Detroit Institute Of Arts Discovers Rare Painting At Meadow Brook Hall

Photo: rick smith

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Infant Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” circa 1655–1670, oil on canvas. ©Meadow Brook Hall, Oakland University, Rochester, Mich.

DETROIT, MICH. — A chance visit to Meadow Brook Hall in Rochester by a curator from the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has led to the rediscovery of a significant work by a Seventeenth Century Spanish artist and a unique learning opportunity for Oakland University art students.

Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA executive director of collection strategies and information and curator of European paintings, was at Meadow Brook Hall in February presenting a lecture when a painting in a dark corner of the room caught his eye; it turned out to be a work by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo titled “The Infant Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness.” Murillo, who was known for his genre scenes and religious works, created the painting around 1670.

“Murillo is considered one of the five pillars of Spanish Golden age art,” said Salort-Pons. “He produced this sentimental masterpiece with his characteristic delicate and loose brushstrokes when he was at the height of his powers. In Spain and other European countries, he became a famous artist among collectors who coveted paintings like the one. Murillo was, in fact, the first internationally known Spanish artist, and this ‘Infant Saint John’ is one of the first Murillos to enter a US collection. Its rediscovery was an unexpected and exciting turn of events during my visit to Meadow Brook.”

Because the painting belongs to the Meadow Brook collection, the DIA has entered into an agreement with Oakland University to allow a group of undergraduate art history and studio art students to witness the conservation and technical and scientific analysis that DIA specialists are undertaking. One such conservation and study session recently was conducted at the DIA.

“In a series of sessions in our conservation lab, students will learn how we employ our sophisticated equipment and expertise to analyze, research and conserve a work of art before it will be exhibited in the galleries with all the honors,” said Salort-Pons. “This is a rare opportunity for them to see the DIA staff at work and to have at hand unique information produced only in the top museums in the world. We are looking forward to sharing the process and our expertise with them.”

Once the conservation treatment to the painting and frame is completed, the work will be on loan to the DIA for five years, beginning in February 2014, before returning to Meadow Brook Hall. The painting belonged in the 1600s to the Italian merchant Giovanni Bielato, who donated it to Capuchin Convent of Genova. During the 1800s, it was sold to the family of the Duke of Westminster in London and in 1926 entered the collection of Alfred G. Wilson, a lumber broker and second husband to Matilda Dodge Wilson, founders of Oakland University, who kept it at Meadow Brook Hall. The 88,000-square-foot home, built between 1926 and 1929, was originally on 1,500 acres of property.

This Murillo was exhibited in the Royal Academy in London in 1883, and this will be the first time it will go on view in a US museum.

Salort-Pons said the DIA owns two other painting by Murillo, “The Flight into Egypt” and the “Immaculate Conception,” which will be displayed together with Meadow Brook’s “The Infant Saint John” in the museum’s main European paintings gallery.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is at 5200 Woodward Avenue. For information, 313-833-7900 or www.dia.org.

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