Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Hispanic Society

Last week I made a trip to New York City and went up to one of my favorite haunts, the Hispanic Society, on 155th Street in Upper Manhattan.  The Hispanic Society has a rather struggling air to it, and in fact I didn’t get any pictures of the building because there was scaffolding and blue tarp all around it.  This is a good thing, because it means that repairs are being made.

The Hispanic Society has been struggling ever since I first saw it, and because I grew up near that neighborhood, you can imagine how many years that means!

Located in a plaza originally intended for other museums or institutions, such as the Numismatic Society, but now virtually abandoned by the other museums and sharing its broad plaza with a small college, the Hispanic Society was founded in 1904 by Archer Milton Huntington, heir to a railroad fortune.

He fell in love with Spain at an early age and by the time he was 14 had resolved to found a museum dedicated to Spain. Fortunately, he had the money to indulge his interests, and spent years building his collection of everything Spanish – ceramics, photographs, painting, coins, etc.  He first purchased  items in Spain and then decided that taking them out of Spain was unethical, so he subsequently collected only things that were already on the international art market and outside of Spain.


He commissioned the artist Joaquín Sorolla to  paint a huge mural for the reading room, and in 1919, the artist completed the work, which we see above.  It wasn’t open to the public until 1926, 3 years after Sorolla’s death.  The murals suffered water damage over the years and were sadly in need of restoration, which was finally supplied by Bancaja, a Spanish bank headquarted in Valencia, home city of Sorolla.  The murals are currently on tour in Spain and will be back in NYC in September, reopening in January of 2010.

Archer Huntington married the sculptress Anna Hyatt in the 20s, and the Society benefitted from her work.  The plaza is surrounded by the dramatic bronze equestrian statues and marble bas-reliefs for which she was famous.  Most of these also appeared to be undergoing cleaning or were covered for some other reason, so I don’t have any photos. But this cover from one of the Society’s few publications – a pamphlet published in 1945! – will give you some idea of her work.


I was able to buy an excellent catalog by the paintings curator, Marcus Burke, published on the occasion of the Museum’s 100th anniversary. However, when I attempted to join the museum, I was told that it was impossible, I had to take the form home, fill it out and mail it in!  All it requested was my name and address and a check or $50, which I could easily have done at the desk. But the fact that the museum lets potential members of the museum friends society slip through its fingers like that is simply par for the course, I suspect.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Spanish Colonial Art in – Davenport, Iowa?

Today I took a quick trip to Orlando and stopped at one of my favorite small museums, the Menello Museum of American Art. Dedicated mostly to the work of primitive painter Earl Cunningham, of St. Augustine, it has a small gallery of other Florida folk painters and a tiny but nice bookstore; actually, it’s not a store, but just a couple of shelves. And this was where I discovered that Davenport, Iowa is host to one of the country’s finest collections of Mexican Colonial art, painted during the several hundred years that Mexico was a Spanish colony.


The museum is based on the collection of a late 19th-early 20th century collector from Iowa named C.A. Ficke.  He was born in Germany but brought to the US at the age of two and grew up in Iowa. Once he had made his fortune in land development, he became a wide-ranging collector of art, and was particularly attracted by the art of Colonial Mexico. He was advised by a Mexican scholar in the selection of the paintings, most of which were acquired from private parties (he lists sources such as “an old priest” and “the thieves’ market”). He left his collection to the City of Davenport, and it was the foundation for the collection of the future Davenport Museum of Art, now known as the Ficke Museum.

At the same time, a Missouri woman named Margaret Barber was collecting everything she laid eyes on, including “works of Spanish painters.”  She also collected furniture, needlework, pewter, porcelain, etc., etc.  In the 1950s, after her death, her collections were broken up, with the Mexican paintings going to William Wood College in Missouri. They were bought by the Davenport Museum in 1992 to add to its Mexican art collection.

This made up for the loss of some of the Ficke collection in the 1940s and 1950s, when the museum entered on hard times and actually sold some of its collection. It has recovered some of the paintings, but not all.

The collection spans hundreds of years and has some of the finest of the early Mexican painters.  The excellent catalog was prepared by Marcus Burke, curator of paintings at The Hispanic Society.  You can visit the collection at the Ficke Museum’s excellent website.