The Glory of Spain

Sharon Lorenzo visits selected works from the Hispanic Society Museum and Library in New York that are on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Two hundred works are on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from the Hispanic Society Museum and Library located in New York City. Visitors can see examples of the breadth and depth of a collection formed by its founder Archer Milton Huntington (1870- 1955) who purchased his first book at age 12 about Spanish gypsies. As the son of shipping and railroad magnate Collis Huntington, Archer did not want to work in the family business. He convinced his parents to let him travel and form an art collection which has examples of books, maps, manuscripts, pottery, textiles, furniture, paintings and sculpture from the many arenas in the world where Spanish culture was developed by kings, princes, and rulers from the Philippines to Mexico and many Latin American jurisdictions. The HSA continues to build on the original collection and is renovating its headquarters located on Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway between the Columbia University lower campus and its medical school and hospital to the north.

One of the most stunning works in the collection is the portrait of the Duchess of Alba, a Spanish noblewoman, painted by Francisco de Goya in 1797. Rumored to be one of his many mistresses as he painted her occasionally in the nude, Huntington’s portrait shows her in royal finery with her finger pointing to his name in the sand: Solo Goya. One of the many descendants of the Alba family is an HSA trustee, and the painting is today so valuable (valued at $200 million dollars) that the portrait had to fly in its own cargo plane to Houston from New York, a far cry from Huntington’s cost in 1908 of $30,000.

Goya was a disciple of his predecessor in the royal court of the Spanish kings, Diego de Velazquez (1599-1660). As a favorite of King Philip IV, Velazquez was often sent abroad to buy works of art and antiques to fill the many royal buildings that Philip built in Madrid.  He made four trips to Italy by ship and did a number of portraits including one in this show of Cardinal Astalli in 1650. Velazquez  is heralded in the annals of art history for doing psychological portraits that study the personality of the sitter to reveal some of their characteristics in the oil painting itself. Sworn to celibacy in the Catholic order, Astalli looks a bit somber and quiet in this work.

Glory of Spain Juan Carreno de Miranda

Because so much of the wealth of nations in the 16th and 17th century was invested in churches, Huntington bought a number of religious works for his collection. This work by Juan Carreno de Miranda shows the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception from 1670. Carreno had been hired to help Velazquez paint frescoes in the royal palace, and his work shows that he was a gifted pupil of that master. I love all the children swimming around in the painting with the beautiful virgin and her starlit halo.

Joaquin Sorolla Murals Spain

One of the most important treasures of the Hispanic Society is a series of murals painted by Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) which sadly were shipped to New York from Madrid after his death. They are installed in New York in a massive room with ten panels depicting the various regions of Spain.  Huntington had seen his work in London paired with the American painter, John Singer Sargent.  Like Velazquez, both artists received many commissions as their style of portraiture was very popular with wealthy barons on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In this exhibition we see a Sorolla painting of Louis Comfort Tiffany amidst a garden of spring flowers as Sorolla painted him at his home on Long Island. Created in 1911, it flatters the founder of our Tiffany stores which continue as a global high end brand to this day. At his death, the family gifted the portrait to the Hispanic collection.

Lovely pieces of pottery are installed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in this show by their new assistant curator of European Art, James Anno.   Works such as this tin glazed earthenware is believed to have been made near Valencia, Spain in the 16th century by Muslim potters who knew this special technique of applying paint to earthenware clay then glazing it with paints mixed with tin to give shine to the surface.  The mythical creature gives a nod to ancient Greek and Roman antiquities where dragons and demons of all kinds were in great vogue.

These are but a handful of the many treasures awaiting visitors in Houston until May 25, 2020.  They are in magnificent array in the wing designed for large exhibitions by German architect, Mies van der Rohe, who no doubt would be thrilled to see this show in his luminous surroundings in the only museum project he did in the United States. He was one of the great founders of the modern architectural movement. BBVA bank is the major sponsor of this exhibition as a multinational bank from Spain and Latin America.

Sharon Lorenzo

The Glory of Spain – Museum of Fine Arts Houston

March 1-September 7, 2020 (the original May 25 end date has been extended)


Sharon has written many wonderful articles for ASE.

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