‘El Greco to Velazquez’ helps put Nasher on the map
By Katie Scarvey
Just four years ago, the site of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke was a field of weeds.
With its current exhibit ó “El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III” the museum has definitely come of age.
The energetic research of Sarah Schroth, the museum’s Nancy Hanks Senior Curator, led to the amazing exhibition.
In 1987, when she was a doctoral student at New York University, Shroth was studying the collecting habits of King Philip III and his court. At the time, the consensus in the art world was that the art associated with that Spanish court was hardly worthy of note, especially compared to the collections of Philip III’s father and son.
It didn’t make sense to Schroth that with Spanish literature as vibrant as it was during this eraó think Cervantes and Lope de Vega ó visual arts would be as insignificant as history seemed to suggest.
Shroth was aware that Philip III’s prime minister, the powerful Duke of Lerma, was an art collector, and she felt that not enough scholarly attention had been focused on him.
Schroth traveled to Spain and pored through well-known archival collections, hoping to learn more about the Duke of Lerma ó and came up empty. She then gained access to the private Medinaceli archive in Toledo.
Although she knew that one of the duke’s daughters had married into the family, she was told she was wasting her time, that she wouldn’t find documents from the 1500s and 1600s.Undeterred, Schroth began her meticulous search. In her second week, she made a discovery that would reverberate through the art world: an inventory of 448 paintings owned or commissioned by the Duke of Lerma.
She continued searching and found more inventories, documenting about 2,000 paintings collected by the Duke of Lerma, including works by Titian, Veronese, Coreggio, Rubens, and Hieronymus Bosch.
By then it was clear that the Duke of Lerma’s holdings were extensive and important. Schroth’s findings effectively dispelled the idea that nothing much was happening with art collecting during the reign of Philip III.
Shroth wasn’t content to stop there. She continued her research in the years following her discovery and began putting together a wish list of pieces for a show.
The hoped-for exhibition finally came to fruition this year as the result of Schroth’s collaboration with her good friend and former NYU classmate Ronni Baer, who is the Mrs. Russell W. Baker Senior Curator of Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The Nasher wouldn’t have been able to do the show without the collaboration with the MFA, Schroth says. The Boston museum provided the clout necessary to orchestrate seven major loans from the Prado in Spain, including some canvases so large they came on freighter ships, including El Greco’s “The Annunciation,” a masterpiece of titanic proportions.
“El Greco to Velázquez” covers the years of 1598-1621 and includes 52 master paintings, including seven late works by El Greco and three early works by Velázquez.
The exhibition opened in Boston on April 20 and ran through July 27. Close to 140,000 visitors attended, Baer said.
Organizers of the Nasher exhibition ó who have spent more for this exhibition’s marketing campaign than they did for their own grand opening ó hope to draw more than 100,000 visitors for the show’s Durham run, more than the total number of visitors the museum drew in all of 2007.
The works in the exhibition are divided among two pavilions. One pavilion is devoted to the religious works; the other features portraits and secular works, including still lifes.
Some of the most impressive pieces are not by either El Greco or Velazquez ó like Juan Bautisto Main’s “Adoration of the Magi,” on loan from the Prado.
This gigantic canvas with its incredibly vivid colors is sure to stop visitors in their tracks.
Vicente Carducho’s “The Stigmatization of Saint Francis” was actually discovered by Schroth hanging in a working hospital in Madrid.
The still lifes in the exhibition are important because they were some of the first examples of the genre. Up until that time, the subjects of still lifes had been details or props or decorative flourishes, according to the show’s educational material. But by the late 1500s, they had become the focus of some paintings.
Also of interest are the “bodegon” paintings. Bodegon means “tavern,” and broadly the term encompasses any humble subject with still life elements.
One example in the show is Jusepe de Ribera’s “The Sense of Taste,” which features a beefy-looking guy with a ruddy face sitting down to a hearty bowl of eels, bread and wine.
As Schroth puts it, “there’s something for everybody here.”
The religious sculptures in the exhibition are the pieces that are closest to her heart says Schroth, who had a Catholic girlhood in Winchester, Va. (where her best friend in high school was Bob Setzer, who now lives in Salisbury).
“My curator friends told me I’d never get them,” Schroth said. “‘Don’t do it, don’t even try,’ they said.”
But Schroth felt that an exhibition of art during the reign of Philip III needed to have sculpture represented. And so she and Baer felt they had to give it a shot.
In remarks to the assembled crowd of media several days before the exhibition’s official opening, the two women talked about their negotiations with a parish priest in the town of Valladolid, Spain, to borrow a statue of St. Ignatius.
They visited five times. On the fifth visit, Baer said, the parish priest they had been speaking to said, “I recognize you, Senora.” And he finally agreed to loan them the sculptures.
“I think we just wore them down,” Baer said.
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“El Greco to Velázquez” continues through Nov. 9.
Admission is by ticket only for a reserved date and time of entry at half-hour intervals. A 20 percent group discount is available to groups of 10 more more.
Tickets are $15 for adults, $5 for students and children. Children 6 and under are free.
Guided school tours scheduled in advance are free, courtesy of Bank of America.
Tickets may be purchased at the Nasher Museum information desk, the Duke Box office, www.tickets.duke.edu, or by calling 919-660-1701.
Nasher hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m; Thursday from 10 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday from noon-5 p.m. Closed Monday.
The museum also has a cafe and a gift shop.
To get to the Nasher from Salisbury, take I-85 N. Take exit 172 (NC-147 S). Take the Hillandale Road/Fulton Street exit and merge onto Fulton St. At the intersection in front of Duke University Hospital, turn left onto Erwin Road. Go less than a mile and take a right onto Alexander Avenue. Continue straight for about .4 miles to the Nasher parking lot.
For more information, go to www.nasher.duke.edu.