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Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Portrait of an Italian Woman

German Painter (active first third 16th century)
Oil on linden
17 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. (45.1 x 34.9 cm)
Credit Line:
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949
Accession Number:
Not on view
Mayer first published this portrait as by Albrecht Dürer in 1929, proposing that it was painted on the artist’s trip to Venice in 1506. He supported this date by noting the Venetian style of the courtesan’s costume, her distinctly Italian features, and the similarity of the painting to two famous portraits by Dürer from this time, the Portrait of a Young Italian Woman, dated 1505 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and the Portrait of a Venetian Woman, of about 1506–7 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). In addition to the sitter’s coiffure, which is comparable to that of the ladies in the Berlin and Vienna paintings, the Museum’s portrait has the same style of embroidery at the upper edge of the bodice as the one in Berlin, including the initials A and D. Mayer judged the date of 1506 in the background at the upper right as original but also noted that Dürer’s accompanying monogram had been uncharacteristically scratched into the surface of the painting.

Mayer’s attribution gained credibility through Friedländer’s (1935) support in an article in which he indicated that the form, expression, and technique were characteristic of Dürer. Friedländer understood the portrait as influenced by the "cult of feminine grace," then at a high point in Venice, and proposed that it might be an "ideal portrait" in the style of Palma Vecchio rather than a depiction of a known individual.

As early as 1930, Mayer, although still supporting the attribution to Dürer, acknowledged that the poor state of the painting had obscured the master’s Handschrift. He also recognized the connection of the painting with an engraving that he believed had inspired Dürer’s portrait. Known to be North Italian and possibly Milanese, this work exists in two versions, one in the British Museum, London, and the other in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. In the same year, Tietze published the version in Paris (now attributed to a follower of Leonardo), but interpreted the relationship between the print and the painting differently. He found it highly unlikely that a master such as Dürer would slavishly copy a print model as a painting to which he twice added his own famous monogram. Tietze rightly realized that the painting must copy the print rather than a preparatory drawing, for it assumes the same right-facing orientation as the print. Furthermore, he considered the painting a possible Italian copy that at a later point had been "transformed" into a Dürer.

The debate over the attribution, and even the authenticity, of the Metropolitan’s portrait has continued over the years, with scholars increasingly recognizing the importance in these debates of the compromised state of the picture. However, without the benefit of a thorough technical examination of the painting, the stalemate about attribution has continued to the present day. A recent examination of the condition has allowed us to determine more clearly how the painting originated and how it was subsequently altered with a specific purpose in mind.

Tietze (1930) was very close to being right in his appraisal, except for the possible attribution of the painting to an Italian artist. Instead, it shows all of the characteristics, in terms of materials and techniques, of a sixteenth-century German painting. Its support is linden wood, traditionally used by German painters, with tow applied to portions of the wood panel (how extensively is not clear). The ground preparation, calcium carbonate, indicates a production in northern Europe, and the other pigments found in the typical layering structure are standard for sixteenth-century German paintings. The black, crumbly-looking underdrawing boldly outlines all the features of the face and figure in a rigid manner that is indicative of a pattern transfer. That the painting is very similar in size and in many details to the related print by a follower of Leonardo is relevant in this regard. A digital overlay combining the infrared reflectogram assembly of the Museum’s painting and an exact-scale photograph of the British Museum print showed that the underdrawing of the painting was most likely made from a tracing of the print. Slight deviations in overall alignment at the right near the shoulder and bust are due to the shifting of the pattern during the transfer process.

At a certain point (and perhaps more than once), the painting was very aggressively cleaned with a strong abrasive that thinned the paint film and caused severe losses, in some places down to the wood. This was perhaps done to remove substantial, very old overpaint on the picture. Subsequently, the portrait was reworked to such an extent that at least one report—that of the restorer Helmut Ruheman, who cleaned the picture in the late 1920s under the guidance of Friedländer in Berlin and then saw photographs of it later in the 1950s—stated that the picture had been "much embellished" (correspondence in departmental archive files). Ruheman further noted that the initials on the bodice are false and that the signature in the background is "fishy." These observations are substantiated by recent technical examination, which found these features to be later additions that, in the case of the initials scratched into the paint, do not agree with the preliminary underdrawing. Ruheman’s observation of the false additions appears to date from the period in which the painting was bought by Joseph Duveen. Although apparently acknowledging the portrait as an inferior work by Dürer, the dealer nonetheless sold it in 1929 to Jules S. Bache, who reportedly insisted on having "a Dürer."

The print on which this painting is based was apparently popular in its own day and rather widely circulated. The same image also appears in a small niello print, in a Lombard(?) drawing in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, and on a tile possibly made in Antwerp. Given this varied production in different media, it is not hard to understand how the original print may have reached northern Europe, in particular Germany, in the early sixteenth century, a time in which Italian prints were prized as source material for representing new modes of ideal feminine beauty. The compromised condition of the painting prevents us from determining exactly where in Germany it was made, but whoever later turned it into a "Dürer" had an entirely different purpose in mind.

[2014; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
The support is composed of three boards of linden, with the grain running vertically. The presence of unpainted wood borders and a barbe indicates that an engaged frame was in place when a white ground preparation containing calcium carbonate was applied. Lead white was also detected in the sample, which suggests that there may possibly be a lead-white priming as well. Close inspection of losses revealed that a very fine tow is attached to the panel beneath the ground layer. The panel has been thinned, attached to a plywood panel, and cradled.
The condition of the painting is poor. The surface is severely abraded throughout, to the degree that much of the underdrawing in the face is visible. There are numerous scratches and several losses. The first two digits of the date (15) and the small flourishes flanking it in the upper right background appear to be original and are in good condition. The fragmentary second two digits (06) and the badly damaged monogram (AD) below the date are later additions, as is the decorative pattern on the upper band of the bodice, which includes the letters A and D. The additions were all made in the same manner: a sharp pointed instrument was first used to scratch deep into the surface of the original paint; a pale yellow or-cream colored paint was then carefully painted into the incisions, keeping the new paint in plane with the original.
Infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, fig. 1) revealed a traced underdrawing of basic contours, including the facial features, several curling tendrils of hair, the outline and decoration on the clothing, and the placement and general form of the jewelry. The scrolling pattern drawn on the upper band of the bodice is distinctly different from that of the painted false decoration and letters described above.
Examination with the stereomicroscope revealed transparent red and green pigments in the background, which suggest it may originally have been a red-and-green moiré fabric. The present mottled dark brown may be due to the commonly observed degradation of copper-containing green in combination with the fading of a transparent red-lake pigment.
[2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Inscribed (falsely, twice, with initials of Albrecht Dürer): (upper right, the first two digits of the date are original) -1506- / AD [monogram]; (on bodice) AD
?Kings of Württemberg, Württemberg, Germany; ?Wilhelm Herzog von Urach, Graf von Württemberg; [Paul Cassirer, Berlin, until 1929; sold for £46,200 to Duveen]; [Duveen, Paris, London, and New York, 1929; sold for $400,000 to Bache]; Jules S. Bache, New York (1929–d. 1944; his estate, 1944–49; cats., 1929, unnumbered; 1937, no. 28; 1943, no. 27)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Bache Collection," June 16–September 30, 1943, no. 27 (as "A Portrait of a Lady," by Dürer).

A Catalogue of Paintings in the Collection of Jules S. Bache. New York, 1929, unpaginated, ill., as "A Portrait of a Lady," by Dürer.

"Bache Buys Dürer Portrait From Duveen." Art News 27 (June 15, 1929), p. 1, ill., notes that it is with Bache in New York, but that Duveen denies its sale.

August L. Mayer. "Zwei venezianische Frauenbildnisse Dürers." Pantheon 3 (June 1929), p. 249, ill. opp. p. 249 (color), as by Dürer, painted in Venice in 1506; notes that the condition is somewhat impaired; states that for a long time it was owned by a German princely family.

August L. Mayer. "Die Sammlung Jules Bache in New-York." Pantheon 6 (December 1930), p. 542, as by Dürer, but poorly preserved and restored to its disadvantage.

H. E. Wortham. "The Bache Collection." Apollo 11 (May 1930), p. 354.

Royal Cortissoz. "The Jules S. Bache Collection." American Magazine of Art 21 (May 1930), pp. 259–60, ill. p. 250.

H[ans]. Tietze. "Dürerliteratur und Dürerprobleme im Jubiläumsjahr." Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 7 (1930), pp. 239–40, ill., publishes an engraving (Hind E III 16) as by an anonymous Northern Italian artist that closely corresponds with the MMA work; having seen only a photograph of the painting, believes it possible that it is an Italian copy after the etching.

Hans Tietze. "Dürer in Amerika." Anzeiger des germanischen Nationalmuseums (1932–33), pp. 95, 99–100, fig. 63 [reprinted in English in Art Bulletin 15 (September 1933), pp. 267–68, fig. 22], having seen the painting, states that his doubts about the attribution [see Ref. Tietze 1930] are unresolved.

"Dürer in Amerika." Weltkunst 7 (September 10, 1933), p. 3.

[Alfred] Scharf in Gustav Glück. Aus drei Jahrhunderten europäischer Malerei. Ed. Ludwig Burchard and Robert Eigenberger. Vienna, 1933, p. 337.

Max J. Friedländer. "Dürer's Connection with Italy, and the Portrait of a Woman in the Bache Collection." Art in America 23 (March 1935), pp. 45–46, ill. p. 40.

Max J. Friedlaender. "The Literature of Art: A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections, by Charles L. Kuhn [1936]." Burlington Magazine 69 (July 1936), p. 44, notes that Charles Kuhn omits it from "A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections," Cambridge, 1936.

A Catalogue of Paintings in the Bache Collection. under revision. New York, 1937, unpaginated, no. 28, ill.

"Bache, Following American Tradition, Gives Collection to Public." Art Digest 11 (May 15, 1937), p. 7.

Helen Comstock. "The Connoisseur in America." Connoisseur 100 (July 1937), p. 33.

"Bache Collection Opened to the Public." Art Digest 12 (December 1, 1937), p. 29.

Hans Tietze and E. Tietze-Conrat. Kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke Albrecht Dürers. part 2, Vol. 2, Basel, 1938, p. 78, no. A194, ill. p. 218, reject the attribution to Dürer.

James W. Lane. "Notes from New York." Apollo 27 (January 1938), p. 39, calls it "an indifferent Dürer".

Ella S. Siple. "Art in America: Mid-Winter Notes." Burlington Magazine 72 (February 1938), pp. 93–94.

Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941, unpaginated, no. 217, ill.

Regina Shoolman and Charles E. Slatkin. The Enjoyment of Art in America. Philadelphia, 1942, p. 505, pl. 460.

Harry B. Wehle. "The Bache Collection on Loan." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 1 (June 1943), p. 288.

A Catalogue of Paintings in the Bache Collection. rev. ed. New York, 1943, unpaginated, no. 27, ill.

Erwin Panofsky. Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, 1943, p. 20, no. 104, as a crude forgery.

A[lfred]. D[avidson]. "Bache Collection Installed in Metropolitan Museum for the Summer." Art Digest 17 (July 1, 1943), p. 7.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 182–84, ill., state that "its poor quality and the false signature tempt one to [the] conclusion" that it is a forgery.

Angela Ottino della Chiesa. The Complete Paintings of Dürer. New York, 1968, p. 106, no. 127, ill., notes that the attribution to Dürer is not generally accepted.

Colin Simpson. Artful Partners: Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen. New York, 1986, pp. 214–15, 294 [excerpt published in Connoisseur 216 (October 1986), p. 130, ill.; British ed., "The Partnership: The Secret Association of Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen," London, 1987], claims that Duveen bought it from August Mayer for $25,000 and sold it to Bache for $95,000; states that Mayer probably fabricated the royal provenance.

Meryle Secrest. Duveen: A Life in Art. New York, 2004, pp. 256–60, 429–30, ill., discusses the provenance and notes that Wilhelm Herzog von Urach, Graf von Württemberg stated at one point that the picture never belonged to him or to his family, but that he sold it to Duveen on behalf of a friend; notes that Wilhelm later claimed to have owned the painting after all.

Maryan W. Ainsworth in German Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 267–70, 323, no. 62, ill. (color) and fig. 214 (infrared reflectogram overlaid on engraving).

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