After a recent investigation and restoration, a long-forgotten portrait by famed Venetian painter Titian is now hanging in the National Gallery of Canada.
Thanks to a little luck and a painstaking restoration process, Titian’s portrait of Daniele Barbaro (1514-1570)—which has almost never seen the light of day—has finally taken its rightful place among the NGC’s most prestigious works of art.
Titian is considered one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. His work was celebrated by his contemporaries and he created an inimitable, highly personal style that forever changed the art of painting.
The portrait of Barbaro, a well-known Italian scholar and humanist, had remained in poor quality for many years after it was purchased by the NGC in the 1920s.
Stored in the gallery’s vaults, the painting received little attention because it was long believed to be a mere copy. The supposed original was already on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid where its authenticity and designation as the original had gone unquestioned.
The relationship between the two paintings had been long debated among scholars and a side-by-side comparison was commissioned in 1991 to put the matter to rest. The conclusion was that the NGC version was indeed a copy made by Titian in his workshop.
It wasn’t until 2003 that a Canadian art lover wrote to the gallery and inquired about the work. The letter prompted the painting’s restoration and the subsequent re-examining of its status as a copy of the original. The process of restoring and examining took place over the course of years and the final conclusion was a surprise.
NGC director of conservation and technical research Stephen Gritt, who first encouraged the work’s restoration, found that the skill and sensitivity with which the painting was produced indicated that it was indeed an original, not a copy.
Gritt went to Madrid with x-radiographs of both paintings in hand.
“I spent an afternoon in front of a light-box with the Prado’s technical documentalist,” he says.
“By painstakingly comparing subtle features of execution as revealed on the X-ray, we were able to demonstrate that while the paintings were painted more or less at the same time, the Ottawa canvas was the one with all the thinking in it, the one that leads the way.”
The Gallery painting revealed a work in progress, a work whose details were solidified in the painting process. For example the colour of the clothing, the collar height, and the sitter’s prominent nose were all adjusted and finalized on the gallery painting.
The Madrid version showed that the final look of the painting had been arrived at more directly and the “thinking” had been done on the gallery painting. The two paintings were likely painted side by side with the NGC one serving the role as the experimental, original canvas.
So a long-standing debate had been put to rest, and the NGC has enriched its collection by dusting off a would-be copy. It begs the question: What other treasures lurk in the gallery’s vaults waiting to see the light of day?
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