High-Stake Fakes

If you think that painting hanging in a dark corner of your house is worthless, think again

Michael Prodger

As evidenced by the popularity of crime fiction and television drama, ours is an age fascinated with forensic examination. There seems something uniquely satisfying about the stray hair or smear of powder residue that brings a murderer to justice, while the scientists who spend their time dispassionately reconstructing crimes of passion are modern-day heroes. It is therefore odd that Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries at the National Gallery (until September 12) is the first major exhibition to study the impact of the gallery conservators who treat paintings with the same care with which their medical peers treat dead bodies.

In the absence of a provenance and strong documentary evidence, many a painting is a whodunit: not just who painted it but who commissioned it, who altered it, in some cases who or what it shows, in others who faked it. The stories that pictures tell exist below the surface every bit as much as on it. This exhibition surveys 40 paintings from the collection to explain the work of the National Gallery’s Scientific Department and show how, since its foundation in 1934, it (and its equivalents around the world) has become increasingly important. The use of X-radiography, infra-red radiation, electron microscopy and chromatography not only reveal how a picture was made but also serve to remind us just how complicated a craft painting is.

Some techniques prove that a picture is not what it purports or is thought to be. In 1845, for example, the gallery bought A Man with a Skull, believing it to be by Holbein. It was not until 1993, when the panel on which it was painted underwent dendrochronological examination (using the pattern of tree rings to date the wood), that it was discovered that the oak had been cut after Holbein’s death in 1554 and the portrait was reattributed to a minor Flemish artist, Michiel van Coxcie. Similarly, some pigments — cobalt blue, cadmium yellow, viridian — were invented in the 19th century. Their presence in seemingly older pictures, such as the 15th-century group portrait of members of the Montefeltro family acquired in 1923, can only mean that such pictures are at worst fakes and at best copies or pastiches (the best fakes have never been discovered and are still hanging on gallery walls as bona fide works by major painters).

Infra-red can reveal the artist’s original underdrawing and changes he made to the initial composition — and consequently show the picture to be an autograph work. X-rays can show an artist’s changes as he painted. Lorenzo Lotto’s powerful Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucretia portrays a handsome woman in a striped dress standing next to a table and in front of a plain backdrop. Originally, however, the background was painted in blue and pink bands while the tablecloth was also striped. Lotto clearly decided that all these clashing stripes were too cacophonous only after he had painted them and he then covered them over.

Although science can tell you who didn’t paint a certain picture, it can never definitively tell you who did: there is still room for the “probably”. This is the case with The Virgin and Child with Two Angels (1476-8) from Andrea del Verrocchio’s workshop. Verrocchio was the master of, among others, Leonardo but because he taught his pupils a uniform refined technique and because they used the same materials science alone can’t put a name to the different hands that contributed to the picture. It is stylistic study, old-fashioned connoisseurship, that has attributed the picture to Verrocchio (the Virgin and angel on the left) and Lorenzo di Credi (the Christ child and angel on the right).

Something this intriguing exhibition doesn’t examine, however, is the fact that technical analysis has financial repercussions as well as scholarly ones. While a small painting of the Madonna and Child hung forgotten for a century in a rear corridor of Alnwick Castle, it was worth a few thousand pounds. When, courtesy of the National’s scientific department, it was proved to be a once celebrated work by Raphael, the  Madonna of the Pinks, it was suddenly worth £22 million. There remains no scientific explanation for the irrational allure of a name.

Sargent and the Sea at the Royal Academy (July 10-September 26) is also intended to reveal the unexpected. Sargent’s celebrity as a portraitist has obscured his lifelong interest in the ocean; indeed he was a virtuoso painter of water as well as fabric and physiognomies. This show concentrates on the years 1874-80 when the artist was aged 18-24 and living in Paris. Many in the French avant-garde (the Impressionists, Gauguin and the Pont-Aven painters, Boudin) were drawn to the scenery of the Normandy and Brittany coasts and in 1877 Sargent spent two months in the port of Cancale preparing Setting out to Fish, a large Salon picture of fisherwomen on their way to the town’s oyster beds. With touches of Impressionism in the handling and figures echoing the peasant monumentality of Millet, it shows Sargent’s art situated somewhere between the consciously modern and the traditional.

The most striking images, however, are those he painted in 1876 of huge seas towering behind the stern of the liner on which he made his first crossing to America. These show the sea not as benign and picturesque but as primal and threatening. They demonstrate his debt to Turner in tonality and drama and are genuinely daring works in both subject and composition. Certainly, they overshadow the uncomfortably homoerotic pictures of boys on the beach he painted on a trip to Naples and Capri in 1878-9. 

What this exhibition of 70 largely unfamiliar oils, watercolours and drawings shows is the direction Sargent was heading before he was seduced by faces and the fame and riches they brought. 

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