A Velázquez in the Cellar?

Sorting through old canvases in a storeroom, a Yale curator discovered a painting believed to be by the Spanish master

Curator John Marciari discovered the Velázquez painting in a Yale storeroom and calls The Education of the Virgin "the most significant addition to the artist's work in a century or more." (Yale University Art Gallery)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

John Marciari first spotted the painting among hundreds of other works carefully filed in pullout racks in a soulless cube of a storage facility in New Haven, Connecticut. He was then, in 2004, a junior curator at Yale University’s renowned Art Gallery, reviewing holdings that had been warehoused during its expansion and renovation. In the midst of that task, he came upon an intriguing but damaged canvas, more than five feet tall and four feet wide, which depicted St. Anne teaching the young Virgin Mary to read. It was set aside, identified only as “Anonymous, Spanish School, seventeenth century.”

“I pulled it out, and I thought, ‘This is a good picture. Who did this?’” says Marciari, 39, now curator of European art and head of provenance research at the San Diego Museum of Art. “I thought this was one of those problems that just had to be solved. It seemed so distinctive, by an artist of enough quality to have his own personality. It was an attributable picture, to use the term that art historians use.”

Marciari returned the rack to its slot and went on with other things. But he was intrigued. He learned that it had sat for many years, largely overlooked, in the basement of Yale’s Swartwout building—a “perfectly respectable museum storeroom,” he says. “It’s not as though Yale was keeping this in the steam cellar.”

Marciari found himself returning to the storage facility every week or two to study the canvas. Then, a few months after the first viewing, he pulled it out and studied it some more. “And the penny dropped, the light bulb went on, the angels started singing,” he says. “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!”

A flood of associations involving the 17th-century Spanish master Diego Velázquez came to mind—images Marciari knew from his academic work, museum pilgrimages and classes he had taught in early Baroque art. “This is the drapery from the Saint Thomas in Orléans,” he realized, with gathering excitement. “It’s like the Old Woman Cooking Eggs at Edinburgh, the Kitchen Scene in Chicago and Martha and Mary in London. All of it was familiar—the color palette, the way the figures emerged from the darkness, the particulars of the still-life elements, the way the draperies folded.” But it just couldn’t be, he thought. “I must be insane. There’s no way I just found a Velázquez in a storeroom.”

His caution was well founded. It’s one thing to form an intelligent hunch and quite another to satisfy Velázquez scholars and the international art community. This wasn’t a ceramic pot on “Antiques Roadshow.” It was potentially a landmark work by a towering figure who had changed the course of Western art and whose paintings are treasured by the world’s leading museums. Velázquez’s known works number in the low hundreds at most; their identification has led to controversy in the past. (In recent months, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art generated headlines when it reattributed a portrait of Spain’s King Philip IV to Velázquez after having demoted it, in effect, 38 years earlier.) Nonetheless, Marciari had formed his hypothesis and resolved to plunge ahead. “Despite my initial doubts and the seeming impossibility, I think I felt pretty sure,” he says, “although with a great deal of anxiety.”

The first person he consulted was his wife, Julia Marciari-Alexander, an art historian specializing in British art.

“I put a picture in front of her and said, ‘What do you think of this?’ She doesn’t like playing that game. But she had just been in Edinburgh about a month before and had spent a great deal of time standing in front of Old Woman Cooking Eggs. And so she looked at it, and she said, ‘You know, that looks just like the Velázquez in Edinburgh.’”

Over the months, Marciari immersed himself in scholarship about Velázquez’s native Seville in the early 17th century, and he quietly brought the canvas to the university’s conservation laboratory for X-ray analysis. The lab confirmed that the pigments, priming layer and canvas were consistent with other early works by Velázquez.

By the spring of 2005, Marciari was sufficiently emboldened to approach his colleague Salvador Salort-Pons, a Velázquez expert who is now the associate curator of European art at the Detroit Institute of Art. “I wrote him an e-mail and said, ‘Salvador, I have what I think is a really important picture, but I don’t want to prejudice your opinion any more than that. Let me know what you think,’” Marciari says. He attached a digital photo.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus