Huge portions of most museums’ collections remain buried in storerooms for decades, but usually masterpieces by the likes of Diego Velázquez are not among the works tucked away to gather dust in the dark. Unless, of course, the institution doesn’t know that what they have on their hands is a Velázquez. Such was the case with the Yale University Art Gallery, which revealed in a press release last week that John Marciari — its curator of European art and head of provenance research at the San Diego Museum of Art as well as a former Ph.D. student at Yale and a recipient of a fellowship at the university’s museum — had reattributed The Education of the Virgin to the Spanish baroque master.
The painting’s origins were reconsidered as a part of the review of inventory underway during Yale’s renovation and expansion of its arts facilities — which began with the 2003 restoration of the university’s arts and architecture library, designed by Louis Kahn in 1953. The badly damaged painting of the Virgin Mary and her mother caught the eye of Marciari, leading the curator to study the work for six years, and finally to reach the conclusion that the museum’s earlier assumption — that the piece was by an unknown 17th-century painter from Seville — was incorrect.
Now, Marciari asserts, the work can be attributed to Diego Velázquez, although, as he reminded Bloomberg, “technical study can disprove an attribution, but it can't prove it.” He added, “We did find the pigments and the canvas are all consistent with what Velazquez used when he was in Seville in the first years of his career.”
Dated from 1617-18, the painting is among Velázquez’s earliest identified works, painted when he was a tender 18 years old. It was donated to the YUAG in 1925 by two New Haven brothers — Henry Hotchkiss Townshend and Raynham Townshend — whose family had owned the painting for 40 years.
While it is hard to hang a price tag on works by Velázquez since they come up for auction so rarely, in a 2007 sale at Sotheby’s, a piece by the Spanish master went for around $17 million. However, this painting will not be appearing on the auction block.“The painting will be forever at Yale,” Laurence Kanter, Yale’s curator of early European art told Bloomberg. No doubt it will be displayed more prominently in the future.