Fantastic discoveries at Philadelphia: conservators offer a behind-the-scenes look at the masterpieces by Judith Leicester, Titian and Rogier van der Weiden
The show includes a selection of 1,279 paintings, 51 sculptures and 100 objects bequeathed to the museum in 1917 by the Philadelphia lawyer and collector John Graver Johnson. "It’s one of the largest and most significant collections of European paintings in the US," Christopher Atkins, the museum’s associate curator of European paintings, says.
The exhibition’s two-year lead time afforded the curators and conservators the opportunity to study the pieces and show the public that it "is not a static collection but a living one, with loads of potential for new discoveries".
Left: Conrad Haeseler, Portrait of John Graver Johnson, 1917. Philadelphia Museum of Art
The experts who studied Titian Vecellio's "Portrait of Filippo Archinto", a work that had not been treated in 50 years, have come to an unexpected conclusion. The aim of the conservators was to improve its appearance and gain a better understanding of "what’s wrong with it". For years, scholars assumed that the work was painted when Archinto was a cardinal because of the reddish colour of his robes. Though the conservators determined that Titian painted Archinto after he was made an archbishop in 1556, and his cloak or mozzetta was originally purple.
Left: Titian Vecelli, Portrait of Filippo Archinto, 1558, before treatment. Philadelphia Museum of Art
The museum now believes that "The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning" attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, which was split into two panels, formed part of a lost, large-scale altarpiece. The panels had intrigued conservator Mark Tucker for years because scholars could not agree on what they were. He honed in on "an odd carpentry detail that seemed insignificant at first". He determined that a piece of woodwork with dowel holes in a manner consistent with the construction of Netherlandish carved altarpieces.
"Our research indicates that the panels came from a lost altarpiece, with a level of sophistication suggesting it was one of the monumental achievements of 15th-century Northern European art," says the expert.
Left: Rogier van der Weyden, a detail of the left panel of "The Crucifixion…"