No Longer a Lost Treasure: New York’s Hispanic Society of America Takes a Star Turn in London

A new exhibition at the Royal Academy showcases the visual cultures of Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines.


The tale of one of New York’s oldest museums begins in Liverpool. In 1882, Archer, a 12-year-old only child whose father’s identity remained shrouded in mystery, was on vacation in Europe with Arabella, his willful and resourceful mother. Reading about Spanish gypsies in a Liverpool bookshop led him to conclude that Spain must be a more exciting destination than that industrial port city in the north of England. Archer finally visited Spain in 1892, going on to become a diligent scholar and connoisseur of all things Hispanic. By that point, the young protege had been legally adopted by Collis P. Huntington, the self-made industrialist responsible for much of the U.S. railway system, who married Arabella in 1883, after the death of his first wife. It is probable that Collis was also Archer’s biological father. 

Collis’s death, in 1900, gave Archer Huntington the financial means with which to eventually build the Hispanic Society of America, in New York City, a museum and library fashioned in the image of the British Museum, on a miniature scale. Fast forward to 2023, and an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library, offers insight into the visual cultures of Spain, Portugal, Latin America, and the Philippines. In 1898, Spain’s long decline culminated in the loss of Cuba and colonies in the Pacific, following a humiliating war with the U.S. Far from the battlefield, Spanish art was, however, highly treasured by New York high society. The U.K. aside, more Velázquez paintings are to be found in the U.S. than in any other country outside Spain — without exception, these acquisitions were made between 1880 and 1914. The British-born art dealer Joseph Duveen, who reputedly coined the phrase “Europe has a great deal of art, and America has a great deal of money,” sold a Velázquez portrait of royal favorite the Count-Duke of Olivares to Arabella in New York, in 1910, for the record-breaking sum of $650,000; she later donated the painting to the Hispanic Society. On his frequent trips to Spain, Archer befriended King Alfonso XIII, as well as the country’s leading artists and intellectuals; as is true for many outsiders, foreign travel promised the possibility of reinvention.

Archer and his mother kept their distance from New York’s uptown society. No amount of money compensated for their unorthodox setup: Arabella was known to have been Collis’s mistress before becoming his wife. And though the Hispanic Society, which first opened its doors in 1908, pre-dates the Guggenheim or MoMA, an off-the-radar Washington Heights zip code rendered it mostly invisible to the denizens of art who congregated around the Metropolitan.   

I had yet to hear the lyrics from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s debut Broadway musical (“Now you’re prob’ly thinking I’m up shit’s creek! I’ve never been north of Ninety-Sixth Street! Well you must take the A Train even farther than Harlem”) when, still resisting smartphones, my father and I embarked in December 2011 on the brisk two-hour walk from the official Spanish state cultural center, the Instituto Cervantes (on East 49th Street), to the Hispanic Society. An Englishman in New York, I didn’t clock that we were in Harlem until hitting the street sign for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I can’t imagine that the handful of other visitors we saw had arrived by the A train either — chauffeur-driven cars waited outside the imposing Italian Renaissance building on Audubon Terrace. In the early 1990s, the Society’s president, George Moore, described the neighborhood as full of “nontaxpaying slums.” Admission remained free, as per Archer’s wishes, but director Theodore S. Beardsley admitted that it was policy not to attract the local, predominantly Dominican community, because of their “low level of culture.” By 2006, plans were afoot for the Society to move to a new, undetermined downtown location. 


Dressed in black after the death of her husband the previous year, the 35-year-old widow was not averse to mourning chic, accessorizing her look with two rings, one engraved with “Alba,” the other with “Goya.” Whether rumors that the artist and the aristocrat were lovers are true or not, one always senses that there are new details and insinuations to be unveiled.


A U-turn decision to stay put can be attributed to gentrification, alongside the recruitment of Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s longest-serving director (1977 to 2008). The French-born aristocrat, whose relatives include a general for Napoleon and figures that Marcel Proust used as the basis for his fictional characters, bestowed upon the Hispanic Society a new kind of pedigree when he was named chairman of the Board of Trustees, in 2015. Guillaume Kientz, former curator of Spanish and Latin American Art at the Louvre, was appointed CEO and director in 2020. Both have made conciliatory gestures toward their Latino neighbors, but only time will tell if this is more than lip service. Closed for refurbishment since 2017, a concerted effort had been made to boost the collection’s international profile, with exhibitions at the Prado, in Madrid (Montebello is a trustee), and the Fine Arts Museum in Mexico City. 

In line with Archer’s aim to provide a panoramic history of the Hispanic world, the London exhibition is curated in broadly chronological order. The early rooms display the religious plurality and artisan crafts that characterized the Iberian Peninsula from pre-historic to medieval times. A delightful 14-century plate from Manises, a town in eastern Spain, showcases the influence of Muslim potters on Andalusian artisans, who then moved northward to establish the area around Valencia as a center for excellence. As the viewer enters the largest and most imposing of the exhibition’s rooms, a shift in tone and style is evident with the arrival of the Spanish Golden Age, a period said to begin in 1492, when Columbus set sail and the reconquest (Reconquista) of the last Muslim territories gave way to religious intolerance, and Jewish and Moorish communities were expelled. In terms of theme and expression, there is less variety here than in previous rooms, as painting and Christianity exert their dominance over other forms of artistic and religious expression, and describing an imperial and rapacious age as “golden” rightly invites suspicion in the present day. But there can be no denying the quality and quantity of first-rate work produced across the arts during this period. One need look no further than Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, or the more than four hundred plays attributed to the “Spanish Shakespeare,” Lope de Vega, not to mention the magnificent paintings of Velázquez, Zurbarán, and Murillo, to gauge Spain’s standing as Europe’s foremost cultural and military powerhouse of the 16th and 17th centuries.  

After the “discovery” of the “New World,” the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella did not want Castilian Spanish to play second fiddle to Latin, and commissioned the first systematic grammar of any European language. The Rockefellers and Guggenheims of their day, royal patronage became a magnet for talent — born in Crete in 1541, El Greco moved to Toledo in 1577, where he piloted new styles for expressing the spiritual. In the London show, his innovative fusing of devotional and portrait painting is on display in The Penitent St. Jerome. Naked from the waist up, the subject is portrayed with a muscular but weathered torso. His worldly-wise gaze remains fixed, with a seeming mixture of resignation and regret, at a replica of Christ on the cross. This El Greco painting is dated circa 1600, the year in which Luther rejected the Latin version of the Bible that St. Jerome had translated. Suffice it to say, this only served to boost the saint’s standing in Catholic Spain. 

The two paintings on display by Velázquez are exceptional: Done in a more intimate fashion than his iconic equestrian portraits, the deft brushwork, vivid colors, and sparse but theatrical display of furniture and clothing in his painting of Olivares replicate the unpopular royal favorite’s attempts to stage-manage his personal and political image. Portrait of a Little Girl, a masterpiece of naturalist understatement not dulled by over-familiarity, offers definite proof that the Hispanic Society has long been a hidden treasure. With such treats on offer, it seems churlish to complain that the Royal Academy exhibition cannot really compete with the Spanish Golden Age collection of London’s National Gallery. Following the defeat of its not-so-invincible Armada, England’s power rose as Spain’s declined. British collectors and collections had the economic muscle to purchase art masterpieces. By the time Archer arrived on the scene, prices had risen steeply; in terms of Golden Age paintings, there was a limit to what even the wealthiest collector could aspire to acquire in London, Paris, or New York. This was exacerbated in Archer’s case by his reluctance to plunder and purchase works that still remained in Spain.  

Curating the London exhibition in chronological fashion takes the visitor on a journey, but a linear narrative can result in simplifications. There is scant recognition in the catalog or exhibition that Spain, as we understand it today, does not predate Columbus’s adventures in the “New World,” for two key reasons: First, the independent kingdoms that comprise the Iberian Peninsula had different rulers prior to the dynastic union of the Catholic monarchs; second, building an empire was instrumental to the establishment of a centralized administrative nation-state in Spain. After the Golden Age room, the curators return to an increasingly ethnographic approach, with exhibits and labels highlighting how and why the traditional arts and crafts of the recently colonized states adapted to cater to Spanish tastes. True as this is, the exhibition should also note that influence ran both ways.  The Mexican cochineal insect, for example, produced a vibrant dye that transformed portraiture. Many visitors will be drawn to the vibrant red of the Cross of Calatrava in the Velázquez portrait of Olivares. A trained eye registers that the fashionable color was the result of the cochineal’s arrival in Spain, but such details will go unnoticed by the majority of visitors, unless they are given this contextual background.  


The Spanish and Basque governments hated Guernica, and its first public exhibition at the Paris World Fair, in 1937, was virtually ignored by the French press. Recognition for Picasso was belated, but Guernica was first heralded as a masterpiece in the aftermath of World War II, when it became the keynote exhibit at MoMA.


As a primer to Hispanic art, the exhibition’s big hitters are Francisco de Goya and Joaquín Sorolla. Shows of their works before World War II attracted unusually large crowds to Audubon Terrace. Goya’s Duchess of Alba (1797) portrays a new age of celebrity culture — the fashionable aristocrat haughtily points toward the message “Solo Goya” (“Only Goya”) scrawled in the sand beneath her feet. Dressed in black after the death of her husband the previous year, the 35-year-old widow was not averse to mourning chic, accessorizing her look with two rings, one engraved with “Alba,” the other with “Goya.” Whether rumors that the artist and the aristocrat were lovers are true or not, one always senses that there are new details and insinuations to be unveiled. As such, the painting rewards repeat viewings for those who have already seen it in London, as the centerpiece of the 2015–2016 exhibition Goya: The Portraits, at the National Gallery. That exhibition and 2019’s Sorolla: Master of Light, also at the National Gallery, were also facilitated by generous loans from the Hispanic Society. 

In the setting of the Royal Academy, works such as Sea Idyll reveal the extent to which Sorolla’s work is inseparable from the sunny blue skies and beaches of his native Valencia. New light is shone on this heavyweight of the exhibition by putting him into dialogue with darker paintings of the period, epitomized by the Basque-born Ignacio Zuloaga. This contrast reveals different pictorial traditions in Spain, alongside the radically divergent weather patterns to be found throughout the Peninsula — the foreboding of the Madrid-born José Gutiérrez Solana’s Mariners of Castro Urdiales documents the inclemency of Spain’s northern coast. 

A century before picture postcards of mass tourism took hold, Spain was already being romanticized as the land of gypsies and toreadors, in works such as Bizet’s opera Carmen. Archer first encountered Sorolla in London at a time when the dwindling fortunes of Spain made artists increasingly dependent on foreign patronage. The Family of the Gypsy Bullfighter, by Zuloaga, who himself trained as a matador, is a moving example of how catering to national and regional stereotypes does not automatically entail relinquishing psychological insight or empathy. At the center of the portrait sits an aging graying matriarch, keeping a loving but watchful eye on the child perched on the knee of the matador, the only figure whose eyes are not visible to the viewer. The young woman to the right, Zuloaga’s actual cousin, appears to be posing, unlike the picador (a horsebacked bullfighter), whose gaze and pose intimate the nervous attentiveness typical of his profession. Archer was familiar with the reality behind the myths of sunny Spain, but was not immune to romanticizing the country. He unsuccessfully sought to arrange for an English-language translation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s Sangre y arena / Blood and Sand, reputedly the first major novel in any language to have a contract for a cinematic adaptation in place prior to publication, in 1908. Blasco Ibáñez was one of the few Valencians of his generation to have no interest in bullfighting, but he knew the grip that Spain’s “national fiesta” had on the international imagination. (The film has gone through various remakes starring Hollywood royalty, including Rudolf Valentino, in 1922, and Sharon Stone, in 1989). 

For all their differences, Archer shared with the Manhattan elites a disdain for modern art. J.P. Morgan successfully lobbied to have the qualifier “historic” included in a 1909 U.S. law eliminating tariffs from the importation of art. The absence of Picasso from the Hispanic Society’s collection leaves a gaping hole that undermines its mission to provide a panoramic overview of art from the past and present. Huntington could still have picked up Picassos at the bargain prices that allowed Irish American lawyer John Quinn, and, later, Alfred H. Barr, to build the foundations for MoMA, establishing New York as the global art capital after World War II. But he didn’t.

Hindsight is, to be fair, a luxury. The Spanish and Basque governments hated Guernica, and its first public exhibition at the Paris World Fair, in 1937, was virtually ignored by the French press. Recognition for Picasso was belated, but Guernica was first heralded as a masterpiece in the aftermath of World War II, when it became the keynote exhibit at MoMA. New U.S. legislation permitting the payment of taxes to be delayed until death through the purchase of art was instrumental to New York’s inheriting Paris’s mantle as the international capital of modern art. By the time of Archer Huntington’s death, in 1955, it was not geography alone that kept Audubon Terrace far removed from the booming Manhattan art scene. 

But being old-fashioned is not the same as being obsolete. Reviewing a show in 2023 dedicated to the mission of a great dead white man, featuring not a single work credited to a female artist, feels anachronistic at best. On the flip side, the Royal Academy exhibition not only puts on display some world-class art but also offers us a fascinating glimpse into the history of the collecting and curation of art. The real test will be how these treasures are displayed when the Hispanic Society eventually reopens its doors, and who will have the opportunity and inclination to see them. I won’t go by foot this time, but I’ll definitely hop on a train to head north of 96th Street next time I’m in New York. I hope I’m not alone.   ❖

Spain and the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library
Royal Academy of Arts, London 

Through April 10


Duncan Wheeler is a professor and chair of Spanish Studies at the University of Leeds. His latest book is Following Franco: Spanish Culture and Politics in Transition




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