NEW YORK, April 17 (UPI) -- A Metropolitan Museum exhibit titled "Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting" traces the influence of Spanish artists on 19th-century French artists as well as on American artists who studied in France and traveled in Spain.
This is another of the Met's blockbusters, filling gallery after gallery with nearly 240 examples of European and American art and attracting hordes of visitors. It's the sort of show that demands at least three hours of viewing for even a minimal appreciation of the cross currents in style and taste represented by works spanning three centuries.
Some 130 of the paintings are by Old Masters, including such Spanish Golden Age artists as Diego Velazquez, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Jusepe de Ribera, El Greco, and Francisco de Zurbaran, and the French artists they influenced such as Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Francois Millet, Edgar Degas, and most notably Edouard Manet.
Some 27 more paintings are by American artists John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, James McNeill Whistler, and Mary Cassatt, and the rest of the art in the show are works on paper, both drawings and prints. Sargent is represented by a dozen of his finest works constituting a dazzling mini-retrospective within the larger show that came to the Met from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and will run through June 8.
Spanish art was virtually unknown in Europe and certainly in France until Emperor Napoleon ransacked royal and private collections during his occupation of the Iberian peninsula from 1808 to 1813. Most of the artwork he brought to Paris was repatriated, but one of his Bourbon successors, King Louis-Philippe, became an avid collector of Spanish art and the trans-Pyrenees connection was joined.
Louis Philippe's collection of 400 Spanish paintings were on exhibit in his Spanish Gallery at the Louvre from 1838 until the king was overthrown 10 years later and the paintings sold and scattered across Europe. But the collection had made a strong impression on French artists who found a realism and humanism in Spanish painting that was missing from French 19th-century painting in the neo-Classic and Romantic vein.
They also found the inspiration to replace the preferred French technique of painting carefully finished, smoothly surfaced canvases with the brushy technique preferred by Spanish painters. This led to the invention of "Impressionism," the style pioneered by Manet that was to become the wave of the future and the foundation of modernism.
Manet had already painted several Spanish subjects such as "Spanish Dancer" before he made a trip to Spain in 1865 and was bowled over by the Velazquez paintings in Madrid's Prado Museum. He wrote to an artist friend: "How happy it would have made you to see Velazquez who all by himself makes the journey worthwhile. He is the supreme artist; he didn't surprise me, he enchanted me."
Among the first paintings encountered in the Met exhibit is Manet's "Tragic Actor," painted in 1866 and echoing in every detail Velazquez's "The Jester Pablo de Valladolid," a supremely human portrait of a court fool that Manet had described as "the most extraordinary piece of painting that has ever been done." They are hung side by side as are many other paintings in the show to illustrate the cross-fertilization of imagery –- a gesturing figure in black against a neutral background.
There are a number of other Velazquez-inpired Manet paintings on exhibit as well as several that are an homage to Francisco de Goya, especially "The Execution of Maximilian" and "Balcony," which are hung next to Velazquez's "Third of May, 1808," also depicting an execution, and "Majas on a Balcony," a painting of young women viewing a street spectacle.
The Spanish influence as a second-hand influence is also an aspect of this exhibition perfectly illustrated by the effect Manet's "Balcony" had on two young women artists, Eva Gonzales, when she painted "Box at the Theatre des Italiens," and Mary Cassatt, when she executed perhaps her finest painting, "In the Loge." Both paintings show young women spectators in the Goya mode.
Such connections are made repeatedly throughout the show.
Sargent's dramatic portrait, "Dr. Pozzi at Home," showing a handsome Paris society doctor effetely posed in a scarlet dressing gown, owes its dramatic effectiveness to the Velazquez formula of painting strong figures adrift in infinity. It is a formula that instructs Eakins' greatest portrait, "The Thinker" and Whistler's portrait of art critic Theodore Duret, "Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black."
This almost too thorough show includes 19th-century French copies after Spanish Old Masters by such minor artists as A.-C.-G. Prevost, Jean-Baptiste Guignet, and Charles Porion, now relegated to provincial museums in France. They are interesting, but it best to concentrate on the works by some of the greatest masters in the history of painting, rarely seen outside their home museums in Spain, France, Russia, Germany and Great Britain.
"Manet/Velazquez" isn't just a banquet of an exhibition. It's a feast that can only be matched by the "Matisse Picasso" show also current in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The Met show can be enjoyed on the Internet in an online adaptation by Accenture by visiting the Web site at www.metmuseum.org.
A book accompanies the exhibit ("Manet/Velazquez," Yale University Press, 592 pages, $75, softcover, $50).