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Research project launched to study Spanish masterpiece 'Lady in a Fur Wrap'
Attributed to El Greco (1541–1614), Lady in a Fur Wrap.

GLASGOW.- Leading international specialists in the field of art history have launched a collaborative research project centring around one of Glasgow Museums’ most famous paintings, the Lady in a Fur Wrap, attributed to El Greco (1541–1614). The new research is being led by the University of Glasgow in partnership with Glasgow Museums, who own this well-known painting and related portraits in the important collection formed by Sir William Stirling Maxwell. Other key partners include the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, who are carrying out parallel research on comparative works in their collection, and the National Trust for Scotland, who care for Pollok House where the Lady in a Fur Wrap is normally displayed.

The Lady in a Fur Wrap has fascinated viewers ever since it was exhibited in the Louvre, Paris, in 1838. Since then, the painting’s fame has been linked to the rise in the international reputation of El Greco as its creator, yet it presents a conundrum. Direct, informal portraits of Early Modern women such as this are extremely rare and probably unique in a Spanish context. Although there is no definitive agreement, this has led some modern scholars to propose a number of new possibilities regarding who painted it, when, and who is featured in the painting.

It is anticipated that sustained examination of all the evidence relating to the Lady in a Fur Wrap will allow scholars to learn more about this masterpiece. The project will explore questions of artistic technique, attribution and identity, using scientific analysis as well as research methods involving the history of dress, society and collecting, in an attempt to unpack the complex history and significance of this unique painting and, in time, provide a fuller understanding of who painted it, who it might represent and when it was created. However, this will only be possible through comparison with other relevant works, hence the project will also involve equivalent scientific investigation and additional research on five other major sixteenth-century Spanish portraits in the Stirling Maxwell collection in Glasgow, and will likewise draw on the results of similar research on paintings held by international institutions such as the Prado Museum. Through this collaborative and comparative approach, our understanding of the context of portraiture and artistic practice in this period in Spain generally will also be greatly enhanced.

Duncan Dornan, Head of Glasgow Museums, commented: “We are pleased to partner with the foremost experts in the field of Spanish art to gain a fuller understanding of this iconic painting’s creation through comparative study of related works in our collection. We look forward to learning more about these major paintings of the Spanish Golden Age, including one of Glasgow Museums’ most popular and internationally recognised artworks.”

The technical examination phase of the research is currently getting under way using the latest scientific techniques. Dr Mark Richter, University of Glasgow, who is coordinating the scientific investigation, underlined: “Although there is no guarantee of definitive results through technical analysis we will at the very least learn much more about how this most enigmatic portrait was painted and the relationship of its materials and methods of creation to those of other important pictures in this and other collections, as well as to the main writings on art theory and practice at this period.”

The five other important paintings in the Stirling Maxwell collection selected for study together with the Lady in a Fur Wrap are by El Greco and other contemporary artists working during this ‘Golden Age’ of Spanish painting. Compared with the remarkable informality of the Lady in a Fur Wrap, the magnificent portrait of Philip II of Spain by Alonso Sánchez Coello is one of the finest examples of an image of political power by the king’s favourite portrait painter. The portrait of Philip’s fourth Queen Anne of Austria is more typical of the few representations of women in this period in its formality and the rich, high-necked dress. The portrait of the king’s half-brother, Don John of Austria, attributed to Jorge de la Rúa, also shows the formality of the dominant court style, whilst the Portrait of a Gentleman by El Greco is an example of the later style of that artist and is likely to represent a high-ranking member of society in Toledo around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. The playing-card sized Portrait of a Knight in Armour is also attributable to the Circle of El Greco.

The scientific examination presently being undertaken at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre includes examination of the paintings’ surface, as well as analysis of microscopic paint samples. Experts from Glasgow University, Historic Environment Scotland and the Doerner Institut, Munich, will carry out advanced analytical techniques, including Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry, a procedure which is ideal for providing detailed chemical information on the organic materials found in paint samples, especially binding media. Other techniques, such as infrared reflectography, promise to increase our understanding of any preliminary sketches or underdrawings by the artists, which are often hidden by opaque overlying paint layers. Earlier this month X-radiography on some of these works was carried out at the University of Glasgow’s School of Veterinary Medicine. With no dedicated facilities for X-raying paintings throughout Scotland, this new partnership creates excellent opportunities for the team to analyse aspects of artworks not visible to the naked eye. The X-ray process should provide information about the artist’s materials and techniques, as well as revealing more about an artist’s particular style.

This project will thus present a forum in which the research partners can collaborate to discuss these findings alongside the results gained from a highly specialised technical examination of Lady in a Fur Wrap carried out using the world-class facilities and expertise of the Prado, when the painting was included in the museum’s exhibition, El Greco and Modern Painting, 2014. Colleagues at the Prado Museum are also carrying out parallel research on court portraiture in sixteenth-century Spain and on the works of El Greco, and comparative results will be closely studied and shared.

Dr Hilary Macartney, who is leading the research at the University of Glasgow, also stresses that: “Other lines of enquiry, such as research on dress and jewellery, the status of people represented in portraiture in this period, and history of collecting will be equally important, and the project therefore brings together leading scholars of Spanish art, dress and related historical fields to debate and assess the latest research. The fascinating history of the fame of the Lady in a Fur Wrap and its impact on modern art and even film is likewise being studied.”

This study forms part of the Stirling Maxwell Research Project which was set up at the University of Glasgow in 2010 with core funding from Santander Universities to examine key aspects of the scholarship and collecting of Spanish art by Sir William Stirling Maxwell, one of the most significant figures in initiating interest in Spain and Spanish art in nineteenth-century Britain. The present phase of research, which has also received funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is a pilot study that will feed into a wider project to catalogue Stirling Maxwell’s collection of Spanish paintings, which once numbered over 100, a substantial portion of which formed part of the 1967 gift, by Sir William’s granddaughter Dame Anne Maxwell Macdonald, of Pollok House and its collections to the City of Glasgow. The pilot project on the Lady in a Fur Wrap and related portraits entails gathering, sharing and thorough debate on new and existing research, supplemented by research trips to aid further detailed examination of comparative material. A three-day symposium announcing the findings of the research is anticipated in early 2019, with the publication of an edited book expected to follow in 2020.

Portrait of a Knight in Armour, Circle of El Greco; Don Juan of Austria, attributed to Jorge de la Rúa; Anne of Austria, Alonso Sánchez Coello; and King Philip II of Spain, Alonso Sánchez Coello will be back on display at Pollok House from 3 July, with Lady in a Fur Wrap and Portrait of a Gentleman, El Greco, expected later in the summer.

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