The intriguing question for Teresa Soley, a senior art history major at Washington and Lee University, was how an indigenous native of Brazil could appear as one of the magi adoring the Christ child in a painting in Portugal, complete with feathered headdress and holding an arrow.
The painting in question dates between 1502 and 1506, and, though debated by experts, it is thought to be by famous Portuguese artist "Grão" Vasco Fernandes. What is certain is that the painter had never been to Brazil, since the Portuguese had discovered the country only a few years earlier in 1500.
Soley received a R. E. Lee Undergraduate Research Grant this summer to work with Andrea Lepage, assistant professor of art history at W&L, to research the painting. Soley will use the research in her senior honors thesis. They also plan to co-author a paper on why the figure is in the painting, what it means and what kind of statement the artist was trying to make by including it.
Lepage explained that while many art history scholars focus on the impact of European art, ideas and beliefs on the indigenous populations of the Americas, she recently decided to focus on the conversation flowing in the opposite direction—how indigenous art and ideas in the Americas impacted Europe. So she asked Soley to see if she could find any evidence of European painters incorporating indigenous people from the Americas.
"Originally, we expected to encounter many examples of this sort of thing," said Lepage. "But in fact there are very few, and almost nothing has been published about them in English. Also, the painting that Teresa is researching is a rare example of a sympathetic representation of an indigenous person in Europe.
The painting was interesting not only because of the extraordinary twist of adding the Brazilian native to the very traditional subject of the adoration of the magi, but also because Soley could find relatively little written about it. "Considering how important you'd assume this painting would be, there's almost nothing written about it in English," said Soley, who has Portuguese language skills.
The painting is part of a large altar piece called the "Viseu Altarpiece," which was painted in oil on 18 chestnut wood panels. Only 14 of the panels currently survive and are now located in a local museum in the city of Viseu.
In addition to conducting an online search for primary source material from the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Soley took a trip to Portugal to see the real painting and gained permission from the director of the museum to spend time studying it and taking photographs. She used an IR-modified camera to collect images enabling the examination of possible underdrawings in the painting. "Professor Erich Uffelman in the chemistry department was very helpful," said Soley. "He outfitted me with the infrared camera and suggested exploring the possibility of an underdrawing so that I could see any changes the artist made at the compositional stage."
She was also able to access the conservation records of the painting and works that had been written about it that have never been published outside Portugal.
"It was a tremendous experience," said Soley. "Most students don’t have the opportunity to spend a whole summer working with a professor doing this kind of original research. Professor Lepage was a great mentor. I'm a minor in mass communications so I understand both fields of research—the academic part and the more investigative side. I felt like an art detective and I loved it."