Scandals, Vandals, and Da Vincis

…. The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Rachlin, H. (2007). Scandals, vandals, and Da Vincis: A gallery of remarkable art tales. New York: Penguin Books.

Rachlin discusses 26 different works of art from an interesting view point. The purpose is not to go over the technical aspects of the famous works, but to relate interesting stories behind the paintings. Some of these are scandalous; some relate thievery, and some are merely interesting. All of them make one think about the painting and the artist in a new light.

Da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and was missing for 2 years and 4 months. It turned out a South American forger wanted to sell copies to unscrupulous collectors so he had arranged for it to be stolen and hoped that it would be publicized (it was) so that the collectors would think there was a chance they were buying THE Mona Lisa. He sold six copies at $300,000 each.

Hans Holbein the Younger painted Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan in 1538 so that King Henry VIII could choose a new wife after Jane Seymour died after giving birth. Henry wanted to see what the potential mates looked like so his court painter, Hans Holbein the Younger, was sent to various courts in Europe to paint potential future Mrs. Henry VIIIs. Christina of Denmark was quite beautiful and Henry loved the picture but since her uncle was Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (with whom England was almost always in opposition if not outright war), the marriage never happened. In fact Henry never met Christina, but instead married Anne of Cleves. Again, he had Holbein the Younger paint a portrait first of Anne and her sister Amelia. Henry preferred Anne, but when he first saw her, she was not as attractive as her portrait had been. Cromwell was sent to the Tower of London for this oversight and shortly thereafter, lost his head. Holbein somehow survived this mistake and Henry VIII married Anne of Cleves anyway, but soon (six months later) divorced her and married Catherine Howard (wife number 5).

Agnolo Bronzino painted Eleonora of Toledo with Her Son Giovanni de’ Medici in 1545. She is show wearing a most elaborate and beautiful dress. In the 1800s it is discovered that many of the Medici family coffins that were in the basilica of San Lorenzo were moved and dumped haphazardly in the basement and any jewels stolen. An effort was made to identify the remains in the various coffins and reorganize them. One coffin held the remains of a female in her 30s wearing an amazingly stunning dress (or the remains there of). Most people immediately thought of the dress in Bronzino’s painting and believed it to be the same dress and thus the remains of Eleonora. The bones fit the age of Eleonora when she died and the dress seemed to confirm the identity. However in the 1980s the remains of the dress are taken to the Costume Gallery in the Pitti Palace and a close study and conservation are begun. After 10 years the burial dress is reconstructed and looks similar to the one in the painting. However, there are many detailed differences and it is confirmed that the burial dress is NOT the same dress in the painting… now the question is open again…Who was buried in that coffin? Was it Eleonora anyway or was it someone else?

Sir Henry Raeburn Painted Lady Maitland circa 1817. Rachlin asks the readers to ponder what Lady Maitland might be thinking of as she sat for this portrait. She was the wife of a British naval commander, Frederick Lewis Maitland, who two years prior was commanding the HMS Bellerophon as it transportated Napoleon Bonaparte after his surrender at Waterloo. Captain Maitland had a miniature portrait of his wife (not the one by Raeburn) hanging in his cabin on the Bellerophon When Napoleon saw it he asked who it was and commented on how pretty Lady Maitland was. Lady Maitland, Lady Strachan and Sir Richard Strachan were aboard a small vessel that was allowed to approach close to the Bellerophon and Napoleon stood on the gangway to personally meet the captain’s wife. He wanted Lady Maitland to come aboard so he could talk with her, but that was not allowed. One wonders if she was thinking of her meeting with Napoleon as she sat for another portrait.

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painted Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1851. This is the famous painting of Washington standing in the bow of the boat as his soldiers convey it across the Delaware to the battle of Trenton. This was the major turning point in the Revolutionary war and this painting has been reproduced a multitude of times. However, this was not the original. Leutze was working on it when a fire broke out seriously damaging the painting. He repaired it as best he could and completed the painting but it was still obviously damaged. He then went and started over to make another painting. This second version was sent to the United States where it was a huge success. Leutze wanted the orginal version to be exhibited in the Capitol in Washington D.C.  but this didn’t happen because of the damage to the painting. Instead it was displayed in Germany and won awards before being bought by the Kunsterein (a private art society) and displayed in their museum the Kunsthalle Bremen. However, in 1942 the RAF bombed Bremen and 6 rooms in Kunsthalle Bremen were destroyed. All of the paintings in those rooms had been placed in a secure shelter to protect them except for Leutze’s painting since it was too large to move.

Rosa Bonheur painted The Horse Fair in1853. She painted at a time when women weren’t allowed to attend art institutes. Her father was a painter and also believed in the equality of women so she did much learning on her own. She found she loved painting animals and would go to great lengths to study them. Bonheur kept animals in her studio, she dissected animals to see their anatomy, went to stables and even slaughterhouses.  When going to stables and other venues that were male territory, she was often harassed by the male workers. When she decided to paint the Paris horse fair she went dressed as a male so she would be left alone to sketch and paint.  The Horse Fair was a success where it was exhibitied in France, London, and the United States. Bonheur’s fame spread and she moved from Paris to a nice hamlet – By near Fontainebleau. She continued to wear her hair short and dress in men’s clothing for the rest of her life. When she was out riding with a newly married male friend of hers, one of his acquaintances jested that it was not wise of the new bride to let her husband ride off with Bonheur. Bonheur replied “If you only knew how little I care for your sex, you wouldn’t get such queer ideas into your head. The fact is, in the way of males, I like only the bulls I paint.” Well, that is about as close as you get in the 1800s to saying “I am a lesbian”. Bonheur fell in love with Nathalie Micas who had been a former student of Bonheur’s father. When Nathalie died, Bonheur was devastated but eventually fell in love with an American, Anna Klumpke. As Rachlin so wonderfully puts it at the end of this chapter, “Rosa Bonheur famously donned male garb in Paris in the mid-nineteenth centure to paint her great equine work of art. But the true story of The Horse Fair -and indeed of her life-was not that Rosa Bonheur had to pretend to be a man, but that she refused to hide who she was as a woman.” (p. 205).

If you wish to be entertained or educated about more famous artwork stories, you will have to read this entertaining work that allows even non-artists and non-art historians to take a more personal glimpse at the stories behind some very famous paintings.