On 27 April Christie’s Old Masters sale in New York will feature a rare, 15th-century Flemish masterpiece with a remarkable history, unseen at auction since the mid 19th-century. The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis is attributed to the great Netherlandish painter Hugo van der Goes, and is one of very few Renaissance works whose preparatory underdrawing is visible to the naked eye.
The work has been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1998, and today is one of the most important 15th-century Flemish paintings left in private hands.
Since it was first painted, the altarpiece has undergone significant changes: in the early 18th century the painted figures of the Virgin and Child were carefully stripped away, along with the body of Saint John the Baptist. At that time, an additional wooden board was added to the centre of the painting, and the four saints surrounding the Virgin and Child (from left to right: Saint Thomas, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Jerome and Saint Louis) were modified to become participants in a new scene representingThe Marriage of Henry VII to Elizabeth of York. The central figures were replaced by a view of a church interior.
The painting as it appeared before restoration revealed the original scene beneath the church interior in the central area
From 1978 to 1988 work was carried out to remove the 18th-century alterations and restore the painting to reflect the artist’s original composition. Overpainted areas were carefully removed, and entire areas of the original paint surface — stylistically related to the surrounding areas previously visible on either side — were revealed. At that time, art historian Claus Grimm proposed that the altarpiece should be attributed to Hugo van der Goes. This assessment is endorsed by Peter van den Brink, Director of the Suermondt Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany.
The survival of the preparatory underdrawing following the repainting in the 18th century is remarkable and highly unusual. ‘Contrary to the usual practice of the time,’ Grimm wrote, ‘the paint surface was removed with such care that part of the original drawing beneath the protective layer of priming is still intact.’ The result was one of ‘considerable historical significance’ as, with relatively few exceptions, the only visible examples of Renaissance underdrawing available to scholars had been on unfinished works.
‘Contrary to the usual practice of the time, the paint surface was removed with such care that part of the original drawing is still intact’
Van den Brink dates our picture to the first half of the 1470s, comparing it to Van der Goes’s Adoration of the Magi (the Monforte Altarpiece) in Berlin and to some of his unquestioned drawings, such as Jacob and Rachel and Christ on the Cross. The scholar explains that the underdrawing of The Virgin and Child in our altarpiece is ‘extremely refined and subtle, especially in the faces, where the artist used a web of fine and subtle, sketch-like strokes to create volume, form and plasticity’. In Jacob and Rachel, he observes, an ‘identical approach’ was used ‘to shape facial features’.
Van den Brink concludes that several aspects of the painted surface — such as the modelling of the faces, the anatomical treatment of the legs and feet, the handling of the drapery, and the use of colour and light — are especially close to Van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece in Florence, thus cementing his attribution.
The painting comes to Christie’s with exceptional provenance. In the 18th century it was held in the collection of Henrietta Louisa, Countess of Pomfret at Easton Neston, Northamptonshire. It was acquired in the estate sale of Lord Pomfret in 1754 by Horace Walpole, who kept the painting at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham, England.
It next entered the Dent collection at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, remaining there until it was acquired, through an Old Master paintings dealer, by a private American collector, who loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The work will be on view to the public at Christie’s Rockefeller Center from 22-26 April.