by Annie Stoppelbein
The most powerful aristocratic dynasty in Spain owns one of the most significant art collections in the world. For five hundred years the Alba family has lavishly supported the arts in Europe. Their collection is now divided between three extravagant palaces and has been publicly exhibited only once before. For the first time it is traveling as a group outside of Spain. Co-presented by the Foundation of the House of Alba and the Meadows Museum in Dallas, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting is making the Frist Center for the Visual Arts its second of two stops in America.
These treasures have been organized by their collector and will focus on the most notable family members in the five-century lineage. The art reflects their exquisite taste and desire to preserve their legacy through portraiture and historical acquisitions. Over the years the family has been very protective of their collection, rarely loaning individual works of art, making this Nashville viewing all the more remarkable.
Frist Center curator Trinita Kennedy affirms that Treasures from the House of Alba is a momentous occurrence. “It’s a family collection, so it is really extraordinary that they are willing to take the works out of their libraries, off of their walls in the palaces, and put them on view to the public.” Kennedy has been with the Frist for eight years and witnessed many exhibitions. “We haven’t had an exhibition like this focusing on a collection that spans this amount of time.” The show will offer over one hundred and thirty works of art, representing many of the finest artists of European history. While the core of the collection is Spanish, the family’s acquisitions reach beyond borderlines. “We wanted a first-rate exhibition of Spanish painting. But this is so much more. It has Goya, Ribera, and Murillo. But there’s also Titian, Dürer, Rembrandt, and Sargent.”
Much of the work will come from the Liria Palace in Madrid, which until very recently was the home of the 18th Duchess of Alba. The late Duchess Doña María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart headed the House of Alba from 1955 until her death in 2014. She played two significant roles in the growth of the collection, one being that she was an only child, inheriting everything from her parents, including her father’s ambitious restoration of the Liria Palace after the Spanish Civil War. During the war it was severely damaged along with many valuable works of art.
The 18th Duchess, or Cayetana as she was known, added a substantial amount of art to the Alba collection. Much like her father she was an anglophile and sought out English artists as well as French Impressionists. While she was a worldly woman, she was also a model Spaniard with a zest for life and was very popular among the Spanish people. There are fantastic portraits of her in the show, including one from her childhood. It is a comical depiction with her horse that borders on kitsch but shows how she was beloved by all from a young age. The Duchess’s eldest son inherited her title, becoming the 19th Duke of the House of Alba, the highest ranking noble beneath the King and Queen of Spain, and keeper of the Alba dynasty’s tremendous collection.
The exhibition begins with documents to establish the family lineage, including works from the 15th and 16th centuries. From there it flows through the Baroque period, to perhaps the masterpiece of the show, Francisco Goya’s The Duchess of Alba in White, 1795. It is a rarely seen and quite striking depiction of the 13th Duchess, who was a close friend of the artist. During Goya’s time portraiture was highly valued. Even two hundred years later, his painting preserves the aristocrat’s character; extravagant, powerful, and poised.
The changes in the family structure directly affected their collection of art. One family member married into the family of Christopher Columbus, a union that secured for the House of Alba the largest group of the explorer’s documents in the world. Of the forty documents related to Columbus, the Alba family has twenty. There will be three on view in the collection, including a list of men who traveled with Columbus on the Santa Maria in 1492. It is a payment roll, showing who the men were and how much they were paid. There is a document by Ferdinand and Isabella declaring Columbus the governor of the lands that he discovered. Additionally, there is a log book, opened to a page that is thought to be one of the earliest European maps of the new world.
Over time the family has shown interest in a variety of things. Don Carlos Miguel Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, 14th Duke of Alba, spent a lot of time in Italy in the 19th century. He was interested in Italian Renaissance art. During his time there were major historical discoveries, such as Pompeii, which sparked his interest in antiquity. He acquired many fantastic paintings for the family, as evidenced in the exhibition. There is a gallery that shows his eclectic tastes, including Titian’s The Last Supper, c.1550–1555, as well as his drawings and prints by Rembrandt van Rijn and Albrecht Dürer.
The vast majority of the paintings come from the House of Alba, but a few have been borrowed. After the heirless death of the 13th Duchess, many works were dispersed. Some paintings that were previously in the collection now live in museums around the world. For the first time, the Frist will be loaned a work from the Prado Museum in Madrid.
“This is very exciting for us,” says Trinita Kennedy. “The Alba name in the art world is legendary.” Akin to a passing comet, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting is an incredibly rare and significant opportunity for Nashville and the United States.
The Frist Center presents Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting from February 5 through May 1. For more information and programming notes, visit www.fristcenter.org.