Bargain of the week?

December 4 2014

Image of Bargain of the week?

Picture: Sotheby's

So the Old Master sales are over, and I didn't buy a sausage. To be honest, there wasn't much in the sleeper line, at least nothing in my little niche of what some have been kind enough to call expertise.

I did have a go at the above picture, however, which was a bit off piste for me, in that it was Spanish. It was catalogued as 'After Goya'. Regular readers may know that I'm not exactly a Goya fan, at least not when it comes to his skills as a portraitist.

However, the picture seemed to me to be in with a very strong chance of being by Goya. It's a copy of Velasquez's celebrated portrait of Innocent X, the prime version of which is in the Doria collection in Rome. There was, though, a replica of the head by Velasquez in the Spanish Royal Collection, which Goya would have known, not least when he made his many engraved copies of Velasquezs in the Spanish Royal Collection. That picture is now in the Wellington Collection at Apsley House, below, it having been given to the 1st Duke of Wellington. 

The picture on sale at Sotheby's had previously carried a (probably 19th Century) inscription attributing the work as a copy by Goya after Velasquez (below). It had been published in almost every Goya catalogue raisonné going as a work by Goya, including by the late José Gudiol, one of the more renowned Goya scholars. It was exhibited as recently as 1989 as a Goya. But the current crop of Goya specialists evidently doubted it,as did Sotheby's.

Now I'm not saying that just because a painting used to be attributed to one artist that it must still be. Of course, scholarship moves on. But in art history, or at least the art market's view of art history, there is a curious tendency to disregard the work and attributions of an art historian as soon as they're dead. So in this case, the opinion of Gudiol and all those others who'd accepted the attribution didn't matter, but the opinion of the current, living Goya scholars did, whether they've written as much as a catalogue raisonné or not. I don't think you'd get the same in other disciplines; Einstein has been dead for decades, but E still equals MC squared.

The picture at Sotheby's was in almost pristine condition, and at first sight looked in parts as if it wasn't 'period', that is, that it was painted later than the 18th Century. But I came to the conclusion that it was period, and that it was most likely by Goya on the basis not only of some of the handling, but of the very idiosyncratic characterisation. In other words, whoever painted the portrait made the sitter look not like Velasquez's Innocent X, but Goya's Innocent X. It wasn't a copy of the Velasquez in the conventional sense - there must be hundreds of those around - but more a portrait of a portrait, if that makes sense.

Often, portrait artists develop a way of 'drawing' faces which they use repeatedly for the basic construction of their sitte's heads, and it is sometimes very easy to identify; at one extreme, it's the reason why some say all of Lely's sitters look the same. For an idea of what I mean in relation to Goya, see Goya's early self portrait from the 1770s, the same period the Sotheby's picture used to be dated to, which seems to me to have a similar characterisation to the portrait at Sotheby's:

Anyway, I can't easily understand how any other artist would set out to make a copy of a Velazquez, but intentionally make it look like a Goya, and very convincingly, unless the picture at Sotheby's was a modern fake, which it wasn't. The Sotheby's catalogue implied that the picture was a copy after Goya's own, lost copy of the Velasquez. But in my view it was too spirited and animated to be the work of an imitator of Goya copying Goya's own copy after Velasquez.

Goya is known to have made a number of copies in oil after Velasquez, but the others are lost, so we don't have anything directly comparable to look at. All I could deduce in my research was that they appeared to be the same size as the Sotheby's picture. Maybe in time they'll be found, and maybe in time opinion on the Sotheby's picture will swing back to Goya again. 

The picture sold for £37,500 against an estimate of £10,000-£15,000. You might ask why I didn't go further, if I was so sure it was by Goya, for a genuine Goya copy of a Velasquez should be very valuable indeed. Two Spanish greats for the price of one! But the picture represented a long term 'hold', and wasn't much of a commercial prospect in the short term. My expertise, such as it is, doesn't cover Goya at all, and I doubt anything I said could sway the opinion of Goya scholars any time soon. It's the sort of picture that will probably remain 'after Goya' for some time, no matter how unjustified that attribution is.

If you bought it, kudos, and good luck...

Update - a reader writes:

If Goya painted this copy of Velasquez's Pope Innocent X - quite a reasonable idea I think- Why did he first paint in the greyish beard and then apparently paint it out again with reddish flesh coloured paint?  Did he, or whoever the copyist was want to imagine what the Pope would have looked like without a beard? If so why?

Not sure I noticed it quite like that myself.

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