Aphrodite (Crouching Venus); Italian, 17th-18th century; Bronze, 14-3/4 inches; MSU purchase, 66.7

Woman Helped into a Gondola

Spanish Forger, early 20th century (not mid-20th century)
Active late 19th-mid 20th century
Ink on vellum, 8 9/16 x 9 3/8 inches
Gift of Helene and Robert D. Spence, 89.5

the object

This scene of a woman helped into a gondola is painted on a 15th century piece of vellum that has music notations on the verso. Scholars have recognized a group of about 150 paintings and single leaves painted on pages from choir books by the same hand and housed in collections including the Pierpont Morgan Library, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the British Museum. Previously thought to date to the 14th or 15th centuries, they were exposed in the mid-20th century to be fakes by a very skilful, prolific and successful late 19th century artist identified as the Spanish Forger. While relying on reproductions as sources, the Spanish Forger transformed costumes, facial and figural types, architecture and landscape into a vocabulary of his own. In general, his style has a sentimentality and sweetness uncharacteristic of medieval art and mistakes in anatomy, perspective and costume betray his hand. Certain details -- the knees of the male figures here -- never appear in medieval manuscripts yet are typical of the Spanish Forger. Science, too, aides us; the emerald green color is manufactured from copper arsenite, which was not available before 1814.

The Spanish Forger was active in France or Belgium and produced single leaves and paintings of pseudo-medieval themes of courtly life and romantic love. As an artist in his own right, he has been the subject of exhibitions and monographs by the Morgan Library and others. His coherent recognizable style prompts the question of when does a fake become a work of art and once the deception is understood, does that open the door to appreciate the work on its own? How does this case differ from more recent appropriations by artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Sherrie Levine?