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.