‘Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820-1920’ Review: Iberian Influence

Norfolk, Va.

Like the United States itself, American art is woven from many strands, with the largest and brightest threads being inspired by French, British, and Italian traditions. A new exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art gives weight and shine to another aesthetic influence: “Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820-1920” examines the diverse possibilities of American artists such as William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent learned from the arts, architecture, landscape and the people of Spain.

Disarming evidence appears at the entrance to the show, where a charming 1899 portrait of Chase shows his young daughter dressed and posing like the Infanta in Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece “Las Meninas” (1656). Her name is Helen Velázquez Chase.

Americans first learned about Spain’s seductive culture from books, prints, and paintings (many by British artists who arrived there in the early 19th century), and this is where visitors to this exhibition begin too. The selection includes Washington Irving’s popular “Tales of the Alhambra” (1832), a collection of essays on “one of the most remarkable, romantic and delicious places in the world” that is still in print. Irving is also remembered in a painting by David Wilkie – “Washington Irving in the Archives of Seville” (1828-29) – as a handsome, curly-haired scholar flipping through a thick volume.

At the end of the Civil War, American artists traveled to Spain in droves. Once there, many first went to the Prado Museum, where they copied the old masters. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s heavenly “The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial” (1660-65) illustrates the wealth they saw. Jusepe de Ribera and El Greco, both represented in the exhibition, as well as Francisco de Zurbarán and Francisco de Goya, who could be seen in paintings from their workshops, also deserved copying.

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