As London National Gallery celebrates their version of the Madonna of the Pinks with a travelling exhibition, James Beck lays out the evidence against the attribution of the small panel to Raphael.
It is my opinion that the Northumberland picture cannot be the original, prime version of the composition known in about 48 painted versions and many engravings, at least three of which date back to the seventeenth century.
According to the Gallery, the best “evidence” which the supports the picture’s attribution as a Raphael rest not on fact, but another attribution, namely the underdrawing as revealed by Infrared reflectography. Methodologically this system of circular argumentation is hardly convincing. Furthermore, what has been used for the attribution of the drawing cannot be seen by the naked eye, but is a shadow of the underdrawing or under painting which is recomposed by computer. Connoisseurs shun making attributions based of what they cannot see with their eyes; shouldn’t the same principle be applied for the National Gallery’s newly acquired little Madonna? My judgment that the picture is not a Raphael is confirmed by the earliest official mention of the picture in a legal document which was in the evaluation of Pietro Camuccini’s collection in 1833, following his death. Pietro was the older brother and guide of Vincenzo Camuccini, the assumed owner of the picture. According to the appraiser, himself a Roman painter, the picture was described as, not a picture ” by” Raphael, but a picture “in the manner of Raphael”. The entire presumed history of the Northumberland picture before 1828 is pure invention, first set forth in 1851 presumably in preparation for an eventual sale. The fact remains that it has no confirmable history before it turned up in the collection of the Camucccini who themselves were known painters, dealers, copyists, restorers and fakers. Conclusive evidence that the Northumberland picture is a copy is found on the right edge of the painting where the copyist was, carried away by painting the flower in the blank area as he did with part of the landscape. The large number of aberrational or at least peculiar elements found in the work confirms my opinion that it is not an original painting by Raphael of the 16th century. In any search for due diligence, the Gallery, its trustees and the art historical community should respond to these points.
(1) The totally atypical not to say unique color for Raphael found in the painting, a factor widely recognized but not explained.
(2) The same should be said of the smooth surface, and the tight application of the paint.
(3) The preparation of gesso ground was defective. This feature does not correspond to the situation with other works by Raphael at the National Gallery, and presumably , elsewhere, and under any circumstances would be unexpected for a painter trained in the late fifteenth century, especially one who was then supposedly building his reputation in Florence.
(4) The irregularity of the parts of the panel left unpainted at the edges is uncharacteristic if not unique for Raphael.
(5) The absence of indications of transfer of a design is contrary to Raphael’s practice and is, in fact, unique for him.
(6) No molecular spectrographic IR analysis of the wood support was undertaken either before or after the purchase, to help with its the dating of the panel itself.
(7) The distribution of the cracks on the surface of the Northumberland picture does not conform to that of other Italian pictures of the 16th century.
(8) The exceptionally good condition of the work has to give one pause. After all, a five hundred year old picture is old, and usually shows its age.
(9) The back of the picture is polished apparently in the 19th century, a process which would have obliterated any indications of its history until the 19th century when seals of each of the brothers and a government seal were applied.
(10) The apparently exact copy by Victoire Jaquotot of the Northumberland painting executed in 1817 in Paris is larger and reveals anatomical corrections of the presumed original. How can one explain a condition in which Raphael requires corrections from an enameller? Contrary to their claims is cannot have been copied from the Northumberland picture.
(11) The Camuccini must have had at least two versions of the picture themselves, as the engraving of 1828 is not identical to the version purchased in the National Gallery. Another version mentioned as being in their collection was called heavily restored.
(12) The fact that among the earliest recorded evaluations of the picture, one in 1830 London auction catalogue was extremely negative (“cold and hard”) but it corresponds to the visual evidence even today.
(13) Some versions of the composition are substantially larger, than others suggesting that there were two prototypes. This unusual situation should be explored.
(14) From the evidence so far presented, none of the 48 other versions were studied in comparison with the Northumberland in terms of undergoing similar technical explorations. How can such an omission be defended on the basis of sound methodology?
(15) The Christ Child is wall-eyed (“strabico”), perhaps unique in the history of art.
(16) The uniqueness of the support, namely cherry (or other fruit wood). In their defense of the use of cherry, the Gallery has pointed to the Transfiguration (Vatican) in Rome, but the large altarpiece was executed a decade later in a diverse cultural milieu (Rome), in a vastly different size and scale. One curiosity might be mentioned in this context: the individual in charge of the restoration of the Transfiguration in the early 19th century, at a time when cherry wood inserts were applied to lost sections, was Vincenzo Camuccini. That he might have been tempted to use cherry wood on his own seems plausible.
For a real Raphael Madonna, it is unique and unlikely. The series of unique aberrational features of the picture raises serious questions about it originality which must be confronted before a connoisseur can accept the attribution.