Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret
In 1796 Benjamin West, the American-born president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, fell victim to a remarkable fraud. A shadowy figure, Thomas Provis, and his artist daughter, Ann Jemima Provis, persuaded West that they possessed a copy of an old manuscript purporting to contain descriptions of materials and techniques used by the Venetian painters of the High Renaissance, including Titian, to achieve the famously luminous effects of color that had long been thought lost, forgotten, or shrouded in secrecy. West experimented with these materials and techniques and used them to execute a history painting entitled Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1796–97). In fact, the manuscript was fake and the story an absurd invention, but West believed it, and through him the Provises managed to dupe a number of other key artists of the Academy. When the fraud was finally exposed, the embarrassment was far worse for West than it was for the other victims because it was largely through his influential position as president that the perpetrators managed to gain access to so many of his variously hapless, dim-witted, or simply greedy colleagues. Seven years later, after having been mercilessly pilloried by satirists (in song, in the press, and in a remarkable satirical engraving titled Titianus Redivivus by James Gillray), West painted an almost identical version of Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1804), this time according to traditional studio practices. That 1804 “atonement” painting is today in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret brought together these two versions of West’s ambitious composition, along
with x-radiographs and recent technical analysis, and considered the remarkable differences between them in color and effect. In addition, the exhibition included two of the three extant copies of the fake Provis manuscript, lent by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and a signed contract in which the Academicians agreed to keep the Venetian method secret; West’s preparatory drawing for Cicero from the Royal Academy of Arts; Paul Sandby’s rude manuscript lyric entitled “Song of 1797” from the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum; and, from the Lewis Walpole Library, James Gillray’s hand-colored etching Titanius Redivivius;-or-The Seven-Wise-Men consulting the new Venetian Oracle (1797), a savage satire featuring West and his cohort.
Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret was co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. The curators were Angus Trumble, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Center; Mark Aronson, Chief Conservator of Paintings at the Center; and Helen A. Cooper, Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Art Gallery.