It may be disconcerting to some, but I actually enjoy the fact that art history, like history in general, is a fluid landscape. New discoveries and the reinterpretation of existing information can make textbooks obsolete overnight and reverse the fortunes of collectors and museums; and can also lead to excitement, disappointment or simply clarification.
A reversal of a reversal has led to excitement, and improved the fortunes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as the attribution of Portrait of a Man, a painting in their collection once assigned to Spanish master Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, but later downgraded to “workshop of” (meaning painted perhaps under his guidance, but by lesser hands) has recently been reexamined, cleaned, restored and reassigned to the master’s hand.
Velázquez is one of the great masters of Western art, considered the greatest of all painters by some, and the reassignment of the painting to him is a significant event.
This is particularly interesting because the painting, when originally attributed to him, was thought to be a self-portrait, an assessment that just seems “right” to me. I say that not because I’m any kind of expert on Velázquez, but simply because the portrait has that particular look I’ve seen in dozens of self-portraits.
This is partly, I think, due to the staring-directly-at-you face-in-the-mirror pose, but partly due that special look that I think comes from the mental shift into that mode of seeing that accompanies drawing and painting from life. (See my posts on Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, The Face of Leonardo? and Marie-Denise Villers)
The portrait matches that of the figure of a bystander in Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda (to the far right, image above with detail). That figure also stares directly at us (or the mirror) and has something of that same look to the eyes. This figure too was long thought to be a self portrait while Portrait of a Man was still attributed to Velázquez.
Portrait of a Man is more of a study than a finished work, but the face is pretty well finished. To think that we have the face of the artist staring out at us is a wonderful addition to the treat of knowing we have another Velázquez in the world.