Carnegie conservators help unearth original masterpieces
When Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts, found a seemingly unremarkable painting of a demure 16th-century woman in the Carnegie Museum of Art's storage, she sent it to the experts to confirm it was a fake.
Chief conservator Ellen Baxter could do no such thing.
Baxter's examination proved this particular portrait held a secret. Underneath the surface layer of paint hid an authentic portrait of Isabella de Medici created around 1570.
“I've been in this field a long time,” Lippincott says. “This has happened only three or four times. It was a big moment.”
The painting is one of five featured in “Faked, Forgotten, Found,” an exhibit showcasing conservators' forensic analysis of several Renaissance paintings in the museum's collection. It opens June 28.
The exhibit offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on the intersection of art and science taking place in the museum every day.
“At Carnegie Museum of Art, conservators play a daily role in caring for our works,” says Lynn Zelevansky, the museum's Henry J. Heinz II director. “With a collection as large and important as CMOA's, it would be impossible to carry on without them. In addition to the treatments that they do to preserve the art, no work comes into the museum on loan, goes on view in our galleries — whether it's from the collection or a loan for an exhibition — or is lent to another museum without their oversight and evaluation.
“Because they have scientific, as well as art-historical skills, they can add essential information to the detective work that is at the heart of curatorial research,” Zelevansky says. “They're crucial to the workings of any first-string museum.”
The Carnegie has about 75 Old Master paintings in storage, many acquired from 1920 to 1980. The Medici portrait came to the Carnegie in 1979 as a gift after a local collector died, Lippincott says.
Conservators use a CSI model to investigate what they have, Baxter says. She saw the Medici piece as a crime scene with “serious, serious problems” and got to work examining cracks in the surface paint.
“We needed more information,” Baxter says. “Ultraviolet rays let us see years of history and damage represented at the surface level.”
According to the museum's records, the painting depicted Eleanor of Toledo, wife of Cosimo de Medici, the first Grand Duke of Florence, and was created by 16th-century painter Bronzino. But Baxter remained suspicious. The back of the painting bore a stamp of Francis Leedham, who worked as a reliner — one charged with transferring paintings from wood panels to canvas mounts — at the National Portrait Gallery in London in the mid-1800s.
A trip to Monroeville Imaging Center unraveled even more of the mystery. Scans showed a surface layer of paint covering the woman's face and hand.
“In the X-ray, we saw a ghost,” Lippincott says.
As Baxter began removing the surface layers, an entirely different subject emerged. Under the healthy glow of the young woman on the surface was a woman with baggy eyes. She held an urn in her hands. She had a high forehead — a trend that signified intelligence and the origin of the expression “high brow.” Her coloring was far less warm than the newer paint portrayed. Portions of her neck and ear had been obscured by the addition of hair and collar. The unevenness of her eyes had been corrected, her lips drawn into a bow, her nose straightened. Her hand was thinned.
Lippincott researched Medici portraits to find anything similar to the expensive garb and jewels the mystery woman donned. Isabella de Medici was a perfect match.
Isabella de Medici was the daughter of Eleanor of Toledo and Cosimo de Medici, who arranged her marriage to Paolo Orsini when she was 16. Despite her marriage, Isabella remained in Florence while her husband lived in Rome. When her father died, her brother Ferdinando came into power and conspired with her husband to strangle her, likely as retribution for her affair with Orsini's cousin. She died in 1576.
“She had a scandalous life,” Lippincott says. “She had a bad marriage, many lovers. But she was the apple of her father's eye.”
The portrait, painted shortly after Isabella's father's death, was most likely a “propaganda piece,” Lippincott suspects, meant to restore the woman's image in the public eye. A faint halo curves atop her head and she bears the expression of “a repentant Magdalene,” Lippincott says.
The painting likely was altered in London in 1850 to bolster its appeal to auction bidders, Lippincott says.
Baxter has spent many hours working to restore it to its original state. Her work, while undetectable by the casual viewer, will be blatant enough for experts to know it's been restored.
“It's not a technically difficult treatment,” she says. “It's more time-consuming.”
One mystery remains. The painting is unsigned and could have been created by one of several who worked for the Medici court.
Other intriguing items explored for “Faked, Forgotten, Found” include the museum's genuine painting by Francesco Francia of the Virgin and Child, a 16th-century painting of “St. George and the Dragon” and a portrait of a famous jouster in King Henry V's court by Hans Holbein the Younger. Visitors will be able to view the pieces from all angles, as the display will be set up in a rotunda. Videos will show the progression of conservators' work.
The goal is to give viewers a firsthand look at the conservation process, while expanding their appreciation for otherwise hidden gems.
“These things are physical objects,” Lippincott says. “So many people only view them on their screen. But you're only getting about 15 percent of the experience.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.