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Seeing is Believing

ISSUE:  Spring 1992
The Golden Age of Painting in Spain. By Jonathan Brown. Yale. $65.00.

In 16th- and 17th-century Spain, some people knew a good bargain when they saw it, particularly in art. As painters struggled to convince patrons that their skills were “art” rather than “artisanship” or mere decoration, the art market frequently demanded set pieces for political ceremonies or for the decoration of church buildings. Such commissions just as frequently stipulated subject, pose, composition, and even symbolic details to be included in the work. The painters scrambled to balance true creativity with the need to make a decent living by pleasing the individuals and institutions which purchased either their services or their products. A rich array of painting styles emerged from the tensions created by the patronage system, but for years Spanish painting was overlooked, with the exception of a few of the recognized “stars,” as too parochial, too dour, too mystico-religious, or too derivative. All that has ended.

In The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, Jonathan Brown addresses the “phenomenal growth of interest in Spanish art” in recent years, humbly omitting the fact that much of that growth is attributable to his readable, scholarly studies. His Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century Spanish Painting (1978), A Palace for a King (with J.H. Elliot, 1980), and Velázquez: Painter and Courtier (1986; reviewed in these pages, Winter 1987, pp. 158—64) set benchmarks for intelligent appreciation of the great explosion of Spanish art in the 16th and, particularly, 17th centuries.

Brown turns his attention this time to die larger picture of Spanish painting, focusing not on one painter or one place but rather on the whole of what has become known as the “Golden Age”—a juncture in 16- and 17th-century Spain (roughly 1474—1700) which was dominated by the Baroque and which produced not only great painters but also great poets (Garcilaso de la Vega, Góngora, Quevedo), great novelists (Cervantes) and great dramatists (Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Calderón). What is more, Brown broadens his view to include Spanish painting in relation to what he calls its “nourishing sources” in other European regions, in particular Italy and Flanders, since his definition of “Spanish” rightly encompasses the art of those painters working for Spanish masters and in Spanish dominions. As he states in his conclusion,

From 1475 to 1700, Spanish painting underwent significant changes, changes that make it unlikely that any unitary definition could be sufficient to account for artists as diverse as Pedro Berruguete and Claudio Coello. It seems more logical to examine the period by stages and attempt to define the broader contexts in which artists and patrons had to operate before analyzing their responses to the circumstances they encountered and how these conditions compare with certain developments in other parts of Europe.

Brown takes as his model Antonio Palomino’s 1724 study, El parnaso español pintoresco laureado, which included not only Velázquez and Murillo but also Titian, Rubens, and Luca Giordano, for reasons other than nationalistic hyperpatriotism: the three mentioned, and many other painters of non-Spanish descent, produced some of their greatest works in Spain or were influential in Spanish art circles. As Brown states, the history of Spanish art is not necessarily the history of Spanish painters, nor is Spanish art a “dialect” of European painting:

Spanish painters of the Golden Age were well acquainted with the work of artists from Italy and Flanders, although they by no means followed their examples uncritically. Choosing to retain certain qualities while rejecting others completely, they transformed what they decided was useful into a new stylistic synthesis. Spanish painting is inconceivable without Italy and Flanders, but it is not simply a regional school of Italian or Flemish art.

Spanish painting of this period “evolved in an arhythmic pattern often imposed by powerful patrons,” and in three broad phases: 1474—1555; 1556—1630; 1630—1700. These three phases brought many often puzzling and dizzying changes, but the greatest constant was the relationship between powerful patrons and struggling painters. The most important patrons were King Philip II and his grandson King Philip IV, both of whom had discerning eyes, acquisitive natures, and, of course, seemingly endless supplies of money to buy or commission paintings. Together, they reshaped the history of Spanish painting. Philip II was a significant, but flawed, collector. He demanded sobriety and dignity in his surroundings and forbade the inclusion of inappropriate (unorthodox) imagery in the paintings he commissioned— dogs, cats, and other “indecent” figures were banished, for example, and his famous row with El Greco deprived his collection of the best examples of this great painter’s art. Still, his was the largest collection of paintings by Titian assembled by any one individual in the 16th century, and his entire collection numbered more than 1150 paintings by the time he died in 1598. “This scale of acquisition is unprecedented in the history of picture collecting. . . .” He transformed the art of painting in Spain from a regional pastime into an international undertaking. By the time Philip IV, who possessed the same interest in painting, but a more discerning eye, died in 1665 the Spanish royal collection had become “the largest and finest in Europe.” The Buen Retiro Palace alone contained, according to contemporary testimony, “more pictures than walls . . .more than in all of Paris.” By 1700 it contained nearly 5550 paintings, a number unmatched anywhere.

Brown weaves his tale chronologically, shifting focus among the most important centers of activity (Madrid, Seville, Valencia) and the period’s known and less well known artists. He includes detailed observations on provable and possible influences, points of contact among painters, and the integration of various styles: Fernando Llanos and Fernando Yáñez, for example, both influenced by Michaelangelo, were “the first non-Italian painters to assimilate the style of the High Renaissance and practice it in a foreign land” and “working on the interface between two artistic cultures—the Hispano-Flemish and the Italian—[Pedro Fernández and Juan de Burgunya] produced an original synthesis of the two.” Brown carefully traces the varied contributions of Italian painting to the work of numerous Spanish painters—an angel here, a horse there—and suggests how such points of contact were made (often through the circulation of prints; El Greco had 350 prints and drawings in his personal collection). As he writes of El Greco’s “Trinity,”

The basic composition comes from a print by Dürer, and the position of Christ’s right arm depends on Michaelangelo’s statue of Duke Lorenzo de’Medici, in the Medici Chapel, Florence. However, the brilliant, original colors and the convincing emotion imparted to the figures subsume the sources into a moving example of religious art.

Brown’s capsule biographies of many of the painters, along with the close scrutiny to which he subjects the pictures, provide the reader with both the broad picture and the telling details of Spanish Golden Age painting. He has a sharp eye for a significant detail, a revealing gesture, a subtle use of color or composition, and his prose is both readable and often witty.

On 17 September 1665, Philip IV died at the age of sixty-two, having ruled the Spanish monarchy for almost forty-five years. His corpse was duly removed to the Royal Pantheon of the Escorial, where it was interred with a minimum of ceremony. As was customary, the exequies were celebrated later in a splendid observance at the convent of the Encarnación, near the palace. In front of the main altar, the royal architect Sebastian de Herrera Barnuevo had designed a colossal funerary monument, that reached high into the cupola above the crossing. The baldacchino was a gigantic candelabrum, which held hundreds of candles. As mass was intoned, the candles were lit and the monarch who had brought his kingdom close to ruin went out in a blaze of glory.

In another place he defends the slow-witted, poorly-educated son of Philip IV, Charles II, against the accusations of idiocy, but confessing that “despite the evidence of appearances there is reason to believe that the dynastic love of pictures was somehow included in the reduced package of genes received by the prince,” and then follows this observation with another on Carreño’s portraits of this sad monarch:

Carreño’s raw material was not inspiring: the physiognomy of Charles II remorselessly revealed the consequences of six generations of inbreeding [. . . .] And the queen mother, while normal in appearance, insisted on being portrayed in the habit of a nun, which was worn by high-born widows as a costume of mourning. Trapped between the bleak and the black, Carreñó did his job with skill and dignity.

The artists included here are a Who’s Who of early Spanish and European painting: José Antolínez, Juan de Arellano, Pedro Berruguete, Hieronymus Bosch, Alonso Cano, Michelangelo da Caravaggio, Vicente Carducho, Juan Carreño, Claudio Coello, El Greco, Luca Giordano, Francisco de Herrera (Elder and Younger), Vicente Maçip, Juan Bautista Maino, Juan Martmez del Mazo, Bartolomé Murillo, Francisco Pacheco, Antonio de Pereda, Raphael, Francisco de Ribalta, Jusepe de Ribera, Francisco Rizi, Juan de Roelas, Peter Paul Rubens, Alonso Sánchez Cuello, Jacopo Tintoretto, Titian, Juan de Valdés Leal, Diego de Velazquez, Paolo Veronese, Francisco de Zurbarán, and others. The chapter on Murillo’s elegant devotional and genre pictures is particularly good. A painting by Murillo, as Brown reminds us, was valued more than one by Titian or van Dyck in the early 18th century. Brown rescues many now-forgotten painters and evaluates their work from the perspective of the time in which they were painted, salvaging many of them from unjust criticism by appreciating the small technical and conceptual successes of their paintings, even when admitting that the painting under study is not a masterpiece. The book’s 290 illustrations, many in bold color, reproduce paintings and prints—many of them intensely beautiful—from dozens of Spanish museums, cathedrals and monasteries, plus numerous other European and North American collections.

In this century Berenson and Pope-Henessey, among others, have taught us not only to look at paintings but to see them, a lesson learned by Brown and amply transferred to the readers of these pages. I have made dozens of trips to Spain where I have stood before—and contemplated—the majority of the paintings Brown discusses in this book, but I have now seen many of them as if for the first time and have seen new things in them which had previously escaped me. Brown makes a powerful and elegant case for the importance of Spanish Golden Age painting. Seeing is believing.


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