The Courtier in The Federalist: Reviewing Marie Antoinette’s Favorite Painter At The Met

Over on The Federalist today, here’s my latest piece for them on a new exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and what it tells us both about Marie Antoinette’s favorite artist, and the dumbing down of one of America’s most prestigious cultural institutions.

My thanks to Ben Domenech, Joy Pullmann, and the team for another opportunity to share my thoughts with their readers.

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Ocean’s Fourteen? Con Artists Get Conned In Art Swindle

Every now and then, a great crime story emerges from the art world, one worthy of Danny Ocean and his crew of con artists.

Back in 2003, two art-collecting brothers put down a 20k euro deposit on what they believed was a portrait of the Spanish artist Antonio Maria Esquivel, by the very great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. Goya, if you are not already aware, is generally considered to be the dividing line between the Old Master painters and the beginning of what we would consider Modern art. Thus his importance, and therefore the value of his work both from an historical and indeed a financial perspective, cannot be overestimated. A single, authentic Goya drawing can sell for millions of dollars.

The brothers were supposed to pay the seller 250k euro in order to complete the transaction, but began to doubt whether the painting was the real thing, despite the certificate they had received from the seller that the work was genuine. According to press reports, in 2006, a leading Goya expert determined that the painting was not the real deal, but rather a copy or fake, albeit one painted in Goya’s time. A court ruled that the brothers could keep the painting, but they did not have to pay the remaining 250k owed to the seller, due to the seller’s knowing misrepresentation. Again, according to the press, what originally tipped off the expert hired by the court was the fact that the portrait was lacking two medals which Esquivel had been awarded, and which appeared in what the press described as the “original painting” (more on that later.)

The fun part of the story begins when the brothers decided that they were going to use the painting to try to rip someone else off. They found a broker who told them that he knew an Arab sheikh who would be interested in acquiring the work. After a successful meeting with the Saudi collector, the brothers provided the same false certificate of authenticity that had been used to trick them. The collector agreed to pay a price of 4 million euros for the painting, while the brothers agreed to give the broker 300k euros as a finder’s fee; they borrowed this money from a friend, who paid a representative of the broker on their behalf, promising that they would repay him the next day with an 80k euro bonus for allowing them to borrow the money.

The pair then traveled to Turin, where they met a representative of their Saudi buyer, who brought them a bag filled with 1.7 million in Swiss francs. Wisely, the brothers had purchased a machine used by currency experts to verify that these were real notes and not counterfeit. Unwisely, at some point before they left Turin for Geneva, the bag containing the real notes was switched, and replaced with one containing counterfeit notes.

When the brothers arrived in Switzerland to deposit their ill-gotten gains at their Swiss bank, they were informed that the notes were nothing more than photocopies of Swiss francs. Realizing they had been tricked, they then tried to make it back to Spain via train. Rather stupidly, they decided to bring the fake bank notes with them. Unfortunately, they had the further bad luck of being stopped by French customs police in Avignon, and charged with trying to smuggle 1.7 million counterfeit Swiss francs into the country. Oh and if you hadn’t already guessed, the broker and the sheikh have disappeared, along with the 300k euros.

If you have ever seen the British television show “Hustle”, the story reads like an episode of that program. It was a brilliantly planned and executed con, and one that targeted two people who were trying to con someone else. However, here’s the problem I have with the story.

Antonio Maria Esquivel (1806-1857) was a portrait painter who was born in Seville. He moved to Madrid in 1831, in order to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts there. In 1840 he was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, arguably the most prestigious prize that Spain can bestow, and became an official painter to the royal Court in 1843.

If you know something about art history, then you have already seen what the problem is with this timeline: Goya died in France in 1828. In fact, the painter had been living there in exile since he left Spain for the last time in 1824. In other words, by the time Esquivel moved to Madrid, Goya was long dead; by the time Esquivel was awarded the Order of Isabel the Catholic, Goya had been gone for almost two decades.

Moreover, the painting is clearly a poor copy, not of a Goya, but rather of Esquivel’s own “Self Portrait”, which hangs in the Lázaro Galdiano Foundation in Madrid. While I cannot say that I am familiar with all of Goya’s work, it would seem to me that there is a logical impossibility that Goya painted the picture, based both on the timeline of artist and subject, as well as the fact that this is arguably Esquivel’s most famous painting, or at least one of them. Thus, it seems odd to me that none of the news articles that I have read on the case, whether in English or in Spanish, have pointed out that no one in their right mind would have thought this a Goya, to begin with.

Still, whatever the reason why this fact as overlooked, the story itself is certainly a highly entertaining one.

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The fake painting and fake Swiss francs

Artists In Love: Painting The Muse

The artistic muse is a figure of great importance in art history. For centuries, men have been inspired by the women they are in love with, to create beautiful works of art which try to capture the beauty of these women for posterity. Today I’d like us to briefly consider an English 19th century example of how beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, at times, and then jump back to perhaps the quintessential artistic muse of the Italian Renaissance.

Jane Morris is a muse well-known to those who have any familiarity with Pre-Raphaelite art. From portraying her as the figure of Beatrice from Dante’s poetry, to dressing her as a goddess or nymph, she inspired the painter Dante Gabrielle Rossetti for years. She had quite a lengthy affair with him as well, even though she was married to another Pre-Raphaelite luminary, William Morris. The question one has to ask oneself, though, is why.

From nearly two dozen paintings of her by Rossetti, Morris stares out, bug-eyed and seemingly bad-tempered. Why Rossetti was so besotted with her is something which I have never understood. To my eye, she looks like a rather oafish young man in drag, who has just been awakened from a stupor to discover that he is drooling on himself. Described in articles like this one as a “beauty”, Morris is proof that for many people, beauty must truly be in the eyes of the beholder.

Whatever beauty Jane Morris may have (inexplicably) been to the English Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th century, for Raphael himself during the High Renaissance in Rome, his mistress Margarita Luti, more commonly known as “La Fornarina” – “the baker’s daughter”, was the muse of muses. I wanted to write briefly about a beautiful portrait of the beautiful La Fornarina known as the “Donna Velata” or “Veiled Lady”, and to look at it in conjunction with his portrait of Count Baldessare Castiglione, painted roughly around the same time, between 1514 and 1515. (Regular readers know that Castiglione’s portrait forms the design basis for this site, as you will discover by scrolling up and clicking “Patron”.)

Before beginning however, a note of caution. The problem with La Fornarina has always been identifying her, since there is a portrait by Raphael called “La Fornarina” which looks nothing like the lady in question. I have always doubted that Raphael painted it, or that if he started it someone else, such as his pupil Giulio Romano, finished it and changed it significantly. La Fornarina is the model for the Virgin Mary in several of Raphael’s most famous paintings, including his “Sistine Madonna” and “Madonna of the Chair”, and the half-naked woman in the portrait named for her, in fact looks nothing like her.  

That caveat out of the way, let’s look at the “Veiled Lady” portrait. The first thing to notice in this picture, after you have absorbed the (actual) beauty of the woman in it, is that here we have almost a tonal painting. There are only shades of browns, whites, and golds, with a tiny bit of red for La Fornarina’s lips and cheeks, and in the ruby clip holding the pearl drop to her hair. Even the agate necklace around La Fornarina’s neck shows earth-toned gems set in simple gold.

Compare this very simple color scheme, almost a lack of color, if you will, to the portrait of Castiglione. Here, too, Raphael is also highly restrained in the color palette he uses. Castiglione’s painting is made up of browns, grays, blacks, and whites, with the only outstanding color being the writer’s piercing blue eyes. Even the gold-set jewel in his cap is shown muddled and in shadow.

Another similarity between the two portraits lies in the use of fabric. La Fornarina’s lavish white dress envelops her like a merengue, but it is lacking in color other than geometric borders in gold thread; she also wears a simple, natural linen veil over her head. In his portrait, Castiglione is shown wearing a basic black suit with a plush but equally simple, gray velvet cloak wrapped around him, and a jaunty black hat pushed back on his head, somewhat like a turban. While both of the outfits shown in these portraits were costly, their cost is shown through their quality, rather than by their being flashy.

We tend to think of the Renaissance as being a bold, colorful business, with people wearing extraordinarily loud colors and patterns. In this instance however, when Raphael chose to paint portraits of the woman he loved and of one of his closest friends and mentors, he did so without a great deal of fussiness, color, or flashiness. The brushwork is swift and natural, with the shyness of La Fornarina being expressed as beautifully in her somewhat timid glance, as Castiglione’s polite, noble self-confidence is in his own. There are no props necessary when you are an artist this good at capturing human expression. Indeed, one can look at this art and easily leap forward over a century and a few hundred miles to see how Velazquez did exactly the same thing in Madrid in the 17th century as Raphael was doing in Rome in the 16th.

Jane Morris and La Fornarina are not the only muses in art history, of course. From Simonetta Vespucci to Lady Hamilton to Gala Dali, many women became artistic inspirations for the men who admired them and represented them in art. However I think that what is interesting in the representations of these women are not when they appear as models for goddesses or saints, but rather in the art created for private consumption by the artist himself, for his own delectation. There we get a better sense, perhaps, of how the artist really saw his muse, when the two of them were alone. In the case of Raphael, one can well understand why he fell in love with La Fornarina.

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"Donna Velata" by Raphael (c. 1514-15)