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Sunshine Sheds Light on 17th-Century Mystery Painting At Hearst Castle

Two bright-eyed guides found an abbreviation and inscription leading to Spanish painter Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa

(Hearst Castle/California State Parks)
smithsonian.com

Errant beams of sunlight are a clichéd way of illuminating a hidden treasure, but that didn’t stop a California sunbeam from solving a 90-year-old mystery at the fabled Hearst Castle.

The BBC reports that while guides Carson Cargill and Laurel Rodger were leading a tour, a bit of sunshine reflected off a mosaic floor. The ray lit up the bottom of an unattributed painting of the Annunciation (when Christians believe the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus Christ), and they noticed what appeared to be a brown monogram and Latin inscription against the painting’s dark background.

The guides returned the painting later and were able to make out an abbreviation of the artist’s name and title of the painting, an inscription discussing the painting’s patron, and a date: 1690. Ultimately, they were able to use the clues to trace the identity of artist back to the 17th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa.

The Associated Press reports that records show the estate purchased the painting in 1927 from a southern California decorating firm. Beyond that, however, historians had no other records, including where it originally came from or who it was painted by. The painting is 8.5 feet by 5 feet, and is in the Assembly Room of the main house at the Hearst Castle. The massive estate, originally situated on 250,000 acres of land, was built by media baron William Randolph Hearst between 1919 and 1947. Among its buildings, the estate houses Hearst's massive art collection, which include some of the world’s greatest paintings, sculptures and decorative art. Now a designated California State Park, it's open to the public as Hearst Castle.

Kathe Tanner at the Tribune, the San Luis Obispo daily, reports that after the guides gave the painting another look, they turned to Google. After plugging in the terms into the search bar, they found Pérez.

Relaying the information to museum director Mary Levkoff, she got in touch with experts and within a day confirmed the painting was, indeed, the work of the Spanish artist.

“This is a major new discovery for the oeuvre of Pérez,” Levkoff says in a press release. “Thanks to the keen attention of Carson Cargill and Laurel Rodger, two of our guides responsible for public education, the signature and inscription were noticed in the raking light of late autumn.”

The guide’s eyes were indeed keen—through the years, the painting has undergone two cleanings and restorations and technicians did not notice the inscription. Another reason it took so long to identify the artist is that Pérez is not known as a figural painter. Tanner reports that he is best known for floral still-lifes and produced very few paintings of saints and other religious figures. He was named official painter to Charles II in 1689. This particular painting was created to be place alongside an altar in an unknown church.

The painting remains in its slightly gloomy spot in the Assembly room, but Tanner reports a small light has now been added to illuminate the hard-to-see inscription.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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