In 2009 this male portrait, which had been on display in the Metropolitan Museum with an attribution to the circle of Velázquez, was sent to its restoration studio. As work progressed on cleaning its qualities became increasingly evident, leading Jonathan Brown to publish it as an original by Velázquez, reinstating the previous autograph status of the work that was maintained until 1963 when José López-Rey decided that it was not possible to firmly attribute it to the artist given its state of conservation at the time.
The painting’s condition was the result of its eventful history. It had been in private collections in Germany from the eighteenth century until 1925 or 1926 when it was acquired by Joseph Duveen, the most important Old Master picture dealer of the day. With the aim of placing the canvas on the market, he had it restored in a way that reflected international collectors’ tastes. This involved making the background uniform, strengthening parts of the torso that were only lightly sketched in, transforming the hair into a solid zone and in general creating a more static, homogeneous image. This new effect was subsequently increased by the aging of the varnish.
Recent restoration has now freed the painting from this straightjacket and has revealed technical devices and representational strategies that are typical of Velázquez. The background is no longer uniform and has recovered its vibrancy, produced by subtle gradations of light that produce depth and enliven the figure. This is a technique that appears in other works by the artist such as Portrait of a Man in the Wellington Museum, London.
Equally, the recent restoration of the painting reveals how the artist modified the position of the head as he went along and how the hair is certainly not a compact, static mass but is dynamic and vibrant despite considerable wear.
This overall sensation of liveliness and dynamism, achieved through vibrations of light and a judicious distribution of the different levels of finish, support the attribution to Velázquez, as does another characteristic of the painting, namely the impression that it conveys of having been created almost without effort.
The identity of the model is not known. A comparison with Velázquez’s Self-portrait in Valencia and with the one in Las Meninas led Mayer (the German Hispanist who died in 1944) to suggest that this is another depiction of the artist. However, this comparison reveals more differences than similarities given that all definite or proposed self-portraits of Velázquez show him with darker skin and more pronounced features. However, the figure is strikingly similar to that of the anonymous soldier on the far right of The Surrender of Breda. In the nineteenth century this figure was also considered a self-portrait, although this idea is no longer accepted.