Curators at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Florida hope that infrared scans will help to prove that its portrait of Philip IV of Spain is by the 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez. The painting’s attribution has divided experts since the 19th century, with opinions “oscillat[ing] wildly between people who are super in favour of it and people who say ‘absolutely not’,” says Virginia Brilliant, the Sarasota museum’s curator of collections.
New research may help tip the scale. Using an infrared camera, the museum’s chief conservator uncovered an earlier composition hidden beneath the portrait of the baby-faced king dressed in fashionable, brightly coloured clothes. The scans show Philip in an austere suit of armour with a military helmet resting on a nearby table in place of the feathered cap depicted in the final composition.
They also reveal that the artist repositioned the king’s feet several times to make the notoriously stout man appear more attenuated. “You can see Velázquez trying to work through how to make the most flattering image of the king,” Brilliant says. She believes these adjustments are compelling evidence that the official court painter is the author of the work, rather than his studio. “That’s not someone copying an image; that is someone working something out,” Brilliant says.
Evolution of the portrait Armed with two versions of the composition, Brilliant set out to piece together the story of its evolution. She dated the earlier one to between 1628 and 1629, before the artist travelled to Italy and shortly after the king’s armour was sent to his studio. (Velázquez used the armour to create another well-known portrait, now in the collection of the Museo del Prado in Madrid.) Brilliant believes the artist reworked the Ringling’s painting after he returned from Italy in 1631.
Velázquez gave similarly fashion- forward makeovers to other portraits of royal family members around the same time. “The swooshy, wonderful red sash and golden lace get added to these portraits as well,” Brilliant says. The artist often revised works as a way of recycling them. “Rather than start from scratch, he would take an existing portrait and evolve it as the king was evolving his self-image,” Brilliant says.
The Ringling’s findings are bound to stir debate in the contentious and continuously evolving field of Velázquez scholarship. In 2009 and 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reattributed two paintings in its collection to the Spanish artist.
Divided opinions The Ringling’s painting has been rejected by several experts, including Jonathan Brown and José López-Rey, but defended by others such as José Gudiol and Matías Díaz Padrón. The catalogue for a survey co-organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Prado, which opened in New York in 1989, attributed the painting to Velázquez; more recently, however, curators avoided conclusive attribution in an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2015.
Scholars will have the opportunity to reconsider their positions in November, when the Ringling’s findings are published in a new book on the collection. John Ringling, a co-founder of the Ringling Brothers Circus, bought the work at auction in 1928. “I fully expect people to tell me I’m wrong about various things, but I think our Old Master collection has been a little under-studied,” Brilliant says. “I hope this will open up discussion once again.”