To celebrate San Antonio's founding 300 years ago as a northern administrative outpost of New Spain, the San Antonio Museum of Art set out to display the grandeur of that heritage to a city whose art museums lack a collection of historical Spanish art. Katherine Luber, the museum's director, and William Rudolph, its chief curator, traveled to Spain (five times), seeking to borrow art dating from the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella to the dawn of modernism.
They came back with 34 works from the Prado, the Reina Sofia and other Madrid institutions, many never before seen in the U.S., and borrowed nine more from American museums for an exhibition they named "Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting From the Museums of Madrid."
What were they thinking? No list that small—from devotional works, portraits and still lifes to genre paintings and landscapes—could fulfill the ambition of that title. Yet with paintings by masters like Goya, El Greco and Picasso, this remarkable show gives San Antonians a strong flavor of Spain's artistic traditions and manages, moreover, to showcase superb works by several painters who are little known anywhere in the U.S.
In tune with the exhibition's chronological installation, the first two galleries display religious and court paintings. Here is where you will find José de Ribera's muscular "St. Jerome Writing" (c. 1615) alongside Francisco de Zurbarán's stately and splendid portrait of "St. Elisabeth of Portugal" (c. 1635), a queen who against her husband's wishes gave her riches to the poor (above left).
Four works by El Greco include his ethereal "Annunciation" (c. 1596-1600), which provides a marvelous opportunity to compare and contrast his scene with Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's later, more naturalistic "Annunciation" (c. 1650). Nearby is an earlier version, a crystalline 15th-century "Annunciation" by an anonymous Hispano-Flemish artist that alludes to Isabella's interest in Northern art and the internationalism of the Spanish art world at the time. With its crisp detail, Alonso Sánchez Coello's "The Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia" (1579) also betrays Flemish influence.
Among the revelations is the breathtaking "Christ Crucified" (c. 1646) by Alonso Cano —hardly well known here—whose exquisitely rendered body of Christ, wrapped in a billowing loincloth, evinces his talent as a sculptor as well as painter. As death sets in, Jesus' outstretched arms and downcast face are turning blue; little streams of blood flow naturally around his toes from the nails in his feet. The dark background and dramatic lighting set a meditative mood.
Around the corner are four works by Goya—the biggest, most impressive being " Manuel Godoy as Prince of Peace" (1801), commemorating a battlefield victory (right). Bedecked in military uniform, his gleaming sword at his side, the handsome Godoy stretches out to read a letter—echoing the pose of Goya's famous "The Naked Maja" (c. 1800), who was reputed to be Godoy's mistress.
The 19th century—a territory traditionally dominated in art history by the French—holds more surprises. Manuel Cabral y Aguado Bejarano, a portrait and genre painter from Seville, portrayed his son in the irresistible "Alfonsito Cabral with a Puro" (1865) (at right). Dressed as a bandit in black costume and a jaunty hat, with a cigar in one hand, the rosy-cheeked boy—his hair just slightly askew—has a little smirk on his face. Nearby is his polar opposite, "The Young Marchioness of Roncali" (1858) by Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz. Attired in a regimental costume of white and red satin, she is dainty, proper and serious, but just as charming (bottom left).
The show moves on to display a layered, impressionistic garden landscape by Santiago Rusiñol; Picasso's brilliantly colored "The Artist's Sister, Lola" (1899-1900), painted when he was just 18; and two paintings by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, who became an international star, loved in America, in the early 20th century. His sunny, brushy beach scene, "Bath Time, Valencia" (1909), shows off one of his strengths—capturing light and movement.
"500 Years of Spanish Painting" is missing something, however: No Madrid or U.S. museum was willing to lend a great work by Velázquez, Spain's most renowned painter. His talents are glimpsed here only in one lesser work, "Queen Mariana" (c. 1656). This small portrait of the young second wife of Philip IV, on loan from the Meadows Museum, illustrates his capacity for capturing royal comportment and hinting at the self.
A second gap is less serious. Spain has a tradition of marvelous, symbolic still-life paintings, portraying luscious melons, silvery fish, ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables, along with everyday items like vessels and books. Only two are seen here. One, "Still Life With Oysters, Garlic, Eggs, Pot and Pan" (1772), is by the greatest of the artists, Luis Meléndez, but it lacks the vibrancy of his best works.
Still, despite those weaknesses, the curators accomplished a lot with 43 paintings, which are hung with great care for sightlines, echoes and engaging juxtapositions. If they exaggerated a bit in the exhibition title, who can blame them for thinking big? Visitors to the show should actually be glad.