Exhibit shows story behind the picture

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 5:39 p.m.

The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” certainly holds true when walking through an art museum, but the latest exhibit to open at Carnegie Museum of Art asks visitors to read between the lines.

“Faked, Forgotten, Found” examines four paintings that arrived at the Oakland museum between 1967 and 1981, all of which came with little information about their past history or their physical condition.

When a team of museum staffers with the assistance of modern scholars, conservators and forensic scientists began to study each of these works beginning in 2010, surprising discoveries emerged about their authenticity, physical condition and history.

Take, for example, the painting “Madonna and Child With Angel” by Francesco Raibolini (c. 1450-1517), aka Francesco Francia. For many years, the National Gallery, London, displayed what was believed to be the original version of this earliest-known work by the Bolognese artist (painted between 1495 to 1500), but in reality what was on display was a 19th-century copy.

“It's a very, very good copy because the owners of the original wanted to sell it to a wealthy English collector, and they had to get past the local government to make that sale,” says museum curator Louise Lippincott. “So, what they did was commission this very fine copy, hung it up in their house and sold (the original).”

The paintings are shown here together, side-by-side, for the first time, along with the results of the National Gallery's cutting-edge forensic research. “We wanted to put them together to give people a sense of how you spot the real thing, or the original, from the fake, or the copy,” Lippincott says.

Lippincott says discovering stories like this is like solving cold-case crimes: In both, one seeks to understand, “What happened here?” Whether criminal or art-historical, the investigation requires a team of specialists collaborating on forensic examinations, inspired guesswork, imaginative reconstructions of past events and rigorous fact-checking.

Though Lippincott contends, “Often, we have no idea where, when or why the copies originated,” sometimes they originate right on top of the original.

That was certainly the case with the discovery of an original 16th-century portrait of Isabella de Medici (1542-76), hidden beneath Victorian-era overpainting.

The first time Lippincott saw this portrait in storage and read the title and the artist attributed to creating it — Agnolo Bronzino, Italian (Florence, 1503-72) — on its brass label, she was convinced it was a fake. But careful study by the museum's conservator, Ellen Baxter, indicated it wasn't.

Baxter took it to an independent imaging center in Monroeville for an X-ray and discovered the original painting underneath, a portrait delicately painted by none other than Bronzino. An unrecognizable woman had been painted on top of Isabella by a 19th-century paintings restorer.

Lippincott says Baxter's examination of the back of the work offered some major clues. At the top of the stretcher is the stamp of Francis Needham, who worked in London in the mid-19th century as an art restorer and was an expert in transferring paintings from damaged panels to canvas. His stamp proved that the painting was older than initially thought, was valued highly enough to receive this expensive treatment and was originally painted on a wood panel. Baxter concluded that Needham must have removed the painted surface from the panel, and put it to canvas, then went about “in-painting” or painting in areas that were lost in the process.

To emphasize the importance of investigating the entirety of the painting, as this example clearly illustrates, a rotunda in the center of the gallery holds all five of the paintings in windows, so visitors can walk around and see the backs.

“We wanted people to see the backs because that's where all of the information is,” Lippincott says. “The goal of the show is to help our visitors understand that paintings are objects. They are physical objects. They have fronts. They have backs. They have histories. For us, it's not just about what's painted on the surface; it's the whole thing. Looking at these objects and caring for these objects is not just about the painted part, it's about the whole thing, the panel supports the framing, the conservation, the whole thing.”

Outside of the rotunda, on the gallery walls, are timelines for each work from creation to the present, which also show X-ray and other imaging that the staff has completed.

The timelines not only tell the whole history of each painting, but they also tell the story of the detective work involved for each person who contributed in uncovering the truth behind each piece.

“It's about the work of the conservator who figures out what happened to the painting physically, our provenance researcher who figures out where was this painting when and who owned it, and the art historian and I who figure out who painted it, what's the subject and how important is it in regard to art history,” Lippincott says. “So, all of those stories and investigations have to come together to make sense.”

The exhibit is located in the last of the Heinz Galleries, where just the month before the exhibit “Small Prints, Big Artists” opened. That exhibit featured 235 masterworks, dating from 1470 to 1700, from the museum's exceptional collection of more than 8,000 prints.

Lippincott says the two exhibits are intentionally linked by the theme of how one studies works of art from the 16th century in a museum.

“There's a section in the print show about technique, and paper, and good condition and bad condition that, on a smaller scale, talks about the same issues,” she says. “We wanted to connect these two shows in the way that the museum handles objects from the 16th century, and there are real similarities in terms of the different things we are trying to do and understand what we are doing.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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