Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece

Readers may recall a piece I wrote some time ago about an Old Master painting which may or may not be by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez.  “The Education of the Virgin” was donated to Yale not quite a century ago, and lay forgotten in the basement storage area of the university art museum for many years, until an art historian there first attributed the piece to the painter.  Although more and more experts have come to accept it, the attribution has remained controversial ever since.

Now, as part of the picture’s international exhibition travels to Madrid, Seville, Paris, Minneapolis, and back to New Haven, following its cleaning and restoration, a symposium has been announced for October 15-17 in Seville.  Experts will gather in the Andalusian cultural capital to examine the piece, and debate whether the painting is indeed by Velázquez or not.  If you are an art history nerd, as I am, you would love to be a fly on the wall for this.  If you are not, then you might conclude that these sorts of arguments really don’t matter.  Yet in truth these issues really are important, for several reasons.

From a purely economic standpoint, there is a huge difference between owning an original work of art by a well-known artist, and owning one by an unknown or lesser-known artist.  We might like to think that a quality work of art can stand on its own, without attribution, and sometimes it does.  However more often than not, whether you are talking insurance values or auction prices or ways to draw in the public, art from the hand of someone prestigious is always going to command a higher value than if the same work of art was created by an unknown.

Think about how this works on a more pop culture level.  I can draw fairly well, as it happens, and I might be able to do a fairly accurate drawing of Snoopy or one of the other Peanuts characters. But would you really pay the same price for my work, whether to own it or go see it in an exhibition, as you would for one that came from the hand of Charles Schultz himself?  Part of the value in a work of art lies in the intangible connection to something larger than the work itself provides at first glance.

This brings us to the larger issue, which is the importance in Western culture of understanding artistic development.  Unlike in many other artistic traditions around the world, Western artists have spent centuries adapting and changing how they and we see things.  Many cultures value an exact or near-exact continuity with the past, so that the differences between works of art created in one century and another are so slight, that it would take a serious expert to be able to discern the differences between them.

In addition, many times artists in other cultures did not date or sign their works, thus leaving their identities unknown to history.  While not all Western art is signed, we do have a long history from the beginning of Western culture of artists proudly placing their names on their paintings and sculptures.  We actually know the names of some of the most famous painters and sculptors of Ancient Greece, for example, even if in many cases their works only survive in copies.  When an artist did not sign his work however, historians and experts can look at works that are known for certain to be by that artist, and compare styles, techniques, and methods with the piece that is being examined; such is the case with the attribution of “The Education of the Virgin”.

One way to go about doing this is by getting a good sense of how that artist and his world changed over time.  If you look at an image of The Education of the Virgin created 100 years before this purported Velázquez, say this French example [N.B. yes, I realize it’s not entirely fair to compare these, but bear with me], there is a movement in the later work away from the rigid formality of the earlier.  This was mirrored in Western society of the time, as everything from clothing to homes, government, technology, and business, became more recognizable to us living in today’s culture, even though we are still far removed from it.

What’s more, often an individual Western artist himself could and did change quite a bit during his career.  Look at how Raphael painted the Madonna and Child when he was a young artist of 20, versus how he painted them as a mature artist of 30, a mere decade later, and you can see the dramatic difference.  If you were unaware of all of the works of art that Raphael painted between these two pictures, growing and changing as he experimented and studied, chances are you would never have guessed that they were by the same person.  Thus, art history in the West is often a combination of detective story, painstaking research, and really knowing your subject inside and out.

Whatever the result of the conference in Seville, the prospect of determining that this is a very early work by Spain’s most important artist, a man who influenced everyone from Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, is very exciting.  It shows us not only how accomplished he really was at a young age, but it helps us to understand why his career catapulted so quickly, leading him to become the official painter for the Spanish court.  I’m looking forward to learning of the outcome from the experts.

"The Education of the Virgin" Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617) Yale University Art Gallery

“The Education of the Virgin” Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617)
Yale University Art Gallery

 

 

 

Bargain Sale Patriarch: A Tale of the Sad Decline of Art Collecting

I was surprised to read the news that British investment banker Jonathan Ruffer is to open a new public gallery dedicated to his collection of religious art, focusing on the period known as the Spanish Golden Age of the 17th century.  Ruffer famously purchased the monumental series of paintings known as “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” (c. 1640-1644) by Francisco de Zurbarán a few years ago for the bargain price of £19 million, and then gave them back to the Anglican Church, which had owned them for the last two centuries.  However Mr. Ruffer has been accumulating many other works for his personal collection for years now.  The reason he is able to do so, frankly, is overall rather a sad one for the world of art collecting.

Creating an art collection like the one which will form the nucleus of this new museum in County Durham, focusing on major works from the Counter-Reformation in Spain, is not an easy thing to do.  The majority of the art of this period is now housed in publicly-owned museums, rather than held by individual collectors.  The fact that someone could still, just within the last 20 years, assemble a group of works of the level we’re expected to see in this new, public-but-private museum, is truly remarkable.

The fact that Ruffer chose not to hold on to the Zurbarán paintings, which would have been the star of this new museum, surprised many, but then there are many surprising things about these pictures.  The story of how “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” ended up in England in the first place, for example, is pure speculation. The generally accepted theory is that they were captured as booty by British privateers, stolen on their way to a monastery in the New World from Spain.  They were then brought back to London and auctioned off quayside.

What is known for certain however, and which is rather fascinating, is that at some point the paintings entered the collection of James Mendez, the son of a Sephardic Jew who had come to England as the personal physician of Queen Catherine, wife of King Charles II.  As the Mendez family wanted to get along with the Anglican gentry, they discarded what they perceived as more overt aspects of their Jewish culture.  Although these paintings were painted by a Catholic for a Catholic institution, their Jewish subject matter and monumental scale probably seemed too overtly Jewish for a family trying to mingle in English high society at that time, which was often blatantly anti-semitic. Thus they eventually passed into the collection of the Anglican Bishops resident at Auckland Castle.

Today the stigma of being a lover of religious art has spread to become a kind of general malaise throughout the world of art collecting.  When a group of thirteen magnificent, beautifully made religious paintings like these, from one of the greatest painters of the 17th century, sells for around $30 million, while a hideous monstrosity like this sells for $142 million, something is very wrong.  If you wanted proof that our present society prefers ugliness to beauty, not just aesthetically but in everything else, here at least is some compelling evidence advancing that theory.

Of course, the flip side to this downturn in taste is that it is a great time to be a collector with an eye for beauty and meaning, as Mr. Ruffer clearly is.  The paintings and sculptures that are being overlooked, by the pursuers of the new and lacking in nuance or skill, do not fetch as high a price.  So of the saleable stock remaining from the world of Western Civilization before its decline into incontinence, should you have a few million sitting around, there are still some lovely things to be had.

Detail of "Jacob" by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644) Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

Detail of “Jacob” by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-1644)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, England

 

 

 

When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome