Editor’s Note: This is the first in a regular series that will tell the stories behind lesser-known paintings on display at galleries in Dublin. So you can pretend you know your art.
If you had happened upon fifteenth-century renaissance painter Paolo Uccello’s Virgin and Child in the National Gallery in 1909 – the year it was purchased – you would have been subject to two deceptions.
First, you would have come away from the painting convinced that it had been painted not by Paolo Uccello, but by Lerentino d’Arezzo, who was “a mediocre follower of Piero della Francesca”, according to Sergio Benedetti, the former head curator at the National Gallery of Ireland, in a 2002 article he wrote for the Irish Arts Review.
Unlike d’Arezzo, Uccello, is highly regarded, credited as being among the first painters to embrace the new techniques of the aesthetic revolution then taking place in Florence, which would later be known as the Renaissance.
After spending several years in Venice working as a mosaicist, he returned to Florence in 1431 and began experimenting with the new spatial concepts central to this new artistic movement. A keen mathematician, Uccello excelled at producing works of mathematical and geometric precision.
His Virgin and Child, painted around 1435, is both a classic example of the style and a bold play on it.
The somewhat ugly but very naturalistic, gargantuan child is lunging towards something outside and to the left of the painting, while being held by the virgin, whose eyes, betraying her slight anxiety, are drawn to what has attracted her child.
The Virgin is framed classically in the dead centre of the painting, in front of a shell-shaped niche. But the child, in trying to leap forward, becomes three dimensional as his toes and right knee extend across the false frame Uccello has painted.
Its playful, warm nature distinguishes Virgin and Child from other depictions of Madonna and child. Apart from masterful use of perspective techniques employed in the painting, it has a modern, universal appeal. Anyone who has tried to have their photo taken with a child, will definitely relate to the Virgin of the painting.
While a gallery-goer in 1909 would have been able to appreciate some of these aspects, the subtly of the painting would have been lost. Because, and this brings us to deception number two, they would have been looking at a completely altered version of the original composition and character of Virgin and Child.
The End of the Deceptions
The case of mistaken identity wasn’t corrected until 1936, when art historian Georg Pudelko recognised the painting as a Uccello, not a d’Arezzo. It would take a further three decades for the second and greater distortion to be righted.
When the painting was first purchased, a dark-blue veil covered the Virgin’s hair, shoulders and right forearm. But that cloak had not been painted by Uccello. It was the handiwork of an early restorer.
In the centuries after Uccello painted it, the work suffered considerable paint loss, particularly around the Virgin’s left cheek and above her forehead. Rather than retouch the damaged areas, the restorer had the bright idea of covering it with the dark-blue cloak.
“This overpainting completely altered the original composition and character of the painting,” says a spokesperson for the National Gallery.
In 1968, at the request of the then director of the gallery, Dr James White, a team of professional conservators from the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome came to Dublin to treat the Virgin and Child, as well as many other paintings in the collection.
The removal of the “false” cloak proved a painstakingly slow and very delicate process, but the Italian conservators managed to make it vanish, revealing the wheat-blonde hair of the Virgin, the detail of her headdress and her right sleeve.
The conservators then began the arduous process of in-painting, known as tratteggio or rigatino, where the lost areas of paint are matched with the intact paint.
Visitors to the National Gallery today can still see traces of the dark cloak around the Virgin. And rather than detracting from the piece, they only add to its fascinating composition.
You can see Paolo Uccello’s Virgin and Child in the exhibition “Masterpieces from the Collection in the Beit Wing” at the National Gallery of Ireland. It is open: Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5.30pm; Thursday from 9.30am to 8.30pm; Sunday from 11am to 5.30pm, and public holidays from 10am to 5.30pm.