Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Hispanic Society Museum & Library and “Visions of the Hispanic World”

It is hard to believe that there are still hidden treasuries of art in New York but there are.  Not that many have ventured almost to the Hudson River at 155th Street in Manhattan.  The Heye Museum used to be up there too, but that great Native American collection went to Washington D.C. and the National Museum of the American Indian Art.  Now the Hispanic Society Museum & Library are there, all on their lonesome.  At one time it must have seemed like a great real estate Investment to the institution’s founder, Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955) since the first subway line in New York started at this location in 1904. Four years later the museum opened to the public.  Towns migrate, however, and Manhattan went in the opposite direction.

Archer Milton Huntington took a fateful trip to Mexico as an older teenager and caught the bug, not only for Hispanic Art but the far more contagious one, collecting, and decided to establish a “Spanish Museum”. Probably much more familiar to those in the art world is The Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, founded by Henry E. Huntington which I wrote about a few years ago.  Archer and Henry were cousins both who inherited railroad money and invested in real estate.

Archer did not only throw money at the art of the Hispanic World but went a step further, that most don’t make.  He became a scholar himself and funded study of the field through his museum curators and outside scholars.  Archer’s first trip to Spain was in 1892 but he never acquired art there.  He believed that the Spanish Art in Spain should remain there, so he collected outside of Spain, mainly from dealers in London and Paris.  His personal Library in New York circa 1900 gives you an idea of his scholarship.


Recently the Hispanic Society made a deal with the City to acquire the building next door that had housed the Heye Museum and took the excuse to close their doors for a few years and bring both buildings about to modern day standards.  As we have discussed before this gives a museum a chance to lend works of art that they might not ordinarily lend, show off their wares and get the word out about the institution, as well as make some money in the form of fees to rent the exhibition.  A great coup was to get the Prado in Madrid to be first on The Hispanic Society list, for, if the collection was worthy of the Prado it had to be be pretty good!  In fact, I understand that the director of the Prado was most Impressed by the collection saying that in no other one place could you seen the entire history of Spain and the New World. 

From the Prado it went to the Belles Artes in Mexico City and its first stop in the Unites States is Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It is highly unusual for my adopted state to get exhibitions worthy of any major museum in the world and I am quite proud of it.  The director of the Albuquerque Museum, Andrew Connors, did not waste any time in requesting and agreeing to the stringent terms and fee for the exhibition.  He and the Albuquerque Foundation together with their patrons not to mention the staff deserve huge kudos for pulling this off.  For the grand opening dinner not only was the Executive Director and President of the Hispanic Society, Dr. Mitchell A. Codding present but also Assistant Director Dr. Margaret Connors Mcquade and Dr. Marcus B. Burke, Senior Curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Metalwork as well as others who were all involved with the show.  The Chairman of Board of the Hispanic Society, Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, was the honored speaker for the evening.

How do you pick a few images when there are over 200 entries in the catalog beginning with earthenware from 2400-1990 BC, and most of them are masterpieces?  Wanting to expose my readers to what they don’t regularly see, like a great Velazquez or El Greco, I have picked some other possibilities. First, not only for the strength of the piece but also thinking of how impressive shipping and installing a piece like this is, the reclining alabaster effigy figure of Doña Mencia Enriquez de Toledo, Duchess of Albuquerque, from the workshop of Gil de Siloé, 1498.  You can figure out why they brought it along!


Sherman Lee, a longtime former director of the Cleveland Museum used to say that if just looking at works of art was sufficient to make an expert, every guard would be one.  Sometimes you can see that the guards are actually interested, so I asked one standing nearby whether he had picked a favorite work yet since the show was being installed for many days.  He pointed to an image that was on the top of my list as well.  It was the Ascension of Christ by Miguel Alcañiz active in Valencia 1408-47, and this altar piece was painted between 1422-30.  The frame alone would make it worthy of a major collection.


In 2014 the Albuquerque Museum had another blockbuster exhibition on a similar but far more limited theme called, “Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish Colonial Home 1492-1898”. That show was curated by Richard Aste of the Brooklyn Museum and he wanted to include a work of art from the Hispanic Society that was considered too fragile to travel ,so only a photograph was shown but we have the original now in Albuquerque.  It is “The Wedding at Cana” signed and dated Nicolas de Correa, 1696.  Correa was born in Mexico about 1665 and died after 1696 but his career is not well documented.  What I find so marvelous is how the oil and mixed media on the panel is interlaced with mother of pearl which gives the image a shimmer that can be noticed even yards away.


We were asked if we wished to sponsor a painting and we said we did.  We picked this Casta painting, (Casta meaning someone of mixed blood) by Juan Rodriguez Juárez (Mexico City 1675-1728).  It is called, “The Castas: Mestizo and Indian Produce Cayote” ca. 1715.  I am informed that in recent years the Casta paintings have become much more sought after than in the past, increasing their value. Even so we contributed $500 and got our name as sponsor under the label but I am sure if we had picked one of the paintings by Velazquez it would have been a higher figure.  Instead we picked an additional object which I will write about in part 2 in January.


Hung next to “The Castas” was “Young Man from the Coast/El Costeño”, 1843 by José Augustin Arrieta (1803-1874).  Arrietta was known for painting scenes of everyday life in Puebla. When the painting came up at Sotheby’s the catalog had the following note, “This painting may be considered an artistic monument of Mexico and, if so, could not be exported without the approval of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). Accordingly, it is offered for sale in New York from the catalogue and will not be available in New York for inspection or delivery. The painting will be released to the purchaser in Mexico in compliance with all local requirements. Prospective buyers may contact Sotheby's representatives in Mexico City and Monterrey for an appointment to view the work.”  The painting had been in the same Mexican family since it was painted but had travelled to exhibitions all over.  Clearly the Hispanic Society is on good terms with the Mexican Government and was given permission to export the picture.


Sometimes one just falls for an object, just because it speaks to you without analysis and Penelope and I agreed on this Aquamanile, defined as a “Hot Water Kettle in the Form of a Lion”.  Traditionally they were filled with water for washing the hands.  In contrast to an Italian brass Aquamanile this 18th century silver Peruvian one looks cute, like a stuffed teddy bear you want to take home with you.


Mitchell A. Codding, Executive Director of the Hispanic Society and a great scholar in the field, together with Miguel Falomir, Adjunct Director of Conservation and Investigation at the Prado, curated this spectacular show.  It will be joined by additional later material on December 22 and both sections of the show will remain up until March 31, 2019.  You will hear from me again in January when the entire show can be seen all at once but go now, there is too much great art to absorb all at once and on every visit you will make additional discoveries!

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