A Welcome for Foreigners

Peter Burke

  • The Golden Age of Painting in Spain by Jonathan Brown
    Yale, 330 pp, £39.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 300 04760 6
  • Spanish Paintings of the 15th through 19th Centuries by Jonathan Brown and Richard Mann
    National Gallery of Art, Washington/Cambridge, 165 pp, £50.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 521 40107 0

‘I Judge that Spain is a pious mother to foreigners and a very cruel stepmother to her own native sons,’ complained the 17th-century painter Jusepe de Ribera, a Valencian who spent most of his career working in Naples. This variation on the theme of the prophet without honour in his own country will doubtless strike a chord for many writers and artists today, from Australia to Brazil. It also sums up the central argument of Jonathan Brown’s new book The Golden Age of Painting in Spain, which emphasises Spain’s cultural dependence on foreigners. The author claims that even in its so-called ‘Golden Age’, here defined as the period 1480-1700, Spain remained ‘on the periphery of European art’. Brown therefore refuses to write a history of Spanish painting, a category he demolishes in a few incisive introductory pages entitled ‘The Frontiers of Spanish Art’.

What does he do then? Brown has chosen to offer his readers a history of painting in Spain, much of it produced by artists from Italy and the Netherlands. He has much to say about the import of paintings for royal and aristocratic collectors – paintings by Titian, Caravaggio, Bosch, Rubens and so on, not to mention the import of prints by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, and Marcantonio Raimondi (best-known for his engravings after Raphael). Brown has even more to say about the import of artists. The leading painter of court portraits in Spain at the end of the 15th century, for instance, was Michel Sittow, who came from Reval (now Tallinn in Estonia) and had been trained in Bruges. Again, when Philip II wanted his new monastery-palace of the Escorial decorated, he summoned whole teams of painters from Italy, one group in the 1560s, and another, more distinguished, in the 1580s (the latter group included Luca Cambiaso, Federico Zuccaro and Pellegrino Tibaldi). Some of these foreign artists settled in Spain and are best known by their Hispanicised names – El Greco, ‘Pedro de Campania’ (Pieter de Kempeneer from Brussels), ‘Hernando Esturmio’ (Ferdinand Sturm from Zierikzee), and Velazquez’s rival ‘Vicente Carducho’ (Vincenzo Carducci from Florence). As for the brothers Juan and Francisco Rizi, they were the Hispanicised sons of an immigrant Italian painter, Antonio Ricci of Ancona.

The paintings too became in a sense Hispanicised. Some of Brown’s most interesting pages are concerned with the reception given to Flemish and Italian art in Spain. Early 16th-century Spanish painters, he suggests, saw Italian art ‘more as a repository of motifs and ideas than as a coherent, self-conscious system of artistic values’. Or again, writing of the influence of Rubens, Brown notes the advantages as well as the limitations of what he calls ‘second-hand stylistic transmission’. ‘The Spanish painters were inspired but not limited by Rubens’s art. With the exception of van Dyck and Jordaens, the Flemish followers of Rubens were stifled by his influence and could produce only pale imitations, whereas the painters of Madrid took the style at face value and, through the exercise of self-conscious virtuosity, turned it into an art of brilliant effects.’ The Spanish painters who knew the styles of foreign artists only through engravings had of course to translate them back into painterly terms. It is through this attention to the process of reception that Brown manages to reconcile the apparently contradictory themes of his study: the emphasis on Spain’s peripheral position and the characterisation of the 16th and 17th centuries as a ‘golden age’ of Spanish art.

The obvious predecessor with which to compare Brown’s book is the volume in the Pelican History of Art on Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and in their American Dominions, 1500-1800, published a generation ago, in 1959, which includes over a hundred pages on Spanish painting by Martin Soria. Brown’s account differs from Soria’s in several important respects. In the first place, it makes some significant changes to the canon. One of the artists revalued is Juan Bautista Maino (a follower of Caravaggio who more or less gave up painting when he became a Dominican friar), best-known for his image of the recapture of Bahia from the Dutch, painted for the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro palace, but shown here to have been a gifted painter of sacred scenes as well. Another relatively neglected artist whose importance is stressed here is Juan Sanchez Cotan, whose Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber indeed makes him appear something of a 16th-century Morandi, with the power to lend to everyday objects an air of the sublime. A third candidate for revaluation, Claudio Coello, was a favourite of Charles II’s and is best-known for his group portrait in the sacristy of El Escorial, La Sagrada Forma, which shows the King kneeling before the miraculous host of Gorkum, which had shed blood when profaned by the Protestants in 1572. Soria dismissed Coello as someone who had done no more than ‘pave the way for the superficial, playful Rococo’, but Brown calls La Sagrada Forma ‘a masterpiece of illusionistic painting’. He is also an enthusiast for the work of Bartolome Murillo, whom he calls ‘one of the great devotional artists of all time’. Even readers who find the sentimentality of Murillo’s images of street arabs difficult to accept may be convinced by Brown’s account of the merits of, say, the moving yet dignified Return of the Prodigal Son, originally painted for the Hospital of Charity of Seville and now to be seen in the National Gallery, Washington.

Brown goes so far as to claim that the later 17th century was the real golden age within the golden age of Spanish painting, despite the economic problems of the time. These problems have their place in the story, for the author offers his readers what might be called a sketch for a social history of Spanish art. He reflects on the social status of painters, still generally low despite the dazzling career of Velazquez in royal service and the attempts of Vicente Carducho to persuade his contemporaries that painting was a liberal art. He has a few words to say about the art market, nicely illustrated in this volume by a painting of a picture merchant by Jose Antolinez (another neglected painter whom Brown persuades us to take more seriously). It is when he comes to patrons and collectors, however, that the author pulls out all his stops, at least if these patrons are royal or aristocratic (town councils and foreign merchants art mentioned only in passing). Brown argues for the overwhelming importance of patrons, ‘who at times almost forcibly implanted foreign ideals into the native soil’, in the process of artistic change in Spain. Pride of place goes to the royal family – including Charles V’s aunt Margaret of Austria, who ‘initiated the Habsburg patronage of the visual arts’; Philip II, presented as ‘an exceptionally keen and informed patron of the arts’, despite his notorious inability to appreciate the talents of El Greco; his grandson Philip IV, whose artistic interests were discussed in Brown’s earlier book on Velazquez; and even Philip IV’s sickly son Charles II, who owned no fewer than 5539 paintings by the time of his long-awaited death. Unfortunately for Spanish artists, however, most of these pictures had not been painted by them. Royal and aristocratic collectors tended to prefer the work of foreigners. Native artists were therefore forced to rely on the patronage of the Church, which generally discouraged them from innovation, making their work less attractive to lay collectors and thus closing the vicious circle. Borrowing a term from Ribera’s complaint, quoted at the beginning of this review, one might speak of a ‘stepmother syndrome’, which was not of course uniquely Spanish.

Brown’s book, which is at once scholarly and readable, certainly fills a gap. It is a lucid, fluent and well-organised narrative, telling the story of Spanish art over two centuries and incorporating a good deal of recent research (some of it carried out by Spaniards, like Fernando Checa, and some by Americans, like Brown himself and his pupils). The book, which is fully illustrated and beautifully produced, should appeal to general readers as well as to students of art history. Attempting to satisfy different publics with the same book is of course a difficult balancing act. Indeed, there are times when the outlines of another kind of book are visible beneath the present text, like one painting beneath another, and I have to admit to something of a preference for the book which Brown decided not to write.

For anyone seriously concerned with the social history of art, the book actually written is somewhat tantalising, not to say frustrating. Problems are raised but they are not pursued. For example, the author occasionally mentions painters’ workshops, but he provides virtually no information about them. He does not even tell us which artists operated with a large group of assistants and which painted more or less by themselves. Brown claims that Madrid was ‘one of the most active picture markets in Europe’, but he does not go on to describe its workings. He tells us in passing that a large amount of information on picture prices exists, but he does not make any attempt to analyse it. References are made to the export of paintings by Zurbaran to the New World, and to Genoese or Dutch merchants who were patrons of Murillo, but these references to foreign clients are not fleshed out.

Brown has a number of interesting incidental remarks to make about the nature of Spanish taste. For example, he comments on the literal-mindedness of Philip II, who once complained about Zuccaro’s image of Christ’s Nativity, which included a shepherd offering a basket of eggs to the Virgin Mary, on the grounds that ‘it seemed improper that a shepherd, who had come running in the middle of the night from tending his herd, could have so many eggs, especially if he did not keep chickens.’ He also points out that Philip’s taste for the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch was not a personal eccentricity. It was shared by other Spaniards of the time. Interesting as they are, however, remarks and anecdotes such as these are no substitute for a more systematic general discussion of the ‘period eye’, which might have allowed comparisons or contrasts to be made with Italy or France. Indeed, a casual observation about a specifically ‘Spanish taste for evoking the real world through specific details’ suggests a curious lack of interest on the author’s part in the paintings of Quattrocento Italy.

Unlike Italy and the Netherlands, France is virtually absent from the book. It is true that Brown ends his survey in 1700, when the end of the dynasty neatly coincided with the end of the century, and before the invasion of French painters in the service of Philip V. All the same, the fact that Philip IV acquired works by Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin might have been worth some sort of comment. So might the similarity between the artistic situations of France and Spain, both arenas of conflict between two fashionable foreign styles, the Italian and the Flemish. How did the French artists escape from the stepmother syndrome? Was France less peripheral than Spain, in what sense and for what reasons?

The concept of a cultural periphery is perhaps less clear than it looks at first sight. Brown makes the concept more interesting and more complex by contrasting the centre of the periphery, Madrid, with the periphery of the periphery. He is well aware of the differences between the regions of a kingdom which contemporaries called ‘the Spains’. All the same, he does not really allow himself sufficient space to discuss why some provinces, notably Andalusia, continued to rival the artistic productions of the capital, while others, such as Catalonia, disappear from sight altogether after the 15th century. Toledo and Seville are two cities where the pattern of patronage is especially puzzling. Toledo was a city dominated by the Church but it seems to have been a place where picture-buyers were ‘receptive to all kinds of innovation’, more sympathetic to the work of El Greco, for example, than their King had shown himself to be, and interested in the still-lives of Sanchez Cotan as well. Can this unusual receptivity be explained? As for Seville, it was the centre of Spanish commerce with the New World, as the sight of the great Casa de Contratacion still reminds visitors, but as Brown points out, the age of Zurbaran and Murillo was an age of economic decline. So is there an inverse relationship between the flourishing of the economy and the flourishing of the arts, or a retarded relationship (‘cultural lag’, as the sociologists used to say), or is there no relationship at all? The author will not tell us what he thinks. Despite an introductory reference to the idea of ‘acculturation’, he also avoids any sustained discussion of the various Spanish responses to foreign art. To have been more systematic, more theoretical, and even, perhaps, more quantitative, might have alienated part of the audience to whom the book is addressed. All the same, there is surely a need for a social history of Spanish art which seriously engages with questions such as the ones mentioned above – and indeed many more. It is difficult to think of anyone in a better position to write it than Jonathan Brown.