- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The man in the black velvet doublet stares through reddish, bulging eyes as he stands at a slight angle, with his left hand holding a folded white paper and his right hand either drawing or replacing his stiletto.

Long known as the work of the great Italian Renaissance painter Titian, this somber, unsigned oil portrait of a middle-aged 16th-century Italian duke was consigned to obscurity when an art critic questioned its authenticity nearly 70 years ago.

Today, an art historian who has spent eight years researching the painting believes it is a Titian after all.

It largely comes down to a problem with numbers.

An archivist misread the Roman numerals in the date on a handwritten letter in which the duke promised a German nobleman he would have Titian paint the portrait in a diplomatic exchange, says Aaron De Groft, director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, where the painting is on loan.

The misinterpretation of the date as June 17, 1540, led prominent German art historian August Mayer to write in the journal Gazette des Beaux-Arts in 1938 that Titian would not have had enough time to paint the duke, who died 11 days later.

However, the correct date was June 17, 1539, giving Titian plenty of time, says Mr. De Groft, who has a doctorate in art history and based his conclusions about the painting on an examination of archival documents, scientific analysis, stylistic comparison with other Titian paintings and intuition.

Mr. De Groft studied the painting at the request of Thomas Dossett, a Tennessee lawyer and art collector who acquired part ownership of the piece in exchange for some legal work around 1970.

Mr. Dossett did quite a bit of research on his own before approaching Mr. De Groft, who was a curator and deputy director at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. Mr. De Groft brought the painting with him to Williamsburg last year when he became director of the museum at his alma mater.

The man shown in three-quarter pose is Federico II Gonzaga, the first Duke of Mantua and the first great patron of Titian, who was known for his sense of color and unflinching realism. Federico introduced Titian to Pope Paul III and to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain — connections that helped the artist gain worldwide fame.

“This picture was lost almost since the moment it was created,” Mr. De Groft says. It’s not clear whether the German nobleman ever received the portrait, although it did pop up from time to time in history and was identified in owners’ inventories as a Titian, he says.

The last time it was seen publicly, before now, was in 1931, when it appeared on the cover of Art News, announcing the sale of the collection of Hungarian art dealer Marczell von Nemes. A Pennsylvania collector paid about $30,000 for the painting, the fourth-highest price in the collection.

Mayer wrote the sale catalog entries for the old master paintings and didn’t question the Titian at the time. Then came his 1938 article. The painting languished at subsequent auctions, either not selling or selling for low prices, and was shuffled from one obscure collection to another, Mr. De Groft says.

Mr. De Groft hopes his research will help the painting be recognized as a pivotal work between Titian’s early style and later style, when his brushwork became looser. Though the body and background may have been painted by apprentices in Titian’s workshop, Mr. De Groft says the master himself painted the face and hands.

A forensic analysis of the painting showed the pigments and varnishes to match the kinds that Titian would have used. That can’t prove Titian was the artist, Mr. De Groft notes, but it does eliminate the possibility that this was a copy made later. X-rays showed the painting was done on a fine diamond-weave canvas, an expense indicating that this was an important commission.

Parts of the painting have been overcleaned over the years, revealing a gray underpainting — also consistent with Titian — that gives a halo effect around the body, Mr. De Groft says.

To have the piece accepted as a signature work of Titian would require a degree of consensus among Titian scholars, says Madeleine Viljoen, director of the Art Museum at La Salle University in Philadelphia and a Renaissance art scholar. She says that could boost the price from thousands of dollars to millions if the painting is put up for sale.

One way art historians can attribute a painting to an artist is to compare the canvas with preparatory drawings. However, Titian, like other Venetian artists of the period, tended not to make such drawings, Mrs. Viljoen says.

Nevertheless, the letter “does seem to be at least a very strong basis for making that attribution,” says Mrs. Viljoen, who adds that she cannot make any pronouncements about its authenticity without seeing the painting herself.

Michael Amy, assistant professor of art history at Rochester Institute of Technology, says the date on the letter may not matter.

Titian knew the duke well, so he would have been able to paint the duke from memory if the duke had already died, Mr. Amy says. Titian also is known to have painted at least one other person posthumously, he notes.

The lack of a signature isn’t necessarily a problem, either, Mr. Amy says, because there are many paintings Titian didn’t sign.

Mr. Amy says, though, that judging by a photograph of the painting, he thinks the man’s right arm seems short and the gesture of the right hand looks odd. He wonders whether Titian would have had that kind of trouble painting the arm, and he says it’s riskier to add a possibly problematic work to the oeuvre of an artist than to leave it out.

“However, there are paintings that come out of nowhere and when specialists have the opportunity to study the painting very carefully in the flesh, they come to an agreement and attribute it to the master,” he says.

Mr. Dossett would like to see a major museum eventually buy the painting and put it on display.

“What good is the Hope Diamond if it stays in a lockbox? Nobody ever sees it,” he says.

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