Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Seville 1599-1660 Madrid) Portrait of a gentleman, bust-length, in a black tunic and white golilla collar unframed

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Lot 63
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez
(Seville 1599-1660 Madrid)
Portrait of a gentleman, bust-length, in a black tunic and white golilla collar unframed

Sold for £ 2,953,250 (US$ 3,650,585) inc. premium
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Seville 1599-1660 Madrid)
Portrait of a gentleman, bust-length, in a black tunic and white golilla collar
oil on canvas
47 x 39cm (18 1/2 x 15 3/8in).


    The artist, Matthew Shepperson (1787-1874) and thence by descent to the present owner

    Dr. Peter Cherry, 'Poniéndole cara a un Velázquez, Face to face to a new Velázquez portrait', Ars Magazine (Madrid, October 2011), pp. 54-65, 147-151, ill. p. 55, 57 and front cover

    Velázquez's hitherto unknown portrait first came to light amongst a consignment of works by the nineteenth century British artist, Matthew Shepperson, which came for sale at Bonhams' Oxford salerooms in August 2010. The subsequent extensive research that was conducted culminated in an article by Dr. Peter Cherry in this year's October edition of Ars Magazine, entitled 'Face to face to a new Velázquez portrait'. In this article Cherry writes: 'The particularized likeness and recognizably lifelike texture, weight and colours 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.' This opinion is compellingly supported by a thorough analysis of the painting's technique and materials, which together with an X-Radiograph all served to confirm the attribution.

    Cherry points to particular technical characteristics of the artist which are unique to what we know about his oeuvre and distinct from those of even his better pupils. While it may at first be argued that the works of Velázquez's assistants bore a superficial relationship to the present portrait, available technical investigation of a number of the royal portraits of his most accomplished pupil, Juan Bautista del Mazo (circa 1611-1667), for example, indicate that his methods were not the result of an emulation of the older artist's technical procedures. In particular del Mazo, unlike his master, modelled his heads in a more traditional method with relatively dense layers of pigments.

    Particular to much of Velázquez's portraiture is his use of aerial perspective which imitates optical reality and in the present 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 1625 Portrait of a Youth in the Prado and his 1640s Portrait of a Man (London, Apsley House). The use the artist makes of the canvas weave, moreover, is a characteristic technique of this master, employing its presence beneath the thinner paint layers to convey something of the texture of the flesh. In the present portrait the contrast between the warmer tones of the face and the greyish wash applied to the jaw gives a particularly realistic appearance and is a technique that has been observed in his earlier portraits. Given the painting's layer of yellowed varnish this quality would become more apparent after cleaning.

    Other notable traits of the artist which Peter Cherry identifies as 'particularly masterful' are the way in which 'a variety of freely applied, single touches of the loaded brush highlight the eyelids and the pouches under the eyes, the nose, lower lip and ear' and the 'direct application of the impasto in wet-in-wet highlights on the nose - articulating its projection by means of the sharpest points of light in the face.' In his article Cherry also explains how the way of describing the different planes of the face retains something of the structural modelling of Velázquez's portraits from the Seville period and notes how this approach can be seen on other portraits by Velázquez painted soon after his first trip to Rome, such as that of Diego de Corral (Museo del Prado). 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 - characterises most of Velázquez's portraits after his first trip to Italy.
    Crucial in achieving the illusion of volume is 'the non-linear handling of the contours of the head; the cranium, for instance, is a thin, flesh-coloured stain in the canvas weave which registers optically against the darker background.' Perhaps the most striking aspect of this portrait, which marks it out as a work of supreme pre-eminence, is the complete lack of detail in the background and the sitter's dress, so that the eye is focused on the face. 'The strength of the solemn gaze, therefore conveys the personality, presence, and authority of this individual.'

    Further qualities that other Velázquez scholars have identified in the present painting as being particular to this artist are: the brownish-black background (the colour of a fly's wing) which is difficult to imitate; the position, strength and weight of the sitter's head; the quality of the mouth which is typical of so many works by the master; and the angular outline of the sitter's jaw. The highly subtle and sophisticated modelling of the cheek and jowls are especially noteworthy and the same treatment may be seen, for example, in the Prado's 1625 Portrait of a Youth and Portrait of Don Diego de Corral. Indeed, it has been observed that no other Spanish hand from this period was capable of painting a portrait with such mastery.

    Technical examination of the 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 used 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 in the application of this ground layer – is clearly visible on the surface of the picture in raking light as a consequence of the artist's aforementioned technique of painting relatively thinly in the upper layers. The light arcs reflect a build up of lead white at the point of the instrument, and the dark arcs where this has scored into the paint layer. 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 and this is also 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, the Portrait of a Man identified as 'Juan Mateos' at Dresden, or the Saint Rufina in Seville.

    The present work follows the artist's crucial and formative first Italian visit, which was sponsored by his illustrious patron, King Philip IV of Spain. It is generally recognised 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, allowing him both to learn from but also to recognise the limitations of this tradition. Velázquez returned at the start of 1631 to Madrid, where he was particularly celebrated for his portraiture, painting numerous likenesses of the Spanish royal family, as well as cavaliers, soldiers, churchmen, poets and even several buffoons and dwarfs in Philip's court. While it thus falls into what can be regarded as his second grouping of works, his oeuvre should not, however, be too arbitrarily categorized in such terms since he was perpetually experimenting and his styles at times overlap each other, as indeed we find to be the case with the present portrait. Moreover, Velázquez rarely signed his works and the royal archives give the dates of only his most important commissions. Hence the identification of a number of the artist's sitters is uncertain. For example, what is supposed to be a portrait of Philip IV's Master of the Hunt, Juan Mateos, painted in the early 1630s, was identified in the nineteenth century on the basis of an engraved portrait of Mateos in the latter's book, Origen y dignidad de la caza (1634). Yet there are clear physical dissimilarities between the two likenesses. Indeed, Peter Cherry tentatively suggests that the subject of the present portrait has a greater resemblance to Mateos's engraved portrait. 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) in Philip IV hunting Wild Boar in London's National Gallery.

    How the painting came to sit alongside the works of the nineteenth century artist, Matthew Shepperson, cannot be ascertained with certainty. However, there is evidence that Shepperson was also a modest collector, the sale of his estate also including an Italian lake scene after Richard Wilson and a Schoolboy that apparently followed the style of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The years that accompanied Shepperson's youth saw a sharp rise in the importation of Spanish pictures into England following the Peninsular War. Most famous of these, of course, was the Duke of Wellington's celebrated collection at Apsley House, which included a group of masterpieces by Velázquez. In 1828 Sir David Wilkie wrote from Madrid that he felt himself in the presence of a new power in art as he looked at the works of Velázquez, and at the same time found a wonderful affinity between this artist and the British school of portrait painters, especially Henry Raeburn. Intriguingly an account book from Shepperson's estate lists the payment for 'Painting Math.' (i.e. 'Painting for Matthew') on the 30th January 1826, but otherwise we have no other clue as to where or when any of this artist's acquisitions were made. 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 calibre. Strikingly modern in his approach, this explains to a large degree why Velázquez became from the early nineteenth century a model for the pioneers of Realism and Impressionism - one notable example being Edouard Manet. Since then his reputation has progressed to give further inspiration to the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvator Dalí and more recently Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, achieving his status as one of the greatest geniuses in the history of European art.

Saleroom notices

  • The present lot is displayed in an exceptionally rare Spanish carved cabochon frame with bead and leaf sight and an open foliate back, which dates to the first half of the 17th Century. This has been kindly lent by Paul Mitchell Ltd.
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Seville 1599-1660 Madrid) Portrait of a gentleman, bust-length, in a black tunic and white golilla collar unframed
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (Seville 1599-1660 Madrid) Portrait of a gentleman, bust-length, in a black tunic and white golilla collar unframed
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