Spain in the American Imagination

The colonial era “Black Legend” that stereotyped Spaniards as cruel tyrants diminished in influence in the 19th century (though war with Spain would briefly revive it). Two New Yorkers aided this transformation by offering North Americans different ways to think about the Spanish.
 
The writer Washington Irving treasured “romantic” Spain and made Christopher Columbus a central figure in the story of America’s origins. The painter William Merritt Chase, profoundly influenced by the 17th century artist Diego Velázquez, helped make him a model for 19th century American painters.
 
But the new image of Spain was also distorted. If the country was picturesque and exotic, it was also mired in its past. In contrast, North Americans saw their own society as dynamic and up-and-coming, if perhaps a bit too money-minded. Spain thus continued to be a foil for the U.S., appreciated less for itself than as a way to measure America’s gains and losses as it forged ahead in the world. 

Washington Irving (United States, 1783–1859), The Alhambra. By Washington Irving. Author's Revised Edition. With Illustrations by Felix O. C. Darley, Engraved by the Most Eminent Artists. New York, G.P. Putman, 1851. The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Writing as the fictional Diedrich Knickerbocker, native New Yorker Washington Irving riveted readers with his irreverent combination of fact and fancy in A History of New York (1809). A diplomatic posting to Spain in the 1820s gave Irving the opportunity to delve into that country’s past as well. Over the next decade he would produce four books on the theme:  The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Conquest of Granada (1829), Tales of the Alhambra (1832), and Legends of the Conquest of Spain (1835). 
 
These works, which also blended historical research with romantic storytelling, celebrated Spain’s exotic past and venerated present-day remnants of its former glory, like Granada’s palatial (if dilapidated) Alhambra. His exciting tales created a vogue for things Spanish, and inspired generations of writers and artists to make their own pilgrimages to Spain seeking picturesque scenes to portray. Irving’s portraits were also popular because they flattered American sensibilities, casting Spain as a country marooned in the past, while the U.S. chugged into the future.
WashingtonIrving (United States, 1783–1859), The Alhambra. By Washington Irving. Author's Revised Edition. With Illustrations by Felix O. C. Darley, Engraved by the Most Eminent Artists. New York, G.P. Putman, 1851. The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

William Merritt Chase (United States, 1849–1916), Sunny Spain, 1882. Oil on canvas. Lois and Arthur Stainman. Like a growing number of New York artists after the 1860s, William Merritt Chase journeyed to Spain in search of the picturesque subjects that Washington Irving had previously popularized in his romantic portrayals of the country.

Chase’s painting Sunny Spain, sketched during a trip to Toledo in 1882, captures the sense of a place lost in another time, with its sleepy, pre-modern scenery and intense heat and light. The Spanish light also spurred Chase’s interest in working outdoors, and he became a skilled practitioner of the Impressionist style that became internationally popular in the late 19th century.

William Merritt Chase (United States, 1849–1916), Sunny Spain, 1882. Oil on canvas. Lois and Arthur Stainman.

William Merritt Chase (United States, 1849–1916), An Infanta, A Souvenir of Velázquez, 1899. Oil on canvas. Private Lender. Chase’s experiences in the galleries of Madrid’s Prado museum transformed his art and life. Transfixed by the paintings of Diego Velázquez, he copied the master’s work, seeking to learn from the man he accounted “the greatest painter that ever lived.”
 
Once back home, Chase even emulated the lifestyle and trappings of the Spanish court in New York, posing family and friends in period costume, and reenacting scenes depicted in Velázquez’s paintings. 
William Merritt Chase (United States, 1849–1916), An Infanta, A Souvenir of Velázquez, 1899. Oil on canvas. Private Lender.
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