A fascinating new discovery is put on display at Vilnius Portrait Gallery on Friday, Jan Rustem's The Birth of Venus, an early 19th century painting that was thought lost for 200 years.
It took several years for art historians to ascertain the authorship of The Birth of Venus, an exceptional piece in the history of Lithuanian painting.
The owner, art collector Ramutis Petniūnas says he pursued the painting for 20 years ever since he saw it in the hands of a fellow collector. At the time, its authorship was still unknown.
“My offer was refused, because, I was told, there were many interested to buy the piece, including [art historian] Vladas Drėma who said it belonged to the Vilnius school of painting. That was all that we knew about the piece,” Petniūnas says.
With some effort, he eventually succeeded in purchasing the painting and immediately showed it to art historian Rūta Janonienė.
Janonienė then remarked that it could be an early Rustem, but it took several years of examination at the Pranas Gudynas Restoration Centre to ascertain the authorship.
The painting, depicting a mythological subject, presented doubts at first, since Rustem is best known for his portraiture.
“I was comparing it to portraits of Rustem's wife and wondering: why oh why would he paint her like that? He painted straightforward portraits, wo why this?” Janonienė recalls.
It hit her while flipping through her own book. Janonienė came across a fleeting reference to a Venus painting that was thought not to have survived. “And then it all came together, like Lego pieces,” she says.
The Birth of Venus is interesting in Lithuanian art history not just as an example of Rustem's mythological painting, but also as a female nude, a rare subject in early 19th century Vilnius painting.
It was most likely painted from life, in the artist's studio. Painters would usually use their wives and lovers as models and, Janonienė says, it is likely the case for Rustem as well.
She has compared Rustem's Venus with his other portraits and found remarkable resemblance with the artist's second wife Anna Puczyński. One of her portraits is also displayed at Vilnius Portrait Gallery.
Jan Rustem (1762-1835) was born in Constantinople, but lived and worked in the territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Primarily a portrait painter, he was commissioned to execute portraits of notable personalities of his epoch. For many years he was a professor at Vilnius University.
The Birth of Venus will be on display at Vilnius Portrait Gallery until the end of the year.