Lost drawing found underneath $40 million (£29 million) Botticelli painting

Buy one, get one free! Infrared imaging of Sandro Botticelli’s (c. 1445-1510) ‘Man of Sorrows’ has unexpectedly revealed a long-lost Madonna and Child composition hidden underneath the masterful brushstrokes. Sotheby’s is due to sell the painting in New York later this month with a staggering guarantee of $40 million (£29 million).

Conservators at the auction house were eager to undertake technical analysis on the painting, which had remained understudied in private hands for two centuries. Much to their surprise, an upside-down abandoned figural sketch unveiled itself when exposed to infrared light. Specialists soon identified the under-drawing as the ‘Madonna of tenderness’, where the Madonna softly presses the Christ child’s cheek against her own.

Some of the original composition appears to have been traced from a cartoon, whereas the head of baby Christ is entirely unique in Botticelli’s oeuvre. Later on, Botticelli decided to literally turn the panel upside down and create a new, unrelated painting on top. Chris Apostle, Senior Vice President and Director of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s, explained that “panel was a valuable commodity in the Renaissance…one wouldn’t want to throw it away”.

The composition we currently see underwent some adjustments too. Botticelli moved the position of Christ’s wound, cropped his hair, and shifted his eyebrows down. Botticelli’s technique here is fairly consistent with his other works, “the pigments include chromium, titanium and so on—all the pigments one would expect to see,” Apostle said.

Christ’s frontal pose is the most distinctive element of the painting. Speaking about its striking nature, Apostle remarked “what I find touching is that Christ is a little bit off centre. Botticelli has tilted his head slightly, which is more human.”

He added: “Botticelli would have been 55-plus when this was painted, which in the Renaissance was late middle age, and I feel that there is something about this picture that Botticelli is projecting, an understanding that we are all going to die—it has a profound emotional charge. If he had represented Christ full on and rigid this would be more like an icon; a little bit more impenetrable.”

The combination of Christ’s engaging pose and the extraordinary technical discovery make this the lot to watch at Sotheby’s upcoming auction. Only last year, ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel’ by Bottticelli sold at Sotheby’s New York to a Russian buyer for a record-breaking $92.1 million plus fees (£67 million).

George Wachter, Sotheby’s Chairman and Co-Worldwide Head of Old Master Paintings, concluded “to bring to auction a work by Botticelli of this quality is a major event in the world of Old Masters–but to do so a year after the landmark sale of Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.”

One thought on “Lost drawing found underneath $40 million (£29 million) Botticelli painting

  1. Ben Williamson says:

    Perhaps Chris Apostle misspoke. If you find titanium in a Botticelli then alarm bells should be ringing. Thank you for all the great posts in any case.

    I found this clarification on the art newspaper:

    CLARIFICATION: 14 January 2022. Sotheby’s has informed us that the information on Botticelli’s pigments provided by Christopher Apostle for this article was not clearly communicated to us, due to its highly technical nature. Chromium and titanium, which are relatively modern pigments (chromium and titanium minerals were not discovered until the end of the 18th century and titanium pigments were introduced only in the early 20th century) should have been clearly associated by Sotheby’s with the retouching of the work during a relatively modern restoration. And it appears that cadmium (the use of which in pigment only starts in the 19th century) was confused with calcium. No cadmium was detected in the work. The maps of elemental distribution, which provide Sotheby’s with its findings, were produced by the auction house’s own sophisticated Bruker M6 Jetstream MA-XRF scanner in New York (they have a second in London). In addition to the retouched areas, the maps point to some pigments used to create the work: lead white, copper green and/or blue (verdigris and azurite, for example), mercury red (vermillion), and iron browns (umbers and other earth pigments). Calcium appears throughout the work, probably as chalk and bone black, and in small fills to areas of paint loss. There are probably other pigments, too, but their constituent elements were not detected by MA-XRF (due to their atomic weight, trace abundance, or both). Sotheby’s operates it state-of-the art-laboratories in both New York and London and they are run by conservation scientist James Martin, who owned and operated Orion Analytical (acquired by Sotheby’s in 2016).

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