Hispanic Society of America and Sorolla's 'Vision of Spain"
WASHINGTON DC (By Eve M. Kahn, NYT) March 5, 2010 — Joaquín Sorolla, the Spanish painter, sketched costumed villagers and arid roads around his homeland in the 1910s. He was preparing for a huge commission: Archer Milton Huntington, a railroad heir in New York, had requested murals for an octagonal gallery at his new museum, the Hispanic Society of America on Broadway at 155th Street in Washington Heights. Sorolla exhausted himself at his Madrid studio clambering around ladders to finish the canvas panorama, “Vision of Spain,” about 230 linear feet of hilltop towns, folk dancers, church processions, bullfighters and fishermen.
“This commission will eat up the best years of my life,” Sorolla predicted in 1911. His health did soon fail; he died in 1923, at 60, and never saw the murals installed.
The society has displayed them almost continuously for eight decades. They are among the oldest and lengthiest art installations in town, but since 2007 they have been on the same roads that Sorolla traveled. While the Hispanic Society is under renovation, a Spanish bank financed a seven-city tour for “Vision of Spain” that has attracted two million visitors. (This is about the total number who have seen it at the Hispanic Society, which draws around 20,000 people annually.)
Last month a chartered jet returned the murals to New York, and conservators have been unrolling the canvases from wooden spools and stapling them back onto 1920s pine stretchers. Every paint fleck was cleaned and analyzed before the road trip to make sure nothing was too loose or brittle to travel, and the staffs at the Spanish museums “took out a few windows or blasted holes in the walls” to slide in the murals safely, said Marcus B. Burke, a senior curator at the Hispanic Society.
On a $5.5 million budget the society has reroofed the Sorolla gallery, upgraded its 1920s mechanical systems and removed drab file cabinets and counters. The ceiling has been painted white, as it was in Huntington’s time, but the paintings have been brought down from the frieze to eye level, so every brush stroke and paint drip is visible. “The effect will be that you can almost walk into the murals,” Mr. Burke said.
The museum will reopen May 8 with renovated or new spaces devoted to Goya, El Greco and Velázquez paintings and ceramics as varied as ruddy Chilean lamps inset with glass disks and milky Spanish porcelain that rivaled Wedgwood and Sèvres.
American Schoolgirl Art
American teenage girls in the 19th century were trained to produce disciplined handwork to prove to potential suitors that they had patience and refined tastes. Although the best known examples are samplers embroidered with landscapes and poetry, the girls also learned to paint on blond wood. For tables, boxes and fire screens, they created realistic images as ambitious as seashell clusters and townscapes.
A few hundred of the wooden objects are known to survive in museums and private collections. Betsy Krieg Salm, a historian in Interlaken, N.Y., has been acquiring and studying them since 1985 and just published “Women’s Painted Furniture, 1790-1830: American Schoolgirl Art” (University Press of New England). The book describes how teachers and tutors formulated paints and shellacs out of ingredients like eggs and sugar, and notes which schoolgirls, including the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe and the portrait painter Hannah Crowninshield Armstrong, managed to pursue careers after marriage.
The teenagers were allowed some leeway for self-expression while painting on maple, birch or satinwood. They depicted pets and loved ones and gave hints of the rigors of school life. “Well I must paint away/or shant finish today,” a Massachusetts student penciled on the underside of a table drawer in 1821 while painting British ruins on a maple tabletop.
“What attracted me to the work was that it was so personal,” said Ms. Salm, who also runs a furniture workshop that reproduces schoolgirl antiques.
She financed the book’s research and photography, traveling to about 40 archives and museums, and hired an editor, Jill D. Swenson, to trim a 700-page manuscript. “I wanted to tell everybody everything I knew,” Ms. Salm said. “I was to be the messenger” for the talented girls.
She has identified the students’ sourcebooks for images and techniques like “The Young Ladies’ Assistant in Drawing and Painting” and “The School of Wisdom, or Repository of the Most Valuable Curiosities of Art.” Ms. Salm also found the art teachers’ ads in old newspapers, promising parents that girls would become proficient “in the short space of 40 or 50 hours, even if they never before attempted to paint.”
Three Suits of Armor
For 23 years Leonard N. Stern, a real estate billionaire, had stared at a blank sculpture niche in the lobby of his headquarters at 667 Madison Avenue, at 61st Street. The wall-long alcove, although bathed in ceiling spotlights, has been vacant since the building opened in 1987. “It was all ready for something,” Mr. Stern said. “But nothing grabbed me. I got used to it being empty, but I never forgot about it.”
Last month he filled the gap: three mannequins are now wearing 16th-century armor in the alcove. Their suits, made in Milan and Germany, are trimmed in red velvet and engraved with winged snakes, classical gods and biblical figures including Daniel fighting lions. Mr. Stern bought the three in January, paying more than $1 million at the London dealer Peter Finer’s booth at the Winter Antiques Show.
Mr. Stern usually collects Cycladic art, but he was intrigued by some inlaid pistols at the Finer booth and then asked casually about the armor. On hearing the prices, “I nearly died,” he said. “I had no idea what this stuff sold for. I was a virgin.” When he mentioned to his wife, Allison, that he was thinking of buying one, she advised him that three would make a bigger lobby splash.
Once the mannequins were positioned on glossy black pedestals near the reception desk, he worried that “some people with an excessive zeal for political correctness would find it in bad taste,” he said. But the staff has been checking on tenants’ reactions while handing out fliers about Renaissance arms makers. “So far everyone loves it: women, men, everybody,” said Johnny Rampersad, a concierge desk staffer. “Everyone says now they feel safer in the building.”
Mr. Finer said that his customers are known for lending to museums, not commercial spaces. A skyscraper lobby installation “is pretty darn unusual,” he said. “But one Christmas we did loan a guy on a horse to Bergdorf Goodman for display in a window as a knight in shining armor.”