Is a fake hanging at the National Gallery?

April 19 2017

Image of Is a fake hanging at the National Gallery?

Picture: National Gallery

There are reviews of exhibitions, and there are reviews which say; 'this show contains a modern fake'. In the London Review of Books (paywall), the art historian Charles Hope has claimed that a portrait of Michelangelo thought to be by Sebastiano hanging in the National Gallery's new 'Sebastiano & Michelangelo' exhibition is a 20th century forgery. The exhibition dates the picture to c.1518-20, and labels the picture 'Probably by Sebastiano', which is like (but better than) the old 'attributed to' label. So there's some distance between the National Gallery's attribution and Charles Hope's.

I'm late to the story, which was reported last week in The Times. But I wanted to look again at both the picture and the evidence before writing about Hope's conclusion.

First, a few undisputed facts:

  • The portrait shows Michelangelo.
  • He is holding a book of drawings, showing a head study and a leg and hand. These relate to a drawing now attributed to Bartolomeo Passarotti in the Fitzwilliam Museum (above), which in turn is thought to be a copy of a lost original study by Michelangelo. The drawing is rendered as two seperate ones in the painting. The drawing was also engraved in 1777, in the same direction, when it was thought to be by Michelangelo himself. 
  • The painting, when it was sold at auction at Dorotheum in Vienna in 2001, was previously attributed to Passarotti.
  • It is oil on panel, and x-rays show it is painted on top of a c.1518 Madonna and Child with John the Baptist by or after Andrea del Sarto. The original of this painting, which is slightly larger than that seen underneath the Michelangelo portrait, is in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. It is known in many copies.
  • The sitter's pose is almost identical to Sebastiano's portrait of Francesco Arsilli (below) of about 1522.
  • On the back of the panel is a wax seal permitting the painting's export from the Papal State in the latter half of the 17th Century, and not earlier than 1646.
  • The picture is not in great condition, and parts of it have been restored and overpainted.

Second, case for the prosecution:

  • The picture only emerged in 1960. There is no certain provenance for it before this time. Even then, the provenance for 1960 is only listed as 'documented', which suggests there is no photographic evidence for the painting at this time. It is quite easy to engineer a 'document' from the 1960s.
  • Hope says it is 'inconceivable' that Sebastiano would have painted over the work of a 'prominent contemporary'. 
  • Instead, "Everything suggests that it is a modern fake, probably dating from just before its emergence in 1960, and that the forger took the standard precaution of acquiring an old panel on which to paint it."  
  • Hope says the wax seal allowing the picture's export is damning, and relates only to the painting when it showed a copy of the Andrea del Sarto Madonna; "It is easy to see why permission would have been granted to export a copy of this kind, but much less easy to believe that a portrait with the well-known features of Michelangelo could have been exported. In other words, the portrait itself must have been painted after 1646. and that the forger took the standard precaution of acquiring an old panel on which to paint it."
  • The composition was copied by the forger from the Arsilli portrait; "[the forger] simply borrowed the composition from a rather obscure portrait by Sebastiano of which photographs had been published"
  • The Passerotti drawings are explained thus; " [the forger] reproduced a drawing said to be by Michelangelo and available in an engraving."
  • The costume troubles Hope: "Michelangelo is shown with a type of collar not worn in Italy until the middle of the 16th century."
  • Hope makes no comments on the technique of the painting, or why he thinks stylistically it is not by Sebastiano (or someone else from the period like Passerotti).

The case for the defence:

  • The x-ray is said to 'bolster' the paintings origins to the 1510s.
  • The fact that Sebastiano painted over the Andrea del Sarto composition could relate to the fact that a patron of both del Sarto and Sebastiano, Pierfrancesco Borgherini, was unhappy with a del Sarton Madonna in early 1517, and Sebastiano offered to execute a substitute if Michelangelo provided a drawing (which he did, for another Sebastiano Madonna on show at the National Gallery, cat. 20). Sebastiano then may have painted over Andrea del Sarto's to 'cancel his Florentine rival's composition'.
  • The 'enamel-like layering of paint is consistent with Sebastiano's method, and unlike Passarotti's looser handling'.
  • The catalogue makes no reference to any further technical analysis on the paint layers, which would help rule out any allegation of forgery. But the curator of the show Matthias Wivel told me via Twitter that "Everything in original paint layer consistent with 16th century. Cracking and thus oil solution consistent with confirmed Sebastiano". 
  • The collar that troubles Hope is all or partly re-touched.

My thoughts, for what they are worth (I am certainly no Sebastiano, Michelangelo or Passarotti scholar):

  • The manner of the craquelure is unusual in some areas of the painting, which may give cause for concern. But it is consistent in my experience with a picture that has been painted over another picture. 
  • I did not think, from my admittedly brief assessment of the picture, but at reasonably close distance, that the technique indicates this is a modern forgery. 
  • If the unpublished technical analysis did conclude that the paint layers were consistent with those seen in 16th Century pictures, then this, from a forgery apparently made pre-1960, is impressive on the part of the forger. Forgers at this time, before the widespread adoption of paint analysis, were not usually dilligent enough to use pigments and ground layers that would entirely withstand modern testing. (These days, of course, it's a different matter).
  • The collar: whether it is a re-touching or not, the collar is such a small part of the picture, and so barely visible, that it is surely not possible to reliably date the picture on the basis of the costume we see in that area.
  • If it is a forgery, then it is interesting that the forger was not diligent enough to scrape off the Andrea del Sarto composition on which they painted. This is curious, for even in 1960 they were x-raying paintings. At the same time, however, this forger was dilligent enough to find a panel which, through the apparent composition of the del Sarto Madonna, happily coincided with the proposed date (of the late 1510s/early 1520s) of the painting they were intending to create. 
  • Hope's argument about the Papal States allowing the export of an Andrea del Sarto copy (but not a portrait of Michelangelo) strikes me as unduly speculative, and ignores the fact that a) people have been exporting great and not so great art from Italy for centuries, by fair means or foul, and b) there were even by the 17th Century many, many portraits of Michelangelo in circulation.
  • The lack of certain provenance before 1960 will always be an issue. And how reliable is the 1960 'document'?
  • As to whether the picture is by Sebastiano or not - if it is period (which I am inclined to think it is) - I am not qualified to judge. It is true that the comparison with other Sebastiano portraits in the exhibition, especially the Portrait of a Man (cat.19) next to it (below) is not a happy one. The portrait of Michelangelo looks pastey and stiff by comparison,while the shoulder and drapery are really quite weak, even allowing for the picture's condition issues. The repetition of a pose by Sebastiano, for a portrait of someone supposed to be his hero, is curious. It seemed more likely to me to be the work of a less able artist. Mind you, one of my (unfashionable) conclusions from the show is that Sebastiano was quite capable of being a 'less able artist'.
  • Finally, I am very pleased that the exhibition included this fascinating picture, which, as it happens, now belongs to a commercial gallery in Germany. We need to be less neurotic about exhibiting newly discovered and supposedly 'controversial' pictures, and it shouldn't matter a jot who owns it. The picture is still the picture.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.