Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Mystery In Paint: Pieter de Hooch’s “Dead Bird” Still Life

A Man with Dead Birds and Other Figures
Pieter de Hooch and others, 1655, 1825
National Gallery, London

Pieter de Hooch, the well-known Seventeenth Century Dutch painter, was celebrated for his genre paintings of stable scenes and his limited, but rich, color palette. At first glance, this 1655 de Hooch painting entitled A Man with Dead Birds and Other Figureswas a considerable source of mystery for art historians. The scene, for the most part, was pure de Hooch, however, the still life of colorful birds and a spaniel in the lower right quadrant seemed conspicuously out of place. When the painting found a home in London’s National Gallery, scientists and historians joined forces to solve a centuries-old mystery.

X-ray images showed that beneath the painting of the pile of dead birds and the spaniel, was the figure of a reclining man. The man was clearly in pain as he seemed to be struggling to support his weight. The figure now seen plucking feathers from a bird, originally had been painted with his hand on the reclining man’s knee. Digging into historical documents, a recording of a painting by de Hooch was found which described a work of a wounded man being attended to in a stable. That work was not accounted for. Most certainly, it was the piece in the National Gallery, the painting which had been over-painted with the still life of birds.
X-Ray Image of de Hooch's PaintingThe National Gallery, London
Why had this happened? Who had made the alterations? Records indicated that a painting of a wounded man in a stable was sold to someone named Regemorter in 1825. In 1900, the painting entitledA Man with Dead Birds and Other Figures was sold from the same collection. Now aware that these two paintings were one-in-the-same, historians concluded that sometime during that seventy-five year period, the piece had been altered. Regemorter was most likely the painter and art dealer Ignatius Van Regemorter. Ignatius’ father was also a painter and art dealer known for altering paintings of great Dutch masters to make them more “saleable” in the market of the time. Was this the answer?

We’ll never know for certain. However, all the evidence seems to support the theory that the Van Regermorters had, once again, changed a work of art for commercial purposes. The brightly painted birds are reminiscent of Ignatius Van Regemorter’s other works.

Does the change effect the importance and value of the work? No. While we would most likely have preferred to see the work as de Hooch originally intended, the interference of the over-painter only makes the piece more interesting and certainly gives an element to its provenance that is, at the very least, intriguing.

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