A small new exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art explores an 18th century art embarrassment.
Three years ago, the Yale University Art Gallery, across the street from the British Art Center, loaned a Benjamin West painting to a fellow museum. Searching for a comparable piece among the 13 West paintings in Yale’s permanent collection to fill the space in the gallery, Chief Conservator of Paintings for the British Art Center Mark Aronson stumbled upon “Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes” (1804). With the paint peeling off the canvas, Aronson needed to restore the work before it could be displayed.
“The first thing I do when a painting requires attention is research the piece and the artist,” Aronson said.
Searching through the other West paintings, records and slides, Aronson eventually found something unusual. A second “Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes” existed in the private collection of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.
“I’m not sure if Eisner’s curator knew about Yale’s matching West painting,” Aronson said. “It was a thrilling moment to go to his New York apartment and see the other painting. It started a long journey of discovering the history of two very different versions of the same image.”
That journey is the backbone of the exhibit, “Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret,” curated by Aronson and his two fellow curators, Angus Trumble and Helen Cooper. The one-room exhibit allows visitors to fully engage with the story without being weighed down by excessive supplemental artifacts. However, the individual pieces of art themselves are not as exciting as the stories that surround them. What the show lacks in numbers it compensates for with dense information regarding the scientific and social analysis of the two paintings. Beyond appealing to art, English or history majors, the fascinating methods used to analyze the works will easily engage the “CSI” fanatic or science nerd.
X-radiographs, infrared scans and recent technological analyses mixed with a satirical cartoon and manuscripts from the 1790s complement the two West paintings and reveal their history.
The exhibit tells the story of a late 18th-century ruse that deceived the most elite and well-trained artists of London.
In 1795, Benjamin West (1738-1820), the American-born president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, fell victim to a remarkable hoax.
Thomas Provis and his daughter Ann approached West with a fake manuscript containing the description of materials and techniques used by High Renaissance masters in Venice. The methods held in the manuscript would, purportedly, allow West to create paintings with the famous luminous colors of the Venetian masters such as Titian and Giorgione. After much experimentation, West produced a history painting, “Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes” (1796-97), with what turned out to be a totally illogical and difficult process. Many of West’s fellow artist-academicians were successively tricked into believing Provis’ false manuscripts.
When the hoax was finally exposed, the social and artistic embarrassment experienced by West was magnified because of his position as president of the Royal Academy. In the press, in song and in an elaborate engraving called “Titianus Redivivus,” satirists mercilessly ridiculed West and those involved in the scandal.
Seven years later, West painted the almost identical version of “Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes” according to traditional methodology and studio practices. This 1804 “atonement” painting redeemed West’s prestige as artist and president of the Royal Academy and, through the grace of history, the 1797 “Venetian secret” version was largely forgotten.
The 1804 piece entered Yale Univerity Art Gallery’s collection in 1963 and this fall’s exhibit is the first time it will be publicly displayed here in New Haven.
The exhibit represents an intimate collaboration between the British Art Center and the Yale University Art Gallery augmented with artifacts on loan from the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Conn.