Americans in Spain: painting and travels 1820-1920

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Although the Iberian Peninsula extends further west than any other part of Europe, Spain’s relationship with Eastern thought and culture through its ties to North Africa has dotted it with distinct non-western flavors. Other royalist, Catholic and revolutionary traditions have integrated its past into a history unprecedented in Europe.

These characteristics have made it an irresistible destination for artists eager for exotic, diverse and always accessible references to modern art. The American perspective on this fascinating story of migration and inspiration is beautifully displayed at the Milwaukee Art Museum, in a large and comprehensive exhibition, “Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel 1820-1920,” through October 3.

Co-organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum, the exhibition features more than 100 individual works – paintings, photographs and prints – drawn from institutions as renowned as the Prado and the Musée d’Orsay, as well as dozens of other lenders around the world. There is even a portrait recently discovered by Mary Cassatt in a private collection in Spain. Co-curators Brandon Ruud and Corey Piper eschew an airtight categorical articulation of this sprawling subject, choosing to divide the story into a number of subsections that highlight its most compelling and colorful individual chapters.

Peek behind the curtain

The exhibition begins with a peek behind the curtain of Madrid’s royal court and copies of famous works by masters such as Édouard Manet, James McNeill Whistler and Robert Henri from the Prado Museum. Created after the Napoleonic Wars to showcase Spain’s cultural treasures, the Prado quickly became a place of artistic pilgrimage for Americans, offering the best examples of Spanish masters to copy.


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The Prado’s official copy register is therefore a who’s-who of modern canon. One of the copies on display is a life-size replica of the work of Diego Velasquez Queen consort Mariana by Henri. Its loose processing predicts American painter Ashcan’s subsequent loose brushstroke and validates the value of what might seem a less than creative endeavor. An adjacent portrait of Mariana by Juan Bautista Martinez del Mazo reflects Henry’s reproductive skills, and the tandem works finally illustrate the famous Habsburg facial deformities, most pronounced in the wife’s son, Charles. It is said that he left him unable to eat or speak properly.

The MAM visual tour eventually leaves the Royal Court of Madrid and casually slips into the sunny Mediterranean gardens and Muslim-inspired architecture of Andalusia, including the Alhambra Palace in Granada and the Great Mosque of Cordoba . If the royal courts of Madrid endowed Spain with its canonical body, its Jewish, Roma and Islamic traditions have provided it with its mystery, its eccentricity and its romantic spirit. The exhibition includes several paintings and lithographs from the Alhambra, where many of these spirits still hide. The show also offers dozens of more intimate views of the sun-drenched Byzantine courtyards and verdant patios of artists such as Robert Frederick Blum and Joaquín Sorolla. These exterior stages are built on top of each other. Every bright brushstroke from a donkey’s muzzle in John Singer Sargent Moorish courtyard, and sunny stopover in Child Hassam Church procession, plunges us further into the glorious and enveloping atmosphere of southern Spain.

Sunny Spain

The moment we meet William Merritt Chase Sunny Spain we can almost feel the sun scorching the back of our necks. The composition depicts two women carrying jugs of water through the thirsty, mastic-colored suburb of mid-19th-century Madrid. We see chimneys in the distance, suggesting industrial transformation on the horizon. Like the many sketches by Monet d’Argenteuil, we see modern and rural traditions clash. Yet Spain remained more rural and agrarian than France or the States, and therefore offered unique perspectives on the life of its working class.

The galleries devoted to “Spaniards, Spanish figures” and “Spanish work and American art” immerse us more deeply into these lives. A fascinating painting by Mary Cassatt, After the bullfight, brings together work and performance in one portrait, featuring a dashing Spanish toreador coolly lighting a triumphant cigarette. Where Cassatt’s painting revel in the color and eccentricity of Spanish romantic traditions, that of Walter Gay Cigarette Girls, Seville tiptoeing the border between the past and the future. It does this by offering a POV preview of a large workshop where traditionally dressed women roll cigarettes by hand. Such workshops live somewhere between the cottage industries of pre-industrial Europe and the specialized mega-factories ready to redefine modern work. Even with her emphasis on prosaic work, her focal point of a dazzling red rose pinned to the hair of a woman in the foreground is reminiscent of the heroine of Bizet’s 1875 opera “Carmen,” who may still remain. the most alluring symbol of color, costume and movement in the 19th century Spanish repertoire.

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Carmen’s allure

Set in 1830, first performed in 1875 and popularized after the resistance began in the late 1800s, Carmen focuses on the exotic effervescence of the working class Gypsy protagonist and her tragic love affair with a Spanish soldier. The appeal of his image inspired John Singer Sargent El Jaleo, and The Spanish dancer, a brilliant study of which is included in the exhibition. also indebted to Carmen, although indirectly, are portraits of Spanish performer Carmencita, by Sargent and William Merritt Chase, each offering animated action shots of the famous dancer in full costume after a series of performances in New York City in 1890. Each work epitomizes the height of academic painting traditions offered in a distinctly Spanish way, associating bursts of warm color against dark sooty backgrounds.

As captivating and informative as this story of artistic travel to MAM is, it raises a few questions. A painting by William Merritt Chase, Antique shop, urges to consider the nature of its “orientality”. The scene depicts a man in a turban holding a sword in an outdoor market which we know Chase’s own notes are based on sketches from Venice as well as Spain. Both sites were part of the Grand Tour of Europe, easily accessible for the sufficiently endowed art student. Like many works by Chase and others, this exotic scene is a hybrid of various times and cultures, ultimately compiled in a studio away from the mess. To some extent, Chase’s vocabulary reflects a very real and creeping Orientalism of the late 19th century. What is the food for endless reflection, and one of the joys and responsibilities of handling a show like this.

MAM’s story finds leaves these questions aside as it flirts with the beginnings of high modernism, a movement that swapped exotic content for exotic forms, abandoning the naturalism of Sargent, Henri, Chase and other stars of this era. exposure. “Americans in Spain” sends us a gallery of painters who were once marginalized by academia. The works of El Greco and Francisco de Zurbarán emerged as standards as their idiosyncratic and individualized treatment of the subject proved to be fertile alternatives to the high academic tradition.

The powdery and contrasting mannerism of El Greco reflects in particular a turn towards expression and interiority. Her portrait of Saint Catherine in the exhibition is a fine example of her eccentric style. As Velázquez had done a generation before, El Greco would serve as an example to expressionists as diverse as Matisse, Malevich and Pollock in search of pre-modern examples for their modern purposes.

Paris has been the undisputed center of the art world for most of the period covered by this exhibition. Picasso was Spanish, born in Malaga in 1881, but he is more associated with Paris than at any other place. It is revealing that it is “Paris” and not “France”. France centralized during the 19th century. And culturally Paris was the Center. And New York was waiting on the bridge. Meanwhile, Spain has silently bathed for a century in diffuse religious, ethnic, geographic and cultural mysteries that have always been difficult to pin down. Over time, he continued to be an enigmatic alternative to Orthodox art centers – more wizard than doctor, more flirty than a beginner.

One thinks of the line from the song by Jane’s Addiction according to which “Jane says she’s going to Spain, when she has saved her money”. One hundred years after the birth of modern alternative culture, Perry Farrell would never have seen Jane go to Paris or Hamburg, whether that rhymes or not. When looking for romantic consumption, we instinctively choose Iberia over Central Europe. The reasons are incredibly complex, but “Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel 1820–1920” provides a fascinating and in-depth attempt to locate these reasons, revealing time and subject in all its artistic paradoxes: old and new, near and far. , East and West.


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