New Exhibition Examines A Late 18th-Century Art Hoax

This fall the Yale Center for British Art will serve as the first and only venue for a small exhibition about a late 18th-century hoax that fooled several prominent British artists and sheds light on a number of technical and historical issues.

“Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret,” on view Sept. 18-Jan. 4, brings together paintings and works on paper pertaining to the hoax from several institutions, including the Yale Center for British Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, the Morgan Museum and Library and the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

In late 1795 Benjamin West, the American-born president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, fell victim to the fraud. A shadowy figure named 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 titled “Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes.” In truth, the manuscript was a fake and the story an invention. West had believed it, and, through him, the Provises managed to dupe a number of other key artist-academicians.

When the fraud was finally exposed, the embarrassment was far worse for West than it was for the other victims. It was largely through his influential position as president of the Royal Academy that the perpetrators gained access to so many of his colleagues. Years later, having been held up to ridicule by satirists (in song, in the press and in a satirical engraving titled “Titianus Redivivus” by James Gillray), West painted an almost identical version of “Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes,” this time according to his own methods and traditional studio practices. This “atonement” painting is today in the collection of the Yale Art Gallery.

“Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret” brings together the two versions of West’s composition, along with x-radiographs and recent technical analysis, and considers the differences between them in color and effect. The exhibition also includes two extant copies of the fake Provis manuscript, a signed agreement in which the Academicians promised to keep the method secret, West’s preparatory drawing, Paul Sandby’s satirical “Song of 1797” and Gillray’s satirical engraving.

The exhibit has been co-organized by the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale Art Gallery. The curators are Angus Trumble, senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art; Mark Aronson, chief conservator of paintings at the Yale Center for British Art; and Helen Cooper, the Holcombe T. Greene Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Art Gallery.

The Yale Center for British Art is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and major holidays. It is free and open to the public. For futher information, visit the center’s website at www.yale.edu/ycba or call (203) 432-2800.