When a “grimy picture of a man” appeared in a local auction in Scotland in 1983, art collector Sebastian Thewes was convinced he was looking at an important sixteenth-century painting. He purchased the painting, for the meagre sum of £1,000. Now, after nearly forty years of research, answers might finally emerge regarding the attribution of the portrait.
After extensive research, the painting will be part of the upcoming exhibition at the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen, Germany, Dürer was Here — A Journey becomes Legend. Evidence gathered suggests that this portrait may be by arguably the most important figure in the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).
Research over the years supports the attribution to Dürer. Tests carried out by the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge concluded that both the oak panel and pigments date to the sixteenth century. The sitter’s tricorn hat also indicates it could possibly be by the German master, as this type of accessory was fashionable in Antwerp in the 1520s, when Dürer was working there.
A related drawing is in the collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna. A print of the painting also exists: it is dated 1587, and includes text indicating that the sitter was believed to be the humanist and diplomat Damião de Góis. Thewes disagrees with this identification, as De Góis would have been 19 at the time the portrait was made, and the painting clearly shows an older man. A connected painting, now in the Phoebus Foundation, has also survived. The question that remains is which of these works is the original source: is Thewes’s painting a copy that derives from one of these other works, or is it in fact the original?
Thewes’s research led him to believe that the sitter could be the Portuguese trader João Brandão, who worked in Antwerp and, according to Dürer’s diary, was painted by the artist in January 1521. An underdrawing discovered beneath the thin layers of paint also supports the idea that this painting is not a copy. The drawing features numerous ‘pentimenti’ – indicators that the artist changed his mind during the process of painting, which would be uncommon for a copy.
Peter van den Brink, director of the Aachen City Museums, which includes the Suermondt-Ludiwg-Museum, is excited about the display of this work in the upcoming exhibition, believing it to be “a wonderful picture”. The painting will be exhibited as “by an unknown painter”, but van den Brink is keen to use the exhibition as an opportunity to gather further evidence towards changing this attribution to Dürer. He states, “if we do an infrared and the results show that it is stylistically comparative… I have no problem whatsoever with changing the label.”
The exhibition in Aachen will travel to the National Gallery in London in November, however the Thewes’s portrait will not be included due to restrictions on the number of objects. The exhibition focuses on Dürer’s trip to the Netherlands via Aachen in 1520, and will include 90 works by the German master, as well as another 90 works by his contemporaries and followers, many of whom he met on this journey, and others who were greatly inspired by him. The exhibition will open in Aachen on 28th July.