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Review: Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach

Published April 10, 2005

WEST PALM BEACH - Velazquez! Goya! Titian! El Greco! Bosch! Bernini!

"Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492-1819" at the Norton Museum of Art is something of a bait-and-switch. It announces itself as an exhibition of masterworks by top guns . . . Those artists are represented, though not in any deep or great way.

This show is not about great paintings; it's a history lesson. The paintings, many of them portraits of royals, along with a few sculptures, tapestries, decorative objects and armor, demonstrate the accumulating will, wealth and power that fueled Spain's Golden Age, tropes that glam-up the maps, prints, documents, navigational instruments and native artifacts that are its real point. And that's fine, since the story it tells is a grand, sweeping one.

The absolute conviction of royal mission infuses "Spain," organized by the Seattle Art Museum and the Patrimonio Nacional, which oversees the royal collections in Madrid. It is the third such show sent to the United States that explores the Spanish influence during its years of conquest and dominion over territories in North, South and Central America.

It begins in 1492, 20 years after the ascension of Ferdinand and Isabel, who united Spain under the crowns of Castile and Aragon. For whatever reason - and history has never been conclusive - an Italian navigator named Christopher Columbus persuaded the couple to finance a journey he believed would take him across the Atlantic Ocean to China, giving Spain entree into the Eastern wealth long enjoyed by the Venetians via the overland Silk Road. The promise of more dominions was tempting to Isabel and Ferdinand but so was the opportunity to convert "savages" to Christianity.

Today that ambition sounds appalling but, as this exhibition emphasizes, we cannot overestimate the Spanish monarchs' unshakeable belief that God was a Catholic who blessed all efforts to convert the rest of the world to the One True Faith. A series of small paintings by Juan de Flandes commissioned by Isabel opens the show with scenes of Christ's life including Christ Calming the Sea. As his disciples endure varying agonies from seasickness to terror, he rests, with hand upraised as the sea flattens before the boat. He holds an orb, signifying control over the world, and a pennant above the sail declares "Long live the King!" It's a depiction of the biblical event but also links the Spanish ship of state to Christ's power. In Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Isabel herself is painted into the crowd, kneeling in devotion.

Columbus, of course, landed in a new, not known, world, and a letter to him from Isabel in 1493, on the eve of his second voyage that would last three years and conquer as well as colonize, attests to her confidence in the rightness of the cause.

For the next 300 years, Spain would push the boundaries of discovery ever further in its quest for empire. This exhibition seeks to mitigate the vast amount of negative history generated by those forays, of exploitation borne of arrogance, ignorance and greed visited upon indigenous peoples. Here are proofs that, in many cases, the Spaniards sought to better the lives of the conquered natives, though it was a betterment defined by the newcomers.

Priests were dispatched and the better ones sought to learn the foreign languages and find ways to connect European Christianity with local religious beliefs, as books and prints here indicate.

Beginning with Ferdinand, who issued the Laws of Burgos in 1512 to protect the rights of natives (on display), monarchs tried to oversee the well-being of New World peoples because they were considered subjects of the crown. One of the most dramatic examples of this concern was the Royal Vaccine Expedition from 1803 to 1806 to provide smallpox inoculations to the colonies. Without refrigeration, the vaccines had to be transmitted arm-to-arm, so 21 Spanish orphans were sent overseas, inoculated during the voyage and placed in various locations to provide serum. Thoughtful, yes, but an example that "subjects" were not so much people as human tools.

History is never a straight line, nor is this exhibition which zig-zags between an us-and-them narrative. While glory was being chased overseas, Spain was undergoing some major changes closer in. Through serendipitous births, marriages and deaths, Isabel and Ferdinand's grandson Charles became ruler of a vast empire in 1519 that included Spanish and Hapsburg holdings. As Charles V was being anointed the Holy Roman Emperor, Cortes was defeating the Aztecs. A decade later, the Incas of Peru were brought to heel.

The royal portraits in the exhibition, beginning with Charles, are examples of the way court portraiture evolved as coded messages that were a form of propaganda. Charles the warrior-king is pictured in armor, blackened for battle, carrying the general's baton and wearing his riding boots, his plumed helmet on a velvet-covered table by his side. (It's a copy of a lost Titian that his son had repainted by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz after Charles' death.) The stance and accessories became standard for subsequent portraits of his descendents, the three Philips, so that anyone would instantly recognize it as a royal rendering.

Velazquez's portrait of Philip IV, for example, with its sumptuous and beautifully painted textures, still renders the official party line. It, by the way, is one of the finest paintings in the show and would have been a more exciting inclusion except that it's on loan from the Ringling Museum's collection and already very familiar to us.

As the catalog points out, the Spanish Hapsburgs were austere in their lack of heavily jeweled crowns and scepters, unlike their French and English counterparts. An explanation given is that, with Charles setting the example, they considered their position so exalted, they did not need the elaborate trappings of other, lesser rulers to establish their prestige.

Several princely coats of field armor are dramatically displayed in the center of a portrait gallery, one featuring a suit of etched steel and gold for both Phillip II and his horse. We learn they have been shined up for later tastes. In contrast, in portraits, the armor is dark, a process called "blueing" in which it is heated to a temperature that would oxidize it to retard rust and create a visually pleasing contrast to the gold embellishments.

Women's portraits have similar coding. In a portrait of Isabel Clara Eugenia, Philip III's sister, the princess stands in front of red velvet, a sign of her position, her hand on the head of a dwarf, favorites of the Spanish court (remember Velazquez's Las Meninas?).

You would never know from the later portraits, continuing into the 17th and 18th centuries, of increasing princely grandeur, that Spain was becoming a lumbering giant unable to sustain its ambitious global empire and being dealt political and military blows in Europe, nor does this exhibit address those issues directly. It keeps its focus on exploration.

All that sailing led to improved navigational instruments, and a trove of them, beginning with a 15th century quadrant used in celestial navigation, are scattered throughout the galleries, along with increasingly improved maps.

The New World was fertile ground for scientific discovery. From the beginning, new foodstuffs and materials were introduced into Europe. One of the most unusual paintings is by Bartolome Esteban Murillo. His Nativity, c. 1665-1670, is a sweetly traditional rendering, worked not on panel or canvas but obsidian, a stone imported from Mexico or Central America.

The last Hapsburg ruler, Charles II, died in 1700. He had been sickly (probably too much inbreeding) and a portrait painted by Juan Carreno de Miranda when he was 10 was probably a flattering interpretation of his exaggerated Hapsburg features. His kingdom was falling apart around him, with corruption at home and abroad rampant. He died without an heir, so the crown passed to a Bourbon, Philip of Anjou, great-grandson of Louis XIV and his Spanish wife, the Infanta Maria Teresa (she is pictured in an enchanting childhood portrait by Velazquez). Philip of Anjou was, through Maria Teresa, also the great-great-grandson of Spain's Philip IV. (It's complicated, I know, and worthy of a flow-chart.)

Anyway, the Bourbons turned things around, for a while. Beginning with Philip V, as he was crowned, the government turned more attention to its holdings in the Americas, stabilizing and building a better trade network. His son, Charles III, presided over a Spain engaged in the 18th century Enlightenment, with its reverence for scientific discovery. A clock set into a gilt bronze allegory of arts and sciences, along with Charles' portrait, illustrates the interest in mechanical instruments and the decorative arts.

Charles dispatched no fewer than 33 expeditions to his colonies between 1765 and 1801 to gather scientific information about these foreign lands. Botanical prints and landscape drawings attest to a more objective curiosity prevalent in this era, though a series of "Casta" paintings classify men, women and children racially. The portrayals, which to modern eyes look racist, send the message that Spaniards were inherently superior.

"Spain and the Age of Exploration" ends early in the 19th century, when its empire was a shambles, its colonies independent of the Mother Country, and Spain a lesser power on the world stage. The long journey that began as a righteous cause had become a business that failed and had to shut down. The view provided by the exhibition is intentionally myopic but not narrow, telling well the evolution of Spain through the prism of discovery.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or

REVIEW: "Spain in the Age of Exploration, 1492-1819" is at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, through May 1. Also on view, "The Stieglitz Circle at the Phillips Collection: In the American Grain" and "Focus On: New Photography." For information, call 561 832-5196 or go to

[Last modified April 7, 2005, 09:36:03]

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