Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2008
Sarah Schroth and Ronni Baer, eds. El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III Exh. cat. London: Thames and Hudson, 2008. 352 pp.; 160 color ills.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780878467266)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 20–July 27, 2008; Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, August 21–November 9, 2008
Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber (ca. 1600). Oil on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art, Gift of Misses Anne R. and Amy Putnam. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts brings to light a period in Spanish art which, despite the quality of artistic production and the rich history of the period, has been overshadowed by the art produced during the reigns of Philip III’s father, Philip II, and son, Philip IV.

Philip III reigned from 1598 to 1621; notably, neither El Greco nor Velázquez, the protagonists of this exhibition to judge by its title, lived at Philip’s court. El Greco had long been settled in Toledo (he died there in 1614) and Velázquez, born in 1599, visited Madrid for the first time the year after Philip III died. The exhibition’s parameters mark a period during which El Greco’s style became increasingly popular at court, local artists found greater success than had been the case during Philip II’s reign, and painters began experimenting with naturalism. El Greco to Velázquez illustrates this transitional period with spectacular paintings from a selection of styles and genres.

The curators, Sarah Schroth of the Nasher Museum and Ronni Baer of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, have organized the exhibition into five thematic sections: “Late El Greco,” “Portraiture,” “Still Life and the Bodegón,” the “Duke of Lerma’s camarín,” and “Religion and the Court.” The latter is the largest portion of the show, with focused sub-themes devoted to the Immaculate Conception, Spanish saints, St. Francis, and Apostolados, or painted series depicting the apostles. In total, the exhibition features more than sixty paintings—eleven alone by El Greco and seven by Velázquez. The rest are by lesser known but accomplished figures such as Luis Tristán, Eugenio Cajés, Vicente Carducho, and Juan Bautista Maino and Juan Sánchez Cotán, who stand out as major revelations in the show. The inclusion of these artists demonstrates the variety of stylistic impulses that thrived in Philip III’s Spain. Chief among the achievements of the exhibition is precisely the inclusion of so many painters who are much lesser known than El Greco and Velázquez, but were among the leading painters of their day.

The viewer may be surprised to be as impressed with Maino’s Adoration (Museo del Prado, Madrid) and Sánchez Cotan’s remarkable still lifes as with Velázquez’s much more famous Old Woman Cooking Eggs (1618; National Gallery, Scotland). Perhaps equally surprising is the conclusion that the concern with convincingly capturing effects of light and shade on different textural surfaces did not originate with Velázquez. However, despite the merits of these lesser-known painters, one cannot help but be a little star struck by works painted by acknowledged masters, including Ribera’s Sense of Taste (1613–16; Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford); El Greco’s View of Toledo (1597; Metropolitan Museum of Art), Annunciation (1567; Museo del Prado) and St. Martin and the Beggar (1597–99; National Gallery, Washington); Rubens’s Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma (ca. 1603; Museo del Prado); and any work in the exhibition by Velázquez.

The predominance of religious art in the exhibition is not surprising, given how intertwined church and state were during this period. There are spectacular examples of large-scale altarpieces, smaller-scale private devotional paintings, and a variety of stylistic approaches to common subject matter on view, such as the section of Ecce Homo paintings arranged sequentially along a wall to encourage comparison between Vicente Carducho and Eugenio Cajés. Even the section on portraiture is heavily ecclesiastical. Of twelve portraits on display, only three are depictions of persons who were not members of the royal family or prelates. The exhibition importantly introduces a much more nuanced view of this period’s religious concerns than the dire Inquisition-heavy histories common in past scholarship. However, the overwhelming number of religious paintings and portrayals of religious figures may give the visitor the impression that secular, particularly classical, subject matter had no place in Philip III’s Spain. (The only mythological painting in the show is El Greco’s 1610–14 Laocoön at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.) Recent scholarship on Spanish collecting of the period has amply demonstrated through documentary evidence that collectors had much more varied taste than previously assumed and actively sought out paintings and sculptures with mythological and historical subject matter. This oversight in the exhibition is balanced somewhat by the remarkable grouping of bodegones and still-life paintings. Sánchez Cotán’s stark compositions of fruits and vegetables are enough to make one understand exactly how worthy this period of Spanish painting is for study. They are grouped with Velázquez’s strikingly realistic early bodegonesThe Kitchen Maid (ca. 1618; Art Institute of Chicago), the Old Woman Cooking Eggs, and the Kitchen Scene with Mary and Martha (1618; National Gallery, London).

Except for three polychrome sculptures and the objects of Lerma’s camarín to be discussed later, the exhibition is really about paintings, and would perhaps have been more accurately titled “Painting during the Reign of Philip III.” It is disappointing that sculpture is so meagerly represented in the show. Its absence perpetuates the inaccurate assessment propounded by many scholars of the period that collectors prized paintings more than sculptures. Understandably, large-scale sculptures might be omitted because of logistical issues of loan and transport—a problem that seventeenth-century collectors faced as well—but smaller-scale sculptures like statuettes by Giambologna, among the most highly sought-after objects during Philip III’s reign, or small sculptures and medals by Pompeo Leoni and Jacomo Trezzo, the king’s sculptors, could have been included. Nonetheless, it is a visual treat to see Gregorio Fernández’s St. Theresa of Avila (ca. 1614) from the Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Carmen de Extramuros, Valladolid; St. Ignatius Loyola (1625) from the church of San Miguel and San Julián, also in Valladolid; and Juan Martínez Montañes’s Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (1655–56) from Nuestra Señora de la Consolación, El Pedroso. These examples signal another important contribution of the show: that of bringing to the United States many objects that have never before traveled outside of the country, are in private collections and churches, and would be difficult to see even when one visits Spain.

The Museum of Fine Arts exhibition also addresses collecting practices, focusing on the Duke of Lerma, a collector extensively studied by Schroth. The effort to recreate the Duke’s camarín, which housed some of the treasures of his enormous art collection, is visually effective but also something of a missed opportunity. The shelves of precious objects including Chinese porcelain, Venetian glass, and Talavera ceramic are lovely to see, but their placement along a dimly lit corridor seems to marginalize the relevance of the display. As presented, the camarín seems rather disconnected from the themes addressed in the remainder of the exhibition, which deal mainly with subject matter and style in painting. Unfortunately, the wall text does little to explain the inclusion of the camarín. There is no mention of the king’s collections and not enough information on Lerma, why he collected these objects with often distant geographical provenances, what other objects he collected, or how he obtained them. In addition to the precious objects displayed, the exhibition would have benefited from a greater variety of objects Lerma owned—over 2,000 paintings, 847 precious objects, and numerous sculptures, including twenty-four busts, copies of antiquities, statuettes, and fountains—and a more ample explanation and contextualization of seventeenth-century collecting practices. Though it is an important step in bringing to public and scholarly attention the relevance of Spanish collections, the display of the camarín objects leaves the impression that this is all Lerma collected and that Lerma was the only notable collector in Spain.

Aside from these points of criticism—and, to be just, most of the lacuna cited here are covered in the informative and beautifully produced exhibition catalogue—El Greco to Velázquez is substantive in its content, contextualization, and approach. It offers an important glimpse into a period worthy of much more scholarly and public attention, and aesthetically the exhibition is dazzling.

Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio
University of Vermont