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.