Legacy’ Reveals Faces Behind Early Spanish-American Relationship
The somewhat long-winded title of the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Legacy: Spain and the United States in the Age of Independence, 1763–1848” might not set your blood running at first blush, but this historical portraiture display stands on its feet quite nicely.
After all, how mundane can an exhibition be that includes a hefty sampling of work by Francisco Goya, Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale, not to mention iconic and familiar portraits of Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett?
This is history illustrated by masters and masterpieces, with the goal of telling an old story from a new perspective—and the result is that you’re waylaid along the way, surprised by both the elements of sparkle and gravitas in this display.
“Legacy,” a joint project of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Latino Center, seeks to examine the role of Spain in the United States beginning with the American Revolution and culminating in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War. These 85 years comprise a saga that includes Spain’s critical participation in America’s war for independence, the Spanish presence in Florida and New Orleans, the Louisiana Purchase, revolutions in the Napoleonic era on the European continent, the revolt of Texans, massive U.S. exploration and settlement, and finally a war with Mexico that gave the United States the land that would become California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and Nevada.
This story is told mostly through the portraits of key Spanish and American figures throughout this period—kings and presidents, explorers and generals, diplomats and aristocrats, friends and foes. What emerges is the ongoing nature of a relationship that is continually evolving. After all, today’s political brawling over the issue of immigration is in a certain context a continuation of the complex U.S.-Hispanic dynamic.
The exhibition successfully illustrates the beginnings of this relationship, highlighting Spain’s contributions alongside France’s during the American Revolution. The Spanish role—in alliance with the French against the British—was equally, if not more critical, in terms of both military and financial assistance. Like France, Spain’s aid may have been in its self-interests, but it was crucial nonetheless. The Spanish in fact engaged the British in a naval battle in Florida, which assisted in the final victory at Yorktown.
“At the heart of the National Portrait Gallery is our goal to ensure that the country remembers its past,” said Marc Pachter, director of the gallery. “The aptly named exhibition ‘Legacy’ explores the role of Spain and Mexico in the development of the nation with that goal in mind.”
During this exploration, it’s interesting to see the portraits of prominent aristocratic Spanish personages—especially when presented alongside more familiar American faces. There is a certain regal formality, for instance, present in the portrait of King Carlos II of Spain, who made the decision to help the United States against Britain during the Revolutionary War. His portrait, by Anton Raphael Mengs in 1761, presents the royally ornamented king standing straight—with his wig, scepter, armor and all his formal regal splendor—but the king’s face, surprisingly buoyant, breaks out of the conventions of portraiture with a puzzling but engaging smile.
Francisco Goya, meanwhile, at the peak of his artistic powers, is present here with five portraits that peer into the soul of their royal subjects, galvanizing and animating them.
Something similar happens with the portraits by Gilbert Stuart. If the expansive exhibition of his works at the National Gallery of Art in 2005 did him honor as a great artist, the examples here of his Spanish diplomats and their wives punctuate Stuart’s reputation with panache and distinctive style.
While the American portraits of John Adams, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett and others parade with a stout familiarity, what’s really affecting is the intersections of these two nations—one old and steeped in European history, the other emerging with great energy, marching toward its future. What’s equally surprising is the variety of personalities among the subjects. Although the works of Goya and Stuart tend to dominate the exhibition artistically, they’re more like princes in the service of a great historical relationship.
Legacy: Spain and theUnited States in the Age ofIndependence, 1763–1848 through Feb. 10 National Portrait Gallery at 8th and F Streets, NW For more information, please call (202) 633-8300 or visit www.npg.si.edu.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.