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The story of the Lost Masterpieces

Adobe set four digital artists the task of recreating lost masterpieces by Caravaggio, Frida Kahlo, Rembrandt and Karl Schinkel. But how did those paintings become lost in the first place? We uncover a tale of war, fire, theft and one of the most daring heists in art history

Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel
Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel

Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel was a painting dogged by controversy from the start. It was finished in 1602 and originally destined for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. But Caravaggio’s naturalistic style, depicting a very human-looking, peasant Saint, all wiry arms and inelegantly crossed legs, clashed with the Church’s preference for veneration. It was also felt to be a poor match with two other paintings of the Saint which Caravaggio had already created for the chapel and so it was rejected by its commissioners. Caravaggio painted a replacement which is still in the Chapel today.

The original work eventually ended up in the former Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. During the Second World War, the museum stored many of its works in the Friedrichshain Flakturm, one of three enormous Flak Towers in the city which operated as sites for anti-aircraft guns and as air-raid shelters. In 1945, the tower was hit by Allied bombing: many of the museum’s works were lost, including the Caravaggio.

Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Table
Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Table

An air of mystery still surrounds the fate of Frida Kahlo’s The Wounded Table. The painting is a self-portrait, completed in 1940 in the aftermath of Kahlo’s divorce from Diego Rivera. The table, with its human legs and bleeding knots, is a symbol of the pain of the divorce and is surrounded by family members, Kahlo’s pet deer and a figure of Judas, the great betrayer.

The painting had been exhibited internationally in a touring show about Surrealism. It was last exhibited in 1955 in Warsaw. After the show, it was believed to have been moved to Moscow – some sources say that Kahlo gave the painting to the Soviet ambassador to Mexico – but it has never been seen in public again.

Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee
Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee

A more prosaic fate awaited Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Cathedral Towering of a Town, painted around 1830. As well as being a renowned painter, particularly of NeoGothic and Romantic scenes, Schinkel was also a designer, city planner and architect, responsible for several significant buildings in Berlin. Cathedral Towering of a Town was destroyed in a fire in 1931. A copy, painted by Berlin artist Karl Eduard Biermann, now hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.

Saving the best tale until last, the disappearance of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee, is a much juicier story. The work, which depicts Jesus calming a stormy sea and thus saving the lives of those on board, was finished in 1633. In 1990, it formed part of the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston. On the night of March 18, thieves disguised as police officers talked their way into the museum, claiming that they had been called to investigate a disturbance, and stole the painting along with 12 others. It was the biggest art theft in US history, with the paintings stolen valued at $500million.

The FBI and US Attorney’s Office are offering a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the works.

The heist has inspired at least five books and many theories about its perpetrators. FBI investigations have centered around reputed mobster Robert Gentile who is alleged to have at one point received two the paintings. Gentile denies any involvement.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Cathedral Towering of a Town
Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Cathedral Towering of a Town

The FBI and US Attorney’s Office are offering a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the works. As a memorial, the empty frames of the paintings still hang in their original locations in the museum.

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