By Wendy Hower Livingston
“So exciting! It’s so exciting!”
Sarah Schroth bursts into the classroom where the installation crew is taking a break for lunch. She is still bouncing after six days of unpacking crates until late at night and hanging paintings that are part of “El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III.”
“A curator gets to hang these works once in her lifetime!” says Sarah, who is the Nancy Hanks Senior Curator at the Nasher Museum.
She plops down at the lunch table with conservator Ruth Cox, and, over couscous salad, they relive the unveiling of Juan Bautista Maino’s “Adoration of the Magi.”
“It took our breath away!” Sarah exclaims. The condition of the 1612 masterpiece is excellent, she says. “It looks just like it looked in the 17th century.”
The painting makes you realize what an incredible artist Maino was, Sarah says. He was not very prolific because he became a monk and was chosen to be the drawing teacher for the young prince Philip IV. The prince, in turn, developed great taste.
“So when Velázquez came to court, he understood,” Sarah tells Ruth, who nods in agreement.
After four years of planning, traveling back and forth to Spain, fundraising, begging for loans, crafting the 350-page catalogue, choosing wall colors―“El Greco to Velázquez” is finally here.
And the exhibition does feel different from anything the museum has done before.
Many of these paintings are traveling to the United States for the first time, and this is the only time visitors will get to see them all together. Sarah has seen each one in person many times, but often in poor light, she says. “It’s a rare privilege to see paintings that close.”
Ruth has to check the condition of each painting, so she gets to scrutinize them under a bright light—briefly!—that is not normally allowed. During that process, she discovered that Juan Sanchez Cotan painted his “Virgin of the Immaculate Conception” on tablecloth linens that have a diamond pattern.
“I wonder if they were actually manufactured in the Netherlands,” she says to Sarah.
“Probably!” Sarah responds.
The excitement is in the details for Ruth—learning how the canvas was put together, the techniques of each artist, the amount of money spent on the creation of a painting. “You step into that workshop and become a mouse on the wall.”
Jeff Bell, a Durham artist and former registrar at the museum, who is helping install the show, said he remembers visiting major museums and spending time with some of the pictures that have arrived for “El Greco to Velázquez.” He does not allow himself to think about that, however, until each work is safely hung on the wall. Then he steps back and thinks, “That’s pretty neat.”
IMAGE CREDITS: Photos by Wendy Hower Livingston