El Greco to Velazquez

Art During the Reign of Philip III

The paintings were created 400 years ago, an ocean away from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. But the story behind the exhibition, "El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III," is intriguing in itself.

The exhibition is the largest-ever assemblage of international loans of Spanish art in the Southeast, drawing works of art from 11 states and six foreign countries from major museums, tiny hospitals, private collections and, in some cases, the churches for which they were originally commissioned. Many are traveling to the United States for the first time.

"If you went to Europe, it would take you months or years to track down these works of art," said Sarah Schroth, the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator at the Nasher Museum and co-organizer of the exhibition. "Even then, you would not get the story behind the exhibition."

The exhibition includes 52 master paintings, including seven late works by El Greco, three early works by Velázquez and works by their contemporaries lesser known but talented artists. Visitors will see monumental altar pieces, life-sized portraits, some of the earliest still-life paintings in Europe, full-length carved and painted wooden sculptures of Spanish saints and more than 50 pieces of period glass and ceramics.

"The Nasher Museum is proud to announce an old master exhibition that is one of the most important ever shown in the southeast United States," said Kimerly Rorschach, the Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director of the Nasher Museum. "This internationally significant exhibition provides an unprecedented opportunity to set the record straight on a fascinating chapter of European art history."

Twenty years ago, Schroth conducted the research that shaped the story behind "El Greco to Velázquez." In Spain, Schroth discovered 13 inventories of the paintings and goods of the king's chief minister and favored courtier, Francisco Gómez de Sandoval y Rojas, the Duke of Lerma. Her discovery has put to rest the standard view of Spain as a cultural backwater during Philip III's reign.

The inventories indicate that the Duke of Lerma was the first mega-collector in Europe, amassing an extraordinary collection of more than 2,000 paintings. Among them was the monumental "Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma" (1603, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), part of the Nasher's exhibition. Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens painted it while on a diplomatic mission to the Spanish court. The inventories also mention nearly 900 pieces of luxury glass, porcelain, ceramics and red clay vessels that the Duke of Lerma arranged in a camarín, or "little room," which has been reconstructed for the exhibition.

Showing works by two of the world's greatest painters in an exhibition with their contemporary artists, "El Greco to Velázquez" sheds new light on Spanish Golden Age painting. Their work and that of overlooked painters among them Juan Sánchez Cotán, Gregorio Fernández, Juan Bautista Maino and Luis Tristán illustrate the artistic accomplishments of the little-studied period of 23 years (1598-1621) when Philip III ruled Spain. At that time, Spain dominated the world with holdings greater than those of the Roman Empire. This period of Spanish history with its pageantry, religious passion, art patronage, political intrigue and literary accomplishments rivals the eras of Elizabethan England and France under Louis XIV.

Schroth co-curated the exhibition, described as "wonderful" by Time Magazine, with Ronni Baer, the William and Ann Elfers Senior Curator of Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where the exhibition was first displayed.

Ticket exhibition with timed entry. Tickets are required. $5 for Duke students, faculty and staff; $15 for non-Duke adults; $5 for children 6-17; free for children 5 and under. For tickets, call the Duke University Box Office at 660-1701. Information: nasher.duke.edu/elgreco