Restoring Canada's only Titian

July 25 2012

Image of Restoring Canada's only Titian

Picture: Ottawa Citizen

Here's a fascinating tale - restoration has revealed that a downgraded Titian at the National Gallery of Canada really is by Titian. Previously, it was thought to be a copy of a version in the Prado, due to its deletorious condition. But work by the Gallery's restorer Stephen Gritt has led to its reattribution. From the Ottawa Citizen

[The picture] was a mess — dirty, water-damaged (not irreparably), and the victim of earlier, regrettably bad restoration. It looked, Gritt says, like “it was dragged through the hedge backwards.” Its sorry state, and the royal pedigree of the Madrid Titian, contributed to a drift in scholarly opinion, and by the 1980s the Ottawa Titian was considered a copy of the other. Then came a side-by-side comparison in Washington, D.C. in 1991.

“The general consensus of everyone in the room was that the Prado was probably the real one by Titian and the Ottawa painting was a copy of it,” Gritt says. “So pretty much that was the lid on the coffin being tightened.”

The Ottawa Titian, now not a Titian at all, sat in its grimy, faded glory in storage. Curators at another gallery asked to borrow it, but backed out when they saw its condition. Oh, the indignity. Then, one morning, a glimmer of redemption arrived in the daily mail.

In 2003 a Toronto man wrote to the gallery’s then deputy-director, David Franklin, to ask why the only Titian in Canada was not on display. The reply — that scholarly opinion no longer considered it to be a Titian, and that it was too dirty to hang in public — could have been the end of it. Enter Stephen Gritt.

Gritt, who is from London, England and joined the gallery that same year, kept thinking about the tenuous Titian as he restored other important paintings, such as Tom Thomson’s iconic Jack Pine and, in 2007, Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece. (Veronese also painted a portrait of Barbaro.)

In 2009, Gritt formally put up the Titian and began hundreds of hours of work to undo four centuries of degradation. Gradually, the vibrancy of the original portrait emerged – the nobleman’s perhaps pensive expression, with a sliver of crimson red neckpiece showing beneath his dark cloak. This, Gritt believed, was no workshop copy.

The team turned to X-rays, which see beneath the surface of a painting, and they showed evidence of changes made by the artist during production. For example, Gritt says, “you can see him wrestling over how to paint the nose, because Daniele has a peculiar nose.” Such changes made no sense if the Ottawa Titian was a copy, as a copy would directly echo an original.

Gritt brought the X-rays to Madrid and, with a Prado specialist, compared them in light of these new revelations. “Those really subtle shifts, things that were adjusted by millimetres, the Prado painting doesn’t have them,” he says. “It’s really rather direct.” The conclusion was clear. The Madrid Titian is a copy, and the Ottawa portrait is re-established as Titian’s original Barbaro.

You can see a video of Stephen Gritt talking about the restoration process here. Rather unhelpfully, there is no image of the painting on the National Gallery of Canada's website, so we can make no examination of the attribution ourselves. But if the Canada picture really is by Titian, then it would appear that this is another example of scholars not understanding condition. In my experience, a picture's condition is the number one reason attributions get wrongly downgraded. 

Undertsanding condition should be the first skill any serious art historian aspires to learn (at least those studying Old Masters). If I were teaching the art historians of the future, I would make it compulsory for every student to spend a term in a conservation studio. You cannot judge any painting until you are sure you are looking at the artist's original intentions - and it is fact that most Old Masters have at some point suffered from either a degree of damage, or worse, the attentions of later ham-fisted restorers. It's interesting to note that in this case, Harold Wethey catalogued the Canada picture as Titian in full in his 1971 Titian catalogue raisonne.

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