The Metropolitan Museum's European paintings chairman, Keith Christiansen, and head of paintings conservation, Michael Gallagher, discuss their recent reattribution of an extraordinary portrait in the collection to the greatest of all Spanish painters.
Keith Christiansen: We’re at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m Keith Christiansen, chairman of the Department of European Paintings, and I’m here with Michael Gallagher, who is head of the Department of Paintings Conservation. And we’re sitting, looking at this extraordinary picture—by Velázquez—whose real qualities were only revealed in the course of last summer, when it came up to conservation to be cleaned.
It shows a man who’s probably in his early thirties, wearing a black costume cut off bust length, costume unfinished. He looks directly out at us, wonderful moustache, little goatee, white collar that is like a plate around his neck.
It’s a picture that came to the Metropolitan in 1949 as part of the bequest of Jules Bache, one of the great benefactors of the Museum. And it’s a picture that, when it arrived, came to us as a self-portrait by Velázquez. But, you know, scholarship is a very strange thing, and over the course of the years, as the varnish darkened and further layers of varnish obfuscated the picture, it gradually seemed less likely as a proper Velázquez and was finally, in 1979, demoted by the Museum to an attribution of the workshop of Velázquez.
Nonetheless, it’s a picture that really continued to fascinate me. And so when Michael Gallagher arrived here four years ago and we walked around the galleries, this was one of the pictures we discussed as something that we might have up in conservation to have a good look at, to see whether it might benefit from a cleaning.
Michael Gallagher: I performed a small cleaning test along the bottom edge to sort of get a sense of just how distorted the painting was by previous restoration. And we were both really quite shocked by it, because the varnishes that had covered the entire picture had discolored enormously, and there had been, I think, also an attempt to change the picture’s character. We decided it was worth going ahead with a full cleaning to try and bring back the picture and allow us to make a better judgment on its quality and its authorship.
Keith Christiansen: And as we see it today in its cleaned state, it has the most arresting presence. You feel in direct contact with this person. Imagine him, then, instead of looking directly out at you, with this extraordinary rapport—this feeling of communication between you and the picture—he’s behind three panes of tinted glass. And then you can imagine the effect that this picture had under the varnish. Sometimes pictures don’t improve with cleaning, but this is a picture that transformed in cleaning. And there is also a quality of immediacy to the technique that, I think, engages one in the most remarkable way.
We both were so impressed by the sheer quality of this picture that we felt we needed to get in touch with a specialist on Velázquez, Jonathan Brown, to come over and to give his blessing on it. Quite honestly, by this point, both of us were pretty convinced that we were dealing with a work by the greatest of all Spanish painters.
Michael Gallagher: I think the first thing that’s really important to understand about this painting is though it’s finished in the sense that I believe the artist stopped when he wanted to stop, it’s not brought to a high level of finish. Many areas are summarily treated—they have the quality of a sketch. For example, a lot of the costume, the doublet that the sitter wears, is just barely suggested. Most of the attention of the painting is focused on this extraordinary face. There’s a searing type of intensity to the observation employed in observing and recording that face, and it is what makes the picture so unbelievably arresting. I think the greatest crime of the previous restoration was to try and make this a more finished painting by toning back areas, by giving the contour of the hair, which was always slightly unresolved—it was given a very artificial outline—and each of those decisions, each of those steps, pulled down the quality of the picture by hiding this very, very lively, spontaneous quality.
Keith Christiansen: Jonathan Brown came by a couple days later, taking a break from his busy teaching schedule. Walked up to the picture. Took him about five seconds to turn around and say, “There’s no question who did this. Congratulations on the new acquisition.”
So you have this figure looking out at you, presence of a real person, and the temptation, of course, is inevitable. Who is this guy? Well, as it turns out, the same person appears in one of Velázquez’s greatest masterpieces, a painting called The Surrender of Breda that hangs in the Prado Museum. It shows the giving of the keys to the leading military figure who led the Spanish siege of the town of Breda in Holland. And at the far right there’s a horse, there are other military men, and way at the right edge of the picture is a figure who looks out at us—very proud, almost arrogant expression on his face. And this is the person who is portrayed in our picture.
Well, for many, many years the figure at the far right in The Surrender of Breda was thought to be a self-portrait of Velázquez, for the simple reason that he’s on the margin, he’s looking out at the viewer, it’s exactly the place that painters insert self-portraits. We’ve had a long, extended conversation with Jonathan Brown about this subject and he reminds us that at the court of Philip IV, the hierarchy, the etiquette, the sense of decorum was such that he feels it would be very, very unlikely that an artist, a young artist of Velázquez’s age at this period—Velázquez would have been about thirty-five years old—would have been allowed to insert his portrait into a painting of this historical importance, meant to decorate a palace. Nonetheless, I’m sure many people who look at this picture will be tempted to say there’s something so personal about it, almost confessional about it, this must be a self-portrait.
Michael Gallagher: Without exception, everyone who's come through the studio and seen this picture—it stops them dead in their tracks. It is, to use a cliché, a show stopper. There is no pretense to this painting. The facility in which the painting is handled is extraordinary, but it’s done with integrity and sincerity. Every aspect of it is handled with such extraordinary ability.
Keith Christiansen: The picture has such an extraordinary presence that one has to ask oneself how the artist achieves it. When you come to the Museum and are able to stand in front of the picture, these are some issues that I think might be interesting to keep in mind: the extraordinary silhouette of the doublet that he wears—you’ll see a pale brown line all around the left-hand side of it. This is the ground of the picture. Velázquez was painting this at great rapidity. Michael, do you have any idea how long he would have spent painting a picture like this?
Michael Gallagher: It’s always maybe a little dangerous to second guess, but, I mean, we’re talking hours. I mean, he’s incredibly skillful at putting veils of color, but you shouldn’t confuse this with the sort of labored glazing technique of, say, something like a Venetian seventeenth-century painting. This is very direct and, because of that, because of that simplicity, in a sense, of technique—dazzling though it is, it is essentially simple—he would have been able to achieve these effects in a very short period of time.
Keith Christiansen: When we get to a detail like the collar, which sits in space and sets off the head in this wonderful fashion, with its sharp edge played against the fuzziness of the hair, or the goatee—how much labor do you think he spent for the collar like that?
There’s very little actual pigment on it. And the edge of it is painted with just a few brushstrokes, each one perfectly positioned so the thing sits in space, establishing both the depth of the picture and setting off the head, which seems to sit with great security above it. Any other painter and anybody in Velázquez’s workshop would have labored very hard to achieve these effects and we would have been very much aware of the labor involved. Here's just a few brushstrokes; it’s done. And this runs throughout the picture in this way.
Michael Gallagher: I mean, if you look at the collar, he’s just pulled round this cold gray—I say cold when you compare it to the grays in the background, which are very warm—I mean, we’re talking one swipe. And then there’s about three almost glancing little touches of white—three or four. So you’re talking seconds, not even minutes, I think.
Keith Christiansen: One of the things that so impresses me, Michael, about the picture is you have the incompleteness of the doublet and then the head worked up with extraordinary sense of physical density, with the whole quality of skin and of the light on the skin. There’s almost this sheen of the nose, of the forehead. And then this look that you get, the gaze of him that stops you short in your tracks, that addresses you, where you feel in direct contact with the physical being in the picture, rather than an image of him. This contrast in techniques is not something you always find with Velázquez. In fact, the Metropolitan’s great picture of Juan de Pareja, his slave assistant that he had in the workshop, of Moorish descent, is much more posed by comparison to this. What about this extraordinary variety in the technique that he applies to a picture like this?
Michael Gallagher: We’ve generally referred to this as a life study and I think we say that because it isn’t a highly finished portrait. Certain areas were purposely left in a sort of summary level of finish. And, I think to the modern eye, we really respond very strongly to that. It’s almost as if the artist directs us to the face because the other parts of the painting—there’s just enough information. You see the orientation of the pose, you get a sense of the fabric that is in the doublet, the rigidity of the collar, and so forth. But the head is treated with such concentration it demands our attention in a way that makes it arresting, that gives it this extraordinary physical presence, that you really feel you’re looking at a living human being. You feel you almost know that character, it’s recorded in such an intense way.
Keith Christiansen: You know, one of the things that it reminds me of is that the removal of the varnish, of the repaints where a restorer in 1925–26, tried to give the picture a quality of completion that the artist never intended, was that instead of looking at an Old Master, one is looking at a fresh person who's a voice from the past that suddenly leaps out from the past and is in your present. And I think this is really such an extraordinary quality of this picture. The more you look at it, the more you realize that, although it is painted very freely, very thinly, in such a brief amount of time, the adjustments are incredibly subtle—the pale gray on the one side of the body and the darker gray around the head—which creates a spatial ambient for this figure and makes him really leap out at you.
There are very few pictures by Velázquez done in this fashion—informal, life studies, unfinished—and, interestingly enough, when an inventory was drawn up of Velázquez’s possessions after his death in 1661, we find two pictures like this listed. And one of them is “a portrait of Diego Velázquez, the vestments unfinished.” For those who find this picture to be not only arresting but also to have the quality of the artist unveiling himself to us, this is a very, very suggestive reference in the inventory. And although we can’t identify the sitter with any certainty, it reminds us that Velázquez did paint himself in a mirror. And I think that’s what one really feels in this picture. Don’t you get sort of that same sensation, Michael?
Michael Gallagher: One of the great things about the painting is, by anyone’s standard, the technique is dazzling. But the first thing that strikes you is the inner life of the sitter. And it’s almost secondary that you begin to see what a master class in paint handling this is. And with such limited means, Velázquez creates this really, really breathtaking portrait.
Keith Christiansen: This picture goes on view November 17 at an exhibition titled “Velázquez Rediscovered” at the Metropolitan Museum. It will run through February 7. It’s a unique occasion to see not only this picture but a record of its whole attributional history, of its cleaning, and to be able to compare it with four other of the Metropolitan’s paintings by Velázquez. It’s the largest and most comprehensive group of paintings by this great Spanish artist in America.