In the entire world, there are 25 paintings attributed to Dutch Renaissance master Hieronymus Bosch. Of those, only five are in the United States.
One, it turns out, has been living unsuspected and mainly in storage at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
Ever since the 15-by-10-inch oil-on-wood panel was purchased in 1935 from a New York gallery, it had been attributed to Bosch’s workshop. It was last displayed at the Nelson in 2003.
Monday in Holland, the Nelson’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” painted circa 1510-1520, was unveiled to a packed room at the Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, Netherlands — Bosch’s hometown.
The mystery began to be unraveled in late September 2015. Experts from the Dutch museum, doing research for “Jheronimous Bosch — Visions of Genius,” an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death that opens Feb. 13, found the work in a 2003 Nelson catalog. They requested a high-resolution photo and an infrared reflectogram of the panel.
Intrigued with what they saw, conservation scholars and scientists flew to Kansas City to examine the painting. After two days of analysis, the Dutch team left “leaning toward attribution,” said Rima Girnius, the Nelson’s associate curator of European painting, a specialist in early modern German and Dutch art.
Girnius and her Dutch colleagues believe the panel was part of a much larger work, probably coming from one of the wings (side pieces) of a dismantled triptych. No one knows what happened to the rest of the work. Historically, triptychs were often cut down for various reasons, Grinius said.
The Nelson’s panel is full of humorous depictions of the temptations visited upon St. Anthony, and it most closely resembles Bosch’s Hermit triptych in Venice.
“One of its wings has an image … of the temptation that is very similar to ours,” Grinius said.
The proof that convinced the Dutch experts, Grinius said, was the way the artist laid out the composition of the underdrawing, as revealed by subsurface imagery.
“These little small watery lines can be found in various places, like around the hair and the beard of the saint and in the folds in his robe and cloak. (The Dutch experts) thought was very much like Bosch.”
In a news release, the Bosch Research and Conservation Project called the attribution “a significant addition to the small body of work produced by Hieronymus Bosch.” Part of the reason so few of his works exist is that he rarely signed his pieces and never dated them, according to hieronymus-bosch.org. He mainly produced triptychs, and they often explored humanity, morality and orthodox religious beliefs of his time.
“That’s a pretty major, major thing that doesn’t come along very often,” Grinius said. “I’m stoked. For sure, when it comes back, we’ll find a way to put it on display.”
Nelson director Julián Zugazagoitia and senior painting conservator Scott Heffley flew to the Netherlands to attend Monday’s unveiling.
Grinius said the moment Heffley lifted the painting out of the crate there was a big “hullaballoo” with photo flashes going off everywhere.
Coincidentally, Monday’s definitive attribution comes as the Nelson prepares to open a show on Feb. 24 of 71 masterpieces from the golden age of Dutch painting, “Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.”
The works in that show, originally curated by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, were painted in the 17th century, about a century later than most of Bosch’s work.
Grinius says Zugazagoitia told her recently, “This is the year of the Dutch.”