recent times,” and it’s not hard to see why. The fact that the museum relied on a single expert is weird enough. Also it’s not only ironic that, as the expert in the piece linked to above points out, with so much more and better technology available that a slip-up like this could occur, the fact that it did so at this level of artistic institution may also a factor indicative of decline.

The ability to tell what is good and what is bad has not only faded away from the moral lexicon used by society, it has increasingly faded away from the world of high art, as well. That is an unpopular view, of course. Nevertheless the point does need to be made, that if the powers that be at The Met were more concerned with studying and appreciating the works they already own, rather than pining for things which they do not, this likely would not have happened. Perhaps some remedial art appreciation is what’s needed up on Fifth Avenue to stop this sort of disaster from happening again.

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Portrait of A Young Girl (poss. Clara Serena Rubens)

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.

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The Deposition

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The Miraflores Altarpiece

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The Escorial Crucifixion

Lost Leonardo? The Drawing, the Painting, and the Swiss Bank Vault

As a child, I was always fascinated by a famous portrait drawing of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci.  A reproduction of the drawing, which is presently in The Louvre, illustrated a section about the d’Este sisters in a large book about the Italian Renaissance.  While the accompanying portrait of Beatrice, supposedly the more beautiful of the two, left me unimpressed as to either beauty or technical skill, I found the near-contemporaneous portrait by Leonardo absolutely captivating. While not as pretty as her sister, Isabella in her portrait seemed to be the deeper soul, more interesting and more immediate, her portrait looking like a faded photograph.

So it was particularly fascinating to read that authorities have recovered what at least one expert believes to be the finished Leonardo portrait of Isabella d’Este, of which The Louvre drawing would be a preparatory sketch.  The work, which had been in Rome but was later moved to a bank vault in Switzerland, was at the point of being illegally sold when it was seized. Italian law is extremely strict when it comes to works of art leaving the country, and the owners of this work had not obtained either permission to send the work abroad, nor an export license to sell it.

Looking at the painting itself, while one can immediately spot the similarity to the Leonardo drawing of Isabella d’Este, the finished work is somewhat different in appearance. It is obscured by what, to many eyes, may seem unusual add-ons. Unlike the image of Isabella in the drawing, the figure in the painting is wearing a diadem, and rests her right arm, which is holding a palm branch, atop what appears to be a wheel.

For those of my readers who are fellow Catholics, or who are familiar with Christian iconography, these attributes will immediately identity the figure not as Isabella d’Este, but as St. Catherine of Alexandria. A popular subject in Italian Renaissance art, Catherine was a princess martyred in the 4th century persecutions of the Emperor Maxentius, hence the crown of a princess and the palm of a martyr. One of the instruments of her torture before her death was a spiked wheel [ N.B. which is where the spinning firework known as a “Catherine Wheel” got its name.]

While this may seem an odd thing to have happened to the portrait of one of the most famous women of the Renaissance, such “makeovers” were not unusual in art history. The most obvious example would be the placement of strategic plaster fig leaves over the genitalia of nude sculptures, but even in painting, when a work seemed to be dingy or in need of a facelift, an owner or a dealer might have the piece repainted to turn it into something more appealing to a particular buyer.

Discoveries of long-missing masterworks beneath centuries of overpaint still occur on a regular basis.  However, rediscovering a major painting by Leonardo da Vinci would be quite the coup, if this work is eventually authenticated. Personally, I am suspicious, for two reasons.

First, whereas much of the 20th century was spent by art historians debunking overly-optimistic attributions of Old Master paintings and sculptures to famous artists, since the beginning of the 21st century we seem to have been heading headlong in the opposite direction. We have been rediscovering lost paintings and sculptures by the great names of Western art all over the place. Is this because of our access to improved technology and greater levels of scholarly collaboration on an international basis, or is there some other explanation?

Second, while it is difficult to make a judgment from a single photograph, to me the painting looks wrong. The one thing which da Vinci did better than anyone else was hands. Look at the panoply of hands in his Last Supper, even in its sorry current state, and you will see what I mean. Isabella’s hand however, if this is indeed her portrait, is awkward. Her unnaturally long index finger doesn’t seem to point so much as bounce uncomfortably in the breeze, like a tree branch about to snap. Her curled fingers are too stumpy to be part of the same hand that would hold such an enormous finger.

Of course, I am perfectly happy to be proven wrong. If this is a missing Leonardo, the final product of a project whose preparation was so well-known, then with proper cleaning and restoration, it would be of immense importance in art history. In the meantime, we shall have to wait and see what science tells us.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500) The Louvre, Paris

Portrait of Isabella d’Este by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1499-1500)
The Louvre, Paris