Velazquez: Hand of the Master
Its a revelation when a painting by a master is discovered. Its still a revelation when a painting is newly attributed to one of the great 17th-century painters. In the case of Portrait of a Man, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the revelation is actually a case of reattribution to the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez (1599-1661).
The painting had been acquired by the Met in 1949 – a donation from the financier Jules S. Bache. It came in as a picture by Velazquez, but curators downgraded it to a product of his workshop. After research, x-rays, and cleaning, a different painting emerged, and the attribution to Velazquez was reinstated this year. The painting is now on the wall, next to Juan de Pareja, Velazquezs dignified and affectionately unsentimental portrait of his mulatto slave.
The picture we see now is of a man with dark hair and moustache, turned slightly toward the painter, with an undefined cloak and a white collar that juts out from his neck. His own hair is shown, not a wig (which might have indicated noble birth or a prominent position), and the hair is unceremoniously parted. Its not the grooming of anyone who commissions a portrait. The picture does not seem to reflect any great ambition on the artists part, yet the painting of the moustache and skin is remarkably nuanced. Its economy and detail helped Met curators reach their verdict that Velazquez himself was the author.
As the clichÃ© goes, every picture tells a story, and this paintings backstory weighed heavily on the reattribution. Science played a role, too, but technologys task was to see beyond the alterations made to Velazquezs work in the early 20th century. The alterations were done so that a prominent dealer could sell the painting to a wealthy buyer. Nothing new about that.
All this takes us to the paintings provenance, or history of ownership – an unfailing word to drop at a cocktail party. It was bought sometime before 1800, as a portrait of an unknown man by Anthony van Dyck, by Johann Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn, the illegitimate son of King George II of England. Ludwigs son, a general in the Napoleonic Wars, sold it in 1818, and it was first called a Velazquez in 1854. It was sold in 1857 to George V, King of Hanover (Germany) as a Velazquez self-portrait. From van Dyck to Velazquez was quite a leap. Bear in mind that attributions were applied loosely in those days, often to fit the needs of a money transaction.
The Velazquez self-portrait attribution is confirmed in 1917 by the German scholar August Mayer, who then reverses that judgment, and suggests that Velazquezs son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo, is the painter and the subject of the portrait. That reversal came after Mayer consulted with a Spanish scholar.
Yet things changed, again, in 1925, after the picture was sold to the German dealer Leo Blumenreich. Money enters the equation again. So does Blumenreichs client, Joseph Duveen, the notorious London and New York dealer who made a fortune selling over-priced Old Masters to the under-schooled tycoons of the US. When one client asked Duveen why hed sold him a painting for far more than another dealer said it was worth, Duveen is said to have responded that he had too much respect for his wealthy client to sell the painting to him at such a low price.
Duveen wanted to acquire the Velazquez for a potential buyer, but first he had to ensure that it was a Velazquez. He summoned a dubious August Mayer to Paris, to view his own commissioned touch-up of the picture, which involved painting in details of the clothing to make the portrait look “finished.” The sitters hair was also repainted, to appear carefully arranged, hence respectable. An ordinary portrait was tarted up to be a noble portrait. And varnish was placed on top of the newly-painted work, adding touches of brown, yellow and green. For Old Masters those days, brown added the semblance of age, and age was venerable and valuable. Mayer reconsidered late that year, and determined that the picture was a Velazquez self-portrait. We can assume that he was paid for his time and travel; you can reach your own conclusions. Now the portrait was sellable, and the subject of the painting looked more respectable than ever.
Duveen then sold the painting to Jules S. Bache, who died in 1944, leaving his collection to a foundation that was expected to put the art in the Met. The picture entered the Mets collection in 1949. Where was Mayer when the Met needed to take another look at the attribution? The scholar had fled Germany for France, where he was arrested by the Nazis in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz, where he died.
Met curators looked at the work, through layers of varnish, and concluded that the closest it came to Velazquez was his workshop. The portrait was downgraded once again, and did not appear in the museums Velazquez retrospective of 1989, nor in its 2003 show, Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting. Yet the curator Keith Christiansen kept looking, and convinced the restorer Michael Gallagher to clean away almost a century varnish and repainting. The Velazquez emerged, and the Met had a rediscovery on its hands.
Back to the picture itself. Now the debate is whether it is a self-portrait. Some say it resembles known self-portraits by the artist, although skeptics note that many Spaniards of that day looked alike. (Im not kidding, and they could well be right). Yet the man in Portrait of a Man bears quite a resemblance to a figure on the extreme right in Velazquezs enormous Surrender at Breda (1634-35), which is in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The man who resembles Velazquez is standing in a place where artists of the time often situated themselves in a painting. Yet the naysayers argue that, given the few foregrounded figures in the painting and the historical importance of the scene, Velazquez would not have dared put himself there. His position in the court at the time would not have been prominent enough for such a high profile. This dispute may take some time to solve. Its all the more reason to keep several paintings by Velazquez on the wall in one gallery.
Also, if youre in New York, stop by the Frick Collection to see Velazquezs King Philip IV of Spain of 1640. Theres no dispute over the attribution on this one. Yet it may look radiant, as never before, to those who know it, or thought they did, thanks to a cleaning by Michael Gallagher, who is also responsible for the unvarnishing of Portrait of a Man at the Met.