Ancient Vessels to Velázquez: A Crowded Spanish Collection

Oh, I’ll get there soon enough …. It’s a common feeling, and it’s one marker of a person’s hometown status: the extent to which he feels at liberty to neglect the landmarks and institutions outside his doorstep. Spurred by a principled refusal to take my adopted hometown for granted, I recently decided to make a priority of visiting one of any number of New York City institutions that have (ahem) eluded me over the past 20 years.

Admittedly, my self-appointed task was equally attributable to a dearth of credible exhibitions to write about. The Whitney’s retrospective of Robert Smithson—an artist famed for piling rocks into the Great Salt Lake—holds no fascination for me. The fabled collection of the Hispanic Society, on the other hand, held out the promise of riches well worth a trip far uptown, so with curiosity and excitement, I hopped on the No. 1 train.

I arrived at a place seemingly abandoned by time. The Hispanic Society opened its doors in January 1908. It was founded by Archer Milton Huntington, a railroad magnate’s son who realized his dream of a “Spanish Museum” with money culled from his inheritance. A plaza with a red cobblestone walkway and portentous, large-scale sculptures of El Cid and Don Quixote surrounds the museum. It must have once provided a grand entrance, but now weeds dot the walkway, threatening to overtake it. Located on Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway, the museum and its neighboring institutions—the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Boricua College—are victims of haphazard urban planning. Hemmed in ungraciously by a pack of surrounding buildings, they’ve been robbed of any architectural sweep.

A step inside, though, reveals a still-magnificent Beaux-Arts structure. Admission to the museum is free. On the day I went, the only others there were a handful of tourists and a trio of security guards. Perfect conditions for looking at art, you might think, yet guests might need to adjust to the peculiarities of the building itself. The sterile white box has, for better or worse, become the norm for venues dedicated to displaying art. The Hispanic Society, with its predominant palette of rich, sandy red, makes a visitor slow down and ponder not only the ornamental detail typical of its age, but the status of art at different points in history. The décor here suggests that art need not be a near-sacred object independent of experience, but could be a vital component of that untidy thing called life.

As if to confirm that notion, the Hispanic Society is literally crowded with stuff. The museum began primarily as a library, but came to include art and artifacts that encompass almost the entirety of human history. You’ll find within its walls and inside its myriad wooden display cases 3,000-year-old Bell-Beaker vessels; the milky tones of 18th-century Hispano-Moresque luster plates; a stunning vargueño (an elaborately decorated drop-front secretary desk), circa 1575-1600; and a bizarre wooden relief of the Resurrection, wherein Jesus surfs his way to the viewer atop a sarcophagus.

Alas, you’ll also find a gallery devoted to a huge commission by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, a 19th-century Spanish “protomodernist” whose painterly flourishes will strike contemporary eyes as undeservingly flashy and dull. But Huntington’s enthusiasm for Sorolla’s art shouldn’t scare away devotees of painting. Among the defining treasures of the Hispanic Society are top-of-the-line canvases by El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán and Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. Is there a museum in this world that wouldn’t kill for these artworks? The Velázquez paintings, in particular, display the great—perhaps the greatest—painter at the height of his powers.

Gaspar de Guzman, Conde-Duque de Olivares (ca. 1625-26) is the tour-de-force—Velázquez’s handling of the title figure’s black vestments is a miracle of painterly representation. But Portrait of a Little Girl (ca. 1638-44) is the sweetheart. The artist bestowed upon this irresistibly soulful child the same ample dignity he divined from his slave, Juan de Pareja (1650), a masterpiece by any definition and a gem of the Met’s collection. The Hispanic Society’s Cardinal Camillo Astalli Pamphili (ca. 1650), its third Velázquez canvas, is no less incisive in its pictorial form but considerably less endearing in terms of character. Am I alone in thinking that this was one shifty cardinal?

It’s not a slight upon the Hispanic Society’s collection to say that paintings as curt and startling as Goya’s The Duchess of Alba (1797), as suffused with awe as Zurbarán’s Saint Lucy (ca. 1630) or as intriguingly sloppy as El Greco’s The Holy Family (ca. 1590) can’t match the visual splendor of the works by Velázquez. They are, in fact, well worth savoring, as are the innumerable objects that I haven’t detailed. (Did I mention the nook of the museum dedicated to tomb sculpture?) More than anything else, however, it’s the Velázquez pictures that make a jaunt to the Hispanic Society a necessity. His art is one of those things that makes you happy to be on the planet, not to mention the upper reaches of Harlem.

Ancient Vessels to Velázquez: A Crowded Spanish Collection