by Thomas Torak | December 25, 2012
There are some paintings I have thought about a lot and with which I have long relationships. The recently rediscovered Velázquez Portrait of a Man at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of them. I first came to know the painting in 1975 and have always referred to it as the Velázquez Self Portrait, the title it had when it entered the museum collection in 1949. Over the years the attribution changed from “by Velázquez” to “school piece rather close to Velázquez” then to “workshop of Velázquez.” I never thought it was by Velázquez or his school, but I do remember it struck me as a remarkable portrait. I spent many hours with the painting, marveling at the perfection of the drawing, the economy of the technique, the delicate harmonies and glorious unity. In the early 1980s, the painting was removed from the wall of the museum, and I waited patiently for its return. I became concerned when the months turned into years and inquired where I might find the piece. As the museum became more and more uncertain about the attribution, I was told, the painting was less and less desirable as an exhibition piece and was finally put into storage. In 1983, I asked for permission to see it and was given a pass to the storage area. There, I found my old friend in a storage rack next to the Malle Babba by Frans Hals, which was also of dubious attribution and kept away from public view. That was the last time I saw the piece before its recent cleaning.
In November 2009 the painting reappeared with great fanfare at the Metropolitan’s exhibition, Velázquez Rediscovered. I was delighted to know the painting was again on view but apprehensive after viewing the recently cleaned piece online. When I saw it at the museum, my fears were confirmed: the painting was badly altered by the cleaning. Not wanting to look any longer, I turned away from the piece and noticed an attributional time line on the opposite wall. The first line caught my attention: “Before 1800 – Acquired as a work by Anthony Van Dyck by Johann Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn (1736–1811), illegitimate son of King George II of England.” This made sense to me. The room was filled with other works by Velázquez and this didn’t look like any of them. It did, however, look like the Van Dycks just a few rooms away. On the other hand, I still agreed with the long-standing view that it was a portrait of Velázquez. I began to wonder how Van Dyck could have come to paint a portrait of Velázquez. There is no historical record of the two ever meeting or even being in the same place at the same time. But one could conceive a scenario to explain how it could have been painted. Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck’s mentor and friend, was in Spain for seven months in 1628. Velázquez was a court painter to King Philip IV at that time, and, according to Jonathan Brown, the leading Velázquez expert of our time, “Rubens ignored the other court painters and kept only the company of Velázquez.” It is not unreasonable to assume that Rubens painted a portrait of his new young friend as a personal memento of his trip to Spain. This would not be surprising as Rubens seems to have painted just about everyone he ever met. When he returned to Antwerp, he would have shown the painting to Van Dyck and told him about the talented Spanish artist. Copying was very common in those days; Rubens had copied several Titians in the king’s collection while in Spain. It’s possible that Van Dyck copied the Rubens portrait thus giving us a portrait of Velázquez by Van Dyck. Since there is no known portrait of Velázquez by Rubens in existence today, I admit this is speculative, but plausible.
According to Keith Christiansen, chairman of European paintings at the Met, the piece cannot be traced prior to the early eighteenth century when it belonged to Johann Ludwig. So, how did the painting get into Ludwig’s hands? If you agree that the painting is by Van Dyck, it may not be such a big mystery. Van Dyck went to England in 1632 to work for King Charles I. It is quite likely he took the copied portrait of Velázquez with him. It would have been useful as a portrait sample for prospective clients, as a piece for sale, or to be given as a gift to ingratiate Van Dyck with the aristocracy. Whether it was given or sold by Van Dyck is of less importance than that it would then be part of an aristocratic collection where King George II could have seen it. According to historical records, the king had a mistress named Amalie von Wallmoden. It seems reasonable that the king would have given gifts to his mistress. Perhaps he bought the Van Dyck portrait as one such gift. Amalie and the king had a son together, Johann Ludwig, who, Christiansen tells us, was “raised at the Court of St. James … made the Grand Tour in 1765 and then settled in Hanover, where he built a castle, the Wallmoden-Schloss, to house his collection of antiquities.” It is not difficult to imagine the painting passing from mother to son, who then takes the piece to Hanover where its known history begins. Again, this is pure speculation: there is no record of such a painting being in the royal collection. I’m not trying to prove attribution to Van Dyck here—I’ll leave that to some eager Ph.D. candidate—but rather to suggest that the earliest attribution may have been right.
When I turned back to the painting on the wall during my visit, I became more convinced that that attribution might be correct. Every artist has a unique way of drawing; it is their handwriting, their identity. The drawing of the head in Portrait of a Man seems to me to be by the same hand that painted Van Dyck’s portrait James Stuart, Duke of Lennox and Richmond, not the hand that painted Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja, both part of the Metropolitan’s collection. The manner in which the paint is applied also suggests that it is a Flemish painting. Rubens pioneered and perfected the use of opacity and transparency in his work, and Van Dyck mastered the technique. Portrait of a Man showed this method of painting in its full glory. Before the cleaning, the paint varied from a huge opacity on the forehead to an exquisite transparency along the jawline. Although Velázquez and Rubens spent some seven months together, Velázquez never fully took on this technique in his work. His paintings can be either very bold or very delicate but he did not use both processes in a single painting, a hallmark of Flemish painting at that time.
Although I disagree with the painting’s attribution, it is the condition of the painting after the cleaning that I find most disturbing. The opacity I mentioned, is still there since it was created with white lead pigment and is not easily removed. After the recent cleaning, however, the transparency which so beautifully sculpted the jawbone and turned the lower part of the head is altered and the jaw looks unfinished. The head is now unresolved, like a novel with the last few pages missing. In addition to the jawline’s alteration, I noticed other changes. Delicate harmonies in the hair, doublet and background were removed during the cleaning. Michael Gallagher, who led the restoration, claims that everything that was removed had been added by a previous restorer. After viewing the cleaned painting, Jonathan Brown, the sole authority to authenticate the work, agreed with Gallagher. He restored the attribution from “workshop of Velázquez” to “by Velázquez,” declaring the work an unfinished portrait. Until now no one has ever suggested that the painting was unfinished. While every artist leaves unfinished work, there is a crucial difference between a portrait that is unfinished and one that is over-cleaned. An unfinished portrait still has a focus and unity of purpose, whereas an over-cleaned painting will leave random scumbles, abrasions, and odd edges that distract from the portrait. Before the cleaning, Portrait of a Man had that focus and unity, now it shows those telltale signs of over-cleaning. The paint that was taken off this painting was sensitive and masterful, and, in my opinion, the hand of a great artist, not the hand of a restorer. Anyone who suggests that a restorer could “finish” a Velázquez portrait has never seriously held a brush in his hand. To an artist, painting is visual poetry. Portrait of a Man is no longer a poem, it is now a collection of words.
I’ve always thought it odd that artists are not considered experts in painting. It is conservators who are given the authority to decide how a painting should look and historians are the undisputed guardians of attribution.
My thoughts drifted to the identity of the sitter. When the painting was in the Ludwig collection, it was called Portrait of an Unknown Man and attributed to Van Dyck. According to the attributional time line, the artistic credit was changed from Van Dyck to Velázquez in 1854, and in 1857, the painting was sold as a Velázquez Self Portrait. In 1917, historian August Mayer confirmed it as a self portrait on the basis of the resemblance of the sitter to a figure thought to be a depiction of the artist, standing at the far right of Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda (1634–35). The two portraits are clearly of the same person, and it was very common at that time for artists to paint themselves into large figure compositions. Hypothetically, Velázquez could have copied the Rubens portrait, too. When he needed a foot soldier to balance his composition in the Surrender of Breda, he may have used his Rubens copy as a model, thus adding a self portrait to the piece. Jonathan Brown agrees the two portraits are of the same person but is of the opinion that Velázquez would not dare portray himself in the company of the distinguished Spanish noblemen depicted in the Surrender. He concludes that the newly-restored portrait cannot be a self portrait either. I agree with Mayer that they are both portraits of Velázquez and the Surrender figure is a self portrait, however, I believe the painting at the Met is a portrait of him by another hand.
I’ve always thought it odd that artists are not considered experts in painting. It is conservators who are given the authority to decide how a painting should look and historians are the undisputed guardians of attribution. Artists, who spend their days painting, who know how paint is applied and know how artists think, are never consulted. Artists have a lot to contribute to the conversation. My thoughts on the attribution may be fanciful, but they are worthy of consideration. If an artist had been consulted before the cleaning, the painting may not have been ruined. We might have a clearer identity of the sitter if there had been a discussion rather than a declaration by a single historian. After viewing the painting the experts now call an unfinished Portrait of a Man by Velázquez, I came to the conclusion that it is a portrait of Velázquez by Van Dyck, at one time a beautifully finished portrait, but now poorly restored. The attribution of the work is not of great importance to me. It was a better painting when it was a workshop piece than it is now with Velázquez’s name attached to it. But I am deeply saddened to see a painting that I have loved for thirty-five years irreparably altered and stripped of its former glory.
This article appeared in the Spring 2011 print issue of LINEA.