Early Velázquez Masterpiece Rescued from Yale Basement

But some experts say it's not the real deal.

The Education of the Virgin, attributed to Velázquez Photo via: Que Aprendemos Hoy
The Education of the Virgin, attributed to Velázquez Photo via: Que Aprendemos Hoy

The Education of the Virgin (c.1617), a large painting kept for almost 90 years in a Yale basement, is poised to be declared an early Diego Velázquez masterpiece. It is now being shown to the public for the first time in decades, after a careful restoration.

For years, the piece had been believed to be the work of an unknown 17th Century Spanish artist. But when John Marciari, then junior curator at Yale University Art Gallery, examined the painting in 2004, he realized he was facing a great work of art. “And the penny dropped, the light bulb went on, the angels started singing,” Marciari reminisced in Smithsonian magazine in 2011. “The whole moment of epiphany where you say, wait a minute—wait, wait, wait. I know exactly what this is. This looks like early Velázquez.” But it couldn’t be, he thought. “I must be insane. There’s no way I just found a Velázquez in a storeroom.”

In 2005, Marciari felt so strongly about his attribution that he sent an email with an image of the painting to Salvador Salort-Pons—a Spanish expert on Velázquez and then associate curator of European art at the Detroit Institute of Arts—without revealing his suspicions. “I am trembling!!!!,” was the first sentence of Salort-Pons’s response, according to Smithsonian magazine. “That’s a very important painting. I need to see it. No doubt: Spanish, Sevillian … But I am afraid to say,” continued Salort-Pons, who subsequently travelled to study the work and pronounced his verdict: Velázquez.

Marciari, now the head of drawings at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, spent the following years pursuing the Velázquez lead. He then published his findings in a controversial article for Ars Magazine in 2010, launching a heated debate over the authorship of the painting that shows no signs of abating.

Vocal Dissenters

One of the most vocal dissenters is Jonathan Brown, a professor of art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, who is considered the top authority on Velázquez in the US Hardly a voice to brush off.

In the meantime, the painting—which had suffered damage due to its storage conditions—was being painstakingly restored by Ian McClure and Carmen Albendea. The international team has reinstated the painting’s warm yellow, red, and brown colors in all their glory.

But how did the painting end up in a university basement? The records show that The Education of the Virgin was donated to Yale in 1925 by two alumni, the brothers Henry and Raynham Townshend, sons of a U.S. merchant sailor who made regular trips to Spain. When the brothers inherited the neo-gothic mansion where the painting was hanging, they decided to donate it to the university so it could be admired by the students, ABC reports.

A Grand Public Unveiling

The Education of the Virgin, currently on display at Madrid’s Sala de Arte of the Fundación Banco Santander, was due a grand public unveiling on September 10th. But the date coincided with the passing of Emilio Botín (see “Emilio Botín, Spanish Arts Patron, 1934–2014”), the banker and art patron who funded the restoration, so the event was cancelled, El Cultural reports, and the display quietly opened on September 11th.

From October 15th, the painting will be shown in a group exhibition at Espacio Santa Clara in Seville. A symposium has been organized alongside the exhibition, which will gather an international group of experts to debate the painting’s attribution.

It will then tour to the Grand Palais in Paris before returning to Yale University Art Gallery, where it will reside permanently.


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