Continued from here and here. When we left off yesterday, National Gallery of Art curator David Alan Brown was expressing skepticism that x-ray evidence and only x-ray evidence could demonstrate that Giorgione (or Titian) painted the NGA’s Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman.
Brown pulled two x-rays out of a manila folder, showed them to me and told me that x-ray-pioneering art historian Alan Burroughs had said that the underpaint as revealed on these x-rays identified Giorgione as the author of the painting. I didn’t see anything resembling underpaint but was afraid to appear too ignorant, so I kept my mouth shut. Later, when I re-read some passages from Brown’s 2006 exhibition catalogue Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting I realized that Brown might not have found any underpaint either. That’s probably why Brown skipped over my blank look and continued.
“So for a moment we have to double-back. In 1922, before Burroughs and his scientific x-ray studies, art historian Wilhelm Valentiner thought that this man was a merchant, that he was holding a moneybag in his closed fist, and that the building in the background of the painting was the Venetian headquarters of the German merchants group. Of course Valentiner thought it was a merchant: This painting belonged to Henry Goldman of Goldman Sachs so there was a tendency to read in. After all, Valentiner’s work was done in a catalogue of Goldman’s collection!
“Then when Burroughs did his x-ray, there seems to have been what was once a scroll in the fist of the sitter [above]. Somehow Burroughs disregarded that because below the fist was a triangular something. Burroughs thought it was a sword or a dagger or some such thing and decided that the sitter was a warrior.
“Because Burroughs ‘had science on his side,’ everyone decided the sitter was a warrior. Over and over the art historians write that the sitter here is a warrior, that he was holding a dagger, and so on. Furthermore, you’ve got a situation where, you see, the facial expression also fits very well with a warrior. For Burroughs this was a major discovery based on the evidence of the x-ray that he’d produced. It came out with the force of a revelation!
“Well, the problem is that they misread the x-ray. No one caught it and no one questioned it. The triangular thing they thought they saw is a wedge-shaped key in the stretcher. It’s not part of the paint, it’s on the back! It’s on the stretcher. So the x-ray shows you everything, it’s just that they read it wrong!
“As it turned out, this use of x-ray and modern technology to reveal who the author of the picture actually was became such an article of faith that everyone afterward accepted this. We also know, for example, that the Dresden Venus [left] was started by Giorgione and finished by Titian, so it’s not that unheard of. But for Burroughs and for art historians coming after him, science in the form of x-rays proved that this attribution, which had been debated, could be resolved scientifically in favor of both artists.”
Brown paused long enough to shoot me a look indicating he thought little of this kind of baby-splitting.
“The history of the attribution or even the interpretation of the picture, which includes those phases, is very interesting in and of itself because it raises another basic question that has been discussed for a long time: To what degree can we read facial expressions in portraits?
“We assume it’s possible for the artist to grasp the sitter’s character when he’s painting him or her and then to also communicate that in his work. Then, as the third stage, we think that we viewers, 500 years later, can get the artist’s message. I think you’d agree that is a pretty tenuous thread, for that to hold up or mean the same thing over the centuries. But the conviction we’re able to do this is so strong that people look at the portrait and think they know what the painting means.”
I shifted on our bench because… yeah, I’d done that as soon as Brown and I had sat down in front of the painting. I’d referred to the arched eyebrow, to the clenched fist — OK, the apparently clenched fist — and I’d assumed they all meant something about the sitter. Worse, I think I communicated such to Brown, who was willing to acknowledge my human discomfort more than he was willing to acknowledge the expression-in-oil.
“You said it was a striking picture and that he looked assertive or defiant and that’s right. He does. Over the years I’ve collected some adjectives that people have used in the literature to describe the picture. I have 20 of them and they’re all different.”
Brown showed me his page of adjectives. Some of the better words were cruel, truculent, calculating and suspicious. Brown waved the piece of paper at the National Gallery’s portrait. “They all tend to focus on the kind of strong and somewhat negative expression,” he said. “Sure enough, that also was used for the attribution, because it was believed that Giorgione was the lyrical painter and Titian was more dynamic, that a dynamic painting such as this could only be a Titian.
“So you’ve got two things going on here: An interpretation of the sitter’s pose and expression, that is, a reading of the portrait, the portrait’s ‘psychology’ and what that tells you about the artist, and then you’ve got this attribution that used scientific evidence: the hands and the ears and then the x-rays. These things have come together in the literature in an absolutely fascinating way.
“What makes it so fascinating is that even scientific information — which you’d expect would be perfectly clear! — can be misinterpreted just the same way that the facial expression and the pose are. It’s all subject to a variety of interpretations. And those interpretations have been wrong because this isn’t a Giorgione and it isn’t a Titian!”
Tomorrow: Brown’s attribution.