At Home With Sorolla and Rusiñol: Two Very Different Artists, Two Very Similar Collectors

During my recent sojourn in Spain, I visited two rather impressive house/art museums which, to my surprise, had a more profound impact on me than I had anticipated when I set out to visit them. Originally, I only put them on my schedule in order to kill some time, before having to head to luncheons with different family members. Yet as it turned out, I was drawn deeply into each, coming to a greater level of appreciation for the work, times, and tastes of both of the artists who once lived in these homes.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) and Santiago Rusiñol (1861-1931) are two of the greatest painters to have been working in Spain at the turn of the previous century. While many of their paintings are now in museums and private collections around the world, quite a few key works by each artist still hang in their respective homes, both of which are now museums which preserve and celebrate their art. The Museo Sorolla in Madrid is contained in the elegant Neoclassical mansion which Sorolla called home for the last decade or so of his life, and in which his family continued to reside for a number of years after his death, until they donated it and its contents to the Spanish state. The Museu del Cau Ferrat, which is located in the beach resort of Sitges, about half an hour south of Barcelona, was a seaside weekend home and studio for Rusiñol for almost 40 years, where he could get away from the city and invite small groups of artistic and literary friends to come visit; he donated it and his collections to the town to be preserved as a museum after his death.

Although they were contemporaries, Sorolla and Rusiñol differed rather substantially when it came to their outlook on their own art. Sorolla came from poverty, and he studied and worked extremely hard to climb to the top of the artistic profession in Spain. He often engaged in friendly competition with other society artists of the Gilded Age, including John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn, (arguably) the greatest American and Swedish painters of the era. Like these artists he was more interested in painting ordinary people than in the well-known and well-to-do, but thanks to his great taste and skill he painted not only Spanish and European royalty and notables, but also famous Americans such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and President William Howard Taft, among others. His catalogue of commissions demonstrates how well-regarded he was internationally, at very high levels.

When not portraying the great and the good, Sorolla’s work focused on his family, traditional scenes from country life, and most especially on images of the seaside. His luminous beach paintings are perhaps his most famous works, and for good reason. In them we see naked children playing in the waves, ladies and gentlemen lounging about dressed in linen and straw hats, and hearty fishermen working on their nets, all enveloped in that intense Mediterranean sunlight which is extremely difficult to capture in photography, but which Sorolla manages to capture in order to give an almost internal radiance to his paintings. A famous example in the collection of the Museo Sorolla is “A Walk On The Beach” (1909), showing the painter’s wife and eldest daughter out for a stroll along the surf, with their white veils billowing in the breeze.

Sorolla

Rusiñol, on the other hand, was one of the original hipsters. Although he came from a well-to-do, bourgeois background, he chose to ally himself with the bohemian and avant-garde art movements of his time. Along with his closest friend, the great Catalan painter Ramon Casas, he painted subjects which would have been wholly inappropriate to polite society: prostitutes, street people, and so on. He became just as familiar with the bohemian hangouts of Paris as he was with the private clubs of the Barcelona bourgeoisie, where his art never quite felt at home, and encouraged the work of other, up-and-coming artists who became his friends, such as Picasso and Utrillo.

One example of Rusiñol’s very different approach to art from that of Sorolla is “The Morphine Addict” (1894), shown below. It is a disturbing image of Stéphanie Nantas, one of his preferred French models, which he painted in Paris during one of his sojourns there; it now hangs in the great hall of Cau Ferrat. In it we see the drug-addicted model in bed, having just given herself an injection that is starting to take effect. Her right hand clutches at the sheets, and her head pushes back into the pillow, as the narcotic begins to do its work. This is a world away from the elegant, languid Sorolla painting shown above.

Rusinol

Yet for all of their differences, and there are many, there is one thing that both Sorolla and Rusiñol had in common: they were obsessive collectors of art, antiques, and decorative objects. After visiting their homes, it becomes quite clear that each of them abhorred a vacuum as much as nature does, and to a greater extent than, today, with our love of minimalism, we would consider to be normal in a family residence. One would expect to see, for example, paintings by each of them, works of art gifted to them by their friends, some family photographs, and the like. But that is just the beginning of what a visit to each of these museums entails.

It’s no exaggeration to state that both Sorolla and Rusiñol wanted ALL THE THINGS: Gothic altarpieces; glazed ceramics; swords and armor; carved thrones; Baroque tapestries; inlaid marble tables; wrought iron candle stands; etc. And not everything was from Spain, either. Roman sculpture, Persian carpets, French ivories, Japanese lacquer screens, English walking sticks, Chinese temple vases – you name it, they had it. It would be impossible for me to try to describe how much *stuff* each of them had crammed into every corner of their houses, because no matter how much time you could spend in either of these museums, you couldn’t possibly see it all.

To get a flavor of what these places look like, you can visit my Instagram account and take a look at the pictures which I snapped at both museums. As this article is already running a bit long, I’ll only draw your attention to two aspects for your consideration. At the Sorolla home in Madrid, one of the most interesting details was the fact that the artist used old, decorated ceramic apothecary jars for storing and separating his brushes. I’ve seen these used before in homes and restaurants, as vases for flowers or for storing kitchen utensils, but I found this was a particularly novel – if indeed, slightly expensive – way of an artist keeping his tools organized.

Museo

Meanwhile, at Cau Ferrat, one of the most striking things about Rusiñol’s design for the ground floor of his house is the use of an intense, almost electric blue for nearly all of the walls in the public spaces. It is such a rich, saturated color, that the decision to use it as the background for his vast display of things such as glazed pottery or drawings by Casas, Picasso, and others, seems absolutely crazy – until you become accustomed to the space and realize that, somehow, the whole thing works. It’s also rather interesting that the (untalented and grossly overrated) French postmodern artist Yves Klein was widely credited with the use of this particular color, yet long before he was even born, Rusiñol was employing it to such a superb effect in what is, essentially, an art installation as much as it is home decorating.

Ferrat

The opportunity to see where an artist lived and worked is a rare thing, but to be able to see the objects that they loved still on their shelves or the like, and to be able to get a sense of how the artists used these things in their daily lives, makes the visit to an institution such as the Museo Sorolla or Cau Ferrat all the more of an intense learning experience.  In this case, despite many years of being familiar with the work of both of these painters, and assuming that they had nothing whatsoever in common with each other besides being from the same generation, I came to realize that both of them loved and appreciated beautiful things: women, furniture, holy water fonts, door knockers, bronze lamps, etc. I may have to do some more thinking about my preconceived notions regarding each of them.

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Original Copycat: The Great Painter You’ve Never Heard Of

Even if you’re reasonably familiar with the history of art, the name Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind, when you think of Old Master painters from Spain: El Greco, sure, Velázquez, absolutely, and even Goya, if we consider him the end of the Old Master period and the beginning of the Modern Period in art. But the intriguing thing about del Mazo is, not only was he a brilliant artist, but there may be well-known paintings of his, hiding in plain sight, that have yet to be identified.

I’m fortunate enough to own a pen-and-ink drawing by British artist Rupert Alexander, specifically a study of a portrait of Spanish Admiral Don Adrián Pulido Pareja, which is now in the National Gallery in London. For much of the portrait’s known history, it was thought to be a work by Velázquez. However an increasing number of scholars now believe that it is by del Mazo, who was not only Velázquez’ primary studio assistant, but also the great painter’s son-in-law. In 1633 del Mazo married Velázquez’ youngest surviving daughter Francisca and, interestingly enough, through their daughter Teresa – who married into a German noble family – are descended most of Europe’s kings and queens, including Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, King Felipe VI of Spain, and King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden.

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Because his father-in-law was extremely busy, as the principal court painter to King Felipe IV of Spain, much of del Mazo’s time was spent making copies of the original paintings executed by Velázquez. In a time before photography and commercial reproduction methods, copying served several important purposes for the Habsburgs, for whom maintaining close family ties was extremely important. One such purpose was to allow them to have more than one copy of their favorite pictures of family members on display for their multiple homes, without having to pack up their pictures and move them every time they went on a journey.

An example of this is the hunting portrait of Cardinal Don Fernando de Austria, showing the younger brother of King Felipe IV with his favorite dog. The original, by Velázquez, was part of a series of portraits of the family in hunting attire that decorated the Torre de la Parada, a now-demolished royal hunting lodge in the mountains outside of Madrid. The copy by del Mazo, as analyzed here by art expert Philip Mould, decorated a different royal residence in Spain, and differs only slightly from the original in the placement of the dog and the absence of the tree.

Cardinal

Another purpose for del Mazo’s copying was that it allowed the family to send these copies as gifts to geographically distant relatives, which they loved to do and in fact all of the Habsburgs did for centuries. Think of this in the way that you might send copies of your family Christmas photos to Aunt Gladys and Uncle Charlie out in California, whom you haven’t seen for many years, just so you can keep in touch and so they can see what you look like today. In addition to parents and children missing each other, or siblings wanting to keep in touch, the Habsburgs also tended to marry other Habsburgs, and so these pictures were sometimes used for negotiating marriages between different branches of the family.

Sometimes the original portrait was sent and the copy was retained, sometimes vice versa, and sometimes the original was so well-liked that the recipient requested multiple copies for, again, displaying in multiple homes. Velázquez’ portrait of the Infanta (Princess) Margarita wearing a blue velvet court dress ended up in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna after the fall of the Habsburg Empire; its rediscovery in the 1930’s is a remarkable story in and of itself. But even while it was lost, it was known to scholars because copies of it were executed by del Mazo for decorating the various Habsburg residences in Austria and Hungary, such as this one which ended up in Budapest (and is in desperate need of a good cleaning.)

Infanta

This skill in copying was something which del Mazo worked on throughout his life. He spent many years making copies of paintings in the Spanish royal collections, which included not only the portraits executed by his father-in-law, but also dozens of masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, and others, most of which later formed the nucleus of the collections at The Prado and at El Escorial. The end result was that he came to deeply understand and employ the techniques used by these artists in his own, original work, when he was able to paint it.

We can’t be certain of many one-off compositions by del Mazo himself, but one that most scholars are reasonably sure about is unquestionably his masterpiece, “A View of Zaragoza in 1647”, which is now in The Prado. This enormous painting, which is almost 11 feet long and nearly 6 feet tall, was long thought to be by Velázquez, but most scholars now agree that it is by del Mazo, possibly with some assistance from the painter’s more famous father-in-law. It’s a picture you’ve probably seen illustrating European history texts, but nothing you can see in print or in electrons prepares you for the sheer size and grandeur of this thing.

Zaragoza

This is a picture to get lost in, and you never tire of looking at it and taking in all of the details – not just all the interesting figures in the foreground, but also the wealth of architectural detail in del Mazo’s representation of the city itself. The towers, pinnacles, rooftops, and chimneys that define the skyline of the city are clearly delineated. If we look more closely, we can see even more minute observations by the artist, such as red tapestries flapping from balconies, tiny green treetops peeping above the walls of enclosed gardens, and even newly-washed white laundry drying out on the rocks of the opposite shore.

At present, only a handful of paintings are currently known or believed to be by del Mazo. He spent so much time making copies of other artists’ work, that he probably didn’t have a great deal of free time to come up with his own, original compositions. Yet with advances in technology that allow art historians to examine details of paintings which are invisible to the naked eye, I suspect that in the future we will come to identify more truly unique works by this supposed copycat artist, which will make him, while not the equal of his father-in-law, an important addition to the history of Western art.

Under Construction: Projects At Two Of The World’s Most Important Museums

There are some interesting construction projects ahead for the expansion of two already enormous, and enormously important, art institutions.

Following a recent renovation of part of its existing ground floor to expand its exhibition space, the National Gallery in London has set its sights on redeveloping St. Vincent House, located behind the museum’s Sainsbury Wing. The institution purchased the building almost 20 years ago, and it currently houses not only museum staff, but also paying tenants, including an hotel, a restaurant, a parking garage, and other offices. The leases of these tenants will be coming to an end within the next few years, allowing the museum to decide what to do next with the space.

St. Vincent House is one of those Brutalist architectual travesties that scar the downtowns of most of our cities. The only reason you’ve probably never seen it, if you’ve been to London, is that it’s mercifully well-hidden from Trafalgar Square. The stained, exposed aggregate concrete, rusting and peeling metal, crumbling brick, and utter lack of symmetry, grace, or proportion will be familiar to anyone who has ever visited, say, a college library built between about 1950 and 1980.

Since the building is tucked away, presumably there will be a reduced pressure upon the National Gallery to make it an architectural showstopper. Less visibility means less of a need to spend a fortune building something which most people will only experience from the inside, via a possible pedestrian bridge connecting the site to the Sainsbury Wing. This is the opposite of the problem faced by The Prado in Madrid during their recent expansion, which is not quite finished yet.

The buildings which The Prado has been expanding into were located not next door, but rather on a hillside directly behind the main bulk of the museum. Two of the them are the former throne room and ballroom of the Palacio del Buen Retiro, built in the 17th century. They were the only parts left standing after the rest of the palace was torn down, following destruction by Napoleon’s troops. The ballroom has already been integrated into the expanded Prado; the redevelopment of the former throne room was recentlly awarded to British starchitect Norman Foster.

As part of the The Prado’s expansion, a vast underground entrance, exhibition, and concessions area connecting these buildings by cutting into the hillside were designed by Spanish starchitect Rafael Moneo, connecting the buildings by cutting into the hillside. For reasons which I can’t fathom, Moneo was awarded the Pritzker Prize for archtiecture in 1996, and the Prince of Asturias prize for his contributions to Spanish architecture a few years later. If you are unfamiliar with his name, you are nevertheless familiar with his work, for Moneo is the designer of the monstruous Cathedral of Los Angeles, California, known among those who loathe both it and the now-disgraced Cardinal who built it as the “Taj Mahoney”.

Part of Moneo’s plan for The Prado expansion called for the disassembly of a former Baroque monastery in poor repair, which stood next to the Palace. The structure was reassembled inside a rather dull brick building whose interior otherwise reminds one of a small Marriott hotel circa 1994, which sits next to the former monastery chapel (now a parish church). While the chapel is not particularly remarkable, as far as the grandeur of Spanish ecclesiastical architecture goes, sitting next to this squat, red cube, it looks like an architectural masterpiece.

Being a Midcentury building, St. Vincent House has neither the historic pedigree nor the architectural grandeur of the spaces taken over by The Prado. Moreover, the construction timeframe is still some years away, until the leases run out, and so the museum can engage in the kind of discussion which involves long-term planning. Herein lies a real opportunity for the National Gallery to improve its offerings and focus on what its mission will be for the next few decades.

Of course, there is a hidden danger, as well. For sadly, as much as people of good will and common sense loathe the sort of Brutalism displayed by buildings like St. Vincent House, others actually love this stuff, and are becomnig increasingly vociferous about preserving it. The fact that more and more of these buildings are meeting their deserved end – and not before time, as they are falling to bits – spurs some among the (supposed) intellgentsia to argue that they should be preserved.

Back in 1984, Prince Charles almost singlehandedly stopped the proposed expansion of the National Gallery, by giving a totally unexpected speech in which he described the proposed extension of the Sainsbury Wing as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.” The left and the art press – but I repeat myself – have never forgiven him for it. The Sainsbury Wing as built was a tamer, more modest structure than the monstrosity shown in the image accompanying this post, which is what had been selected. What a truly great thing for Western civilization that this strange, Martian mining colony headquarters never came to be, even if the building constructed in its place is more interesting on the inside than it is on the outside.

Last year Prince Charles became the first Royal Patron of the National Gallery, which in British philanthropic circles usually means that executives will tend to pay a bit more attention to his thoughts and opinions regarding their activities. In addition, with all due respect to Queen Elizabeth, one can only assume that sometime within the next few years the Prince will finally become King Charles III, perhaps around the same time that the museum will be taking on its next major expansion. Let us hope that such influence will not only result in the wiping of St. Vincent House from the face of the planet, but also the construction of something sensible, serviceable, and in keeping with the fabric of the rest of the National Gallery.

Original proposal for the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery