The potentially big news in the art market this week is the discovery of a previously unknown work by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), the greatest of all Spanish painters. The painting will be auctioned in Madrid today, and while the auction house is being extremely cautious about attribution, at least one expert in Spanish painting of the 17th and 18th centuries has declared it to be by the Old Master. While I’m certainly not a qualified art expert when it comes to deciding whether or not a particular artist created a particular work, there are a number of factors that make me feel comfortable with this attribution, and one in particular which I’m surprised that no one has mentioned in the art press.
The painting in question depicts a young girl in 17th century costume, her hands folded in prayer. X-rays of the picture reveal that she was originally crowned by a halo of stars, which was painted out at some point in the past. This suggests that it is a representation of the Virgin Mary as a child. It is common when making a visual reference to the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic dogma that Mary was conceived without Original Sin, to use the iconography described in Revelation 12:1 of the woman clothed with the sun, with a crown of stars on her head. It is a device that Velázquez himself used, as the news reports have pointed out.
There is also something about the eyes in this picture that strike me as being very Velázquez. Particularly in his representations of children and animals, Velázquez’ eyes tend to be unexpectedly soulful. If you look closely at the eyes of the little princess standing in the center of his masterpiece “Las Meninas” in The Prado, or the eyes of both the little prince and his puppy in the “Portrait of Prince Felipe Prospero” in Vienna, there is a depth and directness in the gaze, slightly tinged with melancholy. This sense of gravitas sets the painter apart from the more smiley, sunshiny images of children that we’re used to seeing.
While both the crown of stars and the expression of the eyes would tend to fit with Velázquez’ style, what has not been mentioned in the reporting I’ve seen so far on this story is this painting’s possible relation to an entirely different picture of his. When I first saw images of this piece, I was immediately struck by its relation to another early work by Velázquez, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, which is now in the National Gallery in London. Not only is there a significant amount of technical similarity, but if the expert in this case is correct, they were created roughly at the same time and in the same place.
In the “House of Martha and Mary”, take a good look at the servant girl in the foreground, being directed by the old woman standing behind her. You can see that the girl seems rather melancholy, as she goes about making garlic paste in the mortar and pestle. More importantly for our purposes however, take a look at her pouting lips, the shading of her slightly cleft chin, and even the shape of her head, and you’ll notice that they are very similar to those of the young girl in the newly-discovered painting – they could even be sisters.
Not only do I find this an important visual clue, but given the dating of these two pictures and their relationship to what was going on at the artist’s life at the time, they make perfect sense. The little girl in the mystery picture is believed to have been painted in 1617, while the servant girl was painted in 1618. The timing of this is significant from the point of view of Velázquez’ artistic development.
Young artists completing their apprenticeships with established masters tend to re-use compositions that they are more comfortable with at the start of their careers, developing their own unique styles later on. It is why, for example, that Raphael’s earlier images of the Madonna and Child draw upon models created by his master, Perugino. It is only after he gained independence, experience, and self-confidence, that Raphael took the lessons that he had learned from emulating his master, combining them with his own native genius and observational skills, and began creating the unique, more individualized images of Mary holding the Christ Child that first made him famous and highly sought after as an artist.
In 1612, Velázquez began his apprenticeship with the painter Francisco Pacheco in Seville, an artist whose treatise on religious iconography and painterly technique made him the most influential expert on these matters within Spain at the time. By copying the style of his teacher, and learning his techniques and attitudes toward art, Velázquez would have absorbed the skills needed to eventually go out and set up his own shop, much as today a cabinetmaker or ironworker would do once they complete their vocational training. Velázquez finished his studies with Pacheco in early 1618, at about the same time that he married Pacheco’s daughter Juana; the couple moved from Seville to Madrid a few years later, where the young master’s style would begin undergoing a significant transformation.
If Velázquez was still learning at the time that the earlier of these two pictures was painted, then it would make sense that he would reuse certain elements of the earlier composition in a later work. Thus the shape of the head, the features, shading, and so on that we see in the picture of the young girl, were available for him to reuse in the features of the serving girl. Again, this is just a theory on my part, and no doubt an actual expert can poke holes in it, but I think the similarities are too obvious and the timing too perfect to ignore.
Time will tell whether this discovery comes to be widely accepted as a work by Velázquez or not, but I suspect that the sale price at the end of the auction will give us an idea of what the general feeling is within Spain. Given the very strict Spanish export restrictions on works of art that are over 100 years old, the likelihood of this painting leaving Spain for a foreign collection is extremely remote. However whether it disappears back into a private collection, or whether it becomes the property of a public museum, it would seem to be an important link between the end of the artist’s apprenticeship, and his emergence as a master painter in his own right.