Friday, November 6, 2015

1623

Nicolas Poussin
The Death of the Virgin
1623
Church of Saint-Pancrase, Sterrebeek, Belgium
conservation and restoration completed in 2006

The earliest known work by Nicolas Poussin  The Death of the Virgin  was painted in Paris in 1623. It is now located in a church in Belgium. How it came to be there is a story that could not be told until very recently, because the picture had been missing and believed lost since about 1815. The story is particularly juicy  among the many "lost painting" stories that have appeared here over the years  because in this case the "lost painting" never left official hands. The problems occurred because the official hands were so profoundly incompetent.

The city of Paris ascended in 1623 from the status of a bishopric to an archbishopric. The first archbishop of Paris, Jean Fran├žois de Gondi (1584-1654) commissioned a new altarpiece for Notre Dame Cathedral to celebrate this ecclesiastical milestone. The Death of the Virgin was that altarpiece. Innovatively, it included an image of the archbishop-donor standing in his robes and cope at the bedside of the Virgin in a space that traditionally would have been occupied by a saint. Poussin's picture remained in Notre-Dame on public display for the next 170 years. Then the French Revolution caught up with it. Much church property in France abruptly became state property. The Death of the Virgin was removed from Notre-Dame in 1793. By 1797 it had been transferred to the newly constituted national art museum at the Louvre. Then in 1802 it was part of a group of paintings demoted from the Louvre and shipped to a provincial museum in Brussels. At this time the painting also "underwent invasive and damaging restoration."  Subsequently its attribution to the great Nicolas Poussin was doubted and rejected. At some point after 1814 the painting was further demoted, kicked out of the museum world altogether, and no knowledge of its whereabouts retained. We know now that it was exiled to the church of Saint-Pancrace in a town called Sterrebeek.

Then another two centuries of stillness, two more centuries of hanging quietly in public view, no longer in Notre-Dame, no longer by the celebrated Poussin, but still on display. Perhaps its quality was noticed by an individual here and there across the years and generations, or perhaps not. French scholarship remained aware of the existence of the picture, and several unproductive searches for it are recorded. Its appearance was known in detail because of the existence at the British Museum of the modello or finished sketch (at bottom). The painting itself  darkened by age and atmospheric grime  was photographed at Saint-Pancrace in 1975 as part of a comprehensive catalog of art in Belgian churches. Looking through this catalog in 1999, scholar Pierre-Yves Kairis recognized the 1975 photograph (immediately below) as the lost Poussin composition. Once authenticated, the The Death of the Virgin was borrowed from Saint-Pancrace Church for a program of conservation and restoration that lasted several years. In 2006 it returned  much brighter  to the church, and there it remains.

Nicolas Poussin
The Death of the Virgin
1623
photograph made in 1975 by IPEK Brussels, painting then unidentified

Nicolas Poussin
The Death of the Virgin (modello) 
1623
wash drawing
British Museum
     
Curators at the British Museum supplied a useful outline of the tangled history recounted here.