A 16th-century oil painting, stored out of public view for much of its 84-year-history as part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, has been identified as the work of the Venetian master Titian. Indeed, the painting, a recently restored portrait of an Italian cleric and scholar named Daniele Barbaro, is the only known Titian in Canada and as of this month is being proudly displayed in the NGC’s European galleries.
Previously the work, dated to 1545, was deemed a copy of a genuine Titian portrait of Barbaro housed in Madrid’s Prado museum. Certainly when the NGC purchased the oil from London’s Sackville Gallery in 1928 it believed it was getting an authentic Titian since it wasn’t uncommon in Renaissance Europe for a sitter to commission multiple versions of his likeness. Over time, however, doubts arose and in 1991, when the work was compared with the Prado portrait during an exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., experts largely concluded it was a workshop version likely done by a Titian assistant.
Except for its inclusion in a 1997 touring exhibition, the painting stayed ignored and unseen in the NGC’s vaults until 2003. That’s when Stephen Gritt, the gallery’s newly arrived director of conservation and technical research, found himself prodded by “a man in Toronto, an amateur historian basically, asking us why is ‘the only Titian in Canada not on the wall. Why do you guys have it in storage?’ So we got it out … and our answer to him was, whether it is or isn’t a Titian,” its condition “is so poor” because of water damage, flaking and “scruffy smears” from earlier repainting and overpainting “that we can’t display it.”
The portrait, however, “nagged me,” Mr. Gritt said in an interview Thursday from Ottawa. Soon he was working on its restoration, sparingly at first, then with greater commitment as Titian experts, including Miguel Falomir, the Prado’s head curator for Italian Renaissance paintings, became convinced it was a true Titian. In all, he estimates he spent 700 hours, “at times immensely boring hours,” getting the portrait into displayable shape, only completing the job a few months ago. Last year another, privately held Titian, itself unseen by the public for 30 years, sold at auction for almost $17-million (U.S.).