Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 2, 2016
John J. Marciari, Carmen Albendea, Ian McClure, Anikó Bezur, Jens Stenger, and Benito Navarrete Prieto The Young Velázquez: “The Education of the Virgin” Restored Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 96 pp.; 46 color ills. Paper $20.00 (9780300207866)
El joven Velázquez: “La educación de la Virgen” de Yale restaurada (The Young Velázquez: Yale’s “Education of the Virgin” Restored)
Exhibition schedule: Espacio Santa Clara, Instituto de la Cultura y las Artes de Sevilla, Seville, Spain, October 15, 2014–January 15, 2015
Thumbnail

Curator John Marciari made headlines in 2010 when he announced his discovery of what he deemed to be an early masterpiece by none other than Diego Velázquez. The painting, depicting the Education of the Virgin, was in poor condition, and it had languished for decades in the Yale University Art Gallery basement. Yet Marciari perceived in it the hand of a master. Writing in Ars Magazine, he hailed the Yale Education as “the most significant addition to [Velázquez’s] work in a century or more” (John Marciari, “Redescubriendo a Velázquez/Velázquez Rediscovered: The Education of the Virgin at Yale,” Ars Magazine 3, no. 7 (2010): 150). Not surprisingly, the painting immediately became a subject of intense interest and debate among specialists. At the same time, Spanish-based Banco Santander volunteered funds for its conservation, the results of which were celebrated in an exhibition and symposium (in which I participated), both held in Seville in 2014 (Benito Navarrete Prieto, ed., El joven Velázquez: A propósito de “La educación de la Virgen” de Yale/The Young Velázquez: Studies on “The Education of the Virgin” at Yale, Seville: ICAS, Instituto de la Cultura y las Artes de Sevilla, 2015). Published to accompany the Seville exhibition, The Young Velázquez: “The Education of the Virgin” Restored is a thorough discussion of the painting’s rediscovery, historical context, and conservation.

The volume consists of three essays: one by Marciari; another by conservators Carmen Albendea, Ian McClure, Anikó Bezur, and Jens Stenger; and the third by Navarrete, who organized the Seville symposium. In different ways, the essays each expand upon Marciari’s initial arguments in favor of ascribing the Yale painting to Velázquez. Following his previous analysis of the work, Marciari’s opening essay highlights the resemblance between Velázquez’s early paintings and aspects of The Education—including the study of nature, strong chiaroscuro, and depiction of homely, plain-faced types. For Marciari, “it is impossible to connect the Yale painting to any other known artist of early seventeenth-century Seville” (22). Yet this assessment has not won universal support, as Marciari acknowledges. Javier Portús has contended that the Yale Education is simply “inferior in quality” (“revela una calidad inferior”; translations are mine) to Velázquez’s youthful works and has suggested that it was likely painted by one of the artist’s early followers, rather than the master himself (Javier Portús, interview with Andrés González-Barba, “Portús: La educación de la Virgen no llega al nivel exigible Velázquez,” ABC.es [October 20, 2014]: http://www.abc.es/cultura/arte/20141018/abci-entrevista-portus-velazquez-sevilla-201410172039.html; Portús’s remarks on the painting have informed my own). Writing in a more polemical vein, Jonathan Brown has disparaged The Education as “a Trojan horse”: a “clumsy painting” whose attribution to Velázquez risks “opening the gates of authenticity” to any number of problematic works (Jonathan Brown, “The Yale Education of the Virgin: Sobresaliente cum laude o suspenso? Observations on the Early Work of Velázquez,” in Navarrete, El joven Velázquez, 42). In my own study of Velázquez, I have also questioned the attribution; to my mind, The Education differs markedly from Velázquez’s documented early paintings in the ungainliness of its composition and in the weak execution of heads and hands (Tanya J. Tiffany, Diego Velázquez’s Early Paintings and the Culture of Seventeenth-Century Seville, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, 9) (click here for review). The difficulty of attributing the Yale painting is compounded because Velázquez’s style was adopted by subsequent artists in Seville, who appropriated the dark tones and strong realism of his youthful works. Among those who embraced this realism were celebrated artists such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Francisco de Herrera the Elder (who according to the eighteenth-century writer Antonio Palomino was Velázquez’s first teacher), in addition to various, now anonymous painters of religious images and bodegones (genre scenes). Because scholars still know so little about the production of these nameless masters, it seems premature to affirm that the Yale painting cannot be the work of “anyone other than Velázquez” (20).

Even as The Education’s attribution thus remains uncertain, the painting merits attention for what it can teach about the visual culture of early modern Seville. On this score, The Young Velázquez: “The Education of the Virgin” Restored yields valuable insights. Marciari himself complements his connoisseurial approach with a careful analysis of other Sevillian versions of the Education of the Virgin: in particular an altarpiece by Juan de Roelas, which he rightly cites as a key source for the Yale painting. Velázquez’s teacher, the painter and theorist Francisco Pacheco, disparaged Roelas for depicting Saint Anne teaching the Virgin to read, arguing that images of the Virgin’s education called into question her possession of perfect, divinely “infused knowledge” (“ciencia infusa”; Francisco Pacheco, Arte de la pintura, ed., Bonaventura Bassegoda i Hugas, 2nd ed., Madrid: Cátedra, 2001, 583). For Marciari, the Yale painting represents Velázquez’s effort to amend this error. Indeed, the Yale Education departs from Roelas’s example by portraying the Virgin not as a teenager, but rather as a small child (and a figure thus “more appropriate in the role of student”) who gazes at the viewer with an expression that Marciari compellingly interprets as “pretending to learn how to read” (20; emphasis in original). As Marciari points out, Pacheco conceded that “some learned men” (“algunos doctos”) endorsed the iconography of the Virgin’s education because it characterized Mary as an obedient daughter who—despite her inherent wisdom—performed an “act of humility” (“acto de humildad”) by feigning a need to learn from her mother (Pacheco, 583). Nevertheless, Pacheco cautioned against such justifications and against the kinds of iconographical emendations seen in the Yale painting. Consistent with his commitment to post-Tridentine decorum, he explained that the Virgin’s parents never “had occasion to teach her” (“ni . . . tuvieron lugar de enseñarle”) because she entered the temple before her third birthday, after which time her teacher was the Holy Spirit (Pacheco, 584).

In the volume’s second essay, Albendea, McClure, Bezur, and Stenger detail their process of conserving the Yale Education, placing particular emphasis on the dramatic alterations the painting has suffered over the centuries. Among their findings, the conservators demonstrate that the canvas has been cut from its original size; seventeenth-century viewers would have seen the head of the now-decapitated angel at the top of the composition and probably the complete figures of the cat and dog in the bottom foreground. The authors also acknowledge that the Yale painting is so damaged that “much of what is now visible was never intended by the artist to be seen and much that was intended to be seen has either been abraded or removed” (37). In analyzing the painting, the conservators take pains to emphasize its consistencies with Velázquez’s work. For example, they show that The Education was painted on a type of canvas known as mantelillo veneciano, which was used by Velázquez as well as a number of other seventeenth-century Spanish artists. Through chemical analysis, they also establish that the painting’s ground is “consistent with tierra or barro de Sevilla,” a clay used by “many Sevillian artists, including Velázquez” (39). The conservators also note that other elements in the painting—for example, the presence of pentimenti and the inclusion of “slightly raised” lines demarcating specific aspects of the composition—are in keeping with Velázquez’s oeuvre, although not exclusive to it (42). Indeed, the uniqueness of Velázquez’s early technique remains to be fully determined, in part because paintings by his Sevillian contemporaries are rarely subject to the kind of scientific examination that would allow for close comparison.

In the final essay, Navarrete examines the Yale Education within the contexts of Sevillian painting and Velázquez’s early production. Expanding upon Marciari’s discussion, Navarrete relates the Yale Education not only to Roelas’s work, but also to various chiaroscuro paintings by artists such as Pablo de Céspedes, an influential member of Pacheco’s circle, and the Toledan Luis Tristán, a disciple of El Greco’s whom Velázquez admired, according to Palomino. Navarrete also considers Sevillian versions of the Education of the Virgin, including a lost sculpture that was a source for Roelas’s work and a painting attributed to Alonso Cano by the eighteenth-century artist Antonio Ponz, who encountered the image “in a dark chapel . . . which I could not see well” (70n12). In a footnote, Navarrete suggests that Ponz’s remark “should be borne in mind” with respect to the Yale painting, which could have been mistaken for a work by Cano (70n12). This is a tantalizing suggestion because the Yale Education—although certainly not from Cano’s hand—shows an engagement with the visual culture embraced by Velázquez and Cano, who both trained under Pacheco. For Navarrete, however, The Education’s importance is less its embeddedness in Sevillian pictorial traditions than what he describes as its embodiment of “the precocious genius of the young painter [Velázquez]” as he began “to give concrete form to his interest in nature and the reality of his surroundings” (63 and 58, respectively).

This book will probably not change the minds of scholars already skeptical of the Yale painting’s attribution, but the authors nonetheless make an important contribution to studies of Spanish art. As a whole, the volume increases an understanding of artistic convention and technique in Velázquez’s Seville, and the essays by Marciari and Navarrete complement recent considerations of the close relationship between early modern Spanish painting and polychrome sculpture. The Yale painting—whoever its author—provides a vital opportunity for examining the visual and religious culture of seventeenth-century Seville, whose pictorial traditions were reshaped by Velázquez and his followers.

Tanya J. Tiffany
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.