Responding to Velazquez

After months in the Library Storage Facility, Diego Velazquez’s “The Education of the Virgin” is finally on view at the Yale University Art Gallery. Five WKNDers share their thoughts, feelings and doubts about the work.

Velazquez’s “The Education of the Virgin,” currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, will soon be undergoing an extensive restoration that may take up to four years.
Velazquez’s “The Education of the Virgin,” currently on display at the Yale University Art Gallery, will soon be undergoing an extensive restoration that may take up to four years.

The damage done

When I first saw Diego Velazquez’s “The Education of the Virgin,” I couldn’t help but notice the amount of damage it had sustained, its blotchy surface so incongruous with the glossy finishes of the paintings surrounding it. But after that first startling moment, it was also nearly impossible to ignore the meticulous brushwork and rich colors that far outweigh the worn-away patches.

In fact, at times the damage almost seems to draw the viewer’s eyes to the intricate details that Velazquez was famous for. The parallel lines of grey that run across the width of the painting just miss the face of the Virgin Mary, providing a kind of double underline to the painting’s focal point. Upon close inspection, her young face is shown to somehow embody both youth and wisdom, an unknown source of tranquility seeming to lie just behind her eyes.

The large patch of missing paint in the lower left-hand corner draws the viewer to the napping kitten, one of the numerous everyday items that Velazquez includes in the piece. Looking closely at these details — an open drawer filled with clutter, a dark cloth curtain in the murky background, a hint of furniture just outside our scope of view — brings a touch of reality, a peek of the world beyond this Biblical scene.

Undamaged, at its moment of creation, this piece must have been magnificent. But perhaps it would also have been overwhelming — its perfection would allow viewers to lazily stand at a distance and admire Velazquez’s skill. But at a distance, evidence of his most admired ability — creating detail — would have been missed: Mary’s innocent yet knowledgeable expression, the near-photographic representation of the cat, the range of colors from almost black to light gray that make up Anne’s seemingly white head scarf, the illuminated fingertips of an angel above. Despite the lack of conservation — or perhaps because of it — Velazquez’s prowess is on full display.

— Angie Shih

By any other name

On the third floor of the gallery, a newly-hung painting records a childhood milestone — an early Kodak moment, a Biblical coming-of-age: the mother of God learning to read, sounding out Roman nursery rhymes, Aramaic for “Go, dog, go.”

As if this charming subject matter weren’t enough, the work was painted by Spanish master Diego Velazquez. After doing time in the YUAG basement, labeled only as “Anonymous, Spanish School, seventeenth century,” the work was recognized and verified as having come from the brush of a master.

Still, nearly every painting at the YUAG is the work of a master. The Khan building’s diagonally-hung walls shift and re-order themselves, but the canvases that shuffle amid all this geometry are, without exception, expertly done. The Sherlock Holmes angle is compelling, with its air of mystery, discovery, and a whiff of pipe tobacco — but the work itself would deserve attention with or without its famed author.

Although the figures share sober expressions, the scene overall is warm and familial, the colors toasty. The canvas fairly glows (perhaps basking in the newfound attention), as the figures emerge from dark shadows in a highly naturalistic manner. The heavy folds in the drapery are characteristic of Velazquez’s body of work, as are the conventional still-life elements, which are given a particular brilliance when contrasted with the background.

Even if you did not know the painter’s upper-crust reputation, one hopes, you would stop to take note of the lovely domestic scene, rendered with care and skill. Walk by without reading the label, and it could be any anonymous family, in the midst of the most ordinary moments of raising a child. It is the artist’s craft, after all, and not his name or the Biblical names of his chosen subjects, that raises them to divine status and earns them a place on the gallery walls.

— Cora Lewis

The text displayed next to the “The Education of the Virgin” at the Yale University Art Gallery links the painting to the Spanish master Diego Velazquez. But the work could just as easily have been painted by someone else.

This past July, the gallery discovered that the painting, which lacked an artist’s signature, might possibly be a work of Velazquez. And after analyzing everything from the art style to layers of paint to its year of creation, the attribution has been virtually confirmed.

With only a furtive glance walking through the third floor of the gallery, “The Education of Virgin” looks like many other masterpieces: expert realism, powerful symbolism, and cracked, peeling edges. So many artists paint Biblical icons, so many with similarly long brush strokes. I’m no expert, but it seems like hundreds of other artists paint in a similar way. I trust the scientific methods and the art historians, but to me, it feels like a stretch. Somehow the label on the wall designating the painting as a Velazquez still doesn’t make it a fact.

Yet, Velazquez is certainly present in the work. Even though “The Education of Virgin” is in need of extensive conservation treatment, Velazquez’s finesse and style are still evident — although x-rays show he did have to draw Anne’s head again after a less-than-perfect first attempt. Like his world-renowned “Las Meninas,” light expertly cuts through the darkness to shine on his subjects’ faces, and the fabric is rendered with meticulous detail.

Scholars have said they were convinced almost instantly of the painting’s attribution, but I need more than just the visual evidence. It just seems too good to be true.

— Jack Linshi

When I saw Diego Velazquez’s alleged long-lost painting, one thought immediately came to mind: “This…looks like it’s been kept in a basement for a really, really long time.” And, as luck would have it, it has.

I am absolutely not an art expert, and my untrained eye just couldn’t shift from the long scratches and gashes that cover the painting — one of which just barely misses beheading the little girl in the artwork. Honestly, the painting doesn’t strike me as particularly impressive. Once again, I’m speaking with minimal knowledge of art, but it looks a lot like other paintings I’ve seen from Velazquez’s time, which often seem to take a very formulaic approach to art creation.

But I do find it really intriguing that everyone is so hung up on the authenticity of the painting. Why is its aesthetic and, frankly, monetary value so hinged upon its relationship to a specific artist? I mean, the fact that curators are going, “Damn, is that actually a VELAZQUEZ?!” instead of sitting in silence because of the supposedly awe-inspiring beauty of the painting says a lot about our society. I just can’t understand why the piece’s value would suddenly shoot up because its creator was renowned. Didn’t I graduate from a mentality like that one when I started high school and was no longer supposed to like the garbage I heard on the radio just because it was produced by “fantastic artists” like James Blunt?

If the gallery had discovered a less scarred but more aesthetically pleasing painting locked away in a closet somewhere at Yale, would everyone have had a similar reaction? I doubt it. Unless, of course, Monet or Picasso happened to have created the work.

— Daniel Sisgoreo

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