Five Centuries of Art Collecting from three palaces! Goya, Velazquez, Rembrandt and Renoir! I couldn’t wait when I heard about the House of Alba Exhibition at Meadows Museum. One hundred and forty objects, most of which had never left Spain before! I was giddy with excitement!
History as it Happened
The House of Alba Exhibition starts with a history lesson. I’m not sure why that surprised me. We were on a college campus after all. When you start talking “objects” to me, I’m thinking silver, porcelain, furniture and other decorative arts. Before our visit was over, I’d seen most of those, but the “objects” in the first room of the exhibit were documents and timelines.
The family’s rise dates back to 1429 when Alvarez de Toledo was named Lord of the City of Alba de Tormes for his participation in a military campaign. Actual documents, signed and sealed by the king, fill a case in the center of the room. The gorgeous calligraphy with all manner of seals and ribbons is interesting, but not what I was expecting.
Placards on the wall explain the genealogy of the family and discuss the rise and fall of their fortunes and collections. The third duke, known as the Grand Duke, is the most highly esteemed of the persons who have held the title, but the person most familiar to me was Empress Eugénie, who married Napoleon III. She was sister-in-law and aunt to two Dukes of Alba and when she died, the House of Alba inherited her collections – which was a good thing, because the family also lost many treasures along the way.
Basically, the title and and the palaces are Spanish, but the current Duke of Alba is more closely related to Mary, Queen of Scots than he is Alvarez de Toledo, because the latest duke’s family is the Berwicks of the FitzJames Stuart lineage. Yes, it is confusing.
To make it even more confusing, some of the highlights of the collection, like documents from the Christopher Columbus voyage to the New World entered the family by marriage, but when the Alba title moved to Berwick family there was a lot of shuffling and many of the treasures of the family did not follow the title. Other treasures have been lost as casualties of war.
Portraits, Documents & Paintings Dominate Exhibition
The story of the House of Alba is captured in the many portraits and interesting documents. Of course, some of those portraits are by Velazquez, Goya and Rubens, so they deserve more than a cursory glance. Other paintings by Fra Angelico, Rembrandt and Renoir exemplify the family’s penchant for collecting paintings beyond portraits of their relatives.
Included among the paintings and documents are a few of my beloved decorative arts, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped for. Probably most spectacular is a huge pink Sevres vase, which stood almost as tall as I am. My friend, Deb, was surprised by the mirror on a large table, which allowed women to check for peeking petticoats. There are impressive tapestries, an amazing illustrated Bible and more scattered among the paintings.
Don’t Miss It
Imagine getting to see a hand-drawn map of the New World, penned by the man who discovered it. (Yes, I know! Political correctness demands we recognize land was stolen from the indigenous people and Leif Ericsson beat Columbus here by a few centuries.) I’m still impressed by the guys who floated here on the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria – back in 1492 on the ocean blue.
If you can’t get excited about Christopher Columbus, then think of Fra Angelico or Bruegal or El Greco. The collection is so vast and varied, I’m sure you’ll find something to be amazed about. The exhibit fills up the entire second floor of the museum, with the exception of one salon. You should add these wonders to your visual catalog.
I confess, I thought I was going to see rooms full of decorative goodies transported across the water, but the items are not shown in context with the three House of Alba palaces. Instead, they follow more of a historical theme. That doesn’t make them any less astounding. I found it fascinating to discover the idiosyncrasies of royal dynasties as the years and the bloodlines passed along. When I left, I felt as if I had come to know Eugénie, Mary, James, the two Cayetanas and all their famous relatives just a little bit better.
The exhibition will be at the Medows Museum on the Campus of SMU until January 3rd, 2016. Don’t let this one pass you by.