How can we trace the provenance of a painting whose title we do not know?
Titles of artworks change over time. Catalogues habitually list titles in different languages or with slight variations. Sometimes, original titles are forgotten.
Experts contest the identity of the man depicted in this portrait. A paper label applied to the back of the painting by a Viennese art dealer in the first half of the twentieth century identified the sitter as Marco Foscari di Venezia, an early modern Venetian ambassador to Florence. Moretto da Brescia, the artist to whom this work is attributed, hailed from the same city as Foscari. Recent scholarship has questioned the authorship of this work based on stylistic details, and with that, the identity of the sitter has come into question.
Provenance research relies heavily on textual sources that utilize precise nomenclature: book indexes, catalogue entries, databases, and even filing systems. Where titles are lacking, verbal descriptions of the subject or the object’s measurements can occasionally yield results. However, tracing the provenance of Portrait of an Unidentified Man without knowing with certainty the name of the sitter or the artist presents a very real challenge.
Author: Nancy Karrels, doctoral candidate in Art History and guest curator of Provenance: A Forensic History of Art, 2017