Was a Vienna auction’s €6,000 ‘copy’ of the Sistine Chapel ceiling actually by Michelangelo?

There is no shortage of replicas by Michelangelo on offer at Old Master auctions, but the “Follower of Michelangelo” in the Dorotheum sale in Vienna looked different. To begin with, it was huge, over 2.5 m high, and consisted of several pieces of paper. It appeared to be a cartoon, a preparatory work for transferring a design to a frescoed surface. It was ragged in parts, but strong and confident. It was also partially painted, with big, bold lines. “Tempera”, the catalog said. Michelangelo painted in tempera. It certainly couldn’t be…

I zoomed in further. The large, bearded figure resting his head on his hand was the prophet Jeremiah from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He looks down gloomily, supposedly mourning the fall of Jerusalem, but the sitter has long been recognized as a self-portrait and is said to reflect Michelangelo’s despair at being forced to paint the ceiling. And interestingly, there were differences between Jeremiah in the drawing and in the ceiling; his left hand was placed more to the right, his shoulders were in a different position, as were his gaze, even his feet. Why would a copyist do this?

No large preparatory drawings from the Sistine Chapel survive. But I found the four cardboard was discovered in a suitcase after Michelangelo’s death. One was described as a single life-size male figure. Now I got really excited. Was the Dorotheum drawing the one recorded in Michelangelo’s estate? A self-portrait, why Michelangelo might have decided to keep it? And did I have the chance to buy it for just €6,000?

I booked a flight to Vienna. I told my wife why, and argued for betting the farm (actually her farm) on the sleeper of her life. The Dorotheum is one of my favorite auction houses and I was glad to have an excuse to visit. The beautiful rooms make it the best place in the world to display old master paintings for sale. Everything looks good, even copies. When I got there, the drawing was hung high up, and I had to settle for a glimpse of Jeremiah’s feet. I know next to nothing about Old Master Drawings, but I thought these were good feet.

I came home and continued to research. The British Museum has one of the four cardboard held by Michelangelo, called Epiphany. The cartoon used to belong to Thomas Lawrence, a significant collector of Michelangelo drawings, who bought directly from Michelangelo’s heirs. When I looked into Lawrence’s collection, I found that he had a full-size copy, in oils, of Jeremiah by an artist named William Bewick. And then, to my amazement, I found an image of Bewick’s copy online and saw that it reproduced the Dorotheum drawing almost exactly, including the way it differed from Michelangelo’s Jeremiah in the finished Sistine ceiling.

For about a minute I thought I might have broken it. Did Lawrence own the original drawing and had it been copied by Bewick? Could I trace the drawing in the Dorotheum all the way back to Michelangelo’s heirs, and was it the one listed in the artist’s inventory?

Of course not. It turns out that Lawrence sent Bewick to Rome in 1826 to copy the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Bewick’s letters reveal how he obtained permission to erect a scaffold and began to make his copies in oil, until one day the Pope complained of the smell of paint. So Bewick decided to make cartoons in the style of Michelangelo, using several pieces of paper with odorless tempera. And it was his cartoon now at the Dorotheum. The fantasy was over. It was sold for €25,000 – and not to me.

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