Saturday, September 12, 2009

Velazquez Rediscovered

Diego Rodriguez de Sylva y Velazquez, Portrait of a Man, ca. 1630, oil on canvas, 27 x 21 3/4 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
On Wednesday, September 9, 2009, The New York Times broke the story that after years of hanging on the walls of the Spanish Paintings gallery, along sided other Velazquez works, the Metropolitan Museum of Art realized they had a signature work by the master.  As Carol Vogel reports, "the painting had been heavily restored and cleaned in the 1920s and revarnished in 1953 and again in 1965. In the 1960s a leading scholar demoted it to the workshop of Velazquez and by 1979, the museum had downgraded the painting as well." 
Luis Colan, drawing after Velazquez's Portrait of a Man, 2006, moleskine sketchbook
I am no stranger to this portrait. During my five years of living in New York I've visited the Met museum at least once a month, and my tour of the galleries inside remains the same.  I have always stood in front of this work and touched by it, I would always think to myself that there is no way this could be a workshop piece.  Yes the painting did look a little yellow and perhaps even green at times, but it has always been a remarkable portrait.  I am not a curator nor have had years of "formal training" as an academic or historian, but it isn't rocket science to see the magic of Velazquez's hand.  I have treated this portrait with ample respect, and in 2006 I decided to study it.  I wanted to learn from this painting, how a portrait should be done.  
Portrait of a Man sitting in the conservation studios at the Met museum. Photo by Angel Franco/New York Times
The issue of authorship has been resolved, thanks in part to Jonathan Brown, the leading expert in the art of Diego Velazquez, who after looking at the restored painting proclaimed it an original Velazquez. Brown says, "The picture had been under my nose all my life. It's a fantastic discovery. It suddenly emerges Cinderella-like." But who is this seated man? It has been suggested that this may be a self-portrait.  According to the painting's provenance, it belonged to Count Johann Ludwig von Wallmoden-Gimborn, and later to George V, King of Hanover.  At some point it passed down to the hands of art dealer Joseph Duveen, who then sold it to Jules Bache as a Velazquez self portrait, and in 1949 it entered the permanent collection of the Met as a gift from Mr. Bache.  
Diego Velazquez, Portrait of a Man (detail), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The experts from the Met also believe this is "The same sitter [who] appears as a bystander in Velazquez's famous Surrender of Breda in the Prado, Madrid; that bystander too, was long identified as a self-portrait, but the matter is not clear." My biggest question is, will this new discovery be reason enough for the Met to put on a Velazquez exhibition?  I hope so! 

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