Close Examination : Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries

London, National Gallery, from 28 June until 12 September 2010

1. Attributed to Sassoferrato (1609-1685)
after Perugino
The Baptism of Christ
Oil on canvas mounted on poplar - 32.5 x 59 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

When he was first appointed as head of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny had stated that he planned to limit the number of blockbuster exhibitions, notably for economic reasons [1] (see our editorial, in French, of 8/3/08).
After Delaroche (see article), the London museum continues to pursue this policy by bringing together a reduced selection of paintings to illustrate not so much the theme of fakes, which is what has most attracted media attention concerning this exhibition, as the technical advances which allow a work to be studied with the help of scientific means.
The National Gallery therefore presents several cases, each treated as a special-study exhibition, taken for the most part from its collections. A few works have been lent from other museums but they are rare, an unfortunate circumstance. For example, the study of two 17th century copies of a painting by Perugino, The Baptism of Christ, one of which is attributed to Sassoferrato (ill. 1), the other anonymous, does not allow visitors to examine them next to the original which resides at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Rouen. Obviously, it would have been extremely interesting to be able to compare all of the versions and understand why those at the National Gallery and Canterbury were thought to be either originals or 19th century copies. Even more regrettably, the catalogue, reduced to a small booklet in the A Closer Look collection, is very incomplete and only covers about fifteen cases, ignoring over half the examples studied, an extremely frustrating fact which leaves us with the impression of something unfinished.

2. Early 20th century
Portrait Group
Oil and tempera on wood - 40.6 x 36.5 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : National Gallery

The exhibition begins with some examples of fakes which the museum acquired as originals. One represents a group portrait, painted in the manner of a late 15th century Italian, which joined the collections as an anonymous work but was attributed to the circle of Melozzo da Forli (ill. 2). The catalogue explains that it seems strange today that such a painting could have passed in the eyes of specialists at the time (it was purchased in 1923) as an authentic work from the Italian Renaissance since some areas (notably the figures) are “just a little too modern”. The same question of course comes up regularly concerning the fake Vermeers by Van Meegheren in which the forgery now seems so evident that no one understands how they could have been so misled. The entry explains however that it is much easier to dupe contemporaries with a recently painted fake given that certain details and at times even its conception appear, with time, characteristic of the period of execution. We point out nevertheless that doubts concerning the authenticity of a work often arise very quickly (in this case, some people denounced it as a fake as soon as the painting was purchased) and that it is only a matter of time before the fact is accepted unanimously. A “Botticelli” painted in fact around 1930, a portrait of a woman in profile thought to be of the 15th century and also executed in the early 20th, a “Francesco Francia” donated to the museum in 1924 and since then acknowledged as a 19th century fake thanks to the resurfacing of the original, these are really the only “true” fakes presented in this exhibition.

3. Raphaël (1483-1520)
The Madonna of the Pinks, c. 1506-1507
Oil on yew - 27.9 x 22.4 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : National Gallery

Could a museum with state of the art scientific tools at its disposal still fall prey to the acquisition of a fake painting today ? The question is unfortunately not really addressed here in the exhibiton although it displays a wood panel which raised a great deal of controversy when it was purchased. We refer to Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks (ill. 3) whose eventful background was highlighted on our website (see the articles, in French). The catalogue recalls that for many years it was considered to be one of the many old copies of this famous composition and was rehabilitated only recently when “a National Gallery conservator” [2] rediscovered it during a visit to the Duke of Northumberland who owned it. Yet the entry omits any mention of the debated stirred by James Beck (since deceased) during the disputed purchase with the Getty Museum which claimed that this was a copy executed by Vincenzo Camuccini to whom it belonged in the early 19th century. The catalogue simply lists all of the authentifying evidence provided by the scientific analysis.
Clearly, we believe that the exceptional quality of this work is sufficient proof that it is indeed by Raphael. However, an exhibition studying the question of authenticity in art should at least have referred to the painting’s background more thoroughly.

4. Angelo Caroselli (1585-1652) after
Nicolas Poussin
The Plague at Ashdod , 1631
Oil on canvas - 129 x 204.5 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

Old master fakes are only one aspect of the exhibition since museum acquisitions of those produced as forgeries remain an exception. A more frequent phenomenon is ascertaining an attribution with ensuing debates related to a workshop and whether it was by the master or one of his disciples (who often work hand in hand on a painting), or if it is an old copy. The latter are not fakes in a strict sense as they were not executed with the intention of fooling the buyer [3]. Acquiring a work with a mistaken attribution is of course regrettable but it is much less serious than acquiring a fake as in the following cases : four small panels by Andrea Previtali were thus accepted as originals by Giorgione, not really exceptional in itself since the catalogue of his works has been drastically reduced over time as art history has progressed, a Holbein, a Delacroix or a Courbet painted after they died respectively, a Poussin found to be a copy by one of his contemporaries, Angelo Caroselli (ill. 4), despite the fact it had been recorded since the 17th century…

5. Italy ?, c. 1600
Landscape : A River among Mountains
Oil on poplar - 50.8 x 68.6 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

6. Follower of Rembrandt
An Old Man in an Armchair, 1650/1660
Oil on canvas - 111 x 88 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : National Gallery

Attribution questions also arise in the case of certain paintings whose anonymity continues to irritate and for which science can at times offer a solution. A landscape from the second half of the 16th century (ill. 5) acquired as a Venetian painting was then attributed to Joachim Patinir. The study of the wooden panel in 1979 and the preparation revealed the Italian origins, leading to the conclusion that it was executed in Italy “inspired by the Italian taste for Dutch landscape painting around 1600.”
Rembrandt and his school also raise many attribution problems for art historians. Two cases are presented here. A small painting which was thought to be a first draft by the master for a work at the Pinakothek in Munich is in fact by a student. When removing [4] the yellowed varnish, a technique appeared which is incompatible with Rembrandt’s whereas the presence of a preparation which is typical of his work and that of his circle would have proven that it was indeed from his entourage. In the same way, the Old Man in an Armchair (ill. 6) with a fake signature and date appears to be the work of a follower.
Fortunately, surprises are not always bad and a painting may at times turn out to be by a more prestigious hand or indeed be an original. Aside from the Raphael mentioned above (acknowledged as authentic however before the museum acquired it), a copy after Jan Gossaert resulted as being an original after a restoration in 1994 and a Saint Francis of Assissi with the Angels by a follower of Botticelli recently appeared (in 2002) as in fact having been painted by him.

A question that the exhibition might have developed further is that of connoisseurship, that is, the ability to recognize the hand of an artist by simply looking at a painting, illustrated in the expression, “an eye”. Studies sometimes provide negative proof, for instance by showing that the pigments used had not been discovered before the death of a certain artist, but they can never affirm the authenticity of the work. A painting may bear all the technical characteristics of an artist, but if the quality is not on a par with his work, this will not be enough to ensure its acknowledgement. No matter how sophisticated [5], scientific tools remain an aid, and not an ultimately deciding factor, in determining attribution.

Marjorie E. Wisemann, A Closer Look. Deceptions and Discoveries, National Gallery, Yale University Press, 2010, 96p., 6.99 pounds. ISBN : 9781857094862.

Visitor information : The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN. Tel : +44(0) 20 7747 2885. Open every day from 10 to 6. Free entrance.

Didier Rykner, vendredi 20 août 2010


[1] On this point we remind our readers that the National Gallery is still in the process of raising the necessary funds to acquire, along with Edinburgh, Titian’s Diana and Callisto, the matching pair for Diana and Actaeon (see news item of 11/2/09).

[2] This was Nicholas Penny himself.

[3] However, we should remark that fakes produced for deception but executed close to the date of the original are hard to distinguish from a simple old copy. Some painters, such as Claude Lorrain, were already forged during their lifetime.

[4] Qualified as “cautious”, which we sincerely hope is the case.

[5] On this point, we once again regret that the procedure developed by Lumiere Technology (see the articles) is not applied at the National Gallery nor, as a matter of fact, in French museums.

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