A mystery painting finally gets an attribution—and a major makeover for its frame
We’re always making new discoveries about the John G. Johnson collection, a cornerstone of the museum’s collections that was bequeathed to the city upon Johnson’s death in 1917. Take, for instance, Portrait of a Young Man. Johnson believed that this was a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte as a schoolboy by the French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Whoever made this attribution, whether Johnson or an art dealer, was likely struck by the sitter’s military-inspired jacket and commanding gaze. But the painting’s loose, painterly brushwork just isn’t in keeping with David’s work, and for decades we’ve simply listed the artist as “unknown.”
The first time Tara saw a photograph of Portrait of a Young Man in the museum’s object files, she was struck by its fluid, spontaneous brushstrokes and felt that it deserved further research. She soon found an important clue: a note in the files from 1937, which suggested that the picture might be by the Munich court painter, Johann Georg Edlinger (1741-1819). Inspired by such Dutch masters as Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Edlinger’s frank yet sympathetic portraits are characterized by their free brushwork. Our painting’s composition closely matches Edlinger’s known works, such as his portrait of 18th-century German historian Ernst Ludvig Posselt, seen below. Similarities can also been seen in the painterly handling of the boy’s flounced collar, flowing hair, and shiny buttons.
Left: Ernst Ludwig Posselt, 1792, by Johann Georg Edlinger, courtesy of the Munich Stadtmuseum, Germany; Right: The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, by Jacques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Before we went to see Portrait of a Young Man in storage, Tara corresponded with an expert on Edlinger’s work in Germany, who thought our theory was promising and told us to examine it for a coarse canvas and red ground. The painting’s surface was covered in generations of dust and grime. But looking closer, we could clearly see the coarse canvas and red ground that we were looking for. We felt even more confident that this was indeed an Edlinger portrait.
We also knew that the poor condition of the frame might distract viewers from the painting itself. Made of walnut, the frame features a striking gilded, branched cap on the outer edge, a concave, velvet-lined cove in the middle, and a gilded inner liner featuring a repeating leaf pattern. The velvet lining had decayed almost past recognition, with only fragments of yellow-brown substrate, or base material, remaining. But the rest of the frame had potential. If we could only do something about the velvet, we knew the painting could be something special, just as it no doubt was when the frame was added some seventy-five to a hundred years after it was painted.
Left: A thin strip of the original red velvet is visible above the new fabric used to re-cover the frame; Right: Beth Paolini (right), the museum’s seamstress, compares swatches of new fabric to the original remnant, as Tara Contractor (left) and Emily Rice, collections assistant in European Paintings and Sculpture look on. Photos by Lucia Bay
To determine what could be done, we examined it with our conservation framer, Chris Ferguson, and the museum seamstress, Beth Paolini, who had worked together on restoring a velvet lining on another frame a few years ago. Our first guess was that the velvet had originally been a warm brown or ochre, but when Chris removed the gilt liner we found a slender strip of unfaded velvet that still appeared a rich russet red. Now that we had a clue about the frame’s original color, Beth tracked down antique silk velvet online, in a lighter orange color. After a few tests she dyed the antique velvet darker to match the original hue. The old degraded velvet and glue were removed from the frame and the cove re-covered with the new velvet.
Meanwhile, Lucia was at work bringing the surface of the painting back to life, first with removal of the heavy grime layer and then minor retouching of old damages. The cleaning made the free brushwork that first attracted our attention to the painting more visible, supporting the attribution to Edlinger. It has also enhanced the tonal range, especially in the bright highlights of the boy’s red collar and lips. As soon as these original warm, vivid hues became visible, the bright frame began to make sense as the perfect complement.
You can see this fascinating work in the installation Johnson’s French Finds, which showcases his efforts to collect French painting from the 1700s. At the time Johnson was collecting, this kind of art was extremely popular among newly rich Americans who wanted to acquire the trappings of old-world aristocracy. Johnson collected relatively little in this direction, but he did purchase a select group of portraits and still lifes, which he believed were by leading French painters of the 1700s.
However, not every painting was what he believed it to be, and until recently many of these works had been in storage for decades, awaiting further research. Reframed, Edlinger’s painting is a reminder of what we can uncover when we work together to take a fresh look at the collection.
Tara Contractor is an Assistant Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, specializing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art. She holds a PhD from Yale University and an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art.
Lucia Bay is an Associate Paintings Conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. Before that she was the Joan and John Thalheimer Associate Conservator of Paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, specializing in the care and treatment of paintings before 1900. She has a postgraduate diploma in the conservation of easel paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art.