In August 2020, a warehouse explosion in the port of Beirut killed over 200, injured 7,000, and displaced 300,000 people. Thousands of buildings were destroyed, including museums and galleries, and the 18th-century Sursock Palace was especially hard-hit. Amidst the palace’s wreckage, however, a scholar made an incredible discovery, salvaging a previously unknown work by Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi — the 1630 painting “Hercules and Omphale.”
After sustaining severe damage in the blast, “Hercules and Omphale” is currently undergoing restoration at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It’s slated to go on view at the Getty Center near the end of 2023 before returning to Sursock Palace, which is still under restoration.
Gregory Buchakjian, a Lebanese artist and art historian who completed his Master’s thesis at the Sorbonne in Paris on the collection of the Sursock Palace, first made the case for the painting’s authenticity. Leading Gentileschi scholars agreed with his assessment, bringing the number of known existing paintings by the artist to 61.
Gentileschi, a rare woman painter among the Baroque masters of 17th-century Italy, has become a pop culture and art world icon, and her compelling renderings of mythological and historical scenes have often been viewed through a feminist lens. In “Hercules and Omphale,” Gentileschi depicts a Greek myth in which Hercules is forced to become a servant to Omphale, Queen of Lydia: He is seen holding a spindle of wool while Omphale and her maidens perform their spinning.
According to a Getty statement, Philip IV of Spain commissioned Gentileschi to portray the Ancient Greek figures in 1628, but her finished painting was likely destroyed in a fire a century later. Before it was destroyed, however, Gentileschi painted another depiction of Hercules and Omphale, just two years later, in 1630. (The Beirut painting matches one described in a 1699 Naples inventory record.)
Conserving “Hercules and Omphale,” however, could prove difficult.
“The devastation this painting experienced is the most serious I have ever seen,” said the Getty’s senior conservator of paintings, Ulrich Birkmaier, noting the “staggering” amount of tearing and paint loss but assuring that the oil on canvas would be “returned to its former splendor.”