Art across the Atlantic: The journey from Spain to the ’Burg of a well-known artist’s little-known work

Just outside of Paris, in a warehouse teeming with hundreds of diverse works of art, there lay an old, unidentified painting. Years of neglect had manifested themselves in the thick layer of dirt, grime and dust that clung to the canvas, out of which gazed a man with elongated features inclined toward a light. At the bottom, in wiry, Greek letters, read the name, “Domenikos Theotokopoulos.”

When John Spike, art historian and distinguished scholar in residence of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary, received a phone call from the owner of the painting, Camilla “Coco” Blaffer, he traveled to Paris to identify the work. Upon seeing the painting, Spike knew almost instinctively that it was the creation of the Spanish Renaissance painter Theotokopoulos, known worldwide as El Greco.

“It takes a lot of experience to know what you’re looking at when it’s undergone the neglect of many years, exposed to changes in temperatures. The old varnish is discolored; dirt has attached itself to the uneven surface of the paint and varnish, flaking,” Spike said, recalling his first encounter with the painting.

Twenty years after its original purchase, the painting, entitled “St. Francis at Prayer,” now hangs on an otherwise empty wall at the Muscarelle.  On public display for the first time, it joins works from the museum’s permanent collection in the current exhibition, “Curators at Work II.” The painting is on loan from Blaffer and will remain on display with the exhibition until June 24.

“It’s always, always amazing to see works of that caliber in person, not only for art historical and museum purposes, but also as someone who’s taking painting classes; it’s amazing to see,” Alix Bendicksen ’12 said.

Bendicksen is a curatorial intern at the Muscarelle as well as a student in Spike’s Curating, Collecting and Connoisseurship seminar at the College.

“As a whole class, we’ve been involved with sort of going about every step of getting it to the museum,” she said. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at it, learning about attributions — that’s a big part of our class — so we’ve learned about what it takes, what sort of things to look at in an El Greco … what suggests strongly that this is an El Greco.”

Although the signature was compromised during the painting’s most recent restoration, a trained eye can still identify the artist with confidence.

“I know already when I see it that it’s an El Greco composition,” Spike said.

It is estimated that “St. Francis at Prayer” was painted around the year 1576, during the period immediately following El Greco’s emigration to Spain from Italy.

“This is from a relatively brief moment of about four years in his chronology,” Spike said.

The painting has garnered widespread attention for the Muscarelle, including an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and an article in The New York Times.

“I normally get something like 250 hits a week on my Facebook page. Since posting this article the day it came out … I’ve received, over three days, 1,100 hits,” Spike said. “It’s an academic form of viral.”

In order to accommodate the new painting, several adjustments had to be made at the Muscarelle. Specifically, the wall on which it hangs had to be repainted in order to better complement the work.

“We think about everything in the exhibitions — the light, how much light, how far away the light is, the direction, how many lights you put on it, the color, what hangs next to each other — and this is one of the great aspects of the class,” Director Aaron De Groft ’88 said. “People are there in the laboratory really making real-world decisions as they’re standing in front of these objects.”

De Groft expressed his view of the Muscarelle as a laboratory for students interested in art, emphasizing the role of real-world experience in education

“It’s like you go to chemistry class, you go to lab. You go take French, you go to the listening lab. Same thing. You go study anthropology, art and art history, history — whatever — you come and see the real-world practical application in this laboratory. This is our starting point, so things like the El Greco are just simply additions to the menu,” De Groft said.

De Groft describes the Muscarelle, which is second only to athletics in promoting town-gown relations, as an important asset for the College.

“It’s like having a good football team. We have an immense amount of internal pride here about how we run our business, what our brand is — we want to be a gem for the College, not a broken-down fifth wheel.”

For its 30th anniversary next year, the Muscarelle will be launching an exhibition expected to surpass anything the museum has displayed to date.

“It is our 30th anniversary in 2013, and we will have the most important show in the history of the Muscarelle, but it’s also been called one of the most important shows of its type ever in America,” De Groft said.

The plans for the show, currently being kept secret, will be revealed at the Board of Visitors meeting later this week.

As a reflection of the Muscarelle’s recent success, College President Taylor Reveley has approved plans for the construction of a new arts complex to take place in the near future.

“We’ve been working on it for the past few years, but to get it to a point where the president put it out there in an email to every major stakeholder, alumni, constituent, faculty, staff, graduate that you can have … it’s a game changer,” De Groft said.

Reveley’s email addressed the need to expand the arts infrastructure at the College, saying, “We can now turn our full attention to arts facilities.”

While the Muscarelle has been flourishing in recent years, the addition of the El Greco painting to the collection, albeit temporary, serves to solidify the museum’s success, according to De Groft.

“A rising tide will float all the boats, and the El Greco, as far as we’re concerned, is just another sort of major success story,” he said.



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