The Duchess of Alba in White, 1795 by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828), oil on canvas. The thirteenth Duchess of Alba was an intimate friend of Goya’s and he painted her numerous times. Colección Duques de Alba
The Duchess of Alba in White, 1795 by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746-1828), oil on canvas. The thirteenth Duchess of Alba was an intimate friend of Goya’s and he painted her numerous times. Colección Duques de Alba

Arts & Culture

Art exhibit preview: Alba family’s treasures on display at Dallas’ Meadows Museum

September 16, 2015 11:02 AM

DALLAS

The Meadows Museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary in a huge way. To culminate the yearlong celebrations, the museum has brought in “Treasures From the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting,” with more than 140 objects from one family’s magnificent trove.

The Alba collection, with thousands of works, was amassed by marriages, astute acquisitions, commissions and, in one case, almost ruinous collecting.

The story of the Alba family and its intrigues is worthy of a three-year Masterpiece Theater series. There were alliances and marriages with most of Europe’s dynasties, and the record of these is illustrated in the collection’s portraits, created by the most notable painters and sculptors of the time.

The paintings, furnishings, documents, tapestries, drawings, prints, maps and antiquities are from the three Alba palaces in Spain — the Liria in Madrid, Las Dueñas in Seville and Monterrey in Salamanca. There, these treasures are hung salon-style, three- and four-deep on the walls, clustered on tables and dwarfing the furniture.

The tapestries that take up an entire wall in the museum “look like a stamp in the staircase of the palace,” says Mark Roglán, director of the Meadows.

There is such a glorious excess that even Fra Angelico’s The Virgin of the Pomegranate, c. 1426, with its eye-catching gold leaf and brilliant colors, is lost among the Titians, Goyas, Riberas, Murillos, Rubenses, Ingreses, Renoirs and Sorollas.

Many of these works, such as Fra Angelico’s Virgin, have never left Spain. The loan of this magnitude was achieved on the Meadows’ sterling history of mounting Spanish exhibitions and artworks.

This gallery contains the first Bible ever translated into Spanish, from an even earlier Hebrew Bible, in 1430.

The exhibit is arranged by significant periods of collecting, beginning with the third Duke of Alba from the 16th century, a member of the court of Charles V and his most valuable general.

This gallery contains the first Bible ever translated into Spanish, from an even earlier Hebrew Bible, in 1430.

“It is one of the earliest translations into a Romance language from Hebrew,” says Roglán. Like the Bible, many of the documents on display are quite rare. There are title grants from the king of Spain, emblazoned with large gold seals and signed, “Me, the King.”

Documents include a sketched map of Columbus’ journey to the New World and a log of the sailors who joined his voyage on the Santa Maria in 1492.

A marriage with the Carpio family brought many Baroque paintings into the collection, as well as documents belonging to Christopher Columbus.

Of the 41 extant documents by Columbus’ hand, the Alba family owns 21. They include a sketched map of his journey to the New World and a log of the sailors who joined his voyage on the Santa Maria in 1492.

There also is a decree given to Columbus, titling him “Admiral of Atlantic Ocean” and “Governor of Islands and Main Lands of the Ocean Sea.”

In this same gallery is an atlas from 1568 done by a Portuguese cartographer that shows all the ports known in the world. It includes the coastlines of Texas and Florida.

“It’s one of the most important early atlases of the world,” Roglán says.

These, along with a tapestry of the Columbus family crest, are displayed in a small gallery that is becoming such a draw that one must wait in line to enter.

One of the largest infusions of artworks came when the third Duke of Berwick married into the Albas in the early 18th century. The Berwicks were descendants from James II of England, and for the next two centuries, the family was known as the Berwick-Albas.

The titles that each of these successive marriages brought into the family were staggering. The last Duchess of Alba, María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, 18th Duchess of Alba, 11th Duchess of Berwick — who died in November 2014 — had 44 noble titles and 150 hereditary ones. She was popularly known as Cayetana.

According to Guinness World Records, she was the most titled aristocrat in the world. Her son, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart y Martínez de Irujo, ushered in this exhibition at the Meadows just days after the ink had dried on his formal succession.

The 13th Duchess of Alba, also known as Cayetana, left the largest record of portraiture. She was painted by Goya many times, and it was rumored they were more than friends. Lest you miss the connection, she is pointing to Goya’s signature with her right hand.

Her portrait, The Duchess of Alba in White, 1795, is the most famous painting in the collection. She died without descendants, and the Berwick family inherited the Alba titles.

The Duchess of Alba in White, 1795, is the most famous painting in the collection.

The largest gallery at the Meadows is given to the collection of early-19th-century Duke Carlos Miguel, 17th Duke of Berwick, 14th Duke of Alba.

He embarked on a 10-year grand tour and collected with abandon — prints, miniatures, Flemish paintings, Italian paintings and works by contemporary painters.

He commissioned five paintings from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Only two were completed; one is considered quite spectacular, Philip V Awards the Order of the Golden Fleece to Marshal Berwick. It is accompanied by its preparatory ink study.

The Golden Fleece, a heavy gold chain on which dangles a listless gold lamb — and the highest order the Spanish king can bestow — is often draped across the chests of successive dukes in their portraits.

The remaining Ingres works were never undertaken, as the duke nearly bankrupted the family with his spendthrift ways. Fortunately, his heirs were more attuned to business and righted the financial disaster, and they are again the wealthiest family in Spain.

Another significant collector was Eugénia de Montijo, a Spanish countess and, as Eugénie, empress of France and wife to Napoleon III, as well as sister-in-law and aunt to two dukes of Alba. Upon her death in 1920, her estate passed into the Alba family.

She was an avid collector of porcelains, tapestries, romantic images of Spain and Second Empire furnishings.

Much of the furniture on display is from her collection. There is a sofa and side chairs that have been in the family for more than 100 years and have been used frequently, as is obvious by the stains. Two large salons in the Madrid palace are completely furnished in her Empire furniture.

A large mahogany desk from the empress’s collection, which was believed to be used by Napoleon III, is on display.

Roglán has a good story about this piece of furniture. During World War II, the Duke of Alba was ambassador to England. When he returned to Madrid, he found his desk in the office of dictator Francisco Franco.

When he asked why the general had his desk, Franco blustered, “It’s my desk.”

The duke knew it had a secret drawer, and when he unlatched it, the drawer opened and it was filled with his papers. Franco backed down, had a copy made and returned the original.

The copy is in the Prado. The original is on tour in Dallas.

Gaile Robinson: 817-390-7113, @GaileRobinson

Treasures From the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting

▪ Through Jan. 3

▪ The Meadows Museum on the Southern Methodist University campus, Dallas

▪ $4-$12 (free after 5 p.m. Thursdays)

▪ 214-768-2516; www.meadowsmuseumdallas.org