While examining an oil painting attributed to John Singer Sargent, I made a startling discovery. The painting, which is a study of the Porta Della Carta, Venice, is an unassuming view of the famous entrance to the Dodge’s palace. It fits within the type of scene Sargent was attracted to: Out of the way back alleys and doorways, stucco walls and finials, presenting an intimate view of the city, one that was certainly unrecognizable to most tourists.
Although Sargent loved to use his
friends and family as models in his Venetian paintings, this scene is devoid of
figures. We (Jake Collins, Cataloguer for Woodshed Art Auctions, and I)
The answer soon appeared.
Infrared photography unearthed the fact that two figures were outlined and subsequently overpainted at the time of creation. The under-painting shows a woman, possibly with a bustle, and another, unidentifiable figure, standing on the lower left-hand side of the painting, in the area that subsequently was altered to resemble deterioration on the wall.
Jake Collins summarized the find: “Although
the idea of eliminating figures in a composition may seem unusual, John Singer
Sargent was a perfectionist who had no hesitation omitting elements he did find
up to par. Sargent, arguably the premier portrait painter of his generation,
believed that it was “..impossible to repaint a head where the understructure
was wrong.” and would amend his paintings often when creating studies, only
discarding the canvas when the changes became too apparent.
From what is discernible from
infrared scans of the work, the manner in which these two figures are rendered
is nearly identical to the way Sargent was taught to paint. Sargent trained
under Carolus-Duran, who instructed Sargent never to underdraw, only underpaint
his canvases. He would begin with sweeping brush strokes and fill in details,
beginning in middle tones and moving outward from there, gradually filling in
his light and dark tones. Infrared scans of this particular underpainting show
the beginning of a developed painting, with a large mass of a neutral color
accentuated by both black and white details, further evidence that this may
indeed be the work of Sargent himself. Furthermore, one of Sargent’s tenets of
painting is to paint figures into another rather than rendering them separately
until they touch. In this work, this idea is at play: the figures meld
seamlessly into one another, forming shapes that could be the beginnings of
bustles or cloaks, arms or shoulders, or faces or chapeaus.”
Over the past few years, I’ve assembled a small arsenal of tools for forensic examination of paintings: Binocular microscope; ultraviolet and infra-red lighting; cameras to record those wavelengths; a near-infra-red (NIR) spectrometer and a laser-powered RAMAN spectrometer. Each tool has a different capacity for examining the materials used to create a painting, and now I feel like an art sleuth — ready for adventures in authentication!
The current blog post started a few years ago, with the acquisition of my infra-red camera. I used it to examine paintings arriving for restoration, but it often revealed nothing unusual. Until the arrival of what we thought was a copy of the most famous painting in Edinborough’s Scottish National Galleries: The Honourable Mrs Graham, a full-length portrait created by her admirer, Thomas Gainsborough.
Looking into the screen of the infra-red camera was a magical experience. It revealed a complex and energetic drawing hidden beneath the surface of the paint. My excitement was hard to contain. This was Something!
Examining the under-drawing and comparing it with Gainsborough’s drawing style, quickly led to the conclusion that the painting’s creation was a precursor to the SNG’s finished work.
The discovery led to examination of another Gainsborough painting hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and eventually a trip to Edinborough to see their masterpiece and perform infra-red photography in their gallery.
The revelations of this investigation led to an understanding of Gainsborough’s working methods, and further bolstered the opinion that the Woodshed’s painting is a rare oil study by the master artist.
The following is from Woodshed Art Auction’s catalog listing, written by Jake Collins:
Perhaps one of Thomas Gainsborough’s most intricate and recognizable compositions, Gainsborough’s portrait of the Honorable Mrs. Graham is one of the finest examples of 18th century portraiture. Equally as interesting, however, is the story of the sitter, Mrs. Graham, born Mary Cathcart, daughter of the Scottish ambassador to Russia. She spent her early years at the Court of Catherine the Great before her betrothal to Thomas Graham in 1774. Although she maintained a life full of allegations of impropriety, including an alleged affair with Marie Antoinette, Graham was eternally enamored by his wife, going as far as riding ninety miles back to their residence, braving inclement weather to collect jewelry Mary had intended to wear to the ball that night but had forgotten. After her untimely death in 1792, unable to bear the sight of his beloved wife, he turned over ownership of the original Gainsborough painting over to her sister. It was subsequently donated to the Scottish National Galleries by one of her sister’s heirs.
Infra-red photography (right) shows drawing under the paint.
Thomas Graham, however, was not the only one infatuated by Mrs. Graham. Thomas Gainsborough, too, was enamored by her presence and painted her multiple times, mostly from memory. Her striking beauty made her desirable to all and became one of the most admired women of her day, by both men and women alike.
The variation in backgrounds is the clearest indication that this is perhaps a preparation sketch for the more intricate version that hangs in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Gainsborough solidified his position as one of the premier English painters, who dabbled in a variety of prominent styles during his illustrious career. While the exhibited version is a quintessential Gainsborough Rococo landscape, with an undulating, verdant hill and exquisitely rendered trees that would lay the groundwork for British Romanticism in the subsequent decades, this study maintains a more somber, yet equally as striking tone. The bucolic hillscape is replaced with a seemingly opaque mass of darkness capped by an eerie sunset, providing a stark contrast with the delicate, pale white Mrs. Graham rather than seamlessly integrating her into the composition. Although dissimilar from the version that now hangs in the Scottish National Gallery, the background is reminiscent of that in Gainsborough’s 1759 Self Portrait and adds a revolutionary dynamic to the formal, rigid rules for which eighteenth century portraiture is known.
Infra-red photo (right) shows lightly drawn lines in the face & neck, with stronger marks in the hair of the painting in the Scottish National Gallery.
Gainsborough is regarded for his attention to even the most minute details when rendering textures in luxurious fabrics, jewels, hair, and accouterments, among other things. His hair is of particular note, eclipsing that of even his most notable contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Infrared technology has led to the discovery of how he rendered his sitters’ coiffures in such a dynamic manner- an underlying sketch in black chalk. When highlighted with paint, the quick, vertical strokes of black chalk add to the dynamism of the sitter’s fashionable updo and add depth to the static painting. This technique was peculiar enough to warrant further investigation from conservator Bruce Wood, who found nearly identical underdrawings on not only the version in Scotland but also on Gainsborough’s Haymaker and Sleeping Girl (late 1780s) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Gainsborough was particularly adept at drawing elegant hands, and this work is no exception. His hands extend from an already elongated wrist and terminate seamlessly into her gown. Although disproportionate, the elongated, clutching fingers only enhance the elegance of his sitters and, rather ironically, aim to pronounce the dainty features of his elite, sophisticated clientele.
Photographing at the Scottish National Gallery with infra-red camera.
While the Woodshed’s portrait is in exceptional condition, it does show signs of its age, furthering the idea that this is indeed a study by Gainsborough! The manner of cracking is consistent with other portraits of the period, including both the version in the National Gallery and his compositions found at the Museum of Fine Arts. This piece is a technical masterpiece that only Gainsborough or someone equally as masterful could have painted, and it is, indeed, very likely that it was created by Gainsborough’s hands.