Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 8, 2009
José Luis Díez and Javier Barón, eds. El siglo XIX en el Prado Exh. cat. Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2007. 520 pp.; 286 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Paper £ 48.00 (9788484801269)
Exhibition schedule: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, October 31, 2007–April 20, 2008
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El siglo XIX en el Prado (The Nineteenth Century in the Prado), the hefty catalogue for the exhibition of the same name, documents some ninety-five paintings and twelve sculptures from the Spanish museum. Thoroughly researched and generously illustrated, the catalogue is an important step forward in making the nineteenth-century paintings and sculptures in the Prado collections available for study. Except for Goya, Fortuny, and Sorolla, most of these artists are almost completely unknown outside the Iberian Peninsula. A shortened version of the catalogue, which lacks an essay on the institutional history of the collection as well as a compendium of artists’ biographies, is available in English.1

The primary authors, José Luis Díez and Javier Barón, are well suited for their tasks. Díez has been in charge of the Prado’s nineteenth-century painting collection for almost twenty years, during which time he has curated and written the catalogues for a number of important exhibitions: La pintura de historia del siglo XIX en España (1992), El mundo literario en la pintura del siglo XIX del Museo del Prado (1994), Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz, 1815–1894 (1994), Artistas pintados: Retratos de pintores y escultores del siglo XIX en el Museo del Prado (1997), and Carlos de Haes (1826–1898) en el Museo del Prado (2002). Barón joined the Prado five years ago and has been working to promote the nineteenth-century collection ever since; he is the primary author of two recent exhibitions catalogues: El legado Ramón de Errazu: Fortuny, Madrazo y Rico (2005) and El retrato español en el Prado: De Goya a Sorolla (2007). Díez and Barón are also co-curators of the large monographic exhibition Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923) that opened at the Prado on May 26 and runs until September 6, 2009.

The catalogue for El siglo XIX en el Prado contains a comprehensive survey of nineteenth-century Spanish art, including late Goya but not early Picasso, written by Barón with particular reference to some of the approximately 3,000 paintings and sculptures in the Prado collection. Barón notes that several recent exhibitions held outside Spain have begun to make this history more familiar in the rest of Europe and the United States: Prelude to Spanish Modernism (curated by Mark Roglán for the Albuquerque Museum in collaboration with the Meadows Museum, 2005) and two shows on Catalan modernism, Barcelona and Modernity (by William H. Robinson, Jordi Falgàs, and Carmen Belen Lord for the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2006) and Barcelona 1900 (by Teresa-M. Sala for the Van Gogh Museum, 2007). But each of these major undertakings, accompanied by comprehensive exhibition catalogues, is linked to a better understanding of Picasso’s early career, leaving out those painters who are not associated with the modernist master. Spanish painters, especially those who studied and worked in Paris and Rome, pursued international careers throughout the nineteenth century, and Spain became an important travel destination for European and U.S. artists. The recovery and wider dissemination of this history is still very much a work in progress.

Barón organizes his survey around a series of chronologically organized topics: Goya, the academic tradition, neoclassical sculpture, Romantic painting, Federico Madrazo and his circle, Romantic sculpture, Eduardo Rosales, history painting, historical sculpture, realist landscape, Fortuny and his circle, naturalist sculpture, naturalist painting, sculpture at the turn of the century, and turn-of-the-century painting. These divisions follow the general outline of nineteenth-century European art and are similar to those found in other Spanish-language surveys, such as Carlos Reyero and Mireia Freixa’s Pintura y escultura en España, 1800–1910 (Madrid: Cátedra, 3rd ed., 2004). Traditionally museological in his approach, Barón examines the artists and their works in terms of stylistic development, artistic influence, and formal innovation. In addition to discussing the works selected for exhibition, Barón also uses his essay to introduce and illustrate a number of other paintings and sculptures from the Prado collection.

In the section that follows, each of the ninety-five paintings and twelve sculptures included in the exhibition is catalogued, with entries on the paintings divided between Díez and Barón. The sculpture entries are authored by Leticia Azcue Brea, head of sculpture and decorative arts at the Prado. In addition to provenance, exhibition, and bibliographic histories, the entries summarize the historical and iconographic particularities, as well as contemporary criticism, of each work. Each entry also features a high-quality color illustration, preparatory sketches and comparative works when appropriate, and occasionally details. As is to be expected in a catalogue documenting Spain’s national collection, artists and art forms not recognized within the traditional history of fine arts are absent. Readers interested in the role of Spanish women must still refer to Estrella de Diego’s La mujer y la pintura del XIX español (Madrid: Cátedra, 1987), which explores the careers of women artists as well as the depiction of women in nineteenth-century Spanish painting. María López Fernández’s more recent contribution, La imágen de la mujer en la pintura española, 1890–1914 (Madrid: A. Machado Libros, 2006), also focuses on this issue.

Even with these limitations, the publication contains an immense amount of material that will be of interest to scholars of nineteenth-century art. For example, a discussion of two monumental history paintings that appeared in the Spanish display at the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1889 significantly deepens an understanding of art and politics during this contentious period of Spanish history. José Casado del Alisal’s La leyenda del rey Monje (1880) and Antonio Gisbert’s Fusilamiento de Torrijos y sus compañeros en la playas de Málaga (1888), a detail of which is reproduced on the cover of the catalogue, are impressive works (Casado’s painting spans more than four meters in width and Gisbert’s measures six). Casado’s painting depicts Ramiro II, the twelfth-century King of Aragon who, finding his rule challenged, threatened to create a bell that would resound throughout the land and call forth his subjects in obedience. Ramiro then summoned fifteen conspirators into his presence and decapitated them one by one upon entry into the room. Arranging their grimacing faces in a circle, he hung the head of their leader in the center to serve as the bell’s clapper.

Gisbert’s image is equally macabre, depicting the summary execution of José María Torrijos and his followers after a failed attempt to restore the Liberal Triennium, which was suspended with the assistance of French troops by Fernando VII in 1823. Gisbert’s painting was commissioned by the liberal government of Práxedes Mateo Sagasta as a manifesto of political freedom in opposition to authoritarian rule. Casado’s painting was likewise purchased by the Spanish government, with Emilio Castelar, a former President of the short-lived Spanish Republic (1873–74), praising it as one of the masterpieces of Spanish history painting.

But exhibiting these works at a world’s fair that coincided with the anniversary of the French Revolution, a commemorative event to which most European monarchies, Spain included, refused to send official delegations, resulted—I believe—in a fascinating inversion. Gisbert’s painting shifted from liberal manifesto to royalist challenge. And the irony of Ramiro II using decapitation to render his enemies powerless could not have been missed at a fair where one of the most notorious proposals for a public monument was the erection of a giant guillotine to celebrate the beheading of Louis XVI. French critics, as amply documented by Carlos Reyero in Paris y la crisis de la pintura española, 1799-1899: Del Museo del Louvre a la torre Eiffel (Madrid: Ediciones de la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, 1993), were not amused.

The greatest disappointment in this otherwise useful new resource is to find that the English-language version omits Ana Gutiérrez Márquez’s excellent essay on the institutional history of the Prado and its nineteenth-century collection. Gutiérrez Márquez outlines key moments in the history of the museum, beginning with its founding in 1819 during the restoration of Fernando VII as the Real Museo de Pintura y Escultura. Installed in the late eighteenth-century building designed by Juan de Villanueva to house the Academia de Ciencias Naturales, contemporary paintings in the collection consisted primarily of official state portraits and allegorical work created for the monarchy’s various royal palaces. With the death of Fernando in 1833, ownership of the collection was cast into doubt until eventually coming to rest with his embattled heir, Isabel II. Aware of art’s value as a tool for validating her contested rule, Isabel augmented the collection during the course of the 1850s by having the royal portraits organized as a genealogy of Spanish kings and commissioning eighty-seven new paintings depicting those individuals whose likenesses were missing.

The Museo Nacional de la Trinidad, created in 1838 to house religious art acquired by the state during the period of disentailment, became a second important source for nineteenth-century art at the Prado. With the initiation in 1856 of the Exposiciones Nacionales de Bellas Artes, modeled on the French Salon, the Trinidad became the repository for the many monumental history paintings acquired by the Spanish government from these state-sponsored exhibitions. After the Revolution of 1868 and the exile of Isabel II, the royal collection was nationalized and the two collections combined. Several vintage photographs from 1882–83 show some of these works on view in the Sala de los Artistas Contemporáneos in the Museo del Prado. Readers interested in furthering their knowledge of this institutional history should also consult Oscar Vázquez’s Inventing the Art Collection: Patrons, Markets, and the State in Nineteenth-Century Spain (University Park: Penn State Press, 2001).

The twentieth-century history of these collections has been equally complicated. Insufficient exhibition space in the Prado caused the segregation of modern and contemporary art from the historical works and the creation of the Museo de Arte Moderno, housed at the Palacio de Museos y Bibliotecas on the Paseo de Recoletos. Installed salon style (photographs from the 1898 opening are also reproduced in Gutiérrez Márquez’s essay), the collection underwent continued transformation over the next several decades as works were added, exhibits reorganized, and a continued lack of space resulted in deposits at regional art schools, museums, and administrative buildings around the peninsula.

The year 1951 saw the creation of a Museo Nacional del Arte del Siglo XIX separate from a Museo Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo, but debates over where to divide modern from contemporary led to reintegration in 1968. Three years later the nineteenth-century works were returned to the Prado and hung in the Casón del Buen Retiro, a small building several blocks from the main building. They were displaced ten years later, when the arrival of Picasso’s bequest to the Spanish state, including his monumental Guernica, again forced a move; with the opening in 1995 of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Casón was closed for restoration. Since then, the nineteenth-century paintings have only occasionally been pulled out for exhibition. El Siglo XIX en el Prado is the most recent of these occasions, and with the closing of the show, most of these works were returned to their regional homes or to storage, where access is limited.

Due to the absence of the essay by Gutiérrez Márquez, as well as occasional errors in translation, readers of Spanish are advised to use the original text. The translation of Barón’s essay, for example, omits a paragraph on Goya’s reception by later nineteenth-century painters (page 22) and occasionally introduces confusion, as when the sentence, “Ya en 1868 se advertía de la imposibilidad de inspirarse en los maestros del siglo XVI y XVII, que habían realizado una escultura religiosa,” is mistakenly scanned as, “By 1868 the possibility [sic] of being inspired by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masters who had produced religious sculpture had already been noted” (23). On the other hand, the availability in English of Barón’s essay and the catalogue entries will significantly contribute to knowledge of this art outside Spain, providing much needed depth to an understanding of nineteenth-century art.

M. Elizabeth Boone
Professor, Department of Art and Design, University of Alberta

1 José Luis Díez and Javier Barón, eds., The Nineteenth Century in the Prado, Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 2008, 455 pp.; 286 color ills.; 41 b/w ills. $87.50 (paper) (9788496209923)

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.