Museums chiefs in Glasgow today revealed detailed detective work is to be carried out on the “Lady in a Fur Wrap” to help determine whether it is the work of Greek-Spanish master El Greco - and who the woman in his painting is.
The three-year project, which will involve scientists and art historians in Glasgow, Munich and Madrid, could help resolve one of Scotland’s most enduring art mysteries.
The international investigation is believed to amongst the most detailed ever carried out on a series of paintings in Scotland. It will involve analysis of microscopic paint samples and infrared reflectography, which allows experts to examine beneath layers of paint used on the work.
The painstaking work will compare the “Lady in a Fur Wrap,” which is normally on display at Pollock House in Glasgow, with five other Spanish paintings from the same era which can also be seen there.
They were donated to the city in 1967 by the family of the 19th century art historian and collector Sir William Stirling Maxwell, who snapped up the Lady in a Fur Wrap when it came up for sale in London in 1853, five years after it caused a sensation when it was put on display at the Louvre in Paris.
Art historians have long debated whether the painting is the work of El Greco, although Glasgow Museums has always previously insisted there were “no convincing arguments” to disprove its traditional attribution.
Fresh research was carried out on the painting in Spain three years ago when it went on loan from Glasgow to Spain for an exhibition to mark the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death.
Those findings will be fed into the work of the team involved in the new project, which is being led by Glasgow University which is deploying X-ray equipment from its vet school, and will involve leading El Greco experts from the Prado Museum in Spain.
The Glasgow Museums service said the project would "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.”
Pippa Stephenson, its curator of European art, said: “There have been questions surrounding the Lady in a Fur Wrap for well over a hundred years, way before we acquired the painting.
“It feels very much like a new chapter, but there is also awareness that these are old questions that are being asked. This is a way of trying to tackle them head on and bringing together all kinds of different experts to put our heads together on the work.
“The painting is just so unusual - it is unique in the Spanish context. There’s nothing quite like it from this era that shows a woman in such an informal way, looking directly at the artist. It is quite a sensual image.Other images of royalty or portraiture from the late 16th are much more formal.
“I see this project as a way of really getting under the skin of the Lady in a Fur and to compare her. She stands alone at the moment. This is a practical way of getting to grips with the riddle.”
Dr Mark Richter, an art historian at the university who is coordinating the scientific investigation, said: “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.”