Damaged by an explosion, the canvas emerged a Gentileschi

1.2 Sursock Palace Facebook
Sursock Palace, a grand residence in Beirut, is currently undergoing restoration following the explosion in August 2020. (Photo: Sursock Palace Facebook)
When a deadly explosion rocked the port of Beirut in August 2020, antiques were reduced to rubble and paintings torn to shreds. But in one Lebanese mansion an anonymous painting — pierced by shards of glass from a blown-out window and impaled by wood from the window frame — gained something extraordinary.اضافة اعلان

It is now recognized by experts as a long-lost painting of Hercules and Omphale by Artemisia Gentileschi, the great 17th-century Italian painter known for portraying strong women from biblical and mythological scenes.

“This painting is definitely by Artemisia,” said Davide Gasparotto, the Getty Museum’s senior curator of paintings, who has brought it to the Getty for restoration and exhibition under a long-term loan agreement. “It’s a very powerful, convincing painting — one of her most ambitious in terms of size and the complexity of the figures.”

Sheila Barker, a leading Gentileschi scholar who has yet to see the painting in person, says consensus for the attribution, proposed by Lebanese artist and art historian Gregory Buchakjian, is strong: “I don’t know of anyone who has a dissenting opinion.”

“A lot of would-be Artemisia paintings have come along hopeful of attaining consensus from the market and scholars, and we’ve been largely disappointed,” she added. “And yet from this completely unexpected corner of the southern Mediterranean, there has emerged this stunning example of Artemisia’s mature genius.” (Scholars use the artist’s first name to distinguish her from her father, painter Orazio Gentileschi.)

With the addition of “Hercules and Omphale”, the number of existing paintings by Gentileschi now stands at 61, according to Barker.

Gentileschi was one of few women to succeed in the male-dominated art market of her time and has been a feminist hero of sorts since the 1970s. Her bloody rendering of Judith beheading Holofernes at the Uffizi is especially famous, seen by some as a creative form of revenge for her rape at age 17.

Her version of Hercules and Omphale also delivers on the gender role reversals, though more playfully. In the classical myth, the couple falls in love after Jupiter sentences Hercules to become a slave to Omphale, the queen of Lydia, as punishment for a crime. In the painting, which measures more than 1.8-by-2.4 meters, an elegantly dressed Omphale towers over Hercules, who holds a spindle and yarn — a woman’s tools — instead of his usual club. In another twist, it is the man shown to be disheveled and half-naked.

Buchakjian identified “Hercules and Omphale”, which long hung at the Sursock Palace as an anonymous 17th-century painting, as a Gentileschi in the art magazine Apollo soon after the Beirut explosion, based on graduate-level research he had undertaken at the Sorbonne several years before. (He also ascribed to Gentileschi a smaller painting of Mary Magdalene that hung nearby; it has been restored and exhibited in Italy.)

Invited by Barker to do an online presentation, he made a persuasive case for the new attribution based mainly on stylistic traits shared with Gentileschi’s known artworks, such as Hercules’ pose and her treatment of jewelry such as cameo brooches and pearl drop earrings. He also noted that a similarly sized painting by Gentileschi on the subject of Hercules was recorded in 1699 in the Naples collection of Alonso de Cárdenas.

Buchakjian’s visual analysis was convincing, said Barker, who calls the artist’s detailed and imaginative approach to jewelry one of her hallmarks.

“She more often than not will use a notable level of invention or innovation, painting jewelry that may not have ever existed but was still perfectly in line with taste of her time,” she said, noting that Gentileschi’s grandfather was an esteemed jewelry designer who worked on the first grand ducal crown for the Medici dynasty.

The painting ‘Hercules and Omphale’ by Artemisia Gentileschi in the process of being repaired at the Getty Museum’s conservation studio in Los Angeles on October 21, 2022. (Photo: NYTimes)

Dating Gentileschi’s work is notoriously tricky, but Gasparotto believes that the damaged painting was made during a period when the artist lived in Naples, Italy, “which has always in some way been the black hole of Artemisia’s career — considered less important and interesting”. He added that it most likely dated to the mid-1630s based on similarities with Gentileschi’s “Bathsheba at Her Bath” and “Lot and His Daughters” that Buchakjian had pointed out.

The painting is now in terrible condition, with a 20-inch tear near Hercules’ knee. Leaning on an easel at the Getty conservation studio in Los Angeles, the canvas has so many holes and tears it gives the impression of Swiss cheese, with light streaming through. A nearby jar is filled with chunks of debris.

Getty’s senior paintings conservator, Ulrich Birkmaier, has just begun the restoration process — removing some particularly stubborn shards of glass the size of teeth. The next steps for his team include relining the back of the canvas and repairing tears and areas of paint loss.

Birkmaier has also marked five spots where pigment will be removed and chemically analyzed, which might reveal something of Gentileschi’s process. X-ray analysis will help determine whether she made any revisions to the composition.

In the process, Birkmaier will perform a long-overdue cleaning, removing layers of varnish that have discolored over the centuries. “This is not just a great painting by Artemisia, but one that hasn’t been seen in a presentable condition for generations,” he said.

Under the loan agreement with the painting’s owner, Roderick Sursock Cochrane, the restored “Hercules and Omphale” can be exhibited by the Getty while the Sursock Palace is being repaired. He lived there with his family before the blast and is now working to return it to a state where it can open for public tours, which he estimates will take four or five years.

“It was as if a hurricane or tornado had blown into every room,” Sursock Cochrane said by phone from Beirut. His mother was injured during the explosion, which killed at least 200 people, and died shortly after at age 98.

Sursock Cochrane originally planned to send the painting to Italy for repair, but changed course when Getty reached out in September 2021. And he is happy to wait for the painting’s return.

“I don’t need the painting right now,” he said, “and the country is not stable, politically or security-wise. We’re not ready for it yet.”

Gasparotto said he hoped to exhibit “Hercules and Omphale” at the Getty by early 2024. He will most likely hang it alongside “Lucretia”, an earlier painting by Gentileschi that the Getty bought last year. It is a beautiful portrait of the noblewoman, with perfectly creamy skin, about to insert a dagger into her chest.

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