Marià Fortuny: Homage to a Catalonian


A retrospective at the Prado reveals the range and vigor of Marià Fortuny i Marsal, one of 19th-century Spain’s greatest painters.

Marià Fortuny, The Opium Smoker, 1869

Marià Fortuny, The Opium Smoker, 1869, oil on cardboard, 26.5 x 17 cm.

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Spain, like Italy, is a geography that became a state but struggles to remain a nation. The politically minded identify Spain with its capital, just as Philip II intended. In 1561, Philip moved his court to a small town called Madrid, which was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter but at the center of the map all year round. Romantics, however, locate Spain’s spiritual heart in the south, in the gypsy music and Moorish ghosts of Andalusia. Linguists once said that the pure Castilian in which Velázquez received his commissions survived best outside Spain, in the Jewish communities expelled centuries earlier.

Meanwhile, historians of modern art look north to Catalonia, which has its own language and traditions of self-government. Catalonia is the birthplace of Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies, and Salvador Dalí. Picasso, too, is an honorary Catalan. He was born in Andalusia and trained in Madrid, but he passed much of his childhood and most of his early career as a painter in Barcelona. When his secretary Juan Sabartes proposed founding a Picasso museum in Spain, it was Barcelona that Picasso chose as the site. That which is most Spanish is also the least Spanish: the gypsy, the Moor, the Jew, the Catalan.

Marià Fortuny i Marsal (in Spanish, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal), the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (on view through March 18th, 2018), was also a Catalan. Hence Fortuny is a quintessentially Spanish painter, because he saw Spain as something of a foreigner and other countries as a Spaniard. In his short lifetime, Fortuny enjoyed more international recognition than any other Spanish artist, as an all-round prodigy in oil, watercolors, and etchings. Fortuny was born in 1838, when Goya had been dead for 10 years. He died in 1874, seven years before the birth of Picasso. He worked after the Old Masters but before the new ones. His age prized him for his Rococo elegance and topical subjects. Our age prizes him for his incipient Impressionism, and for his putative influence on his son, Mariano Fortuny, who revolutionized women’s fashion in the early 20th century.

Fortuny grew up at Reus, near Tarragona, the future birthplace of the architect Antoni Gaudi. In the 18th century, Reus had become Catalonia’s second city through its liquor and textile production, but Fortuny’s family shared little in this prosperity. As an infant, he lost his father, and at 12, his mother. The orphan had already begun his training. From the age of five, he had learned to carve and paint from his grandfather, a cabinetmaker. Soon, the two of them were touring the towns of Catalonia, displaying a cabinet of wax figures painted and possibly modeled by the boy.


In 1852, the year that Gaudi was born at Reus, the 14-year-old Fortuny left his home town. Short of money, he walked the 130 kilometers to the regional capital of Barcelona, where Fortuny could train at Claudi Lorenzale’s Academy of Fine Arts. At Rome, Claudi Lorenzale had known the Nazarene painters. He had returned to Barcelona hoping to emulate those pious German medievalists and revive the religious and historical roots of Catalan identity. Catalonia was then beginning its Renaixença, a “renaissance” that began in the usual Romantic fashion as a medievalizing cultural movement and was to develop in the usual Romantic fashion into a modern political and separatist movement. Today, its terminal monuments are both unfinished: the political struggle for independence from Madrid, and Gaudi’s design for the last medieval cathedral, the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia at Barcelona.

In 1857, Fortuny won a scholarship to study at the Academia Giggi in Rome and voluntarily entered another typically Spanish condition, exile. More than Ireland or Russia, the cultural achievements of Spain have tended to be created outside Spain. Goya drew The Bulls of Bordeaux (1825) in Bordeaux. Picasso named Guernica (1937) for a Spanish city, but he painted it in Paris. Isaac Albéniz composed his musical argument for Andalusia as the true Spain, Iberia (1905–09), in Paris. Miró spent most of his working life in France, and when he returned, it was to the Catalan island of Majorca. Fortuny returned after two years in Rome, only to leave again.

In 1859, Spain declared war on Morocco. The proximate cause of the war was a Moroccan raid on the Spanish enclave of Ceuta; the broader cause was a Spanish attempt to capitalize upon European conquests in North Africa. The commander of the Spanish expeditionary force, the Count of Prim, had been born in Reus. Catalan volunteers joined Prim’s army, and Fortuny joined Prim’s staff as Catalonia’s war artist. The Spanish victory at Tetuan in early 1860 ended the hostilities, but Fortuny’s brief exposure to Morocco shaped the remainder of his life.

From Morocco, Fortuny went to Madrid. There, he fell in love with his future wife Cecilia Madrazo, the daughter of the painter Federico Madrazo. Proceeding to Barcelona, Fortuny turned his Moroccan watercolors and sketches into his first major commission. Engaged by the Council of the Province of Barcelona to memorialize the victory of the Catalans at Tetuan, Fortuny began a 15-meter canvas that, like the Sagrada Familia for Gaudi, was to remain unfinished at its creator’s death. In scale and narrative, The Battle of Tetuan is conceived as a Spanish analogue to Horace Vernet’s The Taking of the Smala of Abd-el-Kader (1843); the Barcelona government paid for Fortuny to travel to Paris in order to examine Vernet’s depiction of a French triumph in Algeria. The palette also looks to Paris—to the Orientalism of Delacroix.

For the French, Orientalism connected the imperial metropolis to its exotic colonial possessions. For the Spanish, Orientalism connected Spain to Europe. It aligned Spain with larger European empires in the Scramble for Africa, and allowed Spanish painters to use a common European vocabulary. The sensuality and flamboyant license of Orientalism freed Fortuny from the chaste Classicism of his training; the obligatory Odalisque (1861) is plainly aroused by the music of the oud. When Fortuny returned to Morocco, he dressed as an Arab and picked up a few phrases in Arabic.

The intense African light heightened the colors of his Rococo inheritances, and it loosened his brushwork, too. In the first version of The Print Collector (1863), a connoisseur sits in a European genre scene from the 18th century. The background is shadowed with a dark richness that suggests an Eclectic echo of Velázåquez. In the second version of The Print Collector (1866), the connoisseur is older, and the light is sharper. The tapestry on the rear wall is defined by loose Rococo brushwork. The rug on which the connoisseur sits has shrunk, allowing the floor to reflect more light into the room, and its pattern, previously inchoate, is now crisp. As the connoisseur ages, his rug is carrying him towards Impressionism.

In 1866, Fortuny returned to Rome, this time to work on etchings. In 15 months, he produced a series of masterpieces, suggesting his rapid assimilation of the agile and sinuous line of Goya and the shadowing technique of Rembrandt. “The time I spent with Fortuny is haunting me still,” wrote the painter Henri Renault. “He paints the most marvelous things, and is the master of us all. I wish I could show you the two or three pictures he has in his hand, or his etchings and watercolors. They inspired me with a real disgust of my own. Ah, Fortuny, you spoil my sleep!”

After Rome, Fortuny returned to Paris. There, he befriended the Academic painters Jean-Léon Gérôme and Ernest Meisonnier, and signed an exclusive contract with the influential dealer Adolphe Goupil, whose partner, Vincent van Gogh, was the uncle of the painter of the same name. The association with Goupil enriched Fortuny by attracting the patronage of the American sugar baron William Hood Stewart. But this success, and the pressure to replicate the material, kept Fortuny away from the North African scenes that he loved.

Fortuny’s career had carried him to Paris, but it now returned him to Spain. Not to Catalonia, a region whose people and language had more in common with the coastal cities of southwestern France, but to the mythologized Spain—al-Andalus of the Muslims, the Andalusia of the Gypsies. Living and working in Granada, Fortuny was in the curious position of a tourist in his own country, producing paintings for foreign buyers, and of a subject matter that, recognizing the long Muslim presence, had long been taboo in Spain.

Orientalism did not develop naturally in Spain as an aesthetic recollection of Spain’s historical and geographical intimacy with Muslim Africa. Quite the opposite: the Spanish had defined their state, religion, and identity through violent conflict with the Moors. Instead, Orientalism arrived in 1808 as a French import, part of the cultural baggage of Napoleon’s army. When educated Europeans learned about Spain for the first time, their imaginations were fired not by the historical Spain of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella but by the fictional romance of the Muslim kingdom of Granada: Byron’s Don Juan (1819); Washington Irving’s The Alhambra (1825), in which Irving sets up a “regal household” in the ruined palace; and Chateaubriand’s The Adventures of the Last Abencerage (1826).

According to legend, the Abencerrages were a family prominent in the affairs of the Nasrid court at Granada in the century before its conquest in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella. One of the Abencerrages fell in love with a member of the royal family and was caught climbing up to her window. The king had the entire Abencerrage family murdered; the site of the killings is still called the Court of the Abencerrages. Fortuny’s The Slaying of the Abencerrages (1870) avoids the writhing bodies and extravagance of color that had defined Orientalist bloodbaths since Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827–28). The marble floor is spare and clean. There are no flashing scimitars or torn dresses. The killers are leaving the hall, and losing their definition. The bodies are not fully defined, either. It is as though the scene has already entered the vague and ahistorical territory of myth.

Fortuny’s images of Gypsies show a similar ambivalence towards his material. The Gypsies in The Spanish Wedding (1870) are not fully Spanish in Spanish terms, but they are essentially Spanish in the foreign imagination: the priest, the hidalgo with his sword, the ladies in their mantillas, and the gratuitously Goya-like physiognomies. But Carmen Bastian (1870) is a harsh and candid portrait of a real Gypsy. Fortuny found his model, a 15-year-old Gypsy, in the streets of Granada. Lifting her skirt and exposing her pudenda, Bastian looks the viewer candidly in the eye. She was rumored to be Fortuny’s lover. When Fortuny left Granada in 1872 for Italy, she moved to Madrid to model for an English watercolorist. When he abandoned her, she committed suicide.

In the summer of 1874, Fortuny settled at Portici, by the enchanting light and water of the Bay of Naples. He died shortly afterwards from malaria, aged 36. In the same year, John Singer Sargent, then 18 years old, entered the École des Beaux-Arts at Paris. Sargent was to pursue the path that Fortuny had opened, applying the suppleness of the 18th-century style to Orientalism, and integrating it with a highly personal variation on Impressionism. Sargent’s first masterpiece, the Flamenco dancer in El Jaleo (1879–82), begins where Fortuny ended.


By Dominic Green

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2017