The ecclesiastical identity of the sitter in this portrait remains unclear. While still in London, the painting was titled ‘Portrait of a Monk’ at the suggestion of Sir Charles Holmes, Director of the National Gallery (where the work was displayed – hung between two famous paintings by Titian: Bacchus and Ariadne, c.1521–23, and Noli me tangere, c.1515 – just before being shipped to Australia). On 10 July 1924, however, Rinder took a different approach, in a letter to the Felton Trustees: ‘As the habit of the sitter is said to be that of a Conventual or Minorite of the original Franciscan Order, I suggest that the picture be entitled The Friar’. The German scholar and collector Detlev von Hadeln, who published the painting for the first time, in an article in the Burlington Magazine in 1924, expressed yet another view. Hadeln argued that ‘The person represented was evidently not a mere ordinary monk, but a celebrity of his time, probably a famous preacher or dogmatic theologian of the Counter-Reformation’, the implication being that no ‘ordinary’ cleric would have been portrayed by as distinguished an artist as Titian.
Although this work had been accepted as authentic by art scholars from 1924 onward, the attribution to Titian was doubted by Harold E. Wethey in his catalogue raisonné of 1971, and questioned again in the 1980s. Today the opinion of Titian scholars has steered towards a reacceptance of A monk with a book, again assigning this canvas a place within the canon of genuine works by the great Venetian painter.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 33.