Halfway through this magnificent exhibition hangs a portrait of Goya so famous it has its own nickname – The Black Duchess. It depicts an extremely intelligent woman standing outside in a romantic landscape, wearing sizzling black lace. Her eyes sparkle, her sash burns scarlet, her yellow and gold corset burns like flames through the lace.
The Duchess of Alba is as beautiful as she is haughty. With one hand on her hip, the other points to the words written in the sand beneath her feet. Solo Goya – Only Goya. Is it a promise of love or an imperious summons, as if the artist were to kneel before her? She puts herself and us at the height of her gilded slippers. The Duchess was his patron and friend, and perhaps more. What the portrait – and its subject – meant to him may remain forever undisclosed, but Goya never released the painting. It was with him until his death.
This masterpiece is rarely seen except by regulars of the Hispanic Society Museum & Library on 155th Street and Broadway in Upper Manhattan. Founded in 1904 by wealthy philanthropist Archer M. Huntington, it is the most extensive collection of Iberian culture outside of Spain. Anyone who has walked through the dark wood galleries knows the sudden elation of meeting El Greco, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Goya and others, but now this experience is available at the Royal Academy as the Spanish Society closes its doors for renovation. In fact, the entire museum was transported to Great Britain.
The silver bracelets that once hung on the arms of Celtiberian women centuries before the birth of Christ gleam in the illuminated darkness. The face of Pan, with the horns curved by the curving horns of his shaggy bronze curls, looks out of a lamp found in a Roman villa in Málaga. The belt buckle made of garnets and shimmering green glass evokes the impression of the man (or woman?) who wore it, a great, heavy work of art hanging over their navel. People from the past are everywhere.
Huntington collected over four millennia and in every medium. He bought Giovanni Vespucci’s intricate nautical map of the world, drawn in Seville in 1526, with its great parchment-colored oceans and interesting illuminated details, such as the harvesting of walnut wood along the coast of Brazil. He acquired medieval door knockers with crab claws, dragons and bat heads; Silks from the Alhambra glistening with eight-pointed stars and shining Valencian tableware. The deep plate, made in Manises in the 1370s, its cobalt and gold patterns shimmer like a pearl shell, stretches for almost half a meter.
A bossy bully in black silk and regalia, the Count-Duke of Olivares also has a chubby chin and baby kisses
Huntington learned Arabic to understand Spain’s Moorish past and studied the country’s colonial history. Here are Mexican portraits and manuscripts depicting the devastating clashes between Native Americans and invading conquistadors. Bowls made of black mica clay in Tonalá, Mexico are carved inside all kinds of fish, leaves and snakes. To drink water from a vessel meant to be in contact with the undulating underwater world.
Everything here is so unexpected. You think you’re looking at a tiny oil portrait on a piece of cardboard that doesn’t look like El Greco, only to discover that it is just that – the rarest of miniatures. Meanwhile, The Last Supper from Bolivia is made with oil paint and inlaid mother-of-pearl that glistens with a sudden and moving light.
The carved wood carvings of saints and sinners, so famous in 17th-century Spanish art, feature here, for once, works by the artist Andrea de Mena. Her weeping Virgin is as small and delicately sculpted as it is deeply poignant, imbued with maternal suffering.
And next to the Duchess of Alba hangs one of Goya’s black drawings from Album B, known as the “Madrid” album, of a woman standing by the marriage bed in the middle of the night. Her husband lies limply dozing while she checks her white T-shirt for fleas (or worse). He is gentle, sensitive, full of empathy for his wife.
“I am not going to Spain as a plunderer,” wrote Huntington. “I’m not buying any photos [there]having this silly sentimental feeling not to disturb such birds of paradise on their perches.” Instead, he bought at auctions and from other collectors; and some of his paintings were commissioned directly from contemporary artists. There is a whole gallery of sunlit, shimmering gardens, seascapes and picnics by the late-era Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla.
But what strikes is the searing art of 17th-century Spain: El Greco’s austere Pieta, where the body of Christ and the weeping women are embodied in an embracing figure of the Virgin Mary, and his monumental Saint Jerome, naked against a blazing sky, looking on with such compassion to the figure of Christ on the cross. An unusual portrait of Zurbarán depicting St. Rufina as a pale-faced Spanish beauty with eyes fixed on the sky, dressed in green taffeta against a background of pink silk.
On the wall rises an early portrait of Velázquez of the Spanish prime minister, the Count of Olivares. A domineering bully in black silk and regalia, he also has a chubby chin and baby kisses. Velázquez has only recently arrived at the court of Philip IV in Madrid, but he already has the measure of this disturbingly powerful figure.
But the jewel of the whole show is the humblest of all works: Velázquez’s portrait of a Spanish girl, innocent, dark-eyed, perhaps about six or seven years old, watched so tenderly by the artist at work that one might have guessed a family relationship between them, perhaps a grandfather and grandson.
Her clothes are just a quick salad of characters. But her soft hair is touchingly unruly, and his brush strokes a strand that has fallen out of place. And he is in no hurry to paint her small, serious face, flawless in the pearly light. This portrait also remained with the painter until his death. It is a picture of pure love.