Amre Proman, Contributing Photographer

On Thursday, the Yale University Art Gallery hosted a talk on French painter François Gérard’s portrait of Alexandrine Émilie Brongniart with Kathryn Calley Galitz, art historian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Ian McClure, chief conservator at the YUAG.

This 18th century painting had long been lost to the art world until recently, when two versions of it were discovered. The YUAG acquired the first in 2010, while the second was found with Brongniart’s descendants in 2016. One of the two had been displayed in the Salon in 1795 — a government-sponsored art exhibit which played a prominent role in the European art world from the 17th to 19th century — but experts did not know which one. During the event, Galitz and McClure described how they found out which of the two had been displayed at the Salon, providing a satisfying conclusion to a story centuries in the making.

“[Galitz’s] research, which had recently been published in the Burlington magazine, is both historical and technical,” Molleen Theodore, associate curator of programs at the YUAG, said during the talk. “It involves Art History Museum education, curat[ion] and conservation, and it reads as a kind of detective story.”

The portrait’s exhibition at the Salon brought Gérard’s work into prominence. Understanding his work and what happened to it has been one of Galitz’s passions for the last decade.

“He was a big deal, in France, in the early 19th century as a portrait painter,” Galitz said. “Commentators were especially taken by the naturalism of the figure, and they went so far as to compare Gérard’s portrait to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa [which] was actually on display at Versailles at the same time.”

The University acquired the first discovered version of the portrait, a bust-length painting, at an auction. Since scholars knew the one displayed at the Salon had been a three-quarter length, they assumed the portrait had been shortened at some point. But upon the discovery of the second version — which was a three-quarter length portrait — in 2016, scholars were left scratching their heads over which one originally graced the walls of the Salon.

Galitz, who published a paper on Gérard in 2013, became involved in the investigation. She and McClure used archives and modern technology to historically analyze each piece. 

First, they turned to X-ray and infrared imaging. These imaging methods were once too costly for use in analyzing art pieces, but recent technological developments have made them more accessible for art historians. The scans can reveal the original backgrounds beneath the surfaces of paintings, which are otherwise not visible.

Infrared imaging produced a few clues about the relationship between Gérard’s two portraits. McClure noted that the initial scan revealed several modifications that Gérard had made to the YUAG’s version.

But ultimately, it was one lock of hair that “sealed the deal.” Through infrared imaging and cross-examining the portraits with Brongniart’s diary entries, McClure and Galitz noticed that a single strand was originally oriented in the wrong direction in the YUAG’s portrait. It was then modified to the direction of the three-quarter length version, which, to Galitz, meant that it was not the final version of the painting. Instead, Gérard used it as a working version, or trace, for his final version. This proved that Gérard’s final version — the portrait discovered in 2016 — was the one displayed at the Salon.

In Brongniart’s diaries, she recalled sitting for the portrait and Gérard’s decision to paint two versions. She also described her excitement about being the subject of a portrait that would be viewed by many. Indeed, the study of her portrait would in fact span centuries.

“It kind of brought it full circle,” Galitz said. “This was a gratifying way to conclude my studies of [Brongniart].”

The YUAG was founded in 1832 and is currently closed to the public.

Amre Proman | amre.proman@yale.edu