The first 18th-century painting housed in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian which I want to talk about is a still-life, entitled Peacock and Hunting Trophies, by Jan Weenix. Jan Weenix or Joannis Weenix was thought to have been born in Amsterdam sometime between 1640 and 1649. The exact date is unknown but at the time of his marriage, in 1679, to Pieternella Backers, he gave his age as “around thirty”. The couple went on to have thirteen children. He received his education in art from his father, Jan Baptist Weenix and his cousin, Melchior d’Hondecoeter. The Weenix family lived in a castle outside Utrecht, but his father died young following a series of personal financial disasters that rendered him bankrupt. Jan Weenix was a member of the Utrecht guild of painters in 1664 and 1668. The subjects for his paintings were varied but we remember him best of all for his paintings of dead game and of hunting scenes. In this large oil on canvas painting (200 x 195 cms) we see various hunting trophies and a peacock framed by a landscape in the background. The main depiction in this work is the lifeless arrangement of the swan which imitated the widely used representation for such paintings. Behind the dead swan, we have a large urn decorated with bas-reliefs. Bas-relief being a French term from the Italian basso-relievo (“low relief”), which is a sculpture technique in which figures and/or other design elements are just barely more prominent than the overall flat background. The 3-D trompe l’oeil effect of the dead game “hanging over” steps was often used in this kind of depiction and adds to the beautifully crafted work. The painting dates back to the period 1702 to 1712 when Weenix had been commissioned to paint twelve works featuring hunting motifs for the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm for his castle of Benberg. They were to illustrate the favourite pastime of the elites. It was all about social power for the hunting of certain species was a special privilege granted solely to the nobility.
The French term, fête galante, is used to describe a type of painting that first came to the fore with Antoine Watteau. They are representations in art of elegantly dressed groups of people at play in a rural or parklike setting. This painting genre began with Watteau’s famous painting, The Embarkation for the Island of Cythera which he submitted to the Academy as his reception piece in 1717. However, when Watteau applied to join the French academy there was no suitable category for this type of work and so, rather than reject his application which was described as characterising une fête galante, the academy simply created one!
In the Founder’s Collection at the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, there was a painting by Nicolas Lancret, entitled Fête Galante which he completed around 1730. Like most Fête Galante works it is small, measuring just 65 x 70 cms. The painting was once part of the Collection of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, an admirer of Watteau and Lancret and who had built up a collection of twenty-six of the latter’s works. The painting was acquired by Gulbenkian in 1930. Lancret had a habit of sketching individual figures and later incorporating them into his final work.
An example of this is the preliminary sketch of the reclining man, dressed in brown, we see at the bottom left of the Fête Galante painting. This sketch can be found at the Ackland Art Museum, which is part of the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.
The 18th century works in the Founder’s Collection feature many portraits. One of my favourites was one by Nicolas de Largillièrre entitled Portrait of Tomas Germain and His Wife which he completed in 1736. Largillière was a French-born and Antwerp-trained artist who spent time in London between 1665 and 1667, and again from 1675 until 1679 when he worked for the English artist Sir Peter Lely. However, in England, at the time, there was widespread anti-Roman Catholic sentiment and he, being a Catholic, decided to return to France and find work in Paris. He did return to England for a 12-month stay in 1688 having received a commission to paint portraits of King James II and his wife, Queen Mary of Modena. The two figures depicted in the painting above are King Louis XV of France’s famous goldsmith Thomas Germain inside his workshop at the Louvre along with Anne-Denise Gauchelet, his wife.
Thomas Germain became known as The Prince of Rocaille. Rocaille was a French style of decoration, with a profusion of curves, counter-curves, undulations, and elements which were modeled on nature, and which played a part in furniture and interior decoration during the early reign of Louis XV of France and was prevalent between 1710 and 1750. It was the start of the French Baroque movement in furniture and design, and also signaled the beginning of the Rococo movement. Germain was appointed sculpteur-orfèvre du Roi (sculptor-goldsmith to the king). Look carefully at the shelf in the right background. On it are several models, which were used as patterns for tableware pieces created by Germain, and later his son, François-Thomas Germain. Such tableware adorned many tables in the European and Russian royal courts. Germain is seen in the painting pointing proudly to the shelf and a very ornate silver candlestick with satyrs on its shaft. This model of a candelabrum would result in a series of identical pieces delivered in Lisbon in 1757 for the court of King Joseph I of Portugal, which was sent by his son François-Thomas Germain.
In my next blog I will look at some of the 19th century paintings which adorn the walls of the Founders Collection of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.
In today’s blog I want to look at another artist who has many of his works of art featured in the Tretyakov Gallery, including a number of portraits. Let me introduce you to Valentin Alexandrovich Serov who was a Russian painter, and one of the leading portrait artists of his era.
Valentin Alexandrovich Serov was born in St Petersburg in 1865 and was to become one of the foremost portrait artists of his time. He was the only-child of Alexander Nikolayevich Serov and his wife, Valentina Serova née Bergman. His father Alexander was a Russian composer and one of the most important music critics in Russia during the 1850s and 1860s.
His mother, Valentina had studied for a short time at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Anton Rubinstein but left to study with Alexander Serov whom she married in 1863. Valentin Serov was brought up in a musical and artistic household. At the age of six his father died from a heart attack and his mother sent him to live with a friend in a commune in Smolensk province and later he accompanied his mother on her travels throughout Europe as she sought to further her musical career. In 1874 mother and son arrived in Paris where they met Ilya Repin who took the nine-year-old Valentin under his wing and gave him daily drawing lessons. In 1880 Repin arranged for Valentin to attend and study art for five years at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts under Pavel Chistyakov. Serov was very interested in the Realism genre of art and was greatly influenced by what he saw in the major galleries and museums of his home country and those of Western Europe.
In 1874, Repin introduced Valentin Serov and his mother to Savva Mamontov the railroad tycoon and entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder and creative director of the Moscow Private Opera. Mamontov was best known for supporting a revival of traditional Russian arts at an artists’ colony he led at Abramtsevo. On returning to Moscow from Paris, he and his mother were invited by Savva Mamontov to settle at Abramtsevo, an estate located north of Moscow, on the Vorya River. This estate had become a centre for the Slavophile Movement, an intellectual movement originating from the 19th century that wanted the Russian Empire to be developed upon values and institutions derived from its early history.
Abramtsevo was originally owned by the Russian author Sergei Akaskov. On his death the property was purchased by the wealthy railroad tycoon and patron of the arts, Savva Mamontov. Through his efforts, Abramtsevo became a centre for Russian folk art and during the 1870’s and 1880’s the estate was to be home for many artists who tried to reignite the interest, through their paintings, in medieval Russian art. Workshops were set up on the estate and production of furniture, ceramics and silks, ablaze with traditional Russian imagery and themes, were produced. It was during his time here that Serov came into contact with the cream of Russia’s artistic and cultural talent.
Portraiture can come in a number of forms. Portraits can look official, stiff with a muted background so as not to detract from the aura of the sitter or they can be gentler and loving, often depicting family members. To start with let me show some of Serov’s more “natural” portraiture. One of my favourite works by Serov, and probably his best known, is his 1887 work entitled Girl with Peaches. Portrait of V.S. Mamontova which is housed in the Tretyakov Gallery. It was during his time at the Abramtsevo Colony, that Valentin Serov met and painted the portrait of Vera Mamontov, the twelve-year-old daughter of Savva Mamontov. Some believe that this work launched Russian Impressionism. Serov exhibited this painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, St Petersburg and received great acclaim and it is now looked upon as one of his greatest works. The painting which hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is a more relaxed study and is breathtakingly beautiful. In the centre of the painting, we see depicted a portrait image of Savva’s Mamontov’s eldest daughter Vera. Serov was fascinated by the young girl who he looked upon as the little “Muse” of the Abramtsevo circle. The painting is a mixture of portraiture, fragments of interior, landscape, still-life which Serov combined in this beautiful work. The light shines through the window behind the girl and she is depicted using warm tones, which contrast with the cold grey tones of the space around her. The black eyes of the girl look out at us, thoughtful but slightly impatient at the length of time she had to pose for Serov and the number of sittings she had to endure. Valentin Serov knew Vera Mamontova from when she was born as he was a regular visitor to Mamontov’s Abramtsevo estate, and on a number of occasions he would live there for long periods. Serov would later recall painting this picture:
“…All I wanted was freshness, that special freshness that you can always feel in real life and don’t see in paintings. I painted it for over a month and tortured her, poor child, to death, because I wanted to preserve the freshness in the finished painting, as you can see in old works by great masters…”
During the 1880’s Serov travelled abroad and came into contact with French Impressionism and the Impressionist painters such as Degas. Due to his family background and the popularity of his paintings, Serov never struggled financially. He was the foremost portraiture artist of his time and his subjects included Emperor Nicholas II.
In 1887, after knowing each other for many years, Valentin Serov married Olga Feerovna Trubnikova and one of the witnesses at the wedding was Ilya Repin. Serov completed a watercolour portrait of his friend and one-time mentor Repin in 1901. It is now to be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Olga was a quiet lady and was once described as a petit, pleasant blonde with beautiful eyes, simple and very modest. She was the ideal wife for Serov. She was supportive, a sympathetic listener who and would listen to her husband’s grand plans for his artistic future. In a letter to his wife dated May 1887 he talked about his love of the Impressionist’s lifestyle writing:
“…I want to be just as carefree. At present they all paint heavily without joy. I want joy and will paint joyfully…”
Olga Serova featured in many of his paintings. One example of this is his 1886 work entitled By the Window. Portrait of Olga Trubnikova.
Serov completed another more famous portrait of his wife in 1895 entitled In Summer. In this work we see Olga in the foreground and in the background one can see Olga and Yuri, two of their children, playing in a field in the village of Domotkanovo, at the country estate of Serov’s former schoolfriend and fellow Academy of Arts student, the watercolourist, Vladamir Derviz. Derviz had bought the estate with his inheritance from his father, a St. Petersburg senator. Serov often stayed on the estate as, for him, it was a welcome relief to get away from the large city of Moscow and the professional networking he had to endure to secure commissions. It is a modest depiction of great charm. It is a plein air painting which really captures the qualities of the light. The painting is full of silver-greys and muted green, blue and white colours. Olga’s dress is a mixture of pale pink, a hint of gold and blueish lilac colours.
Another of Serov’s female portraits was of his cousin, Maria Simonovich, entitled Girl in the Sunlight which he completed in 1888. His cousin remembered the long plein air sittings for the painting, writing:
“…He was looking for new ways to transfer to the canvas infinitely varied play of light and shade while retaining the freshness of colours. Yes, I sat there for three months, and almost without a break…”
During one of his stays at the Domotkanovo estate of Vladamir Derviz, Serov completed a portrait of his host’s wife, Nadezhda with her young child. Nadezhda was Serov’s cousin. The painting entitled Nadezhda Dervi with Her Child is dated 1888-1889 but is unfinished. It was experimentally painted on an iron roofing-sheet, presumably purchased for the replacement of the old wooden lath roof of the Domotkanovo house with a new one. Serov initially started painting this portrait in 1887 when baby Maria was a breastfed baby and Serov continued with the painting a year later when baby Maria had become too big.
Art needs artists. Artists need commissions. Commissions come from wealthy patronage. In the late nineteenth-century many of the Russian patrons were wealthy industrialists. A prime example of this was the Morozov family. Savva Vasilyevich Morozov was the eighteenth-century entrepreneur, who founded the Morozov dynasty of entrepreneurs. Two of the descendants from this ultra-wealthy family were the brothers, Ivan and Mikhail Morozov, both art collectors and patrons of the art. Ivan, a major collector of avant-garde French art, was known for his patronage of both the theatre and visual arts and was a painter himself. Ivan Morozov had a passion for paintings by Matisse and in Serov’s 1910 portrait of Ivan Morozov we can see Matisse’s 1910 painting, Fruit and Bronze which the industrialist had acquired that year.
Ivan’s brother Mikhail was also featured in a Serov portrait. Mikhail like Ivan was a wealth patron of the arts as well as being an avid collector of works by Van Gogh, Gaugin, Degas and Renoir. Serov’s portrait of Mikhail is a much sterner depiction. He stares out at us with a stern gaze which is somewhat unsettling. In the early 1900s Mikhail had built up a collection of eighty-three paintings by Russian and West European artists. The highlight of his collection were works by Maurice Denis, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh. It was Mikhail who brought these artists to the attention of his brother Ivan and another art collector by the name of Sergei Shchukin. Mikhail sadly died in 1903, and sixty paintings from his collection were bequeathed to the Tretyakov Gallery.
In complete contrast to this disconcerting portrait of Mikhail, that same year Serov painted a wonderful portrait of Mikhail’s son, Mika. It all came about when Serov and Mikhail Morozov were sitting talking when Mika bounded into the room, full of energy, full of life. Mika’s childish innocence amazed Serov and he agreed to carry out a portrait of the young boy. Serov’s problem with carrying out such a portrait was how to get the child to sit still. Serov’s solution to this problem was to start telling Mika Russian fairy tales and Mika listened with his eyes wide-open and that is what we see in this poignant portrait by Serov. In return to hearing the stories, Mika also retold the tales back to Serov, which he had heard from his nanny and so with the story telling continuing, the portrait was completed.
My final set of portraits completed by Valentin Serov features Henrietta Leopoldovna Girshman, a lady who was once referred to as the most beautiful woman in Russia. From 1904 Serov’s favourite model was Henrietta Leopoldovna Girshman. She was the hostess of a famous Moscow salon as well as being the wife of the prominent industrialist, art collector and patron of arts, Vladimir Girshman. Strikingly beautiful, Henrietta inspired several well-known Russian artists to paint her portrait. Serov’s 1904 gouache on cardboard Portrait of Henrietta features the subject sitting with its flowing lines associated with the modernist style. Yet Serov was not satisfied with this drawing and attempted to destroy it.
Valentin Serov’s 1906 portrait of her in her boudoir hangs at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Henrietta stares confidently out at us in the knowledge that she has attained her status as the influential centre of Russian culture. Serov mimics Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” with his image appearing in the reflection of himself at the right side of the mirror.
Henrietta Girshman and her husband, Vladimir nurtured cultural exchanges and initiatives by organizing art-oriented programs and meetings and by founding the Society of Free Esthetics in 1907. They often opened their home for recitals, poetry readings and theatrical improvisations and welcomed such friends as Valentin Serov, Sergei Diaghilev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Maxim Gorky.
Of all the paintings featuring Henrietta, Serov’s favourite was his final portrait of her, an oval, which he completed in 1911. The 1917 Russian Revolution forced the Girshmans into exile. Their house was confiscated and its contents and their art collection were nationalized. They eventually settled in Paris, and Henrietta revived her salon albeit on a much smaller scale.
Serov taught in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture from 1897 to 1909. He died in Moscow on December 5th 1911, from a form of angina that eventually led to cardiac arrest and heart failure due to severe complications. He was just forty-six years old. He was buried at the Donskoye Cemetery and later his remains exhumed and reburied at the Novodevichy Cemetery. A retrospective of his work was held at the Tretyakov Gallery in 2016 and it attracted record crowds.
If I was to ask you to name one famous museum of art in Russia I think most of you would give me the Hermitage in St Petersburg but actually the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow has the largest collection of paintings by Russian artists in the world and includes numerous portraits by them, some of who may be better known for their non-portraiture works. In the next few blogs I am going to look at the genre of portraiture and in particular Russian portraiture held at this great institution. To start, let me tell you a little about the Gallery itself.
To talk about the Tretyakov Gallery one must first speak about its founder, Pavel Tretyakov. Pavel’s ancestors came from the town of Maloyaroslavets which lies sixty miles south-west of Moscow. His great grandfather was a merchant who had brought his family to Moscow in 1774. In 1801 Pavel Tretyakov’s father Mikhail was born. Mikhail turned out to be an astute and very successful businessman whose shops, which he ran with his brother Sergei, sold textiles. On his brother’s death in 1831, aged just twenty-five, Mikhail became the head of the family business. In the same year that his brother died, Mikhail married Alexandra Borisova, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and a year later, in 1832, the couple had the first of their eight children, a son Pavel. As a teenager Pavel helped his father in the shop. In 1850, when Pavel was eighteen years of age, his forty-nine-year-old father died. The business was then headed up by Mikhail’s widow who in 1859 relinquished control of it, making her sons Pavel and Sergei joint partners in the company and the brothers made their sister Elizaveta’s husband, Vladimir Konshin, the third partner. In August 1865 Pavel married Vera Nikolaevna and the couple went on to have six children.
The Tretyakov family bought a house on Lavrushinsky Pereulok in the Zamoskvoreche district of Moscow at the end of 1851. This was a district where merchants used to congregate during the nineteenth century. The following year, whilst visiting St Petersburg on a business trip, Pavel Tretyakov became fascinated with art and he decided to buy eleven simple drawings from a book shop at Sukhareva Market which he used to visit when he was in the city. This was followed by the purchase of oil paintings by Old Dutch Masters. Although not rich enough to buy paintings by contemporary Russian artists, in 1856, he raised enough money to buy two paintings which are, to this day, believed to be the first two paintings of the Tretyakov collection.
One was entitled Skirmish with Finnish Smugglers, painted by Vasily Khudyakov and the other was entitled Temptation by Nikolai Shilder.
Pavel was a tireless worker and secured his family financially but was always careful with his money. In a letter to his daughter he wrote:
“…Money should serve better purposes, than just be wasted for everyday needs………. Since my early age I knew, that acquired from the society should return to the society in some useful to it form. … Living conditions should never allow a person to live idle…”
Pavel’s art collection grew each year and he had special outbuildings added to the family’s main residence to house them. For the next four decades, he committed large amounts of money to develop and enlarge his collection. His dream was to house a collection of national portraits within his gallery to commemorate prominent Russians in public, intellectual and cultural life and to achieve that aim he commissioned Russia’s leading painters to portray them. Tretyakov donated the museum and his collection of almost two thousand works of art to the city of Moscow in 1892. The official opening of the museum called the Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov took place on August 15th, 1893. Pavel Tretyakov died in 1898 and four years later the residence in Lavrushinsky Pereulok was redesigned transforming the private house into the current great museum with its famous façade designed by the artist Viktor Vasnetsov.
In June 1918, the Tretyakov Gallery was declared as being owned by the Russian Federated Soviet Republic and was named the State Tretyakov Gallery. Today, it forms the core of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia’s national gallery in Moscow and is acknowledged as the greatest collection of Russian art in the world. In total it houses more than 170,000 works of art ranging from early religious icons to modern art and it spans a period of a thousand years.
In my next blog I will start to look at some of the work by famous Russian artists whose works grace the walls of the Tretyakov.
Today’s is a shorter blog. It is going to be an unusual blog for me as I am not showcasing an artist or a painting. I am going to look at the work and the life of a sculptor. I have never been a great lover of sculpture even though I know it is a skilful art form, but it is just not for me. So why the blog?
The reason for looking at this sculptor and his work is that I happened to see some of his sculptures whilst walking around the old part of Cadiz a fortnight ago and happened upon the Casa de Iberoamérica. The definition of the term Ibero-America or Iberian America is that it is a region in the Americas comprising of countries or territories where Spanish or Portuguese are the predominant languages and are usually former territories of Portugal or Spain.
The Casa de Iberoamérica, House of Ibero-America in Cadiz is located in the 18th-century building on Concepción Arenal Street on the edge of the Old Town of Cadiz. It was once the building that housed the Royal Prison. The foundation stone for the building was laid in 1794 but it was not completed until 1836. The buildings remained a prison until 1966 when it was abandoned. Subsequently, it was decided to use it as a courthouse thus preventing it from becoming a crumbling ruin. In 2006 the building was returned to the City Council, and in January 2011 it became the Casa de Iberoamérica.
On entering the sumptuous marble-floored building I found that its permanent exhibition on the ground floor highlighted the work of the Dutch-born sculptor Cornelis Zitman. The exhibition comprised of 78 pieces, of which 49 were sculptures, 28 drawings, and a single oil painting. The selection on show was made up of pieces from Zitman’s whole career, from 1946 to 2007.
Carlos Zitman was born to a family of construction workers in Leiden, in the Netherlands on November 9th, 1926. He studied drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leiden and at the age of sixteen, Zitman enrolled in the painting classes at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Following the completion of his studies there in 1947 he was called up to serve in the Dutch military in Indonesia but he refused on the grounds that he disagreed with the Netherlands’ political actions in that country, and so, to avoid incarceration, fled the country aboard a Swedish oil tanker that was bound for the oil fields of Aruba and Venezuela.
In 1948, Zitman settled in the northern Venezuelan coastal town of Coro, where he found employment as a technical draftsman for a construction company. In that same year, he married a Dutch lady, Vera Roos, whom he had first met in The Netherlands. The couple went on to have three children, Berend, Lourens and Barbara. Much of his free time was spent painting and creating sculptures. Later, in 1949, he moved to the city of Caracas, and the following year, he found work as a furniture designer at a factory of which he later became the manager. In 1951, he was awarded the National Sculpture Prize. In 1955 he was hired by the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the Universidad Central de Venezuela to teach courses in decoration, drawing, watercolour and gouache, which was then combined into a design workshop.
In 1958, he exhibited a collection of drawings and paintings at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas. That year, he decided to give up his life as a businessman and concentrate on his art and sculpture and moved with his family to the island of Grenada, where he dedicated himself completely to painting and began to affirm his style in sculpting.
In 1961 he took part in an exhibition of Gropper Gallery in Boston. He returned to Holland, and studied foundry techniques with Pieter Starrevelt, in Amersfort, and then went back to Caracas where he was given the post as a design professor at the Architecture School of the Central University of Venezuela. In 1964 he converted an old sugar cane mill, known as a trapiche into his residence and workshop, in Caracas’ Hacienda de la Trinidad.
In 1970, Zitman met Dina Viery, a Russian immigrant, and French art dealer, art collector and one time a model for the French painter and sculptor Astride Maillol whom she met in 1934. Viery was a great friend of Maillol during the last ten years of his life and when he died she helped establish the Musée Maillol art museum in Paris. From then on, Zitman dedicated himself exclusively to sculpture. More exhibitions of his work followed in Venezuela, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States, Japan and other countries, earning a host of national and international awards.
Zitman died on 10 January 2016 at the age of 89. Zitman earned numerous national and international awards for his work and in 2005 he was decorated with the Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion.
I will leave you with a recent write-up from the Diario de Cádiz, a Spanish-language newspaper published in Cadiz, regarding the Cornelis Zitman’s permanent exhibition at the Casa de Iberoamérica in Cadiz:
“…The sculpture by Cornelis Zitman bases a style and a language generated from various positions and that he gets to make them extremely personal. On the one hand, we find references to the plastic strength and forceful sense of the static of Arístides Maillol; he also drinks the source of that volumetric reductionism that characterized a part of the work of Henri Moore and, in Zitman with much more creative intensity, the generous bodies of Fernando Botero. In that supposed shaker would have to take a meticulous observation of reality, of everyday life; a spark of ingenuity, a knowledge of the autochthonous and an overdose of decisive drawing that shapes the forms and accentuates the powerful modeling. With all of them we obtain a brave, pure work, without artifice, a sculpture that vindicates the great plastic manifestation so unfortunately forgotten in the most immediate art…”
Having decided to escape the cold and miserable weather of Britain for a short period I find myself in the warmth of the Algarve soaking up the sun and staring out at the blue sky and sea whilst reading about blizzard and gale-force conditions back home. Ok, that’s enough schadenfreude for one day. However, it is my location that leads me on to the next few blogs – not the Algarve but its neighbour Andalusia which I visited last week and enjoyed the delights of the beautiful city of Seville. I think I was most impressed by the city’s architecture and it is a timely reminder for me to walk more upright and look above eye level instead of concentrating on the pavement – old age can be a challenge!
I always try and visit at least one art gallery if I visit a large city so when I arrived in the Andalusian city of Seville and after settling into the hotel, I headed for Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla. Some art galleries/museums can be large and soulless with just a never-ending series of rooms. I particularly like ones, which are different and have had a usage prior to becoming a museum, such as a place of residence or a religious institution, which then come with ornate decorations.
One of the best I have visited was the Museo Sorolla in Madrid which albeit smaller in size in comparison to the much bigger art institutions in the city and, despite featuring only the works of Joaquin Sorolla, it was a true joy to behold and one I insist you visit when in the Spanish capital. The building was originally the artist’s house and was transformed into a museum after the death of his widow, Clotilde, in 1929. The museum was eventually opened in 1932.
The Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla was originally home to the convent of the Order of the Merced Calzada de la Asunción, founded on the site by Saint Peter Nolasco, shortly after the re-conquest of Seville by the Christians in 1248. The building itself was built in 1594, but did not become a museum until 1839, following the desamortizacion, the name given to the Spanish government’s seizure and sale of property, including from the Catholic Church, from the late 18th century to the early 20th century which resulted in the shutting down of religious monasteries and convents. The building we see today, with the galleries arranged on two floors around three quiet courtyards and a central staircase, was largely the work of Juan de Oviedo y de la Bandera.
This superb art museum has been lovingly restored and it now ranks as one of the finest in Spain. It is built around three patios, which are decorated with flowers, trees, and the distinctive Seville tile work. Much of the paintings in the permanent collection was Religious Art. Because of Spanish unwavering obedience to the religious teachings of Rome, it was therefore not surprising that their artists were heavily involved in spreading the Christian message through their commissioned works of art. The purpose of religious art and architecture was to gain converts to the Catholic faith. Architecture in the shape of breathtaking cathedrals was, therefore, the principal form of inspiration. Inside the cathedrals and churches statuary was also inspirational and religious stories were illustrated in the form of stained glass windows, altarpieces, and works of art.
Inside, the museum’s permanent collection of Spanish art and sculpture from the medieval to the modern focuses on the work of Seville School artists, such as Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Juan de Vales Leal, and Francisco de Zurbaran.
The large (308 x 402 cms) painting Sagrada Cena (Holy Supper) by the Renaissance painter Alonso Vazquez is part of the permanent collection. It was his first known work and was commissioned for the refectory of the Cartuja de Santa Maria de las Cuevas de Sevilla in 1588. The composition is based on different prints, living the naturalistic elements of the tableware and food. The Mannerist style of the work features the elongated fingers and hands and the emphatic and animated gestures of those at the table all adorned in artificially-coloured clothing.
There were a number of religious paintings by the sixteenth-century Spanish artist Francisco Pacheco including his 1610 painting St Francis Assisi.
Works were on show by Luis de Vargas, the 16th-century painter of the late Renaissance period, who spent much of his life in Seville although he did travel to Rome where he was influenced by Mannerist styles. Such works are characterized by the exaggeration or alteration of proportions, posture, and expression. He was not only a great painter, but was also a man of strong devotional temperament, and was known as a holy man. His greatest wish was to use his talent for the glory of God, and he had a tradition of going to confession and receive Holy Communion before painting one of his great altarpieces. One of his contemporaries said that Vargas kept a coffin in his room to remind him of the approach of death.
One of his paintings on view at the museum was The Purification of the Virgin. In this work we see Mary depicted inside the temple, presenting the baby Jesus to the priest, San Jose. The depiction is completed by the inclusion of three women and a young girl with two pigeons in a basket, together with some angels. This painting records the ceremony of the Purification of the Virgin and the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the temple and festivity celebrated this event occur on February 2nd, which is forty days from the twenty-fifth of December, the date of birth of Jesus. This forty day period harks back to the Mosaic law, which states that the woman who gave birth to a man was impure for a period of forty days, (eighty if the one born was female!). At the end of that forty-day period, the baby had to be presented to the priest in the temple, so that he could be declared clean by means of an offering. As for the offering the mother was expected to offer the priest a one-year-old lamb. However, Mary, being from a poor family, was unable to offer a lamb, and so instead of a lamb, Mary offered the priest a pair of pigeons.
The 1538 work entitled Calvario con el centurión (Calvary with the Centurion) by Lucas Cranach is also part of the museum’s permanent collection. At the heart of the depiction we see Christ on the cross, on either side of him are the in-profile portrayal of the good thief, Dismas, and the evil thief, Gestas, both of whom are also impaled on their crosses. The depiction is at the very moment that Jesus raises his head skywards and utters the words “Father in your hands I commend my Spirit” and it is those very words (vater in dein hendt befil ich mein gaist) we see written in Cranach’s native tongue, at the top of the painting. Look at the amazing way Cranach has depicted the facial expressions of the three men. In the central foreground, we see the centurion atop his rearing horse. He utters the words “Truly this Man was the Son of God” and again the words in German “Warlich diser mensch ist gotes sun gewest” can be seen as if coming from his mouth. The background of this work is quite interesting. Cranach has split it in two. The upper part, which is the sky, is dark and filled with a sense of foreboding whilst the lower background is a distant view of the city of Jerusalem.
One of the two most famous Sevilla-born artists was Diego de Siva y Velázquez, who was born in the Spanish city in 1599. Some of his paintings were displayed at the Sevilla museum and I particularly liked his 162o painting, St Ildefonso Receiving The Chasuble From The Virgin.
Saint Ildefonsus, a scholar and theologian, was born in Toledo around 607 AD. Ildefonse, against his parents’ wishes, gave up their clerical plans for him and he became a monk at the Agali monastery in Toledo and in 650 he was elected to head the order as their abbot. On December 18th 665, according to a biography on the saint in the Catholic Encyclopaedia, he experienced a vision of the Blessed Virgin when she appeared to him in person and presented him with a priestly vestment, to reward him for his zeal in honouring her and it was this event that Velázquez captured in his painting. According to legend, Bishop Ildefonsus and the congregation were singing Marian hymns when light cascaded into the church, terrifying the congregation and causing most of them to flee. The bishop and a few of his deacons remained and they watched as Mary descended and sat on the episcopal throne. She was full of praise for Ildefonsus’ devotion to her and vested him with a special chasuble from her son’s treasury, which she instructed the bishop to wear only during Marian festivals.
The highlight of my tour around the museum was not just witnessing the permanent collection but happening to arrive during a special 400th-anniversary exhibition of one of Seville’s most famous painters. Who was he? I will tell you in my next blog………..