Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece

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.

"The Education of the Virgin" Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617) Yale University Art Gallery

“The Education of the Virgin” Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617)
Yale University Art Gallery





A Golden Age in Two New Exhibitions

Having specialized in Spanish art of the 17th century when I was studying at Sotheby’s in London, I have continued to keep my eye on the art market and news from the museum world about art produced in Spain during that Golden Age of culture on the Iberian Peninsula.  Thus, some news caught my eye this morning which involves two of the most important painters working in Spain during the 17th century.  One is a major rediscovery for art historians, which has been announced in Barcelona, while the other is an exhibition on the work of a well-known Spanish Old Master painter that has recently opened in Madrid.

Juan Bautista Maíno (1581–1649) is not a household name in the history of art, partially because we know of very few of his paintings to survive – only about 40 or so are known or believed to be by his hand – and partially because he became a Dominican friar when he was in his 30’s. However his influence on the development of Spanish art was tremendously important. Maíno left his native Castile and studied painting in Rome, soaking up the influence of painters like Caravaggio and Reni, and then brought this more theatrical style back with him to Spain. He became a popular, if not prolific painter, and helped the careers of many up-and-coming young painters, including Velázquez, the greatest of all Spanish artists.

Now the National Museum of Catalan Art (“MNAC”) in Barcelona is exhibiting, after a lengthy restoration process, a very large painting depicting “The Conversion of St. Paul” on the road to Damascus, which after careful study has been definitely attributed to Maíno. It had been in the collections of the MNAC for many decades, but incorrectly attributed to another artist, until it was damaged in a fire and had to undergo restoration. Given the scarcity of paintings by Maíno, this is a major find for art historians. The newly restored work will be on display as part of a special exhibition from July 5 to September 30th, along with a short documentary film, a contemporary sketch of the painting on a smaller scale, x-rays from the research process, and other information detailing the giant painting’s restoration.

Meantime at The Prado in Madrid, a new exhibition has opened on works by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), whose name or at least whose art is well-known to most students of art history. The stark realism of Velázquez was later supplanted by the softer, more dreamy qualities of Murillo’s style of painting, which often reflects a kind of golden, mellow light. Murillo was one of the greatest painters of children, in all of their innocent beauty, and his work has a sentimental quality that later influenced many French, English, and American salon/society painters of the 19th century.

The show “The Art of Friendship” which opened at The Prado a few weeks ago and runs until September, features paintings by Murillo which he created for or as a result of commissions obtained through the artist’s good friend, Justino de Neve.  Father de Neve was one of canons of Seville Cathedral, and a great friend of Murillo, who helped the artist to obtain a number of his most important artistic commissions. This included paintings Murillo produced for the hospital of elderly and disabled priests in the Andalusian city, which de Neve himself founded, several of which are in this exhibition. The show will later move to the former hospital founded by Father de Neve in Seville, before continuing on to The Dulwich in London.

If you happen to find yourself in Barcelona or Madrid this summer, and can avoid the rioting leftists, then both of these exhibitions would be well-worth paying a visit.

Josep Serra, Director of The MNAC, examines the newly-restored
“The Conversion of St. Paul” by Juan Bautista Maíno

The UN Gets Something Right: Fighting to Preserve an Urban Vista

Sometimes, despite its best efforts to sabotage itself, the United Nations can actually serve a useful purpose, and one of the best examples of this is UNESCO. It is a body whose members care about issues such as art, architecture, history and urban planning, and uses its clout to try to help preserve cultural patrimony, or at the very least to prevent its destruction. And today it is publicly shaming the Spanish government for pursuing a project that will ruin the skyline of Seville, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Those who follow the news from Spain with any regularity know that a large skyscraper by Argentine “starchiect” César Pelli is being built as part of a redevelopment project on Cartuja (“Charterhouse”), one of the islands in the Guadalquivir River that runs through the city. Pelli of course is perhaps best known for the twin Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The centerpiece of his project on Cartuja is the Torre Cajasol, a nearly 585-foot skyscraper which will house Cajasol, a major savings bank headquartered in Seville.

A great deal of controversy has accompanied this project which, although not situated in the historic center of the city, will immediately become the most dominant feature of the urban landscape. It will dwarf, for example, all of the many Renaissance and Baroque church towers in the city, including the 105-foot tall La Giralda, which began life as a minaret but for the past five centuries has served as the main bell tower of the city Cathedral. The mixture of Islamic and Christian architectural design on La Giralda has inspired copies and variations all over the world, such as at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables or the Wrigley Tower in Chicago.

For three years now, UNESCO has been trying to persuade the local government in Seville not to go ahead with the Torre Cajasol project, due to concerns over the height of the tower, but its complaints have fallen on deaf ears. So today, UNESCO has announced that if the project is not stopped and re-examined, next year it may place Seville on a watch list of places around the world whose governments are damaging the cultural patrimony of humanity. While such an action on the part of UNESCO is hardly going to make anyone quake in their boots, it is very bad press indeed among the cultural cognoscenti, and it has a real impact. It makes it more likely that grants for things such as historic preservation may dry up and go elsewhere, if wealthy individuals or NGO’s feel that the local or national governments in Spain cannot be trusted.

And now the new mayor of Seville, a member of the conservative Popular Party who was swept into office last month as part of a conservative landslide in Spanish regional elections, is stepping up to the plate. In reaction to UNESCO’s concerns, which were either ignored or poo-poohed by his predecessor, the new mayor has promised to review the zoning permits for the project and see whether something can be done to halt the project and revisit it. The fear among many observers is that it may be too late, and that construction on the tower has now gone too far to be stopped. At the very least, however, someone is taking this marring of the urban vistas in Seville seriously.

In a further bit of scandal, this weekend it emerged that the preceding mayor of Seville, a socialist who had been in office since 1999, made a last-minute deal with Cajasol regarding the building. On May 20th, two days before he was voted out of office, the then-mayor signed a pact with the President of Cajasol whereby city hall would cede certain city property to Cajasol in exchange for having the city Planning Department housed in the new skyscraper – even though the skyscraper is not yet finished. The new, conservative mayor has not only refused to honor this agreement, but is now investigating whether anything illegal took place so that those involved can be turned over to prosecutors. Naturally UNESCO does not have anything directly to do with this, but the fact that such dealing was going on behind the scenes may lead to a stoppage of the project, at least temporarily, while the new local government figures out what shenanigans the previous one was getting up to.

Scandal aside, one of the lessons we can draw from what is taking place in Seville is that, as UNESCO realizes, there is something special about a city where the buildings are kept to a human scale. In Washington, for example, many who complain about building height restrictions and the lack of innovative architecture do not realize that it is the uniqueness of our low, horizontal profile, punctuated here and there by monuments and church towers, that makes for a green, open, and very liveable city which visitors from around the world envy. Similarly Seville, a city defined by its churches and plazas, spectacular Holy Week processions, and the mixture of East and West that gave rise to buildings such as La Giralda, or indeed to flamenco music, will lose something of its identity if everyone is forced to stare at a giant upended box of kleenex dominating the landscape.

Those who live in major cities can find it hard to imagine what it was like to live in such places when buildings could not reach the great heights which they do now. When we look at old engravings of London before the Great Fire, such as that shown below, or see photographs of New York from the Civil War era, we often have no idea what we are looking at unless there is an explanatory caption. Natural disasters, war, and changing tastes all play their part, of course, but so have advances in engineering and physics, which have led to a creeping “sameness” of tall glass boxes across the globe.

I would hope that the government of Seville will come to recognize the fact that it is precisely its individuality and lack of “sameness” as a city, that makes Seville special. It is in preserving its heritage, rather than ignoring it, that Seville will in fact secure its future. And kudos to the UNESCO for helping to finally bring this matter to a head.

Detail of “Panorama of London” by Claes Van Visschers (1616)