A brief scene of chaos broke out at London’s National Gallery Saturday, after a man slashed an 18th-century portrait by Thomas Gainsborough.
As Alice Ross reports at the Guardian, the man used a screwdriver to attack "Mr. and Mrs. William Hallett," better known as "The Morning Walk," which depicts a young couple strolling through the woodland. The perpetrator was detained by gallery attendants and visitors, and subsequently arrested. The wing where the attack occurred was shut down for about two hours.
On Sunday, police announced that they had charged 63-year-old Keith Gregory, who reportedly does not have a fixed address, with causing criminal damage. On Monday, he appeared at Westminster Magistrates' Court. After he refused legal representation, the case was adjourned to Thursday. He will remain in custody until then, the BBC reports.
Fortunately, the painting appears to be in relatively good shape. “The damage was limited to two long scratches which penetrated the paint surface and the canvas support, but did not break through the canvas lining,” the National Galley says in a statement. “The process of consolidating the pigment layers in the areas affected by the scratches began immediately. The preliminary reports suggest that the damage can be repaired relatively easily and the picture should be back on the wall shortly.”
Gainsborough was at the height of his career when he made the 1785 painting. A few years earlier, he had secured commissions to paint portraits of George III and his wife, and he had become one of the favorite portraitists of the royal family, according to Biography.
"The Morning Walk" captures William Hallett and Elizabeth Stephen, a young couple soon to be married, walking through a natural landscape with a dog by their side. Gainsborough’s signature “feathery brushwork” is on full display, as the Natural Gallery notes, with William’s hair and Elizabeth’s delicate shawl almost melding into the painting’s background.
Mark Bills, director of the Gainsborough’s House museum in Suffolk, tells Ross at the Guardian that he was rather befuddled by the attack on "The Morning Walk." "It’s a picture that I can’t imagine anybody finding offensive," he says. "[W]hat an odd thing to want to do."
"The Morning Walk" is hardly the first painting to fall victim to human aggression. The National Gallery was the site of another attack in 1914, when suffragette Mary Richardson took a meat cleaver to the "Rokeby Venus" by Diego Velázquez, in protest over the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British suffragette movement. More recently, a Rothko was vandalized at the Tate Modern and French performance artist Pierre Pinoncelli attacked Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” with an axe at the Pompidou Center in Paris. In 2009, a Russian woman even hurled a mug at the "Mona Lisa."
In the case of the "Mona Lisa," authorities have speculated that the woman might have suffered from a rare psychological condition known as Stendhal Syndrome, which describes a temporary loss of sanity brought on by works of intense beauty.