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Huntington acquires French Baroque era portrait that long was a victim of mistaken identity

May 12, 2010 | 12:30 pm

Champaigne The newest addition to the Huntington's art collection is a portrait by a major French Baroque era painter -- a work whose artist and subject were misidentified for centuries.

"Portrait of Jean de Thévenot (1633-1667)" by Philippe de Champaigne -- which is going on display Wednesday at the Huntington in San Marino -- had long been thought to be a piece by the Dutch artist Gerbrand van den Eeckhout.

The misattribution was not discovered until two decades ago when a related painting was found in a private collection in France, according to Catherine Hess, chief curator of European art at the Huntington.

The portrait's subject -- a man dressed in Turkish costume -- was previously believed to be French linguist and archaeologist Antoine Galland. However, a researcher in London recently found evidence linking the work to De Thévenot, a French traveler, botanist and linguist.

"People had jumped to the conclusion it was Galland, who was the first to translate the '1,001 Nights' into a Western language, because he was an important person in France who had connections to the East," says Hess. "But it doesn't look anything like him."

While the painting was with a dealer in London, a researcher for the dealer came across an engraving in one of De Thevenot's travel diaries. "It resembled the painting down to a similar pose and costume and it looked just like De Thevenot," says Hess. "That was sort of our smoking gun."

She says the correct identification was made in February, two months before the painting was selected for acquisition at the Huntington's Art Collectors’ Council spring meeting.

"We're very excited about this addition," says Hess. "Philippe de Champaigne was arguably the most important Baroque painter in France, well known for religious pictures, landscapes and portraits."

The Huntington also happens to own an early English translation of the De Thevenot journal, she says.

"Portrait of Jean de Thévenot" will be a centerpiece of the Huntington's gallery of 17th century art, which will be reinstalled next year. Currently, the 23 ½-by-17 inch oil-on-canvas portrait is on display in the gallery of Renaissance paintings and bronzes.

Another work by De Champaigne, the oil-on-canvas painting "Saint Augustine" (c. 1645-50), is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

-- Karen Wada

Above: "Portrait of Jean de Thévenot (1633-1667)" by Philippe de Champaigne. Credit: Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens