Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

The mystery of the Venetian gentleman, part two

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TitianNatlGalleryUKBlue.jpgContinued from yesterday.

David Alan Brown, the National Gallery of Art’s curator of Italian and Spanish painting, sat next to me on a bench, about 15 feet from the mysterious Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman. I wanted to know who had painted it and why Brown thought so. Brown, who has the beard and the professional-but-disheveled look one would expect of a curator of Renaissance art, wanted to start somewhere else.

“In a way, the story is more interesting than who the picture turns out to be by,” Brown said. “In fact this has to be one of the most interesting histories of any picture in the gallery in terms of who painted it.”

Brown opened a manila folder, pulled out four Xeroxed, stapled pages and pointed at the author: Vasari, the Italian painter and architect who is considered art’s first historian. “This is, I think, the kind of thing that lies behind this portrait,” Brown said, and pointed my eyes toward this passage, which suggests that questions about the NGA’s painting started at the beginning of the beginning of writing on Italian art, with Lives of the Artists:

Therefore, when Titian observed the method and style of Giorgione, he abandoned the style of Giovanni Bellini, although he had not followed it for long, and drew closer to Giorgione’s, imitating his works so well in such a short time that his paintings were sometimes mistaken and attributed to Giorgione, as we shall explain below…

… in the beginning, when he began to follow the style of Giorgione and was no more than 18 years of age, he painted the portrait of a gentleman friend of his from the Barberigo family that was considered very beautiful, because the skin tones resembled those of real flesh and the hairs were so well distinguished from the other that they could be counted, as could the stitches in a greatcoat of silver-sewn satin that he painted in the portrait; in short, the painting was so well considered and so carefully done that if Titian had not written his name in the dark background, it would have been taken for a painting by Giorgione.

I finished scanning the passage and looked up at the mysterious painting, trying to at least look like I was searching for something. “I’ve been curator here forever and so I have had years to look at these things, and this one never struck me as being by Giorgione and Titian,” Brown said, gesturing at the painting. “I thought it was an odd attribution because it’s certainly not the work of two hands that one can see. I didn’t also feel that either name was right.”

GiorgioneasDavid.jpgBrown flipped through some pages in the manila folder and held up a couple of Xeroxes of paintings. “These, I think, are the kinds of things that lay behind this portrait,” he said. “Look at Giorgione’s Self-portrait as David with the Head of Goliath, which has been cut down [at right] and Titian‘s Man with a Blue Sleeve — with T.V. painted onto it [above].” Brown gestured at the National Gallery of Art’s painting as if to indicate that the similarities were self-evident, which they were. “The poles between which [our] picture gravitates are Giorgione and Titian and there’s no question that they lie behind it. But I don’t think either one is the author of the picture.”

Brown put down the Xeroxes and turned back to me. “For connoisseurs the holy grail is proof. The question is whether that proof is an illusion or reality, but connoisseurs have always dreamed of some objective way of demonstrating that a work of art is authentic or attributable.

“In the beginning of modern art history Giovanni Morelli and his disciples focused on morphological details like ears and hands as proof that a work was by a certain artist. Morelli was trained as a scientist [a medical doctor], so he studied comparative anatomy. He brought this sort of pseudo-scientific criteria to deciding questions of attribution. All of his followers, including Bernard Berenson, took this up with a vengeance. They went around re-attributing paintings like mad.

“This really proved to be a false dawn, you could say, because in the end the experts continued to disagree. People pointed out that other things were important in making attributions, things besides these minor details that Morelli based his system on.

“Then along came the scientific approach to attribution using technology. The pioneer in this field was Alan Burroughs ans his 1938 book is “Art Criticism from a Laboratory.” He published the very first x-ray of our painting. In adopting this new technology and applying it to works of art, Burroughs had to justify the use of the technology to the field. In other words, he had to come up with something new. So here it is: He decided the underpaint showed that our painting was begun by Giorgione and argued that what you see now was finished by Titian. That’s where the idea comes from that it’s by Giorgione and Titian. Because it was based on the scientific evidence.”

As Brown said that last part his head and shoulders waved back and forth a bit, as if to slightly mock the idea that The Scientific Evidence could — in and of itself — render the learned eye obsolete.

Tomorrow: The scientific evidence is one thing, reading it is another.

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