September 13, 2015

A Visit to The Hispanic Society of America

One of the hidden treasures of New York City is the museum and library of The Hispanic Society of America.  Located on West 155th Street and Broadway, the Beaux-Arts building The Society has occupied since its inception in 1908 is part of an enclave of cultural centers that form the Audubon Terrace Historic District.  Virtually unknown to all but a handful of New Yorkers, The Hispanic Society boasts a world-class collection of paintings, sculpture, archaeological and decorative artifacts, prints, books and photographs relating to Spain, Portugal and Latin America.

The Hispanic Society was founded in 1904 by the American philanthropist and intellectual Archer Milton Huntington as an institution dedicated to the study and promotion of Hispanic art and literature.  With his vast collection as the basis, the Society soon became renowned for its scholarly exhibitions and publications covering almost all facets of Hispanic culture.

While The Society and its neighborhood may not be quite as posh as they used to be, a visit to the campus is certainly worth the trip.  Easily reachable by subway or bus, the complex of landmark buildings is a surprise oasis in the hustle and bustle of Washington Heights.  Some of the former residents have moved to other locations, including the American Geographic Society, The Heye Foundation's Museum of the American Indian and the American Numismatic Society, but the increased presence of the two remaining original denizens, The Academy of Arts and Letters and The Hispanic Society continue to imbue Audubon Terrace with an air of academia.

Once inside the temple-like structure of The Hispanic Society, one is completely transported to another time and place.  In this age of architect and technology driven museum experiences, this is step back to the time when the art and artifacts spoke for themselves.  There is no audio guide, no interactive displays, no café and no air conditioning.  There is a counter, next to the box for a voluntary contribution, where one can purchase a post card that was probably printed in the 1970s.  There is also a treasure trove of art that will totally amaze you!

The Hispanic Society's holdings are substantial and diverse and the most comprehensive outside of the Iberian Peninsula.  On display is a fascinating collection of decorative arts including metalwork, carpets, furniture, silver and ceramics..

and archaeological objects including statuary, pediments and tombs...

Tomb of Gutierre de la Cueva, Bishop of Palencia
Early 16th century

There are religious objects ranging from baptismal fonts to chalices made of gold and ivory and polychrome and stone.  There are drawings and watercolors and photographs and books.  And there are paintings by some of the greatest Spanish masters from the Middle Ages to to early 20th Century including works by El Greco, Zubarán, Velázquez, Ribera and Goya...

"Portrait of the Duchess of Alba", 1797

But what The Hispanic Society is probably most famous for, more than its extensive library and Islamic textiles, more than its pioneering archaeological excavations and the monumental equestrian statue of "El Cid" that graces the plaza, is the room of murals by Joaquim Sorolla entitled "Visions of Spain".

Commissioned by The Society's founder, Archie Huntington, "Vision of Spain" is a 227 foot long mural comprising 14 massive paintings depicting scenes from each of the provinces of Spain.  Joaquim Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) was a Spanish Impressionist painter best known for his seascapes and his poignant depictions of ordinary people.  Originally conceived as an illustrated history of Spain, the artist opted for a more plebian view of the provinces of the country.  Painted between 1911 and 1919 these imposing canvases fill an entire room and capture scenes typical of each Spanish region.   Like from Navarre, the "Town Council of Roncal"...

Or from Seville, "The Dance"...

Or the Valencian "Couples on Horseback"...

Or the immense panel of "The Tuna Catchers" from Ayamonte...

Each panel individually is spectacular and the group as a whole, presented in a dedicated room, is absolutely amazing - a virtuoso example of historical illustration combined with a masterful artistic aesthetic.

As the repository of this and countless other artistic and historic gems, The Hispanic Society of America is truly one of the best kept secrets of the New York cultural scene.  Fair warning - they will be closing within the next year or so for massive, urgently needed renovations so, please, pay a visit before it's too late.  It's well worth the trip.

No comments: