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MFAH Showcases Four Millennia of Spanish Art in a Rare Exhibit

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911, oil on canvas.EXPAND
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911, oil on canvas.
Photo by the Hispanic Society, New York/Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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It’s probably true that the majority of people don’t discover what will become their lifelong passion as a pre-teen, but for Archer Huntington (1870-1955) that’s exactly what happened at the tender age of 12.

Hailing from one of America’s wealthiest families, young Archer was on vacation in England in 1882 when he purchased the book entitled The Zincali; or, An Account of the Gypsies in Spain by George Borrow. It sparked an intense and lifelong interest in Spanish culture and art that would find him as an adult searching out and amassing a huge collection of Spanish books and manuscripts.

Seville, Plate, c. 1500, earthenware with cuerda seca decoration.
Seville, Plate, c. 1500, earthenware with cuerda seca decoration.
Photo by the Hispanic Society, New York/Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

But also paintings, ceramics, maps, textiles, metal work, stonework, jewelry, and sculptures, traveling the world to add to his collection. In 1904, he founded the Hispanic Society of America and four years later, opened his dream museum and library in Manhattan, which is still in operation today.

The Hispanic Society continued collecting after its founder’s death and now holds 750,000 artifacts. More than 200 of them will be on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the exhibit The Glory of Spain: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library. The MFAH is the only the third and final stop for the exhibit, which covers more than 4,000 years of history and geography from the Iberian Peninsula to Latin America.

“We’re glad to see it in Houston because of its large Spanish-speaking population, and the [MFAH] had the space and the [financial] ability to do it,” says Mitch Codding, the Society’s President and Executive Director. “We wanted to provide a little bit of something for everybody. Archer was very passionate about Spanish culture and wanted to share it. He thought it was underappreciated and misunderstood, especially in the U.S.”

The exhibit is divided into six sections broken down chronologically: Antiquity in Spain, Medieval Spain, Golden Age Spain, Viceregal and 19th-Century Latin America, Enlightenment in Spain, and Modern Spain. Viewers can see the influence of French and Italian art on its Spanish cousin, not to mention the influence of cultures which came into Spain – often by force – including the Romans, Visigoths, and Muslims.

“Spain was a great combination of the fusion of cultures. It was the crossroads for Europe and the Mediterranean. And Spanish art borrowed from other [countries]. But then it developed its own style that set it apart, especially after the 16th century,” Codding says. 

James Anno, the MFAH’s Associate Curator of European Art, adds that the exhibit is “incredibly rich,” and you can see the prevalence of certain themes and subject matter across all media.

Not surprisingly, much of the work has religious themes and subjects. “Catholicism entered Spain very early on with the Romans. It was the most Catholic of countries and even enforced it in northern Europe in the 16th century and was the source of a lot of wars,” Codding says. “They were the great promoter of the Immaculate Conception in the 17th century, and it became dominant in art.”

Anno adds that religious art also very much served a purpose – and the Catholic Church had a lot of money to order works of this nature to achieve a distinct goal.

“The art definitely is striven to achieve the transcendent,” he offers. “The purpose of this art is to create a vehicle for human beings to have an encounter with the Divine. To bring the Divine into contact with the muck and mire of the world. Art plays a very important intermediary role in making that happen.”

As for the Golden Age period (roughly the mid-16th to late-17th century) which makes up more artifacts here than any other, Anno says it’s called that for a simple reason: Spain was flush with cash, and more artists were working than ever.

“It focuses on the extreme wealth that Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, came into with the discovery of North and South America and trading of materials and minerals,” he says. “Their coffers swelled, and with that influx of capital and cash, it was an age of imagination. And the money was there to employ artists and give patronage.”

Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes), The Duchess of Alba, 1797, oil on canvas.
Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes), The Duchess of Alba, 1797, oil on canvas.
Photo by the Hispanic Society, New York/Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In fact, patronage was the dominating funding source for artists, as there was no proper art market. Painters didn’t go into their studios and create something that they hoped to sell. They had backers who commissioned specific works. “That’s why, that’s why you get so many portraits early on,” Anno says. “Wealthy patrons wanted pictures of themselves and their families.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Spanish art took a more secular turn, and perhaps the most familiar name in The Glory of Spain is painter and printmaker Francisco Goya (1746-1828). He was definitely an Art Rock Star at the time, with one foot in the world of the Old Masters and the other in Modernity.

He too began painting mostly patronage portraiture, but then later in life he populated his work with more bizarre and gruesome themes of war, mental asylums, and religious/political issues.

There’s a whole series depicting hell, demons, and witches—something more likely to appear on the cover of a Black Sabbath or Slayer heavy metal album than hanging in a museum.

“His dark, imaginative scenes were influenced a lot by the Napoleonic Wars. Goya saw the troops coming into Spain. There was a lot of war, and these horrific scenes make have sparked a desire to explore the underbelly of human nature,” Anno says.

Finally, Codding notes that you can see the shift in Goya’s artistic style in one of the most important works in the exhibit, Portrait of the Duchess of Alba. Goya actually did two works featuring the subject, each unofficially noted for the color of her dress.

“The 1795 portrait of the White Duchess appears stiff, stylized, and without personality,” Codding says. “Two years later, the Black Duchess is far more realistic, executed with great freedom of brushwork. And the enigmatic gaze of the Duchess evokes a complex personality.”

The Glory of Spain: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library runs March 1 through May 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit Mfah.org. Free-$23.

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