Sarah Schroth. Credit: Bill Bamberger
Sarah Schroth. Credit: Bill Bamberger

Everyone Wanted an El Greco

Art historian Sarah Schroth tracks down the lost collection of a powerful nobleman, reclaims a forgotten chapter in seventeenth-century Spanish art, and helps launch an exhibit of astonishing power-the Nasher Museum of Art's first blockbuster.
June 1, 2008
 

When visitors stroll through the Nasher Museum of Art's first blockbuster exhibition,"El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III," this fall, they'll see exquisitely rendered still lifes, opulent portraits of royalty, and stirring religious images, all produced in Spain during the early part of the seventeenth century. What won't be apparent is the show's unexpected starting point: the dark, dank attic of a former hospital in Toledo, Spain.

Twenty-one years ago, in the winter of 1987, Sarah Schroth was holed up in that musty attic poring over neglected parchment folders that had accumulated centuries' worth of dust, hoping to find something-anything-about the subject of her doctoral dissertation.

Schroth, then a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, was curious about the collecting habits of King Philip III and his court. Conventional thinking among art historians was that work produced during Philip's reign was barely worth noting, particularly compared with the rich and extensive collections assembled by his father, Philip II, and son, Philip IV. Art historians scornfully referred to him as, in the words of one, "the Philip in between."

But Schroth had a hunch there was more to the story. It made no sense, for example, that this period would have been so stagnant in the visual arts-a chasm between the remarkably vibrant production under Philips II and IV-especially considering the epochal flowering of Spanish literature: Miguel Cervantes wrote Don Quixote; playwright Lope de Vega produced his most significant body of work, including Fuente Ovejuna; and poet Luis de Góngora redefined Baroque verse through complex works such as the Soledads.

And she knew that the powerful and influential Duke of Lerma, Philip III's chief minister and favorite, had commissioned a portrait from Peter Paul Rubens and collected El Greco, whose work Philip's father had disliked. So when she was unable to find much on the collecting habits of the king himself, she turned to the Duke of Lerma. After spending five fruitless months searching all of Spain's well-known historic archives, she took a gamble on one last out-of-the-way depository: the private Medinaceli archive in Toledo (one of Lerma's daughters had married into the family).

It was a long shot. The Duke of Lerma's last male heir died in 1636, so the family archives could have been dispersed in bits and pieces to any number of subsequent generations, or destroyed. Other scholars who'd conducted research there told her she was wasting her time-they'd seen only documents from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, circa 1600, by Juan Sánchez Cotán. Oil on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art. "In these works," Schroth writes, "Sánchez Cotán demonstrated his knowledge and command of the early international Baroque language of tenebrism (strong contrast of light and dark), naturalism (a new manner of observing and depicting reality), and illusion (the fruits and vegetables are so perfectly rendered they seem real)."

Still Life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, circa 1600, by Juan Sánchez Cotán. Oil on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.
 
"In these works," Schroth writes, "Sánchez Cotán demonstrated his knowledge and command of the early international Baroque language of tenebrism (strong contrast of light and dark), naturalism (a new manner of observing and depicting reality), and illusion (the fruits and vegetables are so perfectly rendered they seem real)." Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Every morning for a week, Schroth caught the bus from Madrid to Toledo to go through page after page of meticulously recorded manuscripts, written with methodical precision in Castilian Spanish cursive. In the cramped room that originally had been used as a servant's bedroom, lit only by the sunshine that came through a small arched window, Schroth leafed through hundreds of pages listing Medinaceli family possessions. Each night, she came home empty-handed, no mention of Lerma's collections to be found.

It was in her second week, after scrutinizing several dozen of the hundreds of uncatalogued bundles that lined one wall of the attic, that Schroth found what she was looking for: an inventory of paintings owned or commissioned by the Duke of Lerma-448 in all. "My heart soared," she says.

"These papers were filthy, and somewhat hard to read, because the ink from the back of pages had bled through to the front," she recalls. "They had probably gone undisturbed since the nineteenth century. But I realized that I had found proof of Lerma's influence and patronage."

With this document alone, she had enough for her dissertation, but still she kept looking. In the weeks that followed, she uncovered twelve more household inventories, never before published, virtually unknown, and telling a remarkable tale. Not only was the Duke of Lerma, Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, a prolific collector-estimates of his painting collection alone range from 1,500 to more than 2,700 works-he was a gifted connoisseur with a discerning eye. His holdings included works by Italians Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), Paolo Veronese, and Antonio da Correggio; Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Pourbus the Younger; the great Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch; and the Spaniards Francisco Ribalta and Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. Thousands more of the works were unattributed.

As Schroth began to comprehend the breadth and depth of Lerma's collections, she began to grasp-slowly at first, and then with a giddy mixture of disbelief and excitement-that Philip III's reign, from 1598 to 1621, produced a breathtaking array of innovative and highly accomplished artistic achievements.

"I knew that what I found was big," recalls Schroth, now a curator at the Nasher. "But I also knew that I was working against the grain of what was accepted in art history about that time."

When she reported her findings to her dissertation adviser, Jonathan Brown, he recalls being "bowled over."

"No one had suspected that the Duke of Lerma was such a major collector of art," he says. "This was a huge find, not only for Spanish art but for European art in general. Discoveries like this almost never happen."

Equestrian Portrait, Duke of Lerma, circa 1603, by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado. Rubens' painting

Equestrian Portrait, Duke of Lerma, circa 1603, by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado. 

Rubens' painting of the Duke of Lerma exemplifies the trend in portraiture that took hold during Philip III's reign. Members of the royal court, and Lerma in particular, were depicted as politically strong and culturally influential, the better to convey the supremacy of the monarchy. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

With a grant to extend her doctoral research for a year, Schroth embarked on a journey throughout Spain to visit places where Lerma's vast collection might have been dispersed, and began a comprehensive reassessment of artwork created during Philip III's reign. The best-known artists from that period-El Greco, already an established painter when Philip took the throne, and Velázquez, who had begun to make a name for himself by the time Philip died-served as convenient bookends for the survey. Schroth was interested in seeing how those artists' works were influenced by the cultural, religious, and political changes that took place under the monarchy, as well as "rediscovering," and developing a new appreciation for, relatively obscure artists that she had only read about in the course of her graduate studies.

Because most of the work from the period was referred to only tangentially in scholarly accounts, Schroth had long assumed that the art was of middling value. When she encountered the work firsthand, she was struck by its consistently high quality. "When my art-history textbooks included paintings or sculptures [from lesser-known artists] from this period of time, which wasn't often, the reproductions were in black-and-white and often taken by nonprofessionals, so you couldn't get a sense for whether the work was any good or not," she says. In addition, as she scoured the countryside, she found that much of the artwork was hanging (or stored) in some unlikely places-far from the climate-controlled galleries of a Prado or Metropolitan Museum and the scrutiny of art historians.

In the stairwell of a municipal building in Valladolid, Spain, where Philip III held court from 1601 to 1603, Schroth happened on a painting of the resurrection of Christ. "It looked like it belonged to my period [of research]," she says. "It was a night scene that showed Christ illuminated in the darkness, and I knew that Lerma loved night scenes." Sure enough, when Schroth examined the painting more closely, she found the artist's signature: Pantoja de la Cruz, the royal portraitist for Philip III. Schroth would later confirm that the painting had indeed belonged to Lerma.

Other works she tracked down were located in even less hospitable places. For example, she found The Stigmatization of St. Francis, by Philip III's official court painter, Vicente Carducho, hanging in a cloister courtyard in a working hospital in Madrid, protected from the rain but little else.

The Duke of Lerma's portrait, which now hangs in the Prado, fared better. Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens visited the Spanish court in 1603 as an envoy from the Duke of Mantua. In a letter home to Mantua, Rubens wrote that he was "astonished" by the Duke of Lerma's estimable collection that included Titian and Raphael. Although he declined the Duke's offer to become the official court painter, Rubens did agree to paint the nobleman's portrait. It is one of the highlights of the Nasher exhibition. Shown mounted on a magnificent white steed, the Duke is depicted as a virile and powerful man wreathed in good fortune. And so he was. Before Philip III, most monarchs relied on a coterie of advisers, Schroth says. Philip depended so heavily on Lerma that the Duke was, in essence, the first de facto prime minister of Europe.

Her dissertation, "The Private Picture Collection of the Duke of Lerma," completed in 1990, makes the persuasive case that the Duke's prodigious collecting habits, combined with his unprecedented access to the king, created an environment that placed a high value on art, fostered innovations in artistic creation, and conferred much sought-after social status on patrons of the arts. She notes, for example, that Philip II hated the work of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, the Greek painter commonly known as El Greco. Lerma, on the other hand, recognized the artist's talents-influenced by Titian and the late Renaissance, but with a distinct style all his own-and acquired an El Greco painting of St. Francis.

The Ecstasy of St. Francis of Assisi: The Vision of the Musical Angel, circa 1620-1625, by Francisco Ribalta. Oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Until the reign of Philip III, there were very few depictions of Spanish saints, but as writers and clerics began to explore the idea of forging personal identification with God, Spanish artists often visualized "secularizing the transcendental."

The Ecstasy of St. Francis of Assisi: The Vision of the Musical Angel, circa 1620-1625, by Francisco Ribalta. Oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. 

Until the reign of Philip III, there were very few depictions of Spanish saints, but as writers and clerics began to explore the idea of forging personal identification with God, Spanish artists often visualized "secularizing the transcendental." Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"Once Lerma had an El Greco," Schroth says, "everyone wanted an El Greco." Demand for the painter's work skyrocketed, and he had to enlarge his workshop to keep up. The resulting economic security allowed El Greco to evolve and experiment as an artist.

Determined to bring her discoveries to a wider audience, Schroth continued to publish on the artists and themes that defined the era, and today is considered one of the leading contemporary art historians of early Baroque Spain. She came to Duke in 1995 as curator and deputy director of the Duke Museum of Art/Prado exchange program, served as interim director of the Nasher from 2003 to 2004, and was named the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator in 2004.

Even as she taught, lectured, and curated shows at Duke, Schroth had a vision of mounting a blockbuster exhibit of art produced during Philip III's reign that never wavered. Originally, she wanted Duke to collaborate on a show with the Prado, as the museum had featured retrospectives of every period of Spanish art except that produced under Philip III. But the costs and technical requirements of mounting a multimillion-dollar show at a university museum-especially one housed in a modest, converted sciences building-proved prohibitive.

But when the museum moved into its far more elegant digs in the fall of 2005, Schroth contacted her colleague Ronnie Baer, an art historian specializing in seventeenth-century Dutch art, whose expertise overlapped with Schroth's. The two had studied at NYU at the same time and had spent countless hours together preparing for their final oral exams. Baer had landed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she is the Mrs. Russell W. Baker Senior Curator of Paintings. With the MFA committed to the show, Schroth and Baer traveled to Spain and looked at art produced during Philip III's reign, and Baer began to discern themes to give structure and direction to the planned exhibit. These groupings include works that illustrate the birth of naturalism in Spanish art; the creation of sophisticated still-life paintings that combined for the first time naturalism, illusion, and tenebrism (a heightened form of chiaroscuro); humanized depictions of saints and other sacred figures; and extravagant portraiture.

Baer also suggested the show's title, with its emphasis on El Greco and Velázquez, the two big names likely to draw crowds. Schroth admits it provides a savvier marketing hook than the one she'd proposed: "In a New Style of Grandeur: Art at the Court of Philip III."

"Never, never in a million years could we have done this exhibit without Boston," says Schroth. "The MFA is very powerful. Because of their involvement, the Prado is loaning seven works for the exhibit, which is unheard of.

"They also got an indemnity grant from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities to insure the show," Schroth adds. "It's the most-funded show MFA has had in recent memory-and together we secured sponsorship from the Bank of America, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Homeland Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts."

The exhibition opened at the MFA on April 20 and runs through July 27. It opens at Duke on August 21 and runs through November 9.

Schroth's resolve to share her findings with a wider audience paid off in other ways. In an essay in the exhibition's catalogue, Laura Bass, an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Tulane University, applied Schroth's scholarship and ideas to solve the age-old paradox faced by all students of Spanish literature, until now: How could what Bass describes as a "literary efflorescence" under Philip III have occured during a supposed period of decline in the visual arts? Bass calls the reign of Philip III "one of the most innovative periods in Spanish literary history."

"The brilliance of Cervantes, Lope, or Góngora comes into focus not only as a matter of individual genius but also as a product of a society ripe for genius as a prized cultural value," Bass wrote in the essay. "Their lives are not only parallel but intersect with artists in a shared culture of intellectual and artistic promotion and production."

Serendipitously, while conducting her research in Spain, Schroth had become friends with another young scholar, Antonio Feros, who was beginning to piece together missing parts of Philip III's impact on the Spanish empire from a historian's perspective. Eventually, Feros compiled enough evidence to suggest a different, more positive way of considering Philip III's political motivations, leadership style, and historical impact. Now an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, Feros has written an essay for the exhibition's catalogue titled "Art and Spanish Society: The Historical Context, 1577-1623," and will deliver a guest lecture at Duke in conjunction with the exhibition.

Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, 1609, by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Spanish society under Philip III embraced a new sense of individualism, and artists such as El Greco followed suit by painting subjects so that their distinctive character came through. This realistic, subtly nuanced portrait of Fray Paravicino—monk, poet, court preacher—captures the close friendship between painter and subject.

Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, 1609, by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos). Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Spanish society under Philip III embraced a new sense of individualism, and artists such as El Greco followed suit by painting subjects so that their distinctive character came through. This realistic, subtly nuanced portrait of Fray Paravicino—monk, poet, court preacher—captures the close friendship between painter and subject. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

 

 

The show features works from such major museums as the Prado; the Museo del Greco, Toledo; the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; London's National Gallery; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as rarely seen works borrowed from private collectors and smaller Spanish museums, monasteries, and churches that are traveling for the first time. The equestrian portrait of the Duke by El Greco figures large, but the lesser known works, like Pantoja's Resurrection of Christ, from the Valladolid municipal building, and Carducho's The Stigmatization of St. Francis, from that hospital in Madrid, are also included.

Organizers hope that the exhibit, which comprises more than 100 paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, will draw 100,000 visitors in a little over two months later this fall. The Nasher plans to spend more money marketing "El Greco to Velázquez" -officials decline to say how much-than it did on its own grand opening.

Two decades after her fortuitous discovery in that Toledo attic, Schroth says she is confident that the viewing public is in for a glorious visual trip through the artistic splendors of Philip III's seventeenth-century Spain. "These painters were not second tier," she says. "In fact, to their contemporaries, they were considered better trained than El Greco and Velázquez."

Still, she admits to apprehensive curiosity about how her research will be greeted by fellow art historians. "I imagine it's similar to what an artist feels when they show their work. This exhibit is a creative act that is being revealed. It's new, it's mine, and it's scary. I know it's ridiculous to have this worry, but I do. The stakes are very high."