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Scholarly Smackdown: Is Velázquez the Subject of the Met’s “Rediscovered” Velázquez?

Velázquez, “Portrait of a Man,” ca. 1630, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Did you think I was just kidding when I promised you a “comparative assessment of Velázquez noses”? Art-lings, would I kid you?

Yes. But not in this instance.

When I arrived at the press preview for the Metropolitan Museum’s dossier exhibition on its “rediscovered” Velázquez—the previously downgraded “Portrait of a Man”—I thought that Keith Christiansen, the museum’s European paintings chairman, was asking for trouble: He had installed the hard-knocks portrait next to one of the painter’s knockouts, also owed by the Met:

Left, Juan de Pareja, 1650. Right, Portrait of a Man, ca. 1630

But when I looked closely at the two portraits, I could believe they came from the same hand. The painterly modeling of the fleshtones (difficult to compare in the photos below) seemed of a piece. In his detailed wall text examining “Portrait of a Man,” Christiansen describes its accretions of “pinkish layers of paint…to sculpt the features, often exploiting the optical effects of thin and thickly applied layers over the initial dark blocking-in to create a wonderful interplay of warm and cool tones.” The “Portrait of a Man” may not be Velázquez on a great day. But it’s not such a bad day, either.


Face-off: Detail of the Met’s “Juan de Pareja,” left. Detail of “Portrait of a Man,” right.

But who is that man? That’s where the scholarly fun begins. Art historians battle decorously and politely. But I sense dissension between Christiansen and NYU Institute of Fine Arts professor Jonathan Brown, the expert called in to corroborate the upgraded attribution made by Christiansen, after a thorough cleaning “literally revealed a new work of art” (as the Met states on its website).

Deferring to Brown, who agrees with the attribution but discounts the notion that this might be the artist’s self-portrait, the wall text for the exhibition (which includes six other Met-owned works, including four by Velázquez) seems to accept his arguments.

But in his podcast about the portrait, Christiansen notes that it’s a dead ringer for the figure in Velázquez’s “Surrender of Breda,” located “on the margin, …looking out at the viewer [in] exactly the place that painters insert self-portraits.” In conversation with me at the press preview, he said that he and Michael Gallagher, the Met’s conservator who cleaned the painting, are “unwilling to exclude” the possibility that it is a self-portrait.

Keith says this in his entry for the museum’s collections database (and says something similar in the exhibition’s label for the painting):

The identity of the sitter is uncertain. It has rightly been questioned [by Brown] whether Velázquez would have been permitted to introduce his portrait
into a picture as important as the “Surrender of Breda,” which
illustrates a historical event and was destined to decorate a royal
residence. Would he not have had to procure official permission? And
knowing what we do about notions of decorum and hierarchy at the court
of Philip IV, would permission have been granted?

Nonetheless, there remain intriguing physiognomic similarities with
Velázquez’s two certain self-portraits and there will be those [including Christiansen and Gallagher] who
continue to entertain the idea that the Museum’s portrait is, indeed, a
self-portrait and perhaps even the one listed in an inventory of the
artist’s possessions drawn up in July 1661: “a portrait of Diego
Velázquez, the costume unfinished”

I have to go with Brown on this one, but it’s got nothing to do with courtly (or scholarly) pecking orders. For me, it all comes down to noses. Just take a look at the lumpy, bumpy schnoz on the “rediscovered” portrait:


When we compare it to the almost off-the-canvas guy at the right of “Surrender of Breda,” we’ve got a perfect match:


But now let’s peruse the ski-slope nose from an undisputed Velázquez self-portrait, located in the Museo de Bellas Artes, Valencia. When I asked Christiansen (who sees a resemblance to the Met man) why he didn’t include an image of the Valencia painting on the wall text panels (which do include images from “Surrender of Breda”), he replied, “Jonathan has been fantastic, and I wanted to work with him. I thought, ‘Jonathan knows this artist better than anybody. Who am I?'”

Well, I’m CultureGrrl, an expert on no artist, and I’m here to say that the upturned ski-slope nose of the Valencia portrait doesn’t look to me like the one with moguls. (Then again, it is seen from a different vantage point—the right side.):


The other known Velázquez self-portrait is, of course, the painter at the left in the Prado’s renowned Las Meninas. But as Christiansen told me, the physiognomy of that detail from the monumental masterpiece is too indistinct for useful comparison.

Maybe the Prado can eventually bring all three paintings together for a Spanish showdown. In the meantime, there’s more scholarly opinionating to be had in the Met’s catalogue for the exhibition (to Feb. 7).

an ArtsJournal blog