The painting, a portrait of a Venetian gentleman circa 1510, started as a Giorgione. Unless, of course, it wasn’t — in which case it started as a Titian.
The most prominent art historians on two continents have flip-flopped on the painting for the better part of the last 100 years: Bernard Berenson first called it a copy of a lost Giorgione and then said it was a Titian. Sir Herbert Cook and Wilhelm von Bode disagreed with both Berensons, calling it an authentic Giorgione. In case that wasn’t confusing enough, just after the turn of the last century an auction house sold it as a Licinio. That worked well enough for a time — the painting sold to George Kemp, 1st Baron Rochdale as such — but no one liked that attribution and the painting went back to being a Giorgione or a Titan and, when all else failed, to being a portrait begun by Giorgione and finished by Titian.
Today the painting, Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman (at left and here), is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, which ‘officially’ lists it as a “Giorgione and Titian,” a stilted attribution which has pleased no one, not the least French museum director and scholar Michel Laclotte, who… exhibited the painting in 1993 as a Titian. Phew.
Uncertainty be damned: Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman is one of the NGA’s most striking Italian portraits. The sitter’s macho harumph! gaze and assertive posture, his clenched fist and the mysterious setting, effectively obscured by a bit of paint loss, raise plenty of questions: Why the clenched fist? What on earth is the man holding, a handkerchief? What does “VVO” mean? Why has the sitter tossed his head back in what could be defiance? What does the green-covered book or ledger indicate? Do any of these questions offer clues as to who might have made the painting?
While Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman is typically on view in the NGA’s collection galleries, for now the painting hangs in the NGA’s Tullio Lombardo exhibition. On a recent visit to the show I noticed that the museum had changed the painting’s title plate: ‘Giorgione and Titian’ was gone. The painter was newly (and obliquely) referenced as a 16th-century Venetian.
Museums are typically less-than-eager to share the details of what might be called unattributions — which this appeared to be — or to even show paintings that were once assigned to The Great Artist but were now believed to be by someone less significant. (The NGA, for example, has 68 works that are ‘related’ to or are ‘after’ Rembrandt, and few of them ever see John Russell Pope’s walls.) Given that Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman is such a well-known, frequently exhibited painting and that despite the unattribution it was on view, I emailed the NGA to see if someone might tell me what was going on with our Venetian gentleman.
I expected the museum’s press and curatorial offices to brush me off with a quick, ‘Come back later, we’re still researching it,’ which would have been perfectly understandable given the fuzzy new title plate and the painting’s history of attribution drama. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On a recent Thursday afternoon, NGA curator David Alan Brown agreed to meet me in front of the painting. I arrived ready to take a few notes. Brown arrived with folders, Xeroxes, photographs, x-rays and books, ready to tell a story. Over the next few days I’ll relay that story, which culminates with Brown identifying who he thinks is the real painter of Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, an attribution which he thinks should settle the mystery once for all.