Recognising Rubens

25th February 2005 at 00:00
What a difference a name makes. And nowhere more so than in the art world. A painting can hang ignored for decades, until an expert realises that it is an old master. Then suddenly, it's a work of genius, a fantastic creation worthy of our wonderment. Such is the story of Peter Paul Rubens' painting, "The Massacre of the Innocents". For more than 200 years it languished unappreciated, eventually ending up in a dark corridor in the Austrian monastery of Stift Reichersberg.

Rubens painted his masterpiece in 1611 shortly after a trip to Italy, where he had been thrilled by the verve of artists such as Titian. He returned to Flanders with an early Baroque style and a great deal of energy - much of which ended up on canvas. "The Massacre" depicts a mass of twisted and tragic humanity, as King Herod's soldiers shove mothers aside to murder their new-born babies.

Even the Reichersberg monks were said to dislike the painting. Certainly, the elderly Austrian woman who lent it to them was no fan. Perhaps biblical ghastliness was not her cup of tea. And she didn't know it was a Rubens.

Her ignorance was largely the fault of Vicenzio Fanti, one-time keeper of the 500 paintings of the noble house of Liechtenstein. In 1767, this diligent chap decided to catalogue their collection, which included "The Massacre". But he made a mistake. Perhaps foxed by the early Baroque style, he thought the painting was the work of Frans de Neve, an obscure follower of Rubens. To make matters worse, when the paintings were catalogued again, 13 years later, "The Massacre" was attributed to Jan van den Hoecke, a Viennese artist who worked in the style of the Flemish master.

And a Hoecke it remained, right up until 2001. Then a relative of our elderly Austrian took a photo of the painting to Sotheby's. The family had been trying to offload it for years. A few weeks later they succeeded.

Its true creator identified, "The Massacre" was bought for pound;49.5 million - the most expensive painting ever sold at a British auction.

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