Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret
an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, September 18, 2008–January 4, 2009.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Julie Lavorgna, with text by Angus Trumble and Mark Aronson. Yale Center for British Art, 73 pp., n.p.
The affair of the Venetian Secret was renowned in the 1790s as a notorious and revealing swindle. It involved an obscure functionary of the royal household in London; the president of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West; and several of the leading artists of the time. Thomas Provis, a sweeper, and his artistically inclined daughter managed to mesmerize West into believing that they had acquired a secret recipe or method that would enable the possessor to paint like Titian and his contemporaries. In return for imparting the secret, they hoped to secure their financial future.
But who should be allowed to possess this secret—the president alone, the members of the Academy, the country as a whole? There was bound to be a fight, and after the secret was imparted, there was bound to be disappointment. This sequence of events was the subject of the recent exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art.
British artists in the eighteenth century held Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and other Venetian masters in great reverence, and some thought that Venice had once possessed some kind of secret method of painting that had since been lost. Perhaps it had to do with the preparation of the canvas or panel, the laying of a “ground” over which to paint. Perhaps it had to do with the “vehicle”—that is to say the oil or other liquid with which the ground pigment was mixed. Or perhaps there was some other trick of the trade, closely guarded within the artists’ studios, now lost in time.
Benjamin West, the American painter who succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy in London, had, after leaving Pennsylvania when he was twenty-six, studied in Italy, both as a student of Anton Raphael Mengs and through copying the Old Masters there, between 1760 and his arrival in London in 1763. This may not seem a very long education, but it gave West an advantage over many a London artist who had not, for instance, spent time copying Titian’s Venus of Urbino in Florence, and who could not claim, as West claimed, to have “formed himself upon” Correggio’s Saint Jerome in Parma.
The list of masterpieces upon which the artists of this period might be said to have formed themselves is very far from obvious to us today, but it is impossible to understand the mentality of the late-eighteenth-century painter, or to appreciate why he might be vulnerable to a particular kind of fraud, without bearing in mind that Titian was a god for him. The work of Titian that such an artist was most likely to admire, the Saint Peter Martyr, no longer exists (it was …