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Arts and Sciences Professor Instrumental in the Rediscovery of Lost Painting
Syracuse University Distinguished Professor of Art History Wayne Franits was one of the first people in more than three centuries to see a painting by 17th-century Dutch artist Hendrick ter Brugghen that was presumed to have been lost to the ages.
The painting, “Roman Charity,” was last recorded publicly in 1692. But in February 2019, an art dealer in Italy contacted Franits informing him that they had come across a painting believed to be by ter Brugghen.
“I immediately responded and told them that their painting had not been seen in more than 320 years and this was a major rediscovery of a work that had long tantalized scholars,” says Franits, who is a specialist in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art and teaches in the Department of Art and Music Histories in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Later that year, Franits was invited by the dealer to see the painting himself at a warehouse in London and confirmed that this was indeed the lost “Roman Charity” by ter Brugghen. The painting was eventually sold to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where it is currently on view.
He published an article in the September 2021 issue of the venerable British art-history journal, “The Burlington Magazine,” which offers a detailed analysis of the painting as well as its style and how it compares to contemporary works by other artists.
Franits said he does not have any knowledge concerning this Dutch painting’s prior whereabouts or how it found its way to Italy, but he said it is still incredibly exciting to be part of its discovery.
Known for his expertise of Dutch painters, Franits is a prolific author of books and articles about such Dutch masters as Vermeer and Rembrandt, as well as other studies of Dutch art of the 17th century.
However, it was “The Paintings of Hendrick ter Brugghen 1588-1629: Catalogue Raisonné,” coauthored with his late professor and advisor Leonard J. Slatkes in 2007, that led the art dealer to contact him when “Roman Charity” first resurfaced.
Interestingly, Franits was first approached about working on the book about ter Brugghen by Barbara Lane, the chair of Slatkes’ department at Queens College, along with his sister, following Slatkes’ death in 2003. Slatkes had been researching a book about ter Brugghen for decades but the draft was still incomplete when he died. Franits agreed to finish the book but it took several years of additional research, traveling to the Netherlands where ter Brugghen created most of his work, and sifting through copious notes left by his coauthor.
“It is enormously complicated writing a book with a deceased person,” Franits says.
The subject of “Roman Charity” depicts a scene that is rather unusual to modern viewers. The painting illustrates a story from ancient Roman author Valerius Maximus’ “Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX” (“Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings”) written around AD 30. “Roman Charity” tells the tale of an elderly man who was sentenced to death by starvation. His daughter, rather than allow her father to die in such a manner, visits him every night to secretly give him her breast milk. The story was long held as an exemplar of filial devotion.
“At the time, it was a story that many European artists depicted due to their own fascination with ancient culture. Furthermore, the viewers of such artworks would have been well-educated and literate to recognize what the artists had portrayed,” says Franits.