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Only known Titian in Canada rediscovered at NGC

A confluence of amateur passion and expert research has led to a neglected Titian in the National Gallery of Canada’s collection—long regarded as an inferior studio copy—being rediscovered and unveiled as a primary work at the gallery in Ottawa this month.

The portrait was commissioned in 1545 from the famed Italian artist by scholar Daniele Barbaro.

The National Gallery of Canada bought the painting in the 1920s. But with another version of the painting held by the Prado, it was at first assumed that the Prado had the original and the NGC had a studio copy.

At the 2003 urging of a person described in a gallery release as “a Canadian art lover,” the NGC began to re-examine the painting, which had been held in the vaults for decades and was in poor condition.

Stephen Gritt, director of conservation and technical research at the NGC, spent several years examining, cleaning and restoring the painting. Eventually, the truth came to light when Gritt viewed X-rays of the NGC and the Prado paintings side by side in Madrid.

“I spent an afternoon in front of a light-box with the Prado’s technical documentalist,” Gritt said in a gallery release. “By painstakingly comparing subtle features of execution as revealed on the X-ray, we were able to demonstrate that while the paintings were painted more or less at the same time, the Ottawa canvas was the one with all the thinking in it, the one that leads the way.”

The analysis showed that in the Ottawa painting, Titian had altered the colour of the clothing, adjusted collar height, and struggled with how to represent with the sitter’s prominent nose. In the Prado painting, however, the final look of the painting was arrived at more directly. The NGC’s portrait was likely the one on which Titian worked out the placement of detail and colour, and was most likely finished with Barbaro present.

The painting Daniele Barbaro is now on view in the National Gallery of Canada’s European art galleries. On January 24, Gritt will give a related talk about restoring and analyzing historical paintings.



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