Scrubbed or Unfinished (?)

December 8 2020

Image of Scrubbed or Unfinished (?)

Picture: Bernaerts Auctions

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

Here's a detail of a sixteenth century painting that was posted by @AuctionRadar on his Twitter account. The anonymous group portrait sold for €7,000 over its €1,500 estimate at Bernaerts Auction in Antwerp today.

You'll notice that the condition of this picture is rather mystifying. Was it simply that the painting was left unfinished and in a sketchy state? Or was it scrubbed down by some overzealous conservator at some point in the last few centuries? There are some loose brush strokes evident to suggest the former, but others to suggest the latter.

Or was it for some other reason? I thought this might be a fun opportunity to share one of my favourite anecdotes about Sir Joshua Reynolds who was obsessed with the techniques and materials of earlier masters. His quest for greater understanding took him to some rather dark places at times. James Northcote, his pupil, later wrote this about him:

In his [Reynolds's] investigations also into the secrets used by the old masters, he was indefatigable. I remember once, in particular, a fine Parmegiano, that I bought by his order at a sale, which he rubbed and scoured down to the very panel on which it had been painted, so that at last nothing remained of the picture.

I've wondered if he learnt anything from this destructive experience?

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