How one painting captured my imagination…

Although I am in the middle of my research project, I would like to start by telling you, dear reader, how it all started. My research is based around one painting, that I came across two years ago, while doing an internship at the Ministry of Culture of Republic of Moldova. I remember very clearly the very first time I stood in front of the painting. It was more than a visual encounter; it was an all-encompassing sensory experience and it is to this day, the episode I recall every time I get to talk about my project.

The Museum of Art was in reparation at the time, and only one wing was barely kept alive with a few workers and an exhibition of a Polish artist. However, I wasn’t interested in the displayed paintings, I was more curious to see more of their permanent collections, gathered under decades of Soviet rule, and stockpiled in inaccessible storage rooms. After interacting with some of the museum workers, and being guided through the unexplored corridors infused with a cold humid smell, we got to this very old door; its colour has faded with time and its corners were worn-out and flaky. A single small key opened the door to reveal tens of paintings, whose story and value was unknown. And between them, there it was, The Allegory of Fire, showing Venus and Cupid in the forge of Vulcan, in a composition that was overwhelmingly green, a green that was soft, rich and warm, with an almost velvety surface.

Although it was speculated before that the author of the painting might be Jan Brueghel the Elder, the famous Flemish artist, there was no proof of this. In fact, the documents archived in the museum told a completely different story and identified the author as Otto van Veen. I started researching similar compositions even before my internship started, and several specialists in the field have confirmed the possibility of a link between the painting and Jan Brueghel the Elder’s studio. However, it was the Laidlaw internship that gave me the opportunity to study this subject in depth, to travel to Rome and see several Brueghel originals in Galleria Doria Pamphilj, in an attempt to identify the author of the painting found in Moldova.

At this stage of my research, I have gathered over twenty paintings that are variations of the same composition – The Allegory of Fire, painted by Brueghel in early seventeenth century. I categorized the works in three groups, according to the painting style: a) the ones that were painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder, b) the ones painted by his studio; c) the ones painted by Jan Brueghel the Younger (the son of Jan Brueghel the Elder). Optimistically, this classification and a further close analysis of the works will allow me to authenticate the painting found in Republic of Moldova. It is very difficult relaying solely on visual analysis when attributing a work of art. Although modern technology – infrared reflectography, chemical analysis, X-Ray photography – offer a lot of possibilities, they are not available in Moldova. Nonetheless, I hope that my experience in painting would help me in differentiating between the styles and techniques of these three groups.

Finding such a big number of paintings that share a striking resemblance, has also opened two other topics that I would like to explore in the future. First, I am very interested in the copying practices widely employed in the seventeenth century. A lot of artists at the time used the help of their assistants to replicate successful composition. The fact that these compositions would be sometimes finished and signed by the masters, opens a question about the meaning of authorship and originality. Second, some of the paintings are mirrored compositions of each other. This is a very interesting phenomenon, and it could indicate Brueghel’s use of optical devices. As I have found no sources that discuss the use of optics in Brueghel’s studio, I would like to explore this further.

In conclusion, I would like to thank again for the possibility of undertaking this internship. What I found most impressive about it, was the possibility of contacting through my supervisor, Dr. Julian Luxford, the most prominent specialists on Brueghel, who offered their insight on my project. I also gained more understanding of how complex and at times unpredictable the process of authentication is. With the help of my supervisor, I also learned how to address official letters to imposing establishments, like the Ministry of Culture of Moldova. The ability to communicate with experts in the field and various institutions is inspiring and it motivates me to want to explore more topics and ask further questions.

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