Talking About: Spanish Painting

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Ronni Baer co-curated “El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III”, the new show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A few weeks ago we sat down to talk about what she wanted that show to accomplish.

LACAYO: Art historians usually treat the reign of Philip III as a kind of so-so interregnum between his father Philip II, who was a major collector and Titian’s great patron, and his son Philip IV, who had Velazquez as his court painter. What made you decide to take a new look at Philip III’s overlooked era?

BAER: Sarah Schroth [who co-curated this show] is an old friend of mine from grad school. She had found the inventories of the Duke of Lerma. [Lacayo: Lerma was Philip III’s chief adviser and one of the biggest collectors in early 17th century Europe.] Sarah wanted to do a show about them. At the same time, when I first came to the MFA as a curator there was talk of doing a Spanish show. We have two great paintings here in Boston that bookend Philip’s era — the El Greco portrait of Fray Hortensio…

Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino, El Greco, 1609 /Image: MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

….and the Velazquez portrait of Luis de Gongara.

Luis de Gongora y Argote, Velazquez, 1622 /Image: MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

When I was a student of art history I used to wonder “How did we ever get from El Greco to Velazquez? Philip III’s reign was only 23 years, but what a huge change.” For me what was interesting was that there were artists people have never heard of who help explain the changes during that period.

LACAYO: One thing that’s surprising about Spanish art is that they developed a form of realism as powerful as anything the Dutch were doing, but they weren’t a society that you would expect to do that. The Dutch were a Protestant middle class republic; it’s no surprise that they create a market for scenes of ordinary people doing ordinary things. But Spain was a fairly rigid Catholic monarchy. The Spanish didn’t produce a lot of household and tavern scenes the way the Dutch did, but they filled their religious pantings with recognizable humans. El Greco”s saints look like real people. And Velazquez started his career making kitchen scenes.

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, Velazquez, 1618/ Image: THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF SCOTLAND

BAER: That’s right. And the show is also about introducing artists who were doing that who were less well known than El Greco or Velazquez, like Juan Bautista Maino and Luis Tristan. Tristan’s amalgam of Italy and Spain is very interesting.

Adoration of the Magi, Juan Bautista Maino, 1612/ Image: MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO, MADRID

LACAYO: But let’s start with El Greco — what was it that turned him in the direction of bringing a more recognizable humanity into religious pictures?

BAER: His time in Italy, before he arrived in Spain. Going to Venice and seeing all that incredible Venetian painting. All of the Spanish painters of this era took a lot from Italian art, but from different artists. You can see Maino looking at Gentileschi. You can see El Greco looking at Tintoretto. They all looked at whatever struck their chord. And also Flanders was very important. The print trade was enormous, as well as the buying and selling of paintings.

LACAYO: I was interested in some of the first pictures you have in the show, the royal portraits like the one of a young Philip in dress armor by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. The representation of the body and the armor is very full and real, but the face is still very impassive and “official”.

King Philip III of Spain, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, ca. 1601-1602 / Image: KUNSTHISTORICHES MUSEUM, VIENNA

BAER: That kind of work is coming out of a very long and established tradition. You have naturalistic shadow and modeling of the body, it’s moving towards naturalism, but the top part, the face, isn’t. It’s not that the artists can’t get there, but they purposely choose not to apply the skills of naturalism to the face, because the face is the way to remove the monarch from humanity. He’s a quasi-divine figure. And then along comes Rubens, who’s doing something very different. [Lacayo: Rubens visited Spain twice, and his very robust work made a deep impression there.] You can just imagine how much the Duke of Lerma wanted Rubens to paint him.

The Duke of Lerma, Rubens, ca. 1603/Image: MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO, MADRID