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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)

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

Along with Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, Yale has one of the world’s foremost university art collections, numbering some 185,000 works. Figuring out how the Velázquez came to be one of them required some detective work.

Marciari learned that the painting had been donated to Yale by two alumni, Henry and Raynham Townshend, the sons of one of the leading American merchant sailors of the 19th century, Capt. Charles Hervey Townshend. His ships frequently sailed to Spain, and it seems likely that the painting came back in one of them. In 1925, the brothers inherited the family’s New Haven property and began giving it something of a makeover. “This big, dark Spanish Catholic altarpiece must have seemed an odd thing shoved into the living room of a Gothic Revival mansion in Connecticut, ” Marciari says. “And obviously it wasn’t called a Velázquez.” He believes that the damage—including serious abrasion, paint loss and a portion cut off, leaving a headless angel at the top of the picture—were already present when the painting was donated.

Even before the canvas went on display, Colin Eisler, a former curator of prints and drawings at Yale, criticized the decision to publish images of The Education of the Virgin “in its present terrible condition,” as he wrote in a letter to the alumni magazine that appeared along with that of his NYU faculty colleague Jonathan Brown. “Why not have had it cleaned by a competent restorer first?”

Given the heightened public interest in the painting, Kanter says, Yale chose to show it just as it is. “There has been so much noise about the painting in the press that we felt that not to exhibit it would be tantamount to hiding it,” he says. “Our intentions here are to be as aboveboard as possible.”

That openness extends to the restoration of the painting, which clearly needs much more than a cleaning. There are many possible approaches to restoring a centuries-old work, and there is a real possibility of doing further harm. “It’s going to take us quite a long time,” Kanter says. “We’ve planned to spend much of this year simply discussing this painting with as many of our colleagues as we can bring here to New Haven to look at it with us. What we’re looking for is a means of treating the painting so that the damages that are now obtrusive are quieted, to the extent that you can appreciate what’s there as completely as possible.” Banco Santander, Spain’s largest bank, has agreed to sponsor the conservation and restoration efforts, as well as further evaluation of the painting by an expert panel and the eventual exhibition of the restored painting at Yale.

It will take all the expertise the university can muster to address the wear and tear this artwork has endured over nearly four centuries. Missing portions are not the worst of it, either. “Complete losses of paint are the easiest losses to deal with—holes in the canvas, or places where the paint is simply flaked away entirely—what you would call lacunae,” Kanter says, explaining that such sections are often surrounded by major clues about what was lost. Abrasion is more problematic. “And Velázquez had such a subtle and sophisticated technique, building up his colors and his modeling in layers,” he says. “So we cannot guess what’s gone, we cannot impose our own sense of what ought to be there—it’s simply not acceptable. And yet we have to find a solution where the first thing you see isn’t the damage.” Kanter adds, “No matter what we do is an intervention, but we’re trying to be as respectful and non-obtrusive as we can.”

Marciari left Yale in 2008 for his current position in San Diego, where he competes in ultramarathons when he is not tending to his 7-year-old twins (a girl and a boy). Although he is still aswim in the debates his discovery stirred up, he seems most animated when discussing the genius of the work.

Take the figure of the Virgin herself, staring straight out of the painting. “In breaking the picture plane, it almost seems as though you are meant to react or be part of the scene,” he says. “And I think that’s part of what Velázquez is doing, in the same way as he did 30 years later in his masterpiece Las Meninas [The Maids of Honor]. In The Education of the Virgin, the child is signaling to the viewer that they share a kind of secret—that she’s only pretending to learn how to read, because as the immaculately conceived Virgin Mary, born with full knowledge and foresight of the events of her and her son’s life, she knows how to read already. But she is pretending to learn as an act of humility to her parents.”

It’s a perfect example of the subtlety and insight—moral, intellectual and psychological—that Velázquez brought to his art. “As I looked into both the technical qualities of the painting and the depth of the artist’s interpretation of the subject,” Marciari says, “I saw the pictorial intelligence that sets Velázquez’s work apart from that of others.”

Jamie Katz reports frequently on culture and the arts.

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