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OPINION/Paper Trials Art detective work finds 268-year-old portrait is not of discoverer of ‘La Petite Roche’

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HISTORIC ART SLEUTH Carey Voss knew something wasn’t quite right about this picture.

Voss, curator of exhibits at the Historic Arkansas Museum, was researching Jean-Baptiste Benard de la Harpe, the French explorer credited with making note of the little outcropping of rock on the Arkansas River that eventually gave Little Rock its name, and the big rock 3 miles upstream on the north side of the river.

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This year, in case you haven’t heard, is the tricentennial of de la Harpe’s April 1722 rock-spotting trip up the Arkansas River, and Voss was digging around last month for information on the explorer. She kept coming across a portrait of a handsome, bewigged young man who was supposed to be de la Harpe. She traced it back to a Wikipedia entry about him created by “AuxArcRazorback,” but there was no credit for the image.

“I’m deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t have a source or attribution,” Voss says.

She emailed the portrait to her friend, Little Rock-based art appraiser Jennifer Carman, and asked for help identifying the artist’s signature.

“I recognized the painting,” says Carman, owner of J. Carman Inc. Fine Art Appraisals. “It’s by an artist whose work I’ve seen in my travels and in museum collections.”

The artist was Jean-Marc Nattier of France, best known as the portraitist of Louis XV’s court. The image on the Wikipedia page is a pastel work by Nattier titled “Portrait of an Unknown Gentleman” that resides in the collection of the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, an art museum in Karlsruhe, Germany.

It is not an image of de la Harpe. The portrait is dated 1753, when the explorer would have been 70, several decades older than the man in the picture.

“There’s no way it’s him,” Carman says.

The image has been used on the Wikipedia entry for about six years, Carman says. She wanted to have it taken down and to let others know that this fella was not de la Harpe.

“I just thought, this has to stop. I don’t want this [image] to end up on postcards being sold at Curran Hall or on brochures or posters [about the tricentennial].”

On April 1, Carman posted the portrait to her Facebook page with the words “Public Service Announcement This is not Jean-Baptiste Benard de la Harpe” over it, along with a post about its source.

She managed to have the picture removed from the Wikipedia entry, though it still pops up on a Google search of de la Harpe and was in a short film about the tricentennial by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

Their investigation into the picture was rewarding, Voss says.

“Jennifer is a wonderful sleuth. We wanted to get to the bottom of it, and we did. However small a wrong it was, being able to right it has been fun.”

email: sclancyadgnewsroom.com



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