Titian and the restorer from hell
August 2 2012
Picture: National Gallery
Last week we had an interesting story about a Titian in Canada being re-attributed to the great master, following conservation and the removal of later over-paint. I discussed how important it is to fully understand condition before attributing pictures, and how a good picture in bad condition can often be judged merely as a bad picture by scholars.
I've always felt that a similar case to the Canada example might be Titian's Portrait of Vendramin Family, now at the National Gallery. Forever called 'Titian' (even by Charles I's top Titian connoisseur, Van Dyck, who once owned it), it is now labelled as 'Titian and Workshop' by the Gallery. You can zoom in on the painting here. The group of three awkward looking boys on the left are considered to be too weak to be by Titian himself, as are the two furthest on the right. The Gallery says they 'must be by the artist's workshop'.
It's just a hunch, but I'm not so sure. We know Titian employed studio assistants quite widely, but personally I find it hard to believe that he would have allowed five portraits to be painted so badly by his workshop, for what was obviously an important commission. If we are to find workshop assistance in such a picture, it is perhaps more likely to be in the drapery or background. In their present condition, the portraits in question (especailly the three on the left) are so awkward as to make one wonder why Titian would allow the picture to leave the studio looking like that, when the rest of it is so good by comparison.
It seems more likely to me that we are dealing here with a question of condition. The five children seem to have suffered so much damage over time that they now look clumsy, and it is thus impossible to make a firm attribution as they presently appear. Furthermore, I've just come across this interesting reference to the picture in the diary of Joseph Farington from 1818, when it belonged to the Duke of Northumberland. Farington records looking at the picture with the artist Benjamin West:
He sd. that picture was totally ruined by a Frenchman who was employed to clean it. He painted over it & substituted His heavy colours for the charming tints of Titian. Nothing remains of the original but a Candle stick & part of the upper corner of the right hand of the picture as seen when looking at it.
The picture was cleaned in the '70s, and much over-paint removed. But I'd love to know more about the condition of the three heads on the left, and the two on the right. One of National Gallery's excellent Technical Bulletins on the picture would be fascinating, with full paint analysis to determine what is and isn't original paint. I haven't looked at the picture with magnifiers and torches, but I'd be willing to place a bet that, at the very least, the three heads on the left are to a substantial degree damaged and re-painted by a later hand.