Spanish Neoclassicism


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At the end of the 18th century Spain was significantly lagging behind its neighbours, Italy and France, in the cultural sphere. In painting and art in general a decorative Baroque style still prevailed, dominated by the dynasty of painters of the Bayeu family, of which Goya became a member after his marriage to Francisco Bayeu's sister. Neoclassicism, therefore, came from outside and not from a need for internal renovation. Charles III, the Neapolitan monarch was proposed as the successor to the Spanish throne when the country found itself without an heir. The King, who was from Italy and was married to a cultured Austrian princess, Maria Amalia of Saxony, discovered that Madrid was "a dump, full of tumbledown houses and convents", with no paving, lighting (or) town planning... He decided that he would personally lead reforms in the capital, maybe hoping that his example would spread to the rest of the country. He brought together a considerable group of architects who remodelled the city according to Parisian fashions, which is why there is much French Neoclassicism to be seen. The King's action was responsible for the Puerta de Alcalá, the Botanical Gardens, the Observatory, the Museo del Prado (originally conceived as a Natural History Museum), the General Hospital (now the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte "Reina Sofía") as well as countless streets, avenues, squares, and boulevards constructed by his court, imitating the King's modernity. One of the mansions constructed at the time was the Villahermosa palace which is now the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Charles III's wife, Maria Amalia, introduced important industrial secrets to Spain, such as porcelain manufacture and certain techniques for making glass, which she had learnt from her grandfather Maximilian, the Emperor of Austria. With such manufacturing innovations, two Royal Factories were constructed that completed the Buen Retiro palace complex, with the aim of boosting Spain's offer of luxury goods in the Europe market. All this activity in favour of the capital meant that even during his reign Charles III was already considered "Madrid's best mayor". The regal influence was not only felt in architecture and town planning; Charles III summoned his favourite painter, Anton Raphael Mengs, to organise the teaching of official painting through Academies, practically all of which were founded in this period. The academy in Madrid, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, has always been extremely important and is now an excellent art gallery. The Royal Academies depended directly on the king and they were conceived to spread the strict guidelines as to what Court painting should be like. They were set up as almost tyrannical models that sometimes denied painters' creativity and originality. However, at that time the Academies were mechanisms of innovation and progress. The German artist Mengs was the star of early Neoclassicism as José de Madrazo was of late Neoclassicism. Mengs was named after two famous artists, Correggio and Raphael, who were also his sources of artistic inspiration throughout his career. Trained as a theorist, his intellectual weight and his rigorous draughtsmanship meant he played an essential role in the renovation of court painting towards a new classicism. However, the cold purity of his style and his difficult character made him very unpopular at Court and his innovations only reached the King's most intimate circle. Despite this, he managed to purge painting of the out-dated elements that were weighing it down and established a new State portrait style which was three-quarter length with no psychological penetration and with none of the pomp of the Baroque. His style continued under Charles IV and found some followers among whom Mariano Salvador Maella and Vicente López are particularly notable. López always worked in a monotonous, meticulous style that is only broken by two brilliant paintings: the portrait of his father and the one of Goya. Goya was before his time and represents an anticipation of the artistic transition that was to take place much later. Between the 18th and 19th century, he heralded the coming of Romanticism, a project that was aborted by the restoration of the autocratic king, Ferdinand VII, delaying the new style until the king's death and the regency of Maria Cristina. Goya's early work was purely Neoclassical as he formed part of the Enlightened circle, an intellectual group centred around certain noble houses such as those of Osuna, Chinchón and Alba under the undisputable leadership of Jovellanos. The group managed to remove the Queen's favourite, Godoy, from the circle of power for a number of years while they functioned as advisers to Charles IV. These were years of hope and renovation and Goya's output from the time is full of examples of Neoclassical portraits of his closest friends, while at the same time he carried out a biting social criticism of the superstitions and ignorance of society, of ecclesiastic highhandedness and so on. This was the period of his Caprichos. When the enlightened group was permanently removed from the government by Queen Maria Luisa and after the Napoleonic invasion, the principal ideas of the Enlightenment were attacked and accused of being pro-French and as a result Neoclassical painting suffered a serious blow. Goya himself changed his style radically during and right after the war, which is when it is thought his transition towards Romanticism took place. The Restoration marked the start of the second phase of Spanish Neoclassicism which no longer had anything to do with the cultural ideals that aimed to make culture accessible to all and renovate the national intellect. Ferdinand VII took control of the Academies and imposed a submissive art that focused on the national School and national values, such as those of the Golden Age. This trend announced the coming Eclecticism which had similar intentions. The best exponent of this type of painting was José Madrazo, the originator of a dynasty of official artists who had great power in Madrid and its artistic school. It was José de Madrazo who was responsible for converting the planned Natural History Museum into the Museo del Prado. He installed the Dolphin Treasure as an artistic treasure and not a natural curiosity and also established that the museum's main function was educational rather that simply expositional. During this second Neoclassical phase, apart from the indelible influence of Goya, David, the Neoclassical artist par excellence, also had an impact on Spanish art as some Madrilenian artists studied at his studio in Paris and then introduced his style to the Spanish Court. This was the case of José Aparicio and Juan Antonio Ribera. Through David's influence certain concepts were introduced that originally came from theatre but were now applied to the pictorial scene, such as the rule of the three unities: the unity of action, the unity of time and the unity of space. These rules, applied to national subjects such as the Death of Viriato by Madrazo, resulted in a grandiloquent art that was submissive to the regime and appropriate to the designs of Ferdinand VII. Ferdinand, shocked by Goya's creative violence, removed him from the Court and replaced him with the unoriginal Vicente López. Neoclassical art remained in this state until 1830, a revolutionary year in which the regency of that most romantic queen of Spain, Maria Cristina, was imposed. She renounced the crown after she fell in love with one of her subjects. Her triumphal entrance in Madrid wearing sky blue made this colour the emblem of Liberals and romantics alike, Maria Cristina blue.

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