Spanish Art. A Brief Historical Overview.

What do you know already about Spanish painting? You have probably heard of Picasso or El Greco (although El Greco wasn’t a Spaniard by birth!) or Francisco de Goya or even the eccentric Salvador Dalí.  What about the painter who, by general consensus amongst art critics, is considered one of the greatest of all artists: Diego de Velázquez?  There are others, too, well worth discovering.

Our intention in these pages is to introduce you to the extraordinarily rich variety of Spanish paintings (and some contemporary sculpture) in their historical contexts, keeping in mind possible influences and the theoretical or ideological frameworks in which they appear.

We’ll begin with Spanish painting of the Romanesque period, noting the use of frescoes and wooden altar panels and the role they played in the religious life of people in the Middle Ages. We’ll also look at the wonderfully rich miniatures in many Medieval manuscripts, such as the Cantigas de Santa María (Songs to Holy Mary) ca 1280, compiled and probably written by the Castilian king, Alfonso X. If you want to know what life was like in the Middle Ages –how people dressed, what they did—this is where you’ll find some answers.

We’ll next explore the passage in Spanish painting from Romanesque to Gothic art. There is some continuity (e.g. miniatures), but there are notable differences (e.g. the use of stained glass).

As we move more into the 15th century, certain individual painters stand out, but it is in the 16th and 17th centuries –Spain’s Golden Age—that Spanish painting really comes into its own.  Like Spanish literature of the same period, Spanish painting seems to mirror Spain’s imperial greatness, but the question is how and why. What did the great painters of this period –e.g. El Greco, Velázquez, Zurbarán, Murillo— accomplish? What was the influence of Flemish and Italian painters? What role did patronage have in Spanish painting during this period? What themes did the painters prefer?

Like literature, Spanish painting suffered a decline in the 18th century, until the appearance of one of the giants of art, Francisco de Goya. Did a change of royal dynasty have anything to do with the lack of notable Spanish painters? Why is Goya an exception?  We’ll look at possible answers.

Spanish painting during the 19th century echoes the prevailing interest in Romanticism and its offshoot Costumbrismo (local customs and traditions). We’ll see how art and literature interact during this period, before moving to the 20th century.  Of course, Picasso dominates during this period, and although he is an international figure (and lived most of his life in France) he also remains attached to his Spanish roots. We’ll examine Picasso in light of Spanish painting (and how he engages with the past masters of Spanish art) and consider as well some of his remarkable innovations.

The early 20th century is a period of “-isms” (modernism, dadaism, cubism, surrealism).  We’ll look at how Spanish painting fits into these movements, and in particular the role of Catalan artists.  At the same time, we’ll keep in mind the extremely unstable political situation of the times in Spain and how Spanish artists reacted to them. Finally, we’ll consider how artists sought to overcome the censorship of the Franco years and conclude with a survey of Spanish painting following Franco’s death.

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