The Spanish press is reporting this morning about a potentially exciting find in the world of Old Master paintings which, if proven, will not only constitute an important discovery for the understanding of one of the greatest of all Old Master artists, but also demonstrate yet again how the use of the expert eye in tandem with increasingly sophisticated technological research in the field of art history is expanding the depth and breadth of our knowledge of Western art. Buried in the basement of the Yale University Art Gallery since sometime in the 1920’s, “The Education of the Virgin” is a scarred, forlorn canvas originally attributed to an unknown 17th century painter of the Seville school. It was donated to Yale as part of a collection amassed by a American shipping family that did business in Spain at the turn of the previous century.
The painting shows the Virgin Mary as a little girl, flanked by her mother St. Anne to her left, and her father St. Joachim to her right. St. Anne holds a book on her lap, and is pointing to a line in the text while guiding her daughter’s finger along the same line. The Virgin Mary, a beautiful little girl in a pink dress, stares out sweetly at the viewer who has seemingly interrupted the domestic scene. St. Joachim is leaning into the picture and is saying something to his wife; St. Anne appears to be listening intently and has momentarily stopped giving the reading lesson.
Some of the painting has been cut down at the top and bottom and at the side during its sad history, for truncated portions of at least two figures believed to be angels appear in the background. Genre details surround the figures, including elements which, as presented in the piece, themselves form what in Spanish art of this period is called a “bodegón”, or still life of things such as food and household items. There is even what looks to be a sleeping puppy at the foot of the side table.
In an article to be published next week in the print edition of Ars Magazine, John Marciari Ph.D., Curator of Italian and Spanish Painting and Head of Provenance Research at the San Diego Museum of Art and previously a curator at Yale, has concluded that this unloved canvas of circa 1615-1617 is in fact by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez. In a preview of the print article, Dr. Marciani notes that the combination of the appearance and style of the picture, as well as a technical analysis of the paints and the canvas itself, can only point to Velázquez as the painting’s author.
If Dr. Marciari is proved correct, this could be the earliest known painting by Velázquez, who was born in 1599; at the time of the estimated execution of this work he would have been between 16 and 18 years old. While this may seem incredibly early, Velázquez was in fact extremely precocious, not unlike other gifted young artists such as Raphael or Mozart. It is known that at the age of 12 he left his one-year apprenticeship with Seville artist Francisco de Herrera, and took up an apprenticeship in the workshop of the man who would later become his father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco. When he was 19, he married Pacheco’s daughter and subsequently left his native Seville for Madrid.
Pacheco’s style had a profound influence on the young Velázquez, and the works he began to generate during his earliest period tended to two types: genre scenes, and religious pictures which often appeared to be genre scenes. One of Velázquez’ earliest known canvases, “The Luncheon” of circa 1617, which is presently in the Hermitage, is of particular interest in the analysis of the possible new discovery. If we examine the figure leaning in from the left side of the picture, there is a striking similarity to the figure of St. Joachim in the Yale painting. We can also look at the circa 1618 canvas “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, now in the National Gallery London, which is a combination of genre picture and religious scene, noting the head and hand of the old woman (who is directing the servant girl on how to make a good Spanish ali-oli in the mortar and pestle), and comparing her to the Yale figure of St. Anne.
The Prado Museum, which houses the most important collection of Velázquez’ paintings in the world, has so far not commented on Dr. Marciari’s identification of the painting. However, a number of art experts both within Spain and internationally are recommending that the painting, which as described above is in a rather sorry state, be sent to Madrid for further technical analysis and investigation. Understandably, Yale is not going to undertake the expensive and painstaking process of restoration of the canvas if it cannot be definitively attributed to Velázquez. Naturally, any developments on this will be passed along to you, gentle reader.