A fresh look at a masterpiece

Curiosity resurfaces after restoration of portrait

Get Adobe Flash player
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 9, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

When Isabella Stewart Gardner bought a large portrait of Spain’s King Philip IV in 1896, she believed it was by the hand of Diego Velázquez, a painter now regarded as one of the three or four greatest of all time.

She had bought the picture, painted in 1626-28, from the English dealers Colnaghi and Co., on the advice of the great Renaissance scholar Bernard Berenson. Berenson (not a Velázquez expert) had written to Gardner about the picture, describing it as “infinitely distinguished, every inch a king.’’

He noted that it was a replica of a painting in the Prado Museum in Madrid, but said the replica was “better in execution. It was painted directly after that, and avoids some mistakes of the first version.’’

“His Majesty is here!’’ wrote Gardner in a note to Berenson after the painting, for which she paid 15,000 pounds, arrived. “He is glorious. I am quite quivering and feverish over him. How simple and great.’’

Last Tuesday, the Gardner’s head of conservation, Gianfranco Pocobene, stood in front of the picture just as Gardner would have done in 1896. A dark-haired man with a warm, intelligent face and a relaxed but professional manner, he was talking about the conservation treatment he had just performed on the painting at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at Harvard Art Museums.

The painting’s frame, also cleaned and conserved, was hanging empty on the wall in the museum’s Titian Room. The painting itself perched on an easel a few feet away.

It shows the young king Philip IV, austere, imposing, and dressed entirely in black, holding a letter in one hand; the other rests on a table covered by a red cloth and a black top hat. We see the king from a low vantage point, which emphasizes his regal stature.

His face, with its meaty chin and thick Habsburg lip, is expressionless — only the slightest hint of the insecurity to which he was reportedly prone. The portrait as a whole combines a sense of sharp austerity with dizzying power.

The last time the picture was restored, explained Pocobene, was in 1948, when its surface was cleaned and a synthetic varnish that was new for the time was applied. The canvas was also re-lined.

Pocobene casually touched the edge of the canvas in a place usually concealed by the frame: “You can see here where they used wax to bind the old canvas to the new lining.’’

Modern conservation practice dictates that anything done to restore a canvas should be easy to undo. Did the painting’s 1948 conservators abide by such conventions?

“All of their restoration came off very nicely,’’ said Pocobene. When it did, various imperfections became apparent, including what Pocobene called “speckled halos of remnant oil paint.’’

Unable to remove them safely, he resorted to some careful in-painting to help the canvas read as a unified surface.

“Oil paint darkens over time,’’ he explained. If you’re trying to touch up a damaged surface, the color you use might match now, said Pocobene, “but over the years it will get darker and darker. That’s why we’ve switched to these synthetic paints.’’

The Gardner Museum is notorious for having, among its dozens of superb treasures, many pictures bought by Isabella Gardner in the belief that they were autograph paintings by recognized masters, but which turned out to be copies or fakes.

It has a copy, for instance, of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, which came to Mrs. Gardner through Berenson 10 years after the Philip IV portrait. It was confirmed as genuine in 1927 by the art dealer and Berenson associate Joseph Duveen. But by 1931, experts were beginning to concur that it was probably by another hand.

Today, no one believes it is a genuine Velázquez.

The status of the Gardner’s portrait of Philip IV, which is now on exhibit, is less clear. The Gardner Museum’s website lists it as a painting by Diego Velázquez. But since the 1930s, experts have tended to agree that it is a combination of workshop and Velázquez himself. So little is known about Velázquez’s relationship with his studio that it has been impossible to say what degree of involvement he had.

Judgments to do with the attribution of Velázquez paintings change with dismaying frequency. There are only between 110 and 120 Velázquez paintings in the world, so each time an attribution is reversed, it is a very big deal for the institution that owns the picture.

Just last year, two paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were upgraded from “studio of Velázquez’’ to genuine Velázquez. Yale University Art Gallery, meanwhile, uncovered a painting in storage that it claims is an early, undocumented Velázquez (most experts remain, however, unconvinced).

One of the two upgraded paintings at the Met was another portrait of Philip IV. It matches a similar portrait in the Museum of Fine Arts, long believed to be a studio product. Last summer, after the Met’s Philip IV portrait had been subjected to a thorough cleaning and expert analysis, the MFA sent its portrait of Philip IV to New York to hang alongside the Met picture.

The experience “was really revelatory because you saw the difference between an autograph replica and a workshop model,’’ said the Met’s chief paintings conservator Michael Gallagher, in a conversation with Keith Christiansen, the museum’s chairman of the department of European paintings, in an interactive feature on The New York Times’s website. Gallagher noted in the MFA portrait how “everything gets hardened up, everything goes up a gear as it’s copied and becomes a little more faceted. The expression changes entirely as it hardens. I used to refer to him [the MFA portrait] as the evil twin.’’

The end result of the Met’s lengthy process of cleaning, restoration, analysis, and comparison, was that their portrait of Philip IV — just 37 years after its demotion to a studio product — was reattributed to the hand of Velázquez.

Regardless of who painted them, both the MFA and Met portraits appear to have been based on an earlier portrait that Velázquez later painted over, the outlines of which are visible under X-ray.

He painted over it with yet another portrait of Philip IV, now hanging in the Prado, and it’s that later portrait that the Gardner portrait replicates.

In both cases, scholars believe some kind of tracing was made from the original, according to Ronni Baer, senior curator of European paintings at the MFA.

“We don’t have a firm understanding of at what point Velázquez intervened [in the copying process], if he did,’’ says Baer, who looked at the Gardner’s Velázquez after its cleaning in the company of the Met’s Keith Christiansen. “But he did have responsibility for the conception of the composition.’’

Pocobene is one of Boston’s most experienced conservators, but he stresses that he is not a Velázquez expert. Having just spent several months with the painting, he is, however, understandably curious.

What he would like to see is a deeper analysis of the picture by qualified scholars. Ideally, the Gardner’s portrait would be taken to Madrid to compare it to the original, just as the MFA sent its portrait to New York.

That appears unlikely in the short term. Distracted by costly building and restoration projects, the Gardner remains without a curator, and has so far made no attempt to bring in outside experts.

“It is definitely due for reconsideration,’’ says Pocobene.

In an e-mail to the Globe, Jonathan Brown, the leading Velázquez scholar in the United States, said, “it has been ages since I last saw the picture. I didn’t know it was being restored, but obviously the time has come to have another look.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

Drag the cursor to see the portrait before and after restoration.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Show only Before
Gianfranco Pocobene, head of conservation at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, recently restored a portrait of Philip IV of Spain, long thought to be by Diego Velázquez and his workshop.