Art Review Archives:
Michelangelo's David -- not the famous marble statue, but a lost bronze -- survived the inventory of destruction of the French Revolution in 1793, but has not been seen since. Pordenone's Hercules and Achelous was not the painting sold in an 1887 sale of collector R.P. Roupell; its last recorded appearance was in a sale twenty-five years earlier. Giovanni Busi's Christ carrying the Cross, with St. Veronica was possibly trimmed to fit a differently-sized space in the early 1700s, and its attribution lost. The twenty-four works in Missing Masterpieces are known today only through copies: fates uncertain, but not definitely destroyed, and with the tantalizing possibility of resurfacing at any time. Gert-Rudolf Flick's well-researched work is not only a lesson into how and why art goes missing, but twenty-four individual tales of artists, patrons, collectors, and the pressures of history on great works of art.
Most of the creations in Missing Masterpieces were highly valued in their own time, coveted and often directly commissioned by wealthy patrons and collectors. Many disappeared quietly: moving through subsequent ownership, subsequent auctions or sales, they eventually simply vanished from the world's ken, victim perhaps of changing tastes or outmoded styles. This may have been the fate of Domenichino's Lot and his daughters (oil on canvas:1630):
Other paintings were caught up in the rough currents of history, war's turmoil being especially hard on art, whose value and cultural symbolism makes it vulnerable to looting or deliberate destruction. Even attempts to remove such valuables to other premises for safekeeping open up a world of opportunities for theft or disappearance along the way. For the works discussed in Missing Masterpieces (the earliest is created around 1450, the latest in the early 1700s), Flick identifies two major periods of discord which stirred up the movement, and loss, of works of art: the English Civil War and Thirty Years War, and the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.
Each of the twenty-four case histories might be the record of an individual life, for each work, in a sense, is an entity unto itself. 'Art appreciation' is often confined to the visual level: composition, technique, and content of a work, viewed from a book's colorful page or the lofty heights of a museum wall. Missing Masterpieces traces the stories surrounding the works. Filled with people, circumstances, and personalities, the details and trials remind us that works of art are a mixed function of ego, commodity, and history. Flick does not embellish the facts, and he need not. Rife with earls, dukes, bishops and popes, great Roman families and stately homes, the data of history itself creates a compelling narrative of cause and effect, clues and their implications. They are tales as fascinating as any fiction. The missing Albinea Madonna (probably oil on panel:1517-19), for example, was last in the hands of Francisco I d'Este, Duke of Modena, who was such an avid collector of Correggio that he opened up negotiations to purchase the work from the Church of S. Prospero at Albinea. When he realized the citizens of the artist's home town did not wish to part with the work, he requested permission to have a copy made: then left the copy and made off with the original... which has not been seen since.
Jacques-Louis David's Lepeletier on his death-bed was completed in March 1793 for the public funeral of the assassinated Lepeletier, "first martyr of the [French] revolution" and an instant "cult hero," it is known from several copies: a drawing by a pupil named Anatole Devosge, an engraving copied from this drawing, and an anonymous 19th-century painting of the French School. Several written accounts also mention the work, their differing details sparking the possibility that there may even have been two paintings, not one. For two years Lepeletier on his death-bed hung in state in the Assembly of the National Convention opposite another work by David, a work both surviving and well-known -- The death of Marat (oil on canvas:1793) -- and to compare the two is to see how keenly the loss of the Lepeletier robbed the Marat of its complement. When Robespierre's fall from power turned the political situation on its head, both paintings, now heretical and inflammatory, were concealed by the artist. Lepeletier on his death-bed was later purchased by Lepeletier's daughter. Reportedly burned by its owner, a conflicting account suggests it may have survived; but into whose hands it passed, or whether it still exists well-hidden in the attics or secret spaces of the Chateau de Saint-Fargeau in Yonne, France, remains a mystery.
The exercises in detection find clues amid that which was once routine, matter-of-fact. Inventories and auction records, deductions of composition based on the shape and size of the copy, identification of whether a particular account deals with the actual work or only a sketch or drawing of it, private letters and the terms of wills all provide the threads which establish the work's continued presence, until the inevitable final record, beyond which lies only speculation.
It is intriguing as well to compare the images and ponder the true appearance of the original work. Copies show the image, true; but engravings reverse the subject and reduce color to black and hatching, while oil handling of hue and figure vary with individual artists' talent and intent. Jan Vermeyen's Portrait of Mulay Ahmad (probably oil on panel:c.1535/6) is known from an etching of the work done by the artist at the same time as the lost portrait, as well as by an oil painting made by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1613-14/20. The Vermeyen etching, with its oversized head and tiny hands, is comically like a caricature. The Rubens copy is a more balanced, formal portrait. But to what extent is it a true copy, and to what extent does it reflect Rubens' own style and tastes in composition, detail, modeling and color? Until the original is found, if it ever is, we can make only educated guesses.
Missing Masterpieces is well-illustrated, though the reader must perform a few feats of detection of his own. The illustrations lack figure numbers, which along with their usual complement, direct numbered reference in the text, would have been a welcome convenience. That aside, the 194 color plates feature illustrations of the various copies by which the work under discussion is known, as well as a lively collection of other relevant images which add spice to each chapter: portraits of the artist, his patrons, or his collectors; related art works by the same artist or other artists; references to the missing work's subject in other paintings; and contemporary architectural engravings of some of the chateaux and stately homes mentioned in the text.
Missing Masterpieces shares affinity with an earlier book, Robert Adams's 1980 work The Lost Museum: Glimpses of Vanished Originals, and readers may will enjoy the latter as a complementary text, a broad overview to Gert-Rudolf Flick's in-depth studies. While not dealing specifically with missing works, as in Missing Masterpieces, Adams does have a comment to offer on our often fickle relationship with great art: "Art has privileges," he notes, "though only limited ones as long as it doesn't interfere with the world's practical work."
It is a wisdom which applies equally to the works in Missing Masterpieces. Whether through the throes of war or revolution, or the more subtle effects of indifference and neglect, even great works of art are vulnerable to vanishment. Missing Masterpieces tells the stories of twenty-four such lost works, works which may yet resurface for all the world to see. Each tale is a slice of history, a reminder that a work of art does not exist in a vacuum, but rather, is product of, and subject to, the world's desires, flaws, and conflicts. Meticulously researched, the 'maybes' and 'probablys', dukes, earls and popes, and the adventures of each work of art itself, from creation to vanishing point, make for fascinating reading.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself. Robert Adams's The Lost Museum: Glimpses of Vanished Originals is © New York:Viking Press, 1980.