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Object Lesson: How a Norton Simon painting got an extra set of eyes

What Lies Beneath: A mysterious 16th-century painting @NortonSimon in Pasadena has an extra set of peepers

In many ways, the painting "Venetian Nobleman (Portrait of Giacomo Dolfin)," is like many other 16th-century portraits of 16th-century noblemen. A balding, bearded figure, draped in velvet crimson robes, holds a letter denoting an important political appointment. But that's about where the normalcy ends, because to the right of the man's a head, a set of eyes peeks eerily through a rectangular window on the canvas.

The painting is part of the permanent collection at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and is currently on view as part of the exhibition "Lock, Stock and Barrel: Norton Simon's Purchase of Duveen Brothers Gallery." 

The show gathers dozens of objects that the California industrialist Norton Simon acquired from New York's famous Duveen Brothers Gallery back in the 1960s. These included a mishmash of Italian paintings, a sky-blue cape allegedly worn by a Spanish king plus the peculiar 16th-century portrait of Giacomo Dolfin, which some thought could have been painted by Titian.

Except that it wasn't. The authentic Titian portrait of Dolfin, as far as anyone knows, hangs at the L.A. County Museum of Art, across town from the Norton Simon. (Right on the third floor of the Ahmanson Building, if you want to have a look.)

"If we were to hang the two pictures side-by-side it would be pretty clear that the L.A. County picture is superb," says Carol Togneri, chief curator at the Norton Simon. "The way the drapery is painted, the whole block of that triangular composition, it's just not as strong as the one at LACMA."

Chances are that Simon's picture was a copy made by someone in Titian's studio or by someone who knew Titian, hence its attribution, in the wall text, as being by the "Circle of Titian."

So what about those extra eyes? As part of the examination process after his purchase, Simon had the "Venetian Nobleman" X-rayed, and that process revealed a whole other painting underneath. 

"It's a full figure by a different hand," Togneri says. "It's hard to know who [did it]. Artists often paint over their own paintings, but this was one artist painting over another, which was unusual."

Wanting to know more, Simon decided to have some of the paint removed to have a peek at the mysterious figure underneath.

"He had them open up a small box — one eye," Togneri says. "Then they opened it up further and the second eye emerged. That's when they stopped. The painting underneath was probably not as significant as anyone thought."

After the window had been removed over the man's eyes, however, Simon decided to keep it that way as a teaching object. In that regard, the painting also tells an interesting story since nowadays, this isn't the sort of change the average contemporary conservator is likely to make to a historic work of art.

"In trying to test a pigment, conservators freqently look to the edges of a painting, where the canvas has been wrapped around the stretcher or the piece underneath the frame," explains Togneri. "And they generally take a tiny, tiny sample."

But she also notes that conservators did not touch key elements of the work, removing only a piece of the neutral background.

"In the workshops, it was thought that the master finished the painting," she says. "The studio would do the drapery and the background. But he'll finish the hands and faces. So, generally, you don't touch the hands or faces. What they took was a neutral area, so it was of less concern."

But Simon's idiosyncratic decision to keep the eyes exposed has given curious new life to the "Venetian Nobleman," one that makes it more than just another run-of-the-mill copy.

"It's been fun listening to people walk through the galleries," says Togneri. "People walk in and they first mention a speak-easy window. Or they think it's a confessional. A lot of people look at it and think maybe that's how it was supposed to be: 'Maybe it means something dramatic — someone looking through a wall.'"

"I like to think of it as almost a joke," says Togneri. "It's Duchampian. This is not a pipe and that is not a face looking through a speak-easy window!"

"Lock, Stock and Barrel: Norton Simon's Purchase of Duveen Brothers Gallery," is on view at the Norton Simon Museum through April 27, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, nortonsimon.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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