El Greco's era comes to Durham

Sarah Walker Schroth rounds a corner in the Nasher Museum of Art and surveys just-built wooden shelving.

“Qué bien!” she exclaims to the Latino carpenters.

“I love it,” she continues in Spanish. “How beautiful.”

It's hard for a passer-by to see much to marvel at in this sealed-off construction site. But Schroth sees a dream 20 years in the making.

“From El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III,” which the Duke University museum will unveil in this space Thursday, is based on a discovery Schroth made in Spain in 1987.

It's also the Nasher's first blockbuster show, featuring 52 paintings, including seven by El Greco and three by Velázquez, both masters of the Spanish Renaissance whose influence was felt through the 20th century. The show also includes altar pieces, ceramics and other objects from the period.

With a price tag of $2 million, it is a must-see for art aficionados and name-droppers alike, says renowned art historian Jonathan Brown.

“First of all, the pictures are, in and of themselves, very important examples of the artists represented,” Brown says of the exhibition. “But when's the last time there's been a significant concentration of paintings by El Greco and Velázquez in North Carolina? I can tell you: Never.”

Show born of research

The show – a joint exhibition with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and underwritten by Bank of America – illuminates a once-murky era in Spanish art history. It also reveals the wide-ranging taste of Europe's first known nonroyal art mega-collector.

Brown planted the seeds for this show when Schroth was his student at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Brown figured there was more to the cultural scene during King Philip III's reign than its arid reputation suggested. But information was scarce. So he told Schroth to dig it up.

Philip III was 19 when he inherited the throne in 1598. He soon earned an enduring reputation as a self-serving traitor to his country's ideals, having signed peace treaties with enemy empires and frittered his time and money on hunting escapades and parties.

But his reign overlaps with El Greco's fruitful late career and Velázquez's early years. Did he really have no influence on the two, let alone others? Schroth traveled to Spain to find out.

But Schroth found nothing noteworthy surrounding Philip III. So she turned her attention to the king's influential and equally despised sidekick, the Duke of Lerma. Descended from an aristocratic family that had gone broke over generations, the duke befriended Philip III when he was a child and became a powerful father figure and court administrator. Nobody got the king's attention without first going through the duke.

Schroth followed several leads on the duke but found nothing of interest. Resigned to head home empty-handed, she tried one more outlet, an obscure family archive in Toledo.

There, in the dusty servants' quarters in the attic of an old hospital, in bundle number 52, Schroth hit her jackpot: 13 household inventories itemizing more than 2,000 works of art that the duke had commissioned or bought during Philip III's reign.

“That changed everything,” says Schroth. “Before, we know nothing. Then suddenly we know he's a major patron.”

NYU professor Brown was incredulous. Nobody else has found documents so revelatory from that era.

“It was like striking oil,” he says. “I mean at today's prices.”

Ideal venue, helpful ally

Schroth knew an exhibition was in order, but it would be years before the right opportunity arose. When Schroth returned from Spain, she persisted with her historical research and eventually came to Duke University in 1995 just as its plans to build a new museum funded by Dallas art collector and Duke alumnus Raymond Nasher were coming to fruition.

With an ideal venue on its way, Schroth began pursuing curators and administrators in Spain and elsewhere, seeking to borrow the paintings she'd need.

Few were responsive, until she joined forces with former NYU classmate Ronni Baer, a curator of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Baer widened the scope of Schroth's proposal, elevating it from a scholarly collection to a mass-market draw by bookending it with the marquee names El Greco and Velázquez, whose careers overlapped with Philip III's reign. The MFA already owned works by both artists – including two in this exhibition – but the Nasher could never have shot for such big names on its own.

Boston's show, which ran from April to July, featured four more El Grecos and four more Velázquezes than Nasher could get, as well as a pair of paintings by Eugenio Cajés and Luis Tristán. But the stars aligned for Schroth more often than she had anticipated.

A former NYU classmate now curating at London's National Gallery convinced hesitant administrators there to let Nasher – not just MFA – borrow the Velázquez Schroth most wanted, “The Immaculate Conception.”

A high-ranking Spanish cultural official helped with negotiations in Spain, spurred in part because he was related to the Duke of Lerma and was eager to promote scholarship that contradicted the duke's bad reputation.

Churches loaned fragile wood sculptures that had never traveled before. And Madrid's prestigious Museo Nacional del Prado agreed to lend both museums Peter Paul Rubens' “Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Lerma,” a cornerstone of the exhibition.

‘A beautiful installation'

Once Baer and Schroth got all the approvals they needed, they agreed that each would organize her museum's show as she saw fit.

Schroth's Nasher exhibition will comprise two pavilions totaling 8,200 square feet, with sections devoted to sacred and secular works, still lifes and portraits, and religious sculptures. It will also feature a recreation of a camarin – or little room – containing ceramics and other items from Spain and elsewhere that are similar to those in the Duke of Lerma's documentation, arranged just as it described. That's where the wooden shelving comes in.

Schroth headed to Boston in April for a preview peek.

“When I walked in, I started crying,” Schroth says. “It was overwhelming. It was a beautiful installation. Very dramatic. Very impressive.”

NYU's Brown was transfixed, too. “It's like 25 years of Spanish history just disappeared,” he says of Philip III's reign. “To see it all brought together in a cohesive, coherent way was really an eye-opener, and I've been working in this field since the '60s. I thought I knew it, but I didn't.”