Elderly Nude Man in the Sun  by Mariano José Maria Bernardo Fortuny y Carbó employs a loose, painterly, expressive style
Elderly Nude Man in the Sun by Mariano José Maria Bernardo Fortuny y Carbó employs a loose, painterly, expressive style
© Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

A Portrait of Spain

Before I tell you what the big Prado show — Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado — at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is, let me first tell you what it isn't.

More than 100 paintings from the national museum of Spain's remarkable collection are currently on display in Houston in what's heralded as the largest international loan the Prado has ever undertaken. The landmark show is an attempt by the nearly 200-year-old museum to broaden access to its remarkable collection of 14th- to 19th-century European art, which includes some of the biggest names in the pantheon of Spanish and Spanish-influenced painters, from Goya and Velázquez to Titian and Rubens. In fact, the Prado houses more works by these four artists than any other museum in the world.

But don't head to the MFAH expecting to see any of these artists' most acclaimed and popular paintings. Velázquez's signature work, Las Meninas, the "Mona Lisa" of the Prado, isn't taking a sojourn to Houston. And though the unprecedented show is titled "Portrait of Spain," that portrait is limited by the Prado's own collection and displays pieces from the 16th to the 19th centuries, stopping just short of modernity. So you won't be seeing the likes of Dalí, Miró or Picasso (they're primarily at Spain's Reina Sofía museum, anyway).


Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado

Admission to the exhibit requires a separate timed-entry ticket. Viewing hours are 12:15 to 7 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Through March 31. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, visit the museum's Web site or call 713-639-7300. $12 to $18.

What you will see are major Spanish painters including Goya, Velázquez and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, as well as foreigners such as Peter Paul Rubens, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo and Titian, who were employed by the royal court and left their own mark on the development of painting in Spain. And there's plenty to see in a show that sprawls across multiple gallery rooms and centuries of Spanish art.

Many of Spain's master painters worked for the court, so — no surprise — royal art is a major component of the exhibition, curated by the Prado's Javier Portús with help from Edgar Peters Bowron of the MFAH. In fact, the very first painting you see is Alonso Sánchez Coello's massive, exquisite late-16th-century portrait of the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, daughter of King Philip II. You don't even need to be told she's royal: The elegant costume she's wearing, speckled with gold and sporting a collar that goes up to her ears; her jeweled crown; and the random toy monkeys to her left do the job for you.

This singular introduction is an appropriate sign of what's to come — realistic, highly detailed paintings, particularly of the royal family and their pursuits. There's even a whole gallery room devoted to their portraits. It's almost unfair to pick a standout piece, they all capture the likeness of their subjects so superbly, though Velázquez's ghostly pale King Philip IV of Spain (c. 1633) is one to highlight. Unlike his neighbors in the room, he is stripped of any regal wear and isn't standing in some ornate royal hall; this work lacks the obvious pomp of that very first Coello portrait. Rather, his sense of majesty comes through in his assured stance and gaze. He's dressed to hunt, a sport of the ruling class, and his accessory — an incredibly long, powerful-looking rifle — doesn't hurt in conveying his power, either.

Empress Margarita Teresa de Austria (1665-66) by Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo is another portrait that captures the essence of its subject. It depicts Philip IV's daughter following his death; she is in mourning, dressed from head to toe in black. Despite all this blackness, no detail is lost, from her long cape to the gloves clenched in her left hand. You could spend the whole time staring into her sad, expressive eyes and completely miss the crowd of mourners all in black in the next room in the background of the painting, as if waiting for their own portraits.

If Spain's elite weren't commissioning artists to paint their pictures, they were hiring them to paint still lifes. Known as bodegones, these social pieces were a popular style during Spain's Golden Age in the 16th and 17th centuries to display a family's wealth and status, and the Prado has many fine specimens. While the symbolism of the exotic foods and silver objects depicted may be lost on the modern viewer, the painters' skill and virtuosity aren't. The best among these artists was Luis Meléndez, an 18th-century painter who has two still lifes on display here. He was a master of composition, placing the objects just so to capture their unique textures, and the bread, jugs and tableware in his paintings look real enough to pick up. If that's not the marker of a successful still life, I don't know what is.

One of the most famous images among the bodegones is Francisco de Zurbarán's Still Life With Lamb (1635-40). The canvas is filled almost entirely by the image of a weary sacrificial lamb on a windowsill, its coat stark white against the dark background to bring the whole animal into focus. It's a not-so-subtle reference to the sacrificial death of Christ (a.k.a. the Lamb of God) and an apt segue into the next major component of "Portrait of Spain" — religious narratives. This is 16th- and 17th-century Spain, under the influence of the Catholic Church, and when the likes of Velázquez or Zurbarán weren't painting portraits or still lifes, they were depicting a weary Christ at the cross, benevolent saints and pained martyrs.

The religious pieces in the show provide us the opportunity to see some notable works by El Greco, a Greece-born painter who settled in Spain and, despite his name, is largely associated with his adopted homeland. Saint Benedict (c. 1577-79) is one such work, a surprisingly humanistic portrayal of the saint that captures his benevolence. The Veil of Saint Veronica (c. 1586-95) is another eye-catching painting that depicts the legend and is memorable for what it doesn't include — a crown of thorns and Veronica herself, instead focusing on Jesus's serene face.

And then, like a chill in the wind that leaves goosebumps, there is a sudden, noticeable shift; Spain is ushered into modernity. Leaving behind the piety of the religious paintings, you encounter works by the likes of Mariano Fortuny (Elderly Nude Man in the Sun, 1871) and Eduardo Rosales (After the Bath, 1869) that employ a loose, painterly, expressive style that looks back to artists like Velázquez and Ribera who came centuries before them while also looking forward to a new Realism.

On the same token, Aureliano de Beruete's impressionistic landscape The Wall of El Pardo (1911) is almost shocking in its departure from the neoclassical and Baroque styles that are dominant throughout the Prado show. De Beruete was one of the first Spanish painters to identify with impressionism and was a major advocate of painting en plein air. This was a plea that fortunately did not go unheeded, as the utterly breathtaking landscapes at the very end of the show, right before the telltale gift shop, demonstrate.

If at this point you feel like the show could use a heavy dose of Goya madness, you'll be pleased to find a whole room devoted to three late-18th-century/early-19th-century print series done toward the end of his career: Los Caprichos, Los Disparates and Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). These prints were most likely done for the artist and his friends and lack the rich color, impressive scale and superior technical skill that many of the preceding works, including Goya's own court-commissioned portraits, convey. But these small studies are quite revolutionary in their comment on social and political realities as they depict the ugliness and grotesqueness of human folly and fear through black-and-white images of war, witchcraft and asylums. By this point, if you've grown weary of the dozens of realist royal portraits and religious narratives, however skillful, that have preceded, Goya can shock you awake just yet.


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