Remarkable “discovery” of a horse masterpiece hidden in plain sight

The removal of an added background revealed a work by Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Photos: Christie's
The removal of an added background revealed a work by Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Photos: Christie’s

Everyone loves a story about the rediscovery of a long lost masterpiece, but what about one that has been hidden in plain sight?

A horse painting by an old master sold at a recent Sotheby’s auction in New York for more than $US5 million, apparently to a telephone bidder, leaving the pre-auction estimate of $1.5 million well in its wake.

But this was no ordinary horse painting, and the recent history of this 400-year-old oil-on-canvas is little short of remarkable.

Rewind little more than 18 months, when the painting went under the hammer at a Christie’s auction of Old Masters and 19th Century Art in Amsterdam in 2015. It was described then as being by a follower of the style of Sir Anthony van Dyck.

The 118cm by 82cm work − depicting a cavalier wearing a broad brimmed hat, slashed riding breeches and a sword atop a skewbald horse and set in a rolling landscape − fetched €12,500, or $US14,022.

In the months that followed, the painting underwent a very special transformation. It emerged as a work by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Study of a Horse with a Rider, dating from the early 1610s.

The revitalized artwork no longer had its landscape background and it was a full 26cm slimmer.

In January, it went under the hammer at a Sotheby’s auction for $US5,075,000.

Sotheby’s explained the history of the painting in its catalogue notes, describing it as a newly discovered work and a rare example of a large-scale animal study by Rubens.

“Until recently, the painting had been associated with Sir Anthony Van Dyck, and was exhibited as a work by that artist in Genoa in 1955.

“However, the picture’s attribution has been impossible to discern with any certainty until now, thanks to a later added background that all but overwhelmed the original.”

The removal of the background following its sale in 2015 revealed a work of high quality in the style for which Rubens is so celebrated.

The Ruben work with the added background, which was successfully removed.
The Ruben work with the added background, which was successfully removed.

The painting was dated to a period when Rubens painted a series of equestrian studies for use in both portraits and subject pictures. They were required to help him cope with increasing demands on his time.

By his mid-30s he was one of the leading painters in Northern Europe, and commissions flooded in.

To maximize his output he began to rely on studio assistants, and crucial to guiding them was a large number of studies by Rubens himself, including the present example.

“The emphasis of the painting is clearly on the balance and pose of the horse itself; the careful weighting of the legs; the raised rear left leg; and the poise with which the rider is seated in the saddle.

“Rubens was an enthusiastic rider, and the study demonstrates not only his facility for painting animals, but also his deep understanding of horses and horsemanship.”

However, what was most unusual about the painting was the extent to which it had been altered by later intervention.

An entirely new landscape background had been added, almost certainly in France in the mid-to-late 19th century. This included later strips of canvas to accommodate the new background.

The rider’s body was also given a yellow jacket, while his hat was turned into what the auction house described as something from a Hollywood western.

It said new developments in conservation techniques, in particular the use of solvent gels, which allow a far more controlled removal of overpaint layer by layer, allowed for the successful removal of the added background.

Interestingly, the horse itself was unaffected by the later interventions

Ben van Beneden, director of the Rubenshuis Museum, and Professor Arnout Balis, director of the Rubenianum, confirmed the attribution of the newly revealed artwork to Rubens after first-hand inspection.

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