Art & Archives, Conservation, J. Paul Getty Museum, Paintings

Madonna and Child Visit from Hearst Castle

Starting tomorrow, a golden Virgin and Child from Duccio di Buoninsegna’s workshop will be adorning the Getty Center paintings galleries (North Pavilion, Gallery 201).

Madonna and Child / school of Duccio di Buoninsegna

Madonna and Child, school of Duccio di Buoninsegna (Italian, about 1255-about 1319), about 1300. Tempera on panel, 11 1/4 x 7 1/4 in. California State Parks, Hearst Castle

Paintings by Duccio are astoundingly rare—there are fewer than 15 in existence, the Maestà in Siena being the most magisterial. Much in demand even in his own day, Duccio had to rely on assistants and students to help create beautifully detailed and complicated pictures of saints and stories of Christ’s life shimmering with gold leaf and precious and rare pigments. One of these assistants painted this Madonna and Child, probably to the master’s designs.

Getty Museum curator Scott Schaefer spied the exquisite but little-known painting in one of the bedrooms at Hearst Castle in 2009 and thought it deserved further study. Working in partnership with San Simeon, he arranged for the picture to travel to the Getty Museum, where conservators and scientists donated time for its analysis and conservation.

The Museum’s head of paintings conservation, Yvonne Szafran, gently and slowly cleaned the surface and mended areas of loss, giving the image a new lease on life, allowing the artist’s “voice” to be heard more clearly. Although the panting is somewhat compromised in its condition (hardly unusual for a 700-year-old wood panel), its quiet elegance and touching emotional interaction between the two figures are now apparent. Evidence of several past cleanings suggest that the painting was well loved by its past owners.

Who those owners were, we don’t know; there are no records of the painting from 1300, when it was painted, until 1932, when the famous newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst received it as a gift from his friend and rival Eleanor Patterson, editor of the Washington Times.

We do know, however, that the original owner of the picture would have had an intimate relationship with it, given both its emotional power and its very small size—smaller even than a sheet of paper. He or she probably hung it in a private domestic space, perhaps a bed chamber, to inspire devotion and prayer. It could even have been taken along on trips as a portable devotional image for contemplation.

It’s a good thing this Madonna is no stranger to road trips, because she’ll be taking another one in June for her journey back to her bed chamber at Hearst Castle, just off Pacific Coast Highway.

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  1. William
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Is that a spool of thread in the Christ child’s hand? Was it a commission from a wool merchants guild?

    • Posted December 20, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Hi William — The paint on the object in the Christ child’s hand is partially lost, but Scott Schaefer told me it was very likely a bird (birds serving in Christian art as symbols of the Holy Ghost and the soul). The imagery of the child playing innocently with his pet also stands in contrast to the more sober, knowing expression of the Madonna, who shares with the Christian viewer the knowledge of the child’s portentous future.

      We don’t have any information on who commissioned the piece, or whether it was in fact commissioned — it may have been a work done on spec and bought by a visitor to Duccio’s workshop. It seems unlikely that the piece was commissioned by a guild, though, because it was very likely owned by a private individual. That guess is based on its very intimate size, smaller than a sheet of office paper.

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