Gallery says Velazquez attribution is official

John Marciari GRD ’00 spent five years gathering evidence, such as the features highlighted above, to prove that the painting he found in storage in 2005, “The Education of the Virgin,” is an original Velazquez.
John Marciari GRD ’00 spent five years gathering evidence, such as the features highlighted above, to prove that the painting he found in storage in 2005, “The Education of the Virgin,” is an original Velazquez. Photo by Lauren Motzkin.

It’s official: As far as the Yale University Art Gallery is concerned, its collection now has one more Velazquez.

Three months ago, the gallery made headlines worldwide when John Marciari GRD ’00, in an article in Ars Magazine, attributed “The Education of the Virgin” to the 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velazquez. But Marciari’s eureka moment happened in 2005, said Laurence Kanter, the gallery’s curator of European art, and Marciari spent the next five years collecting evidence to convince the rest of the world.

Now, while the art historians still debate the painting’s authenticity, the gallery is beginning to develop conservation plans on what its scholars — and many others — officially recognize as a Velazquez.

The authentication of an artwork is a long and sensitive process, with no key to infallibility, Kanter said. While a verified attribution can put a previously ignored work on museum walls for centuries — not to mention adding millions of dollars to its worth — many scholars spend their careers without reaching consensus on their attribution.

“No one has the undisputed power to baptize or withhold baptism from a work of art, so no matter what label we attach to the painting, there will always be someone clicking his or her tongue in disagreement,” Kanter wrote in an e-mail. “However, until someone advances incontrovertible evidence that this painting cannot be by Velazquez, we will consider it a Velazquez, and frankly, I do not believe any such evidence can possibly be forthcoming.”

The painting, which dates to 1617-’18, was rediscovered in 2002, when the gallery reviewed its collection in preparation for the renovation. Kanter was on the lookout for objects that would need to be conserved for reinstallation when he came across a painting that he said he immediately recognized as a good-quality Spanish painting. The work was designated for restoration, and in 2004, Marciari — who was working with Kanter at the time — also singled out the piece as being extraordinary. By 2005 Marciari had decided in his own mind that it must be by Velazquez.

“The Education of the Virgin” has been so difficult to attribute definitively because Velazquez is such an important painter in the European tradition.

“If I’d proposed an attribution of the painting to his contemporary Alonso Cano, you’d not be asking me about it,” Marciari wrote in an e-mail.

And while there is a Rembrandt Committee that authenticates paintings by the artist, no such organization exists for Velazquez.

To justify his attribution, Marciari wrote that he focused on “the way that the figures emerge from the darkness, the inconsistently cast shadows that set off brilliantly depicted still-life elements, the long thick strokes of white paint that define the collars of the boys or the head-covering and cowl of Saint Anne,” and compared these to similar features in known paintings by Velazquez.

Since the publication of the Ars Magazine article, several Velazquez scholars have come to the gallery to see the painting and offer their opinions, including Manuela Mena, a curator at the Prado Museum in Madrid — the institution with the most experience in Velazquez’s oeuvre, Kanter said. The responses have run the gamut, although several senior scholars, from both the United States and abroad, have supported Marciari’s conclusion. Kanter said Mena herself was “enormously enthusiastic” and was convinced the work was by Velazquez. Though hers is an important opinion, it is not the last word.

Added Kanter, “There’s this scholarly reluctance to disturb the cannon. The rediscovery of an early work by Velazquez forces us to rethink a lot about his early career.”

In his article, Marciari traces the painting’s arrival at Yale to a 1925 donation by Henry Hotchkins Townshend, Yale College class of 1897 and Law School class of 1902, and his brother Raynham Townshend, Yale College class 1900. Marciari then speculates that Captain Charles Hervey Townshend, their father, likely brought the painting from Europe on one of his many trade ships that sailed the Mediterranean in the 19th century.

The painting is currently in the gallery’s conservation department at the Library Storage Facility in Hamden because, at four by five feet, it is too big to store safely in the gallery’s Louis I. Kahn building on Chapel Street, which is already cramped because of the ongoing renovation of Egerton Swartwout’s Old Art Gallery and Street Hall, Kanter said.

Kanter, along with head conservator Ian McClure, is developing a plan to restore the painting, consulting with visiting experts from around the world before they begin. The process of restoring a work by one of the greatest technicians in art history is an extremely difficult one, Kanter said. He and McClure are in the process of determining a course of action for conservation, assembling an advisory group of scholars to suggest a way to proceed.

“The Education of the Virgin” is beginning to show signs of structural age, raising the question of whether a new backing canvas should be added, McClure said. The paint has come off in some areas — the result of neglect and cleanings in the past. But while a simple filling in of losses would make the image whole again, it would be a movement away from Velazquez’s original, McClure added.

Kanter said he hopes to have the painting ready for display by 2012, when the gallery renovations finish, but he said he won’t “pin himself to that deadline.”

But he may even consider displaying the work in its current, damaged state, in a manner similar to the “Time Will Tell Exhibition” that showcased pieces in the gallery collection that were in the process of being restored.

Though the curators said they are doing their best to make the work accessible, Kanter said there is no definitive timeline for when students will be able to see the painting on the main campus.

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