Missing Masterpieces: Lost Works of Art 1450-1900

by Gert-Rudolph Flick

Published by Merrell

344 pages, 2003

Buy it online



The Ones That Got Away

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


It is unthinkable. In the mid-1600s, Rembrandt was commissioned to do a series of seven paintings for the Stadtholder of the Northern Netherlands, Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange. The first six -- the Passion series -- and the Nativity survive. However the seventh, the Circumcision, just simply disappeared in the 18th century.

The Stadtholder's widow, Amalia von Solms, included it in an inventory in 1668. In 1719 the painting was included in the collection of Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine along with the other six paintings Rembrandt had created for the Stadtholder. However, when the Passion series and the Nativity where somehow damaged, a restorer's report of 1756 doesn't mention the Circumcision and the painting never resurfaced. An important missing Rembrandt? What an aberration.

And yet...

Not one, but two Titian portraits of the great patroness of the Renaissance, Isabella d'Este have disappeared. Caravaggio's Portrait of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, Peter Paul Rubens' Portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. All missing. In Missing Masterpieces: Lost Works of Art 1450-1900 author Gert-Rudolph Flick goes to great lengths to track down these great works: the stuff of which legends are made.

As there are many ways in which a work of art can disappear, there are equally many ways in which it can resurface. The unnoticed picture hanging on a landing in a country-house suddenly identified as an important Old Master has become proverbial. It is increasingly rare, but by no means extinct.

The works that Missing Masterpieces focuses on would be the type that might -- feasibly -- turn up at that country house.

... I did not wish to trace the fate of works which had definitely been destroyed. I wanted to concentrate on works the fate of which remains uncertain, and which might even, conceivably survive.

In fact, the author notes, during the course of Flick's research for the book, four of the masterpieces he was researching turned up: "a landscape by Canaletto; a mythological subject by Elsheimer; a Gainsborough landscape; and a life-size sculpture by Casanova."

The book that resulted from all of this research and selection is a triumph: Missing Masterpieces is a beautiful production that can be appreciated equally by knowledgeable art lovers and art world neophytes.

Each of the 24 chapter discusses a particular missing piece but, in the course of the discussion, Flick introduces other works by the same artist, important collectors of the time and the work of other artists that had impact on the painting under discussion.

In the chapter on the Titian mentioned above, for example, a plate of a copy of the painting under discussion -- by no less than Peter Paul Rubens -- is included, along with salient photos of the d'Este palazzo, a plate of Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna, a plate of a portrait of Isabella d'Este done by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as another portrait of her -- also done by Titian -- and a Titian portrait of Frederico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Each chapter is well and richly illustrated, helping to develop a complete feel for the era under discussion and the socio-politic concerns that contributed to both the painting's creation and disappearance.

Missing Masterpieces is a remarkable book. Bringing art to fascinating life with slashes of history and the inclusion of true detective stories. As publisher Merrell points out, Missing Masterpieces is the "first major study of lost masterpieces ever published." Reveling in this book will make you ask why. | May 2003


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.