Small Museums in Big Cities: Hispanic Society of America

El Greco, Goya & Velazquez paintings in a trove of Spanish art

Hispanic Society of America
Danielle Oteri

Even native New Yorkers don't seem to know about the Hispanic Society of America, one of the most treasure stuffed museums in the world. Built as the public home for a private collection of Iberic art, the Hispanic Society contains paintings by El Greco, Francisco Goya, Diego Velazquez and John Singer Sargent. Medieval tombs of the Spanish royalty are on display as are Roman mosaics and Visigothic metalwork. The library holds a first edition of Don Quixote by Cervantes and a map of the world made by Juan Vespucci.

The painting that you will immediately recognize is the one that greets you right at the entrance; The Duchess of Alba by Francisco Goya. Yes, it's the same one you probably saw once before in an art history textbook and there it is, all by its lonesome, in a museum on 155th Street in Manhattan.

Opened in 1908 as the crown jewel of an arts campus called Audubon Terrace, the Hispanic Society of America contains the collection of Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955). As a well-educated heir to an enormous railroad fortune, Huntington observed that New York's cultural life kept moving farther uptown. Though he lived on what is known today as Manhattan's "Museum Mile" he purchased a large plot of land in northern Manhattan that had been the country estate of John James Audubon. His goal was to create a cultural campus that included the American Numismatic Society, the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the American Geographical Society and the Museum of the American Indian.

All plans were well laid except that the city stopped growing northward. Instead, the city started growing up toward the sky and skyscrapers kept the cultural life of New York contained well below 155th Street. The area around Audubon Terrace campus became mostly residential and Huntington's uptown museums never really enjoyed the volume of visitors they deserved.

Today the Hispanic Society looks much like it did when it first opened, making it almost a museum of a museum. In winter, it's chilly in the galleries and in summer there is no air conditioning. The bathroom is ancient. There isn't a cafe and only a small stand with a few books for sale. But step inside and you feel as though you're inside a jewelry box. Art is literally stuffed into every corner. Look below the paintings for Bronze Age Iberic stones, discover the John Singer Sargent painting in a dark corner on the upper level and look near the libraries entrance for the enconchado, an image made entirely of mother-of-pearl inlay.

Though the museum is small enough to fully explore in an hour or two, here are a few highlights.

The Duchess of Alba

The aforementioned Duchess of Alba greets you upon entry. Painted in 1797 by Francisco Goya, it is technically a mourning portrait, one of several that the Duchess permitted during a long isolated period following the death of her husband. Look down to the ground with the Duchess is pointing and you will see the words "solo Goya". The word "solo" was only revealed when the painting was cleaned. 

Sorolla Murals

If art is only a casual interest for you, the murals by Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida might change your life forever. Huntington commissioned Sorolla to create the mural cycle depicting life in the regions of Spain for the Hispanic Society of America. While they should be required for every student of painting in the world, you will likely be alone in the gallery where you can enjoy the light glinting off baskets of oranges, a candlelit semana santa scene or the the flowers of the Sevilla dancers. 

Map of the World

You'll have to come during the week when the library is open to see the Map of the World from 1526 by Juan Vespucci, nephew of Amerigo, a Florentine who worked for Spain in the House of Trade of Seville. The map includes Mexico, the coast of Florida and the east coast of the United States.

Broadway between 155th and 156th Streets

(212) 926-2234

Admission is free.

Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 10am-4:30pm except Lincoln's Birthday, Washington's Birthday, Good Friday and Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, December 29-January 1st.