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Rare Spanish Royal Treasures at Seattle Art Museum
Antonis Mor. Philip II, ca. 1557. Oil on canvas, 77 15/16 x 41 5/16 in. (C) Patrimonio Nacional, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

SEATTLE.- SAM and Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional have co-organized a unique exhibition, Spain in the Age of Exploration 1492 – 1819, which includes objects culled largely from Spain’s royal collections. On view through Jan. 2, 2005, the exhibition features more than 100 works of art and science, many of which have never before traveled to the U.S. Included are sculptures, tapestries, scientific instruments, maps, armor, books and paintings by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Gianlorenzo Bernini, Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya.

Sixteen Spanish and American museums, including the Patrimonio Nacional and Museo del Prado, and several private collectors, have loaned works to tell some of the most captivating stories from the Spanish empire. The exhibition’s central theme is exploration—how the royal court, beginning with Isabel and Ferdinand, used the enlargement of the Spanish realm not only to increase the crown’s resources but also to gather knowledge that enriched European understanding of the wider world.
Co-curated by Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s chief curator of collections and curator of European painting and sculpture, and Javier Morales of Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional, Spain in the Age of Exploration focuses on Spain’s historic perception of itself and its global role, starting with Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage and continuing through the late 18th century, with the royally sponsored expeditions to North America’s northwest coast. The most recent works in the exhibition date to 1819, the year of the Adams-Onís treaty, in which Spain ceded control of the Northwest and Florida territories to the U.S. After its debut in Seattle the exhibition will travel to its only other venue, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., where it will be on view Feb. 2 – May 1, 2005.

Spain in the Age of Exploration explores four primary themes: Image of Empire; Spirituality and Worldliness; Encounters across Cultures; and Science and the Court. Chronologically organized, the exhibition begins with artifacts from the time of Columbus’s 1492 voyage, which Ferdinand and Isabel sponsored. With that voyage, the monarchs saw a chance to enlarge the Spanish kingdom, enrich the crown’s wealth and disseminate Christianity. The early excitement over unfamiliar civilizations, previously undocumented flora and fauna and the wealth of natural resources in this new realm is recorded in illustrated maps, manuscripts and documents included in the exhibition.

Succeeding generations of Spanish Habsburg rulers also sponsored exploration, while simultaneously promoting Catholicism domestically and abroad. Their policies resulted in a fascinating mixture of scientific advances, international exchange, elevated artistic taste and Catholic imagery on both sides of the Atlantic. Highlights included in the exhibition are Christ Bearing the Cross (1505 –1507), a masterpiece by Hieronymus Bosch, a selection of exquisite works by Queen Isabel’s court painter Juan de Flandes, documents of early laws governing the American colonies, an Arabic quadrant crucial to Spain’s navigational success and an original letter from Queen Isabel to Columbus.

The exhibition’s 16th-century gallery introduces the Habsburg empire, beginning with Charles I (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). There, impressive royal portraits are shown with an array of armor from the Spanish Royal Palace, which houses one of the world’s greatest armor collections. Together these objects convey the monarchy’s mastery of image-making: for example, the portraits of Habsburg monarchs Charles V and his son Philip II in armor are displayed alongside the splendid original suits of armor that are depicted. Also on view are El Greco’s San Ildefonso, a tremendous spiritual portrait of Spain’s patron saint, and Portrait of Philip II by Sir Anthony Mor, which captures the proud bearing of one of the 16th century’s most powerful rulers.

In the 17th century, Spain’s expansion slowed and the court was forced to return attention to Europe, where its interests were threatened by England, the Netherlands and France. Philip IV is remembered less for foreign policy than for developing one of Europe’s finest art collections. Known as the Golden Age of Spanish art, this period is associated with Velázquez, Murillo, Ribera and Zurbarán, all of whom are represented by paintings in the exhibition. This gallery features a beautiful Crucifix, an understated masterpiece by the Italian sculptor Bernini. The Crucifix, which Velázquez purchased in Rome in 1650, will leave Spain for the first time since then for the exhibition at SAM.

The Habsburg dynasty died out in 1700 and the French Bourbon dynasty assumed power, resulting in a shift in politics and taste. Influenced by the Enlightenment, King Charles III made great strides in education and public policy and promoted exploration and pursuit of scientific knowledge with renewed vigor. The Enlightenment, with its optimistic belief that natural phenomena and human experience could be organized and classified, is reflected in a series of Spanish daily life paintings by J.C. Houasse, still lifes by the great master Luis Meléndez and a group of Mexican casta paintings, which chart ethnic differences in post-conquest Mexico. A more pessimistic attitude is seen in Francisco Goya’s Shipwreck, which shows humanity at the mercy of overpowering nature.
Beginning in the 1770s – three decades before Lewis and Clark – the Spanish Crown sponsored a series of expeditions to the uncharted northwest coast of North America, as far north as Alaska. The King prohibited the Spanish teams from interfering in any way with native peoples, and instead the explorers gathered information and traded for objects, tools and garments, which are today preserved in Madrid’s Museo de América. A selection of rare Northwest Coast objects collected during these expeditions will be featured in the exhibition.

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