Velázquez Rediscovered features a newly identified painting by Velázquez, Portrait of a Man, formerly ascribed to the workshop of Velázquez, and recently reattributed to the master himself following its cleaning and restoration. It is shown alongside other works from the Museum's superior collection of works by the great Spanish painter.
In summer 2009 this arresting portrait was taken off the walls of the gallery where it had been shown for many years and brought to conservation for examination. The picture's fascinating history is notable for the changes in attribution and identification, providing a case study in the ways critical opinion can alter over time. What was not realized or sufficiently taken into account in the literature was the degree to which the appearance of the picture was compromised by thick, discolored layers of varnish and an old restoration that attempted make it look more finished than the artist intended. The cleaning of the picture literally revealed a new work of art: a portrait done from life, with parts left only summarily described, painted in a fashion typical of Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), to whom it now may confidently be reattributed.
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 of historical narrative the Surrender of Breda, painted in 1634–35 to decorate the principal state room of the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid. In it the Dutch commander, Justin of Nassau, is shown handing the keys of the fortress of the Dutch city of Breda to the victorious general of the Spanish and Burgundian troops, Ambrogio Spinola. Was the Museum's portrait conceived as an independent work or as a study done for the sitter in the large, complex composition that contains many portraits? 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 led some scholars in the past to identify it as a self-portrait. The matter is, however, highly speculative. There is the question of his resemblance (or lack thereof) to bona-fide portraits of Velázquez and the fact that he is attired like other members of the Spanish contingent. Thus the Museum has retained the title Portrait of a Man.
The leading Velázquez specialist, Jonathan Brown, has reintroduced the picture into the scholarly literature. The Museum is grateful for his generous collaboration in this rediscovery.
A History of Attribution
Acquired as a work by Anthony van Dyck by Johann Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn (1736–1811), illegitimate son of King George II of Great Britain.
Sold by his son, Ludwig George Thedel, distinguished general of the Austrian calvary.
First identified as a work by Velázquez by British collector-connoisseur Sir Hugh Hume Campbell.
Sold to George V, King of Hannover, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and Duke of Cumberland as a Velázquez self-portrait.
Published by scholar August Mayer as a Velázquez self-portrait; he subsequently revises his attribution, suggesting instead Velázquez's pupil Juan Bautista Mazo.
Acquired by Duveen Brothers, which has it cleaned and restored. Mayer reexamines it and reaffirms that it is a Velázquez self-portrait.
Purchased by Jules Bache, head of one of the largest security firms in the country and a discriminating collector of Old Master paintings.
Bache dies, leaving his collection to a foundation with the understanding that it will go to the Metropolitan Museum.
The Bache Collection enters the Museum's collection.
A leading Spanish scholar, who finds that the picture—by then obfuscated by a thick, yellowed varnish—lacks the artist's rich subtlety and frankness of execution, questions the attribution to Velázquez.
Prominent Velázquez scholar José López-Rey catalogues the work as "school piece rather close to Velázquez's manner." The picture gradually drops out of consideration.
Museum downgrades the attribution to "workshop of Velázquez."
Removal of discolored varnish and extensive retouching from 1925 reveals a picture of great quality with all the hallmarks of Velàzquez's mastery. Velázquez scholar Jonathan Brown examines the picture and confirms the attribution to the artist.