Last August’s giant explosion in Beirut, which caused over 200 deaths and 7,500 injuries, as well as billions of dollars of property damage, was devastating to the Lebanese capital. Its impact on the city’s vibrant art scene was calamitous, with multiple arts spaces destroyed in the blast. One of the impacts on the cultural sector that has been little discussed is the fate of art in the collection of the Sursock Palace, which is adjacent to the Sursock Museum in the city’s historic Achrafieh neighborhood.
Artist and art historian Gregory Buchakjian knew the 19th-century residence was close to the city’s port, where the blast took place, and was curious to know what happened to the building and its contents. In addition to the help he offered individuals impacted by the disaster, he turned his focus to two paintings that a growing number of experts believe are the work of Baroque-era painter, Artemisia Gentileschi.
Back in 1993, shortly after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, Buchakjian was working on his Master’s thesis at the Sorbonne in Paris, which focused on the art collection of the Sursock Palace. The works arrived in Lebanon in the 1920s with the marriage of Alfred Sursock, a member of the affluent Sursock clan, to an Italian woman from an old Neapolitan family, Donna Maria Teresa Serra di Cassano. It is a large art collection of mostly Italian Baroque and 19th- and 20th-century Lebanese paintings. The collection is known for Italian treasures by Luca Giordano, Andrea Vaccaro, and Matthias Stomer, but Buchakjian’s research would also lead to the discovery that two of the paintings, which had no clear attributions, were most likely created by the renowned 17th-century female painter.
About his research at the palace, Buchakjian told Hyperallergic, “It’s a big house. There are no labels. It’s not a museum … Some paintings had labels, but they were not necessarily correct.”
“And my job was to identify what were these paintings, what were the subjects, and what were the artists?” he continued. “So I did my research, and this is how I got the attributions of some paintings, including the two Artemisia Gentileschi.”
How many artworks by Artemisia Gentileschi exist is still the subject of debate. According to scholar Sheila Barker, who considers herself conservative in her estimate, there are 58 confirmed works, excluding the Beirut paintings. Other, more liberal experts, she says, suggest the number might be as high as 68.
Until the 1970s, when Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” essay propelled Gentileschi’s life and work into mainstream conversations about art after centuries of misattributions and neglect, few people were looking to fix the historical recording regarding Gentileschi’s work. Since then, her reputation and the scholarship around her have grown exponentially and she has become a pop culture phenomenon as the subject of novels, plays, movies, and even memes.
“I showed the paintings to some experts at the time, but I would say that I was [still] doing a student’s work,” Buchakjian explained. “When I defended my thesis my teachers found it very convincing at the time and told me that I should go further in my research and publish it. But I didn’t do it, because at this time [in the mid-1990s] I came back to Beirut and I was completely overwhelmed by what was happening in the city, and I forgot about Artemisia Gentileschi. So my priority became what was related to the city here, reconstruction, et cetera.”
Buchakjian’s research largely lay dormant for decades and didn’t reappear until the Beirut explosion, when his mention of the damage in an article in Apollo magazine last year raised the eyebrows of professionals in the field and led to an invitation by the Medici Archive Project (MAP) to discuss his research during an online event in April of 2021. Buchakjian compared the two paintings, “Hercules and Omphale,” dated to the early 1630s, and “Penitent Magdalene,” probably from the 1640s, to other existing Gentileschi works. He speculated that one had additions and possible alterations through the years, something that is common for some Old Master works. The researcher compared the jewelry, drapery, compositions, and subject matter to make the case. His research has been well received.
Barker, who has a PhD in historical Italian art, has written a book on Artemisia Gentileschi, and is the executive director of the Friends of MAP, believes Buchakjian has presented solid art historical evidence. “Gregory’s visual analysis is unassailable given the complexity of the artistic landscape in 17th-century Southern Italy,” she explained to Hyperallergic, adding that his research contributes some important aspects to the growing body of knowledge about the artist’s work.
“I believe this is the first image we have of a Hercules by her hand,” she said, “although we have long known from documents that she painted several of them in her career, including an early one in 1619–1620 in Florence.” The works had been completely unknown to Gentileschi scholars before Buchakjian’s discovery.
The “Hercules and Omphale” painting is considered part of the historia or history painting genre of art, which beginning in the 15th-century was considered the pinnacle of art by the European art establishment. “It is wonderful to have from Artemisia a large-scale, complex, multi-figure composition representing a secular mythology,” Barker explained. “The historia genre is not only the epitome of intellectual painting; it was also an arena in which few women artists dared to tread. Painting historia requires many skills, an appreciation of literary poetics, and knowledge of a vast body of other artworks upon which to draw.”
During the online presentation by Buchakjian, Barker appeared to be very impressed with the evidence suggested by the jewelry in the paintings. I asked her why that was particularly notable in the research around her work. “Few painters were as consistent in their use of jewelry in costumes as Artemisia was,” she said. Barker continued:
Moreover, specific jewelry designs, like a facial type, or a way of painting fabric, can be a personal hallmark by which a specific maker’s hand (and mind) can be recognized. The documents show that Artemisia owned a lot of jewelry, even when she was just starting out in her career. It is also known that her grandfather was a jeweler. That she would show a predilection for cameos and fashionable earrings in her costumes for her heroines seems natural. The inclusion of beautifully crafted jewels happens to be a characteristic of her art throughout all periods of her long career.
During the Beirut explosion, a number of the works in the Sursock Palace collection were damaged or completely destroyed, including a portrait of Nicolas Sursock by Kees van Dongen and a portrait of Alfred Sursock by Habib Srour. But the believed Gentileschi works remain mostly intact, even if they sustained extensive damage. The hope is that this new added attention will hopefully encourage efforts to conserve and present the works to the local public.
“I would like to see the palace renovated and brought alive in the process. It’s very important that it be open to the public,” Buchakjian said. “This would be wonderful for Beirut and for the people to have this place that is not only architecturally and artistically exceptional, but to have two paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi in Beirut. [These] would be the only works by her outside Europe and North America. I hope this dream will be realized.”