Photo credit: Turton Tower
I propose that this depicts Mary Magdalene reading Holy Scripture, as she has been frequently depicted in art. Note the typical flowing hair, bare breasts, and general suggestion of a former courtesan in a vaguely classical landscape. Examples below:
This discussion is now closed. The title has been updated to ‘Mary Magdalene Reading in the Wilderness’ and a short description added to indicate that the painting was produced as part of the decorative scheme of Middleton Hall, Greater Manchester, which was demolished in 1845. It has been dated to the late 17th/early eighteenth century.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.
Jacinto is undoubtedly correct. It may be possible to find a print related to this composition - and to identify the artist, probably British of the period c. 1680-1730
A painting of this period The Repentant Magdalene after Henri Gascars [1634-1701] at Hatchlands shows a possible area in which to look. - Though the Turton Tower painting is is not by or after Gascars
Some prints of interest:
The second of these, the Griffier mezzotint, is more like what a possible model for this composition may look like.
Given that this is a relatively naive or "primitive" rendering of the Reading Magdalen type by a presumably provincial artist, it is certainly quite possible that the model was a print.
The inspiration may also have been a copy of Correggio's now lost Reading Magdalen (which obviously inspired the Allori version linked above). See a 17th century copy below:
Here is a 17th century French engraving by Claude Mellan:
Other Magdalens in British collections:
This article discusses depictions of Mary Magdalene in embroidery. A fair way down it includes a couple of prints after Cozza and Holbein (one by Hollar), similar to the composition in our discussion.
V&A Online Journal, issue no. 7, summer 2015
The curator's comments on this drawing are interesting.
Thank you, Marion. I personally have no doubt our picture is a Magdalen; the type is very familiar and well established in art historical terms.
My problem with the identification as the penitent / contemplative Mary Magdalene is that, unlike all the analogues Jacinto links us to (and countless other images in the BM collection and elsewhere), there is no sign of any of the attributes normally associated with her in this context other than the book - notably the skull, the cross and of course the ointment jar. One or more of these seem to be present in every version I can see, whether recumbent like ours or not.
Reynolds' drawing after Kneller is arguably an exception, but (a) it is but a sketch relating only loosely (if at all) to the model, and (b) I'm not sure I don't see a suggestion of the cross in one of the background trees. (Incidentally I find the BM curator's "close parallel" in the figure of 'Night' in Gherardini's 1690s ceiling at the Palazzo Corsini a bit of a stretch. One is relaxed but really rather modest; the other, well...it's quite literally sex on wheels. See attached.)
I don't doubt for a second that our painting's visual origin lies with a similar image of the Magdalen. But I wonder if the artist didn't just use the format to create an intentionally non-religious work - either that, or that the attribute(s) were subsequently painted over to make it one. And although the face looks like it could be English, the background buildings look very Italianate to me.
Thanks, Marion, for the link to the Reynolds sketch, and perhaps even more for that to Roisin Inglesby's piece on the V&A's needlework, which I found fascinating and very educative.
That is a very good point, Osmund. I suppose this picture may be of Mary Magdalen before her conversion, as opposed to the penitent Magdalen. There is a Murillo Magdalen showing her at the moment of conversion, where the traditional attributes are not present:
There is also this interesting picture by Nattier:
If my theory is correct, or sufficiently plausible as to be accepted, this could be titled "Mary Magdalen pondering (or meditating on) conversion," if not simply "Mary Magdalen reading Scripture."
Osmund, in looking for items asociated with Mary, if you follow her gaze across to the right, you come to three hills. My eyes may be playing tricks on me, but it looks as if there is a cross on the summit of the left hand hill. It can be seen more clearly on the Art-UK image.
I wonder if the collection could provide a close up of this summit?
My attempt at enlarging the image, which of course worsens the focus or sharpness, did not reveal a cross.
We have a decent high-resolution image, which I don't have permission to share at present. There is no sign of a cross on the hill (there is a small brown mark that appears to be a tiny stain above the left summit, but it does not connect at all with the ground). None of the usual attributes are hidden in the dark areas of vegetation (and of course the writing in the book is illegible). I hope this helps.
We should bear in mind that the book/Bible is, in fact, one the Magdalen's attributes, and that an artist may choose to include more or fewer of them depending on factors such as his intended audience, patron or personal preference. Also, the author of this picture was evidently not a sophisticated upper-level painter, and may thus have failed to dot all the i's and cross all the t's, as it were.
I did think of the possibility of a woodland nymph, but to my knowledge, nymphs are not much given to reading.
The Reading Magdalen by van der Weyden in the National Gallery does include the ointment jar, although the book is the most prominent element, but there the jar is necessary for identification purposes because she is fully dressed and would otherwise simply be a woman reading the Bible, possibly a donor figure. In our case, everything indicates a Magdalen reading Scripture in the wilderness, so only one tell-tale attribute is necessary.
The book is often more prominent than the jar. I did acknowledge that it (the book) was one of her attributes in the 'penitent' context - my point was that *every single one* of the many dozens of other images of the penitent / contemplative Magdalen I could find, whether paintings, prints or even needleworks, contains at least one of the others.
You have found one exception - the very sophisticated Nattier, which certainly opens up the possibility that it is not an essential component. But both the catalogue entry (briefly) and other sources suggest that Nattier's painting is not really an image of the Magdalen as such, but a "portrait présumé de la comtesse Louise Julie de Mailly-Nesle, maîtresse de Louis XV, en Madeleine repentante" i.e. Madame de Mailly, mistress of Louis XV, as the penitent Magdalen.
C18th Art is full of portraits of aristocrats (and their mistresses) "as" a huge variety of mythological and biblical figures, and these must be considered as primarily portraits - the role they are playing or costume they wear is metaphorical. Louise Julie de Mailly was the eldest and most successful of four sisters who all became Louis's mistresses (she from 1732-42), and the Mary Magdalene context is symbolic of that. Nattier would not have wished to overdo the allegory with some more specific attributes, as to do so would imply that she regretted having been the King’s mistress, and was now repentant - a dangerous suggestion, and in her case quite wrong! Thus we have a portrait that subtly refers to 'La Madeleine', yet allows the viewer to see it as something else - at worst as a playfully appropriate role for a courtesan, but also as just an image of a woman showing a more contemplative side (she, too, is very modestly dressed for the part).
So the Nattier painting is an exceptional thing with its own, non-religious agenda. What you still need to find for us (or at least for me) are some images of the Magdalen herself - not someone playing the part - that do not include at least one more of the identifying symbols. Until then I feel it is unsafe to say this is definitely intended to be a depiction of her, while fully acknowledging that the format is closely connected - and indeed that such symbol(s) may once have been present, but have been painted over. Unless, of course, this too is meant to be a portrait of a specific person, with a similar iconography to the Nattier portrait.
I might add that Cliff's idea is very interesting - that triple hill could easily be read as Calvary (see attached), and there might once have been crosses on all three summits, or at least a single on the central one. Without close technical examination I doubt we’ll ever know.
Osmund, while I still like the idea of a pre-conversion, not-yet-penitent Magdalen, where her other attributes would be premature and out of place, I suspect it is more likely that the relatively naive, primitive or folk-type artist was following a model and simply neglected to include what he might have considered minor or inconsequential, such as an ointment jar.
I found one for you, Osmund:
Also, two or three of the various Magdalens by Artemisia Gentileschi have no attributes at all, such as this Magdalen in Ecstasy which broke a sales record for her work:
There is another possibility: if the artist painted a Magdalen primarily as an excuse for a sexually provocative image, as certainly appears to be the case with the Dahl example, it makes sense to use only the least overtly pious or most visually neutral attribute, such as a book.
Note also the size of the book in our picture, which is not that of a "lady's novel" but rather more substantial, as befits a Bible.
Mary Magdalene is normally depicted with a jar of ointment, like St Cathrine is always seem with a wheel and Peter with keys.
St Catherine of Alexandria is not always shown with a wheel. She may be shown with a sword and/or a martyr's palm instead, or with none of those attributes, as in a St Catherine in the Wallace Collection:
Gerald, it is worth reading back through these threads if you have the time and energy - try a control+F search for 'jar' and you will see that the lack of attributes, and especially the ointment jar, have been the subject of much discussion here all week.
This Domenichino Magdalen at the Palazzo Pitti shows no attributes, although it conforms to a familiar type:
The key thing, I believe, is that the image be recognized as a Magdalen one way or another, which would obviously have been initially related to context and local visual culture. When I first spotted our picture, I immediately saw it as a Magdalen; there was no need for any other visual clue beyond what was already provided by the artist, which I found quite sufficient.
Could someone help me e directions on how to re open a discussion that has previously closed?
Jannie, A discussion cannot be re-opened. If you would like to send us new information or if you have a new enquiry about a work of art we have already discussed, please go to the artwork page on Art UK and click on 'Send information to Art Detective'.
Here's a Magdalen reading, apparently without any other attributes:
And here is Romney's Emma Hamilton as the Magdalen, with a book and an hourglass, but nothing else:
Just in case it's useful for this discussion, here's an earlier model for the image - albeit with all the attributes - given to Isenbrandt
Well, unless this picture is a very early version of Marilyn Monroe, who was inordinately fond of being photographed reading a book, I think the odds are heavily in favor of it being a Mary Magdalene. If there are still scruples about the lack of attributes beyond a Bible, it could be titled "Mary Magdalene (?) Reading in the Wilderness."
Hi, I appreciate the veracity of the argument regarding the possible identity of the sitter. However, LCCMS was once responsible for this collection and I conserved this image 27 years ago. The painting is part of the panelling in the dining room and appears to have been created specifically for this location. Hence I am curious to hear of other examples of Mary Magdalene created for domestic dining rooms. it seems an odd choice of subject. Heather Davis
Thanks so much, Heather, that’s very interesting.
One thing puzzles me, though. According to the 'History of the Tower' section of the Turton Tower website (https://bit.ly/2PhlknM), the dining room "was dramatically altered after James Kay became the owner of Turton Tower in 1835 ... The oak panelling was bought from the sale of interiors at Middleton Hall near Manchester at the time of its demolition in 1844". The panelling in the Drawing Room also came from Middleton.
So if the painting really was original to it, then the panelling must also date from the late C17th/early C18th - this seems rather late if Kay's intention was "to transform the Tower into his idea of what a Tudor manor house should look like". One the face of it (and having as yet done no research), I'd have thought It more likely that the Middleton Hall panelling was older, and when adapting it to the room at Turton a new framed space was made for the painting. Middleton was, like Turton, an ancient building with many layers of rebuilding and interior remodelling. See https://bit.ly/30pWRxA.
EDIT: Ignore my hypothesis, which is quite wrong – I should have done the research before opening my mouth. I've found a high-res image of the Turton dining-room, with the painting in situ in the panelling, and it's clearly also late 17th/early 18th Century. See https://bit.ly/31SsvUD.
My profound apologies for doubting your expertise, Heather.
I suppose there is another possibility, but probably too arcane: the nymph Egeria, poring over a book of the laws and rituals of Rome which she transmitted to Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome as successor to Romulus. Here are depictions of Numa and Egeria:
The absence of a Numa figure, however, weakens the case for Egeria.
And yes, I still think this could be a Magdalen, albeit a more subtle or less overt version than usual, which would of course make the picture more suitable as decoration for a dining room.
Another reclining Magdalen in a landscape, this time with only a skull:
My point is that a single attribute in the right context is sufficient, and our picture meets that condition.
There's a very close image in the Musée Lambinet, Versailles. As can be seen from the link, that is described as a penitent - with, I think, the implication that the subject is Mary Magdalene but without the pot.
Like the Nattier mentioned above, this work is identified as a portrait - of Montespan. While the Turton Tower subject does not look individualised, she may have been identifiable in the past.
Excellent, Al, especially since it strongly suggests a painter. The picture from Versailles is attributed to Henri Gascard (also known as Gascar and Gascars), who worked in England c. 1674-1680 and painted many of the ladies of Charles II's court, including a number of his mistresses (he was apparently brought to England by one of them, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth). There are 15 works by him on Art UK (as Gascars), including a more conventional Mary Magdalen, below:
I think our picture could be by him on stylistic grounds, or certainly in his style (he was very successful in England, where he is said to have amassed a fortune of some £10,000, so he could easily have inspired followers or imitators).
It may even be that our picture depicts a Restoration courtesan in the more or less discreet guise of a Magdalen, which may well explain the absence of the more usual attributes, as is the case in the Versailles picture. Again, Al, I think you've made a crucial find.
It is also possible that this is after a now lost or untraced Gascard original, but even then, it is probably of the same period.
The picture of the Marquise de Montespan (b. 1640) was probably painted in the early 1670s when she was the maîtresse-en-titre of Louis XIV, before Gascard came to England.
I would say "style of Henri Gascars" is reasonable. The title could be "Portrait of a Woman as Mary Magdalene" or "Mary Magdalene Reading in the Wilderness."
Below (if the link works) is a portrait by Henri Gascard of Louise de Keroualle, who was apparently as well as reportedly a blonde:
Could she be our Magdalen?
I expect that in all three pictures of a Reading Magdalen without any other attribute (Nattier, the Versailles Gascard and ours), it was considered inappropriate, potentially offensive or otherwise undesirable to include anything more overt than a book--meaning the absence of the ointment jar, crucifix and/or skull was deliberate.
This approach may be a peculiarly French conceit deemed especially suitable for high-level courtesans. Although in our example that remains speculative, it is certainly plausible, given that Keroualle was Gascard's patron and an important factor in his success during his English phase.
Well done, Al. This is the closest image yet found in pose and attributes, but probably too different in dress and background to be a direct source. But there is another known painting attributed to 'circle of Gascar' on Artnet, which is even closer to ours in dress and, to a lesser extent, landscape that it could indeed be considered the origin of ours (http://www.artnet.com/artists/henri-gascar/the-penitent-magdalene-reclining-in-a-landscape-LarrUFQd1ZQzqS7A_hsIjQ2). Gascar and his French contemporaries may be a good place to continue to look.
If we can find nothing more definitive, then Jacinto's suggestions "style of Henri Gascar" and "Mary Magdalene Reading in the Wilderness" are indeed reasonable conclusions.
If this sort of representation was somehow congenial to French courtesans, it should be remembered that Louise de Keroualle was French, although that is a secondary matter, albeit intriguing.
The French apparently use Gascard, but since the all other works by him on Art UK are under Gascars, we should use that spelling for search purposes as well as consistency.
The date should be given as c. 1670s or latter 17th century.
Interestingly, there are considerably more works by Gascard in the UK than in France, at least judging by the Joconde database. There should also be work by him in Italy, where he moved in 1681 and apparently remained until his death in 1701.
If it comes to it, Art UK will obviously use their own spelling. The date of this copy or version would ideally be based on a careful, close study of paint handling, canvas type, history etc, of the Turton picture itself - all but impossible to judge from the Art UK image. I don't think we can conclude it is necessarily contemporary with Gascar(s/d) yet.
If the wood panelling in the Turton Tower dining room was designed to accommodate this picture, as suggested above, then the picture can be earlier but not later than said panelling. Osmund has it as late 17th-early 18th century. Does the collection have a date for it?
More Magdalens by "circle of Henri Gascar:
This one is said to be by Gascars, c. 1675, representing Keroualle:
The British Museum has a print (late 1670s) after a painting by Gascar of Nell Gwynn as a kind of reclining Venus, with two of her sons by Charles II as Cupids. She is not portrayed as a Magdalen, but the pose is by now quite familiar, as is Gascar's frequent depiction of noted Restoration courtesans. Link below:
Since it is unlikely and no doubt problematic to extract this picture from its setting (which is not a frame) to allow for better inspection, I think it is reasonable to go with "style of Henri Gascars" and title it "Mary Magdalene Reading in the Wilderness." If desired, a note could be added to the effect that the picture might represent a Restoration courtesan, as that would fit both Gascars and a certain genre.
The composition of this painting may have been loosely inspired by a print of one of Gascars’ works. But it is not in his style, which is much richer in paint handling and depth of colour.
The subject may be Mary Magdalene reading in the wilderness, as suggested, although with only the book as an attribute. Or it could be a portrait type of a penitent lady represented as the Magdalene. Probably the former.
The painting is the work of a minor undistinguished decorative painter and was probably intended as interior decoration rather than as a gallery picture. It may be difficult to take the discussion further forward unless a more exact print prototype can be located.
This is not, of course, by Gascars, but certainly the composition and "genre," if not the execution, relates to his work, as does the period. I think it is reasonable to list it as "manner of" Gascars. As for the subject, I have no doubt this is is either a Magdalen or a woman (likely a courtesan, whether specific or generic) as the Magdalen. Given the absence of overtly religious elements, I would favor the latter (as in works linked above of a courtesan as Magdalen).
Thus, I would suggest "A Woman as Mary Magdalen Reading" and list it as "manner of Henri Gascars."
Another Magdalen reading, albeit identified by the ointment jar at lower right:
Thanks to Heather Davis’s information, Osmund’s research into its provenance and Jacinto’s indefatigable search of imagery, we think that the Turton Tower painting should be titled Woman reading, Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness and dated to the late 17th/1st third of the eighteenth century. It was painted as part of the decorative furnishing of the dining room of Middleton Hall (Greater Manchester), which was demolished in 1845. I agree with Jacob Simon that as no exact print source has yet been found we cannot identify its artist more precisely.
Turton Tower is closed and we have no one listed as a contact there any more. I've emailed their info box, which might still be monitored.