Victoria proves a master at choosing Albert’s gift
Portrait thought to be copy is revealed as 16th century original – all thanks to its use of pigeon tendons
AS THE solving of art mysteries go, it is certainly one of the more unusual clues. But a century-old question over who painted a gift from Queen Victoria to her husband Albert has been solved, thanks in no small part to pigeon tendons.
The painting, Portrait of a Lady and her Son, was originally thought by Royal Collection experts to be by the minor artist Franz Wolfgang Rohrich, merely one of around 40 versions he made in the early 19th century.
However, re-examination has now shown it to be a work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the German Renaissance master and chief artist of the Reformation.
The reattribution of the painting, which will be hung in Windsor Castle from today, came about as a result of careful scientific examination.
Among the key clues was the identification of fibrous material used to strengthen the painting’s panel, matched with other Cranach works Dna-tested as pigeon tendon. The unexpected material is known to have been used in 16thcentury glue to strengthen the mix- ture, counteracting the natural warping and splitting of wood.
Curators at the Royal Collection said the status of the painting had been “immediately raised” by being from Cranach and his workshop. One of the estimated 40 versions of Portrait of a Lady and her Son by Rohrich fetched £25,000 at auction in 2014. A Cranach painting can fetch up to £9.3million.
Queen Victoria had purchased the c1510–40 painting for Prince Albert as a Christmas present in 1840. Her German-born husband was known to be fond of Cranach’s work, with 12 paintings from the master’s workshop entering the Royal Collection as a result. The double portrait shows an unidentified consort of a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire and her son, in their finery. Despite Queen Victoria’s conviction, by the early 20th century the Royal Collection considered the painting to be the work of Rohrich, a prolific imitator of Cranach.
Finding no evidence of an original by Cranach to have copied, curators concluded the Lady and her Son must have been an invention of Rohrich’s.
But with the aid of modern infrared reflectography the University of Applied Sciences, Cologne, in collaboration with TH Köln, was able to look beneath the paint surface, revealing “preliminary underdrawing” thought typical of Cranach’s work.
Analysis of the pigments, metal leaf and application of paint confirmed it was made in the 16th-century, while an X-ray revealed the material in the panel.
Nicola Christie, head of paintings conservation at the Royal Collection Trust, said the reattribution showed Queen Victoria had been “absolutely” right all along in her artistic judgment. “We’re all very excited,” she said. “It’s an absolute thrill. It’s status is immediately raised.”
♦ A secret underground room in Florence where Michelangelo hid and drew sketches on the walls could soon be opened to the public.
Michelangelo sought refuge in the tiny cell in 1530, on the run from his patrons, the Medici family, for supporting a revolt against their rule. During his two months there, he drew sketches on its walls with charcoal and chalk. The room remained undiscovered until 1975 and will be opened to the public “within three years” the Bargello Museum said.
In the mid-16th century, around the time that Lucas Cranach the Elder was painting his Renaissance masterpieces, the Greek word for sinew, tenon, was being mixed with a bit of Latin, tendere, meaning to stretch. The result was “tendon” – the perfect word to describe those bendy, flexible bits of pigeon that Cranach used to strengthen glue and counteract the warping of wood panels. Now those very pigeon tendons have proved crucial in identifying one of the Queen’s paintings, Portrait of a Lady and Her
Son, as the work of Cranach himself, and not an imitator, as had been thought. Thus small things can have big consequences, not least for the value of the painting. Only pedants would point out that tendere is also the root of tendentious. No one is stretching the truth here.
Portrait of a Lady and her Son, left, was an 1840 Christmas present from the monarch to her husband, below. It has been verified as the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder, rather than a copy as previously thought