“El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of King Philip III” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

I’m trying to catch up on exhibitions while my studio work is temporarily on hold because of the inevitable flood of work that happens at the end of the academic year. The other day I went to see “El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of King Philip III” at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston during a lunch break when I was at SMFA. I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain when I was studying abroad my junior year at RISD and that experience alone cemented and heightened exponentionally my tremendous appreciation for Spanish painters like Velazquez, Goya, and El Greco. I visited more museums than I can count that year, and the Prado was hands down the best museum experience I had during that time.

The exhibition was primarily focused on oil painting, although there were a few life size figurative sculptures as well. Seeing the El Greco paintings in person in the context of other paintings of his time makes you appreciate how daring it must have been for him to push distortion of the human figure to the extent that he did. What I noticed specifically in looking at the actual paintings was the perfection of the feet of his figures which never seemed to hold any weight, as well as glossy and luminous eyes which stood out against the corpse-like fleshiness of skin. The portrait which struck me the most was his portrait of St. Jerome. The distortion is so extreme, especially in terms of the tiny wrinkled head and the arms which seem completely detached from the body.

El Greco, “St. Jerome, cardinal”, 1587-1597

A Spanish painter who I wasn’t familiar with before seeing this exhibition was Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. I found his portraits of the royal family to be quite bizarre, despite the fact that they were to represent the royal family. The portraits of children were uncomfortably stiff, and yet the obsessive attention to detail in the clothing was astonishing in it’s delicacy and gestural quality. It’s impossible to see in this digital image, but he painted every stitch in the embroidery of the girl’s dress. The most impressive passages was the lace on the collars: he put down a blur of grey paint to imply the form of the collar and then layered over that the tiniest brushstrokes you can imagine to precisely articulate the intricate lace pattern. I also thought the baby “walker” the boy is sitting in is just about the strangest piece of furniture: it’s a baby walker and yet it’s designed like a throne, symbolizing the boy’s future reign.

Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, “The Infantes Don Felipe and Doña Ana,” 1607

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