Portrait of a Man, has long been a step child in the collection of works by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, a noted Spanish painter who lived from 1599 to 1660. But it’s recently been restored to its star status, and will highly a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit.
Although its provenance was well established, having once been owned by Johann Ludwig Reichsgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn (the illegitimate son of George II of Great Britain) and later by George V, King of Hanover, (1857–d. 1878), its authenticity came into question in 1963.
In the standard 1963 monograph on the artist by José López-Rey, the painting is described as a “school piece rather close to Velázquez’s manner” and The Metropolitan Museum of Art began attributing the painting to the workshop of Velázquez.
But this past summer the portrait received a thorough cleaning and restoration, and the museum was able to authenticate it as a genuine Velázquez.
The portrait, now restored to star status, will be the centerpiece of “Velázquez Rediscovered,” a special exhibition opening Nov. 17 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art along with other works by the great Spanish painter.
The discovery came after thick, discolored layers of varnish and an old restoration that attempted to make it look more finished than the artist intended, were stripped away.
The picture emerged from its cleaning as an autograph work by the master, an informal portrait done from life, with parts left only summarily described, showing the hallmarks of Velázquez’s sure touch of the brush, according to the museum.
“This reattribution to Velázquez of a work that has been in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection for decades is the result of the fine collaborative work of two of the Museum’s renowned experts,” said Museum Director Thomas P. Campbell. “It highlights the depth of the Museum’s collection as well as the acumen of its superb curatorial and conservation staff.”
Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings, and Michael Gallagher, the Sherman Fairchild Conservator in Charge of Paintings Conservation led the restoration effort.
The painting’s history is notable for the changes in attribution and identification, providing a case study in the ways critical opinion can alter over time.
The picture entered the collection in 1949 as part of the bequest of Jules Bache, who headed one of the most successful brokerage firms in the country before the Second World War.
It had been acquired before 1811 by Wallmoden-Gimborn, and Bache acquired it from the famous dealer Joseph Duveen in 1926.
At the time, it was considered by a leading specialist as a self-portrait of Velázquez, and that’s how the Met originally presented it. But Lopez-Rey’s assessment led the museum to demote the work in 1979.
Many questions remain, the most intriguing of which is the identity of the sitter who gazes at the viewer with such intensity.
As has long been recognized, the same person appears at the far right of Velázquez’s masterpiece, The Surrender of Breda (Museo del Prado, Madrid), painted in 1634-35 to commemorate the Spanish victory over the Dutch.
The placement of the figure—as an observer rather than a direct participant in the action–and the way he looks out at the viewer has led some scholars to identify it as a self-portrait.
The matter remains highly speculative. The resemblance (or lack thereof) to bona-fide portraits of Velázquez and the fact that he is attired like other members of the Spanish contingent is also subject to question.
Other depictions of Velázquez, most famously his inclusion of himself in his most celebrated masterpiece, Las Meninas, are all much later in date (Velázquez was 57 when he painted La Meninas). Thus the Museum has retained the title Portrait of a Man.
But Jonathan Brown, author of the authoritative monograph in English on the artist and a professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, concurs that the work is indeed by the artist
Brown believes it is most likely an informal, rapidly painted study, with the head more highly finished than the costume and background, which is a thinly painted gray over a warm pinkish-buff ground.
The exhibit will feature other Velázquez paintings from the Metropolitan Museum’s collection such as Don Gaspar de Guzmán (1587-1645), Count Duke of Olivares (1638), The Supper at Emmaus (ca. 1622-23), María Teresa (1638-1683), Infanta of Spain (ca. 1651), and the celebrated Juan de Pareja (ca. 1610-1670).
Other works on view will include María Teresa (1638-1683) by Velázquez’s gifted pupil and son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1612- 1667).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Exhibition Dates: Nov. 17, 2009 – February 7, 2010
Location: European Paintings, Gallery 16, 2nd floor