Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hipanic Society of America

Portrait of the Duchess of Alba by Francisco De Goya, 1797
7/17/2010, Saturday
TIME: 45 min
COST: Free

Harpy door detail
Our favorite experiences of this great museum adventure have been discovering the hidden treasures of New York City.  This city is so packed full of wonders that not even natives know them all, and every now and then we stumble upon jewels of world-renown overlooked by the masses passing by on the sidewalk.  One good example is the 7th Regiment Armory, once a golden age men’s club whose gilded but unrestored halls show off the last known intact interiors by Tiffany and Stamford White, with mother of pearl inlays and stained glass glistening in every corner, but visitors are so rare you feel outnumbered by ghosts of Rockefellers.  Then there’s the Neue Gallery, exhibiting legendary Germanic artists like Klimt and Klee, including a painting that set the record in 2006 for the largest sum ever paid for a painting, but mention it to a New Yorker and you’ll probably just get a puzzled look.
The Holy Family, by El Greco, 1590
Today we found the best “hidden treasure” yet.  Hidden in a semi-dodgy largely residential neighborhood on the upper Upper West Side is the Hispanic Society of America.  From the name you might picture contemporary Latin American art, but you’d be wrong.  For that you should check out El Museum del Barrio on the northern reaches of Museum Mile.  Instead, the Hispanic Society houses what appears to be the largest collection of Spanish treasures this side of the Prado

Bowl, Manises (Valencia), ca. 1370-1400
All the legends of historical Spain are here: portraits by Francisco de Goya, Diego Velázquez and El Greco line the walls, you’ll find yourself stumbling over tombs of 16th century Spanish noblemen and marveling at first-century Iberian mosaics, medieval pottery and Roman busts.  This museum’s collection is so renowned that it makes loans to museums like the Met and the Frick, and when Queen Sofia of Spain came to New York, this is the museum she picked to see.  Yet most New Yorkers have never heard of it, and despite its free admission, visitors are few and far between.

The Hispanic Society of America, in Audubon Terrace
The reason for this can only be explained by the Hispanic Society’s location, far from the art rich areas of Midtown and the Upper East Side, well outside tourist zones, and not somewhere the average New Yorker would go without a reason.  The area of the city (called Washington Heights) is so desolate that we had difficulty even finding a place for lunch.  But we felt the museum well worth the hassle. 

El Cid, by Anna Hyatt Huntington
The Hispanic Society is located in a lovely Beaux Arts complex called Audubon Terrace, built in 1904 by Archer M. Huntington, heir to a vast railroad fortune.  Huntington envisioned the terrace as a museum complex and it once housed the American Geographical Society, the Museum of the American Indian and the American Numismatic Society, but most left for the greater crowds of the touristy Financial District.  Now the terrace is largely empty, filled only by impressive statuary such as the gigantic statue of El Cid in front of the museum.  However you might recognize its echoing expanse as you search for the museum entrance; it was a film site of the popular TV show Law and Order where it was depicted as Hudson University.

Central exhibit hall of the Hispanic Society

Once you step into the museum, you can understand why this museum didn’t leave with the others when the neighborhood went downhill.  The exhibit halls are breathtaking: long galleries of deep red terra cotta and dark wood, intricately carved and tiled, with spacious balconies and expansive lead framed skylights throughout the building.  Our single complaint was that it was not air conditioned, but this was a big problem as it was mid-July and temperatures were in the upper 90’s.  It was so hot that the museum canceled the tour for the day due to worries about the guide’s health.  We managed to survive, but were certainly not comfortable.  Earlier this year, after an equally sweltering day in an un-air conditioned historic house, Paul made me swear to pick only air-conditioned museums on hot days.  I had thought a museum with art of this quality would have central air, but was obviously wrong and had to endure some grumbling from Paul’s direction as we made our way into the museum.

Paul may not have liked the temperature, but his grumbling stopped when he saw what the museum contained.  Paul has been obsessed with Spain and Spanish culture since he visited it on a school trip when he was 11.  Since then his obsession has branched into many areas of his life.  He can give lectures on Spanish history and wanted to model our patio in Seattle on the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra (if only we'd had a little more cash).  He is a fantastic self-taught Spanish cook, with 4 different kinds of paprika stacked next to the stove and a legendary bravas sauce recipe that he sweet-talked out of a Barcelona chef.  Paul has been a fanatic fan of the Spanish National Soccer team since the 1980’s and has hours of Flamenco and Fado music, often musing that he might have been a Flamenco dancer in a past life.

Lucienne Breval como Carmen by Zuloaga
In an interesting parallel, the founder for the Hispanic Society, Archer M. Huntington, also had a lifelong obsession with Spain that started at the age of 12 after reading an account of the Gypsies of Spain called ''The Zincali.”  As a young boy, Huntington learned to read Arabic and his early attempt at writing was a novel of the adventures of the heroic knight ''Amadis of Gaul,'' parodied in ''Don Quixote.''  (The Hispanic Society has a first edition of “Don Quixote,” of course.)  As an adult, Huntington hired photographers and painters to chronicle disappearing Spanish rural culture, and his goal in life was to be the champion of Spanish art outside of Spain, which, with the help of his family’s money, he certainly became.  It makes me wonder what Paul would do with a similar fortune.

Portrait of a Little Girl by Diego Velazquez
Paul’s favorite Spanish artists are Francisco de Goya and Diego Velázquez from Spain’s great Golden Age, and the Hispanic Society has beautiful examples of each, such as de Goya’s striking “Portrait of the Duchess of Alba” (1797) that greets you as you enter with an imperious finger pointed to the floor (see image at top of post), and Diego Velázquez’s petite “Portrait of a Little Girl” (c. 1638-44) tucked away on the second floor balcony, rumored to be a portrait of Velázquez’s granddaughter.  But the paintings that blew us away were the more modern canvases of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923).   

The Vision of Spain, by Sorolla, in its own room at the Hispanic Society
Sorolla is the great Spanish impressionist, called the “master of light” for his sunlight drenched scenes.  In 1911, Sorolla was employed by Huntington to paint a chronicle of Spain.  Over the next 8 years Sorolla visited every province of Spain and painted 14 enormous canvases, largely on site using locals as models and depicting regional costumes and occupations.  Together these are called “The Vision of Spain,” and they take up an entire room in the Hispanic Society.  Each painting celebrates the landscape and culture of its region in gorgeous sun drenched panoramas of laborers, dancers and locals out for a good time.  Flamenco dancers stomp in a crowded market in Seville, fisherman bargain on the wharves of Ayamonte and mounted ranchers herding cattle in Andalusia seem to meet your eyes below their wide brimmed hats.
Andalusia, The Round Up, by Sorolla, part of The Vision of Spain
The paintings are actually more well-known in Spain than in New York.  During a recent restoration of the Hispanic Society, “The Vision of Spain” took a two-year tour of Spain’s major museums and 2 million people lined up to see these paintings, breaking all attendance records.  It was the most successful exhibition in Spanish history. Yet if you see it in New York, chances are you’ll be the only visitor.

The Hispanic Society is a world-class museum than no one in New York City seems to know about, so this is one museum where you won’t have to fight the crowds.  We both felt it well worth the trip to Washington Heights.  However we’d recommend not going on a hot day unless they install air-conditioning.

RATING: Hispanic Society of America
Pauline: 10 out of 10.  World-class art, beautiful interiors and the thrill of discovering a hidden gem. 
Paul: 9 out of 10.  Nearly a perfect museum, but they need air-conditioning.

Detail of Seville, The Dance, by Sorolla, part of The Vision of Spain
Images in this post, from the top: Portrait of the Duchess of Alba by Francisco De Goya y Lucientes, 1797.  Door detail on Audubon Terrace.  The Holy Family, by Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco), c. 1590.  Bowl, Manises (Valencia), ca. 1370-1400.  Exterior of the Hispanic Society of America, in Audubon Terrace.  El Cid, by Anna Hyatt Huntington, notable American sculptress and wife of the museum founder Archer M. Huntington.  Central exhibit hall of the Hispanic Society.  Lucienne Bréval como Carmen by Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta.  Portrait of a Little Girl by Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velazquez c. 1638-44.  8 of the 14 paintings of The Vision of Spain, by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1911-1919), exhibited in one room at the Hispanic Society.  Andalusia, the Round Up, by Sorolla, part of The Vision of Spain.  Detail of Seville, The Dance, by Sorolla, part of The Vision of Spain.


  1. An amazing museum and all the more amazing for being unknown and unvisited. We will certainly go there at the next opportunity. - Mike

  2. Wow! What a fantastic review of an incredible museum. I can't believe it's free and infrequently visited. Next time we're in NY city I want to spend several hours there relishing Spain and Spanish art. How I loved Seville and Madrid and this would be a great way to revisit that wonderful country. Lynn

  3. Hipanic Museum--is that a High Panic Museum? Please proofread the page. Cheers!


  4. maravilloso es espectacular, gracias por conservar obras de arte de España.
    un cordial saludo.
    María Roldan