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Sketches of Spain: El Greco at the MFA

By Claire J. Saffitz, Crimson Staff Writer

When Philip III ascended to the Spanish throne in 1598, he was 19 years old and uninterested in the responsibilities of a monarch. His friend the Duke of Lerma­–the court’s preeminent tastemaker as well as the most important non-royal art collector in Europe–took over matters of state, while Philip squandered vast sums of money on lavish fiestas and foreign wars. The King and the Duke shared a mutual devotion to art that ushered in a dynamic period in Spanish painting, now featured in an outstanding new exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA).

The exhibit, “El Greco to Velázquez,” will run through July 27, 2008. It showcases dozens of works from the 23 years of the reign of Philip III, a period that was bookended on either side by the careers of renowned Spanish painters El Greco and Diego Velázquez. The exhibit also features several lesser-known artists, obscure even in Spain, who worked in the Spanish court and collectively bridge the gap between El Greco’s late career and Velázquez’s emergence as a painter.

“El Greco to Velázquez” is a concentrated slice of Spanish painting, decorative art, and sculpture that illuminates the subtle but significant shifts in politics and religion during Spain’s Golden Age. The exhibit is the first of its kind to present a comprehensive view of the stylistic changes that occurred during Philip III’s reign.

Organized thematically rather than chronologically, “El Greco to Velázquez” takes the viewer through galleries of courtly portraits, biblical scenes, depictions of Spanish saints, and finally still-life paintings. Works by El Greco are featured heavily but do not outshine those of his less famous contemporaries.

The exhibit gets off to an impressive start in the first room, featuring six works from El Greco. “View of Toledo,” one of his few secular works, depicts the artist’s adopted home in central Spain. El Greco’s heavy application of paint compresses the landscape and creates a personal view of the city that evokes the mystical qualities of his religious works.

The portraits in the second room were created as tools of state which depict images of ideal monarchs. Philip’s wife, Queen Margarita, wears a sumptuous dress in her portrait, painted with painstaking detail, while her face is mask-like. Gone are El Greco’s expressive brush strokes, replaced with a new artistic naturalism that focuses on the realistic representation of fabric folds and shadows.

Velazquez’s first work in the exhibit is a psychologically intense portrait of the famous Spanish poet Luis de Góngora y Argote, whose somber dress dramatically emphasizes his dramatic features, creating a clear contrast with the expressionless paintings of the monarchs.

Past the portraits is a large gallery devoted to religious paintings of the period, which comprise the bulk of the show. On display between the galleries are several decorative vases and other objects from the Duke of Lerma’s personal collection, which contribute a more fleshed out sense of the court’s artistic culture.

One of the most fascinating elements of the exhibit is the way it sheds light on the influences of other artistic styles on Spanish painting. Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens’ portrait of the Duke of Lerma is the only work in the exhibit not by a Spaniard. His enormous painting, which ushered in a new style of grandeur that became the hallmark of Philip’s reign, demonstrates stylistic exchange across borders. Many of the painters in Philip’s court were of Flemish or Italian origin and the ways in which they blend styles illustrates the transition from regionalism to a more unified national style.

The last room in the exhibit features still-life paintings, an “avant-garde” movement in Spanish art that began toward the end of Philip’s reign. “Bodegón” paintings depicting scenes of everyday life were the first of their kind to show inanimate objects such as flowers and vegetables as independent subjects. While still-life paintings today are considered anything but avant-garde, the exhibit manages to convey how the development of this genre was innovative in its time.

“El Greco to Velázquez” fittingly ends with a painting by Velázquez. The painting, “Old Woman Cooking Eggs,” is the earliest dated work by the artist. Although Velázquez was only 19 when he made the painting, the woman’s worn features foreshadow the unforgiving and un-idealized portraits he would paint for members of the court under Philip IV. Tracing the lines between El Greco and Velázquez, who are often considered in different artistic contexts, is the show’s major achievement.

––Staff writer Claire J. Saffitz can be reached at csaffitz@fas.harvard.edu.

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