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Art

Gainsborough and a fake Van Dyck in Sotheby’s New York January sale

Is this the most bizarre sleeper ever?

Could a painting on auction at Sotheby’s New York January 28 Evening Sale, attributed to Van Dyck, actually be a much later copy executed by a young Gainsborough: a sleeper at a price?

 

Dr Susan Grundy investigates

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Is this painting really a “Van Dyck”?

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Lot 32, Attributed to Sir Anthony Van Dyck The Tribute Money. Oil on canvas, 114.5 x 103.5 cm. Collection of the Duke of Grafton. Under the hammer Sotheby’s New York, 28 January 2016, Evening Sale. Guide price $2,000,000-$3,000,000.

Expert contradiction

With the support of experts Susan Barnes and Christopher Brown Sotheby’s is promoting a copy as an authentic second version autograph to Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Yet in the past Barnes has stated emphatically that Van Dyck did not repeat himself. She claims “it was ... not in Van Dyck's practice to make an identical copy of a religious subject—though … he often made different versions of the same subject, particularly in the first Antwerp period” (email correspondence 1/19/2015). The painting on auction Sotheby’s 28 January as Lot 32 is nevertheless just that, an identical copy of a religious subject. The original painting is considered to have been in the collections of the Brignole-Sale families of Genoa since around 1748 – Sir Anthony Van Dyck Cristo della moneta (c.1625), oil on canvas, 142 x 119.5 cm, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa.

Barnes places at least one of these works in Van Dyck’s later Italian period, and not in his first Antwerp period where she says variations (note not copies) might occur. To say Lot 32 is a second original copy is, therefore, in complete contradiction to her own previous sentiments. Does she give us good enough reasons for this volte face? I investigate further and discover that the work is not only a copy perhaps executed by a very young Gainsborough around 1748, but was likely also a fake created to replace the original for reasons which will be explained.

Gainsborough in Van Dyck dress?

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Creative cataloguing

With only one minor difference in fabric detail there are no deviations in the Grafton painting from the original as it is now found in Genoa, that is, in terms of composition, number of figures, poses, models, basic colouring, etc. However, despite Sotheby’s best efforts to gloss over aspects of size and scale, the painting on auction is smaller and exhibits reduced elements. The painting is a vertical 114.5 x 103 cm and not 103 x 114.5 cm horizontal as incorrectly stated in their online catalogue (confirmed by email 1/5/2016).

Click on the Genoa image in Sotheby’s Lot 32 catalogue entry, and their painting is presented as bigger than the original in Genoa

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In correct scale, the Grafton/Sotheby’s painting, here shown right below, is smaller and a reduction

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The Grafton painting follows the Genoa painting very closely, and exhibits the subtle simplification of details and the flattening of forms in space relative to the original, which is typical of the work of a copyist. It also fails to emulate the lively gestures of the original, and is particularly weak in aspects such as the depiction of hands, etc.

This is also not the work’s first outing with Susan Barnes either, who has previously referred to it as “another version” in the entry for the Genoa painting in the apparently complete catalogue published by Yale University Press in 2004 (p.155, II.8). In view of her stated opinion about copies that reference remains vague and open to interpretation.

A catalogue of uncertainties

It was first seen when?

Sotheby’s state they are grateful to Barnes and Brown for “confirming the attribution after first-hand inspection of the work.” Here we have some difficulty. If they are indeed trying to convince us that Susan Barnes considered in 2004 that this painting was “another [original] version”, when did she see it to authenticate it? And indeed how did she authenticate it prior to 2004 if she hadn’t seen it, only ever a photograph? If this was the case, in other words even in 2004 Barnes surmised this was also an original (without seeing it), she was also contradicting her own sentiments about copies. On the other hand, if she had seen the painting prior to 2004 why did she not then give it its own catalogue entry in the 2004 publication (precedent being set by Nora de Poorter for I.26 and I.27)? Sotheby’s claim the painting has only just re-emerged "after centuries in an English noble collection … [and] is an exciting addition to Van Dyck’s oeuvre.” Yet if in 2004 it was already considered an authentic second version by Susan Barnes, why is it now an “exciting addition”?

Incomplete sources

In the supporting literature to this attribution Sotheby’s cite only Susan Barnes. Mysteriously they fail to also cite an important nineteenth-century source. Indeed, they try to convince us that from the painting’s first recorded entry in a 1718 family trust document it was “not published or seen in public until it was consigned to Christie’s in London … in 1923 [where it went unsold].” Really? The Dukes of Grafton’s Tribute Money does indeed appear, under its very own catalogue entry, in Smith in 1831 (p. 112, no. 407). The description is clear, and everything is accurate, including the measurements, although Smith seemingly also quoting width first. Smith states categorically that it is to be found “in the collection of the Duke of Grafton,” and he diligently cross-references it to the Genoa painting. Smith, by the way, accepted the work as Van Dyck, so this contradicts Sotheby’s excitement about this being a new addition to Van Dyck’s oeuvre.

Turning to the entry of the Genoa painting in this same publication (p.50, no. 172) and up to the description of the Pharisee tempting Jesus with money, they are parallel. Then there is a discrepancy.

… [the Pharisee] is accompanied by two other Jews, whose countenances express surprise and disappointment.

Three Pharisees?

TWO other Jews, plus the main one? There appears to be only one other figure behind the principle Pharisee in the Genoa painting? Yet, indeed, there are two, and the second one is behind Christ (the left of the painting). He was looking over Christ’s right shoulder, and you can see his “shadow” quite clearly even in visible light, that is, in a digital photograph. He has been painted out, and he is not in the Grafton version, well he certainly is not mentioned by Sotheby’s.

The dimensions of the painting now in Genoa differ on the horizontal, and marginally on the vertical, from the dimensions stated in Smith.

  The Genoa painting now has the dimensions of 142 x 119.5 cm (vertical/rectangular) (source museidigenova.it)

  Smith cites the dimensions of the Genoa painting as 135 x 140 cm (marginally landscape/almost square, but perhaps quoted width first as in no.407).

  Glück (1931: 142) states the Genoa painting is 147 x 133 cm (vertical/rectangular).

If you compare contemporary images of the Genoa painting to the illustration found in Glück in 1931, the painting has indeed been cropped on the left-side to the viewer (there was more space between Christ’s wrist and the frame, about 10 cm). Or the Genoa painting could have in its history been folded, then extended, then folded again, or cut.

Sotheby’s mock us with their graphics

What is significant to this discussion is that nowhere in their catalogue entry do Sotheby’s refer to the fact that the Grafton version is smaller. Indeed, when you click on the Genoa painting in Sotheby’s online catalogue, the works are brought up side-by-side as if they are the same size, some of the elements in the Grafton painting even appearing as if they are larger in scale as illustrated in the screenshot above. The dimensions of the Genoa painting are not given in Sotheby’s online catalogue, and anyone interested would have to look them up. All of this must be considered misleading.

Indeed, according to Sotheby’s, Galle’s print of the Titian, an original source for the Genoa painting, showed a fourth figure as well, one to Christ’s left (the Titian is reversed). Can they not see the shadow of the fourth figure in the Genoa painting as well? I do believe though that my esteemed colleagues seem blissfully unaware that all of Smith’s catalogues are available on Google books. They really think that no-one except themselves can check these things, and even that they somehow still have the necessity to trawl the deep bowels of a university library resource difficult to access.

In short in the Grafton version there is much less space below Christ’s left hand, and slightly less above his head, as compared to the Genoa painting. The figures appear somewhat reduced, most especially the prominent Pharisee, and the Pharisee to the rear smaller and slightly more cropped. Is there a fourth figure painted out in the Grafton painting? An Xray might reveal, but the available evidence contradicts the experts’ promotion of a simultaneous production for these two works, as on a basic level the paintings are not even the same scale or importance.

Technical issues

In terms of deciding between copy and original, many factors come into play, not least of all technical issues such as handling, interpretation of elements and skill. In this sense one is looking for differences rather than similarities.

A row of buttons

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In the Grafton painting one such minor difference is the addition of a row of four buttons to the Pharisee’s garment, over the top of the arm by the left shoulder. Although an interesting detail, and not one that should be left considered arbitrary in view of the subject matter, yet such an occurrence is not absolute evidence of originality. To use this feature as evidence relies on two assumptions: a) that a copyist wouldn’t insert any original features and b) that the Genoa painting is absolutely as it was originally, and has never been revised, which we know now is not true. Bearing in mind the contradictions between the current Genoa picture and the description in Smith, caution should have been exercised. The buttons could be intended as purely decorative, or more likely indicated to be made of a precious metal, themselves valuable objects of exchange and payment. Of its own, though, the detail is not enough to guarantee Van Dyckness.

Is this a lens I see before me?

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There is no doubt the artist who executed the Grafton work had talent. Nevertheless certain areas are less skilled compared to what is witnessed in the original. For example, when I first saw the Grafton image online it came to mind immediately to question what the Pharisee to the rear is doing. It looks like he is holding up a coin close to his eye like he is going to monocle it in some sort of childish prank. I thought: what does he hope to see holding it so close? Then it dawned that he was supposed to be looking through a lens. Smith confirms this in his description of the painting, and in the Genoa painting this detail is far more skillfully handled and immediately apparent. I am not convinced that the artist of the Grafton painting understood this element in the original. The artist of the Grafton painting also appears to have had some difficulty with the eyes as, according to Sotheby’s, these show some re-paintings and hesitations.

Further, Sotheby’s try to make some mileage out of what they consider a “shared” pentiment between this and the Genoa painting, further evidence they say that the works were executed together by the master in the workshop (side-by-side).

“In both versions … Christ’s cloak has been painted on top of his red shirt, which is visible beneath the later layer; ordinarily, one would expect whichever work came second to follow the first more closely.”

Let’s be clear here. Sotheby’s, and the experts, are saying that the smaller Grafton version could also be the first version. They promote the possibility that Van Dyck emulated Titian, first with the Grafton version, then went on to, or simultaneously, painted the second Genoa version? Susan Barnes promotes the Genoa painting as c.1625, and least we forget we now know Van Dyck was supposedly still in Sicily in 1625, and there is nothing “Van Dyck Italianite period” about the Grafton painting. The Grafton painting is vaguely first Antwerp period in its bright colouring (Brown dates the Grafton work to c.1619/1620 believing it to be Van Dyck), but the works do not flow visually from Titian to Grafton to Genoa. Furthermore, the experts would then have to promote the possibility that Van Dyck exactly repeated himself at a later stage, and from drawings and/or tracings or the actual painting he still kept with him. The Grafton painting and the Genoa painting are too close to simply have been “recalled.”

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or?

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Actually in the Genoa version it is clear that the transparency of the blue cloak was very likely not a pentiment at all, as it reoccurs elsewhere, that is, below the Christ’s upraised right hand (towards the elbow) and is perfectly visible to the naked eye. In the Genoa painting it appears intended that the blue cloak should be viewed as a type of diaphanous scarf, thus the red showing through. Sometimes overpainting becomes more transparent over time, but this does not appear to be the case here, rather the use of a thinner glaze over a more solid section. Sotheby’s has misinterpreted this as a pentiment, and the artist of the Grafton painting has been less skillful in representing this detail.

A lightly diaphanous cloak in the Genoa painting

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In terms of skill the hands in general in the Grafton painting exhibit a lower quality in representation. For example, Christ’s left hand depicted gathering up his robe is a spidery graphic that shows the artist wrestled awkwardly with this element. The prominent Pharisee’s arms and hands are also odd, in particular the right arm and hand appear to belong to a different racial grouping when compared to the skin tones and colouring of the left arm and hand. These deviations are indicative of a copier struggling to accurately represent the more intricate qualities of the original. Sotheby’s says that in the Grafton painting the Pharisee’s arm is in a longer shadow, which is an unconvincing argument, most especially when you isolate the element (see detail below).

A spidery hand; and a man with one white limb and the other black (Grafton painting)

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The Christ’s face veers towards a Murillo-like sentimentality in the Grafton painting, and indeed seems later than the more strident and forceful depiction of Christ in the Genoa painting. The canary-yellow used for the halo effect in the Grafton painting also seems at odds with Van Dyck’s working practice in depicting the nimbus, and is probably orpiment. It also appears too defined, and too graphic, where the depiction in the Genoa painting is more mysterious, more incidental, and more usual in terms of Van Dyck’s oeuvre.

Thus said about the inconsistencies in quality of the Grafton painting, nevertheless it exhibits some areas of extremely fluid and confident brushwork. However, this does not make the painting Van Dyck. Such a presumption would be that only Van Dyck was ever capable of such particular brushwork. As will be discussed following, many young artists starting out made it their business to imitate the Old Masters, or perhaps the word emulate might be more appropriate. In a sense these young artists turned out to be connoisseurs and experts in their own right.

Opportunities of provenance

A painting by Van Dyck depicting Two Pharisees tempting the Saviour is first recorded in a Grafton trust document of 1718. Sotheby’s, and the experts who promote the authenticity of the painting now Lot 32, glibly assume that this was the same painting as the one now on offer. On what evidence? On family say so? Leaving aside the confusion introduced by Smith’s description of the painting he considered to be in Genoa in 1831, and the shadow of a third “Jew” quite evident in the Genoa painting as it is now, the description of 1718 could also apply to the Genoa painting. It is impossible to say, without further research, when the third Jew was painted in, if it is original to Van Dyck, and when and if it was painted out of the Genoa painting.

Nevertheless, in 1718 there were still twenty years left for a painting of Two Pharisees tempting the Saviour, by Van Dyck, to be copied, replaced and to turn up in Genoa around 1748. Sotheby’s hypothesize that the likely first family owner of a Tribute money by Van Dyck could have been the Earl of Arlington (d.1685). This earl was the maternal grandfather of the incumbent 2nd Duke of Grafton, the one who inherited a Van Dyck Tribute money in 1718. Arlington was a Catholic, a widely travelled Pan-European and an art connoisseur, while his grandson was none of these. Grafton’s father, the first duke (created 1675), was the second illegitimate son of Charles II by Barbara Villiers.

But how could a painting now in Genoa actually be the painting recorded in the Grafton family trust document of 1718 if no sale record exists? Quite simply it could be if it was swapped. Sometime before 1748, but after 1718, a local artist could have been commissioned to make a copy, let us call it a fake even, which would replace the real Van Dyck in the family collection, affording the opportunity to secret the genuine article away in Italy to find a good price with a likely buyer there. An authenticated Van Dyck of such an interesting subject matter to Italians, probably done either during the artist’s Italian period, or soon after he returned to Antwerp from Italy in 1628, would fetch a tidy sum, while the work of a young but gifted local artist could be bought for a song. Those family entails, trusts in other words, restricted incumbents from disposing of family assets, as we all now know from watching Downton Abbey, and they could be really bothersome to dukes wanting to free up a bit of ready cash, especially dukes not interested in painting, particularly religious painting.

The Duke of Grafton and Gainsborough were neighbours

Who could do the job though, good enough to fool the family auditors? The artist needed to be interested in Van Dyck and plausible in copying. And if he was local and close by all the better. And indeed the young Thomas Gainsborough (b.1727) was not more than 30 miles away from Euston, hailing from his family home in Sudbury, Suffolk. That Gainsborough was only around twenty at the time is no stumbling block. Christopher Brown supports youthful precociousness by suggesting Van Dyck himself was only twenty when he executed this painting (not forgetting Brown thinks it is Van Dyck). Furthermore, pigments had not yet changed that much so that even modern chemists might find nothing suspicious, just the usual smalt or ultramarine, vermillion, perhaps orpiment, and earth pigments. Treatises, and the art works themselves, were available to study for astute admirers of Van Dyck’s craft, in order to “get it right.” Gainsborough, as an aside, also entertained a deep admiration for Murillo. He also was gifted at copying Rubens, and it is Brown who notes the “Rubensian” qualities in the Grafton painting.

Gainsborough or Van Dyck?

Blue PageThomas Gainsborough The blue page (c. 1770). Oil on canvas, 165 x 113 cm.

Oddly enough a painting of a young boy in a blue Van Dyck costume, which is attributed to Gainsborough, will put a foot forward the day before the proposed sale of the Tribute Money. Lot 62, The blue page, Sotheby’s New York, 27 January 2016, will be auctioned from the collection of A. Alfred Taubman on a guide price of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000, almost double the asking price of the “Van Dyck” the evening coming up after.

The Gainsborough work not only offers a young model posing in Van Dyck dress, it is a complete homage to the earlier artist. Sotheby’s, in their current catalogue entry to this work, point specifically to Gainsborough’s skill in mimicking Van Dyck.

“Gainsborough’s intention was to equate his own work and genius with those of the artist who had transformed British portraiture, employ a ravishing painterly technique and ape [Van Dyck] … who was lauded in the eighteenth century as the apogee of artistic achievement in Britain.”

When Sir Joshua Reynolds addressed the Royal Academy in December 1788 after Gainsborough died, he also extolled his fellow artist’s ability to deceive by making incredible copies, by imitating.

“To satisfy himself as well as others, how well he knew the mechanism and artifice which they employed to bring out that tone of colour which we so much admire in their works, [Gainsborough] occasionally made copies from Rubens, Teniers, and Vandyck, which it would be no disgrace to the most accurate connoisseur to mistake, at first sight, for the works of those masters. What he thus learned, he applied to the originals of nature, which he saw with his own eyes; and imitated, not in the manner of those masters, but in his own.” (J. Reynolds, Discourse on Art, XIV, London, 1788, ed. R.R. Wark, London, 1966, pp. 222-3.)

Crime and opportunity

Every crime needs an opportunity, a motive and a weapon. If I am correct, and the original Van Dyck, the painting now in Genoa, came from the collection of the Dukes of Grafton around 1748: then opportunity, motive and weapon were all available. The incumbent duke had no need for the Catholic imagery his grandfather had coveted. Sotheby’s make it quite clear the composition was of no interest to the family, and that the current work was never displayed, even though it was thought to be Van Dyck. But an entail couldn’t be broken, and therefore trustees had to be deceived. There was motive enough. The opportunity and weapon presented themselves simultaneously in a young man from a neighbouring town with the extraordinary ability to fool even the best experts with his “Van Dycks.” Was the canvas of necessity smaller because it was recycled? Oftentimes forgers work this way, as a bright shiny new canvas wouldn’t fool even an accountant.

Conclusion

In conclusion what can be stated is that Van Dyck did not repeat his religious compositions – Susan Barnes herself has said so. Correctly compared it is clear the Grafton painting and the Genoa painting are not by the same master. Furthermore, it is clear from Smith that the Genoa painting was much larger, with an extra figure, and more space and more elements is a general rule of thumb for originality. At which point the Genoa painting was cut down is unclear, but certainly when it was copied, if it was copied by Gainsborough, the third Jewish figure was missing, either not yet inserted, or already painted out. This significant detail and other evidence such as the inconsistencies, scale, etc, completely rules out the possibility that these two paintings were somehow worked up side-by-side in Van Dyck’s studio, not in any period.

If on reading this the experts say I haven’t thought that maybe the quirks in the Grafton painting could be the lesser hand of an assistant they would be wrong. Moreover, from their perspective that fall-back ship has sailed. First, they haven’t themselves apparently noticed any of the inconsistencies and they haven’t already said it. Second, the guide price although modest for a Van Dyck is far too high for a studio painting. It is quite clear that in their’s and Sotheby’s “expert” opinion this is a Van Dyck, full stop.

Susan Barnes and her volte face

Furthermore, to answer an earlier question as to whether Susan Barnes has justified her volte face on copies, the answer is a swift no. It is clear she made no effort to contribute to the catalogue, otherwise we must assume that she puts her name to such antics as “mistakenly” misquoting dimensions and massaging images to seem the same size when they are not. Those missing 16 cm (not 5 cm) on the horizontal make a difference, and it is clear that Sotheby’s has something to gain in terms of conning a prospective buyer into thinking the Grafton painting is bigger than it is and therefore more important. She would also be guilty of, had she contributed to the catalogue, leaving out vital sources such as Smith, and guilty of lesser issues such as incorrect biographical details and spelling mistakes. The Genoa painting is in the Palazzo Rosso (according to current online sources), and not the Palazzo Bianco, and Palazzo has one “l” not two, as in one instance in the online source. Other typos include Christ’s “read” shirt [sic], leaving me wondering at Sotheby’s couldn’t care less attitude to the customers who they expect to throw millions at them.

Probably Barnes is not guilty of such academic shenanigans, but she and Brown have, even if only inadvertently, signed off on such behavior. They are certainly guilty of hubris, falling into Gainsborough’s trap, as stated by Reynolds, that is the artist’s ability to fool even the best connoisseurs to mistake his work for Van Dyck on first encounter. It does also leave one with the uncomfortable feeling about what else they haven’t thought through, what else they have blinked into being, or out of being, Van Dyck.

Who will bid?

When, and if, the gavel falls on Lot 32 on the 28 January will it be to someone dumb enough to think its worth spending $2,000,000+ on what is clearly not Van Dyck; or alternatively someone willing to gamble on the possibility that the work is a bargain at that price for a deceptively brilliant Gainsborough? What is certain is that marketed under a false presumption a museum certainly has no business bidding, and maybe the current Duke of Grafton should rethink this one.

Literature

Barnes, SJ, de Poorter, N, Millar, O. and Vey, H. 2004. Van Dyck, a complete catalogue of the paintings. New Haven and London: Paul Mellon and Yale University Press.

Glück, G. 1931. Van Dyck: des Meisters Gemälde in 571 abbildungen. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags.

Smith, J. 1831. A Catalogue Raissonné of the works of the most eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, Volume 3, Containting the lives of Anthony Van Dyck and David Teniers. London: Smith.

Sotheby’s online catalogue, Master Paintings Evening Sale, 28 January 2016, New York, Lot 32.

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About the Author

Dr Susan Grundy

Dr Susan Grundy

Dr Susan Grundy, D Litt et Phil, University of South Africa   Susan Grundy is an independent Art Investigation Consultant, patron and collector of fine art, specializing in Seventeenth Century ...
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