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It has been a long time since a major American museum has undertaken an exhibition of Spanish art, and none has tackled as ambitious a subject as Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492–1819. Organized by the Seattle Art Museum and Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional, the exhibition has a strong thematic content that is presented thoughtfully in a handsome catalogue and in the display of some one hundred rare objects. Most of the works are drawn from the Spanish royal collection, and many have never been seen outside of Spain.
Prominent art museums in the United States have organized impressive shows of individual Spanish painters such as El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, Pablo Picasso, and the modernists, and smaller institutions have favored exhibitions of drawings, decorative arts, maps, and books. However, in spite of much fanfare over the Christopher Columbus quincentennial a little over a decade ago, the American public is still relatively ignorant of Spanish art history, and our academic curricula consistently bypass this nation. Therefore, the overall value of this exhibition is in introducing an old art and an important history to a new American audience.
The show, curated by Chiyo Ishikawa of the Seattle Art Museum and Javier Morales Vallejo of the Patrimonio Nacional, presents a selection of Spanish paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and other decorative arts, as well as more utilitarian objects such as scientific instruments, arms, and armor. While most of these objects are on loan from the royal collections managed by the Patrimonio Nacional, there are also works from sixteen American and Spanish museums and private collections.
These rare and often gorgeous works are intended to demonstrate the power, wealth, and cosmopolitanism of the Spanish crown, as well to highlight the central theme of the exhibition: that intellectual exploration accompanied the complex processes of imperialism, including the conquest and colonization of America, from the late fourteenth century until the fall of the Bourbon crown to Napoleon and the subsequent loss of the American territories in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The exhibition terminates around 1819, the year of the Transcontinental Treaty, otherwise known as the Floridas or Adams-Onís Treaty, in which Spain ceded its North American claims, including the Northwest Territories and Florida, to the young United States.
The salient themes—images of empire, spirituality and worldliness, encounters across cultures, and science and the court—are well articulated in the catalogue essays, though less clearly and somewhat unevenly in the exhibition itself. The problem with the show is maintaining the sense of thematic unity in the grouping of objects while adhering to a strict chronological order. History frequently trumps art in this exhibition. While it is often unclear whether an object is included for its artistic integrity or historical import, clearly the challenge was to locate works of art that met both standards. The exhibition does an admirable job of illustrating Spain’s development as a great global power; however, it does little to explain the dramatic development of its arts from the late medieval period to the dawn of the modern age.
The exhibition opens with a superb collection of materials that documents Spain’s sudden rise to superpower status with the final defeat of Islam in Iberia and the “discovery” of America in 1492. Portraits of Isabel of Castile and her Hapsburg and Bourbon successors establish the centrality of the monarchy in guiding the process of exploration, settlement, and colonization of America. This theme is developed in a group of colonial maps and manuscripts of both a political and religious nature from New Spain. The complex process of ruling the vast territories of America, with its varied landscapes and myriad new subjects and the responsibilities that accompanied global hegemony, are demonstrated poignantly in documents such as the Letter from Queen Isabel to Christopher Columbus from 1493 and the page from the Laws of Burgos, which in 1512 determined the legal status of Indians in the Spanish Empire.
The notion that Spain seized the latest technologies during the Renaissance to explore and gain dominion over the New World is presented in a dizzying array of scientific instruments, many of them relating to navigation. These include a number of astrolabes and nocturlabes, a mid-fifteenth-century Moroccan quadrant with Arabic inscriptions, and Antonio Santucci’s magnificent Armillary Sphere of 1582 from the library at the Escorial. (Unfortunately, this last object, which appears in the catalogue, proved too fragile to travel.) The Spanish crown carefully crafted an image of power and grandeur while balancing, on the one hand, its imperialistic, political, economic, and religious imperatives in America and, on the other, the expansion of knowledge and science through exploration. These central themes are rigorously explored in the exhibition and catalogue.
The section on Enlightenment-era scientific expeditions, sponsored by the Bourbon court in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is particularly rich in maps, botanical studies, prints and drawings, letters and publications, and a group of rare Tlingit and Nootka objects that were brought back from expeditions to the Northwest coast. The display of these indigenous objects in Seattle was a particular coup for the organizers of the show: these later royal expeditions disprove the notion that Spain was inactive in science and exploration during the Enlightenment, despite being heavily influenced by French rationalist and progressive ideas.
The most coherent section of the exhibition is a group of royal portraits and arms and armor from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which elucidate the power and majesty of the Spanish crown as Europe’s first modern nation-state to achieve global supremacy. No object better demonstrates this sense of power than the actual suit of armor worn by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Battle of Mühlberg, which appears in Titian’s celebrated equestrian portrait of 1548. By placing the suits of armor worn by Charles and his son Philip II side by side, the curators cleverly summarized the tense relationship that existed between the father and his son of lesser stature. The show convincingly argues that Charles’s personal charisma and the paradigmatic success of his reign cast long shadows over the monarchy for the next two centuries.
The royal portraits selected for this exhibition are admittedly of uneven and sometimes poor quality, but tying them to the arms and armor and other decorative arts from the Hapsburg court makes for an impressive display of royal image-making. Of special note are images and objects related to the education of the royal children, particularly Alonso Sánchez Coello’s painting of the Infantes Philip III and Diego Playing with a Shield, Justus Tiel’s Mannerist Allegory of the Education of the Prince (Philip III), and Juan Carreño de Miranda’s insightful portrait of the last Hapsburg king, the ill-fated Charles II. Like finely tuned instruments, these paintings carefully reveal the personal traits, character, and sometimes mood of members of the royal household, who stand amid judiciously chosen signs of office, station, and rank that construct a strict social hierarchy.
In general, the paintings in this exhibition suffer from unevenness and lack artistic context. Certainly, Juan de Flandes’s exquisite little panels of religious stories from 1496 to 1504 and Zurbarán’s The Savior Blessing of 1638 are marvelous paintings, but there are some disappointing exemplars of the work of better-known artists such as Sánchez Coello, El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya. More importantly, as presented here the trajectory of Spanish art in these three centuries has significant gaps. For example, the court’s reliance on foreign artists, beginning with the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel, is well argued, but when and how Spaniards were able to wean themselves from outside influence is not explained. The great painters of the Sevillian School of the early seventeenth century, for example, seem to emerge out of nowhere. The section on art at the Bourbon court in the eighteenth century is excellent and for the first time exposes an American audience to this fascinating century in Spain. However, in the drive to bring back the topic of scientific exploration, the artistic links wane, and works by Goya, his accomplished contemporary Luis Meléndez, and the anonymous casta paintings of racial mixtures from Mexico seem somewhat isolated at the end of the exhibition.
The weakest link in this show is the theme of spirituality, evidenced by the absence of major works of religious art, both paintings and, more importantly, polychrome sculpture. One might easily leave this exhibition thinking that Spain was a secular country, that the Spanish crown was only marginally interested in spiritual matters, and that the Roman Catholic Church played a secondary role in its history. The exhibition does not fully address the magnitude of the Church as a patron of the arts, nor does it express the centrality of religious art in both Spain and its colonies. True, the works in the show are primarily from the royal collections, but by not securing loans of major religious paintings and sculptures by Spanish masters a great opportunity was missed and a distorted view of Spanish history is presented.
Juan de Flandes’s narrative panels, some with “cameo appearances” by Queen Isabel who commissioned them, establish the idea of the intense personal faith of the Spanish monarchs and their dedication to great art. This theme is expanded to include the collecting activities of the Hapsburg court as demonstrated by a few paintings of religious subjects by Hieronymous Bosch, Titian, Jacopo Bassano, and Jusepe de Ribera, and even the bronze Crucifix by Gian Lorenzo Bernini from the Escorial. However, these works do not fully convey the extent to which the crown and Church were interwoven in early modern Spain. Pedro Berruguete’s Auto da Fe in the Prado, depicting an Inquisitorial trial around 1498, would have been a logical choice for this exhibition. In addition to demonstrating the artist’s Italianate style, this painting would have afforded the curators the occasion to argue the intimate ties that existed between Church and state through the institution of the Inquisition, and would have presented a more accurate image of Spain’s spiritual climate at the end of the fifteenth century.
The show’s emphasis on royal patronage of foreign artists does not accurately represent the mainstream of Spanish art and its religious heritage. This bias does nothing to convey the depths of popular piety in Spain, nor does it present successful, mature Spanish artists who worked predominantly for the Church. Polychrome sculpture—the key that unlocks Spanish art of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries—is curiously missing in a show that pretends to be comprehensive. Where are the ubiquitous retablos, the richly gilded altars of Spanish chapels? Where are the sculptures by Renaissance masters Alonso Berruguete, Bartolomé Ordóñez, Diego de Siloé, Juan de Juni, and Gaspar Becerra? Yes, the show includes Bernini’s superb Escorial Crucifix, but where are the more moving sculptures of the recumbent Christ and the Inmaculada by Gregorio Fernández and Juan Martínez Montañés, the paso figures of Pedro de Mena, or the polychrome groups of Pedro and Luisa Roldán, Spain’s great Baroque sculptors? A few well-placed loans from the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid, or from even museums in this country, would have filled this significant gap.
All criticism aside, any attempt to provide a comprehensive history of Spain and its art cannot be without problems or lacunae. I overheard a bedazzled visitor to the exhibition in Seattle comment, “I didn’t know Spain had a Golden Age in art and literature.” This exhibition goes a long way toward bridging the gap of knowledge about a country whose rich history is interwoven with ours and yet which is still virtually ignored by our educational system and cultural establishment. Even with some problems of selection and presentation, Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492–1819 does not fail to educate or impress its audience with the scope of its vision.
Hipólito Rafael Chacón
Associate Professor of Art History and Criticism, University of Montana
To read a review of the exhibition catalogue by Lynette Bosch, please click here.
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