WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The man in the black velvet doublet stares through reddish, bulging eyes as he stands at a slight angle, with his left hand holding a folded, white paper and his right hand either drawing or replacing his stiletto.
Long known as the work of the great Italian Renaissance painter Titian, this somber, unsigned oil portrait of a middle-aged, 16th-century Italian duke was consigned to obscurity when an art critic questioned its authenticity nearly 70 years ago.
But an art historian who has spent eight years researching the painting believes it is a Titian after all.
It largely comes down to a problem with numbers.
An archivist misread the Roman numerals in the date on a handwritten letter in which the duke promised a German nobleman he would have Titian paint the portrait in a diplomatic exchange, said Aaron De Groft, director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary, where the painting is on loan.
The misinterpretation of the date as June 17, 1540, led prominent German art historian August Mayer to write in a journal in 1938 that Titian would not have had enough time to paint the duke, who died 11 days later. Mayer questioned the painting in an article titled "Some Notes on Titian" in Gazette des Beaux-Arts.
That article "was like putting a big 'X' mark on it," De Groft said of the painting.
But the correct date was June 17, 1539, giving Titian plenty of time, said De Groft, who has a doctorate in art history and based his conclusions about the painting on an examination of archival documents, scientific analysis, stylistic comparison with other Titian paintings and intuition.
"I didn't set out to prove it was a Titian," De Groft said recently as he stood in front of the painting. "I simply sort of let it lead me. This is where it's gone."
De Groft studied the painting at the request of Thomas Dossett, a Tennessee lawyer and art collector who acquired part ownership of the piece in exchange for some legal work around 1970.
Dossett did quite a bit of research on his own before approaching De Groft, who was a curator and deputy director at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. De Groft brought the painting with him to Williamsburg last year when he became director of the museum at his alma mater.
"Of all the cases that I've tried . . . this has been the most interesting thing I've ever been involved in," Dossett said. "To me, it's a matter of getting history right."
The man shown in three-quarter pose is Federico II Gonzaga, the first Duke of Mantua and the first great patron of Titian, who was known for his sense of color and his unflinching realism. Federico introduced Titian to Pope Paul III and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain — connections that helped the artist gain worldwide fame.
"This picture was lost almost since the moment it was created," De Groft said. It's not clear whether the German nobleman ever received the portrait, although it did pop up from time to time in history and was identified in owners' inventories as a Titian, he said.
The last time it was seen publicly, before now, was in 1931, when it appeared on the cover of The Art News, announcing the sale of the collection of Hungarian art dealer Marczell von Nemes. A Pennsylvania collector paid about $30,000 for the painting, the fourth-highest price in the collection, behind works by Fra Angelico, Rembrandt and El Greco, De Groft said.
Mayer wrote the sale catalog entries for the Old Master paintings and didn't question the Titian at the time. Then came his 1938 article. The painting languished at subsequent auctions, either not selling or barely selling for low prices, and was shuffled from one obscure collection to another, De Groft said.
De Groft hopes his research will help the painting be recognized as a pivotal work between Titian's early style and later style, when his brushwork became looser. While the body and background may have been painted by apprentices in Titian's workshop, De Groft said the master himself painted the face and hands, with their exquisite details that show control and finesse.
Titian painted the duke at least two other times. One of those portraits, which hangs in the Prado Museum in Spain, depicts the duke as a younger man, but there's no mistaking the resemblance and in both paintings he appears to be wearing the same black-and-golded beaded rosary or necklace.
A forensic analysis of the painting in question showed the pigments and varnishes to match the kinds that Titian would have used. That can't prove Titian was the artist, De Groft noted, but it does eliminate the possibility that this was a copy made later. X-rays showed the painting was done on a fine diamond-weave canvas, an expense indicating that this was an important commission.
Parts of the painting have been overcleaned over the years, revealing a gray underpainting — also consistent with Titian — that gives a halo effect around the body, De Groft said.
To have the piece accepted as a signature work of Titian would require a certain degree of consensus among Titian scholars, said Madeleine Viljoen, director of the Art Museum at La Salle University in Philadelphia and a Rennaisance art scholar. She said that could boost the price from thousands of dollars to millions if the painting is put up for sale.
One way art historians can attribute a painting to an artist is to compare the canvas with preparatory drawings. But Titian, like other Venetian artists of the period, tended not to make such drawings, Viljoen said.
However, the letter "does seem to be at least a very strong basis for making that attribution," said Viljoen, who said she could not make any pronouncements about its authenticity without seeing the painting herself.
Michael Amy, assistant professor of art history at Rochester Institute of Technology, said the date on the letter may not really matter.
Titian knew the duke well, so he would have been able to paint the duke from memory if the duke had already died, Amy said. Titian also is known to have painted at least one other person posthumously, he said.
The lack of a signature isn't necessarily a problem, either, Amy said, since there are many paintings that Titian didn't sign.
Amy said though, that judging by a photograph of the painting, he thought the man's right arm seemed short and the gesture of the right hand was odd. He wondered whether Titian would have had that kind of trouble painting the arm, and he said it's riskier to add a possibly problematic work to the oeuvre of an artist than to leave it out.
"However, there are paintings that come out of nowhere and when specialists have the opportunity to study the painting very carefully in the flesh, they come to an agreement and attribute it to the master," he said.
De Groft would like to get the painting into a Paris museum show on Titian and the courts of Europe.
"It needs to be seen nose-to-nose with other Titian portraits of its time," De Groft said. "That's how you really look at things, not through photographs and memory."
For his part, Dossett would like to see a major museum eventually buy the painting and put it on display.
"What good is the Hope Diamond if it stays in a lock box? Nobody ever sees it," he said.
On the Net: Muscarelle Museum of Art: www.wm.edu/muscarelle/College