Is it or isn’t it?
The long-debated painting “Study by Candlelight” is now on view through August 25 at the Nevada Museum of Art in a one-picture show under the title “A Real Van Gogh? An Unsolved Art World Mystery.”
Conservation scientist John Twilley is conducting a scientific analysis using x-ray and infrared technology, along with pigment analysis.
Will scientific analysis answer the question? The words of chemist Walter C. McCrone, a leading expert on art forgeries, come to mind:
“When a painting comes to me for review, one of the first things I do is turn it over,” he said in said in the January/February 2000 issue of The Sciences, the journal of the New York Academy of Sciences. “The canvas, parchment or wood panel may hold all the clues I need.”
Shouldn’t the first thing to do in deciding who made a painting is to look at the painting? tapeunit.com/article/peter-paul-rubens-i-d-know-you-anywhere
McCrone has been known to overlook this. In the early ’90s, he assessed two works purported to be by Renaissance master Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. He told me that the chances were “very, very good” that Leonardo had a hand in the painting.
But the painting didn’t look a bit like a Leonardo. The composition was out of balance, the faces were out of proportion, the lighting was out of whack and the hand gestures were straight out of Art 101.
How could an artist known for Vitruvian Man – the male figure with arms and legs outstretched in demonstration of classical grace and balance – paint such an ungraceful and unbalanced picture?
Then there was the supposed Raphael, known for effortless grace, most often noticeable in his paintings of the Madonna and Child. Goethe noticed this in Raphael’s painting of St. Catherine in London’s National Gallery: “The divine genius of Raphael reached a height that no one else will surpass or equal.”
The face of the Madonna in the supposed Raphael in Sarasota showed a commonplace prettiness, pursed lips sucked into a rosette, and the pale-complexion of a porcelain doll – bloodless and slick.
McCrone dated this at 1505, when Raphael was 22 years old. But when Raphael was 21, his painting Marriage of the Virgin was considered so lucid and graceful that Pope Julius II summoned him to paint the papal rooms at the Vatican.
Can science serve in authenticating painting? Of course. Should science ignore history and connoisseurship? Of course not. The supposed Van Gogh self-portrait “Study by Candlelight” doesn’t look like any of his other 35 self-portraits. Instead, it looks angrily at you from the corner of one eye and looks downright hostile.
The presumed Van Gogh image is dated 1888, the same year he painted “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat,” which shows him decidedly dream-eyed – far from ill-disposed.
And in his other verified self-portraits, he gazes at you with a steady self-possession. Look especially to the eyes – sad, yes, and perhaps wary (he had epileptic fits). But they are the steely, inquiring eyes of an artist.
While Van Gogh’s face seems never to have known a smile, it signifies less an angry man and more a no-nonsense fellow who doesn’t follow, who blazes his own trail, who dares to be different.
Then there’s what his roommate Paul Gauguin wrote, “I don’t admire the painting,” referring to Van Gogh’s, “but I admire the man. He’s so confident, so calm. I’m so uncertain, so uneasy.”
Did you get that – Van Gogh as “calm”? And Gauguin lived with the guy!
Science can date art, but it can’t determine who made it.