Is it a Giorgione? A Titian? By both? Or…

Solving an art history mystery at the National Gallery of Art

by Tyler Green. Published on Modern Art Notes from August 18–21, 2009.

Charles Hope’s review of the exhibition “In the Age of Giorgione” at London’s Royal Academy in the March 31, 2016 London Review of Books prompted me to re-publish this, a four-part consideration of a painting at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, c. 1510–1515. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

For the better part of the last 100 years, the most prominent art historians on two continents have flip-flopped and leap-frogged each other on the question of who painted the National Gallery of Art’s Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman. At the end of the 19th century, a London auction house sold the painting as a Bernardino Licinio. That worked well enough for a time — it sold to George Kemp, 1st Baron Rochdale as such — but before long no one believed it was a Licinio. Bernard Berenson identified it as a copy of a lost Giorgione before he changed his mind and said it was a Titian. Sir Herbert Cook and Wilhelm von Bode disagreed with each Berenson attribution, and called it an authentic Giorgione. In the ensuing decades, the Venetian Gentleman ping-ponged back-and-forth between Giorgione and Titan and, when all else failed, to being a portrait begun by Giorgione and finished by Titian.

Today the NGA ‘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 ignored it and, in 1993, most recently exhibited it as a Titian.

Uncertainty be damned, Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman is one of the NGA’s most striking Italian portraits. The sitter’s harumph! stare 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 might the green-covered book 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 NGA had changed the painting’s title plate: The ‘Giorgione and Titian’ attribution seemed to be no more. 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 even to show paintings that were once assigned to The Great Artist but were now believed to be by someone less significant. (For example, the NGA 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 explain. 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 dramatic attribution history.

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. He arrived armed with folders, Xeroxes, photographs, x-rays and a bag of books. Over the next few days I’ll relay the story he told me. It culminates with Brown identifying who he thinks painted Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman, an attribution which he thinks should settle the mystery once for all.

II

David Alan Brown

David Alan Brown, the National Gallery of Art’s curator of Italian and Spanish painting, sat next to me 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 [National] Gallery in terms of who painted it.”

Brown opened a manila folder, pulled out four Xeroxed, stapled pages and pointed at the name of the author on the top of the page. It was Giorgio Vasari, the Italian painter and architect who is considered Western art’s first historian. “This is, I think, the kind of thing that lies behind this portrait,” Brown said, and moved his finger down the page to 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’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. “I thought it was an odd attribution because it’s certainly not the work of two hands that one can see. I also didn’t feel that either name was right.”

Giorgione, Self-Portrait as David with the Head of Goliath, 1510.

Brown flipped through a manila folder until he found 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, and Titian’s Man with a Blue Sleeve — with T.V. painted onto it.” 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.”

Titian, Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, about 1510.

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 under-paint 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.

III

Brown pulled two x-rays out of a manila folder, showed them to me. I didn’t see anything resembling Giorgione’s under-paint 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!

Alan Burroughs’s x-ray of the fist of the ‘Venetian Gentleman.’

“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!

Giorgione and Titian, Sleeping Venus (The Dresden Venus), c. 1510.

“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 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 in my seat 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 pulled out a hand-written 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!”

IV

I think I first noticed Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman in the National Gallery of Art’s collection galleries because of the rakish angle of the sitter’s head. It almost looked as if the painter was trying to paint the sitter both in profile — the form of portraiture that was en vogue for most of the 15th century and in three-quarter profile, which replaced the profile in the last decades of the 15th centuryand early in the 16th century. The NGA’s Venetian Gentleman is believed to have been painted around 1510. Given that NGA curator David Alan Brown had discussed plenty about the painting but not the head, I asked him about it.

Giovanni Cariani, St. Agatha, c. 1516–17.

“It’s a clue as far as the attribution goes,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the head is tilted back in a way that you get this particular reading of the expression…” Brown trailed off as he turned his head and tilted it back so as to mimic the pose of our mysterious Venetian. “So yes, it’s a clue. But I don’t think the painter was trying to meld profiles with three-quarter poses. He was just painting the way he painted portraits during this period of his career — and that’s the key.”

Brown pulled out another manila folder and showed me Xeroxes of several paintings. Then he pulled out a book and tapped the cover. “I believe it’s by Giovanni Cariani,” he said. “Look at the pose. There are many, many examples of this pose.”

Giovanni Cariani, A Concert, c. 1518–20.

Cariani (1490–1547) painted in Venice and Bergamo during the years that Titian dominated Venice. Cariani seems likely to have trained with Bellini and later with Giorgione. His masterpiece may be a painting called A Concert (c. 1518–20), which happens to be in the National Gallery of Art’s collection. It hangs about 20 yards from where Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman is installed now, in the NGA’s Tullio Lombardo exhibition.

Giovanni Cariani, Lady Behind a Parapet, c. 1510–20.

Brown and I took turns looking from the reproductions to the Venetian Gentleman. He opened a Cariani monograph and turned to some pre-selected pages. One of them was Cariani’s Lady Behind a Parapet from the Szepmuveszeti in Budapest. Another was Portrait of a Young Girl as St. Agatha from the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. In both portraits a girl is painted in three-quarter profile, with her nose bisecting her right eye, just as the Venetian gentleman is. The girl in the Scotland painting also seems to be painted as if from below, as if her head were slightly tossed back, just like the sitter in the NGA painting.

Brown pointed to two other Cariani portraits with the sitter’s head tossed back at an angle: Lute Player at the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg and La Schiavona (1520) at the Pinacoteca dell’Accademia Carrara-Bergamo. It was a pose that Cariani didn’t restrict to portraits, either. Two figures in Cariani’s Four Courtesans (c. 1519), which is in a private collection in Bergamo, feature the now-familiar head angle, as does a Virgin Entrhoned with Angels and Saints at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. (It’s in the central figure in the NGA’s own A Concert, too.)

Giovanni Cariani, A Lute Player, ca. 1515.

“What this tells you is that if all these different people have the same expression, it’s not an expression that’s proper to them, it’s one that’s been imposed on them by the artist,” Brown said, tapping one of the pages of a Cariani monograph for emphasis. “They may have been quite surprised. The man who was portrayed here at the National Gallery may have been mild-mannered and surprised to see himself presented here in this way. I think that’s true of a lot of these early 16thC portraits where this gloss was put over them. The fact that it’s used for women even shows that it’s something the artist is imposing on the sitter.

“I think that we have to beware of assuming that the sitter was an angry soldier or a greedy merchant based on the facial of expression. I think it’s a fascinating case of attribution as interpretation.”

For good measure, Brown showed me that the Venetian gentleman’s mysterious clenched fist was ‘reprised’ in at least one other Cariani, the fantastic portrait of Francesco Albani (c.1517–20) at the National Gallery in London.

Giovanni Cariani, Francesco Albani, 1517–20.

For now the NGA still officially lists the painting as a ‘Giorgione and Titian‘ in its online catalogue, and as a 16thC Venetian on its wall-plate. Brown says that he’s not quite ready to publish his new attribution — he’s busy with a lecture on Leonardo he’ll be delivering soon in Europe — but he expects that the painting will be listed as a Cariani when the NGA publishes its next Italian systematic catalogue.

“It’s not a sterile debate about who did a painting that’s 500-years-old,” Brown said. “It’s about how we look at paintings and how we read them and the kind of evidence we look for when we want to make statements about them and the difference in reading this evidence whether it’s a facial expression or the evidence of x-rays. It’s kind of our attempt to understand the signals or the messages that were put into this picture 500 years ago. It’s fraught with complications and difficulties — and yet there are strong human motivations behind it.

“We all know about the need to read people’s faces from caveman times onwards and also the desire for some kind of scientific proof. Our age in particular looks to science as the answer to all these things. Look at medical diagnosis, for example. That can depend on the reading of science. What the x-ray does or the CT scan — or whatever — provides you with is helpful, but it doesn’t in itself contain solutions These things always have to be read.”

Nota bene: Since this piece was published in 2009, the National Gallery of Art has formally changed the attribution of Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman to Cariani. The finest Giorgione in the United States is at the San Diego Museum of Art. When I published these posts on MAN, John Marciari, SDMA’s curator of European art, wrote a short bit about SDMA’s Giorgione, Portrait of a Man. (Marciari is now the department head and curator of drawings and prints at The Morgan Library in New York.)

Tyler Green is a critic and historian. He produces and hosts The Modern Art Notes Podcast, the most popular English-language audio program on art. His book on Carleton Watkins and the creation of America’s West is forthcoming from University of California Press.