For decades, Hearst Castle officials have known next to nothing about a mystery painting that holds a place of honor in the main house’s grand Assembly Room.
That changed last fall when, in the illumination of the late-afternoon sun, two ultra-observant guides, Carson Cargill and Laurel Rodger, noticed a previously undetected inscription that indicated when the painting was likely created and who the artist was.
After translating the Latin monogram and inscription, Museum Director Mary Levkoff determined that the painting of the Annuciation — the moment when the archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus, son of God — was the work of Spanish artist Bartolomé Pérez de la Dehesa in 1690.
“This is a major new discovery for the oeuvre of Pérez,” said Museum Director Mary Levkoff.
Based on the inscription’s details, Levkoff said the painting probably was created to hang over a “collateral” or side altar of a church.
However, she added regretfully, “the church for which the Annunciation was intended remains a mystery.”
Hearst records show that he bought the Annunciation painting and one of the Crucifixion in 1927 from Cannell and Chaffin, a Southern California decorating firm. (According to a Los Angeles Times story in 1987, the company and its commercial-interiors subsidiary sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from more than 1,000 creditors.)
Castle historians have had no other information about the paintings’ history.
Levkoff said that, although the Annunciation painting had undergone two conservation treatments in the past, the inscription and monogram were never reported to Castle officials.
Even in the massive Assembly Room, a painting that’s approximately 8.5 feet high and 5 feet wide is hard to miss, especially in the Annunciation’s prominent place over antique choir stalls to the left of the room’s fireplace, which is itself tall enough to stand in.
But for decades, without focused lighting and a tall ladder, some of the painting’s details apparently went undetected or at least unreported.
The monogram and inscription — in muted dark-colored capital letters on a deep-brown background — finally were spotted by guides Cargill and Rodger.
The discovery includes an abbreviation of the artist’s name and his title, located on the base of the Virgin’s lectern: “B.me P.z / Pic[t]or Reg[is].” A lengthy inscription in the lower left corner provides the name of the patron and the date, which was 1690.
The Annunciation painting is unique for Perez, Levkoff said, because he’s known primarily for his floral still-life paintings. She said art experts know of only a few large-scale figural compositions by the artist who was named official painter to King Charles II in 1689.
Levkoff said she doesn’t believe there are any other Perez paintings on the hilltop, as Hearst didn’t collect many still-life artworks.
How they found it
Cargill said that, in November, he was guiding a group of tour-takers into the Assembly Room when he saw sunshine reflecting onto and highlighting part of the Annunciation painting that wasn’t normally illuminated that vividly.
In a Feb. 21 interview, Cargill said, “the sunlight was reflecting off the mosaic tile floor in the West Vestibule” of the Assembly Room, shining on the painting and revealing the previously unreported name of the painter. He said, “at that point, you could see it” on the Virgin’s lectern.
After the tour ended and the Assembly Room was empty, he and fellow guide Rodger investigated further. The two have been Castle guides for three years, having been in the same training class.
Then, Cargill recalled, “Laurel saw an inscription” on the painting’s lower-left corner. He said that they “stood on chairs and used flashlights” to confirm what they had seen.
“Once we realized there was something significant,” he said, they took details of their find to Levkoff.
Rodger said, “At first, we weren’t really sure if we should be excited. But when I saw how excited Mary (Levkoff) was.”
Levkoff said she was overjoyed. Cargill said, “Then we had permission to be excited, elated!”
The next morning, Levkoff got a ladder and a big lantern. She had her cellphone with her. After examining the painting and deciphering the abbreviated signature, “I entered what I assumed was the name of the painter. I was Googling it while I was on the ladder.”
She was right.
Rodger said the hardest part was waiting to find out what it all meant, as Levkoff tracked down confirmation of the painter and her translation of the inscription. Fortunately, because of Levkoff’s vast connections in the historical art field, the research only took a day or so.
The artist’s monogram was similar to one on a smaller painting in the Cleveland Museum. Then, within a couple of days, Levkoff’s translation of the inscription was confirmed by an authority on Spanish Baroque painting, Dawson Carr, curator of European art at the Portland Museum of Art.
Since then, Castle photographer Victoria Garagliano has taken formal photos of the piece, both in situ and out of the frame, which Levkoff says is the “proper way to photograph a painting.”
For now, one new spotlight has been added, Levkoff said. The light illuminates the newly found information that guides can now share with visitors, details about a significant artwork that’s been shown incognito for decades.