Inside the Hispanic Society Museum & Library

Published 21 November 2022

As the RA unveils the Hispanic Society Museum & Library’s collection for the first time in Britain, Xavier Bray visits its atmospheric home in New York.

  • From the Winter 2022 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    It is all about location. Having worked as a curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London and now as Director at the Wallace Collection in Marylebone, I know the curse that lies behind the supposed compliment of the phrase ‘hidden gem’. For those of us who work in these institutions, an out-of-the-way location is an impediment to today’s need for visitor numbers. Conversely, for those prepared to make the pilgrimage to these tucked away museums, the experience is quite wonderful, devoid of the crowds that can make visiting museums generally an exhausting experience.

    The Hispanic Society Museum & Library in New York can justifiably be described as a so-called hidden gem, with its home in the suburban neighbourhood of Washington Heights, Manhattan, a long subway ride to West 155th Street. Its founder, the art collector Archer Milton Huntington, had deemed this a suitably peaceful location in which to open his ‘Spanish Museum’ to the public in 1908. By the time of his death in 1955, Huntington had assembled an astonishing collection without parallel outside Spain: 900 paintings and 6,000 watercolours and drawings, along with funerary and polychrome sculptures, silk textiles, ceramics, lustreware, silverwork, precious jewellery, maps and ironworks, as well as a rich reference library of books and photographs. Huntington’s objective was to provide a centre for the study of Spanish and Portuguese art and culture which, in his own words, would ‘condense the soul of Spain into meanings, through works of the hand and spirit’. Now those meanings can be considered by a British audience, when over 150 of the Society’s finest pieces are lent to the Royal Academy.

  • Attributed to Manuel Chili, called Caspicara, The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven

    Attributed to Manuel Chili, called Caspicara, The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven, c. 1775.

    Polychrome wood, glass and metal. 17.9 x 11.8 x 8.4 cm, 17.9 × 14.5 × 8 cm, 16.9 × 11.1 × 12.3 cm, 17.6 × 11 × 12.3 cm. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY.

  • Both Archer Huntington at the Hispanic Society Museum & Library and Richard Wallace at the Wallace Collection were determined to create a space for art that would transport the visitor. On entering the Wallace Collection, one is greeted by an impressive iron and gilt-brass balustrade made in 1719-20 for the Hôtel de Nevers, Paris. Gliding up the staircase, in a Cinderella-like manner, one enters the sumptuous world of the riches and delights of 18th-century French Rococo art. At the Hispanic Society, by contrast, you leave the hustle and bustle of New York and step immediately into a Spanish Renaissance-style covered courtyard. Composed of ornate architectural terracotta, the courtyard enclosure rises 35ft to a viewing gallery. Even the American-made floor, paved with unglazed, hexagonal floor tiles of red clay, evokes those found in Spanish convents and monasteries.

    On the ground level, set inside the arches, are altarpieces and paintings showing Virgins and Saints, gruesome martyrdoms and sombre-looking Spanish nobles and aristocrats. The atmosphere is a heady mix of monastery cloister and palace courtyard. On my first visit as a student I even noticed one of the gallery attendants on his knees praying in front of Francisco de Zurbarán’s full-length painting of St Lucy holding her eyes on a platter.

  • Francisco de Goya, The Duchess of Alba

    Francisco de Goya, The Duchess of Alba, 1797.

    Oil on canvas. 210.3 x 149.3 cm. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY.

  • Huntington, who had designed imaginary museums as a child using boxes and cutouts, made sure that every detail of his institution was based on primary sources that he had studied first-hand or knew about from his research in Spain and Portugal. For instance, the designs on the arcade columns are based on the carvings that surround the windows of the early 16th-century patio of Vélez-Blanco Castle in the province of Almería, the original today housed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Huntington wanted his collection to be enjoyed and studied within an architectural framework and decorative context, so that different disciplines could visually relate to each other. Beneath one of the columned arcades in the patio, for example, in a space that only fits ten or so visitors, Huntington inserted a group of early 16th-century alabaster effigies of Spanish nobles. The eerie catacomb-like atmosphere is not unlike a side chapel in a Spanish cathedral, and is evocative of España negra (Black Spain), a late 19th-century artistic and intellectual movement, certainly familiar to Huntington, that looked back for inspiration to a 16th- and 17th-century Spain under the firm grip of the Inquisition.

  • Unknown artist, Plate

    Unknown artist, Plate, c. 1500-15.

    Tin-glazed earthenware with cobalt and lustre. 6.5 x 47.5 cm. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY.

  • Perhaps to counter this association and wishing to communicate a brighter and more modern version of Spain, Huntington conceived, with the help of the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla, a room right next door with colourful renditions of the Spanish regions and provinces. Seemingly blind to the tensions that would lead to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Catalan and Basque nationalism, Sorolla represents Spain as a harmonious and multicultural country, where its men and women happily coexist and focus on activities that best suit their geopolitical areas, from tuna fishing in Ayamonte to a group of city councillors in Navarre or the celebration of Holy Week in Seville. Sorolla’s large-scale gouache studies for these works travel to the RA.

    Most collections that lie off the beaten track depend for visitors on the Mona Lisa syndrome: the must-see masterwork. At the Wallace it is undoubtedly Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier (1624). At the Hispanic Society, it is Francisco de Goya’s sensational The Duchess of Alba (1797). A contemporary of the Duchess claimed that ‘every hair on her head elicits desire’. Dressed in a black costume and mantilla, she stands in a landscape evocative of the sandy river views one sees today in the Doñana National Park near Cádiz. At the Hispanic Society she is centre stage in the courtyard and confronts you as if about to click her fingers and stamp the ground in a flight of fiery flamenco. Once you see her at the RA, you will agree that she would have been worth crossing the Atlantic to meet.

  • Joaquín Sorolla, Vision of Spain (sketch) (detail)

    Joaquín Sorolla, Vision of Spain (sketch) (detail), 1912-1913.

    Gouache on kraft paper. 107 x 191 cm. On loan from The Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY.

  • It is only relatively recently that the Society, like the Wallace, decided it would lend works to other institutions when a fitting occasion called for it. It was this change in museum policy that has enabled the Duchess and other masterpieces to come to London. These loans characterise the major revival of museums such as the Hispanic Society. While retaining the intimacy and jewel-like quality conceived by their founders, they are now participating on the global art scene, making more noise and allowing pilgrims across the world to pay homage to their treasures.

    Xavier Bray is an art historian specialising in Spanish art and Director of the Wallace Collection, London

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