Preliminary Findings on the Lady in a Fur Wrap

Rosie Thorp in conversation with the Project Team

Rosie: You no longer believe the painting to be by El Greco – can you explain more about why you’ve decided this?

Pippa: Our extensive programme of research on the painting followed on from the technical analysis of it carried out in Madrid in 2014 at the Prado Museum. We’ve been working in partnership with the University of Glasgow as part of a research network of international specialists which has enabled us to know much more about how this portrait was painted and the relationship of its materials and methods of creation to those of other important pictures by artists working in Spain in the second half of the 16th century in Spain in this and other collections. Our research has also included detailed stylistic analysis of the painting, as well as looking at things like what she’s wearing – and the unusually informal character of this paintin. As a result we now have much more understanding of the painting and its context.

Mark: The Lady in a Fur Wrap is painted in a different way from paintings we know to be by El Greco. Most paintings are built up using multiple layers. In the 16th century these layers normally included a ground layer, priming layer, multiple paint layers and finally varnish. Technical examination carried out by the Museo del Prado and additional work led by the University of Glasgow and has allowed us to examine these layers in detail. The way the layers are composed in the Lady is considerably different from the layers seen in works by El Greco. One of the main differences is that El Greco typically primed his gessoed canvases with a layer of brownish-red. This distinctive layer tended to include precious pigments of many different colours, suggesting he used scrapings from his paint palette for this initial layer. The priming layer in the Lady does not correspond with this, instead it features a light grey layer. Another distinguishing trait is the painterly quality of his underdrawing, which is radically different from the drawn lines clearly visible in the images obtained using infrared reflectography of this painting. In fact there are differences at every level.

Hilary: Yes, for instance, it’s also the way the brushstrokes are applied – things like how the artists paint the hairline of the sitter, the brows, the eyes, the mouth, the shadow under it, the chin & jawline, and then the hands and fingernails, and of course the different textures & textiles, etc.

Mark: I agree – details like this are important for understanding an artist’s individual technique and here they help to explain why the Lady in a Fur Wrap is no longer considered to be painted by El Greco.

Rosie: Why did attributions to different painters become popular at particular times?

Hilary: The Lady in a Fur Wrap has fascinated viewers ever since it was exhibited in the Louvre, Paris, in 1838. It’s entirely understandable why it was initially attributed to El Greco. He was not at all well known outside Spain at that time but he did tend to be associated with doing things in an unusual way. This is clearly an exceptional work and the misattribution of it to El Greco helped to establish his international reputation – because it’s so beautiful and is of a beautiful woman, it was seen as more accessible than his more extreme works.

Who painted it isn’t a new debate – it has been going on for more than a century – since the time of the first attempts to catalogue El Greco’s work at the beginning of the 20th century. And throughout the 20th century doubts about the attribution to El Greco continued to grow. By the late 80s/early 1990s, a new attribution became the most dominant. It came about partly because of the dating of the dress and especially the hair, which was by then thought far too late to be associated with El Greco and the 1570s, but his style after that was more extreme. As a later dating seemed more plausible and because of the highly unusual and informal character of the portrait, it was then reattributed to a female artist Sofonisba Anguissola, who was also a lady-in-waiting at the court of Philip II. According to a number of scholars, many of her works had been mistaken for those by male artists, such as the main court portrait painter Alonso Sánchez Coello. Sofonisba’s international reputation has also risen since the 1990s due to the attribution of the Lady to her. In fact, the present exhibition at the Prado, A Tale of Two Women Painters is partly about her and really helps to define what her art was like, as distinct from Sánchez Coello’s.

But what our research has now shown is that all the stylistic and technical examination evidence points to Alonso Sánchez Coello himself, and we’re starting to realise that his portraits were not all of a formal character such as those of the King and the royal family, but also included more direct and informal works that show his interest and incredible skill in portraying female beauty – such as in the Lady. So far, the closest parallel is the Prado’s Unknown Young Woman. We don’t know the sitter in either case – and it’s not clear yet whether this is something that we can identify with any certainty, as in both cases, we seem to be looking at examples of idealised forms of beauty so perhaps depicting that ideal was the principal intention – or became the main value of the painting later on, once any association with a particular sitter was no longer relevant.

(L) Alonso Sánchez Coello, Lady in a Fur Wrap, c. 1580-88, © CGS CIC Glasgow Museums Collection; (R) Alonso Sánchez Coello, Unknown Young Woman, © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Pippa: The Unwrapping an Icon research project enabled us to gather as much evidence as possible and then examine it in detail. We have discussed the findings at length before coming to any new conclusions about the Lady and its relationship to portraiture generally in 16th-century Spain.

Mark: The way we started to understand this painting better was by comparing it with other portraits of the period. Nowadays there are increasingly sophisticated scientific procedures and equipment to help us. After the technical examination of the Lady by the Prado Museum in 2014, we then carried out analysis here on portraits we think are similar in date, using equivalent procedures to those used on the Lady at the Prado. That way, we were able to see similarities and differences in the way the artists worked, and the materials and techniques they used.

Pippa: All the evidence indicates that the materials and techniques used in the creation of the painting are consistent with a 16th-century dating. The challenge was then to narrow it to a specific attribution – and the detailed technical and stylistic examination undertaken in recent years led us to reattribute the Lady to Alonso Sánchez Coello, with a likely dating in the 1580s.

Rosie: When will the painting of the Lady go back on display?

Pippa: Pollok House is currently undergoing a programme of building improvement works and the collections will require to be moved in phases to accommodate this activity. We expect this to be completed by the summer of 2020 at which point the Lady will be reinstalled with a new interpretation. There are also plans for the publication of a book detailing the full findings of the research project.

Rosie: How does the reattribution affect the painting’s valuation?

Pippa: The city’s collection belongs to the people of Glasgow and in accordance with international museum practice our works are not for sale, therefore we do not discuss monetary estimates for the works held in our care. This painting is an outstanding work of art. In the Lady in a Fur Wrap we have a star portrait in every sense of the word.

Hilary: Yes, our colleagues at the Prado like to say it is an exceptional work painted by an artist ‘in their finest moment’ – which sounds about right!

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