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Met Displays Controversial $13.7-Million “Commander,” Sold by Princess Diana’s Brother

The Metropolitan Museum appears to have gotten a spectacular (although unannounced) present in time for last December’s holiday season. According to a Met spokesperson, you should be able to enjoy this treat in the galleries at least until August, when it may go back to its lender.

As I exited through the old masters galleries after my second viewing (on Dec. 23) of the Met’s show of early Italian Renaissance portraits, the dynamic interplay of three figures caught my eye. This vibrant composition held its own between two monumental, very familiar masterpieces by Rubens from the permanent collection:

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I moved in for a closer look:

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Rubens, “A Commander Being Dressed for Battle,” oil on panel, c. 1612-13, private collection

I didn’t remember having seen this striking picture before. So I examined the label and saw that it was a 2011 loan. “When was this installed?” I asked the guard, still feeling a bit dazed by this startling discovery. “About two weeks ago,” he told me. (The Met’s spokesperson confirmed that the guard was correct.)

It riveted me with the luminous reflections in the warrior’s armor and the tender, interwoven intimacy of its multi-generational trio. Then I looked to its left and its right, and realized that this painting was in high definition while the neighboring Rubenses—“Venus and Adonis” and “The Holy Family with Saints Francis and Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist”—were comparatively gauzy, less crisp and less intense in hue. I thought this could be due to a difference in condition, but it did make me wonder for an instant.

Had I been monitoring the art market more closely, I would have instantly recognized the newcomer. About five seconds of web searching after I got home brought me to its catalogue page from the July 6, 2010 old masters sale at Christie’s, London, where Rubens’ “Commander” was the top lot at $13.66 million. Its seller was the “Spencer Collections,” as in Earl Spencer, the brother of the late Princess Diana.

According to the auction house’s “Lot Notes,” an Italian painting of a similar subject, already owned by the Met, is closely related to this Rubens (and might have made a nice juxtaposition in the galleries):

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Paris Bordone (1500-1571), “Portrait of a Man in Armor with Two Pages,” undated on the Met’s website but “typical of the work Bordon undertook in 1549-50”

Of the Bordone, Christie’s catalogue says:

Whether it was this picture which directly inspired Rubens [emphasis added], who
integrated the main elements of the composition, or whether both
pictures depended on a common literary source—perhaps Homeric or
Virgilian—is an open question.

But wait, there’s more! Apparently not everyone believes that the “Commander” is a Rubens. For one thing, its history of ownership, as recorded on Christie’s above-linked catalogue page, is riddled with “possibly’s.”

The doubters, however, didn’t convince Met curator Walter Liedtke, who believes that it’s right, according to the Met’s spokesperson. Here’s what the museum’s label (which says it’s by Rubens) tells us:

This dazzling work, in which two pages prepare a commander for battle, is a sort of homage to Venetian painting and, more specifically, to Titian, whose paintings Rubens deeply admired….The youth [in the upper right corner] holding the commander’s helmet is based on a life study and reappears in other paintings by Rubens. The armor is of the 16th century, underscoring the imaginative character of the picture, which is not a portrait of a particular person but an emblematic depiction of a warrior.

All this is giving me flashbacks to a certain controversial Vermeer that was also famously acquired at auction and that the Met also later exhibited (beside one of its permanent-collection Vermeers) as the real deal:

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Vermeer, “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” as seen in January 2009 in the Met’s galleries, on loan from a private collection

an ArtsJournal blog