by Brandon Ruud and Corey Piper. Yale University Press, January 2021. 224 p. ill. ISBN 9780300252965 (h/c), $60.00.
Reviewed May 2021
Mary Wassermann, former Collection Services Librarian, Philadelphia Museum of Art, firstname.lastname@example.org
American excursions to nineteenth-century Italy or France are well documented, but what about the Spanish experience? This is the subject of Americans in Spain: Painting and Travel, 1820-1920, showing at two venues this year, the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibition and catalog unveil the American fascination with Spain as a romantic land still untainted by industrialization. It is the first major exhibit to explore the role writers and artists played in this phenomenon.
Essays by curators Brandon Ruud, Corey Piper and others examine the vicarious experience travel books offered to Americans in the early 1800s, even if the creators were sometimes armchair travelers themselves. This was not the case with Washington Irving, whose prolific writings about Spain were first-hand; we see Irving’s fealty to his subject in David Wilkie’s painting of him engrossed in research at the Seville Archives. The essays offer an overview of nineteenth-century publishing, including the use of repurposed or stock images and photographs. Elizabeth Boone’s study of children’s travel stories is also noteworthy.
The lodestar for artists was the Museo del Prado, where works by Spanish masters were transformative for a young Mary Cassatt and a host of others. Diego Velázquez was revered; artists registered as copyists at the Prado to study and emulate his technique. William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent and Robert Henri repeatedly visited Spain; their portrayals of its countryside and culture were well received stateside. Henri brought students to the Prado; such was its popularity that there were rules to discourage copyists from disruptive congregating, singing, or from posting flyers.
The juxtaposition of realism with the picturesque is a central theme throughout the catalog. In Ruud’s essay on Spanish labor, Walter Gay’s serene painting of the Seville tobacco factory workers contrasts with less genteel, even lascivious written accounts of the 5000 women rolling tobacco and tending to their children onsite. This dichotomy mattered little to publishers or their American audiences, so strong was the attraction to Spain and its Moorish influences.
The catalog has attractive illustrations, notes, and an index. There is no bibliography of the published works discussed; citations for those do appear in the notes. The checklist is by artist, but entries omit the associated catalog illustration numbers. It is suitable for advanced American art, cultural, and Spanish study audiences. There is a presumed familiarity with Spanish masters and reproductions of Velázquez’s influential paintings are oddly lacking. See also The Artist-Travelers Project for interactive historic maps.