Presented in the Main Galleries at the Royal Academy in London from 21 January 2023, Spain and the Hispanic World celebrates the unrivaled collection of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York. This landmark exhibition presents a visual narrative of the history of Spanish culture. It brings together outstanding works from Spain and colonial Latin America, from antiquity to the early 20th century.
The exhibition also reflects the great diversity of cultural and religious influences – from Celtic, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish to American, African and Asian – that have shaped and enriched Spanish culture across four millennia.
The exhibition is presented chronologically, from the ancient world and Al-Andalus (the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula), through the early modern period and colonial Latin America to the beginning of the twentieth century. The earliest works on display were made around 2400-1900 BC.
The selection of over 150 works includes paintings, sculptures, silk textiles, ceramics, lustreware, silverwork, precious jewellery, maps, drawings and illuminated manuscripts.
About the Hispanic Society Museum & Library
Founded in New York in 1904 by American philanthropist Archer Milton Huntington (1870–1955), the Hispanic Society Museum & Library is home to the most extensive collection of Spanish and Hispanic art outside of Spain. It opened to the public in 1908 when the city had very few other museums, most notably The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Historical Society and the Museum of Natural History. Since its opening, the museum has remained unparalleled in its scope and quality outside of Spain.
Huntingdon recognized the importance of the Arabic language in his love of Spain and Latin America so hired a tutor in 1891. This was even more remarkable as no American university offered tuition in this field. When ready, he traveled extensively through Spain in 1892, 1896 and 1898. He made sure he acquired Islamic art at a time when few shared this interest.
This is the first time the collection has been presented in the UK.
Exceptional paintings include The Duchess of Alba, 1797, by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) as well as Gaspar de Guzmán, Count-Duke of Olivares, c. 1625-26, and Portrait of a Girl, c. 1638–42, by Diego Velázquez (1599–1660).
The 13th Duchess of Alba, María Cayetana de Silva, was 35 years old and newly widowed when Goya painted the portrait below. Dressed in the popular style of a maja from urban Madrid, she stands before a landscape, presumably representing her estate. Written in the sand are the words ‘Solo Goya’ (Only Goya’), and her rings are inscribed ‘Alba and ‘Goya.’ The painting had great personal significance for the artist, who kept it in his studio long after the Duchess’s death.
Although the sitter’s identity remains unknown, this intimate portrait below almost certainly depicts someone close to the artist. It has been suggested that she may be his granddaughter, Inés Manuela. Particularly striking is the difference between the girl’s carefully rendered features and the loose brushwork of her dress.
The exhibition also includes paintings by Luis de Morales (1510/11–1586), El Greco (1541–1614) and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) as well as post-Impressionist and modern artists such as Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923), Ignacio Zuloaga (1870–1945) and José Gutiérrez Solana (1886–1945).
Zuloaga staged this supposed family portrait below with models, including his cousin, Cándida Zuloaga, standing on the far right. In the centre, the mother looks at her son and grandson, the latter intended to carry on the family tradition in the ring.
By the time he completed this painting below, Campeche, still in his thirties, was established as the leading portrait artist in Puerto Rico. From an important Cuban family, María Catalina de Urrutia married Juan Andrés Dabán y Busterino, a Spanish military officer, who was serving as governor and captain general of Puerto Rico when this portrait was commissioned. (While it looks a little flat in this photograph, it is quite striking in real life.)
There is a gallery dedicated to religious art. Enconchado paintings on wood inlaid with iridescent mother-of-pearl emerged in Mexico during the late seventeenth century and were highly prized for their luxury status, Very typical of the period, they were inspired by Japanese Nanban lacquer works imported into Mexico through the important Acapulco to Manila trade route. (Again, the painting below is so much more stunning in real life.)
Unique to Mexico, and specific to Conceptionist and Hieronymite nuns, escudos (shields), sometimes framed in tortoiseshell, are devotional images that were worn hung over or attached to habits on special or ceremonial occasions.
Following the success of the Hispanic Society’s exhibition in 1909, Huntington and Sorolla embarked on an ambitious project that would dominate the rest of the artist’s career. Vision of Spain comprises fourteen monumental canvases depicting the peoples, costumes and traditions of different regions of the country. Painted between 1911 and 1919, the panoramic series was inaugurated in a purpose-built gallery at the Hispanic Society in 1926, three years after the artist’s death. The panoramic sketch for the Vision of Spain can be seen in the final gallery of the exhibition.
Sculptures in the exhibition include polychrome reliquary busts such as Saint Acisclus, c. 1680, by Pedro de Mena (1628–1688), considered to be one of the most important sculptors in 17th century Spain, as well as the Mater dolorosa and Ecce homo, 1675, by his daughter Andrea de Mena (1654–1734).
According to a popular legend, St Martin of Tours split his cloak in two to share it with a beggar shivering in the cold. That evening, Christ appeared to Martin in a dream, holding up the half of the cloak Martin had given away, thus revealing that the beggar had in fact been Christ himself. This polychrome sculpture of St Martin below may have originally been accompanied by the figure of the disguised Christ.
Latin American works include a group of four polychrome sculptures from Ecuador, The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven, c. 1775, attributed to Manuel Chili, called Caspicara (1723–1796). This extraordinary group of sculptures illustrates Catholic teaching on eschatology, the fate of a person’s soul after death. A skeletal figure depicts death, which can be followed by three distinct outcomes: hell for those who died in mortal sin; purgatory for those who died in grace but not free of fault and who could be purified; and bliss for those who died free of sin.
Highlights from the Hispanic Society’s collection of decorative arts include exceptional earthenware bowls from the Bell Beaker culture, c. 2400–1900 BC. There is also Celtiberian jewelry from the Palencia Hoard, c. 150–72 BC, discovered in Palencia in 1911 during the construction of a railway cutting. Plus some of the finest examples of lustreware from the 14th–16th centuries from Manises, Valencia.
Recalling the tile designs of the Alhambra palace complex in Granada are Hispano-Islamic silk textiles including the Alhambra Silk, c. 1400. This particularly large and luxurious silk possibly served as a wall hanging or curtain. Inscriptions in Nashk and Kufic script refer to prosperity, good fortune and happiness. This cloth uses yellow silk to achieve the effect of gold, a technique characteristic of textiles from Granada around this time.
This Roman double-wick lamp was discovered at the Cortijo de las Beatas (Villanueva del Trabuco, Málaga). It features a mask of Pan, the Greek god of the countryside, shepherds and flocks as well as of fertility, which suggests that it may have been used for pagan rituals.
This elaborate enameled flask (on the right) was made in Barcelona, one of the few centers that rivaled Venice in the production of glassware, which was coveted throughout Europe. The glass must be blown thick enough to sustain the fused enamel, which is applied freehand before firing.
The tray below, conforming to a European design, is decorated with the indigenous pre-Columbian lacquer known as mopa mopa, after the tree from which the resin is harvested (in the high-altitude tropical rainforest of Ecuador and Peru). Stylistically the decoration echoes that used in the production of keros, ceremonial drinking vessels produced for high-ranking Incan officials.
The opulent dalmatic below – the outer liturgical vestment worn by the deacon at Mass – is made of crimson velvet decorated with pomegranates highlighted with gold threads. The embroidery is Flemish in style and depicts various saints, bishops, popes and abbots, including St Helena holding the cross (on the front) and St Francis of Assisi (on the back).
Spain and the Hispanic World also includes treasures from the Hispanic Society’s renowned library. This is considered to be the most important collection of Hispanic manuscripts and rare books outside of Spain. Highlights include a beautifully illuminated Hebrew Bible, after 1450–97, and an exceptionally rare Black Book of Hours, c. 1458, which was probably commissioned by María of Castile (1401–1458) upon the death of her husband, Alfonso V of Aragon (1396–1458).
Letters Patent of Nobility were legal documents that granted a person noble status. The example below shows the extraordinary skill of illuminators from Valladolid in the sixteenth century. In addition to the family’s coat of arms and a depiction of the patrons kneeling before the Virgin, the lower border juxtaposes the triumphal procession of a Roman emperor with the young David defeating Goliath.
Rarely seen objects from Spanish colonial Latin America, of which the Hispanic Society boasts a particularly significant collection, create a compelling parallel narrative to cultural developments taking place across mainland Spain. Highlights include the celebrated World Map, 1526, by Giovanni Vespucci (1486–after 1527). This is one of the most impressive nautical charts produced during the Age of Exploration.
The Italian navigator Cristoforo Colombo made landfall on Guanahani, an island in the Caribbean he renamed San Salvador (in modern-day Bahamas) in 1492. He mistakenly believed he had landed in India, which accounts for the fact that he called the indigenous Taíno inhabitants Indians. Ever since, indigenous Americans have been erroneously referred to as Indians, and islands in the Caribbean collectively called the West Indies.
European nations were eager to colonize these new lands. Highly sophisticated states, such as the Mexica (Aztecs) and Inca, were overthrown following aggressive military campaigns using divide-and-rule tactics, pitting rival factions against one another. Spain gained vast territories in the Americas and ruled over this colonial empire until independence movements in the 1820s forced them to relinquish these territories.
Maps were produced to help demarcate territories, nationally, regionally and locally, not only to settle international disputes but also to gather information on these new lands and the people that inhabited them. Surveys, like the Relaciones geográficas that took place in Mexico in the 1570s and 1580s, gathered important information about the history, genealogy and ownership, often with a view to setting tax levies or appropriating territory.
Copies of the Padrón Real, the master nautical chart, were distributed to navigators by the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) in Seville, the body responsible for overseeing all exploration, colonization and commerce between Spain and its rapidly expanding empire in the Americas. Below is the ornate copy was probably intended as a gift for Charles V on his marriage to Isabella of Portugal.
Produced as part of the Relaciones geográficas, Map of Tequaltiche is an extensive survey of the land and people of Nueva España ordered by Philip Il. Embedded in the map is significant historical and geographical information about the Caxcan people of Tequaltiche, an indigenous village in what is now the western state of Jalisco.
While this was not a topic I knew well, I enjoyed the exhibition. I saw names I recognized and discovered a lot more that were new to me. I admired ancient artifacts and studied incredible paintings up close, which is always a delight.
Title: Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library
Dates: 21 January – 10 April 2023
Times: Tues–Sun: 10 am–6 pm, Fri: 10 am–9 pm
Tickets: £22-24.50 (including donation). Concessions available.
Venue: Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD
Official Website: www.royalacademy.org.uk