Why You Should See The Hispanic Society Before It Closes

See this museum virtually unchanged since 1908

Seville dancers by Joaquin Sorolla
Visions of Spain at Hispanic Society of America. Danielle Oteri

Go see the Hispanic Society of America before it closes on December 31, 2016. It has been open since 1908, virtually unchanged, and now desperately needs a new roof, air conditioning, an elevator for disabled visitors and new bathrooms. This is the second phase of a master plan, the first of which was a new gallery for the extraordinary murals "Visions of Spain" by Joaquín Sorolla. 

While the museum is closed, the collection will be traveling to the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain in an exhibition called "Visions of the Hispanic World: Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library." The exhibition will then tour the United States though the additional museum venues have not yet been announced. But while you'll be able to see the collection, it's the building itself I implore you to see now as it's practically a museum of a museum.

In the early 20th century, museums were more like the inside of a jewelry box than the austere galleries that are considered more appropriate today. The Hispanic Society is truly stuffed with treasures spanning the history of Spain and Portugal as well as a few pieces from colonial Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico. Most things have labels to identify the works, but nothing else. Nooks and crannies are everywhere as are major masterworks by El Greco, Goya, John Singer Sargent and Francisco Zubaran.

The Hispanic Society sits on Audubon Plaza, built atop land where John James Audubon lived. (Yes, the bird guy.) It was envisioned to be a cultural campus like Lincoln Center and the location seemed like a safe bet at the turn of the century because Manhattan's cultural life had been steadily advancing northward. But when it opened in 1908, the city instead started growing up toward the sky and the surrounding area was only ever residential.

For decades, it seemed like a private social club for Spanish nobles and academics. The members of the Board of Directors were not known to the public and you could make an appointment to use their library of 200,000 rare books and manuscripts, but could only make a copy if you had the permission of the heirs of the creator. (Not easy when something was written in 1500) Things are changing, but for now, the whole place still acts like a reclusive, rich uncle. 

Above all, you must, must, must see the murals by Joaquin Sorolla. The feeling I get from staring at those paintings is the same as when I feel physically replenished from being on vacation. That almost spiritual nourishment you get from letting transcendent light pour through your eyeballs. The murals depicting the provinces of Spain were commissioned specifically for the Hispanic Society by it's founder, Archer Huntington and they are one of the world's great masterpieces. If I spend too long in there, I want to throw off my life, go back to art school and spend the rest of my days as an itinerant painter. See it before you can't.

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A Jewel Box of Art from Spain

Inside the Hispanic Society of America
Danielle Oteri

Every corner of the Hispanic Society & Museum is stuffed with treasures. This view from the second floor shows the cases along the ledge (now empty in preparation for the renovation), the gallery of Old Master painting along the upper walls and a view into the central courtyard. The museum is hung in the fashion of early 20th century museums like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston or the Barnes Collection, now in Philadelphia.

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A Vision for the Arts That Was Never Fully Realized

Facade of Hispanic Society of America
Danielle Oteri

This collection of stately buildings seem out of place in a largely residential section of Washington Heights.

When Archer Huntington conceived of Audubon Plaza as a cultural campus on which his museum of Spanish art would be central, he did so with the knowledge that Manhattan's cultural life had been steadily moving northward. But when his museum opened in 1908, the city started growing up toward the sky and skyscrapers kept northern Manhattan from developing.

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A Hidden Collection of Old Master paintings

Old Master paintings at Hispanic Society of America
Danielle Oteri

"I can't believe this is here," is common a whisper heard in the galleries of the Hispanic Society.

In the early 20th century, the term "Hispanic" referred to Spain and Portugal. Because of the name, people often assume it's a collection of art similar to El Museo del Barrio when in fact it has more in common with the Frick Collection or the Morgan Library & Museum. But because it's not on Fifth Avenue, but instead in Washington Heights, a mostly residential neighborhood which for decades was plagued by high crime, people are stunned when they discover this collection which seems to be hidden in one of the world's greatest cities for museum lovers.

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A Masterpiece of Art History

Hispanic Society Sorolla murals
Danielle Oteri

After collecting and exhibiting the Spanish master's paintings, Huntington commissioned the mural cycle called "Visions of Spain."

Joaquín Sorolla worked on the "Visions of Spain" murals during the last fifteen years of his life. Commissioned specifically by Huntington, Sorolla worried that the project would physically wear him out, which it did. He had a stroke in 1920 and was never able to see the paintings installed before passing away in 1923. This extraordinary mural cycle is one of the great works in western art history.

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The Library at the Hispanic Society of America

Library at Hispanic Society of America
Danielle Oteri

The library will remain open by appointment throughout the renovation. Once you enter the reading room, it feels as though time has stood still. Scholars search through paper cards in the card catalog and paintings, also done by Joaquín Sorolla of the museum's founders adorn the walls. The ceiling is dark and badly in need of repair. Glass tiles in the floor are murky, but underneath, light from the storage stacks glows.

Huntington amassed incredible collections including an entire library from Spain and first edition books including Don Quixote. The greatest treasure which is usually on display is a hand drawn map by explorer Giovanni (Juan) Vespucci where the coast of Mexico and Florida are included. The map will tour with the rest of the collection though normally it is displayed in its own case inside the reading room.

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