When I was a student, one of my favorite paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was an academic male nude, ascribed without reservation to Gericault. At some point it was quietly demoted to anonymous status and consigned to storage. This is not unusual—if the attribution is “soft,” designation of authorship may shift from one generation to the next.
Attribution hangs on the value of the educated guess. A few years ago I was producing essays for an auction house, and one of the works I was asked to write about was supposed to have been painted by a known nineteenth-century American artist. The canvas, for many years rolled up and stored somewhere in the Midwest, had just been discovered. I had access only to photographs, but it looked like a poor copy after an original. I was not comfortable putting my imprimatur on the painting; the auctioneer honored my suspicions and the work was deattributed, no doubt with significant financial consequences.
Deattributions often go unnoticed, in large part because nobody wants to publicize them. Conversely, it’s news when an artwork is promoted to the canon of a master. This is what happened recently in New Haven, where I traveled last week to view a painting that the Yale University Art Gallery has attributed to Velázquez.
The Education of the Virgin—a five foot high painting depicting the Virgin Mary being taught by her parents in a darkened interior—had been knocking around the Yale campus at least since the late 1880s. In 1925 it was formally donated to the Yale University Art Gallery, where it resided, mostly in secret, for the rest of the twentieth century. (In 1970 a graduate student saw the painting and made a connection to Velázquez, but was rebuffed when he contacted scholars). In 2004 a young curator named John Marciari was going through the storage racks in the basement of the Yale galleries, when the canvas caught his eye. “I must be insane,” Marciari thought. “There’s no way I just found a Velázquez in a storeroom.”
Research and correspondence with art historians followed, and eventually Yale announced that the author of the painting was the preeminent artist of the Spanish Baroque, and one of the greatest painters in Western art. The attribution has not been universally accepted, and among the dissenting voices is Jonathan Brown, this country’s leading Velázquez scholar. But the evidence in favor of Velázquez, if circumstantial, is fascinating.
The business of attribution is a sticky one. What was once a purely subjective study is now supported by advances in science—conservators were able to confirm that the pigments and canvas of The Education of the Virgin were consistent with the materials used by Velázquez. But such evidence isn’t the equivalent of a DNA sampling, and indicates likelihood rather than certainty of authorship. Attribution was further complicated by the condition of the canvas, which with its many tears and abrasions, may generously have been described as horrid. Several years of restoration were necessary. The complexity of the situation is explained by the conservators in the accompanying catalogue:
The areas of abrasion and loss in the painting have offered
a unique opportunity to study aspects of its creation that would
otherwise have remained invisible. However, the interpretation
of the painting in its present state has to be approached with caution,
as much of what is now visible was never intended by the artist to
be seen and much that was intended to be seen has either been
abraded or removed through damage and previous misguided cleaning.
Which leaves us at square one. Poorly painted passages have been interpreted as evidence that the painting was produced by a follower of the master. There are, for instance, the disconcerting head of the young Virgin, and the immense ocher mantle worn by St. Anne, which at the arm and shoulder hints at the powerful conception of drapery that was characteristic of Velázquez’s figures ca. 1620, but the lower region, with its inelegant and sluggishly painted folds, could attest either to the artist’s youth or later overpainting by another hand. A comparison with An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, of 1618, does The Education of the Virgin no favors, but it may also underscore the rapidity of the young artist’s development. When Brown asserted that it “cannot possibly be the work of the master,” he was correct in an obvious sense—the painting is not the product of Velázquez’s mature hand, or even his hand at the age of nineteen. And given both the condition of the canvas, and the skill of his most youthful known works, the attribution was bound to be controversial.
There is no confident alternative attribution. Was there a Sevillian artist, contemporary to Velázquez, who was capable of either conceiving or executing such an image? In response to an email from me, Professor Brown wrote “I have no idea who might have painted the Yale picture. There were at least thirty to forty painters active in Seville in the early seventeenth century. We know only their names but no paintings by them. The Yale picture was done by one of their number.” That the painting may have been created by an artist whose work is otherwise unknown, is as intriguing a proposition as the Yale attribution. It’s easier to accept this possibility if one sees The Education as a pedestrian effort; the path to ascribing it as a very early Velázquez depends on whether we perceive something extraordinary, even if it’s present on an incipient level, in the canvas.
The Education of the Virgin may be inconsistent, but it’s also extraordinary. The powerful naturalism of the Yale canvas was Velázquez’s contribution to Spanish art. Most notable are the portraits of Saint Anne and Saint Joachim, each of whom are endowed with Velázquez’s effortless gravitas. As Marciari notes, the model for the old man is very similar to one who appears in other early paintings by the artist, and the painting of his profile, seen up close, is quite good. Saint Anne’s head is better still. Despite its compromised condition, one can see that it is beautifully drawn and has a tremendous plastic form that contributes to the evocation of the figure’s quiet strength and dignity. In the artist’s early works this sense of intimate connection with a model, and of the figure’s interior life, is rarely surpassed.
Walter Liedtke, the late curator at the Met, once wrote, “Labels change and opinions change, but pictures remain the same (although conservators would qualify this remark).” Whether or not the painting is by Velázquez—I think the attribution is credible, if inconclusive—Yale has done us a favor in taking pains to repair and exhibit an imperfect masterpiece. An educated guess has restored a long-neglected canvas to the public forum, and has initiated, yet again, the discussion as to what constitutes a signature work of art.