Debated for over a century, the mysterious origins behind one of Scotland’s most iconic paintings have been solved by a team of international scholars.
“Lady in a Fur Wrap”, which lacks an identifying signature, was long considered the work of Greek-born Spanish artist El Greco (1541-1614). Experts have now reattributed the intriguing painting to another 16th-century Spanish artist, called Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531-1588).
The extensive scientific examination began in 2017, building upon a previous investigation carried out three years prior. Senior members of Glasgow Museums and the University of Glasgow joined forces with experts at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid to research the puzzling painting.
“Together with leading scholars of Spanish art, dress and related historical fields we deliberated over features including dress and jewellery and the status of people represented in portraiture in this period,” recalled Dr Hilary Macartney, who led the research at the University of Glasgow.
Through technical analysis of microscopic samples taken from the canvas’ surface, conservators were able to uncover vital evidence within the paint layers. Infrared reflectography “sees through” these layers, which are normally impervious to the human eye.
“The composition of the layers in the Lady are considerably different from the layers seen in autograph works by El Greco,” clarified Dr Mark Richter of Glasgow University, who coordinated the scientific investigation in Glasgow.
Duncan Dornan, head of the Glasgow Museums Service, explained “this technical study has also, excitingly, revealed unexpected elements such as traces of underdrawing hidden behind the surface.” Coello’s under-drawing fascinatingly depicts other items of clothing underneath the famous fur wrap, suggesting that the wrap was a later addition.
The Renaissance masterpiece was donated to the city in 1967 by the descendants of the 19th-century collector Sir William Stirling Maxwell. Ever since Maxwell bought the Lady in 1853 it has received huge acclaim, whilst likewise attracting fierce debate.
So, who was Alonso Sánchez Coello? During his lifetime, Coello was in fact more respected and well known than El Greco. As the principal portraitist at the court of Philip II of Spain, his paintings were often very formal and conventional. However, it is now understood that Coello painted more intimate portraits like The Lady to explore current ideals of female beauty.
Experts on the project unfortunately failed to solve the riddle of the sitter’s identity, whose gaze from behind the splendour of her infamous fur wrap has beguiled viewers for centuries.
Despite this failure, the project’s incredible findings will undoubtedly inspire “fresh interpretation” from scholars around the world. “Now, at last, it will re-establish the international reputation that Alonso Sánchez Coello deserves,” reflected Macartney.