Nov 20, 2022

How does one evaluate whether it is a replica or a copy?

It can happen to find paintings in auction catalogs or at antiques fairs that remind us of other works, by famous artists. This is, for example, the case of a small painting that arrived at our workshop, and that “almost looks” like a Giovanni Fattori. It is unsigned but has a with well-known subject: “Libecciata”, originally by that Italian painter. Our client initially asked us for a check of its state of conservation, to evaluate whether it should undergo a restoration. But he also confessed that he was curious to know if by chance it could not be a preparatory study of the famous artwork now in the Gallery of Modern Art at Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

This is an exemplary case of a type of request that we often receive and therefore, with the permission of the owner, we use it today as an example of what are the first steps necessary for authenticating a painting.

By doing a little research on the painting and on the author, we discovered that the Macchiaiolo’s masterpiece has two preparatory studies, both preserved in the GAM and one of these is even exhibited together with the official “Libecciata”.

Therefore, to find out if the painting that has been submitted to us was a copy, or a version or another preparatory study, we provided an imaging multispectral diagnostic campaign and a scanner reflectography (1700nm): in this way we could become aware of the inhomogeneities of the paint and the possible retouching thanks to UV Fluorescence photography (which will also be useful for the restoration), while Reflectography would give us information on the genesis of the work by showing us the preparatory drawing

UV Fluorescence image of the painting under analysis

To better understand whether the painting could be an additional version of the “Libecciata”, thanks to the comparison of scientific analyses with those published in the relevant literature, we studied the scientific investigations carried out on the “Libecciata” and on one of its preparatory versions.

Did you know that the two preparatory versions of the GAM have different dimensions, different perspective settings and differ in some details? Unfortunately we do not have scientific information of both version, because they have not been published. The public data are only on one of the two bozzetti and on the final version.

The official “Libecciata” and its “sketch” differ in size, in the palette used and in the preparation of the support. They are the same in the wood fiber: Poplar.

One effective way to understand whether a painting is a copy or an original painting is to compare reflectographies. Fortunately, in this case we have both the reflectography performed on both Fattori’s paintings and, obviously, on “ours”.

We can certainly say that both on “our “painting and on the Fattori’s original there is no sign of any transfer technique from cardboard or any other evidence that suggests a copy such as, for example, the presence of a grid that would have facilitated the transfer of the composition by enlarging or shrinking a new version.
However, there are significant other differences.

Comparing the reflectography of the paintings conserved at the GAM in Florence, we find variations in the compositions of the two versions.
The “sketch” shows an underlying compositional system, in pencil. Marked the borderline between land and sea, between sea and sky and a clear rethinking of the horizon line between sea and sky.

IR reflectography of the bozzetto by Fattori now at the GAM

The final painting, on the other hand, in IR shows how the painter was very synthetic in outlining the compositional structure, i.e. essentially indicating only the sea/sky horizon line executed with a cue.

IR reflectography of the final painting by Fattori now at the GAM

In “our” painting, on the other hand, there is no sign of a compositional underdrawing executed freehand or with a ruler for the land/sea and sea/sky limits. Furthermore, the total absence of an underdrawing, which is always present in Fattori, even if in a synthetic way, is a further factor contrary to autography. The dimensions differ from the painting from which it is inspired, and we additionally note that it is made on a support unsual for the painter.

IR reflectography of the painting under analysis

Unfortunately, therefore, we are faced with a copy of the strong “gust of wind” even if “it almost seemed righ”

Emanuela Massa
Emanuela Massa