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October 27, 2011

99th Velazquez Uncovered and Up for Sale at Bonhams

By Spear's

The 99th picture assigned to Velazquez has been unveiled at Bonhams, one of only five in private hands. It is expected to fetch ’2-3 million when it is sold on 7 December

by Josh Spero

The 99th picture assigned to Velazquez has been unveiled at Bonhams, one of only five in private hands. It is expected to fetch £2-3 million when it is sold on 7 December.

The seventeenth-century picture, Portrait of a Gentleman, was consigned to Bonhams by the heirs of nineteenth-century artist Matthew Shepperson as part of a larger collection. It couldn’t have been by Shepperson, Andrew Mckenzie, director of Old Master Paintings, told Spear’s this morning because ‘Shepperson’s a fairly third-rate artist to be honest. Our local picture specialist realised it was an old picture so he alerted us. As soon as we saw it we could see it wasn’t just an early picture, it was a picture of immense quality and the power of the image stood out.’

But how did Bonhams come to assign it to Velazquez? The answer is both in the subject and in the style. ‘The costume is Spanish, so the obvious name to start with is Velazquez and his pupils. One’s cautious to begin with – one doesn’t immediately go for the best though one hopes for that. With the research we did, after a fairly short amount of time we ruled out the pupils because the technique just didn’t seem to fit.’

Portrait of a Gentleman by Velazquez

It took a trip to the Prado, home of many of Velazquez’s works, to convince Mckenzie. ‘When I went to the Prado, I looked at a number of portaits of the same period: the way he models the cheek, this very delicate modelling, this cool colouring. When I saw that in other examples, I thought that is the same hand unquestionably. The lips – this is very beautifully painted and that is precisely the way Velazquez paints his lips. The liquid way he paints the eyes is very typical.’ Even the ‘flywing brown’ of the background is typical.

It is a vivid, characterful face, brighter than the image above suggests, where the tunic is almost an irrelevance and has been painted so as not to detract from the face, which purses its lips intently and stares hard at the artist – or the viewer. There is the great fluidity in the brushstrokes which Velazquez is prized for and which has been influential down the centuries.

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An X-ray gave further confirmation: whereas Velazquez’s pupils were much thicker in their use of paint, Velazquez built the image up in very thin layers, and indeed the portrait seems impossibly flat yet the face is so realistic.

Who would buy such a piece? ‘Certainly both museums and private people. It’s a real trophy picture which any serious collector who wants to buy the best examples of the best artists really ought to buy.’

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