The Most Remarkable Art-Historical Discoveries of 2016
Sometimes it takes cutting-edge technology to uncover new secrets about centuries-old artworks. Sometimes it takes years of good old-fashioned detective work. And sometimes, it's nothing more than luck. From a Caravaggio in a French attic to a cache of 14,000-year-old cave drawings, here are the 10 most notable art-historical discoveries of 2016.
Archaeologists unearthed an 8,000-year-old figurine in Turkey, one of a rare few that have been found in one piece.
The discovery was made at a Neolithic site in Çatalhöyük where a series of ancient houses were built one on top of another, leaving behind a trove of artifacts. This year’s major find was a female figure, expertly carved out of marble sometime between 6300 and 6000 B.C.E. Weighing just over two pounds, the sculpture is six inches tall and depicts an elderly, full-bodied woman in surprising detail. Artifacts of this sort are often associated with fertility goddesses, although one archaeologist has suggested that this particular figurine represents an actual person who achieved great status within Çatalhöyük’s egalitarian society. While this is not the first statuette uncovered at the site, most previous finds have been crafted from clay and worn down over the years—making this well-preserved marble figure a particularly remarkable find.
A French family found a long-lost Caravaggio in their attic.
The owners of the house had gone upstairs to investigate a leak. Instead, they stumbled upon a remarkably well-preserved canvas depicting Judith beheading Holofernes. Louvre.
A doctor’s note revealed precisely how much of his own ear Vincent van Gogh lopped off.
It’s been a longstanding debate among scholars: how much of his ear did the Dutch painter cut off that fateful December night in 1888? Amateur historian Bernadette Murphy, who began digging for clues in 2009, announced this year that she’d found a definitive answer. During her research, she uncovered a diagram drawn by Félix Rey, the first doctor to treat Van Gogh Museum this year as part an exhibition focused on the painter’s mental illness. It also served as the centerpiece of Murphy’s book, Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, which resolved another contentious question concerning the artist’s life—the identity of the girl to which van Gogh gifted his severed ear. Long assumed to be a prostitute named Rachel, it turned out that she was actually a maid in a brothel whose given name was Gabrielle Berlatier.
A second, more contentious, van Gogh discovery this year came in the form of a sketchbook published last month. The Van Gogh Museum is now pitted against two respected experts who claim that the 65 ink drawings are authentic—a scholarly clash some have labeled “unprecedented.”
China’s iconic Terracotta Army may have been influenced by the art of Ancient Greece.
New DNA evidence suggests that close contact between East and West began much earlier than was previously thought—even before the official opening of the Silk Road in the 2nd century B.C.E. This altered timeline has sparked a new theory: The 8,000 warrior figures crafted for the mausoleum of China’s first emperor were inspired by ancient Greek art. These sculptures have always been notable for the intricate and lifelike detailing of hair and armor; even their ears are individualized, according to a 2014 study. And before the Terracotta Army, China had no tradition of life-size sculptures—in fact, previous terracotta soldiers were no more than 10 inches tall, a shift that some researchers have now attributed to Greek influences. One historian went so far as to hypothesize that a Greek sculptor may have been on site to train local artisans, although that claim has received pushback from other experts who note there is no concrete evidence for such a relationship.
Researchers attributed a painting in Missouri to Hieronymus Bosch, bringing the total number of recognized works by the Dutch master to 26.
This year marked the 500th anniversary of told the New York Times. “It’s like your child who just won the Nobel Prize.”
A missing Albrecht Dürer engraving turned up at a French flea market.
A retired archeologist spotted the work, a copperplate engraving entitled Maria Crowned by an Angel (1520), at a stall in Sarrebourg. Unaware of its origins or importance, the vendor sold it to him for just a few euros. That’s when the archeologist noticed a Staatsgalerie Stuttgart stamp on the back and realized that the work had once been part of the museum’s collection. As it turned out, the
X-ray technology revealed paintings by René Magritte and Edgar Degas beneath two existing canvases.
MoMA researchers uncovered a section of the large-scale work beneath another painting by the famed Surrealist. A second piece was discovered under the artist’s Red Model (1935) at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Then, in February of this year, a third section was uncovered during routine conservation work on Magritte’s La Condition Humaine (1935), soon to be loaned to the Centre Pompidou from its home in the Norfolk Museums Service. This discovery leaves only the upper-right-hand quarter of the painting to be found. “Then this exciting art world jigsaw puzzle will be complete,” Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery curator Giorgia Bottinelli said in a statement.
Similar technology allowed a team of researchers in Australia to solve a long-running mystery concerning National Gallery of Victoria. Since 1922, a black stain has been steadily expanding across the work’s surface to reveal another painting underneath. But it wasn’t until August of this year that scientists were able to discern the details of this hidden image, following a 33-hour scanning process. The underpainting is now believed to be a portrait of one of Degas’s favorite models, Emma Dobigny.
Radar scans indicated that new rooms may be hidden behind the walls of King Tut’s tomb.
The search for the rooms began in July 2015 when Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves suggested that anomalies in his replica of the tomb were in fact “ghost” doorways—entryways that had been sealed and covered before Egyptian King Tutankhamun was buried. Reeves hypothesized that the additional rooms could contain the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, whose final resting place has never been found. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities allowed Japanese radar specialist Hirokatsu Watanabe to scan the Luxor structure in November 2015, and finally announced his findings this spring. Heralded as “the discovery of the century,” Watanabe’s analysis indicated two concealed chambers in the pharaoh’s tomb, likely containing preserved grave goods. Following this announcement, a second team of radar technicians organized by National Geographic conducted their own scans. Their data directly contradicted Watanabe’s, turning up no evidence of hidden rooms and sparking intense controversy among Egyptologists the world over. Conclusive answers will have to wait until the Ministry approves another scan of the tomb.
A Paris auction house identified a previously unknown drawing by Leonardo da Vinci—the first such discovery in 16 years.
In March, a retired doctor walked into French auction house Tajan toting a file of unframed drawings. One of them, a pen-and-ink study of St. Sebastian tied to a tree, immediately caught the eye of director of Old Master pictures Thaddée Prate. Prate sought a second opinion from an independent dealer and adviser, then a third from Carmen C. Bambach, curator of Italian and Spanish drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both experts attributed the work to labelling it an “open-and-shut case.” The drawing has been dated between 1482 and 1485 and valued at $15.8 million. The last time an undisputed Da Vinci drawing was discovered was 2000, when Sotheby’s auctioned off a study of Hercules and whirlpools done in chalk and ink.
Archeologists uncovered a cache of Paleolithic-era cave paintings in Spain, some of which could be 14,000 years old.
The Atxurra caves, located in the Basque Country in northern Spain, were first identified by researchers in 1929. However, extensive exploration of the site has been hampered by issues of accessibility; the newly discovered drawings were found 1,000 feet underground. This trove of images, notable for the large quantity of figures, comprises some 70 depictions of hunting scenes featuring animals such as deer, goats, and horses. One image shows a bison impaled by 20 spears, ostensibly the record for most spear markings in any European cave painting to date. Although the site is closed to the public, researchers plan to eventually create and distribute 3D versions of the drawings online.