Without a doubt, the magnificently rehabilitated Portrait of a Man in Black by Diego Velásquez is the Old Master (re)discovery of the year, and the star of "Velásquez Rediscovered" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an in-house exhibition celebrating its re-christening by bringing together nearly all of the works by Velásquez and his circle in the Met’s collection (on view till Feb. 7, 2010). Bought by banker Jules Bache in 1929 from Joseph Duveen as a Velásquez self portrait and bequeathed by Bache as such to the Met in 1944, its painterly qualities gradually became clouded beneath its thick, lemon-lime varnish. Increasingly dismissed in the scholarly literature on the artist, it was downgraded to "School of Velásquez" in 1979.
Rediscovered and recovered respectively earlier this year by curator (now department head) Keith Christiansen and head paintings conservator Michael Gallagher, the picture has been revealed as both an autograph work of exceptional quality and presence and second in beauty only to the great portrait of Velásquez mulatto manservant and pupil Juan de Pareja bought in 1971 -- and some might argue that the new Velásquez is the Met’s most important Old Master "acquisition" since then. Daringly, Christiansen has hung the picture beside the Pareja, and it does not suffer the comparison. Both have the same haunting presence and tactile quality of flesh and hair, executed with a similar confidence and freedom, setting them apart from the Met’s four other, more finished and formal paintings by the master.
One has to look back to 1970 for an in-house museum "find" of comparable importance, when Cecil Gould and Konrad Oberhuber at the National Gallery, London similarly reassessed an "old copy" of Raphael’s Portrait of Julius II, which wastransformed through cleaning and re-identified and unanimously acclaimed as Raphael’s long-lost original.
Congratulations are in order for Christiansen and company -- but so is the question, "What took you so long?!"
Like the Met’s "new" Velásquez, the London National Gallery Julius II had been acquired (in 1824) as an original, then dismissed as a copy by the leading experts in the field. But unlike the Raphael, the Velásquez was not buried and forgotten -- it has nearly always been on view in the Museum’s Spanish painting galleries. There’s always been room for it. The reason is simple. Aside from El Greco and Goya, the Met’s collection of Spanish paintings is remarkably weak, and the "workshop" portrait was needed as a "fill-in" between more important 17th-century works.
And while the Met still has a fair number of European paintings veiled by filthy varnish, most of them reside in storage. The Velásquez was one of the few grimy canvases that anyone could see. Even dirty, it was clearly a work of some quality that deserved closer inspection, yet none of the Met’s previous conservators or curators gave it much thought. John Brealey, the Met’s highly esteemed head of paintings conservation during 1975-1989 was universally anointed a Velásquez specialist following his triumphant cleaning and restoration of Velásquez’ Las Meninas in 1984.
Yet Brealey completely ignored the Met’s portrait. Under Brealey and his successor Hubert von Sonnenburg, the picture never appeared among the list of canvases under consideration for treatment and cleaning. The painting was excluded from the Met’s great Velásquez exhibition of 1989 and was considered but not requested for the most recent Velásquez exhibition at the National Gallery, London in 2006.
"Scholarship has its own momentum," explains Christiansen. "It can frequently blind us to the ability to see things under the lens of previous scholarship. In this case, it affected conservators. It predisposed them in a negative way."
How and why did the Velásquez fall?
The earliest history of the painting is unknown. Masquerading as an Anthony van Dyck, it is first recorded in the early 19th century in the collection of Johann Ludwig, Reichgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn. Sold by his descendants to another German noble collector, it was first identified as a Velásquez in 1854 by the British connoisseur Sir Hugh Hume Campbell. It remained unpublished until 1917, when August Mayer, then the leading authority on the painter, described it as a Velásquez of singular importance. Mayer noted that the same man appears, with an identical gaze and turn of the head in a figure at the far right edge of The Surrender of Breda at the Prado, which had traditionally been considered a self-portrait of Velásquez.
Mayer agreed with the identification and published it as such, dating it close to the Surrender, ca. 1634-35. Mayer’s friend and fellow scholar Juan Allende-Salazar believed the picture to be by Velásquez pupil and son-in-law Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo, an opinion that Mayer eventually shared. In 1925, the painting was sold (as Velásquez) by Ernst-August, Duke of Brunswick-Luneberg to Berlin dealer Leo Blumenreich, who presumably passed it along (or sold a half-share) to Joseph Duveen.
Duveen was not in the business of selling Mazos. He wanted a Velásquez, and knew that Mayer’s doubts could seriously compromise the sale -- and the price. The only way he would get both was to make Mayer change his mind. To entice the scholar to re-evaluate his opinion, Duveen had the picture cleaned -- it is possible that some of the painting’s present abraded surface is due to his scrubbing -- and paid for Mayer to have another look. Mayer pronounced it a masterpiece by Velásquez.
Given Duveen’s relationship with the attribution-enhancing Bernard Berenson, it is logical to think that here Mayer also whored himself. Yet Mayer’s description of the freshly cleaned picture, noting the "marvelous modeling," the "mother of pearl tints" of the face, and the silver-gray tones of the background, are identical to the picture in its present state. Most tellingly, Mayer described it as being like a "flowing watercolor," approving of its sketchy, loose, even partially unfinished qualities (alas, no photograph is known of the picture in that state).
Today, such fresh and freely executed sketches are very much in favor, but while Duveen might have accepted sketchiness in a Romney or Fragonard, a Velásquez had to be complete and formal to appeal to his clients. The dealer had the Velásquez "improved" by liberal repainting, filling out the black costume, smoothing down the unruly waves in the sitter’s hair and evening out the loosely painted grey background, then finishing by adding several coats of a gently toned varnish to give it an "oldmastery" patina.
It was in this state that Duveen sold it the following year as a Velásquez self-portrait to Bache, one of his favored clients, for $225,000. Its status as a self-portrait gave it a special appeal surpassing Bache’s other Velásquez portrait, a Head of Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, which Duveen sold to Bache in 1928 for only $175,000.
Connoisseurship of such great 17th-century masters as Rubens and especially Rembrandt has long been fluid. Often what one scholar decrees autograph is assigned by another to the workshop of pupil of The Master. Paintings by Velásquez are among the rarest of the great masters of the time (only about 100-odd pictures by him are known) and the contributions of Velásquez’ workshop to a number of works, particularly the court portraits, has long been debated. As the Bache "self-portrait" clouded and darkened with time, several Velásquez scholars began to voice doubts about it, notably Bernadino de Pantorba (in 1955) and Jose Lopez-Rey (1963), the latter describing it as a "School Piece rather close to Velásquez’ manner."
Lopez-Rey is still considered one of the most authoritative experts on the master, and the Bache portrait was ignored entirely in his subsequent catalogue of the artists’ authentic works. The picture began to disappear from standard and general books on the artist. Jonathan Brown, Lopez-Rey’s successor as the leading Velásquez expert, likewise omitted it from his Velásquez catalogue raisonné of 1986. Since its cleaning, Brown has enthusiastically endorsed it as a Velásquez, noting, "I will not attempt to excuse my [earlier] error," an admission as gracious as it is rare.
The expulsion of the Bache Velásquez was mostly a by-product of the skepticism of a more conservative generation of scholarly opinion, but another factor might have contributed to the doubts. A few years after the Bache bequest was unveiled by the Met to the general public in 1949, two of its most celebrated masterpieces -- Raphael’s Portrait of Giuliano de Medici and Dürer’s Portrait of a Venetian Lady -- were embarrassingly unmasked as an old copy and a forgery, respectively.
They were two of Bache’s most expensive purchases, bought from Duveen in 1928 and 1929 for an astonishing $400,000 each. A number of other Bache pictures, including a Domenico Veniziano, a Botticelli and Roger van der Weyden, were subsequently if less dramatically demoted, and it became embarrassingly clear that while Duveen had sold Bache a considerable number of masterpieces, the wily dealer had also bilked the trusting collector with some high-priced duds. If those celebrated Bache pictures were wrong, then maybe Allende-Salazar and Mayer’s second instincts were correct and the Velásquez Self-portrait might not be so right after all.
If the picture were not a Velásquez, then it certainly wasn’t a self-portrait. Though everyone believed the Bache portrait and the far-right man in the Surrender of Breda were the same person, the scholars who believed the Breda man was a self-portrait saw the Bache picture as a portrait of Velásquez by a follower or workshop assistant.
Jonathan Brown believes that neither man is a portrait of Velásquez. Using as guides the two undisputed, later self-portraits (ca. 1640s) in the Valencia Museum and the artist before the easel in Las Meninas of 1656, Brown relies on his own "five second rule" of portrait identification, noting, "If you can’t tell at a glance the portraits represent the same sitter, then the portraits probably depict two different people." Christiansen and Gallagher hold that the facial differences are due to the advanced age of the painter in the later canvases, further observing that all three portraits share the same prominent horizontal bulge of the skull over the eyebrows, creases under the eyes and slightly hollow cheeks.
The nose of the Valencia self-portrait does differ from the Met portrait. Velásquez depicts himself with a smoothly sloped nose while the nose of the Met’s man has a prominent bump and what Gallagher describes as an almost "sharply faceted" tip. Finally, Christiansen and Gallagher bring up a tantalizing reference that "an unfinished self-portrait of Velásquez in a black costume" is cited in the postmortem inventory of the painter’s estate. While they have not so boldly decreed the inventoried picture and the Bache portrait are one and the same, they don’t totally discount the idea.
What about the mystery man on the edge of the Surrender of Breda? Artists have long inserted themselves at the periphery of large compositions, often while turning to look directly at the viewer. Notable examples include Botticelli in the Tani Adoration of the Magi, Raphael in The School of Athens and Juan de Pareja in his Calling of St. Matthew in the Prado. It is arguable that the similarly situated man at the edge of Breda could be Velásquez.
Brown disagrees, noting that at that early moment in Velásquez career, to place himself pointedly in a picture celebrating and commemorating the Count-Duke of Olivares’ military victory over the Dutch, standing among the most distinguished generals and officers of the army of Phillip IV, would be a violation of strict court protocol which would have instantly ejected the painter from the king’s service. Only the king or possibly Olivares could grant an exception to the rule, and it is not impossible that the picture so pleased them that the painter was allowed to do so.
Two other related hypotheses concern the sheet of folded white paper Velásquez painted at the bottom right edge, a frequently used painter’s convention offering a place to sign and/or date their work. Velásquez has left the page blank. Brown believes that in doing so Velásquez used it as a device to proclaim "his authorship and mastery [demonstrating that] who among the painters of Spain could have created such a masterpiece?"
Personally, I wonder if the artist used the device to convey an additional message. Looking at the blank paper, the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn upwards, toward the standing figure directly above the page at the far right edge. He is clad in light grey, and his white collar and white plume in his hat match the color of the paper. "If you want to know who painted this you don’t need to read my name. Just look up. Here I am."
Note and additional conjecture: In 1889, four portraits of uneven quality given to Velásquez were donated to the young Met by its second president Henry P. Marquand. By the early 20th century, all were rightfully re-catalogued as workshop productions, and three of them were de-accessioned in the late 1970s. The Met’s one remaining Marquand portrait from the group, a Portrait of a Man in Black, hangs in the current Velásquez exhibition beside a fine Mazo portrait of the Infanta Maria Theresa, bought by the Met in 1943.
The recently cleaned Marquand portrait, though much inferior in handling and quality to the Bache Velásquez, is a fine work, likely to be by Mazo, and quite possibly a self-portrait. Its dimensions (ca. 27 x 22 in.) are nearly identical to the Bache portrait (27 x ca. 22 in.) and though both portraits depict very different people, both sitters are identically posed against a pearl gray background, wearing the same black jacket and stiff, horizontal white collar. Both pictures share a similar lack of precise finish, with hair wavy and slightly unkempt. And like the Bache Velasquez, the Marquand portrait also entered the museum as a Velásquez self-portrait.
It is not impossible that the author of the Marquand picture knew the Bache portrait. If one accepts the Marquand picture as Mazo’s self-portrait, could Mazo, as Velásquez’ pupil and son-in-law, have seen his master’s unfinished self-portrait in black and been inspired to paint his own self-portrait in a similar manner?
"Velásquez Rediscovered," Nov. 17, 2009-Feb. 7, 2010, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.