Mercenary Makeover: How and Why Art Gets Altered

Today we often hear complaints that advertisers and magazine editors are photoshopping pictures of actresses and models, in order to achieve unrealistic standards of beauty or perfection.  While we certainly can and should question such behavior, in the history of art this sort of thing is nothing new.  The idealized figure has been just as much a part of art history for thousands of years, and for many art collectors, having a pretty face to hang on the wall or stand on a plinth has always been more important than simply having a work by an important artist.  As was once observed to me during my time studying at Sotheby’s Institute in London, a painting of an elderly man will always sell for less than a painting of a pretty girl.

However there is a difference between creating an idealized figure in a work of art, and altering an existing work of art for pecuniary reasons.  Sadly, many art dealers in the past, and sometimes disreputable ones today, employed dubious methods to try to make the works they were selling appear more attractive to potential customers.  Long before the digital alteration of images became commonplace, they would hire “restorers” to paint over those areas of a painting which were considered to be unattractive.  This went beyond actual restoration, such as where paint might have rubbed or cracked off, to actually altering the appearance of the picture in a way never intended by the artist.

Sometimes this “restoration” was done so extensively that it completely obliterated the original image.  Some pictures were actually scraped down to their base board or canvas surface and completely repainted by these “restorers”.  It is a practice whose legacy has plagued the art world ever since, for although frowned upon today, the fallout continues to be discovered, even now.  There has been so much of it, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as industrialists like Andrew Carnegie or J.P. Morgan went about snapping up Old Master paintings, that museums, auction houses, and dealers are still constantly being presented with works which have been so dramatically altered, that they will need timely and expensive restoration to remove all the “improvements” made to them in the past.

One such example came to light recently at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.  The wonderfully-named Lulu Lippincott, curator of fine arts at the museum, was going through the collection and identifying works that could be marked for de-accession.  This is a process by which an institution determines that certain pieces in their collection do not help fulfill the goals of the institution.  The decision can be based on various factors, such as whether the work in question is a fake.

In this case, Lippincott examined the portrait of a woman in 16th-century dress, and came to the conclusion that it was probably a 19th or 20th century piece trying to look like an earlier work.  The painting had been catalogued as possibly being by Agnolo di Cosimo (1503-1572), better known as Bronzino, who was the most celebrated portrait painter of the Italian Mannerist period.  Mannerism is a brief but important stylistic bridge in art history, falling between the High Renaissance and the Baroque, during which a great deal of artistic experimentation went on, not only in portraying the human figure, but also in the use of extremes of light and shadow.

Bronzino’s work is so distinctive, that Lippincott took one look at the picture and concluded, “you’ve got to be kidding – this is not a Bronzino.”  To be on the safe side however, she sent the piece to the Carnegie’s conservation department just to be sure.  Much to everyone’s surprise, the answer came back that in fact it was a genuine 16th century painting, but which had been painted over at some point in the 19th century, to make the woman in the picture look more attractive.  Conservators were able to remove all of the overpaint, and restore the piece as closely as possible to its original appearance.

For the moment, the identity of the artist remains a subject for debate.  The museum believes it may be by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607), a Florentine Mannerist painter a bit younger than Bronzino.  The conclusion that the subject of the painting is Isabella de’ Medici however, the daughter and the sister of the 1st and 2nd Grand Dukes of Tuscany, respectively, makes perfect sense, in light of other existing portraits of her.  The fact that Allori himself had painted her before, in a similar gown, tends to add to this idea, but that issue will continue to fascinate experts for some time, as research continues.

The public can enjoy the detective story this summer, by visiting the Carnegie’s new exhibition, Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated, which opened this past weekend and runs through September 15th.

Side-by-side comparison of "Isabella de' Medici", before and after cleaning and restoration Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Side-by-side comparison of “Isabella de’ Medici”, before (l) and after (r) its recent cleaning and restoration
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh



8 thoughts on “Mercenary Makeover: How and Why Art Gets Altered

  1. Interesting article. I really wise I could see the exhibit but I am visiting the site later to read more. I work in an archives and a guiding principle (in regards to conservation) is you don’t do something that you cannot undo.


  2. So, just to be clear, is the painting on the right side closer to what the original would have been? Or is that the way it was “restored” in the 19th century?


  3. Are you aware of any paintings in the DC collections that have been through similar journeys? May end up in the city in August (awful time of year but…); even ordinarily uninteresting pieces will seem better when it’s 95 outside with 99% humidity.


    • You’re right, being inside the relative cool of a place like the National Gallery is a mercy in August. I’ve thought about doing a series of posts – or perhaps even a book – about some of the provenance of works in American museums, which are oftentimes almost as fascinating as the works themselves. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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