July 27, 2008

El Greco to Velázquez - At The MFA Boston

The 17th Century has been called Spain's "Golden Age" when art and literature flourished and artists served to glorify the King, his Court and the Catholic Church. Indeed, it was an era of unprecedented creativity as the masterpieces of the age will attest. This spring and summer, visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had the extraordinary opportunity to see an outstanding selection of paintings, drawings and sculptures created by some of Spain's finest artists during the reign of Philip III (1598-1621).

Every monarch has an effect on the art created during his/her rule and Philip III was no exception. For the first time the nation's government was opened to participation from nobility and the King was profoundly influenced by his favorite advisor, The Duke of Lerma, a passionate supporter of the arts. The ongoing Protestant attacks against Catholic imagery also served to strengthen the monarch's dedication to promoting artistic expression of religious devotion. And the typical regal desire to leave an enduring and majestic legacy caused Philip III to initiate massive building and decoration campaigns and to assemble an impressive art collection of his own.

The exhibition "El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III" presents the best that the era had to offer. The galleries are hung with magnificent late El Grecos' such as "The Vision of Saint John", 1608, Peter Paul Rubens' huge portrait "The Duke of Lerma", 1609, a superb life-size polychrome sculpture carved by Gregorio Fernandez of Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1622, the year he was made a Saint, Juan Bautista Maino's sumptuous rendition of "The Adoration of the Magi", 1612, and Felix Velázquez's more humble but equally mesmerizing 1619 interpretation of the same theme.

Juan Sánchez Cotán
"Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber", c. 1600

The last gallery provided a wonderful surprise when the subject veered from traditional portraiture and religious iconography and turned to the relatively avant garde genre of still life paintings. Here the viewer was treated to a trio of still lifes of suspended fruits, vegetables and fowl presented in a totally realist style by the Spanish master Juan Sánchez Cotán. As modern now as they were outrageous then, these exquisite oils are true to life and almost photographic in their detail. Also intriguing was a small painting of a dish of pears by an unknown artist. What seemed like a simple depiction of a plate of fruit was actually a very complex attempt to paint the pear from every angle on one canvas and to push the 17th Century envelope in the fields of observation and depiction.

For those of you who consider Old Master works as just so many images of the Agony of Christ, please, take another look. These Spanish artists really knew how to paint and their work remains as compelling and contemporary now in the 21st Century as it did 400 years ago.

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