SMU's Little Wilde Streak

The new Meadows Museum symbolizes everything good and bad about life on the Hilltop

In the absence of a son, Ferdinand and Isabella married their daughter Joanna off to a Hapsburg prince, ushering in two centuries of Spanish Hapsburg rule. The result was Charles I, later renamed Charles V and crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In wonderfully schizophrenic fashion, Charles' son, Phillip II, made it his business to promote the arts and stamp out the threat of Protestantism, ushering in Spain's golden age of painting even as he encouraged the worst excesses of the Counter-Reformation.

Under Phillip II, the official formula for Spanish court painting--that is, portraiture--was perfected. The Meadows collection contains some fine examples, including an Anthonis Mor portrait of Alessandro Farnese, Charles V's grandson. This grand Spanish tradition is carried on and expanded upon in a remarkable series of Velazquez royal portraits, culminating in "Sibyl with Tabula Rasa," a 1648 masterpiece. One of the real prizes in the collection is Jusepe de Ribera's 1630-38 "Portrait of a Knight," which may well be the quintessential portrait of a Spanish nobleman.

The Meadows' greatest strength is in Spanish painting under the Hapsburgs, especially the Baroque and its variants, including El Greco. Even here, however, there's a lot of collecting-by-numbers, and the result is a collection of mixed quality. And there are some disconcerting aspects to the way the permanent collection is presented. After climbing the stairs to the second-floor exhibition space, visitors willy-nilly enter the center gallery, which contains scenes from the late Gothic to the Spanish high Baroque, smack dab in the middle of the story. From there, one wanders into other galleries, forward or back in time. Thus there is no linear progression, an aspect some might find disconcerting. The galleries themselves are handsome, with high-coved ceilings and (for a museum) richly colored walls that complement the mostly somber Spanish palette. Across the vestibule, on the south end of the building, is luxurious temporary exhibition space.

"Acacias and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat," a 1490 Spanish Gothic painting attributed to Gallego
"Acacias and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat," a 1490 Spanish Gothic painting attributed to Gallego

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To be sure, the collection contains some magnificent specimens, such as the Velazquez portraits and Claudio Coello's "Saint Catherine of Alexandria"; moving on to later centuries, there's Goya's magnificent "Yard with Madmen" and even an erotic boudoir portrait, Antonio Maria Esquivel's "Woman Removing Her Garter." Alas, there's also a very weak Zurbaran and some fair-to-middling Murillos and a lot of pale rococo putti in the style favored by the Bourbons, who ascended to the Spanish throne in 1700. From there, things deteriorate even further, culminating in a couple of second-rate Goyas and some very bad 19th- and 20th-century academic painting. Though much of this latter is blissfully stored out of public view, one wonders what a more educated and discerning eye could have done with the dough.

Of course, that's the central question underlying the collection's new home, and even in a larger sense, SMU. And so the new Meadows Museum and the collection inside present the perfect metaphor for life on the Hilltop: a little challenging, even subtly subversive, but only if you go looking for it.

Editor's note: Christine Biederman studied law and art at SMU.

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