It’s the time of year for spring cleaning, and that offers us the opportunity to discover all kinds of things: dust bunnies, the remote control we lost over Thanksgiving weekend, and of course, 16th-century Old Master paintings that were somehow forgotten for decades.
At least, that’s what happened at Hoyt Sherman Place Art Gallery in Des Moines, Iowa. One day, Robert Warren, the executive director, found a missing piece of the museum’s collection in an underused storeroom. It had been neglected for so long that no one even remembered it was missing. The piece turned out to be “Apollo and Venus” by the Dutch painter Otto van Veen, donated to the museum by the Collins Family in the 1920s.
“It was loaned in 1922 to the Des Moines Women’s Club — who built the art gallery at Hoyt Sherman Place in 1907 — along with four other paintings from the Collins Family,” Warren told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. “Bartholomew Collins had been on the board of directors for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this was one of the paintings that was displayed there, in their Old Masters wing.”
Warren can only speculate about why “Apollo and Venus” was not hung with the other works, in the main gallery. “This loan was made in the same year that the Hoyt Sherman Place theater opened,” he said, “so it may have been damaged. It was not framed.”
He also suspects that the subject matter may have been considered too racy for Des Moines audiences at the time. “My original assessment was that, because it was a backside nude of Venus de Milo, and there were no other nude paintings on the walls in the collection, that they may have decided to exclude it for content purposes.”
The painting not only portrays Venus in the nude at her dressing table, but also contains an array of seemingly saucy details: Cupid stands at her knee and appears to be reaching a hand into her lap; Apollo is raising his tunic with one hand exposing his upper thigh, and he is feeding her a tray of oysters. “It’s very charming and beautiful and suggestive,” said Warren.
Whatever the reasoning, the wood panel painting was placed in a little-used storage area referred to as “the Flower Closet,” and there it remained until two years ago, when Warren stumbled across it while searching for some Civil War-era flags. Since the discovery, Hoyt Sherman Place has undertaken a major effort to restore the damaged piece to its original glory, beginning with a long search for a restoration expert with expertise in Old Master paintings on wood panel, rather than canvas.
“It took six months to find somebody who actually did wood panel restoration,” said Warren. He eventually found Chicago-area conservation expert Barry Bauman, who worked for many years as an associate conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago. In his retirement, Bauman offers conservation services to non-profit art organizations like Hoyt Sherman Place free of charge, and he recently expanded his repertoire to include restoration of wood panel paintings. The exquisite details of the work have now been revealed, offering interesting clues as to the work’s history.
“Several high-profile experts came and looked at it after we pulled it out, and they were all leaning toward more Dutch-Flemish-Reubens influence, rather than the original attribution of Italian painter Pietro Barucci.” Warren reached out to the Des Moines Art Center, the Getty Museum, and the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, specifically looking for places with large Reubens collections. Van Veen was known for teaching Peter Paul Reubens, but there are a few aspects of the painting that revealed van Veen as the true author of the work.
“There was an inscription you could see on the bottom of the uncleaned version, through X-rays, Warren said. “We thought it was going to be the artist’s signature, but in fact it’s a Latin quote — which was one of Otto van Veen’s signatures.” Another signature detail, ironically, was the approach to nudity that Warren suspects kept the painting from being hung. Ruebens experts told him that they could trace the painting to van Veen based on sketches the artist had created. “Their signature trademark of van Veen was the rosy cheeks on the model,” Warren said. “And not the cheeks on the face.”
It was a cheeky conclusion to an intriguing tale. Hoyt Sherman Place is now in the process of updating security systems to accommodate the new addition; Warren told Fox News that van Veen works have sold between $4 million and $17 million. The gallery plans to put “Apollo and Venus” on display in July of this year, for an unveiling nearly 100 years in the making.