I have been waiting for an exhibition like this for a while now. After four years as an Art History student researching old masters such as Diego Velasquez and Fra Angelico, I finally had the chance to see their work up close! The Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting exhibition at the Meadows Museum offers viewers a glimpse into five centuries of art collecting on behalf of the prominent Spanish aristocratic Alba family. This magnificent private collection features rare paintings, tapestries, books and more ranging from the fifteenth to the twenty century. Many of these treasures have never seen a world outside Spain until now.
Walking into the House of Alba exhibition you are met with complementary Spanish paintings in a salon-style fashion from the Meadows’ collection in addition to a special display of Diego Velasquez’s Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress (1659) from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. As I continued walking through centuries of glorious extravagance, there was the usual grand portraiture as well as religious and Greco-Roman mythological themes represented, but one work in particular stopped me in my tracks: Mercury in Love with Herse (1570) by Willem de Pannemaker. This impressive floor to ceiling tapestry made of gold, wool, silk and silver is one of eight tapestries illustrating Ovid’s tale of Mercury and Herse in Metamorphosis. I quickly became enamored with the great beauty and extraordinary details of this work from the Flemish artist I had only heard of for the first time. I was lucky enough to find Los amores de Mercurio y Herse: Una tapicería rica de Willem de Pannemaker in Hamon’s collection to further examine the additional tapestries from this body of work.
And one could not possibly ignore, perhaps one of the most famous works in the House of Alba collection, The Duchess of Alba in White (1795) by Francisco Goya. Now I am usually a fan of Goya’s darker work (Los Caprichos, anyone?), but his portraits of Duchess Maria Cayetana de Silva are quite intriguing, not only for their exquisiteness, but also because they bring to mind centuries of speculation on the alleged romance between the duchess and court painter. However, La duquesa de Alba, musa de Goya: el Mito y la Historia (The Duchess of Alba, Goya’s Muse: Myth and History) by Manuela B. Mena Marqués, concludes that this rumor is completely false. While researching her essays, Mena Marqués, a Goya expert at the Prado Museum in Madrid, claims this theory to be supported by several letters, including one to the duchess’ cousin, Carlos Pignatelli, which douses any romantic connections between the famous pair. But we can still dream, can’t we? After all, this alleged romance did influence several academic studies, films, and novels.
Another artist I was unaware of until my Meadows visit was the Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga, whose work spans from the end of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The House of Alba exhibit features several Zuloaga portraits of the Alba family, but Portrait of María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubary, Seventeenth Duchess of Alba (1921) virtually called me from across the room. The duchess’ gaze matched with her vibrant red dress and elegant mantilla against a black, gloomy sky practically demands the attention of the whole room. Though not directly related to the House of Alba collection, Catalogo de la exposicion de pintura de Ignacio Zuloaga, 1870-1945 displays numerous additional fascinating portraits and landscapes from this important Spanish painter.
As I wrapped up my journey through the House of Alba, I began thinking about the treasures we have in the stacks at the Hamon Arts Library. No, we do not have Ribera or Dürer on our walls like the House of Alba (we wish!), but we do have many print and online resources on such artists. If you enjoyed the Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting exhibition at the Meadows Museum, come discover related books at the Hamon Arts Library! Hamon holds several titles, including the House of Alba exhibition catalog, on the legendary art collection and countless other information resources on individual artists from Fra Angelico to Titian and Rubens that have artwork featured in the renowned House of Alba collection.
Go see Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting now on display at the Meadows Museum from September 11, 2015-January 3, 2016, and read books on the House of Alba on display on the first floor of Hamon Arts Library.
Thank you to Mariza Morin, Stacks Manager, Hamon Arts Library, for this guest blog!