A report by Jack Malvern for The Times of London.
First, the bad news: a British gallery’s portrait of a stern woman with closed palms, supposedly by the hand of Francisco Goya, has been discovered to be the work of a more obscure artist.
The good news is that the Barber Institute in Birmingham now believes that Portrait of a Lady is by José Campeche, the most accomplished artist to come out of Puerto Rico in the 18th century. His works hang in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
The painting is now on display at the institute for the first time in 60 years. While not as revered as Goya, Campeche’s work is rare outside the Americas.
Curators suspected that Goya had no involvement in the Barber piece when they grew suspicious of two letters that accompanied it upon acquisition in 1940. The documents, supposedly in Goya’s hand and referring to his mother, were fakes.
Fátima Vicente Cordero, a master’s researcher from the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, sought help on the Art Detective website. She received responses from specialists including Dr Michael Brown of the San Diego Museum of Art, Dr Rosario Granados of Blanton Museum of Art, Texas, and Xanthe Brooke, formerly of the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool.
Granados and Brooke both proposed Campeche, an attribution that was confirmed by Guillaume Kientz, chief executive of the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York.
Campeche was the son of a freed black slave from Puerto Rico and a woman from the Canary Islands. He was trained by Luis Paret, an accomplished Spanish court painter, who was briefly exiled to Puerto Rico, when the island was ruled by Spain.
The Thoma Foundation, an American collection, holds another portrait by Campeche that features a similar brooch to one in the Barber’s painting.
Robert Wenley, head of collections at the Barber Institute, said: “It will be fascinating to see what the public make of this striking painting, amid the supposedly more refined English and French portraits in the Beige Gallery. It provides a remarkable insight into the qualities of Spanish colonial portraiture at its finest and its relationship with the art of Spain at this time.
“Sadly, the identity of the sitter in our painting remains unknown, so perhaps that is our next big challenge, to find out who she was. For now though, I think the sitter’s enigmatic, but powerful, gaze and the painting’s colourful and delicate palette make this a wonderful portrait to contemplate and enjoy.”