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Exhibit of Spanish art reveals revolutionary talent

‘El Greco to Velázquez,” the first blockbuster exhibit at the three-year-old Nasher Museum of Art, is a bold departure from its mission of showing contemporary works. The show spotlights paintings by two of the Spanish Renaissance's greatest artists, whose influence has been felt through the 20th century.

Yet the Duke University museum had the resources to handle the territory well.

The Nasher partnered with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and received financial support from Bank of America to give visitors a chance to see works rarely seen in this area.

Subtitled “Art During the Reign of Philip III,” the show is bracketed by the late works of El Greco and the early works of Diego Velázquez, urging us to reconsider the artistic achievements from 1598 to 1621. The 52 paintings on view include dozens by other artists of the time as well as altar pieces, ceramics and other objects.

The Nasher devotes two of its pavilions to the show, and curator Sarah Schroth has chosen to display sacred objects in one, secular in the other.

I began in the sacred section, painted in a regal gold ochre, where I was met by the grand “The Vision of St. John,” by El Greco, still revolutionary and extraordinarily modern more than 400 years after its creation. El Greco's brushy paint handling, his off-key color combinations and exaggerated figural proportions transcend naturalism to evoke an ethereal realm.

A grouping of depictions of the Immaculate Conception contrasts three versions, painted at about the same time by Sánchez Cotán, Francisco Pacheco and Velázquez.

The Velázquez, painted when he was just 19, shows the artist's revolutionary talent. Unlike the versions by Pacheco (to whom he was apprenticed) and Cotán, which are stiffly iconic, Velázquez gives his subject a new naturalism. In fact, her sweet, round face is very like the carved polychrome wood statue by Montanes that occupies the center of the gallery.

These paintings, typical of the southern Spanish style of the period, are contrasted with paintings from northern Spain that more show the influence of the Italian Renaissance.

An “Adoration of the Magi,” by Juan Bautista Maino, from the Prado, is a revelation here. In exquisite condition, this 17th-century painting features poses reminiscent of Caravaggio and tenderly depicted expressions, and it revels in the presentation of luxury goods – brocades, velvets, feathers.

Nearby, an “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Tristán, a pupil of El Greco, demonstrates that master's unusual palette and his looser paint handling. The detail of a bound lamb beneath the Christ child's manger foreshadows his death.

The next grouping deals with Christ's passion and crucifixion. The paintings are uniquely Spanish in their emphasis on the palpability with which Christ's wounds are portrayed. Among these works, a small painted crucifixion scene by El Greco from the Getty Museum would have been made for the private devotion of its patron.

The final section of this gallery includes paintings of saints, Vincente Carducho's levitating St. Francis, receiving the stigmata. El Greco's influence is important here, as he popularized the concept of the “apostolado,” using a model as the basis for a saint's portrait.

An earthy taupe wall signals entry into the museum's second wing, devoted to the secular. The imposing Rubens portrait of the Duke of Lerma dominates the first room, showing off Lerma's mastery of his horse in a complicated equestrian maneuver.

Portraits by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz and Bartolomé González put human faces on the era, including the unusual depiction of a visibly pregnant Margaret of Austria, wife to the young Philip III.

Also in this room are an exquisite likeness of the great poet Gongora by Velázquez, and arguably El Greco's finest portrait, a riveting figure of Fray Hortensio Felix de Paravicino, an important orator and writer of the time.

As you turn a corner, you find a grouping of shelves housing objects similar to those recorded in the Duke of Lerma's inventory that Schroth discovered. These include luxury goods of the time, among them Spanish and Italian ceramics and glassware, as well as Ming ceramics imported from China.

The two remaining areas of the show are the related genres of still-life and bodegon, or tavern scenes. These secular genres were emerging across Europe at the time.

Featured are the particularly exquisite still-life paintings of Sánchez Cotán, one of which employs the trompe-l'oeil device of vegetables presented against a dark background, suspended in air by string. Such paintings became a tour de force for the skillful depiction of varying surfaces.