Nenagh Hathaway

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Unknown, portrait of a man

Unknown, portrait of a man

Unknown Venetian

Unknown, portrait of a man, 16th century

oil and mixed media on canvas

45.2 x 38.7 cm

Gift of Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E., 1984


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From an English collection

Purchased from Brod Gallery, London, England, 1967

Herman Levy, Esq., O.B.E.


Exhibition History

The Herman H. Levy Collection, McMaster Museum of Art, Togo Salmon Gallery, 11 June 1994 – 9 November 2006

New Dawn: Italian Renaissance Art from Canadian Collections, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 16 May – 27 September 2009

The Last Things Before the Last, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 24 May – 18 August 2012

Worldly Possessions: Visualizing Ownership in the Age of the Baroque, McMaster Museum of Art, Levy Gallery, 27 August 2013 – 25 January 2014

This engaging portrait depicts an unidentified gentleman with piercing blue-brown eyes, a large brown moustache, and close-cropped dark hair. He wears a high white collar and dark costume (Fig. 1). The portrait and its dark background are contained within an oval shape, which itself is framed by four gold-coloured quadrants. These quadrants are in turn framed by a dark rectangular perimeter (Fig. X). The material history of this portrait is intriguing because it reveals that the work was initially larger. A close examination of the painting’s support, which consists of no less than three separate canvases, provides an important key to understanding this complex history.

Although the paint within the oval is original, the shape itself is not. X-radiography establishes that the ground layer applied to the oval canvas is significantly more X-ray opaque than the paint in the surrounding area (Fig. X). Moreover, several paint strokes stop abruptly at the edge of the oval, demonstrating that the current oval-shaped portrait was cut from a larger canvas. This oval was then adhered onto a larger rectangular canvas support. Curiously, the texture visible in the four golden spandrels (Fig. X) is not created by a canvas support, but rather by a material that is masquerading as canvas. Examination of a minute cross section (Fig. X) determined that a chalk-like substance was applied to create a surface that is flush with the oval canvas. While still wet, this material was imprinted with the pattern of a rough canvas, creating the illusion that it is made of a similar support as the painting within the oval. In addition to this imprint, several scored lines (Fig. X) were also created by dragging a sharp tool through the soft, chalk-like material before it dried.

Within the black rectangular border, a series of small holes can be observed (Fig. X), a clear indication that yet another major intervention had occurred. These holes were caused by tacking nails, which adhered the tacking edges of the rectangular canvas to its stretcher.[i] Therefore, at some point, the secondary rectangular canvas was removed from its stretcher, its tacking edges were flattened, and the entire package was adhered to yet another canvas. The outer border of this third canvas and the tacking edges of the secondary canvas were painted black, helping to cover some of the damages in the latter.

Raking light is a simple and highly effective tool for surface examinations like these. This technique involves shining a light at a sharp angle to the painting, which emphasizes its surface texture (Fig. X). Reflectance transformation imaging was also carried out to better visualize the topography of the painted surface.

When or why the portrait was cut into an oval shape, or how much original material was removed, remains unclear. It is possible that the portrait was at some point exhibited in an oval frame, which might explain the shape of its supporting canvas. However, it seems more likely that the oval, immediately after being cut, was adhered to the rectangular secondary canvas, thus during the same intervention. Originally, the portrait may have been part of a much larger painting, perhaps a group portrait, such as Domenico Tintoretto’s group portrait of circa 1590 (Fig. X). If this is the case, the particular individual portrayed in the McMaster painting may have been selected as the most successful or most meaningful of the group, while the other sitters were discarded. Another possibility is that the group was cut up into several stand-alone portraits for the open market once the group portrait no longer served its original function.

[i] A stretcher is a more recently developed method of supporting canvas for painting. Stretchers are rectangular frames with moveable elements that can be fit together and then reinforced with keys. These joints are not glued, allowing them to remain flexible and capable of being re-stretched in the future. Strainers, on the other hand, have permanent joints, which are strengthened with glue, nails, or other adhesives. Strainers were used before stretchers became popular.