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.|