One of the most rewarding things about this virtual road trip I’m on is learning about collections that are new to me. A comment on last week’s post pointed me towards the manuscripts owned by Reed College in Portland, Oregon, among which is a leaf illuminated by the Spanish Forger. This reminded me that I promised several months ago to devote a post to the Forger, and before I delve into the riches of California’s manuscript collections, I thought now would be a good time to get off the proverbial highway and follow through.
I first encountered the Spanish Forger in 1997 while working for private collector Lawrence J. Schoenberg, whose collection is now part of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time, he owned the piece shown below, a framed miniature of a group of young nobles playing chess.
I was immediately enchanted and amazed, both by the delightfully saccharine setting and by the Forger’s sheer nerve in attempting, and for some time pulling off, such a massive deception. I’ve been a fan ever since.
The Spanish Forger painted numerous miniatures and panels in a late-medieval style at the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. No one knows who he was, but given the number of leaves and panels attributed to him, he must have made a significant amount of money selling his forgeries to an unsuspecting audience.
The story of the Spanish Forger begins with this panel painting of “The Betrothal of St. Ursula,” a painting that had been ascribed to fifteenth-century Spain on stylistic grounds. In 1930, Belle da Costa Greene (a prominent art historian who had been J. P. Morgan’s private librarian and who was one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America) refused to support its purchase for New York’s Metropolitan Museum because she suspected it was a forgery. Greene’s life story, by the way, is pretty extraordinary. Her father, Richard Theodore Greener, was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard, and Belle lived her life as a black woman “passing” and moving easily among the New York elite in the early twentieth century.
It was Greene – at that time curator of the Pierpont Morgan Library – who first identified the Spanish Forger’s distinctive characteristics and gave him his name. After the St. Ursula panel was later tested using neutron activation analysis, it was discovered that the green pigment in the painting was copper arsenite a.k.a. Paris Green, which was not available before 1814, confirming Greene’s suspicions. Because French newsprint has been found behind some of his panels, it is suspected that he actually worked in Paris, but the name Greene gave him has stuck. In 1988, the painting that gave the Spanish Forger his name was given to the Morgan Library and Museum.
To his credit, the Forger always worked on medieval parchment or panels. He scraped paint from wood or text from parchment, painting forged miniatures on authentic supports, knowing full well that – in the case of manuscripts – illustrated leaves were much more valuable than unillustrated. While preparing a major exhibit of the Forger’s work for the Morgan Library in 1978, curator William Voelkle discovered that the Forger had based much of his work on illustrations found in five volumes on medieval and Renaissance life and culture by Paul Lacroix (published between 1869-1882); many of his paintings are clear copies of Lacroix illustrations, as shown here.
The Forger’s style is easy to recognize. His faces often have a pronounced tilt, certainly, but one feature is particularly distinctive; the ladies in his noble settings display a prominent décolletage that would never have been found in an authentic medieval painting. Technical features of his work also give him away.
In a genuine medieval manuscript, the gold leaf would have been applied before the colors. The Forger tended to apply his gold as a final step; a close examination of his work often finds gold overlapping the color rather than the (correct) other way around.
All of these features – head tilt, cleavage, and gold-overlap – are evident in the miniature at left, a cutting in the collection at Columbia University. At first glance, this miniature appears to be an authentic medieval scene of three nobles playing chess in a courtly setting. But if you turn the piece over, the Forger’s cleverness in using medieval parchment betrays him.
The dorse (shown below) is a snippet of liturgy from the celebration of Pentecost, a text that most certainly would never have been illustrated by a courtly scene of lords and ladies playing chess. This disconnect is typical of the Forger’s work, as the subjects of his miniatures rarely relate to the text they accompany. In addition, the vertical text in the lower right corner is a catchword, indicating that, if the leaf were whole, the miniature would have been found in the extreme lower left-hand corner of the other side, a placement totally at odds with medieval page-layout practices.
Voelkle’s catalogue of the 1978 exhibit includes a handlist of more than one hundred works attributed to the Forger (see W. Voelkle, The Spanish Forger). He has recently updated this catalogue raisonné to include well over two hundred identified works (see “The Spanish Forger: Master of Manuscript Chicanery” in Thomas Coomans & Jan De Maeyer, eds., The Revival of Medieval Illumination: Nineteenth-Century Belgium Manuscripts and Illuminations from a European Perspective (Leuven, 2007, pp. 207-227)). The Forger essentially flooded the market with leaves and miniatures at a time when collectors were clamoring for such things. He must have made a fortune.
In addition to Columbia University, the Morgan Library and Reed College, the Forger’s work can be found in many other public U. S. collections. In fact, you could make your way from East Coast to West on a Spanish Forger road trip alone, visiting New Hampshire (Dartmouth College), Massachusetts (Harvard University, the Boston Athenaeum, Wellesley College and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Connecticut ( Yale University), New York (Columbia University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library and Museum), Pennsylvania (the University of Pennsylvania and the Free Library of Philadelphia), Maryland ( the Walters Art Museum), Ohio (the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College and the Cincinnati Art Museum), Michigan (Michigan State University), Texas (the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin), Colorado (the University of Colorado, Boulder), and Oregon (Reed College). I’m sure I’ve missed a few. Ironically, the Forger’s works are now collectibles in their own right and sell for thousands of dollars; recent sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s attest to the Forger’s popularity, and there are many U. S. collectors and dealers who own examples of his work. I’d love to own one of his paintings myself.
Last week, we explored manuscripts in Washington and Oregon. Let’s get back on I-5 now and make a quick stop at Reed College in Portland before we turn south to California. The cuttings at Harvard and Columbia as well as the leaf recently sold at Sotheby’s are all closely related to the Spanish Forger miniature owned by Reed (shown below). The Forger made use of several dozen leaves from this large early-fifteenth-century Italian antiphonal, retaining the original borders but replacing the top few lines of music on each leaf with a secular scene (see Voelkle p. 75, “choirbook stock A”). The Reed leaf was L18 in the Voelkle catalogue (fig. 234), at which time it belonged to Harry A. Levinson of Beverly Hills, California. Reed acquired the leaf from Bloomsbury Auction House in 2008.
The Reed College leaf preserves the antiphon “Quidcumque ligaveris,” a piece sung during the celebration of feasts of St. Peter. The illustration is completely at odds with the text, showing instead the triumphant entry of Crusaders into Jerusalem. The Spanish Forger was marketing to an early twentieth-century audience that was more interested in Gothic illustration than Latin text. His commercial success depended on buyers who wouldn’t notice the text/image disconnect or the stylistic inconsistencies.
He didn’t count on Belle da Costa Greene.