SAN ANTONIO, TX.- An outlier among Marion Koogler McNay's collection, El Greco's Head of Christ was an unusual purchase for a collector focused on modern art. More than likely, this acquisition reflects Mrs. McNay's awareness of works assembled by Marjorie and Duncan Phillips, which became Washington, DC's famed Phillips Collection. They also acquired an El Greco as their unique old master painting for an otherwise modern collection.
Over the years since the McNay opened in 1954, scholarship on the Greek painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco, progressed steadily. Originally accepted as El Greco's work, the museum's painting in recent decades was presumed a studio version or later copy of another work by the master. When the McNay's director visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's El Greco exhibition several years ago, he studied other depictions of Christ, suspecting the McNay's painting warranted examination by a conservator and more research. Subsequently the painting was sent to Dallas where painting conservator Helen Mar Parkin proceeded cautiously to remove overpaint applied after the era of El Greco, as well as discolored varnish and grime to the extent they could be safely removed.
In this process, the McNay benefited from advice given by art historian Bill Jordan, who organized a major El Greco exhibition in 1982. As work progressed, the painting began to look more convincing as an autograph work. Jordan however deferred to Leticia Ruiz Gómez of Madrid's Museo Nacional del Prado, who is preparing the complete catalogue of El Greco's work. Earlier photographs of the McNay's painting had been sent to Madrid; now new photographs followed. Fortunately the Prado curator planned a visit to the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; on that occasion, she traveled to San Antonio to see the painting first hand. Upon viewing it, she confirmed it as largely by El Greco's hand, with the face of Christ-especially the eyes and beard-very beautifully painted.
Head of Christ is now reframed in the 17th-century Spanish style and appears in the exhibition An El Greco Rediscovered in the first Hamon Gallery on the upper level of the McNay residence for an extended period. A focus exhibition explains the conservation process, compares the McNay painting to other versions of this composition, and discusses studio assistance and later additions.