Nuestra Casa: Rediscovering the Treasures of The Hispanic Society Museum & Library
On ViewThe Hispanic Museum & Library,
February 17–April 17, 2022
In the early twentieth century a number of American philanthropists founded ambitious museums. Isabella Stewart Gardner created her palace in Boston, Andrew Carnegie built a museum in Pittsburgh, and a little later Henry Clay Frick, another Pittsburgher, established his museum in New York and Albert Barnes built his institution near Philadelphia. And in 1904 Archer Milton Huntington, heir to a railroad fortune, founded the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, with its collection devoted to the art, history, and literature of the Portuguese and Spanish speaking cultures. He wanted to show not only the art of Spain and Portugal, but also work from those countries’ vast empires.
Because the Hispanic Society is in Washington Heights, Manhattan, it has until recently had a marginal position in the New York art world. Although it’s only about 75 blocks uptown from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that can seem a long journey to the busy critic. I, at least, confess that in all my years of reviewing, I’d never visited this institution. And so, right now, while the museum is closed for renovations, I came because a selection of the best works is on display. How amazing that it took me all of these years to get uptown to see the best portrait in a New York City museum, Francisco de Goya’s The Duchess of Alba (1797).
In fact, besides this Goya there is a lot to see here. From Spain, there’s Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of a Little Girl (1638–42), El Greco’s Saint Jerome as a Penitent (1600), and Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Emerentiana (1635–40). There are various decorative works, including a tile with the Star of David from a Toledo synagogue (1425–75) and a richly decorated Islamic box (ca. 966), from Córdoba, reminders that for a long time Jews and Muslims constituted important elements of the Spanish population. There are more recent artworks made in or about Spain, such as Mariano Fortuny y Marsal’s painting Arabs Ascending a Hill (1862–63) and John Singer Sargent’s The Spanish Dance (1879–82). And there are artworks from the larger Spanish-speaking world such as a watercolor showing The Silver Mines at Potosi (1585), the Peruvian mines which were the economic center of the Spanish empire. And, also, there are artifacts revealing colonial life, such as the Bishop’s leatherwork miter (1560), made by Indigenous people who designed a leatherwork mosaic and presented it to King Charles V as a gift. And at the entrance is a striking painting by José Agustin Arrieta, El Costeño / The Young Man from the Coast (after 1843), showing a Black man carrying a basket of luscious tropical fruits. Such genre scenes were an important tradition of Colonial Mexican painting. Pancho Fierro, a Peruvian of Afro-Hispanic descent, made watercolors sold to military officers and merchants traveling to and from Asia. And there are four stunning polychrome sculptures attributed to Manuel Chili, an eighteenth-century Ecuadorian entitled: The Four Fates of Man: Death; Soul in Hell; Soul in Purgatory; Soul in Heaven (all ca. 1775). A number of the works on display have been acquired recently.
The history of Spain’s empire is very complex. Hugh Thomas’s World Without End: Spain, Philip II and the First Global Empire (2015); The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V, and the Creation of America (2011); and Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan (2004) tell this story, explaining how these distant countries came to be connected. But his books don’t indicate how to describe this art. Some works were exported from the home country, and some Spanish artists emigrated. But soon enough the Indigenous traditions, which obviously were difficult to administer from distant Madrid, took on a life of their own. What then defines the essence of this Hispanic art? How, I am asking, by looking at these objects can we identify some common features? These questions are not easy to answer, both because the history of Spain itself is complex and because when Spain created its vast empire, the artistic traditions developed in novel ways.
George Kubler was a specialist in Hispanic art, and so his legendary The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962), much read by American artists a generation ago, developed some remarkable ideas about this development, which now deserve revisiting. What is provincialism? Indeed does that word even still have any clear meaning? To call some art provincial is to suppose, by contrast, that other work comes from the center of the art world. And Nuestra Casa is a potent visual argument against that moralizing way of thinking. Twenty years ago, that the Hispanic Society was sited in a Latino community was seen by some of its administrators as a drawback. But now in a self-evident way its location has become one of its strengths.
Note: My account draws on Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, 2013).