Tuesday, December 14, 2010

When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity

New York Times
December 13, 2010

The painting was beautiful, just not admired. Then suddenly, after more than four centuries, it was. It acquired a pedigree. The art hadn’t changed, but its stature had.

And there it was the other day, propped on an easel in the Prado’s sunny, pristine conservation studio here, like a patient on the table in an operating theater. The most remarkable old master picture to have turned up in a long time revealed its every blemish and bruise, but also its virtues.

In September the Prado made news. It announced that this painting, “The Wine of St. Martin’s Day,” a panoramic canvas showing a mountain of revelers drinking the first wine of the season, and a few of them suffering its consequences, was by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Only 40-odd paintings by this 16th-century Flemish Renaissance master survive. This one, from around 1565, came from a private seller, whose ancient family, unaware and clearly unconcerned, had kept it for eons in the proverbial dark corridor, in Córdoba, where it accumulated dirt. Then the Prado conservators took a look. What seemed to be the artist’s signature turned up beneath layers of grime and varnish.


A detail of the painting, showing a peasant celebrating during a festival for the first wine of the season.

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