Long missing, now found: Old Master discoveries offered during Classic Week
Several works in our Old Masters sale on April 27 were once thought to have disappeared. Christie’s specialists Emma Kronman, Alan Wintermute and François de Poortere explain how these important paintings were brought back to light
For a scholar of art, there is perhaps no greater thrill than being in the presence of a work long considered lost to history. When such pieces resurface, art historians must draw upon all their skills to make an accurate attribution, and determine whether they are in fact dealing with an original.
While methods vary depending on the artist and medium, ‘There are,’ says Emma Kronman, an Old Master Paintings specialist at Christie’s New York, ‘things we can do visually, art historically and technically to work things out.’
For Kronman’s colleague and fellow specialist Alan Wintermute, an auction house has certain advantages. ‘The resources of Christie’s allow us to pursue leads that an independent scholar or museum might not have,’ he explains. Ultimately, he says, ‘the combination of commerce and scholarship’ can help drive discovery.
Perhaps more than any other artist, Titian redefined 16th-century Italian painting. The Portrait of Gabriele Giolito de' Ferrari, first attributed to Titian in 1957, disappeared from view in the 1960s and was left out of late 20th-century scholarship on the artist. When it reappeared at a small auction in Geneva in 2013, it was mistaken for a work by one of his followers.
Recent research and X-radiography have led Professors Peter Humfrey and Paul Joannides to conclude that the portrait can officially be attributed to Titian. ‘Scholarship on Titian is complex because he was so widely imitated — by both artists in his workshop and beyond,’ says Emma Kronman.
This made the process of definitively confirming its attribution particularly exciting. As Kronman explains, X-rays showed that the canvas was coarse in texture — a finding consistent with the kinds of canvases Titian favoured. X-rays also revealed a small ‘halo’ of paint around the head of the sitter — a preparatory technique typical of Titian’s practice.
The attribution is further supported by an inscription identifying the sitter as Gabriele Giolito de’ Ferrari, a Venetian publisher who was part of Titian’s literary circle. ‘Titian was a printmaker himself, and was close to a number of writers,’ Kronman explains. ‘The idea that this was painted “friend to friend” makes it particularly appealing, and underscores the depth of the cultural circles in Italy at the time.’
Stylistically, Kronman adds, it showcases ‘an approach to technique that would come to define Titian’s late work, and that helped make his art so modern and exciting to contemporary viewers.’
Painted around 1660, Murillo’s The Immaculate Conception features the ‘graceful, frothy palette’ typical of the artist’s production in the last two decades of his life.
The subject of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, or Inmaculada, was one that Murillo turned to again and again. But this version, painted on copper, is particularly exciting. ‘The láminas — or paintings on hard support — were especially desirable because they kept paint vivid, bright and jewel-like,’ explains Emma Kronman. ‘We only know of three other versions of the Inmaculadas on a support like this done by Murillo himself.’
At the time Murillo painted this work, debate raged in the Vatican about how the Virgin Mary was conceived. On one side were the Immaculatists, who argued that the Virgin had been conceived without original sin. Those who believed in sanctification, on the other hand, believed that Mary was conceived in sin and purified in the womb. In 1661, Pope Alexander VII officially declared the Virgin Mary immune to original sin, closing the debate for good.
The ruling was cause for rejoicing in Spain and, says Kronman, ‘explains why Murillo would have produced one of these Immuculadas for a private patron. It’s all about a deep and intense loyalty to a particular interpretation of the Catholic faith.’
Following close and careful inspection by art historians Jonathan Brown, Ignacio Cano and William B. Jordan, another debate has been closed for good. As Kronman confirms, ‘This work has been fully accepted by Murillo scholars.’
The small panel below, Pour garder l'honneur d'une belle, is an exceptional rediscovery from early in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s career. The painting was long known from engravings by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, and was included in the Recueil Jullienne, a compendium of engravings of Watteau’s paintings published between 1732 and 1735. But at some point in the 18th century, it disappeared.
The official attribution was made by Alan Wintermute, who is currently preparing the catalogue raisonné on Watteau. As the specialist explains, so many of Watteau’s works were engraved and catalogued not long after his death that ‘we tend to know what Watteau works look like even when they are lost’. There are so many reproductions, he adds, that ‘everything is assumed to be a copy’.
This painting, for example, ‘was very dirty and covered with old encrusted repainting. So unless you looked really hard in key areas it probably looked like a copy.’ Once cleaned, however, it became obvious that it was not.
‘Watteau’s innovation was to reproduce scenes of the Commedia dell'arte,’ Wintermute explains. ‘He created a new visual language from the theatre. Here he incorporates the characters into real life — a practice for which he would later become famous.’
In the figure of Pierrot, the face is particularly refined and delicate. The costume is luminous. ‘There’s a beautiful sense of drawing and touch, and a real liquidity to the paint,’ adds the specialist. ‘The whole atmosphere is light, bright, and glows — characteristics you recognise from Watteau’s work.’
The three Le Nain brothers, Antoine, Louis and Mathieu, lived together and shared a studio in Paris in the early 17th century. Together they produced altarpieces and religious paintings, portraits, small pictures on copper or wood, and peasant scenes. They achieved considerable success, receiving commissions from both royalty and the Church.
The brothers were also founding members of the Académie Royale, established just two months before the near-simultaneous deaths of Antoine and Louis in 1648; Mathieu would live for another 30 years. The brothers painted almost as a collective — many of their paintings are unsigned (those they did sign are marked, simply, ‘Le Nain’). ‘You can see different hands,’ reveals Wintermute, ‘but we don’t really know how they worked together.’
Four Figures at a Table is among the most celebrated of their compositions. ‘This was a picture that was known from many copies,’ says the specialist. ‘But there was always a sense that there must have been some prototype that was missing.’ In 1978, a version in London’s National Gallery, long thought to be a copy, was X-rayed and found to be an original.
This newly discovered canvas is only the second version of this composition to be attributed definitively to the brothers. The painting, an interior scene, features four peasants: a young boy, a small girl, a young woman and an older woman. But this variation contains elements that appear in no other known version of the composition, including the picture in the National Gallery. ‘In all other versions, the interior is entirely bare-bones, but here there are beautifully-handled elements of pots and crockery,’ Wintermute explains.
Once the painting had been cleaned, it became clear that it was from the Le Nain brothers, but probably by a different brother than the one who executed the London version. Upon closer inspection, the broader, coarser treatment of the paint led specialists to conclude that this variation was largely the work of Mathieu, who often revised his brothers’ pieces.
Wintermute says that canvases by the Le Nain brothers are quite rare. ‘But what’s rarer still are paintings with elements absolutely characteristic of their work: peasant scenes and quiet interiors,’ he adds. The discovery of Four Figures at a Table is a thrilling development for Le Nain connoisseurs. ‘I couldn’t even tell you the last time one was sold,’ says the specialist.
Having arrived in Genoa in 1621, Anthony van Dyck spent seven years in Italy, travelling widely — to Venice, Rome, Palermo — and studying the Italian Old Masters. He painted several sketches after compositions by Titian, Veronese and Raphael, many of which he would later incorporate into his own works.
This small study of Saint Mary Magdalene dates to around 1623, and was probably painted during a stay in Parma. While there, Van Dyck would have seen Correggio’s altarpiece, the Madonna of Saint Jerome, known as Il Giorno. In this work, Van Dyck reproduces Correggio’s twisting Magdalene, although his colours are warmer and more saturated. The sharp details of the Correggio contrast with Van Dyck’s bold, sweeping application of paint — elements that give this study a sketchy quality. ‘You can really feel the artist at work, and his spontaneity,’ comments François de Poortere, Head of Christie’s Old Master Department in New York.
The piece was first recognised as a Van Dyck in 1936 by Austrian art historian Gustav Glück, who identified the fluid handling of the paint and the delicate shape of the hands as characteristic of his work. Glück subsequently published the picture in 1939, in a piece in The Burlington Magazine. But after that article, says de Poortere, ‘the painting went into hiding’.
At the turn of the century, the specialist explains, ‘there was a concerted push to better understand Van Dyck. This resulted in a great catalogue on the artist, published in 2004, which revisited his entire oeuvre.’ But the present study was not included, simply because it was missing. That is, it was hiding in plain sight: the painting remained in the hands of the family who had owned it since the 1930s, when Glück made the initial attribution to Van Dyck. The piece had simply never been picked up by more recent scholars.
‘It was only this year that this picture came back to light,’ observes de Poortere. Christie’s confirmed the authenticity of the work with the help of Van Dyck scholar Susan J. Barnes, who made the official attribution.
De Poortere is excited to bring this ‘spirited, sophisticated little picture’ to market for the first time. ‘You don’t necessarily think of this kind of work when you think of Van Dyck — this is a real collector’s item,’ he says.