(Updates with comments from art historian, starting in 17th paragraph.)
Dec. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Frankfurt’s Staedel Museum acquired a portrait of Pope Julius II that it says is an original by Raphael and his workshop. Previously thought to be a copy, it failed to sell at auction for $10,700 in 2007.
Versions of the same portrait hang in London’s National Gallery and the Uffizi in Florence. The Staedel’s new acquisition was offered at auction in Vienna as a “copy after Raphael” with a low estimate of 8,000 euros ($10,700) in 2007, according to the Dorotheum GmbH & Co. KG auction house.
The Staedel declined to name the price it paid, saying just that it was “substantially below market value, thanks to the goodwill of the seller,” a private German collector who lives in Switzerland and was identified only as Ellermann. The acquisition was “an exceptional stroke of luck,” said Jochen Sander, who leads the Staedel’s Old Masters department.
Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II has served as a point of reference for all subsequent papal portraits, including the most recent. Julius II, the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, is depicted sunk in thought, in three-quarter profile, with a full white beard.
The Staedel said the portrait dates from 1511 to 1512. The Uffizi version was once considered the original. A National Gallery X-ray investigation in 1969, which showed that the background in its version had been altered in the process of painting, changed prevailing opinion to the view that the London version was the original.
Yet the Staedel’s version -- unlike the Uffizi or National Gallery editions -- shows “extensive creative changes carried out in the course of the painting’s execution” and “exceedingly free underdrawing,” suggesting it was an early version, according to the museum’s statement.
The Staedel said the painting has undergone extensive investigation, including X-ray, infrared reflectography and microscopic analyses. The tests showed that the armchair in which Julius sits was initially in another position and that the rendering of his nose and mouth changed during the sketching.
Most importantly, Sander said, X-rays showed that the pope’s right hand was initially raised in a pointing gesture rather than loosely nestled in the folds of his gown.
“If it were really a copy, then why would the artist first put the hand in a completely different position from the original?” Sander said in a telephone interview. “That would make no sense. It was this discovery that electrified us.”
Gifts to Churches
Sander said it is known that Pope Julius II gave at least two versions of the portrait as gifts to churches, and that there may have been more.
He said it is possible that the Staedel’s new acquisition served as a model for the others in Raphael’s studio. He said he wouldn’t go as far as saying the Frankfurt version is “the original” portrait instead of the London one.
“Raphael probably would have looked a bit disbelieving if we asked him which was ‘the original,’” he said. “It is 19th- century thinking to say there can only be one original and nothing more. We are sure that the Frankfurt one was an early version and had a key position within the process of this important compositional invention.”
The painting’s provenance can be traced back to 1905 without interruption, the Staedel said. It was purchased in 1909/1910 by the artist and restorer Arthur Dawson of New York, after he had worked on it. The New York Times published an article in May 1910 quoting Dawson as saying he thought the painting he discovered was the original.
Another American collector bought it from Dawson in 1914, and sent it to Europe to compare it with two paintings in Florence. With the outbreak of World War I, it stayed in Europe and was then donated by the family to a Viennese banker.
It was in his family until 2007, when Dorotheum put it up for sale in Vienna. The estimated price in the catalog was between 8,000 euros and 12,000 euros. The Dorotheum catalog said the work had been attributed to both Raphael and Sebastiano del Piombo in the past, and described it as a Raphael imitation.
“The painting didn’t sell at auction and has been rejected by art historians repeatedly,” Doris Krumpl, the Dorotheum’s spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. “It was sold by the Dorotheum after the auction, so the price isn’t public.”
Juerg Meyer zur Capellen, a retired professor of art history and the author of catalogs of Raphael’s work, said he believes the painting is an original work by the studio and said he detects the hand of the master in the painting. Asked whether he was surprised that the painting was not accepted as an original from Raphael’s workshop for so long, he said “not at all.”
“I think many more workshop paintings will emerge,” Meyer zur Capellen said by telephone from Muenster. “I wouldn’t rule out that there are other Raphaels out there. This could happen again.”
The Staedel acquired the portrait in 2010. The museum’s managers decided to wait to make the announcement to coincide with the reopening of the Old Masters’ wing of the museum after renovation.
From November next year, Renaissance-art experts and the public will have a chance to compare the Staedel’s Pope Julius II with the versions in the National Gallery and the Uffizi when all three are brought together in Frankfurt for a planned exhibition at the Staedel.
“Our London and Florence colleagues are fully informed about our exciting discovery,” said Sander. “This is the beginning of a scholarly discourse. We will begin discussions with them in detail very soon.”
--Editors: Mark Beech, Jim Ruane.
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