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Spanish treasure hidden in plain sight

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Some 100 blocks south of Riverdale, in a stately century-old Beaux Arts building, hangs the final masterpiece by one of the Hispanic world’s most revered artists.

The Hispanic Society of America’s library and museum on West 155th Street houses cultural treasures from Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the Philippines. Closed to the public for the last three years due to extensive renovations, works by Francisco de Goya, Diego Velázquez and El Greco enliven its walls.

But the defining feature is Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida’s “Vision of Spain” — 14 murals in oil, measuring between 12 and 14 feet high, with the entire work spanning more than 225 feet. Finished in 1919, Sorolla painstakingly rendered scenes of his native Spain in loving detail with the color and striking use of light the master became famous for in his lifetime and beyond.

The paintings have a hallowed place in Hispanic art, but it remains a hidden jewel, even to those who live within a stones-throw from the gallery’s door. Although renovations are ongoing, the paintings are available for viewing in their own dedicated gallery by appointment two days a week. But even when the entire museum was open, it seemed even the art lovers aware of its existence were reluctant to trek from Museum Mile to Washington Heights to view art and books produced by one of the world’s former superpowers.

It’s all the better for the art connoisseurs who understand Sorolla’s significance. There are fewer crowds and less chatter — more time to sit and contemplate.

“We had a man from Spain come to the tour yesterday, and he looked at the paintings and just said, ‘Why is this here?’” museum docent Ryan Pinchot said.

“And he didn’t say it like, ‘How did this get here? Did somebody bring it over on a boat from Spain or something?’ He meant it like, ‘Sorolla is one of Spain’s most famous painters, so why is this in New York instead of in Spain?’”

Why? That’s because of Archer Milton Huntington, a wealthy son of an American railroad magnate, who fell in love with Spain from afar. He began collecting paintings by Hispanic artists produced at the turn of the last century. He founded the Hispanic Society of America in 1904, and built the galleries on West 155th.

Huntington met Sorolla in Paris in 1908, almost immediately making him a member of the Hispanic Society and inviting him to exhibit there the following year. In 1911, Huntington offered the artist the modern equivalent of $4 million to produce a series of paintings depicting Spain’s history.

Sorolla accepted, but chose to focus on the regional cultures of the Iberian Peninsula, including his native Valencia.

Sorolla began his art instruction at 9. The orphaned son of a tradesman, his talent blossomed early, winning him a place at Museo del Prado as a teenager. He quickly rose to fame for his use of light to recreate the sun-drenched landscapes of his native land in the Impressionist style.

He chose to paint strongly culturally Spanish themes and depictions of social consciousness, like “Sad Inheritance” — an imposingly large canvas depicting Polio-stricken children bathing in the sea.

Before he began “Vision of Spain,” Sorolla did copious amounts of research.

“He spent months reading about regional cultures and visiting these areas to make sure he was getting the look of the people, their rituals and their clothing right,” Pinchot said.

Sorolla traveled to and painted scenes in a number of places, including Navarre, Aragon and Catalonia. He hired models to dress in native garb, posing them outdoors in the sunlight he’s so well known for incorporating.

He chose scenes from ways of life on the brink of disappearing, Pinchot said. In “El Encierro,” two mounted men from the arid south herd cattle over a railroad — a subtle nod to Huntington and one of the sparse mentions of industrialization in the series.

The livestock market in “El Mercado” reflects the hardy animals bred in the dynamic Extremadura region in a time when it was the source of warhorses favored by the Spanish army. Men climb palms to harvest dates that women gather into baskets in “El Palmeral.” The influence of industrial agriculture would render such sights obsolete as modernization reached even the remotest areas.

Although landscapes were his favorite topic, Sorolla excelled in painting compelling faces. Throughout the series, the gazes of people looking back at the viewer through the canvas and many years are arresting.

A maiden turns her smiling face coyly away from the strapping man looking adoringly at her in “La Jota.” Young women carrying loaves of bread and wearing the intricately embroidered dresses of the Maragateria region soberly walk along with the procession in “Fiesta del pan.” A flurry of dark eyes, white dresses and bright flowers tucked into glossy black tresses to celebrate the Sevillian May Cross festival enliven “El Baile.”

Sorolla spent eight years perfecting “Vision of Spain,” and battled illness through the final years, as evidenced in his letters.

“It was actually a year after he finished — 1920 — that Sorolla had a devastating stroke in Madrid that left him paralyzed,” Pinchot said.

Sorolla would live another three years, but died before “Vision of Spain” made its public debut.

Since then, the paintings have been housed in the Hispanic Society’s gallery, except for the three years they toured Spain. A record-breaking 2 million people came to see the series before it was returned to New York, Pinchot said.

The Hispanic Society hopes to have renovations finished next year, allowing the museum to reopen to the public full-time. But until then, anyone interested in seeing an unparalleled masterpiece practically in their backyard can make an appointment.

“I think it’s really something you need to see to comprehend the scale and the beauty of the whole thing,” Pinchot said.

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