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)
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Minutes later, he had a reply.

“I am trembling!!!!” it began. “That’s a very important painting. I need to see it. No doubt: Spanish, Sevillian....But I am afraid to say.” Salort-Pons traveled to New Haven twice to study the work, then pronounced his verdict: Velázquez.

Yet it was only after another five years of research, analysis and consultations that Marciari published his findings in the arts journal Ars in July 2010. Even then, he left the door open by writing that the painting “seems to be” the work of Velázquez. But he left no doubt about his own view, declaring the painting now titled The Education of the Virgin to be “the most significant addition to the artist’s work in a century or more.”

If Marciari welcomed the prospect of some healthy skepticism, he was unprepared for the coverage his journal article received across Europe, the United States and elsewhere. The story was picked up in newspapers from Argentina’s Clarín to Zimbabwe’s NewsDay, he notes. It was front-page news in El País, Spain’s leading daily newspaper.

“In America, I think much of the fascination with the story has to do with the discovery of treasures in the basement or the attic—the great payoff and all that,” says Marciari. He’s reluctant to guess what the canvas might fetch at auction. “It would be worth, even in its damaged state, an ungodly fortune,” he says. (In 2007, a Velázquez portrait was sold at auction at Sotheby’s in London for $17 million.) The Yale painting, Marciari believes, “is not a picture that will ever come up for sale.”

In Spain, where public attention was far more pronounced, the painting is invaluable in other terms. “Velázquez is a primary cultural figure in the history of Spain—he is the figure of Spain’s golden age,” Marciari says. “None of the kings was the kind of sympathetic character that Velázquez is. So every Spanish schoolchild grows up learning about the glories of the 17th century, and the illustration of that is always the paintings by Velázquez.” There is no comparable figure in American art, Marciari says. “It’s like finding Thomas Jefferson’s notes for the Declaration of Independence.”

Spanish experts have helped lead the way in endorsing Marciari’s attribution, among them Benito Navarrete, director of the Velázquez Center in Seville, and Matías Díaz Padrón, a former curator at the Prado. However, there are serious demurs, as well, notably that of Jonathan Brown of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, who is considered the foremost Velázquez scholar in the United States. After Marciari described his experiences with the painting in Yale Alumni Magazine last fall, Brown fired off a letter to the editor.

“For what it’s worth,” Brown wrote, “I studied the Yale ‘Velázquez’ in August, in the company of Art Gallery curator Laurence Kanter, and I concluded that it is an anonymous pastiche, one of many that were painted by followers and imitators in Seville in the 1620s. I published my views in ABC, a daily newspaper in Madrid, a few days later. Many veteran Velázquez specialists share this view. It’s a truism to say that time will tell, but we know that, in art as in life, not all opinions are equal.” Brown has not retreated from that view.

Laurence Kanter is Yale’s curator of European art. He said in January that he is “completely confident” in the attribution of the painting to Velázquez, but has since declined to comment. He understands, as Marciari does, that reasonable scholars will disagree. “You realize, of course, that in the field of art history there is almost never unanimity of opinion,” Kanter says. “And in the case of a major artist and a major shift in the accepted canon, it’s even more delicate. Frankly, I expected there to be even more controversy than there has been.”

Identified as a Velázquez, The Education of the Virgin was finally placed on exhibit in the Yale University Art Gallery in December 2010 for ten weeks.


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