Liechtenstein's Cranach 'Venus' - more information

November 1 2016

Image of Liechtenstein's Cranach 'Venus' - more information

Picture: L'Express

There are some new developments in the case of the Cranach that has been linked to the ongoing potential fake Old Master scandal. On 19th October the French judge overseeing the case, Mme Buresi, held a meeting of the court’s ‘expert committee’. Present were Johann Kräftner and Robert Wald, respectively Director and head of conservation at the Liechtenstein collection, as well as others.

The Liechtenstein collection has produced a document in response to this meeting, which you can read here. It is not the court's judgement. They have also made available a very high resolution photo of the painting, which you can download. I would illustrate it here but am not sure of the copyright status. It's well worth reading the document in full, and closely scrutinising the photo. 

The Liechtenstein document maintains in a forthright manner that the painting is certainly not a forgery. They say:

On the basis of these arguments, and precisely because of the research findings by the French authorities and their exact scientific interpretation, the Princely Collections have arrived at the clear conclusion that the present panel of “Venus” can by no means be considered a recent forgery.

The Liechtenstein document is an answer to another report presented to the court, and rebuts a number of points evidently made against the painting. Unfortunately, I do not have access to this report. But it appears that it was on the basis of this report that some Cranach scholars who previously supported the attribution, changed their minds.

Nonetheless, we can deduce from the Liechtenstein report what some of the concerns are.

1 - Yellow pigments

The first is the yellow pigment used in the necklace. Yellow is a colour often tested in paint analysis because it’s reasonably easy to date. There are anomalies, but generally ‘lead tin yellow’ is what you want to see in Old Masters like Cranach, and Naples Yellow in later, post 17th Century works. The Venus is meant to have been painted in 1531.

The Liechtenstein document concludes in its defence of the painting that the yellows used in the necklace are all appropriate. They say it is lead tin yellow. However, their reasoning shows what appears to me to be a curious logic. They refer, for example, to tests carried out on the painting by Libby Sheldon at UCL, who examined the painting in December 2012, prior to the announcement of the sale in July 2013. She discovered that the yellow she tested in the necklace is, according the Liechtenstein collection:

[…] a Lead monoxide (PbO), however [the Liechtenstein authors go on to say] this would mean that it would be either massicot (β-PbO) or litharge (α-PbO) – neither applicable, nor used, as a painter’s pigment (not light-fast and used rather as a catalyst for accelerating the drying time of linseed/walnut oil).

In other words, the paint in question is not, in Dr Sheldon's analysis, lead tin yellow. The chemical formula for lead tin yellow is Pb2SnO4 (there is another type, less common, which is Pb(Sn,Si)O3). Lead monoxide, of the type found by Libby Sheldon, is generally held to be a pigment, where it used as a pigment, called massicot, or litharge. But it's worth noting that the lead monoxide found in the painting was not certainly a pigment - the assumption is made that it is. Massicot has indeed been used as pigment for centuries. But it is not  generallyused in oil painting, because it fades in light (as the Liechtenstein report states). 

The Liechtenstein report, seemingly to get around this conundrum, appears to suggest that Dr. Sheldon's report might have misread the data:

We believe that the examiner may have overlooked the fact that the peak for calcium (Ca), K-alpha: 3.690 eV (Electronvolt) can overlap that of tin (Sn), L-alpha: 3.444 eV (with an EDS detector X-ray fluorescence analysis, resolution von 150 eV) when a minimal amount of tin is present.

They go onto say that since lead-tin yellow has apparently been detected in other parts of the painting (in flesh tones - but this is actually also very unusual), then it also must be present in the necklace, and the lead monoxide detection is presumably erroneous. But they cannot point to any of their own tests to prove this.

I must say I find this conclusion somewhat unconvincing. The lead tin yellow should be immediately obvious in the necklace - Cranach used it all the time. We shouldn't need to explain away the lead monoxide in this way. 

Now - some speculation (so, treat with caution). Why else might we find lead, or lead monoxide in the painting? Lead monoxide is also used as a drying agent; when added to oils it accelerates the slow process of oxidation. Is it worth bearing in mind that the ability to dry your paint is crucial to any faking operation? You need to get the oil medium out of the paint in order to make it hard, and thus ‘old’, crackable, and not soluble to solvents. Solubility is key to art forgery, at least with Old Masters. If you take restorer’s solvents to a ‘new’ painting, before the paint has dried properly, it will dissolve. But on an old painting pigments will be much more resistant to solvents. For this reason, Han van Meegeren, when he was making his fake Vermeers, used to mix his paints with Bakelite, to make them hard. 

2 - The Oak panel. 

Cranach generally did not use oak, which has been used for the Venus. He preferred lime wood. But he did use oak sometimes, say the Liechtenstein collection. They also say that the noted dendrochronologist, Dr Peter Klein, who examined the panel in 2014 (after they purchased the picture) is certain of his findings, and that the panel was created in about 1520, and likely to have been used after 1530. The painting is dated 1531. Media reports have said that another report submitted to the French court say the panel might in fact by 18th Century. 

The edge of the panel is quite strange - seemingly quite bashed and abused over time, but with the corresponding paint layers nearby not in such bad state (caution; I'm judging only from photos). Some of the deformations in the panel are explained by the Liechtenstein collection as having perhaps been done during previous conservation techniques to stop the panel warping, when it might have been held with a clamp. Which is speculative.

3 - The Signature

The Collection has no doubts the signature is original and correct. It appears that some have taken issue with the manner of its inscription.

4 - The Craquelure. 

The report casting doubt on the painting submitted to the court raises concerns about the craquelure of the panel. These are addressed at length in the Liechtenstein document. The first objection dealt with is the different nature of the cracking in the black background and the flesh tones of the body. In the body the cracking is pronounced. But in the background it is not. This is due, says the Liechtenstein report:

It is well known and documented that carbon-based, black pigment, when ground in pre polymerized drying oil, has an extremely long drying rate. Bone black, as detected in the present analysis, requires 50% drying oil for proper use, and is considered a “poor drier” (Wehlte 1975, p. 165). In fact, many artists resorted to grinding most black pigments first in egg yolk to isolate it from the drying oil to increase the drying time. With the slower drying rate of black pigment, the film remains more flexible than lead-white based passages, and subsequently forms significantly less craquelure.

This is all true. The different nature of the cracking in the background is easily explained by the relative rates of drying of darker and lighter pigments. 

What is less easily explained, however, is the inconsistent cracking the rest of the picture. For example, the relative absence of cracking in other areast hat are not made with black pigments, such as the hair, and areas where the paint is more worked than in the body (such as the hands).

For me - and I must say at the outset that it is always risky to judge paintings by photographs - the inconsistencies in the cracking in the Liechtenstein Venus are concerning, and it is not easy to find comparable examples in other works by him of the same subject. The Liechtenstein collection points out that with Cranach there is no such thing as a fixed pattern of cracking, due to the manner in which he worked, and the various media he used, which is true. But we seem in the Venus to see all manner of different cracking within the same painting.

You can have a look for yourself at the cracquelure in other Cranach paintings on the excellent Cranach Digital Archive, which has the best collection of high-res photos I've ever seen. Here, for example is a similar Venus at the Stadel museum, painted in 1532. Probably no artist has a better online database at the moment than Cranach, so in this case we can make really good comparisons with the Liechtenstein painting. Incidentally, the Liechtenstein painting was listed on the Cranach Digital Archive as a Cranach at first, then this year it was downgraded to 'imitator of Cranach', and now there is no entry for the painting at all.

Also raised as a concern by the court, it seems, is the presence of ‘dark material’ within the cracks across the picture, and apparently more prevalent in the background. This would appear to fit in with a hypothesis that the panel and its flesh tones were ‘aged’ to give an appearance of convincing craquelure, but then painted over in various areas. The presence of such material, says the Liechtenstein collection, can be explained by cleaning, which:

[...] dissolves the foreign material on the surface, which, in fact, cannot be entirely removed with the cotton, causing the residual material to be embedded in the slightly open craquelure. This becomes more obvious in the lighter passages.

The frustrating thing about the Venus picture is the lack of any proven provenance, which means we cannot hope to find any record of prior conservation efforts. Which brings us onto…

5 - Provenance.

The picture was said at the time of sale (by the London dealer Colnaghi in 2013) to have been in a private Belgian collection since the 19th Century. We now know that this was incorrect, and that it was previously owned by Giulano Ruffini (who is not Belgian, and does not live in Belgium). To which the Liechtenstein Collection says:

The buyer received documentation of the provenance from the firm of Bernheimer/Colnaghi, and these notary files are known to the court. A forensic investigation of these documents will have to be part of the judicial review, a burden which can certainly not be expected to be borne a buyer at one of the most renowned and established art dealer firms.

Furthermore, the absence of a known provenance in an artwork can not be regarded as solely sufficient cause for questioning its age or authenticity. The greatest collections have extensive holdings whose history is incomplete or non-existing.

All quite true. But had they known the true provenance, might concerns have been raised? That is, had they known that the painting came with an incorrect provenance, might they have wondered why? This is of course not to say that anybody involved in the sale or handling or purchase of the painting had any reason to doubt that it was original, nor that they acted in an entirely honest and legitimate manner.

But the point of provenance is that it really only ever undermines or supports an attribution. Very rarely can it confirm an attribution, and here I think the Liechtenstein report slightly misses the point. The value of provenance is not as straightforward as they suggest - it as about building up a picture of ownership and history, and what we might call attributional momentum. Have others believed this painting to be by so and so? Was it highly prized? Or was it always thought to be a copy? Was it likely to have been well looked after?

The provenance of the Venus at the time of the sale suggested it could be documented for over 150 years. Nobody would have considered for a moment that it might have been a modern fake, and therefore we can assume that those asked to judge it as a Cranach never entertainted that thought. But if they had known that the provenance of the Venus was in fact that it came from the same collection that contained one verified fake, and which happened to contain a slew of other newly discovered and previously unknown works, then surely they would have approached the question differently?

6 - Other points

There are many other points in the Liechtenstein report which are worth reading. They say, for example, that there is under-drawing in the painting, showing evidence of changes, but do not provide the image. 

It’s hard to entirely make sense of all the points here without knowing what arguments they’re answering, and, again, I'm sorry I can't do that yet. But cases are presented to answer the presence of chemicals that other investigators have found concerning, such as the presence of lead chloride hydroxide, a white pigment which does not seem usually to be associated with painting in Old Masters. Normally you would find basic lead white. But it has been detected on some, such as Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’, which fact the Liechtenstein report cites in defence of hte Venus. (That said, when the Liechtenstein report cites this source - page 224 - about the Anatomy Lesson, they do not then cite the subsequent explanation, which says we don't yet know how or why lead chloride hydroxide appears on these paintings). 

The Liechtenstein report concludes:

In conclusion, we cannot find any clear technical evidence, based on our readings, from the reports we have been given, to conclude that the materials used to execute this painting could not have been available within the 16th century.

So, what can we conclude from this? Well mainly that it’s too early to tell, and we don’t have all the facts at our disposal. I certainly don’t envy the judge, who apparently must decide on the fate of this painting. Clearly, the best thing to do would be to ultimately let the Liechtenstein collection have it back, whatever it is deemed to be. The focus of the investigation must be on its origins.

A number of things are worth commenting on, however. First, it’s evident that both reports stress matters of a technical and scientific nature. Too often these days, we tend to believe that science in art history is binary; it can tell us with certainty whether a picture is real or not. But as the Venus case shows, scientific testing is sometimes as open to interpretation as any other evidence. Christie’s did their own technical analysis of this painting - that's the report by Dr Sheldon - and subsequently declined to handle it as a Cranach. Colnaghi were not aware of this report before they sold the painting to Liechtenstein.

Whose report is right? Can we ever know for sure whether the Venus is 'real' or not? There's probably enough evidence for both sides to say, with sincerity and conviction; 'this painting is real', or 'this painting is fake'. In many ways, the more we know about scientific analysis, the more ammunition a faker has to work with. Each new techinical investigation into an artist is potentially a faker's charter. 

Second, I am still puzzled as to why the Liechtenstein collection is approaching this case as it is, especially in being so public about its belief in the painting, and its attribution to Cranach. Their making public the latest document is admirable. But if it was up to me, I would handle it differently, given the facts emerging in other related cases, such as the Hals declared by Sotheby’s in New York to be a modern forgery. I should have thought it was up to Colnaghi to mount a spirited public defence of the painting, not the Liechtenstein collection.

Finally, it certainly does look as if the great majority (and perhaps all) of the materials used in the creation of the Venus are ‘correct’. But that can never confirm that it was painted by Cranach. It could simply mean that the fakers did their homework. For the final analysis of the overall quality of the picture, that hard-to-discern aesthetic consideration of whether a painting is by a master like Cranach, or by his studio assistants, or by a copyist working at the same time, or by a supremely talented artist working in North Italy in the 1990s with access to all the appropriate materials, we must rely I’m afraid on connoisseurship - our 'eyes'.

When this Venus was up for sale, it had a range of Cranach scholars behind it, who said; yes, this is good enough to be by Cranach himself. For better or worse, some or all of those have now changed their mind. This in itself tells us something about the subjectivity and flaws inherent within connoisseurship. And yet at the same time, we should recall that this painting was always doubted by others who have experience of discerning whether a painting is by Cranach or not (including, I’m told, specialists at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s). As often tends to happen in the art market, the 'yessers' were trumpeted, and the doubters kept quiet. One set of connoisseurs will hope to be proved right in this case, just as one set of technical analysts will be.

The Liechtenstein report does not address this connoisseurial angle, and indeed does not claim (contrary to their recently published press release) that it is by Cranach. Nor would I. The report simply states that it is not a modern forgery, and as far as the French judge is concerned, that is the central question. I don't envy her task, and wish her bon chance.

Update - the ATG has this interesting addendum to the same story:

At a meeting in Paris just over a fortnight ago, Kräftner and Robert Wald, director and head of conservation at the Liechtenstein Collections, were presented with a new report by Dieter Koepplin, one of the art historians who approved the Cranach attribution at the time of the acquisition in 2013. They were also presented with a statement by Gunnar Heydenreich made to French police in September.

Both the report and statement by the two Cranach scholars declared the work to be a counterfeit.

This perhaps explains why the Liechtenstein document doesn't any longer adhere to the suggestion that the painting is by Cranach, merely 16th Century.

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