Leading international specialists in art history have launched a collaborative research project centring around one of Glasgow Museums’ most famous paintings ’The Lady in a Fur Wrap’ attributed to El Greco (1541-1614).
The new research is being led by the University of Glasgow, in partnership with Glasgow Museums which owns the painting and related portraits in the important collection formed by Sir William Stirling Maxwell.
’The Lady in a Fur Wrap’ has fascinated viewers ever since it was exhibited in the Louvre, Paris, in 1838. Since then, the painting’s fame has been linked to the rise in the international reputation of El Greco as its creator, yet the painting presents a conundrum. Direct, informal portraits of Early Modern women are extremely rare and probably unique in a Spanish context. This has led some modern scholars to propose a number of new possibilities regarding who painted it, when, and who the painting features.
The project will explore questions of artistic technique, attribution and identity, using scientific analysis as well as research methods involving the history of dress, society and collecting, in an attempt to unpack the complex history and significance of the unique painting, and provide a fuller understanding of who painted it, who it might represent and when it was created.
Dr Hilary Macartney, leading the research at the University of Glasgow, said: “Other lines of enquiry, such as research on dress and jewellery, the status of people represented in portraiture in this period, and history of collecting will be equally important, and the project therefore brings together leading scholars of Spanish art, dress and related historical fields to debate and assess the latest research. The fascinating history of the fame of ’The Lady in a Fur Wrap’ and its impact on modern art and even film is likewise being studied.”
The technical examination phase of the research is currently getting under way using the latest scientific techniques. Dr Mark Richter, University of Glasgow, coordinating the scientific investigation, added: “Although there is no guarantee of definitive results through technical analysis we will at the very least learn much more about how this most enigmatic portrait was painted and the relationship of its materials and methods of creation to those of other important pictures in this and other collections, as well as to the main writings on art theory and practice at this period.”
The research will compare other relevant works, including five other major sixteenth-century Spanish portraits in the Stirling Maxwell collection, and will draw on results of similar research on paintings held by international institutions such as the Prado Museum. Through this collaborative and comparative approach, greater understanding of the context of portraiture and artistic practice in this period in Spain generally will be enhanced.
The scientific examination presently being undertaken at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre includes examination of the paintings’ surface, as well as analysis of microscopic paint samples. Experts from the University of Glasgow, Historic Environment Scotland and the Doerner Institut, Munich, will carry out advanced analytical techniques, including Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry, a procedure which is ideal for providing detailed chemical information on the organic materials found in paint samples, especially binding media.
Other techniques, such as infrared reflectography, promise to increase our understanding of any preliminary sketches or underdrawings by the artists, which are often hidden by opaque overlying paint layers. Earlier this month X-radiography on some of these works was carried out at the University of Glasgow’s School of Veterinary Medicine. With no dedicated facilities for X-raying paintings throughout Scotland, this new partnership creates excellent opportunities for the team to analyse aspects of artworks not visible to the naked eye. The X-ray process should provide information about the artist’s materials and techniques, as well as revealing more about an artist’s particular style.
This study forms part of the Stirling Maxwell Research Project which was set up at the University of Glasgow in 2010 with core funding from Santander Universities to examine key aspects of the scholarship and collecting of Spanish art by Sir William Stirling Maxwell, one of the most significant figures in initiating interest in Spain and Spanish art in nineteenth-century Britain. The present phase of research, which has also received funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is a pilot study that will feed into a wider project to catalogue Stirling Maxwell’s collection of Spanish paintings.
Duncan Dornan, Head of Glasgow Museums, commented: “We are pleased to partner with the foremost experts in the field of Spanish art to gain a fuller understanding of this iconic painting’s creation through comparative study of related works in our collection. We look forward to learning more about these major works of the Spanish Golden Age, including one of Glasgow Museums’ most popular and internationally recognised artworks.”
Other key partners on the research project include the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, which is carrying out parallel research on comparative works in their collection, and the National Trust for Scotland, which cares for Pollok House, where ’The Lady in a Fur Wrap’ is normally displayed.