The Samson and Delilah ink sketch – cutting Rubens to the quick
Today, in a sale of old master drawings (and on an estimate of £1.5m -£2.5m), Christie’s is offering large claims for the artistic and historical significance of a small (roughly 16cms square and shown here at Fig. 1) pen and brown ink drawing:
“This is the only known preparatory drawing for Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery, London (inv. NG 6461), and it was followed by a modello oil sketch now in the Cincinnati Art Museum (inv. 1972.459). Commissioned by Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), who was Rubens’s most important early patron, this powerful composition dates from shortly after the artist’s return to Antwerp from Italy, where he had been from 1600 until 1608, and provides a valuable insight into his developing style and preparatory processes.”
This account is conventional but, nonetheless, contentious. No hint is given that the relationships between these three linked works are highly problematic or that all three have suffered cuts or thinning. The authorship of this group has been contested for over two decades. On February 19 2004 the Daily Telegraph published a letter from ArtWatch on the painting’s problems (“Is the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah another copy?) We have published two special issues of the Artwatch UK Journal mounting challenges (Figs. 2 and 3) and have written a number of articles on the subject for the Art Review. The principal challenges to the attribution came from two artist/scholars, initially, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, whose findings (made with fellow artist Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson) were compiled in a report (see this website) that was submitted to the National Gallery in 1992 and later covered in the Times and the Independent. In 1997 researches by Kasia Pisarek, prompted two articles by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak (“A Rubens or a costly copy?” and “National’s £40m Rubens could be fake”). In the latter article, the then director of the National Gallery, Neil MacGregor, conceded that the evidence “is respectable, and the scholar raises some serious questions that I cannot easily answer”. Those questions have never been answered. In October 1997 the National Gallery issued a press release in which it was said that:
“Debates of this sort require patient consideration of different sorts of evidence. The best format is for this evidence to be presented at some length for public discussion – and the National Gallery will be arranging such a lecture and debate over the next few months.”
A debate that has yet to take place
Within a few days the commitment was dropped when the press release was re-issued and the debate never took place. To this day there remains an enormous accumulation of problems with the National Gallery’s “Rubens” Samson and Delilah and, therefore, with its two closely associated works – the ink drawing and the oil sketch. All three works, which are dated to 1609-10, have unusual and anomalous features – and all appeared only in the 20th century. The modello arrived last without name or history in 1966 and was upgraded by Christie’s to Rubens even though it is painted on a soft wood and not the oak which Rubens invariably used.
Ludwig Burchard’s cunning plan?
Behind the successful 20th century elevation of this trio, is the fact that both the drawing and the large finished painting in the National Gallery were attributed to Rubens barely two years apart by the same man, Ludwig Burchard. Burchard was a great authority on Rubens who, notoriously, was unable to publish his life-long Great Work on the Artist for fear of having to de-attribute very many paintings for which he had supplied unwarranted certificates of authenticity. In the ArtWatch UK Journal No. 21(Spring 2006) Kasia Pisarek, whose PhD Dissertation was on Rubens and Connoisseurship, identified over sixty Burchard Rubens attributions that had subsequently been demoted in the Corpus Rubenianum itself.
Dr Pisarek felt that the year of launch for the picture now in the National Gallery might be signicant. As she put it:
“That year 1929 was not free of strange coincidences. By a bizarre stroke of luck, the painting re-emerged 48 years after its disposal by the Prince of Liechtenstein in Paris in 1881 (not 1880, as is commonly said), the exact same year as the deaths of the Prince Johannes II, the previous owner of the painting, and of his picture adviser Wilhelm von Bode, the then General Director of the Berlin Museums. The former died in February 1929, the latter a month later, in March.
Moreover, we know that the Prince himself had weeded out a considerable number of pictures, Samson and Delilah included. He also financed many research projects, and the collection was accessible to scholars. The art historian Wilhelm von Bode published (in 1896) the first comprehensive and illustrated book on the Liechtenstein collection, so he could have been aware of the Samson and Delilah’s disposal. Why didn’t he identify the picture as the long lost Rubens if he was also a Rubens expert and had even co-signed certificates of authenticity with Ludwig Burchard?
In 1927 the drawing was bought from a private collector by a scholar of drawings and prints, I.Q. van Regteren Altena, for 26 guilders as a Van Dyck (whose initials it still bears). It was promptly upgraded to Rubens by Burchard, who then cited it as such in his 1930 certificate of authenticity for the Honthorst on offer by a Berlin dealer that is now in the National Gallery as an entirely autograph Rubens.
A precursor or a successor – or both?
It is claimed that Rubens’ characteristic stylistic development through stages of work is evident in the three works’ sequence, when the essential motif remains remarkably constant throughout. In fact, the modello (see Figs. 5 and 7) is so like the finished work that one supporter of the attribution, the former senior curator of the National Gallery, David Jaffe, has suggested that this oil sketch might be a ricordo – a record of the finished painting[!] However, if the presently accepted 1, 2 and 3 sequence of drawing, oil sketch, finished painting were to become 1, 3 and 2, it would make nonsense of the National Gallery’s technical reports which stated that the finished picture’s uncharacteristic thin, swift and little-revised paint work – paint work which today remains preternaturally fresh and unblemished (see Figs. 10 and 11) – was a product of the fact that Rubens had made such an unusually complete and resolved oil sketch that he had been able to paint the larger panel (which, the gallery claims, itself resembles a large sketch) out of his head and at a stroke and without any need for his customary revisions. Then again, the ricordo suggestion constitutes, perhaps, a kind of insurance policy, a way of covering against the possible outcomes of an eventual debate and presentation of evidence? If so, the sequence 1, 2, 3 and 2 again, would make a kind of institutional sense? This might indeed constitute a veritable “belt and braces” insurance: given that the gallery has admitted that its large finished panel is so very swift and sure-footed in its execution (or uncharacteristically sloppy and out-of-character to its critics), that it is itself but an over-blown sketch, the formulation 1, 2/4, 3/2 and 2 might serve perfectly to cover all eventualities.
The evidence of our eyes
The Samson and Delilah ink sketch, as a drawing, lacks the customary force, focus and eloquence of design seen in Rubens’ initial compositional ideas (- see Figs. 8b, 9a and 16). This supposed preliminary study has a curiously finished, pictorial air. Iconographically it has a pronounced “portmanteau” quality, showing, for example, Delilah’s draped right leg as seen in the secure Rubens oil sketch of 1609-10, The Taking of Samson in Chicago, while her draped left leg is as seen in the insecure National Gallery picture. Most disturbingly (to this draughtsman, at least) is that fact that when looking at the drawing in the flesh it is impossible to read an order or purpose to which its many and various components might have been made or to locate the essential, determining compositional and figural point at which Rubens always and brilliantly drove (see Figs. 8b and 16).
A ruled ink border surrounds and compositionally confines the ink and wash drawing (Fig. 1). When seen in reproduction, this border gives an impression that Rubens designed a format from the outset precisely in order to achieve an effect that is the single most problematic feature of the finished painting – the fact that the toes on Samson’s right foot were cropped at the edge of the painting. The border, like the drawing, is drawn in brown ink but clearly, as Christie’s describes, it can be seen by eye to comprise later framing lines. However, while this usage is seen to be common in the collection where the drawing has lived since 1927 – and while the border lines themselves can be seen to pass over a number of tiny losses on the edges of the sheet – the particular placement of the border is disquieting because the sheet on which the drawing was made has been trimmed at either the outside edges of the border or even within the border lines themselves. Why and when was this done? While some of the ink lines of the drawing can be seen by eye to run into the ruled borders, we cannot calculate where they might have terminated because of the severity of the sheet’s cropping. For whatever reason, this is now an artificially constrained and possibly edited image.
Flouting historical evidence
While the toes on Samson’s right foot are cropped at the edge of the National Gallery painting (Fig. 12), both of the contemporary copies that were made of the original Rubens painting show the foot, as painted by Rubens, to have been both whole and set well within the right-hand edge of the painting (see Figs. 4, 5 and 6). It is hard to see on what grounds this testimony might be disregarded: the first copy, an engraving (see Fig. 14), was made in c 1613 and very possibly under Rubens’ instruction. The second was a painting in oil commissioned by Rockox to show off his collection of paintings in the grand salon of his home (see Figs. 6 and 13). Is it conceivable that he – and Rubens, who was still alive – would have permitted a man famous for the accuracy of his records, to make a gratuitous, out-of-character “improvement” to the Rubens painting that occupied pride of place above the mantelpiece? Because of the inked box and the trimmed sheet it is not possible to determine whether the drawing’s author might originally have drawn the foot whole.
The panel support of the modello, as reproduced in the catalogue (see Fig. 7), is seen to have been cropped on its vertical edges since being sold to the Cincinnati Art Museum by the removal of two strips of wood, thereby conferring a clear crop onto Samson’s foot and bringing it into accord with the foot seen in both the National Gallery picture and the ink drawing. At one point the Cincinnati Museum claimed that the oil sketch’s panel was made of oak. When the picture was loaned to the National Gallery we asked if the panel was oak or softwood. It was not possible to say, we were told, because the back of the frame was enclosed and the gallery was not permitted to remove it. The museum today ducks the issue by saying that its painting is “on panel”.
The National Gallery’s picture was doctored at some undisclosed point by planing rather than cutting. The gallery restored the picture after purchasing it and reported that the panel had been planed down to a thickness of 2-3mm and set into a sheet of block-board. We knew for technical reasons that that was most unlikely: block-board is held together by its outer veneer layers and cutting one of them away would have had catastrophic structural consequences. When pressed, the gallery acknowledged that the planed-down panel had in fact been glued onto, and not set into, a larger sheet of block-board, with its edges being concealed by a bevelled putty. The restorer, David Bomford (now of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), said in his report, that the planing had taken place at some point in the early twentieth, or possibly during the late 19th century. That, too struck us as improbable: could there be no record of the back of a panel bought for a world record price (£2.5m) for a Rubens? Had the gallery not made a record of condition when the picture was loaned to it before the sale at Christie’s? We asked Neil MacGregor, if the gallery had any record of the back – and he said not. We asked if we might see picture’s conservation dossiers and there found Burchard’s 1930 certificate of authenticity, which described the panel as being intact and in excellent health.
At Christie’s we asked, and were kindly permitted, to examine the back of the drawing which is said to bear other drawings. A little (unintelligible) drawing is present but most of the surface bears the remains of a second sheet of paper to which the ink sketch had once been pasted. Effectively, the drawing’s verso is invisible – just as is the back of the National Gallery’s picture, any evidence on which has ceased to exist.
As for the contention – made against the evidence of the contemporary copies – that Rubens deliberately cropped Samson’s toes at every stage of the work, we know that he was very attentive to his toes. When drawing one of Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, he ran out of room on the paper for the toes on one of the feet and then drew them separately elsewhere on the sheet. On his return from Italy, and virtually simultaneously with working on the Samson and Delilah, Rubens made the magnificent Michelangelesque study of a nude man kneeling shown at Fig. 17. On that sheet, the right foot was truncated by the edge of the paper and, again, Rubens redrew the whole lower leg so as to include the foot and toes.
What kind of artist was Rubens?
The National Gallery has admitted that its painting is not typical of Rubens’s oeuvre, which fact it attempts to explain by claiming that immediately after his return to Antwerp from a long stay in Italy, Rubens was working “experimentally”. Unfortunately, it so happens that at the date of the Samson and Delilah’s execution, Rubens was also working on the very large altarpiece The Raising of the Cross (see Fig. 10). No one has ever suggested that that great work occupied a position in some experimental mode. To the bizarre and unsupported suggestion that Rubens, on his return from Italy, simultaneously worked experimentally and not-experimentally within the same brief period, Christie’s lend support with a contention that:
“The exact date of Samson and Delilah is unclear, partly because Rubens experimented with two very different approaches to the same subject in these post-Italian years.”
The truth is that attempts to keep this Burchard-initiated show on the road require that everything today be considered part of a moveable feast. It is neither a satisfactory situation nor a tenable position. Attribution is a difficult and taxing activity at the best of times and there is no shame in admitting error – and least of all with Rubens. As we put it in the 2006 Spring Journal:
“The upgrading of copies or studio works to autograph status frequently flouts the most elementary visual and methodological safeguards. Identification of the autograph hand of a master requires a ‘good eye’, sound method, and a recognition that comparisons are of the essence, that like should be compared with like. Procedural fastidiousness and visual acuity are nowhere more essential than with Rubens, who not only ran a large studio of highly talented assistant/followers but who famously placed a very high premium on studio works that had been modified or finished off by his own hand. When wishing to claim unreserved autograph status for a ‘Rubens’, it would seem imperative that some plausible connection between the aspirant and an unquestionably secure work be established. With the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah, exemption is claimed on grounds that this work was special product of a peculiar moment in the artist’s career. Unfortunately for the attribution – and the picture’s supporters – this special ‘moment’ coincides precisely with a work of bedrock security – The Raising of the Cross of 1609-1610.
An artist’s designs and motifs are easily replicated – and with Rubens, were often intended to be so ‘in house’. Pronounced similarities of subject matter or motif, therefore, are no guarantors of authenticity.
What is most distinctive to a master and impossible to replicate – even by close associates within his own studio – is what is termed his touch, his individual, characteristic manner and speed of execution. Artistic mastery lies in some particular combination of technical fluency and commanding thought. The quality of an artist’s thoughts and his authorial ‘fingerprints’ are certainly made manifest in and through material – it cannot be otherwise – but only in material as handled, not in terms of its intrinsic, chemically analysable composition. A flat-footed analysis of the material components of pictures can no more corroborate authorship than they can validate a restoration. There are no material tests for authenticity…”
16.00, 10-07-14. The editor of Jackdaw, David Lee, writes to point out that, R W P de Vries, the person who sold the Samson and Delilah ink sketch produces this note, when Googled:
“Reinier Willem Petrus de Vries Jr. (Amsterdam , March 3, 1874 – Hilversum , 27 May 1953 ) was a Dutch artist. He was a painter , illustrator , book cover designer , and made ??etchings and woodcuts .
He was a student at the State Normal School in Amsterdam, obtained his MO drawing. From 1913 to 1935 he was a teacher at a secondary school in Hilversum.”
The Jackdaw’s distinguished editor reflects: “An artist and secondary school teacher who flogs drawings. Not exactly what you’d expect…” No, indeed, but precisely the kind of thing about which we have learned not to expect to be given information.
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Review: Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone
We knew at a glance that something was amiss. On June 16th, a newspaper photograph trailed an imminent auction sale of Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888. Even on the evidence of that single de-saturated newsprint reproduction (right, Fig. 1) it seemed clear that the privately owned masterpiece had gone through the picture restoration wash cycle a time (or two) too often. A comparison of Christie’s pre-sale zoom-able online photograph with historic photographs of the painting further suggested that picture conservation’s would-be beauticians had been at work with swab and solvent: Renoir’s bather had been left (Fig. 2) a paler sugar-smooth pictorially and plastically enfeebled version of her original self. (For the picture’s appearance and condition in 1944, see Figs. 7 and 9.)
Just as museum curators who organise splashy temporary exhibitions rarely broadcast the “conservation” injuries borne by works loaned from sister institutions, so auction houses, which of necessity must act primarily as agents for owners, can seem no less reticent on this fraught subject. In practice, we find that in of both of these art spheres, the “now” is often implicitly presented as the “originally-was” and “always-has-been”, thereby thwarting what would be the greatest inducement to halt needless adulterations of unique historically-rooted artefacts: a full public disclosure of “conservation” treatments and frank art-critical discussion of their material and artistic consequences. By coincidence, recent museum and saleroom activities have brought to London a slew of little-seen examples of Renoir’s oeuvre. As cases in point of Renoir’s vulnerability, we examine here treatments of his “Baigneuse” of 1888 and the Washington National Gallery’s “The Dancer” of 1874.
Renoir’s “Baigneuse” was given star billing (on a £12/18m estimate) at Christie’s June 20th Impressionist/Modern sale, for the catalogue of which it provided the cover illustration (Fig. 2). While much was made in the eight pages long catalogue entry of an impeccable and unbroken provenance through ten successive owners, not a word was said about any restorations of the painting, and although many early photographs are identified in the picture’s literature, none is reproduced. It is disclosed that this Renoir is to be included in the forthcoming “catalogue critique” of the artist’s work being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute from the Archives of François Daulte, Durand-Ruel, Venturi, Vollard and Wildenstein. (Perhaps the present condition of the picture will be discussed in that publication?)
On the night of the sale, an announcement that the picture had been withdrawn drew gasps of surprise. Artinfo reported that the vendor had accepted a private offer from an unidentified buyer for an undisclosed sum somewhere within the estimate. Trade and press eyebrows have been raised at such secretive, pre-auction sales and the withdrawal was the more confounding because expectations of a big auction house “event” had been raised by extensive (and quite stunningly fetching) pre-sale press coverage with photographs of the painting enlivened by the seemingly routine inclusion of beautiful young female staff members.
With modern paintings, the starting point for any appraisal should be the earliest known photograph. Old photographs are historic records. Historic records should never be ignored. Old photographs of pictures assembled in homes or exhibition galleries are especially precious and instructive. The photograph of Renoir’s 1905 exhibition at the Grafton Gallery (Fig. 3) testifies not only to the then generally more vivacious relative values within individual works but to the striking variety of pictorial effects and painterly means deployed within Renoir’s oeuvre.
With regard to the photographic testimony of the original appearances of individual pictures, consider first the large, near-central painting in the 1905 Grafton Gallery photograph – Renoir’s “The Dancer”. This picture, now at the National Gallery, Washington, is 138 years old but was then only 31 years old and unrestored. Then, the background was disposed in distinct but linked quadrants (top-left; top-right; bottom right; bottom left). These were not so much naturalistic renderings of an actual space as subservient pictorial devices spotlighting the central bow-tight figure of a child trainee who, through balletic discipline and artistry, had assumed a commanding Velazquez-worthy sideways-on viewer-confronting presence.
To that expressive end Renoir had welded the dramatically contra-directional lower legs into unity by a pronounced dark shadow in the vertical triangular space they bounded. That shadow sprang also from the heel of the (right) weight-supporting foot backwards and upwards in space, thereby throwing the bottom edges of the trailed skirts into relief. This dark zone in the lower-right counterbalanced another in the upper-left, which had in turn emphasised and thrown into relief the front edge of the costume, withdrawing only to leave a lighter, again relieving, tone at the dancer’s dark hair. The progressive loss through restorations of those artful dispositions (as seen in Figs. 4 & 5) and the picture’s general descent towards an inchoate, arbitrary pictorial froth that increasingly resembles the underlying condition seen today in its own infra-red imaging (see Fig. 6), is heart-breaking. Renoir had here been a sculptor before he became a sculptor, playing off forms that asserted his picture plane with others that ran sharply away from or towards it (rather as Michelangelo had famously done in his crucifixion of Haman). Degas, who spoke of Renoir’s “sharpness of tones”, had chided himself for constructing his own drawings of standing dancers from the head down instead of from the feet up. Renoir had here given a masterclass in how to project a standing figure upwards from the floor. These things artists know and appreciate.
Compendious photographic evidence suggests that restorers (frequently working myopically through head-mounted magnifying eyepieces) have consistently confounded dirt or discoloured varnish with the shiftingly elusive dark grounds used by artists to set off light-toned figures. As seen in our post of June 1st, Klimt’s portrait of Serena Lederer (which was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980) has suffered in just such a manner. In the same post we saw also how Renoir’s deployment of a dark background zone in the upper left quadrant of background and a secondary but counter-balancing dark zone in the lower right quadrant of his “Dance in the City” had also been undone by successive restorers.
By courtesy of the 1905 photograph of the dancer we can now see that by 1944 the picture’s decisive tonal orchestration had already been subverted (see Fig. 3 and caption at Fig. 6). By the time of the picture’s appearance at the 2012 Frick show of Renoir’s full-length portraits (which was reviewed in our post of June 1st), the original dark tones in the lower right quadrant had effectively disappeared, leaving two odd arbitrarily truncated dark attachments to the right heel (Fig. 5). Cumulatively, this painting has suffered needless artistic vandalism of which no one speaks. The fact that graphite underdrawing is now visible on the painting has been mentioned but without any hint of alarm or censure.
With Renoir’s “Baigneuse” of 1888, the earliest photograph in our own records (- donations to ArtWatch of old photographs or postcards are always most gratefully received) is that published in 1944 when the painting was 56 years old, as seen here in greyscale at Fig. 7 (left) and at Fig. 9. Six years later, by 1950, the painting had been radically transformed, as seen at Fig. 7 (right, in greyscale) and Fig. 8 (left, in colour). The differences that emerged between 1944 and 1950 were compounded by further changes between the picture’s 1950 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, left) and its 2012 state (seen in colour at Fig. 8, right). However many times and by whomever this painting might have been “restored”, it is clear that the resulting interventions have profoundly altered its constructional and pictorial rationales. The total extent of the alterations that occurred between 1944 and 2012 are examined right in greyscale details in Figs. 11-18. The differences between the 1950 and 2012 states are examined in colour details at Figs. 19, 20 and 21.
By 1888 Renoir had visited Algiers and Italy, come to admire Cezanne as well as Delacroix, discovered Italian painting and read Cennino Cennini’s Treatise on Painting. He had just completed an intense series of classically inspired, Ingresque female nudes, culminating in that declared trial for decorative painting, the Philadelphia Museum’s great “Bathers” of 1887, by which date he held the nude to be one of the most “essential forms of art”.
Compared with Fantin-Latour’s palpable but fluidly allegorical figure at Fig. 10, Renoir’s “Baigneuse” has, in its 1944 state, a markedly more stolid, out-of-Courbet corporeality. For all its spirited brushwork and sparkling colour, plastically, it constitutes an essay in composure, stability and parallelism. The torso seemingly rests on its own base of compressed and spreading buttocks and thighs. The thighs, knees and lower legs are held together in a manner more primly archaic (Egyptian) than classical. Movement is confined to the bather’s right hand which dries the left side of the waist. This action has enlivening consequences. The upper torso is pulled round by the right arm and the head is turned leftwards and downwards as if to contemplate the drying action of the towel. The left arm is required to be held aloft to free the left side of the figure, and, flexing at the elbow as the left hand draws across the face, it first echoes the thighs but then curls gracefully, weightlessly away in space.
What, then, explains the differences between the picture’s previous and its present condition? In such cases it is always possible to play the “Sistine Chapel Ceiling Restoration Defence” and claim that in 1944 the then 56 years old picture was very dirty and that the removal of this dirt has liberated the forms and the colours of the painting to a hitherto unsuspected degree. But the pattern of relationships that is visible, even under dirt, should not change character during a cleaning. Rather, it should emerge enhanced, with the lights lighter and the darks darker – and all individual values holding their previous positions. This has not happened – the picture has got progressively lighter with successive cleanings instead of returning to its previously cleaned state. If it really had been left by Renoir in today’s state, how could the previous but now lost artistically constructive values ever have arisen? If left untouched for the next 56 years, would anyone expect the painting to return to its 1944 appearance with the stripes on the towel and the shading of the fingers regaining strength? Would a general shading and enhancement of forms once more helpfully tuck the left hand behind the head? How might dirt have drawn more clearly and repositioned the left shoulder? How might it have more emphatically shaded the right, distant side of the face?
If we consider the difference between the 1950 and 2012 colour plates (shown at Figs. 8, 19, 20 & 21), what might account for the loss of orange coloured modelling in the left cheek, and of individual brushstrokes depicting the hair? Is it possible to claim on the evidence of these photographs that there has been a build-up of dirt on the picture over the last 62 years?
When examining the bather’s face in close-up today, as shown at Fig. 21, can we have any confidence that the paint presently surviving in that section is just as it was when left by Renoir in 1888? What kind of brush or paint might he have used that would have resulted in the present fragmentary, seemingly abraded, scattering of orange paint that lies over the blue background between the hand, the face and the shoulder?
In the next post we examine the conservation fate of more than a score of Renoirs that have been loaned from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts to the Royal Academy. We shall see how Sterling Clark learned the hard way not to trust art experts on matters of condition in paintings when, having been assured that Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Lady” had never been repainted, he bought it, only to discover, very shortly afterwards, a postcard of the painting showing it in an earlier and quite different state.
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