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Velazquez Rediscovered at the Met

December 16, 2009

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Spanish, 1599–1660) Portrait of a Man, ca. 1630

A recent triumphal discovery at the Met illustrates just how interesting the world of art restoration and attribution can be. After a thorough cleaning, a painting previously attributed to one of Velazquez’s pupils has now been “rediscovered” as a Velazquez study. The painting’s history can be tracked back to the early 19th century, when it’s then-owner, Johann Ludwig (a son of King George II of Britain), attributed it to Van Dyck. Subsequent owners changed the attribution to Velazquez and it wasn’t questioned until 1924 when August Mayer, a German art historian, labeled it as a self-portrait by Velazquez’s pupil and son-in-law. However, in order to make a sale to the client who would ultimately donate the painting to the Met, the dealer, Joseph Duveen, pressured Mayer to change his attribution and the Met eventually acquired it as a Velazquez. However, in 1979, the Met’s European Paintings department downgraded the painting yet again and it was assumed to be a work by one of the painter’s pupils. It wasn’t until 2005, when Keith Christiansen, the museum’s chairman of European paintings, questioned the attribution and asked the Met’s head paintings conservator to clean the painting that they changed their opinion once again.

Upon cleaning, the dark varnish and additional flourishes added over the years were removed and the underlying painting revealed light brushstrokes and sensitive application of color indicative of Velazquez’s hand. The exhibit describes the whole process of restoration including the steps the museum took towards attributing the painting to Velazquez and the minute details they observed in order to come to this conclusion. Other finished paintings by Velazquez are shown along side the study, one of which (The Surrender of Breda, 1634-5) includes a very similar face which is believed to be a self portrait. The exhibit only occupies one room but gives you an insider’s look at the restoration and attribution process that goes on behind the scenes in most museums. Something that I feel most people don’t notice when they are looking at a painting is how it was restored and there is a great difference in techniques and philosophies across institutions on this subject (some believe that “over restoring” can make a painting look too new and undermine its age, while others believe that not cleaning can make paintings overly dull, leading people to misjudge how they looked originally). Overall, the exhibit was a very interesting look at the collaborative process behind bringing the Met its newest Velazquez.

The NYTimes has a great article with slideshow about the exhibit here. The exhibit runs in the European Paintings gallery until February 7, 2010.

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