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Fantastic discoveries at Philadelphia: conservators offer a behind-the-scenes look at the masterpieces by Judith Leicester, Titian and Rogier van der Weiden

Many assume that once a collection, especially the one comprised mostly of Old Master paintings, has graced a museum’s walls for a century, everything that can be learned already has already been studied. But the exhibition Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art turns this theory on its head. New technical and art-historical research on eight of the 100 works on display proves that there are still secrets waiting to be revealed. For example, the restorers, who were preparing the exhibits for the exhibition, literally pulled out the "skeleton from the closet" in the picture by Judith Leicester.
Eight of the 100 works on display appeared to spring a surprise. This proves that there are still secrets on centuries-old canvases and panels waiting to be revealed.

The show includes a selection of 1,279 paintings, 51 sculptures and 100 objects bequeathed to the museum in 1917 by the Philadelphia lawyer and collector John Graver Johnson. "It’s one of the largest and most significant collections of European paintings in the US," Christopher Atkins, the museum’s associate curator of European paintings, says.

The exhibition’s two-year lead time afforded the curators and conservators the opportunity to study the pieces and show the public that it "is not a static collection but a living one, with loads of potential for new discoveries".

Left: Conrad Haeseler, Portrait of John Graver Johnson, 1917. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Art experts had known since the 1970s that there was more to The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) (around 1639) by the Dutch artist Judith Leyster. The author depicted this character as a moralising tale of what happens to those who drink to excess. However, conservators only recently were able to remove overpaint, revealing the death symbol. "We didn’t know enough about the painting’s condition to determine if the overpaint could be removed without causing any damage," says the museum’s director of conservation Mark Tucker.

He suspects that the skeleton had been removed before Johnson bought it in 1908 to make it more marketable.
Judith Leyster’s "The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier)" before and after treatment. Photo:
Titian Vecelli. Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto

The experts who studied Titian Vecellio's "Portrait of Filippo Archinto", a work that had not been treated in 50 years, have come to an unexpected conclusion. The aim of the conservators was to improve its appearance and gain a better understanding of "what’s wrong with it". For years, scholars assumed that the work was painted when Archinto was a cardinal because of the reddish colour of his robes. Though the conservators determined that Titian painted Archinto after he was made an archbishop in 1556, and his cloak or mozzetta was originally purple.

Left: Titian Vecelli, Portrait of Filippo Archinto, 1558, before treatment. Philadelphia Museum of Art

Titian allegedly mixed red organic colourant with smalt, a pigment that was popular in Venice at the time; though it is very unstable and loses its blue colour over time. "The left side of the mozzetta had degraded to a brownish-red colour, while the right side retains a purplish hue, suggesting that the lead white pigment used to paint the white veil may have offered a protective environment for the smalt," the art expert mentioned.
Rogier van der Weyden, "The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning", ca. 1460. Philadelphia Museum of Art

The museum now believes that "The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning" attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, which was split into two panels, formed part of a lost, large-scale altarpiece. The panels had intrigued conservator Mark Tucker for years because scholars could not agree on what they were. He honed in on "an odd carpentry detail that seemed insignificant at first". He determined that a piece of woodwork with dowel holes in a manner consistent with the construction of Netherlandish carved altarpieces.

"Our research indicates that the panels came from a lost altarpiece, with a level of sophistication suggesting it was one of the monumental achievements of 15th-century Northern European art," says the expert.

Left: Rogier van der Weyden, a detail of the left panel of "The Crucifixion…"

Another picture with a surprise presented in the exposition, which relates to van der Weyden, is "Descent from the Cross". Once considered to be simply a copy of another painting created by Rogier van der Weyden eight decades earlier, it remained in storage as a study picture. However, later it turned out that it was created in about 1520 by the Dutch painter Joos van Cleve. Now the composition is on display for the first time in 30 years.
John Graver Johnson was among the earliest Americans to collect Hieronymus Bosch, and today the Museum is among only a handful in the United States that possess a work by this great painter. Although Johnson purchased 10 works that he was sure to be by the artist, a close research (incl. through the use of dating growth rings in wood) led to the conclusion that only one of them can be considered authentic today.
  • Rembrandt Harmenssz. van Rijn, "Head of Christ", 1656. Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Gentleman, 1474. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Besides these works, the exhibition includes masterpieces by key figures of the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
, such as Sandro Botticelli, paintings by the Dutch Golden Age artists Rembrandt van Rijn and Jan Steen, and works by masters of Johnson’s own time: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet.
The exhibition "Old Masters Now: Celebrating the Johnson Collection" in the Philadelphia Museum of Art will last until February, 19, 2018.
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Adapted from the official site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Art Newspaper, and other sources