The special exhibition Spain 500 Years of Spanish Painting
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's "The Annunciation" circa 1650 is displayed in the special exhibition Spain 500 Years of Spanish Painting. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The big names are all there – Picasso, Goya, El Greco, Velázquez – recognizable to anyone with even a passing interest in art. But the real intrigue in the San Antonio Museum of Art’s new Tricentennial exhibition Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid lies with other names in Spanish painting, such as Zurbarán, Sorolla, Rusiñol, Murillo, de Ribera, and Zuloaga.

All are respected in their home country, but many of their paintings in the show – on loan from eight museums in Spain – are on view for the first time in the United States. Among the lenders are the well-known Museo Nacional del Prado and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, but the other, lesser-known museums held treasures the museum’s director and chief curator sought out.

Even the King and Queen of Spain, who officially inaugurated the exhibition during their recent visit to San Antonio, were impressed by how many museums and artists are represented. The exhibition received their royal “blessing,” said Katie Luber, director of the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Their Majesties toured the exhibition with Chief Curator William Keyse Rudolph, who said King Felipe VI spoke of Santiago Rusiñol paintings in his own collection, and pointed out that his grandfather Alfonso XIII was painted by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida.

“I think it’s wonderful that they are interested in their visual culture,” Rudolph said. “It must be … fascinating to feel that you are symbolically responsible for the cultural heritage of your country. That must be a huge responsibility, so it’s nice if you can take some pleasure in it.”

Queen Letizia is a fan of Picasso, Rudolph said. Though she considers herself a traditionalist, she loves his Les Damoiselles d’Avignon, the famously unfinished 1907 painting that ushered in the age of Cubism.

The King and Queen of Spain stand in front of the new exhibition highlighting 500 years of Spanish paintings.
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain stand in front of the new San Antonio Museum of Art exhibition highlighting 500 years of Spanish painting. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Museums exist in part to bring royal paintings into public view, and a Rusiñol garden image, in lurid hues that depart from realistic depiction, Rudolph explained, hangs next to the lone Picasso painting in the show.

Picasso was a child prodigy, already displaying his immense talent at an early age. By 18, when this portrait of his sister Lola was painted, he was busily working through local influences like Goya, with seepage from artists from outside of Spain. Soon after this painting was made, Rudolph said, Picasso “moves to Paris and invents a whole new stylistic language, and the rest of world pays attention.”

Across from the small Picasso is a large painting by Sorolla, identified in the exhibition catalog as “one of the most popular artists of the early twentieth century.” Sorolla’s work is so highly regarded in Spain that an entire museum, the Museo Sorolla in Madrid, is dedicated to it.

Luber compares Sorolla’s work favorably to any of the Impressionists, who enjoy much greater popularity in the U.S., which tends toward Francophilia in art, she said during a Wednesday exhibition preview. She hopes the Spain exhibition will help reset that imbalance, she said, even though the San Antonio Museum of Art is its only venue.

A major Tricentennial theme is the “confluence of cultures,” repeated often by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in speeches, and now the name of a new South Side park. The Spain exhibition also displays a wide cultural mix, with international influences visible not only in painting styles but in artists’ names.

Juan van der Hamen y Léon, for example, bears his Flemish father’s surname and brings “a Northern European eye for precise detail” most notable in Flemish and Dutch still life painting. His inclusion of Mexican pottery in Still Life with Porcelain and Sweets, circa 1627, also “testifies to the two-way traffic in goods at the height of Spain’s imperial power,” as noted on labels accompanying the painting.

Exhibition visitors would be correct to note that much of that traffic was one-way, transferring Mexico’s wealth to enrich the aristocracy of Spain. Luber said explorer Christopher Columbus noted as much in his letters home to his royal sponsors.

Much of that wealth is visible not only in the very existence of these paintings, many commissioned by monarchs and nobles, and in the portrait finery of such esteemed figures, but around the paintings themselves. The 16th-century frame holding The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia of 1579 by Alonso Sánchez Coello has “inch-thick” gilding, Rudolph said half-jokingly.

But Queen Isabel II, who reigned in the mid-19th century, commissioned artists to paint the regional costumes, customs and commonfolk of Spain – visible in the tavern denizens of Playing Cards, an 1843 oil by Antonio María Esquivel – and the fishermen in the foreground of View of the Manzaneres of 1857, by Carlos de Haes. The royal palace of Madrid is visible in the background, however, with the artist’s eye on his patrons.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, better known simply as Goya, also painted regular folk, often in comedic and tragic situations. His large Amateur Bullfight of 1780 focuses on the facial expressions of its protagonists, village toreadors struggling to even get their bull into the ring, much less to master it.

But Goya received many commissions as a court painter, and rendered royalty and generals with a rare complexity. “You never know which side he’s on,” said Rudolph, questioning whether the artist empathizes with his subjects or scorns them.

Whether the 10-year-old son of nobility Don Vicente, depicted by Goya in the characteristic Spanish palette of browns, grays, and blacks, is fearful or overconfident of his encroaching maturity, remains for the viewer to decide.

Goya’s focus on psychological complexity is preceded by Luis de Morales, whose work is represented in the show with a wrenching Pieta painted 1550-1570. The Virgin’s grief over her dead son is palpable in her heavy lids and pursed mouth, while his pain is still evident in his stilled expression.

The exhibition opens and closes with Young Village Bullfighters by Ignacio Zuloaga, depicting a trio of preening teenage bullfighters before the fight. Each in his own mind imagines nothing but greatness awaiting in the arena of life, perhaps akin to the young Zuloaga dreaming of reaching the heights of esteemed painter Diego Velázquez, whom he greatly admired.

While Zuloaga did not reach the enduring world fame of his predecessor, his work offers insights into a land rich with history and a great artistic tradition that stands on its own terms.

Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting from the Museums of Madrid opens to the public June 23 and runs through Sept. 16, coincidentally the day Mexico celebrates its independence from its former colonial master.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...