Spanish Painting (c.1500-1970)
OF VISUAL ART
The greatness of Spain in painting is found in a select few artists who rise so far above their fellows that they occupy the very summit of European art. They are El Greco (1541-1614), Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), and Francisco de Goya (1746 1828). Some similarity can be found between their eminence and that of Rembrandt in Holland and Rubens in the Spanish Netherlands, though not only had the Netherlands, north and south, a greater number of lesser Old Masters, and more artists who displayed a large measure of originality at a distinguished level, but also a more consistent line of evolution.
It is possible to underrate such Spanish painters as Ribera and Zurbaran in comparison with the manifestly greater trio, but the course of Spanish art is broken and hesitant apart from the tremendous affirmations of the few individuals. If one seeks for a root cause in early history it is necessary to go back to when most of the Iberian peninsula was under the rule of the Moslem invaders. In 1100, remember, the Moors still occupied two-thirds of the region.
A gradual reconquest was made by the Christian regions, reclaiming the land bit by bit and planting churches and their visual message in one district after another. In Catalonia works still preserved in the museums of Barcelona convey the force of this active Christianity in paintings in a majestic Romanesque style. It was not until near the end of the fifteenth century that Spain was united as a country. The kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were joined together in 1479 under Ferdinand and Isabella. The Moors were driven from their last foothold - Granada - in 1492, The long drawn-out struggle made the extension of painting a slow and uneven process. The province of Catalonia - the earliest to be freed from Moslem occupation - had the advantage, in the Gothic period of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, of contacts with France and Italy, faintly reflected in the work of Ferrer Bassa (c.1290-1348). In the Gothic churches of Spain, with the enlargement of windows at the expense of wall space which caused the atrophy of mural painting, huge altarpieces were produced with panels, painted in a style reminiscent of the Sienese school of painting, by such artists as the brothers Pedro and Jaime Serra and Luis Borrassa (d.1424).
The Fifteenth century brought the influence of the great Flemish Painting school, heralded by the visit of Jan van Eyck who, like Rubens at a later date, combined the function of diplomat with that of painter. The Flemish influence on Spanish Renaissance artists is seen to advantage in St. Dominic of Silos (Prado) by Bartolome Bermejo (active 1474-95). But the contact with Italian Renaissance art, so fruitful elsewhere, was limited. Pedro Berruguete (1450-1504) was an exception in working at Urbino at the same time as Piero della Francesca (1420-92). His sense of form was quickened in that inspiring atmosphere, but he left Urbino after Duke Federigo's death in 1482 and the compromise - and some conflict - between the provincialized Flemish manner and the lessons of Umbria appears in his later work.
In the sixteenth century when Spain became a world power with vast possessions and sources of wealth in the New World, as well as possessions dotted about Europe, it might have been expected that a vigorous national school of painting would emerge, transforming the somewhat tentative or imitative character that painting in Spain had shown up to then. It turned out otherwise. For most of the 16th century, painting remained spiritless. Both the Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain were patrons with a feeling for art, but the great Venetians, especially Titian, claimed most of their interest. Philip also highly approved of the fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516) - although the top Spanish clergy suspected heresy in these strange pictures from the Netherlands.
Portraiture received a certain encouragement but it was the international court painter Anthonis Mor (1519-1576) of Utrecht - or Antonio Moro, as he was known in Spain - the Flemish practitioner of a style modelled on that of Titian, whom Philip II sent to England to paint the portrait of Mary Tudor. Philip had two Spanish court painters, it is true: Alonso Sanchez Coello (c.1531-88) who formed his style on that of Moro and his pupil, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz (1551-1608), who succeeded him. Dignified and with an element of ceremonial stiffness emphasized by the attention given to the rich detail of apparel, their portraits give some slight indication of what Velazquez would later achieve.
But the sixteenth century was not only the century of Spain's material splendour; it was also that of the great battle of religious beliefs in which she was heavily engaged under the rule of a monarch who was a relentless fanatic. A reason for this fanaticism, and the cruelty and oppression it engendered, may be found in the centuries-long struggle against the Moslems in Spain. The Spanish kings who had come to regard themselves as the champions and main bulwark of Christianity saw no more in the Protestant opposition to the Catholic Church than the action of infidels as bad as the Moors, to be combated with equal ruthlessness.
The fervour of religious belief had as yet found no strong expression in the images of Christian art produced according to the Church's strict rules. There is no perceptible stir of deep emotion in the work of Luis de Morales (c.1500-86), though its delicate piety, contained in a style adapted from Flemish painters, perhaps working at Seville, earned him the title 'the divine'. But after El Divino Morales, there comes an extraordinary, an unpredictable phenomenon, the advent of El Greco. With him all the intensities of religious feeling in Spain ignite and burst into ecstatic flame.
It is a paradox that a painter who conveys so much that is essentially Spanish should have been born in Crete. And, furthermore, it is strange that one trained in the Byzantine style of this Greek island should have grafted onto it the High Renaissance lessons learned from Titian and Tintoretto in Venice. He could pass as a Venetian master when he came to Spain at about the age of 36. But by the work of his subsequent 37 years, spent mainly at Toledo, he becomes inseparable from the history of Spanish painting.
In Toledo, the Spanish centre of the Counter-Reformation, headquarters of the dreaded Inquisition and of all the passionate intensities of belief, the religious art he produced in his vast studio lit by tall, narrow windows, became aspirations to the sublime, fevered exaltations of saints and martyrs, dramas of the soul expressed in the elongation of figures, the unquiet carmines, blue-greens and off-yellow of his colours. His masterpiece, The Burial of Count Orgaz, painted about 1586 for the church of Santo Tome at Toledo, unites celestial movement and space with the static austerity of the mourners, a row of icons as one might imagine them, though each bearded face contains its own suggestion of an inward violence of feeling kept sternly under control.
Though El Greco was successful and highly enough esteemed in his own day to be copied and imitated by his followers at Toledo, such as Luis Tristan (1586-1624) and others, a new phase of Spanish painting was at hand, as was also a new phase of Spanish history. The supremacy of Spain was virtually over as a result of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the breakaway of the northern Netherlands and the death of Philip II in 1598. Philip III, his son by his third marriage, left government in the hands of the Duke of Lerma who, impressive as he appears in the equestrian portrait by Rubens now in the Prado, squandered public money and involved Spain in the futile misery of the Thirty Years' War.
Political and economic decadence can be a slow decline in the course of which art often attains its highest level, though there is no necessary relation between the two, except in the encouragement of art and letters by those more inclined to them than to politics. Spanish Baroque art in the seventeenth century reflects in its own way a Europe-wide reaction against the Mannerism of the sixteenth century. A sense of reality that Mannerism had not offered, a projection of light and shade that delivered a message with an urgent force, was general. This was assimilated by Spanish Baroque artists to create a sombre magnificence in which a national mood may be discerned. The genius of the century inclined artists towards a realism or naturalism in religious art, substituting gnarled peasant models and proletarian types in the place of idealized figures, and unflinchingly depicting the tortures of martyrdom in gruesome detail. These are characteristics found in Italy in the work of Caravaggio whose influence was far-reaching. But Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628), born at Solsona in Catalonia - though associated mainly with Valencia - was already cultivating the tenebrism style before Caravaggio embarked on his career.
Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652) was of an age to appreciate both. He may have studied under Ribalta but by the age of 25 he had settled at Naples where he came to be regarded as the principal follower of Caravaggio. He worked for the Spanish viceroys at Naples, and pictures by him were sent to Spain for the royal court. It was perhaps for this reason, and to affirm his patriotism, that he habitually added the name of his birthplace 'Jativa' or its neighbouring city 'Valencia', to his signature.
Ribera painted martyrdom with gloomy relish. Like Caravaggio he made a violent drama of the contrast between light and dense shadow. His realism was exercised not only on the tortures of religion but on everyday subjects in which the idea of suffering or deformity was present. An example is his painting of the lame and broken-toothed urchin in mock-military pose, the Boy with a Club Foot (1642, Louvre, Paris), an outstanding work of his later years. Just as the realist repaired to the masses for the types to be included in a religious composition so Ribera seems to have selected a Neapolitan beggar to do duty for a great man of classical antiquity. The Archimedes of the Prado is a genial ruffian with a garment of many patches roughly tethered with string across his bare chest and, to judge by his expression, sharing the painter's ironical jest. Absent though he was from Spain, Ribera was evidently a powerful influence, by virtue of his paintings, in disseminating the idiom of caravaggism which is quite different from the rhapsodic emotionalism of the Baroque.
An artist who comes near to greatness is Francisco Zurbaran (1598-1664). He worked as a boy in the studio of the Seville painter, Juan de las Roelas (c.1560-1625), who brought a realistic tendency into painting at Seville in opposition to the then prevailing Mannerism borrowed from Rome. Zurbaran, settling in Seville, had an early success, churches and convents heaping commissions on him for pious, devotional paintings. In middle-age, however, his popularity waned. The facile style of Baroque painting popularized by the young Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-82) brought into vogue a sentimental religiosity, contrasting with his realistic genre, to which Zurbaran could not adjust. How original he was is a comparatively modern rediscovery. The dark shadows of Ribera and the Neapolitan school helped him to picture the sombreness of monkish meditation. Unlike El Greco he painted the saint or friar engaged in meditation rather than celestial visions. He conveys the psychology of the devout, pondering on death according to Jesuit instruction. His realistic outlook also enabled him to produce still-life painting in which the scrutiny of material substance has almost the intensity of a religious exercise.
It is against this background of Seville that Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez is first seen. There were a number of links with his contemporaries making for a realistic outlook. He shared the general enthusiasm for Caravaggio or at least for the implications of his style. His study of still life was as intense as that of the friend of his youth, Zurbaran. Every corrugation on the jug of his Waterseller in Seville (c.1620, Wellington Museum, London) is traced out with as much care as the portraitist might give to the wrinkles of a human face.
In Ribera-fashion he bestowed on the contemporary characters he painted the names of ancient celebrities - the philosopher Menippus, the fabulist Aesop. Nor did he hesitate to portray the sad grotesques and dwarfs of Philip IV's court as realistically as Ribera painted the club-footed boy. The bodegones or 'kitchen pictures' of his early years at Seville place him close to Caravaggio and his early religious pictures are parallel with those of Zurbaran; but after a certain point he ceases to resemble others and becomes entirely individual in style.
Religious subjects ceased to occupy him (not perhaps entirely to the regret of a realist absorbed in human affairs) after he had been appointed court painter to Philip IV. Portrait art then became his main professional task, yet he shows a surprising diversity of theme. He was unique among painters in religious Spain in taking up mythological subjects though, as Rembrandt did, with an anti-idealist sentiment. The first of his compositions to attract court notice was the Triumph of Bacchus (1628, Prado) otherwise known as The Dopers. The classical allusion, however, was no more than a pretext for as vivid a picture as has ever been painted of a group of intensely Spanish peasants.
Mythology sanctioned the painting of the male nude figure - a rarity in Spanish art except for the drooping and tortured form of Christ on the Cross. The Forge of Vulcan (1630) and Mars (1639-41), both in the Prado, were subjects enabling Velazquez to do justice to the male figure, but more purely delightful is Venus at Her Mirror (c.1644-48, National Gallery, London), as little mythological as Rembrandt's Danae. The mystery of space and the relation of objects occupied him in Las Meninas (1656, Prado), one of the greatest portrait paintings, where the painter at his large canvas gazes into the room at himself painting at his canvas, while the king and queen looking over his shoulder are reflected in the mirror at the opposite end of the room. An intricate theme is likewise developed in the varied action of The Tapestry Weavers (Las Hilanderas) (1659, Prado). Among his greatest examples of history painting is The Surrender of Breda (Las Lanzas) (1635, Prado) depicting one of the ephemeral victories of Spain in her losing battle against the rebel provinces of the Netherlands and showing Justin of Nassau handing over the keys of the city to the Spanish commander Spinola in 1625. Painted some ten years after the event, the picture is famous not only for its design but for the friendly exchange of courtesies expressed in the bearing of victor and vanquished in which something of Velazquez' own magnanimity of mind may have coloured the rendering of the event. It was a magnanimity he displayed with equal courtesy to his sitters whether a court dwarf, an idiot jester, an Infanta, or the melancholy king himself.
Velazquez could meet Rubens in person and could study the works of the Renaissance masters during his two visits to Italy without in the least departing from a way of painting entirely his own. In his mature works it is no longer the darkness of shadow that strikes the observer his own. In his mature works it is no longer the darkness of shadow that strikes the observerbut colour used with infinite address in sparkling touches offset by silvery grey. What was simply the imitation of pattern in some rich article of dress in the portraits of Sanchez Coello, becomes a chromatic vibration of blues, pinks and greys in Velazquez' Baroque portraits of Philip IV's second wife, Mariana of Austria, and the Infanta Margarita. In these and in his two small views of the gardens of the Villa Medici, which resulted from his second visit to Italy, he gives a suggestion of what was later to become the method of Impressionism.
The last and best Baroque paintings were those by Velazquez, who left behind no considerable influence on Spanish painting. His pupil and son-in-law Juan Bautista del Mazo (c.1612-1667) copied him in a superficial way which has in the past caused some mis-attributions to Velazquez himself. Juan Pareia (c.1606-70), Velazquez' servant also imitated him. But Spanish art passed through another fallow period in the eighteenth century, though for a while a measure of prosperity returned to the country during the peaceful reaction from wars in which one possession after another had been lost.
The court painters of Philip V (1683-1746), the first Bourbon king of Spain, were French (Ranc, Houasse, Van Loo). His son Ferdinand VI (1713-59) favoured Italian painters (Amiconi, Giaquinto). For a long time there was a dearth of native talent except for Luis Melendez (1716-80) who ably continued the Spanish still life tradition of Zurbaran and Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627). Then once again comes the extraordinary, the unpredictable phenomenon, in Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).
Spain in Goya's time suffered drastic changes of fortune. The benevolent despotism of Charles III, who succeeded Ferdinand VI and ruled from 1759 to 1788, brought about economic stability. The folly of Charles IV, Charles III's successor, put an end to prosperity and opened the way to the Napoleonic invasion and its attendant horrors. On a wider scale, change from before the French Revolution to the period following affected all Europe. No great artist passed through this time of disturbance without in some way reflecting its storms and stress. Of this Goya gives dramatic illustration.
If El Greco was the artist of the Church and Velazquez of the Court, Goya was distinct from both in being the artist of the People. There is a remarkable contrast between him and Velazquez. The latter was essentially the great gentleman, like Rubens, leading a life of aristocratic calm in the Escorial, painting in the cool twilight of a room screened from the blaze of sun outside, unruffled by events in the outer world and perhaps the more detached from the national concerns of Spain by being the son of a Portuguese father. Goya, the son of a small-town Spanish craftsman, Josef Goya, master gilder at Fuentetodos in Aragon, had a varied experience and was so responsive to events that his work is a whole history of an epoch of violence. The last fling of the Rococo gaiety of the Ancien Regime is mirrored in the paintings, designed to be copied in tapestry, depicting scenes of Spanish life and diversions with a touch of Tiepolo's decorative and theatrical style. But the French Revolution made him critical of court and clergy and though in middle-age he was court painter, first to Charles III and then to Charles IV, there remained a revolutionary current in his thought, cryptically expressed in his drawing and etching. Embittered by the deafness that followed an illness in his fifties, he felt even more keenly the savagery of war and occupation of which he has given his immortal testimony. As Charles IV and his son Ferdinand virtually invited the French to take over by submitting their quarrels to Napoleon's arbitration it is hardly to be wondered at that Napoleon should have supplanted both with his own family candidate, Joseph, or that Goya's portraits of them should give the impression of an imbecility mercilessly caricatured.
'Rembrandt, Velazquez and Nature' was Goya's own summing up of the sources of his inspiration. A reminiscence of Rembrandt's chiaroscuro may be found in the shadows of his Prison Scene; the influence of Velazquez in the exquisite greys of the posthumous portrait (Prado) of his brother-in-law, the painter Francisco Bayeu. In his painting of the loins and sheep's head of a butcher's counter, Goya chose as unconventional a still-life subject as Rembrandt's Slaughtered Ox.
His devotion to 'nature' may be taken to refer to his interest in human life in all its aspects rather than to landscape painting, but 'nature' had also a special meaning for him. The objects we see, he pointed out, have no fixed outlines. By dispensing with outline in his paintings he anticipated a cardinal point of Impressionist technique. In other ways he had an affinity with or influence on nineteenth-century French art. The eerie, dark groups he painted in his later years with the strangeness of expression that his deafness may have caused him to dwell on, link him with Honore Daumier (1808-79). The Third of May, 1808 incited Edouard Manet (1832-83) to paint the execution of the Emperor Maximilian in a similar composition. In comparison Goya has the advantage of conveying a shock directly felt instead of having, like Manet, to imagine an historical event from a far distance.
In the nineteenth century, after Goya, art in Spain was once more a fallow field, witnessing only the evocative "sunlight" Impressionism of the Catalan painter Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida (1863-1923), around the turn of the century. But the 20th century has witnessed another extraordinary development after a long interval, this time in an international context. The most important figure in 20th century Spanish painting is Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Like Goya, much of Picasso's art is biographical, although he spent most of his life in France. Best remembered for his co-invention of Cubism (with Georges Braque), arguably the most influential of all movements of modern art, as well as iconic images such as: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Guernica (1937, Reina Sofia, Madrid), he was a highly influential and prolific artist in a wide variety of media. However, after 1940, his work never again regained its former glory. Alongside Picasso and Braque in the Parisian Cubist movement during the period c.1910-20, was Juan Gris (1887-1927), (born Jose Victoriano Gonzalez), who became a leading theorist of Cubism, to which he contributed collage and vivid colour. He died young of cardiac asthma. Some six years younger than Gris, the Barcelona-born Joan Miro (1893-1983) first turned to Surrealism, to which he contributed a series of fascinating fantasy-style, later biomorphic, abstract paintings. Although he produced the occasional representative work, he focused on abstract art. Experimenting almost until the end of his life, he produced a remarkable series of blue monochrome paintings (1961, National Museum of Modern Art, Pompidou Centre, Paris). Arguably the most extraordinary Spanish painter of the 20th century was Salvador Dali (1904-89), the classicist turned Surrealist, who invented the impressive sounding concept of 'critical paranoia' to explain automatism in painting. Famous for his bizarre, hallucinatory imagery, Dali also worked in numerous other media, including film. Despite a long life, he never improved on his paintings of the 1930s. Active in Barcelona, Antoni Tapies (b.1923) is the most eminent Spanish painter of the post-war period. After dabbling with Surrealism, after Joan Miro and Paul Klee, he began working in mixed-media, developing the style of Matter Painting. In 1958 he was awarded the Painting Prize at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and the UNESCO prize at the Venice Biennale.
Juan de Juanes (Vicente Juan
El Greco (Domenikos Theotocopoulos)
Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1627)
Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628)
Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652)
Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)
Diego Velazquez (1599-1660)
Bartolome Esteban Murillo
Francisco Goya (1746-1828)
Mariano Fortuny y Carbo (1838-74)
Ramon Casas (1866-1932)
Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923)
Ignacio Zuloaga (1870-1945)
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Jose Solana (1886-1945)
Juan Gris (1887-1927) leading
Joan Miro (1893-1983)
Salvador Dali (1904-89)
Antoni Tapies (b.1923)
Manolo Millares (1926-72)
Important Spanish Sculptors and Painters
de Juni (1507-1577)
Martinez Montanes (c.1568-1649)
Works by Spanish masters can be seen in many of the best art museums across the world, notably the following:
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona
Museu Picasso, Barcelona
For more about oil painting in Spain, see: Art Encyclopedia.