The art of kings Clark Museum brings historic paintings from Spain to U.S. for first time

  • “Fortuna,” oil on canvas by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-38. Alberto Otero—Museo Nacional del Prado

  • “Hercules Defeats King Geryon,” oil on canvas by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1634-35  Alberto Otero Herranz—Museo Nacional del Prado

  • “Marriage of Peleus and Thetis,” oil on canvas by Jacob Jordaens, 1636-38 Jose Baztan Lacasa—Museo Nacional del Prado

  • “Sight and Smell,” oil on canvas by several Flemish artists, 1618-23 Jose Baztan Lacasa/MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO

  • “Venus with Organist and Cupid,” oil on canvas by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli), 1550-55 JOSE BAZTAN LACASA/MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO

  • “Susannah and the Elders,” oil on canvas by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), 1617  Jose Baztan Lacasa—Museo Nacional del Prado

  • “Rape of Hippodamia,” oil on canvas by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-38 Image courtesy of Clark Art Institute

  • ”Abundance with the Four Elements,” oil on copper by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrik de Clerck, 1606. One of the “Flemish Cabinet Paintings” in the new Clark exhibit. Jose Baztan Lacasa/MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/23/2016 1:43:54 PM

It was the era that became known as the Spanish Golden Age, when Spain was arguably the most powerful nation in western Europe, with a burgeoning colonial empire in the Americas and considerable territorial holdings in Europe, including modern-day Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and part of Italy.

And during the 16th and 17th centuries, some members of Spain’s ruling family, the Hapsburg dynasty, were also great patrons of the arts, commissioning and acquiring paintings by European masters, with a particular focus on female nudes — a seeming contradiction in a nation dominated by a rigid and powerful Catholic Church that believed nudity was immoral.

A new exhibit at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown is designed to shine a light on the Spanish royalty’s embrace of sensual art during a time of religious strictures. “Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado” features 28 Old-Master oil paintings from Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Of those 28 works, 24 have never been displayed in the U.S.

The exhibit focuses on artworks collected by Phillip II, Spain’s king from 1556 to 1598, and his grandson, Phillip IV, who ruled from 1621 to 1655. Phillip II became a great patron of Titian, the Italian painter recognized as the leader of the 16th century Venetian School, while Phillip IV championed the work of Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Along with works of Titian and Ruben, the Clark exhibit, on view through Oct. 10, includes oil paintings from Spanish, Italian, French and Flemish artists, including Diego Velázquez of Spain and Jan Brueghel the Elder of Flanders.

Thematically, the focus is very much on the flesh, predominantly in the form of eroticized female nudes. But there’s some beefcake as well, and many of the paintings depict biblical stories or ancient Greek and Roman myths in which nudity can be a symbol of danger.

“This was really the beginning of a tradition [of Spanish monarchs collecting paintings] that goes forward several centuries,” said Lara Yeager-Crassell, the Clark’s interim curator of paintings and sculpture. “But there were threats to that collection at times.”

In particular, two 18th-century Spanish kings, Charles III and Charles IV, considered destroying the nude paintings because of their perceived immoral content. Instead, many of those works were transferred to an art academy to make them available as teaching tools for students and to remove them from the public eye.

Even during the reigns of Phillp II and IV, many of those same works were placed in salas reservadas, or private rooms, within a palace or even royal hunting lodges, says Kathleen Morris, the museum’s director of exhibitions and collections and curator of decorative arts. 

 With just 28 paintings, the Clark’s new exhibit feels a bit smaller than the museum’s past summer shows, such as last year’s “Van Gogh and Nature.” But the relatively small number of works belies the focus and scope of the show, which features some massive canvases, such as Ruben’s “The Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs)”; it measures nearly 6 by 10 feet.

Painted between 1636 and 1638 for Phillip IV, “Rape of Hippodamia” depicts a scene from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” in which centaurs attempt to kidnap the bride Hippodamia at her wedding to Pirithous, king of the Lapiths. Hippodamia, her arms flailing above her bare breasts, looks with frightened eyes to her would-be rescuers, led by the Athenian hero Theseus.

With its grand setting and rich, luminous colors, the painting serves as a good example of much of the work in the exhibit. The female nudes are generally shown in languid poses, lying on couches or in pastoral settings, or bathing or readying for a bath. These are not the super-slim images of today’s idealized women, either: here they have ample buttocks and thighs and often some extra padding by their stomachs.

In Titian’s eroticized “Venus with an Organist and Cupid,” painted between 1550 and 1555, Venus, wearing nothing but a necklace, bracelet and earrings, reclines on a couch in a villa while a partially visible Cupid whispers in her left ear. On the left, an organist leans away from his keyboard, staring at Venus’ lower torso.

Morris says Titian’s model for Venus may well have been a 16th-century Venetian courtesan and poet named Veronica Franco, who also figures in some of the artist’s other paintings.

As exhibit notes explain, Titian and another Venetian artist, Giorgione, “developed a new, sensual approach to depicting the female nude, blurring the line between goddesses and contemporary women.”

As well, artists in the Clark exhibit invariably painted their women in pale, alabaster tones, giving them a certain glow.

By contrast, men, especially those with a minimum of clothing, were shown with darker complexions and well-defined muscles. 

In two paintings that celebrate one of ancient Greece’s most legendary heroes, Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán depicts Hercules battling the many-headed Hydra, and then King Geryon, with a club; he’s clad in just a loincloth, and every inch of his body seems to ripple with muscle.

As Morris sees it, Phillip II and Phillip IV did not collect these nude paintings out of prurient interest; rather, the power and reach of the Spanish Empire gave them access to a wider body of art and high culture, and their artistic collections would eventually become a symbol of prestige. By the end of the 17th century, the Spanish Royal Collections numbered over 5,000 paintings, the largest in Europe.

The rulers would likely also have been drawn to the biblical and mythological stories dramatized in the art, Morris said: “The kings of Spain would recognize these scenes. They would have read their Ovid.” 

And even if the Catholic Church viewed nude art as immoral, Spanish monarchs and many others had been influenced to some degree by the values of the Renaissance, during which the naked human body had become less a symbol of sin and shame and more one of aesthetic value. 

“Splendor, Myth and Vision” also includes smaller works collectively known as Flemish Cabinet Paintings, in which artists such as Jan Brueghel the Elder used oil on copper and wood panels to create intimate woodland scenes with nymphs and satyrs.

These paintings offer remarkable detail and resolution, a testament to the greater durability of copper in particular compared to canvas, Morris notes.

In a sense, the exhibit dates from 2010, when the Prado hosted a well-attended show of 31 paintings by Impressionist master Auguste Renoir, all on loan from the Clark.

Since then, the two museums have discussed other means of collaborating, and Clark officials believed bringing a select group of paintings from the crowded Prado to Massachusetts would give them “proper space, “ Morris noted. “They can breathe.”

Indeed, she’s particularly pleased with the juxtaposition of three paintings of Saint Sebastian, a Roman soldier martyred for his Christianity who became a popular saint in early Europe.

The three works, which all show a bare-chested Sebastian wounded and bleeding from arrows, were all in far-flung galleries at the Prado, Morris said, and she recalls thinking

“They’ll look great next to each other.”

She was right.

“Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado” is on display at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through Oct. 10. For ticket prices, visiting hours and other details, visit 

















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