Hanging high on the wall of a castle in Wales for 150 years, the portrait of Don Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga was long considered a copy of a work by Murillo. When art scholar Benito Navarrete Prieto visited Penrhyn Castle, Bangor earlier this year he confirmed what several experts thought impossible. The 17th century painting of the Spanish writer was in fact the long-lost original.
“It’s a hugely significant find. And an exciting one too because you don’t expect works to be hidden in plain sight”, curator Xavier Salomon told reporters. He praised Navarrete Prieto for his attribution: “Everyone, me included, took the word of experts and scholars who had previously thought this work a copy”.
Confident in Navarrete Prieto’s assessment, Salomon added the portrait to an exhibition of Murillo’s work currently on display in the Frick Collection in New York City. It will tour to the National Gallery in London in February 2018.
When Baron Penrhyn acquired the portrait in the 19th century it was considered an autograph work by the Spanish master painter. Only later did scholars reverse this attribution and determine it was a copy. Navarrete Prieto dared to challenge the long-held view when he travelled from Seville to Gwynedd to visit Penrhyn Castle, which is run by the National Trust.
“He was in no doubt that it was an original. He’s right. It’s beautifully clean”, Salomon stated. “‘‘People have always said it’s a copy…Which is, of course, a mistake art historians should never make. Go with your gut feeling and you should follow up. I didn’t”. Senior Director of Sotheby’s Old Masters Department, James Macdonald, agrees with the attribution and says it “represents an important addition to the artist’s oeuvre”.
Regarded as one of the finest artists in Spanish history, Murillo’s portraits are exceedingly rare. In July 2017, Murillo’s ‘Ecco Home’ painting of Christ was sold for £2.75 million at Sotheby’s in London.