IN 1779, 14 years before founding the Musee du Louvre in Paris, Charles-Claude Flahaut wrote to the French ambassador's office in Madrid, stating, "I know there must be paintings by the great masters lost and forgotten in the attics of Spain, which the dealers have yet to explore. It occurred to me that one ought to be able to find inexpensive ... Velazquezes, Murillos, etc., which would enhance the king's magnificent collection at little cost." So began the French obsession with Spanish painting, one pursued by emperors and kings, generals and ambassadors, and writers and artists throughout the 19th century.
The French fascination with Spanish painting is revealed in the most-spectacularly visual way in the exhibition, "Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting," bringing together more than 200 paintings and prints that present to the viewer the 17th-century Spanish paintings that held such sway over the French and the 19th-century works that reveal their influence.
Although the title singles out Edouard Manet and Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, who are the true heart of this exhibition, there are also Spanish masterpieces by Bartolome Murillo, Jose de Ribera, El Greco, Francisco de Zurbaran, and Francisco Goya, stunning paintings by the French masters Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Corbet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, as well as an exceptional gallery of works by those American painters--John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, and James Whistler--who studied art in Paris, and there learned to paint like Spaniards.
Spanish painting was virtually nonexistent in France in the 18th century, with only a few examples in the French royal collections, among them the 1653 portrait of the Infanta Margarita, then considered an autograph work by Velazquez. Documented in the Louvre by 1820, this painting was to inspire numerous artists. Manet and Degas were to meet for the first time in front of this work, both executing etchings after it, while Renoir stated with reverence that "all of painting" could be found in the Infanta's pink ribbons. It ultimately served as the source for his 1864 portrait of Romaine Lacaux. Neither was the Infanta's charm lost on writers and, in 1870, Victor Hugo's poem "La rose de l'infante" recalled the portrait.
The first influx of Spanish painting into France was the result of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain, commencing in 1808. Napoleon was aided in this task by his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, whom he placed on the Spanish throne. The latter's decree of 1809 suppressed the country's religious institutions, making public extraordinary cycles of paintings by artists such as Murillo and Zurbaran that had been hidden away in convents and monasteries and unknown even to Spanish eyes.
Napoleon's generals, while battling the insurgent Spanish forces and the British army, also availed themselves of these art treasures. Among the most rapacious was Marshal Jean de Dieu Soult, head of the French army occupying southern Spain. Soult, who installed himself in the palace of the Archbishop of Seville, entered the city in 1810 and, when he left in 1813, took with him close to 200 Spanish paintings that entered his private collection, which he installed in his Paris mansion. There, these paintings were accessible to artists such as Delacroix, who noted the "beautiful, mystical figures of women" in the Zurbaran paintings he saw.
Though hundreds of Spanish paintings were shipped to the Louvre during the French occupation, most were repatriated after the fall of the Empire. The Louvre finally played host to a grand display of Spanish painting with the opening of the Galerie Espagnole in 1838, an unprecedented collection of more than 400 paintings purchased in Spain by King Louis-Philippe's emissary, Baron Taylor, between 1835 and 1837. Even though it would remain on view for only a decade--when all of the pictures were ceded to Louis-Philippe after his fall from power--the Galerie Espagnole would influence not just the French Realist School, but the budding generation of artists known as the New Painters, headed by Manet. …