Metropolitan Museum – Spanish Paintings

MOST of the few painters of note which the Spanish school has produced are represented in the Metropolitan Museum, except the greatest of them all, Velasquez, whose work is only indicated by copies or school pictures.

A recent acquisition gives us even a glimpse of quatrocento Spanish art, of which little has been discovered. In fact, it is but a few years ago when a Spanish writer, Senor Sanperey Miquel, revealed to connoisseurs the existence of a flourishing school of painting in and around Barcelona throughout the 15th century. The example in the Museum is an ancona of this school, an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Andrew, and attributed to Luis Borrassa. We must draw on the information given by Mr. Roger E. Fry, the Museum’s expert, in regard to this Primitif.

The school of Barcelona, or of Catalonia to give the name of the entire district, was quite distinct from the Spanish school proper. The Spanish school had been born of the Church, and religion was its chief motive. An ascetic view of life in-spired it. Not a pietistic, fervent and devout, as much as a morose, often ghastly tenet. It bore the marks more of an ecclesiasticism by blood and violence, than of Christianity by peace and love.

The Catalans looked, however, by preference to Provence and Italy than to Spain in their racial, political and social sympathies; and the origin of their school must rather be traced to Avignon. While the Popes were confined there (1309-1377) many Italian artists followed them, and especially Siennese artists impressed their style upon the Limousin districts, and the founders of the Catalan school clearly derived their inspiration from Simone Martini and others. Thus Siennese forms, Siennese technic, and to some extent Siennese colour pre-dominate in their work till well on into the 15th century.

The first of the artists of this group of Barcelona which Senor y Miquel mentions is Luis Borrassa, who flourished in the early years of the 15th century. A few of his retablos, painted by him between 1396 and 1424, are still in existence, which show an artist who, following the main lines of Siennese trecento art in the larger compositions, gives rein to a quite individual and original fancy in the smaller subsidiary scenes. In one respect he seemed even to have been in advance of the contemporary Italians, who were still conscious of conventional traditions. Borrassa showed to be in more intimate touch with the life around him, and displays a greater realism in the features of the persons he painted.

The altarpiece in the Museum came from the Church of Perpignan, near to the Catalan border, and bears a striking affinity to the altarpiece of St. John the Baptist, in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, in Paris, which is accepted by Senor y Miquel on internal evidence as Borrassa’s. Still the attribution of our altar piece is by no means established, since too little is known of this primitive school to adjudge with certainty on any example that might be found. The same might be said of another most interesting altarpiece, lent by Mr. William M. Laffan, which belongs to this school and period.

Next in order of our `review is a large “Nativity,” by El Greco (1548-1614), ” the Greek,” for he was born on the island of Crete, where he was called Domenikos Theotokopuli. Early he was taken to Venice, and there learned his art in the school of voluptuous colour, and became Titianesque in style ; although Tintoretto must have had great influence on his manner. Being still quite unknown, the work that he did in Venice until his twenty seventh year has been ascribed to various Italian artists, despite the peculiar characteristics which even then distinguished his brush. In 1575 he was probably brought to Toledo to paint the reredos in the Church of Santo Domingo de Silos, and he never left the Spanish city for any length of time, dying there forty years later.

An alien will frequently emphasize the national traits of his adoption more strongly than is done by the native himself — thus ” the Greek ” has been called more Spanish than the Spaniards. The austere asceticism of Spanish character is strongly reflected from all El Greco’s work, but exaggerated to a degree, and one detects therein an extravagant mannerism. Without going so far as to say, with Carl Justi, that he painted like a visionary, taking for revelations the distorted fancies of a morbid brain, we still must wonder at the gauntness and grimness of his elongated figures, which in their exaggerated line and harsh colour make decidedly uncanny and ghostly pictures. It is natural that work of such impression is scarcely attractive, at first glance at least, its flavour is too strong, it is too bizarre and racy in quality to be enjoyed by every one. Still there are certain features about his work which make it naively new and strangely modern. In his patchy colouring, in his flat masses, we recognize the first of the impressionists in the broader sense. We find also a new, and hitherto unknown, tonal quality in his work, smoky blacks and dingy whites, which Velasquez owed to him and later developed into ” silvery tones,” after leaving the hot and unluminous colour he had learned from Herrera.

” The Nativity,” in the Museum, is one of the extreme examples of El Greco’s art. In drawing, colour and composition we find here one of his most characteristic performances.

In spite of El Greco’s eccentric style he left some followers from his studio, Maino, Tristan and Orrente, who rank among the best Castilian painters ; but it was not until half a century later that the great master arose who alone has lifted Spanish art to an eminent place.

Before Velasquez the art of Spain had only tentatively assumed characteristic national features. In the early days the struggles of the country for political existence, as well as the frequent contests with the Moors, tended to retard its artistic development. When art spoke it was a faint echo and in feeble imitation of Italian and Flemish masters, it was more derivative than original. The powerful influence of the Church, the narrow bigotry of the people and their rulers, and the terrors of the Inquisition stamped it, and tended to depress. Classic art was unknown, the study of the nude was forbidden, and in the religious paintings, which alone prevailed, fervent fanaticism, often morose, ghastly and horrible, was the inspiration. The influence of Flanders loosened somewhat the gloomy thralls, and later, in the 16th century, Florentine drawing and Venetian colour aided the liberation from the yoke of the Church.

Velasquez (1599-1660), the great realist, with transcendent art, gave the true poetry of painting. His motto was Verdad no pintura, truth not painting, and Luco Giordano called his work ” the theology of painting.” If theology means knowledge of the sublime, the appellation is apt.

In summing up his characteristics we note that the two periods of the Master’s painting are divided by his first Italian journey in 1630. Even in his first period the vital creative power emerges, not the result of mere imitative observation but native breadth and dignity in treatment, massive and secure in construction. In his second period there is an added lightness, unity and force of tone, a more decorative character and an increase of atmospheric effect. Yet had he died during his first visit to Rome it might have been said, without exaggeration, that he had spoken his last word, and that, young as he was, he had lived to see his art fully ripened.

Throughout his work we find that often he had no real sense of colour, the more surprising when we reflect upon the unfailing instinct for colour shown by his Moorish contiguousness. His drawing was always admirable, correct and unrestrained ; some of his portraits are modelled very broadly and softly, without a sharp mark or a hard edge, when he smudges so subtly as to convey no sense of direct handling; the surfaces slide into each other in a loose, supple manner. Or again he gave his figures bold, rough-hewn planes, which give them the force and vigour of firm chiselling.

Velasquez had a mastery over his materials unequalled, his colouring was clear and clean, he seldom used mixed tints. He was gifted with the art of simplification, with an economy of pigment, whereby the texture of the canvas becomes visible, enhancing the delicate effect. He husbanded his whites and his yellows, which tell, sparkling like gold, on his undertoned backgrounds. He painted with a rapid, flowing and certain brush, using those long ones of which Palomino speaks.

Velasquez was the great discoverer of values, that is, according the just amount of light to the colour represented, which gives an object painted a peculiar intensity of illumination and appearance of life; while his power of painting circumambient air, his knowledge of lineal and aerial perspective, and the gradations of his tones, give an absolute concavity to the flat surface of the canvas.

Yet in all his painting there is an absence of art and effort, which is the culmination of knowing how to do a thing. This was the result of his severe discipline in the studios of his masters, Francisco de Herrera and Francisco Pacheco.

Par excellence, Velasquez was an objective painter. His work is free from the slightest tendency to substitute cleverness for truth. He never frittered away his breadth or sympathetic effect by superfluous finish to mere accessories. He never ” faked.” He did everything bravely, with an utter absence of self-assertion or pose. There is no showing of the artist. The idea never enters his head that his own individual trick with the brush could have an interest for any human being.

The three portraits in the Museum, which formerly were attributed to his brush, are now rightly relegated to be school-copies. Still they give us, at second hand, an inkling of the Master’s art.

Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1662), of whom we have a ” St. Michael, the Archangel,” was born the year before Velasquez. His work is in the eclectic manner of Caravaggio, and was undoubtedly influenced in his later years by his contemporary Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

Murillo (1617-1682) was the greatest religious painter of Spain, and always one of the most popular, not only in his own, but in other countries. His great popularity is likely to be ascribed to a tendency towards insipidity which he displays in most of his work. His ” St. John the Evangelist,” in the Museum, represents the Saint seated on a rock in a bare landscape, against a lurid background of dark gray. His eagle, holding an inkpot, is seated alongside the inspired writer.

Most painters, even the greatest, show an alteration, if not always progressive, in their manner of painting — so it was with Murillo. He, at least, underwent a purging of both phrase and manner. Many of his earlier paintings are cold and sombre in tone, sad in colouring, black in the shadows, jejune and trivial in character and expression. This early style is known as his estilio frio, or cold style. His next phase, known as the warm style, estilio calido, is marked by deeper colouring and strong contrasts of light and shadow ; but the light is actual light and the plastic forms are well de-fined. Murillo’s last style, peculiar to himself, is known as el vaporoso, from a certain vaporous or misty effect that it produces. It was the result of his effort to overcome the heaviness, opacity and hardness of a solid impasto, and with a freer and looser manner he produces now his effects by a variety of tints melting into one another, and he dematerializes his figures while still retaining their highly mundane and sensuous existence. His most famous productions are those in which the manner of his middle period is becoming influenced by this later searching for misty effect. It is plainly seen that the example before us was painted in his latest manner.

One of the followers, possibly a pupil, of Velasquez, Mateo Cerezo (1635-1685), has here the ” Portrait of a Cardinal,” which has little distinction of original attainment.

Not until a century later an artist of eminence appeared again in the advent of Francisco Goya (1746-1828). A ” Portrait of Don Sebastian Martinez,” and another man’s portrait, loaned to the Museum, do not give a very extended view of this artist’s versatile talents, devoted to religious subjects, portraits, figure work, but especially satirical compositions which gave him the name of ” the Spanish Hogarth.” The ” Don Martinez ” is an unusually careful and serious work, more precise in drawing and more constrained in brush work than was his wont, while the ” Don Mocarte ” is freer in handling and has more intense characterization, and must hence be an earlier work. Goya gradually changed his style to an austere and scrupulous precision of outline. A Jewess of Tangiers,” also of his brush, has more of the fire and vivacity of his early manner.

The 19th century artists invariably echo the prevailing Parisian mode of painting, only occasionally harking to Castilian and Andalusian models. Leon y Escosura (1834-1901) followed his natural bent towards historical research to furnish the genre he mostly painted. His King Philip presenting Rubens to Velasquez in the latter’s Studio ” is a scene skilfully handled, the poses are natural and easy. He was not a stranger to New York, where he visited several times to paint portraits and local subjects. One of these shows an auction sale in the, now defunct, Clinton Hall, in 1876.

Mariano Fortuny (1841-1874) had a brilliant career during his short life. When only sixteen years of age he won the Prix de Rome at Madrid. His ” Portrait of a Spanish Lady ” is one of the most artistic paintings in the Museum. It is painted with sincere searching of the highest expression of art, without any claptrap or any substitute of cleverness for truth. There is nothing supercilious about this dignified interpretation of nature. The relative values of the black gown and the deep olive back-ground are given in a masterful manner. His Arabian scenes have more of a staccato tendency, in which nature is cajoled and forced and bedizened to add to attractiveness.

The short life of the gifted Eduardo Zamacois (1842-1871) was the romance of the Quartier Latin. He combined the satire of Goya with the wit of a Frenchman, and preached his pictorial homilies with the eloquence of Bossuet, and the precision of his master, Meissonier. He was a master of the grotesque at will, but appreciating more fully the picturesque, he was a mocker without a grimace. He was brilliant without false glitter, audacious in his invention, yet disarming animadversion, because the point of his arrow was not poisoned. In ” The King’s Favourite,” in the Vanderbilt collection, the artist introduced the portraits of several of his brethren of the brush.

The genre of Francois Domingo concerns itself most with guardrooms. Several of his easel pictures are here. Jose Villegas followed his master Fortuny to a certain extent, sometimes surpassing him in gorgeous colour. He has a thorough knowledge of the human figure, as seen in ” Examining Arms,” and a fine talent for composition, to be noted in ” A Spanish Christening.” Martin Rico (1850-1908) is best known for his Venetian views, which have always enjoyed unbounded popularity. With Rico the sun is always shining, Venice is never dirty, even the sails on its fishing boats seemingly are freshly washed, starched and laundered. He has been able to find many picturesque nooks in the Lagoon city — as who would not? Withal, he paints these neatly, full of colour, and in a purely decorative vein. Emilio Sanchez-Perrier has also here a lagoon of Venice, in much the same manner.

One of the most popular paintings in the Museum is the ” Boatmen of Barcelona,” by V. D. Baixeras, an admirable composition with strong colour, a realistic impression.

This 20th century has, however, brought to the fore a few Spaniards who may yet redeem all the past, and reveal a truly national spirit. Garrido, Ricardo Canals, Guirand de Scevola, G. Bibao, Jaime Morera, Eliseo Meiffren, Sorolla y Bastida, and Ignacio Zuloaga are most prominent. The latter two are represented in the Museum. Of Sorolla we have three representative canvases, ” The Bath, Javea,” ” The Swimmers,” and ” Portrait of Senora de Sorolla.” This artist is a light-painter. Heat and light were never more powerfully represented than in his shorepieces. The sun fairly seems to pour light and heat upon the blinding sand. The greatest skill is required to paint this, for if clear whites are used the effect is chalky and the sense of heat is lost, while if the highest notes of colour are adulterated or neutralized to an appreciable degree, the vividness is gone and the sense of light is lost. The technical methods which Sorolla uses to reflect the effulgence of light from his canvas are simply marvellous. His figures are gay and lithesome. The swimmers in the sparkling water are instantaneous in movement.

Ignacio Zuloaga, whose ” Mlle. Breval as Carmen ” is in the Museum, is if anything still stronger, more juicy, and richer in his figure-work. He re-minds of the best of Goya’s figure pieces, of the best in Velasquez’ ” Weavers,” of the best in Murillo’s celebrated beggar-boys – it is, indeed, figure grandeur naturelle.

New forces have arisen in Spain that will be its later glory.