December 23, 2010
By CAROL VOGEL
For nearly 60 years the portrait of a baby-faced Philip IV by Velázquez hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European paintings galleries, a stunning example of the only 110 or so known canvases by that 17th-century Spanish master. Majestic in size, it was rare in its depiction of a young, uncertain monarch and was the earliest known portrait of Philip by Velázquez, who, as the king’s court painter, went on to record his image for decades.
So it was quite a shock when, in 1973, the Met, reconsidering 300 of its most treasured works, declared that the painting was not a Velázquez and was probably executed in his studio by an assistant or follower.
But in the museum world, 37 years is several lifetimes, especially considering how extraordinarily technology and scholarship have advanced. Now, after a year of examination and restoration, curators, conservators and scholars have changed their minds. They are convinced that this full-length portrait of the 18-year-old king is indeed by Velázquez. The painting, which has been undergoing restoration since August 2009, will be back on display Tuesday.
“It is the restitution to Velázquez of a very important work,” said Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chairman of European paintings. “For the museum, how could it not be important? One of the greatest painters of Western tradition — and a royal portrait to boot — is vindicated.” . . .
“It was probably an official portrait done for someone associated with the court, since ministers and courtiers were expected to own official portraits of the king,” Mr. Christensen said, explaining that painters like Velázquez would often keep a template or a tracing of a composition like this so they could recycle it.
There is, for instance, a more sophisticated, full-length portrait in the Prado. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has a version that scholars all agree is by the artist’s workshop. And in the Meadows Museum in Dallas there is a bust-length portrait of Philip done around the same time as the Met’s painting that proved invaluable to Mr. Gallagher.
By obtaining an acetate tracing of it, he discovered that it matched up perfectly with the Met’s painting — so perfectly that Mr. (Michael) Gallagher (the Met’s chief paintings conservator) was able to lay the tracing over the Met’s canvas to position and repaint the missing eye correctly, right down to its slight droopiness.
It was the closeness of these two canvases that led both him and Mr. Christiansen to wonder about the Prado’s portrait as well as about the extensive use of tracing in Velázquez’s practice. So in January 2009 the men went off to Madrid, taking with them a full-length acetate tracing of their painting. It was there that they learned that their portrait must have been copied from the painting that is visible only through X-rays underneath the Prado’s portrait. Once again the two matched up.
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