Art Exhibition Review: “Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820-1920”

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibition is a feast for any Hispanophile and art lover

In a previous post, I made public my affection for the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). Recently, I came to believe that the love was mutual, as they currently have an exhibition that was seemingly made for me: Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820-1920. As an American who has been heavily influenced by his travels in Spain, I’m always interested in art created by others who have had similar experiences and feelings about this country that I love. To my knowledge, no other exhibition on this topic has been curated before. And the timing of this exhibit was just perfect for me; I had some time off this summer to travel home to Milwaukee, I had been reading a new book by Richard Kagan called The Spanish Craze (which I’ll review in a subsequent post) that covers a lot of the same ground covered in the exhibition, and I have a newish blog called Hispanophilia that needs more content.

Americans in Spain was developed through a partnership between the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art of Norfolk, Virginia. However, other entities had a role in the visualization and carrying out of the project, including an organization with which I was formerly affiliated, the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Marquette University. (I hold a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Art in Teaching degrees from MU, and I taught my first Spanish classes there.) In fact, one of my former professors, Dr. Eugenia Afinoguénova, collaborated in a significant way with her digital initiatives, including The Artist-Travelers Project, which is a digital mapping companion to the exhibition.

Visitors to Americans in Spain are greeted with a large entrance, the windows and doors of which are covered with attractive and unique decals that resemble Moorish arches, making it vaguely reminiscent of the interior of Córdoba’s Mezquita cathedral or the patio of Granada’s Alhambra palace, though much less detailed.

Exhibition entrance. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

As the name of the exhibition suggests, the main aim of the collection is to showcase American artists active between 1820 and 1920 who were influenced by Spain and/or Spanish art. Some of the more well-known American artists represented include Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Joseph Pennell (1857-1926), Samuel Colman (1832-1920), and Robert Henri (1865-1929), among others. Some of these artists were able to visit Spain and witness the beauty of places like Granada or study firsthand paintings by the Spanish masters at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, while others simply were enamored with what they perceived as exotic or romantic elements of the country, as represented in popular stories written by authors like Washington Irving (1783-1859).

Here are some notable examples of the works in this section of the exhibition.

La Carmencita (1890). John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Spanish Girl Leaning on a Window Sill (ca. 1872). Mary Cassatt. Oil on canvas. Collection of Manuel Piñares García Olías. Madrid. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Carmencita (1890). William Merritt Chase. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
El matador (Félix Asiego) (1906). Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Gypsy with Guitar (Gitano) (1906). Robert Henri. Oil on canvas. Chrysler Museum of Art. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

The above examples show that American painters tended to use bullfighters, flamenco dancers, and gitanos as their preferred subjects. Spanish Moors were also represented in many of the paintings on display. Typically, Spaniards are portrayed as proud, colorful, and exotic. The famous flamenco dancer known internationally as Carmencita (1868-1910) was a particularly popular subject, and given her popularity among male artists, she must have been something of a sex symbol. She even became the first woman to appear in front of Thomas Edison’s motion picture camera, as seen in the video below, which also was shown in the Americans in Spain exhibition.

“Carmencita: Spanish Dance” (1894), by Thomas Edison. Uploaded to YouTube by the Library of Congress.

Besides the use of Spanish people as subjects in art made at this time, Americans were also impressed by Spanish landscapes and architecture. The Andalusian cities of Granada, Córdoba, and Seville were of special interest to American painters, given the Moorish influence in this region that came to represent Spanish culture to foreigners; numerous works in the exhibition show the Mezquita, the Alhambra, and the Alcázar. Other paintings on exhibit were made by American artists who spent time at the Museo del Prado in Madrid and copied works by the Spanish masters. There are a number of paintings in which the artists present themselves working, in a clear homage to Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las meninas, which Americans working in the Prado would have seen on a regular basis.

Below is a series of explanations of some of the different groupings of art in the Americans in Spain exhibition. Click on any of the images to expand them for easier reading.

A great and pleasant surprise for me, was that the exhibition also included some notable works by Spanish artists who were particularly influential in the US during the time in question, most notably Joaquín Sorolla and Ignacio Zuloaga. Sorolla had toured the US, where there were exhibitions of his work. Rich clients would seek him out to contract him for portraits. Zuloaga’s works were part of a big and well-attended exhibition curated by the Hispanic Society of America in New York. Apparently, both artists made friends with several of the American artists represented here.

Mi tío Daniel y su familia (1910). Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Ralph Clarkson (1911). Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. Oil on canvas. Oregon Public Library and Gallery. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

And I was shocked that there were even a few works on display from some of the great Spanish masters themselves, like El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, Claudio Coello, and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, all of whom were studied in depth and even copied by the Americans much later. Some of their paintings in the exhibition are shown below. I would have paid to see these works alone, but here they are presented almost as an appetizer to the main course that follows. Some of these paintings have frames that are so grand and ornate that, again, they would be worth the price of admission by themselves. Perhaps my only small disappointment is that my favorite painting of the MAM’s permanent collection, Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb, was not exhibited alongside these works. Of course, one could see this masterpiece in the same building on the same day, but again, it would have been nice to see it in this section.

Aesop (1778). Francisco de Goya. Etching. Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial (1660-65). Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
The Vision of Saint Anthony of Padua (1663). Claudio Coello. Oil on canvas. Chrysler Museum of Art. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Portrait of a Man (ca. 1651-52). Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. Chrysler Museum of Art. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown
Saint Catherine (1610-1614). El Greco. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo credit: Daniel H. Brown

In conclusion, the Americans in Spain exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum was a feast for me. Although I was already very familiar with most of the Spanish masters of the Golden Age, I was much less familiar with the American artists who were enamored with Spain. Even if I might be less interested in portraying “oriental” or “exotic” aspects of Spain than some of the featured artists, it was nice for me to find a little bit of kinship with creative compatriots who, like me, find inspiration in the people, history, culture, and landscapes of Spain. From the gift shop I purchased a beautiful book that includes not only high quality images of all the works in the exhibition, but also informative essays on the topics presented in the show. I am a bit biased, of course, but I especially loved reading the essay entitled “Importing the Picturesque: Illustrated Travel Books on Spain, 1829-1915” by my former professor, Dr. Eugenia Afinoguénova. Reading her work brought back a lot of pleasant memories for me, and it also gave me more titles of books to add to my personal reading list.

The collection on display in Americans in Spain brings together so many works from various museums and private collections throughout the world that it would be impossible, for me at least, to see them otherwise. The exhibition continues through October 3. If I get the chance to go back to Milwaukee before then, I will attend it again. It was really that good.

Although the museum appreciates that guests make reservations, they are not required. Strict Covid regulations including mandatory mask wearing are enforced. Entrance to the exhibition is included with MAM admission.

As a bonus to today’s post, we’re including various discussions curated by the Milwaukee Art Museum on the Americans in Spain exhibition. Enjoy!

Have you seen the Americans in Spain exhibition yet? If so, let us know what you thought about it in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on your favorite social media. ¡Gracias!

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