Museum Realizes Ten J.E.H. MacDonald Sketches Are Fakes—and Puts Them on Display

A new exhibition showcases how the Vancouver Art Gallery investigated the artworks’ authenticity

Unknown artist, Sketch after The Tangled Garden.
Sketch after The Tangled Garden, one of the ten works incorrectly attributed to MacDonald Vancouver Art Gallery

After concluding that ten donated sketches attributed to Canadian artist J.E.H. MacDonald are actually forgeries, the Vancouver Art Gallery has decided to display them anyway. The museum’s new exhibition, “J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden,” is the culmination of nearly a decade of questions and media scrutiny regarding the paintings’ authenticity.

In 2015, the Vancouver Art Gallery received the sketches as a donation. Ian Thom, the museum’s former senior curator, thought they were authentic and called the paintings one of the “most significant historical [gifts]” the gallery had ever received.

MacDonald is one of Canada’s most revered painters. He was a founding member of the Group of Seven, a collective of landscape artists whose work helped shape Canada’s national identity in the early 20th century. When the gallery acquired the ten sketches, officials hoped they could shed new light on the artist’s process.

The museum was under the impression that MacDonald and his son had buried the sketches in their backyard in the 1930s, according to the Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman, who has extensively covered the forgeries. As the story goes, a family friend, Max Merkur, rediscovered the works in the 1970s, and Merkur’s children donated them to the gallery.

“When it first started, I thought this is one of the great experiences of my life,” says Thom (who retired in 2018) in a video accompanying the exhibition, per the Globe and Mail. “And then it just got worse and worse and worse. It was one of the worst experiences of my life, frankly.”

Unknown artist, Sketch after The Wild River.
Unknown artist, Sketch after The Wild River Vancouver Art Gallery

Soon after the works first went on display, questions began emerging. In response, the museum called in art historians, handwriting experts, scientists and other specialists to help investigate the paintings’ origins.

“It’s not like the Antiques Roadshow where someone comes in and an expert looks at it and tells you everything about it,” Richard Hill, the gallery’s curator of Canadian art, tells CTV News Vancouver’s Abigail Turner. “I think it’s actually quite rare that something like this happens.”

As the investigation progressed, many red flags appeared: For one thing, MacDonald was known only to add people when creating his final canvases, but these sketches featured figures. The boards were also considerably thicker than what MacDonald typically used in this period. Several paintings even featured misspellings—such as “MacDnald” instead of “MacDonald.”

In some cases, “the purported sketches looked more like copies of the finished product,” writes the Globe and Mail. “For instance, the 1916 painting The Elements is known to have been composed from two different sketches: one done in the Laurentians for the sky; and another done on Georgian Bay for the trees, rocks and water. But the donated sketch looked like the final painting.”

The results of a pigment analysis were particularly worrisome: Experts with the Canadian Conservation Institute discovered that most of the paintings contained pigments that weren’t used until after MacDonald’s death.

Unknown artist, Sketch after Falls, Montreal River.
Unknown artist, Sketch after Falls, Montreal River Vancouver Art Gallery

“J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden” showcases how the investigation played out. In addition to the forged works, the exhibition also features authentic oil sketches from the gallery’s permanent collection by MacDonald and other members of the Group of Seven.

The museum is billing the show as an act of transparency. Even so, “many have questioned why it took nearly nine years for the truth about the supposed MacDonald sketches to be made public,” writes the Art Newspaper’s Hadani Ditmars. The identity of the artist behind the forgeries remains a mystery.

“This exhibition provides our visitors a rare opportunity to peek behind the scenes and see how we do the work we do, and the passion and dedication of everyone involved,” says Hill in a statement.

J.E.H. MacDonald? A Tangled Garden” is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery through May 12, 2024.

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