Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reattributing Velázquez

Every once and a while, great news comes from the museum world that works of art have been found, discovered, purchased, attributed, or even occasionally reattributed. Today was such a day. During a meeting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell (Director), Keith Christiansen (newly appointed Chair of European Paintings), and Michael Gallagher (conservator in Paintings Conservation) gave a presentation announcing that the collection's Portrait of a Man, c.1630, formerly attributed to the 17th-century painter Diego Velázquez, then attributed to his workshop, has now been reattributed back to being by the Spanish master himself. All of this has come about after conservation work was done on the picture. The removal of a heavy varnish showed new details that revealed it to be undoubtedly by the artist himself. Further analysis is showing that the work could in fact be an early self-portrait. The picture you see here is a detail of the face from the newly cleaned painting. (This image comes from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and was published online in The New York Times.) The work itself is a tour de force. For instance, look closely at the finesse and detail in the brushstroke of the mustache. It's brilliant! For those who are uncertain why this is a big deal, reattributing works to the master and not just to a workshop elevates the work's importance in the art world. It establishes a benchmark and thus adds to the level of appreciation of the artist and his (or her) works in general. Of course, it would be foolish to deny the other obvious factor: it also means the museum has a piece now valued even greater in the art world and adds to the already enormous respect the museum has garnered for its collections. Now, admittedly, I have written on this blog a bit disparagingly about the hoopla over things like whether a particular painting was actually of Shakespeare or not, and one could argue that this situation is just like that. But I would disagree, because the Shakespeare portrait was not by a well-known artist and creates more of a debate over what the playwright actually looked like. In this case, Velázquez is an extremely well-known and important artist (e.g., you know his Las Meninas at the Prado, and he painted the portrait of Pope Innocent X about which I wrote following my trip to Rome). Furthermore, this reattribution can only assist in continuing dialogues about the artist's style, technique, themes, self-perception, and so on. All that said, I have to admit that probably I was most intrigued by the whole announcement because I was sitting in the audience when they made it. They showed the image you see here and before and after shots, as well as related works. The excitement in all of their voices quickly spread throughout the audience, and I couldn't help but be as excited about the whole thing. It was like discovering a hidden treasure. That, my friends, is just one of the many reasons why I love art history. For more information, click here for the museum's press release, or click here to read Carol Vogel's article about the painting appearing in Thursday's New York Times.

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