With his usual lack of depth, my dear friend Kenny Schachter referred to the case in which a Spanish priest claims having found a major painting by Murillo. Without knowing the topic nor the case, Schachter said: ‘I understand everyone wants to be an art dealer today, from your local museum curator to your city council member, but this seems to be a trend’
In an article signed by Belén Palanco under the title ‘Experts divided over the authenticity of the newly discovered Ecce Homo’ what I would call the Spanish Mafia of Old Masters certification comes to the fore.
As you know, I am an expert on Spanish painting from the XVII century and I found myself both as an art dealer and as a scholar in the situation where two exacto copies of the same painting get different treatment according to the opinion of a Spanish expert. But let’s see what happened in this case.
The priest of three small villages in the region of Granada, southern Spain, Joaquin Caler bought a painting of Ecce Homo, which shows Christ bound and crowned with thorns shortly before the crucifixion, from a family in Seville around nine years ago. He has now put the canvas on display in the museum of Guadix Cathedral and says he believes it is an original work by the 17th-century painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. I personally own one by ‘Francisco de Zurbaran’ in my own living room. However…
Caler told The Art Newspaper that his Ecce Homo is the “original” treatment of the theme by Murillo, who would then go on to produce numerous different versions of the canvas, including one that is now in the collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, Long Island. Caler has the backing of Enrique Pareja López, an academic at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and a former director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville. López first examined the painting when it was being restored and made the attribution to Murillo. He believes the Ecce Homo at Guadix Cathedral, which he says was painted between 1665 and 1670, is better than the Heckscher’s version. “I am convinced that we are in front of a formidable painting,” he says. It is so good, he added, that it should be considered the original version of the theme.
Joaquin Caler’s painting has been examined by Enrique Parra Crego, the manager of Larco, a laboratory that analyses pigments. He says these reveal that the pigments used in the Guadix Ecce Homo match those in paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, Francisco Pacheco and, of course, Murillo. I don’t need to say that this does not prove anything because those pigments were also used by students and minor artists at the time.
Then Palanco says: ‘Others experts disagree. Benito Navarrete and Enrique Valdivieso, two highly respected authorities on Murillo, refute the attribution. They believe the Guadix canvas was painted by an assistant in Murillo’s studio. Navarrete, the professor of art history at the University of Alcalá in Madrid, and a former member of the vetting committee for the Tefaf Maastricht art fair, says that the quality of the painting is too poor to be considered a work by the great painter. “I do not see the hand of Murillo in this work: the face of Christ is [poorly executed] and you do not see the artist’s mastery in the red cloth; it is just a copy,” Navarrete says.
In his blog Navarette also pointed out the Heckscher museum’s painting has been recognised as Murillo’s original treatment of the Ecce Homo theme by numerous art historians, including Diego Angulo and Enrique Valdivieso, who included it in their respective catalogues of the artist’s work. However, the museum itself catalogues the painting as by a “follower” of Murillo. Enrique Valdivieso, a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Letters of Seville, who has studied the Heckscher’s canvas, believes Guadix Cathedral’s painting is one of the many versions produced by Murillo’s studio to keep pace with demand for such canvases in the 17th century, when wealthy Spaniards commissioned such works for private prayer. “Murillo’s skill is greater than the Guadix painting shows,” he says. Even the Heckscher’s work shows that Murillo did not complete it alone, he added, but it is still the best surviving version of Ecce Homo’.
The problem with this kind of expertise in Spain is that is almost inexistent. I have met Navarrete many times and his opinions are given on the basis of intuition and pure ‘doxa’. He would claim that the direction of the brush or the ‘caligraphic’ positioning of the paintings is more ‘subtle’ or ‘nuanced’ in this painting or that but that does not prove anything. I was in a couple of seminars at the Courtauld where he was claiming and unclaiming attributions of drawings by Pacheco. I kept listening to him in shock at the non sense. He wants to transform painting or drawing into calligraphic forensics but that is not the way it works, mostly, because at the time, these paintings were supposed to be reproduced (as close as possible to the original) in order to send to America or to provide local churches with objects of devotion. In other words, Navarrete and co are a group of people tightly entangled with the group of conservators of the different Spanish museums that will certify and un-certify without any prove God knows how and why. I am saying this because I have seen, at least, two Prado conservators buy expensive properties two years after having certified that famous Breughel bought by the Prado that I insist is fake. Just a thought.