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MFAH's "Portrait of Spain:" An Exquisite Overview of Spanish Art History

The Prado museum of Spain is comparable to France's Louvre, Florence's Accademia di Belle Arti or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The name Prado may not be as familiar to the everyman, but its collection is more than on par. Where the Prado differs is in its focus on Spanish and Spanish-influenced art.

Due to much effort and money, Houstonians now have the opportunity to take in the Prado's brilliance right in their own backyard. "Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado" is on exhibition December 16 through March 31, 2013, at the MFAH. The collection showcases works of Spanish masters, among others, dating from the 1600s through the 20th century.

The exhibit was curated by Javier Portús, Senior Curator of Spanish Painting (to 1700) at the Prado, with the assistance of Edgar Peters Bowron, the Audrey Jones Beck curator of European art at the MFAH. The collection is on exclusive loan here in Houston as a part of an undertaking of the Prado to expand its reach outside of Europe.

The Prado was established in 1819 and, like many galleries of the time, the royal family commissioned much of its original work. The exhibition flows chronologically beginning in the 17th century, when much of the art being created was portraits of the royal family. Many of these portraits blend in with each other; royal depictions were a dime a dozen back then. What stands out are the pieces specifically portraying "freaks." Apparently, the Spanish royalty found people with physical abnormalities amusing and kept them at court. Aside from the obvious -- paintings are of dwarfs and the morbidly obese -- these paintings are in a freer style. Rather than the rigid painting technique apparent in the royal portraits, the paintings of these "low class" buffoons are done without constraints, as seen in Velázquez's "Francisco Lezcano, The Boy from Vallecas." The painting feels years beyond its royal portrait contemporaries.

The exhibition continues with a large portion of religious paintings. The usual suspects are portrayed such as St. Benedict and St. Jerome alongside the annunciation and Jesus on the cross. If you have seen one 16th century painting of Jesus on the cross, you have seen them all; however, the Spanish painters of the time had a different approach to the familiar scene. The Spanish had a knack for showing the pained faces of their subjects. "Christ Carrying the Cross," attributed to the Venetian master Titian, shows the Son of God staring out of the canvas, his heavy heart ever apparent.

The exhibition moves through the realism movement of the 1800s into a more modern era in Spain's artistic history. Painters such as Joaquín Sorolla, Aureliano de Beruete and Eduardo Rosales are highlighted as they moved the painting genre of Spain into the contemporary world.

The collection has a few lows, but mostly highs. It is quite comprehensive and gives patrons a glimpse into Spain's exquisite artistic history.

Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from December 16 through March 31, 2013. For more information, visit mfah.org.

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