Researching an Old Master (Or, Falling in Love with a Painting)

  • July 27, 2011 15:38

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Saint Michael painting, Circa 1550, Italian
Saint Michael painting, Circa 1550, Italian

Have you ever been absolutely compelled to buy something?  To where the piece spoke to you?  Drew you in.  Took hold of you and wouldn't let go.  Well, it happened to me.  This is a story about my introduction to the world of Old Master painting.  

It was a very early Saturday morning and I was checking out the offerings of a dealer friend from Massachusetts.  Looking over his inventory and seeing much that I liked, but nothing I loved until I came across a painting that was still in its box.  I asked about it and he commented to me that he had just purchased it the night before from another dealer.  Who doesn't like fresh merchandise?  So I asked to see it and he said, "Oh, Heather, that's not for you.  It's an old painting of Joan of Arc".  I asked again and he unwrapped the painting.  That was all it took.  Other dealers began to circle around me as I held up the painting for examination.  Each with their own commentary on the age, subject, condition and so on.  Each giving me a quizzical look wondering why I'd be looking at it.  As I was known primarily for dealing in picture frames, the frame on this painting wasn't much to speak of.  A Dutch style moulding dating from the early 1900's.  Still I held on to it.  Knowing that if I loosened my grasp, one of my associates could swoop in and grab the painting for themselves.  So I held on, or rather it held me.  Without haggling, I paid my friend and hopped in the first taxi I could hail and headed downtown to my apartment.  And so began my project.  

First would come a true assessment of the painting and that could only come from seeing it out of the frame and from a proper cleaning.  My painting restorer is an expert in Old Masters (little did I know) and he was pleased to take on the project.  After seeing the work out of the frame and a proper cleaning, it turned out to be a lot older than any of us suspected.  Rather than being from the 1800's and a Continental portrait of Joan of Arc, it was from the 1500's and an Italian portrait of Saint Michael.  Wow!  Three hundred years earlier and a different sex!  

Saint Michael painting, Circa 1550, Italian

Saint Michael is portrayed in a bejeweled armor, holding the balance scale, his sword and shield by his side.  Looks like we all could have used a bit more coffee before making up our minds that early Saturday morning!  Turns out, the painting was re-lined at some point in the early 1900's, framed by a Massachusetts framer and offered through a Montreal gallery.  The relining and new stretcher are truly first rate with a mid stretcher bar on a painting that measures approximately 17" x 21".  The Montreal gallery may have commissioned the work or handled the piece afterwards as their stamp is visible on the stretcher bar.  The framer's label is still visible on the backing paperboard on the work.  All great clues to ascertaining the identity of the artist, but all less than helpful.  

As I am not an expert in Old Master painting, I really don't have an opinion on painting styles.  Sure, I could look through a few coffee table books and say, "Gee, it looks like a Titian".  But that really would not hold water.  I researched the gallery.  It closed sometime in the 1930's.  I researched the framer.  Only came up with a listing in the newspaper of the time.  I researched the researcher who wrote their thesis on the gallery.  She recommended that I read her 2000 page thesis.  Written entirely in French.  Dead ends?  Of course not.  There is always a way if you are willing.  

So, I enlisted the help of an expert.  An armor society in the United Kingdom.  Their expert gladly offered his opinion of the armor, for a small fee.  With this new information and some clues, I'm headed off in another direction to better understand my painting.  

Now, some of you may be thinking, "Why not show some photos to one of the big auction houses?"  A good idea.  If you know how to speak directly with the expert.  There are many levels in an auction house and getting up to the top level is not as simple as sending an email.  So, perhaps some of you may be thinking, "Why not just show the painting to an expert?"  Another good idea.  If you know THE expert.  For there are many experts.  Many.  And finding the right expert is almost as difficult as researching an unsigned Italian Old Master painting from the 1500's.  So, I'll take my chances with me.


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