Recently, news that a major work by a Spanish Baroque painter has been on display at Hearst Castle for almost a century without being identified caught my interest. The giant altarpiece by Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa (c. 1634-1698), depicting the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary (Gospel of St. Luke 1:26-38), was painted in 1690, and has hung on the wall of the Assembly Room of Hearst’s atrocious country house in San Simeon, California since it was acquired from a Los Angeles art dealer back in 1927. As you probably know, the utterly repulsive William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was not only a publisher and a Congressman, but an art hoarder of the first order. From paintings and sculpture, to furniture, ceramics, and even entire cloisters, he bought anything and everything that wasn’t tied down. Nevertheless, it seems incredible that such a major work, particularly one which is so enormous and which, as it turns out, is both signed and dated, went unidentified for so long.
The work is particularly rare because compositions of this size are unusual for Pérez. He was one of the royal painters to Carlos II (1661-1700), the last Habsburg king of Spain, and a second-tier painter of the Spanish Golden Age. He isn’t a household name like El Greco (1541-1614) or Velázquez (1599-1660), which is partly to do with the fact that his compositions seem to be more highly decorative than they are particularly original. In fact, he is best known for creating highly decorative images in which religious figures are shown surrounded by lush garlands of flowers – as in this example depicting St. Teresa of Ávila – but there is more at work in such pictures than meets the eye.
This mixing of still life and religious painting was not new by the time Pérez began to produce these works, but it became his specialty even as it fell out of fashion. The genre, usually referred to as “garland paintings”, began when Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625) and Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632) created an image of the Madonna and Child surrounded by a garland of spring flowers for Federico Cardinal Borromeo of Milan in about 1608, shown below. It was a painted representation of the way in which the devout would traditionally decorate a religious image in their home or local parish during Eastertide or other Feasts of the Church, but had the benefit of the lush displays of flowers, fruit, and greenery not having to be thrown out.
Cardinal Borromeo saw this new type of image as a response to the iconoclasm of the Protestants, who by this point had been destroying works of art for decades, as well as banning pious practices such as processions, the decoration of churches with flowers, and so on. Because these types of pictures were both highly decorative as well as spiritually symbolic, they could fit into either an ecclesiastical or a household setting. In this example painted for a private home and dating from about 1621, Brueghel, working in collaboration with Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), painted the still life elements, while the latter painted the figures. Interestingly, some experts believe that the model for the Virgin Mary is Rubens’ first wife Isabella Brant, which I can believe, and that the Christ Child is Breughel’s son, the future artist Jan Breughel the Younger, although in my opinion the latter suggestion seems a bit off for the timeline of that artist’s life.
By the second half of the 17th century, this “garland painting” style was no longer as fashionable elsewhere in Europe, but Pérez continued to receive commissions to paint them. The image of St. Teresa shown earlier was one of a series which he completed between about 1675-1680 for the Franciscan convent of San Diego in Alcalá de Henares, which is fairly late for this genre. All of the paintings depicted Spanish Counter Reformation saints who had recently been canonized, including St. Teresa of Ávila, her friend and fellow Descalced Carmelite St. John of the Cross, the Jesuits St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Borgia, and others, and in that sense their depiction inside of garlands, in a genre that had Counter Reformation origins decades earlier, is not surprising.
Since most of Pérez’ surviving work is in the form of garland paintings or still lifes, the rare canvas from Hearst Castle is all the more valuable for understanding his development as an artist. I confess that I don’t find it to be a particularly great image, since the artist’s skills clearly lay more in depicting the realm of the floral than in the human. Nevertheless, it is a major discovery and will provide art historians with a wealth of new material to investigate for years to come.