History, Science, and Greed

Regular readers of this blog know that I pass along information regarding interesting re-discoveries of works by the Old Masters. In fact, when I was studying at Sotheby’s in London, one of the key areas I focused on was the market for Spanish Old Master paintings. For those who do not know much about art history, the term “Old Master” is a somewhat loose one, but for our general purposes refers to works of art such as paintings, sculptures, and drawings created between 1300-1800 A.D. It includes names such as Michelangelo, Rubens, and Van Eyck, but not artists such as the Impressionists, Picasso, or Rodin.

Because the Old Masters are long-dead, logic would normally dictate that there are no new works of art by their hands to be found. However, logic does not take into account three important factors when it comes to this area of art collecting: the vagaries of history, scientific innovation, and unadulterated greed. All three should be remembered when news reports surface of a “new” Old Master work of art having been found.

History, for example, does not always provide a clear accounting of what happened to a particular piece of art. A comparatively recent example of this occurred during World War II. The Nazis looted art from all over Europe, including museums, private collections, churches, and public institutions. As shown in the remarkable book and documentary “The Rape of Europa”, many of these works were not properly cataloged, and the present-day location of others remains unknown. It is possible that in another hundred years, for example, some long-lost masterpiece by Rembrandt might turn up in the guest bedroom of someone whose great-grandfather stormed a castle back in 1943 and took what he could find.

The second factor is the increasingly precise ability of science to examine with microscopic detail every aspect of a work of art, be it brush strokes, finger prints, chemical composition of materials used in an artwork, etc. While not a failsafe against the product of a skilled art forger, it does assist the art historian in determining the authenticity of a piece, as well as in aiding in the attribution of a work to a particular Old Master or to a second-rate copyist or follower. Recent examples of this have been reported on this blog previously, such as the discovery of a portrait by Leonardo Da Vinci or in the three altarpieces by Giusepe Ribera found in Granada Cathedral. However, there is a great deal of tension between the scientific community, with its unfailing belief in the neutrality of machines, and the art history community and its equally unfailing belief in the power of the experienced human eye to render a correct attribution.

The final factor of these three is that old human bugbear, greed. Historical research and scientific progress notwithstanding, those reporting on rediscoveries of Old Masters need to be wary of unsupported claims by museums or collectors seeking to convince the public that their pumpkin is, in fact, a glass coach. A collection which contains works by important Old Masters is going to be more prestigious than one made up largely of second-rate works in a poor state of preservation, and the publicity (or indeed, notoriety) gained by an announcement that a work by a major Old Master artist has been found and restored to public view will generate additional revenue by way of increased visitors, charitable donations, government funding, and so on. The temptation to attribute a work of art to a famous name became so overwhelming in the last century that there were some real howlers: works that could in no way be ascribed with any seriousness to the artist whose name appeared on the placard accompanying it.

One of the greatest of the Old Master painters is Tiziano Vecelli (1490-1576), more commonly known as “Titian”, who was arguably the best of the painters working in Venice during the Renaissance. He is particularly well-regarded for his portraits and his mythological scenes, and during his lifetime he was extremely popular with the wealthiest of the wealthy throughout Europe. Titian’s famous equestrian portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain, for example, showing Charles at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1548, is one of the finest jewels of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Yesterday the Museum of Western and Eastern Art in Odessa, Ukraine, announced its conclusion that a portrait in its collection, appearing to show one of the Doges of Venice, is a work by Titian. A “Doge” was the elected leader of the Venetian Republic during the Renaissance, and the museum claims that x-rays and other scientific evidence have established that the piece was painted by Titian, one of the greatest of the Old Master painters. However, art experts are cautious to accept the attribution for the time being, because the conclusion was drawn not by art historians, but by technicians.

“The analysis shows that the canvas matches Titian’s historical period,” noted the head of the Western Art department at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, “that the paint used matches his paint, that certain technical attributes match up. But based on that it is impossible to judge whether the painting is a Titian. That is the work of art historians, not technical experts.”

Whether the portrait turns out to be a work by Titian or no, its discovery is an example of what will be an increasing tension between the scientific and art history communities. Scientists will insist that machines cannot be fooled; art historians will insist that no machine can match the experienced “good eye” of someone who has spent their entire career examining works of art in minute detail. And greed will no doubt have its say as well, as it always has in the world of those fascinated by Old Master works of art.

The painting in question, from Finland’s Suomen Kuvalehti

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