Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado at the Clark Art Institute (or, the hidden paintings of the Spanish monarchs)

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on July 26, 2016
 Peter Paul Rubens, Fortune, 1636-1638. Oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 39 5/8 in. Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Peter Paul Rubens, Fortune, 1636-1638. Oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 39 5/8 in. Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

If your plans might include a trip northward any time until October 10, 2016, a stop at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA would be very much worth your time.  Located in the Berkshire region of the northwestern corner of Massachusetts, Williamstown is also the home of Williams College.  Its graduate program in art history is sponsored by the Clark, a museum and research center. While extensive renovations of its buildings and 140 acre grounds is ongoing, the re-opened galleries in the new main building are the unique venue of the current splendid exhibition of paintings featuring the nude from Madrid’s Prado Museum—the latest result of a collaboration and exchange between the two institutions begun in 2010.  Splendor, Myth and Vision consists of twenty-eight 16th and 17th century paintings focusing on both female and male nudes, twenty-four of which have never before been exhibited in the United States.  With an eye to examining the patronage of the Spanish kings who commissioned or acquired the works for the royal collections, the exhibit also makes clear the contradictions between the public face of royal religiosity and private indulgence.

 Peter Paul Rubens, Fortune, 1636-1638. Oil on canvas, 71 3/4 x 39 5/8 in. Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), Susannah and the Elders, c. 1617. Oil on canvas, 89 1/4 x 81 7/8 in. Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Most of the works in the show, many of them depicting eroticized female nudes from mythological or biblical subjects, were made for or collected by two of the most important art patrons of the period: Philip II (r. 1556-1598) and his grandson, Philip IV (r. 1621-1665).  The former, son of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V, was perhaps the most powerful monarch on the planet and was a major patron of Titian and Jacopo Robusti, called il Tintoretto.  Both Venetian masters were well known for their sensuous depictions of the female nude, especially Titian.  Philip IV was an even more active art patron whose clients included Peter Paul Rubens and Velásquez, as well as other great Spanish Baroque masters such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Jusepe de Ribera.   While before the Council of Trent in 1545 patrons such as these could easily justify mythological works depicting nude Venuses and the like with moralizing philosophical arguments, after that date it became increasingly difficult to “get away with” these practices.  Indeed, called los reyes católicos (their Catholic majesties) Philip II was known for his strict religious observance, and the rather oppressive cultural climate of his court, especially after the failure of his Armada to defeat Elizabeth I.   And, although the Counter- Reformation encouraged a spirituality that very much included the physical (think St. Teresa of Avila) depictions of subjects like Lot and his Daughters (here represented in a work by Francesco Furini of c. 1634) and even more so, Susannah and the Elders (here in a work by Tintoretto from c.1555 and one by Guercino from c. 1617) were excuses for often highly suggestive paintings.  Susannah and the Elders is an apocryphal Old Testament story of a woman spied on by the town’s elders as she bathes.  When she refuses their sexual advances they threaten to accuse her of adultery—a death sentence.  Guercino’s version, with its Baroque sensuality of form, shows one of the men holding a stick toward the unclothed, but idealized Susannah, making the voyeurist aspect of the subject and its erotic intent all too clear.  Representations of The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian had long been an opportunity for artists to depict the male nude in a vulnerable pose, but as with the female, these were nudes—that is idealized human figures, not naked, or realistically rendered.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Venus with an Organist and Cupid, c. 1550-1555. Oil on canvas, 59 1/8 x 85 7/8 in. Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Venus with an Organist and Cupid, c. 1550-1555. Oil on canvas, 59 1/8 x 85 7/8 in. Photographic Archive. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Nevertheless, as Kathleen Morris, the Clark’s director of collections and exhibitions has said, paintings like these were considered “anathema.” “The royals—the kings and their entourage—had to find a way around the idea that they were not considered appropriate.”  The answer was the salas reservadas or private reserves, where the paintings were kept.  Only persons of “calidad social” (high social standing) were permitted to view these works, and most, if not all, were men.

The paintings in the Clark exhibit are actually a group selected from an original 74 works that had been relegated to salas reservadas from the 16th to the 18th centuries, 36 of them from the reigns of Philip II and Philip IV.  There were so many Titians included in this group that the private rooms were also dubbed las bóvedas de Titian (the vaults of Titian) although they included the works of many other artists.  Later monarchs were even more unwilling to let more people view these works.  In the 18th century both Charles III (r. 1759-1788) and Charles IV (r. 1788-1808) threatened to have the paintings destroyed to avoid the moral corruption of those who might see them.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen.  As long as they were safely away from public view, all was well.

In 1819, following the restoration of the Spanish monarchy and its art treasures after the fall of Napoleon, Ferdinando VII decided to create a museum where the public could view the vast royal collections.  Charles IV had decided to send the offending works to the Royal Academy of San Fernando, an art school, to be used as examples of good painting technique.  Although the Prado was opened in 1819, it did not include these works.  It was only in 1827 that they went to the Prado, but were again kept in salas reservadas where only aristocrats and persons of very high social standing were allowed to view them (no women allowed).  And finally, in 1838, they were integrated into the Prado collection on view to the public.  One wonders whether women were permitted to view these works even after their integration into the collection, and how the public received them after their long sequestration.

As a p.s. to this exhibit review, in the adjoining town of North Adams, MA, a stop at the new MassMOCA Museum is a great segue.  Occupying an abandoned factory, the vast spaces are filled with works mostly by young and emerging artists—very different from those at the Clark!

  • The Clark Institute is located at 225 South St, Williamstown, MA 01267.
  • The museum is open Monday-Sunday from 10am to 5pm
  • Reach the gallery by phone at 413.458.2303 or visit the website at www.clarkart.edu.