Scientific Analyses Shed Light on Rubens’ Painting, Casting Shadows on Public Collection

Jun 21, 2023 | Auctions, Authentications & attributions, Discoveries, Exhibitions, Studies and Projects

How to distinguish a copy from the original, one author from the other?

French painter Laurent de la Hyre, “Cyrus Announcing to Araspas that Panthea Has Obtained His Pardon”

Surely you need more than a connoisseur eye, at least considering how many paintings still easily change attribution nowadays.

In July a not-so-small painting allegedly by Rubens is going for auction at Sotheby’s, after having surfaced in in Missouri in 1963 and then being sold at auction in 2008 for $40,000 when, however, it was attributed to the French painter Laurent de la Hyre (see one of his paintings on the left).

Now it will be offered with an estimate between £4 million to £6 million.

There is more. The painting has the same subject as the one exhibited as by Rubens in the Galleria Corsini collection in Rome. A painting with an impeccable pedigree, started with Cardinal Neri Corsini (1685-1770) – although in not so good state of conservation.

The two paintings were exposed side by side in Stuttgart in 2021, on the occasion of “Becoming Famous” (we talked about it here).

Apparently once seen next to each other the difference was striking to scholars, but what made the difference were the X-ray analysis and the other scientific tests performed on both paintings. In the one that will go for auction, diagnostic images show how the artist made radical changes before settling for the composition we see now. For example, Saint Sebastian was first painted facing the opposite way, twisting to the left and with his right arm raised over his head. There was originally an arrow piercing his right thigh, and armour was a later addition to the work, painted on top of something else that Rubens scraped away (see the image above).

On the other hand, scientific imaging on the Corsini picture did not highlight any significant creative process for the composition, suggesting that it was executed afterwards, just repeating its composition.

Does this mean that the Corsini Gallery will now change the attribution of their picture? Will it be demoted to “copy of” or “school of” or “Rubens and atelier”?

Or with it just a “version”, in spite of the clear stylistic differences and the “higher quality of the work in private hands”, as Anna Orlando wrote in the auction notes?

The exhibition in Stuttgard, however small and local (the catalogue was only in German), provided the occasion for a number of insights in Rubens production and indeed for a direct comparison to solve a scholarly dispute.

As there are several more example of versions of the same composition supposedly by the same author but for which not all the scholars agree, we hope there will be more of such side by side comparisons. And similar scientific testing performed on all of them, of course. Otherwise, the dispute will never come to objective and undisputed conclusions. That is the aim, right?

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti