After years of toil, most graduate students come to terms with the fact that their dissertation will probably be relegated to a certain bookshelf in a certain library, its only hope a citation by some fellow graduate student in the years to come.
Sarah Schroth, however, has seen her dissertation lead to the rediscovery of the rich and vibrant art created during the reign of King Philip III of Spain (r. 1578-1621), an era that had been dismissed among art historians until now.
With the Boston Museum of Fine Arts as a partner and approximately 17 different lenders, "El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III" is not only a huge unveiling and discovery in the fine-art community but also the Nasher Museum of Art's first blockbuster exhibit.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported that the museum spent $2 million on the exhibit, significantly more than it did for its own opening. In order to break even, the Nasher hopes to attract 100,000 visitors by the closing of the show.
After succeeding his father, Philip II, who left a very impressive mark both in his support of the arts and his political maneuvers, Philip III was overshadowed by his father and later his son, with the era's art being comparatively neglected.
"This is the first major exhibit of art produced in Spain between 1598 and 1621 because there just hasn't been much interest in this era before," said Sarah Schroth, the Nasher's Nancy Hanks senior curator. "Some of these pieces and artists have never been showcased outside of their churches, much less in America."
During her time as a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, Schroth scoured many of Spain's archives looking for documentation of the art commissioned and collected by Philip III. It wasn't until she stumbled upon a centuries-old inventory belonging to the Duke of Lerma that she realized she had found proof of rich and innovative art masterpieces never before recognized.
The Duke of Lerma was the chief minister and court favorite of Philip III, and although it had been known that he was a patron of the fine arts, his extensive collection of more than 2,700 works came as a surprise even to Schroth.
"From his inventory, we were able to reconstruct this missing chapter of art in Spain," she said. "We're sort of restoring the reputations of these undiscovered artists and giving them their much-deserved spot in the limelight."
Aside from El Greco and Velazquez, who bookend the exhibit, none of the other artists featured have earned historic renown, and most had been altogether forgotten. A few of the pieces were recovered from dank basements and courtyard cloisters. Along with over 100 paintings, there are three sculptures in the exhibit. Sprawling across two of the Nasher's five pavilions, the works are largely divided into a secular and a religious set.
The pieces in both halls feature immaculate details, vivid colors and a striking mastery of naturalistic painting.
The first paintings to greet visitors is "Saint James (Santiago el Mayor)" by El Greco, one of Spain's most famous artists. The large piece is a perfect example of the naturalistic style of the time; but beyond that, it is an uncompleted work. Its right side is clearly unfinished, with the hand still a blurry rendition in need of refinement, and the white cloth only hinting at the beginnings of textured fabric.
"The vision of Saint John," also by El Greco, is an even greater work-in-progress that lends more depth and life.
Touring the exhibit with Schroth last week in a sneak preview prior to the exhibition's opening, President Richard Brodhead and Cindy Brodhead remarked on how the art was not only visually enticing but also a statement reflective of the artistic method of the time.
"It's amazing that you get some insight into his creation process with these pieces," Richard Brodhead said.
Also featured are still-life paintings and portraits by the lesser known but equally masterful artists. The details are intricate, tempting viewers to reach into the work to confirm the textural details they see, while the character of each subject is also clearly presented.
"There's such softness in the faces," Cindy Brodhead said. "You can almost feel the relationship between the artist and the subject. Anybody coming to the show, it seems to me, will just be drawn in."
Starting with El Greco and ending with one work by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, another renowned Spanish painter of the time, the exhibit is a unique artistic exploration and historic unveiling 20 years in the making.
"I'm so proud to see someone's educational curiosity explored and presented in a way that allows others to follow," Richard Brodhead said.
But for Schroth, this exhibit is more than just her own personal project.
"This is a one-of-a-kind chance for students and other visitors to be some of the first people to look at these beautiful old-master paintings from all over the world," Schroth said. "The fact that I can share this with others is one of the most exciting things about all of this."
El Greco to Velazquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III will be on exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art until Nov. 9. Tickets are $5 for Duke faculty and staff, students and children ages 7-17, $15 for adults and free for Nasher members and children under 6.