On The Auction Block: A New Velázquez (?)

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.

Selective Engagement: The Politics Of Art Restitution

Chances are that even if you do not have much of an interest in the art world, you’re aware of the ongoing question of the restitution of stolen or recovered works of art. Stories about the descendants of the Nazis’ victims suing to reclaim their family’s property come up in the news from time to time, and are often featured in media. The recent film “Woman In Gold” with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, for example, is based on the true story of how a portrait by the Austrian Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt, stolen during World War II, was finally reclaimed by the niece of the murdered sitter.

Now it appears that Germany is beginning to dip its toe into the politically and diplomatically dangerous issue of art stolen during the Cold War. The Art Newspaper is reporting that the German government will study art looted by the Stasi, i.e., the East German secret police, over the course of a three-day operation that took place in January 1962. As the article points out, this was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to art theft not only on the part of fellow Germans, many of whom are still alive, but also on the part of exterior actors such as the Soviet Union. It would not be a surprise if restitution and compensation claims began to explode in number at the conclusion of the study.

While it is good to see communists getting what they deserve, albeit too late to make much of a difference, the problem with this kind of effort is that it is highly selective. Works of art have been carried off as booty, or secretly made their way into the possession of others, on a regular basis throughout Western history. Sometimes no one is quite sure exactly how a particular object ended up where it has, decades or centuries later, other than recognizing that it is not where it is supposed to be. An example which is of personal importance to me involves the now-dismembered altarpiece of St. George, which is currently split between the Art Institute of Chicago, the Louvre, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Bernat Martorell (c. 1400-1452) was one the most important Catalan artists of the Middle Ages. In around 1434, art historians believe that he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the newly-constructed Chapel of St. George in the Palace of the Generalitat, the seat of the executive branch of the Catalan government. The altarpiece would have been in keeping with the Chapel’s numerous visual references to St. George, including both interior and exterior sculptures, as well as the solid silver metalwork decorating the altar itself.

The top panel of the altarpiece, which is now in Philadelphia, features a Madonna and Child surrounded by personifications of the Cardinal Virtues. Underneath it, the main panel shows St. George in his legendary battle with the dragon; this painting, which is shown below, is now in the Art Institute of Chicago. On the sides, the foldable “wings” of the altarpiece display scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. George, and have been in the possession of the Louvre for some time. Below the main panel there would have been at least one predella, which is a kind of long and narrow painting that typically runs along the bottom of the altarpiece to act almost as a base, however the whereabouts of this panel or panels are now unknown.

When you visit the Chapel today, which the public is permitted to do once a year, where the Martorell altarpiece used to be there is now a Flemish Renaissance tapestry, which has nothing whatsoever to do with St. George. It is likely that Martorell’s altarpiece was hacked into pieces during the Napoleonic Wars, when many artistic and cultural treasures were carted away or simply destroyed. Such a fate was not at all unusual: the famous Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona, for example, was almost completely destroyed by Napoleon’s troops, twice, and never fully recovered its former grandeur.

Thus, the issue of restitution is not so much a question about morality or the passage of time, but rather that of political will. In the case of the Elgin Marbles or the Bust of Nefertiti for example, there are disputes over whether they were properly obtained from the appropriate authorities at the time they entered their respective museums, often led by vociferous individuals (such as Mrs. George Clooney.) And yet the same voices speaking out in favor of the return of these objects usually say nothing about the return of pieces which were unquestionably stolen, without even the pretense of a sale or treaty.

Certainly the effort to track down, and potentially restore, lost works of art to their rightful owners, particularly those who suffered so greatly under communism, is a good thing. The fact that these losses occurred comparatively recently means there is a greater chance of success in such an effort. Unfortunately, no such effort will be made on behalf of the churches, monasteries, and chapels whose contents were looted to fill the palaces, mansions, and museums of those possessing more greed than grace.

Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery