Historic paintings to be restored in the US, believed to have been painted in Mexico

This 170-year-old painting, on display at the Palomares Adobe in Pomona since 1940, is being restored by the Historical Society of Pomona Valley, which is currently raising funds to complete the work. (Photo by Joe Blackstock)

One of the oldest religious artifacts of our early history is getting some professional care and rehabilitation to help it survive another 170-plus years.

The Historical Society of the Pomona Valley recently sent its painting of the Madonna and Christ child to Santa Barbara for restoration and is actively soliciting donations to help pay for the work.

The painting — which has been at Pomona’s Palomares Adobe for 80 years — is believed to have been originally done in Spain before making its way to the chapel in the home of Ricardo Vejar in Walnut, when it was built about 1844.

It is one of two such religious paintings donated to the society in 1940 by his granddaughter, Estella Vejar. The second is a work showing a biblical figure — perhaps John the Baptist — holding a lamb, explained Mike Schowalter, caretaker of the Palomares Adobe. Both are about 65 inches high and 45 inches wide.

This work, perhaps of John the Baptist, is one of two early 18th century paintings donated to the Historical Society of the Pomona Valley by Estella Vejar 80 years ago. (Photo by Mike Schowalter)

He said the Madonna painting was chosen for immediate restoration because of damage and wear through the years. On the picture itself are rectangular marks where many years ago it was apparently folded to fit in a smaller frame. The painting arrived at the Palomares Adobe in 1940 in its current larger frame with the earlier fold marks.

The second painting, which remains on display at the adobe, has had some earlier restoration work done and is in somewhat better condition than the Madonna. It is believed to have been painted in Mexico.

Schowalter said neither of the two paintings offer any definite information about the artist or its title. He said their conservator Scott Haskins believes the Madonna came from Seville in Spain.

Ricardo Vejar acquired a number of art works for the chapel in his home in Walnut, the only such place of worship at the time between San Gabriel Mission and its satellite mission, the Assistencia in what today is Redlands.

Schowalter said an initial examination of the Madonna painting by restoration experts found small blisters in the paint indicating it had been exposed to a large fire.

As it turned out, many of the Vejar artifacts and artworks were moved twice, eventually going to a ranch house in what today is La Verne. That house burned to the ground on Jan. 23, 1918, according to the Pomona Progress. The article reported that the artworks were destroyed but later it was found that the most treasured of the works, called “The Good Shepherd,” apparently survived the fire.

“The Good Shepherd” painting poses a bit of an enigma. There is no actual description of the work that survived the Vejar fire so it is hard to determine if it is one of the two paintings of the historical society.

A Los Angeles Times article on March 10, 1918, said it was believed to have been painted by 17th-century Spanish artist Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez, though offered no sources for that assessment. The article also said Velázquez was said to have painted two other works that were once in Vejar’s chapel. Those were “The Madonna of the Ring” and “St. John,” but at the time of the fire they were on loan to the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.

Rev. Juan Caballeria, a priest and historian who served in San Bernardino and later at the Church of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, helped collect and preserve many of the works from churches closed when Mexico secularized the Francican missions in 1834.  In 1904, he displayed 34 pieces of the recovered mission art in downtown Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Herald, two of the paintings were “The Madonna of the Ring” and “St. John.”

So where are these works today and are they part of the historical society’s paintings? The search for answers continues. An official at the Autry Museum of the West, which now operates the Southwest Museum, did not respond to questions about the two paintings reportedly loaned there a century ago.

While that search continues, the most pressing task for historical society members now is to find the funds to complete the restoration of the Madonna painting.

The fund drive in its early stages has already raised $2,000, which could grow due to a matching grant offered by the Native Sons of the Golden West.  The historical society needs to raise another $5,000 to take advantage of the full matching grant.

Schowalter said the hope is that enough money will be raised so the restored Madonna painting can be unveiled at a celebration on June 13, the 80th anniversary of the reopening of the Palomares Adobe following restoration by the federal Works Progress Administration in 1940.

Source: Daily Bulletin