Published date: 17 Nov 2011
Among a consignment of works by the 19th-century British artist, Matthew Shepperson, that arrived at Bonhams Oxford salerooms in August 2010, there was a striking portrait of a gentleman in a black tunic and white collar. Shepperson was a painter who is hardly remembered today, but who worked as a jobbing artist at Buckingham Palace. The portrait was originally consigned to be sold alongside other works by the artist – including a portrait of his mother, Elizabeth – but it was clear that there was something special about this particular painting. When Caroline Oliphant, Bonhams Head of Pictures and I heard about it, we instructed our Oxford salerooms to withdraw the painting for further research. Indeed, Caroline was so excited, she drove down the following day to collect the portrait and bring it back to our department in New Bond Street. As soon as she saw it, she realized it was not a wasted journey: the quality of the work shone through. Despite the layers of dirt, we could see that the artist had captured the arresting gaze of the man in a way that suggested it was the work of a truly great master. But which one?
How this exceptional painting came to sit alongside the works of a 19th-century artist isn't clear. However, apart from his own personal works, it seems that Shepperson was also a modest collector – the sale of his estate also included an Italian lake scene after Richard Wilson. Intriguingly, an account book from Shepperson's estate lists the payment for 'Painting Math.' (i.e. 'Painting for Matthew') on the 30th January 1826, which could refer to the Bonhams portrait. Evidently Shepperson had a good eye and it would seem highly likely that he acquired the picture as an example of portraiture of the highest caliber.
Once the painting was brought to London, the Old Master Paintings department was able to study it at close quarters. Careful and extensive research was then conducted in collaboration with Brian Koetser, our consultant, whose lifetime experience in the field of Old Master paintings has earned him widespread respect in the art world. The conclusion reached was that the portrait was a work of such outstanding quality that there were few artists who could have been responsible for it. The name that came to mind was none other than Velázquez.
The next step in our research was to get in touch with Dr Peter Cherry, Head of Department of Art History at Trinity College, Dublin and one of the world's foremost authorities on the work of Velázquez and his school. Dr Cherry's immediate and enthusiastic response was based on a digital image. This was further reinforced when he came to examine the painting in the flesh. As he was later to write, "The particularized likeness and recognizably lifelike texture, weight and colors of the fleshy face speak of the actual encounter between subject and painter; while the style and technical brilliance of the representation itself betrays its author." It was, in his mind, a work by the great Spanish master himself.
A technical analysis of the materials, together with an X-radiograph, was then conducted. These served to confirm the attribution to Velázquez. Dr Cherry points to particular technical characteristics of Velázquez that are unique to what we know about his oeuvre and which are distinct from those of even his better pupils. Although the works of Velázquez's assistants bore a superficial relationship to the Bonhams portrait, technical investigations of the royal portraits of his most accomplished pupil, Juan Bautista del Mazo (circa 1611-1667), for example, indicate that unlike his master, del Mazo modeled his heads in a more traditional method with relatively dense layers of pigment. Cherry's findings about the technique of the Bonhams portrait were so exciting that it prompted him to write an article in the October edition of Ars Magazine entitled 'Face to face to a new Velázquez portrait'.
Particular to much of Velázquez's portraiture is his use of aerial perspective which imitates optical reality. In this portrait, the viewer's attention is thus concentrated on the face and gaze of the sitter, while the left cheek and ear appear somewhat out of focus. This optical effect by which the artist focuses on the head, while the rest of the portrait is treated in a more superficial manner, can be seen in other portraits by Velázquez, notably his Portrait of a Spanish Gentleman (in Apsley House, London), painted in the 1640s. The use the artist makes of the canvas weave, moreover, is a characteristic technique, employing its presence beneath the thinner paint layers to convey something of the texture of the flesh. In the Bonhams portrait, the contrast between the warmer tones of the face and the grayish wash applied to the jaw gives a particularly realistic appearance and is a technique that has been observed in his earlier portraits.
In his article, Peter Cherry also explains how the different planes of the face retain something of the structural modeling of Velázquez's portraits from the Seville period and he notes how this approach can be seen in other portraits by Velázquez, painted soon after his first trip to Rome, such as that of Diego de Corral. Indeed, he observes that just such a free and painterly approach to these features – as can be found in the uneven treatment of the eyelids, for example – characterizes most of Velázquez's portraits after his first trip to Italy.
Preliminary technical examination of the Bonhams portrait has also provided useful information about the picture's material structure and the artist's procedure in constructing the painting. The painting is on a fine canvas of relatively dense weave, which fits with Velázquez's supports in the middle years of his career, and which is particularly appropriate when considered in conjunction with his use of heavily diluted pigments. A series of sweeping, randomly placed arcs throughout the support – where the artist has scored into the paint surface with a palette knife or spatula – are clearly visible on the surface of the picture in raking light. The markings are a consequence of the artist's technique of painting relatively thinly in the upper layers. This is a technique well documented in Velázquez's paintings after his return from Italy in 1631. These thinner upper paint layers also explain the distinctive ghostly appearance of the head in the X-radiograph, which is notably consistent with X-radiographic images of a significant number of portraits by the artist after his first visit to Italy, such as that of the equestrian portrait of Prince Balthasar Carlos, Portrait of a Man, Juan Mateos at Dresden, and Saint Rufina in Seville.
The Bonhams portrait follows the artist's crucial and formative first Italian visit, which was sponsored by his illustrious patron, King Philip IV of Spain. Velázquez returned in early 1631 to Madrid, where he was particularly celebrated for his portraiture, painting numerous portraits of the Spanish royal family, as well as cavaliers, soldiers, churchmen, poets and even several buffoons and dwarfs in Philip's court.
While the Bonhams portrait falls into what can be regarded as his second grouping of works, his oeuvre should not be arbitrarily categorized in such terms. Velázquez was perpetually experimenting, and his styles at times overlap each other, as is the case with this portrait. Moreover, the artist rarely signed his works and the royal archives give the dates of only his most important commissions. This means that the identification of a number of Velázquez's sitters is uncertain. But one theory is that the Bonhams portrait is of Juan Mateos, Philip IV's Master of the Hunt. The Dresden portrait which was hitherto thought to have represented Juan Mateos was identified in the 19th century only on the basis of an engraved portrait of Mateos in the latter's book, Origen y dignidad de la caza (1634). However, Dr Cherry tentatively suggests that the Bonhams picture has a greater resemblance to the engraving. He also points out that both of the latter portraits bear a superficial likeness to a figure in another of Velázquez's paintings who is also thought to be Juan Mateos. This is the tiny character on a white horse beside the queen's carriage (the third in the procession, above) in Philip IV hunting Wild Boar in London's National Gallery.
It is generally recognized that it was Velázquez's brief first sojourn in Italy between 1629 and 1630 that allowed him to break away from the classical framework of the established art world. This allowed him both to learn from, but also to recognize, the limitations of this tradition. Some of the technical innovations by which he came to depict the visible world with an optical truth can, as we have seen, be identified in the Bonhams portrait. Strikingly modern in his approach, this explains to a large degree why Velázquez became, from the early 19th century, a model for the pioneers of Realism and Impressionism – one notable example being Édouard Manet. Since then, his reputation has progressed to give further inspiration to artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and more recently Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. But then, Velázquez is one of the greatest geniuses in the history of European art. And it is tremendously exciting for Bonhams to bring to the world's attention a newly discovered work by the great Spanish master.
Andrew McKenzie is Director of Old Master Paintings at Bonhams.
Sale: Old Master Paintings
New Bond Street
Wednesday 7 December at 2pm
Enquiries: Andrew McKenzie
+44 (0) 20 7468 8261