The nineteenth century saw the rise of a national school of Orientalism in virtually every European country, as well as in America, Britain, Russia, and beyond. Of all of these, the artists of the Spanish school may have been the most distinctive, producing dynamic paintings and watercolors that shimmered and glittered in an explosion of light and color, and that reveled in the layering of intricate patterns and the dramatic contrast of textures and surfaces.1 By 1860, two trends had arisen within this broad aesthetic: there were those artists who portrayed contemporary scenes of Middle Eastern daily life and those medieval or romantic Orientalists, who were influenced by the Moorish architecture of Granada and the Alhambra, and who consequently preferred (pseudo-) historical subjects. (These latter artists typically employed a highly detailed technique known as preciocismo to demonstrate their alleged archaeological expertise.) The works of José Villegas Cordero span both practices, making his paintings exceptional not only among Spanish artists, but among Orientalist painters in other regional schools as well. Their extravagance of style, moreover, remarkable even in the context of the art of his compatriots, positions them at the edge of decadence and symbolism, and in a category of extreme indulgence all their own. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Villegas’s Siesta of 1874, a tour de force both within his oeuvre and the entirety of the Orientalist canon.
Villegas’ professional career began in 1860, when he sold one of his works at the Exposición Sevillana, defying the expectations of his family. He then apprenticed with the painter José María Romero y López before attending the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Sevilla between 1862 and 1867. There he studied with Eduardo Cano de la Peña and Manuel Cabral Aguado-Bejarano. In 1867, Villegas traveled to Madrid, entering the studio of Federico de Madrazo and copying the works of Titian and Velázquez at the Prado. Inspired by Spain’s leading Orientalist, Marià Fortuny y Marsal, whom he had met while in Madrid, Villegas journeyed to Morocco. He returned to Rome in 1868, and entered the workshop of Eduardo Rosales. (Rome, like Paris and London, had become a major center for Orientalist painting and a favorite among Spanish artists by the middle of the nineteenth century.) At the prestigious Accademia Chigi, Villegas befriended Antonio Fabrés y Costa, who was also intensely interested in Orientalist subject matter, and joined a group of Spanish painters centered around Fortuny. Villegas’s first Orientalist works, small pictures based on his Moroccan sketches, were produced at this time, as were his costumbristas and bullfighting scenes;2 the popularity of these images led him to be seen as the successor to Fortuny and the leader of a vigorous new school of Spanish art. After 1877, Villegas chose to live in Venice, where he produced pictures for the American market, including, for the first time, watercolors. In 1887, he designed an Orientalist-inspired house, which, upon completion, became a gathering place for high society.3 In 1878, and despite a failed government commission, he was encouraged to try his hand at historical paintings; later, in 1896, a family tragedy would lead to a series of ecclesiastical subjects as well. Villegas was appointed Director of the Academia Española de Bellas Artes de Roma in 1898. In that same year, he became the first invited Spanish artist to participate in the “Carnegie Prize,” or Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Paintings, founded in 1896 by Andrew Carnegie. The best and even only way to introduce modern Spanish artists to an American audience, this would confirm Villegas’ reputation as Spain’s leading contemporary painter, and further his name abroad. (Villegas’ patrons in the United States included such cultural luminaries as Alexander Turney Stewart (see lot 25), William H. Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan, and the Astor family.) In 1901, Villegas was selected to head the Prado. Still a practicing artist, he earned fame as a portrait painter as well. His forced resignation in 1918 – the result of a devastating theft at the Museum – effectively ended his administrative pursuits.
During the course of this long and eventful career, the 1870s stand out as particularly important years for Villegas. A time of influence and innovation, paintings from this period reflect the lessons the artist had learned from Orientalist masters such as Fortuny and Fabrés, particularly in their dynamic surfaces and luminous palette (fig. 1), but also the qualities that would become the hallmarks of Villegas’ own, highly original – and profoundly influential – style. Indeed, the similarity of the present work with a composition painted four years later by Fabrés challenges the belief that the influence between the two artists was from Fabrés to Villegas, and not the other way around (fig. 2).
In Siesta, poignantly completed in the year that Fortuny died, common Orientalist tropes and standard themes are given new life, in a painting that is at once detailed and atmospheric, and instantly recognizable as a work by Villegas. A man, sprawled beneath a magnificent canopy of pampas grass, hovers at the edge of wakefulness and sleep. His parted lips no longer draw from the chibouk that rests against them and his eyes, the whites barely visible underneath his hooded lids, are seconds away from closing.4 His weapons have been cast aside – a flintlock pistol, a koumayya dagger in a bejeweled case, a shield, and a tasseled belt to hold his arms. In their stead, the man has adorned himself with fabrics and, resting across his legs and lap, with a sumptuously – and, with her breasts bared, seductively – dressed woman.5
The instrument that this supine woman plays at this moment of fantastic reverie is an ‘ood, recognized by its wide body, short neck, and seven double strings.6 Since at least the seventeenth century, European artists and travelers had delighted in descriptions of Middle Eastern women singing and playing these stringed musical instruments.7 Their languid serenades, which often took place in the harem, were thought to express the despondent state of their confined souls, and, more provocatively, the prelude to their seduction. The woman here casts her head back as her fingers delicately strum a tune, to see if the man she plays for is pleased with this private performance.
Rising from the ground is the smoke from an incense burner, set upon the richly patterned surface of the carpet on which the pair reclines. Scattered around are other decorative objects, undoubtedly drawn, like the pampas grass itself, from the artist’s own studio collection (fig. 3). There is a mother-of-pearl inlaid Koran stand, its original function forgotten in this languid den, a brass ewer atop a painted wooden side table carved with architectural motifs, hanging fabrics of various colors, weaves, and weights, a hookah, or additional smoking instrument, amulets, trays, pottery vessels, and a massive blue and gold urn. The chamber in which all this bric-à-brac is housed is as intricately patterned and described as the accessories themselves: based on careful sketches the artist made during the course of his travels ten years before, it evokes memories of the Alhambra in Spain.8 The marble floors and colorfully tiled walls, as well as the simple, slender columns visible in the distance on the left, allow it to be identified as a niche within the palace, filtered through the lens of time and Villegas’ imagination.
A favorite subject since at least 1870 and through the first decade of the 1900s, Villegas created many variations on the theme of rest and sleep. (Indeed, even European women enjoy a moment of respite and relaxation in their own Siesta of 1907 [fig. 4].)9 In the majority of Villegas’ somnolent scenes, the stereotypical indolence and idleness of Middle Eastern life is made the focus of the composition. (Writing in 1846, the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray memorably summarized this aspect of Orientalist life: “No, it was an indulgence of laziness such as Europeans, Englishmen at least, don’t know how to enjoy. Here [the artist] lives like a languid Lotus-eater – a dreamy, hazy, lazy, tobaccofied life”).10 Smokers, odalisques, and slouching merchants and guards all populate Villegas’ exotic world; their horizontality is typically echoed by the format of the painting itself, though here, and almost uniquely among Villegas’ images, the verticality adds at least the suggestion of animation in this otherwise drowsy scene.11 In 1870, Villegas painted what might be considered a study or prelude to this work; here the female figure is more attentive to her (now deeply sleeping) mate (fig. 5).
Villegas’ fantastic compositions, and his canny exploitation of sensational and popular Orientalist themes, did not detract from the glosses of authenticity and intimacy that contemporaries perceived in his works. For many Orientalist artists, Spain was the gateway to the East and Spanish painters, therefore, the trustworthy and authoritative “insiders” of the genre. Compounding this perception were the devices that Villegas often used: in the present picture, the slippers that the man wears – loaded with well-understood symbolism by 1874 – offered viewers an imaginative entrance into the work, as the shoes that they themselves could fill.12 The dreaminess of Villegas’s subjects in Siesta might therefore be read as the dream of the armchair travelers who looked upon the canvas – or indeed, of the artist himself, as he devotedly painted each indulgent detail.13
The provenance of Villegas’ Siesta is a particularly important one: through the efforts of the famed art dealership Goupil & Cie, the painting entered a prestigious Dutch collection just a few months after its completion. (Goupil had also represented Fortuny, and may be credited with first popularizing his and other Spanish Orientalist works.) Goupil’s support of Villegas, in this instance and thereafter, allowed the artist to move in the same circles as the best-known academic and Impressionist artists of the day, and to have his pictures advertised around the globe. (Goupil famously made reproductions after his artists’ works that were circulated and sold throughout America, Britain, and Europe.) Several of the artists Goupil represented had experimented with – or indeed, for a period dedicated themselves to – Orientalist subject matter. Jean-Léon Gérôme, who married into the Goupil family, is perhaps the best-known example.14
This catalogue note was written by Emily M. Weeks, Ph.D.
1 Writing of Villegas’s work in 1908, A. G. Temple describes a painting – likely the Siesta of 1875 - as “ a gorgeous scene of Oriental colour,” Modern Spanish Painting, London, 1908, p. 95).
2 These subjects aligned Villegas with contemporary European artists, and in particular, with the works of Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier.
3 The architect was the Italian Ernesto Basile (1857-1932), a champion of Art Nouveau.
4 Though the theme of the male or female smoker would become a favorite among many Orientalist artists, with painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme exhibiting numerous examples to widespread critical acclaim, it was Rudolf Ernst who dominated the genre. Indeed, his exploration of this subject matter – Ernst depicted the entire range of smoking devices available in the region at this time, from picturesque hookahs to French-inspired cigarettes – is virtually unparalleled in Orientalism, and suggests a far deeper understanding of this cultural phenomenon than his largely imaginary compositions would suggest.
5 Often in Villegas’ works, his wife Lucia Monti serves as muse and model.
The perceived “indolence” of harem women encouraged nineteenth century audiences to equate this quality with immorality; Villegas’ picture, therefore, would have had a clear connotation of debauchery as well as dreaminess.
6 This instrument differs from the mandolin, also popular in Orientalist art, by the number of its strings – a mandolin would have had eight.
In the “definitive” edition of An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, published in London in 1860 and widely known across Europe and America, Edward William Lane explains the ‘ood as follows: “The ‘ood (derived from the Arabic word for "wood") is a lute, which is played with a plectrum. This has been for many centuries the instrument most commonly used by the best Arab musicians, and is celebrated by numerous poets” (p. 361). Here, Villegas has chosen to depict the woman without the traditional plectrum, perhaps in order to enhance the sense of touch.
7 By 1900, the ‘ood had gained even broader cultural appeal, due in part to the revival of interest in historical music and, at the same time, in seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch genre painting, which often featured this instrument.
8 Villegas’ Orientalist works are often set in the Alhambra, or in spaces reminiscent of this locale; see Alhambra Interior (circa 1875, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Fabrés, though it is unclear whether he visited the site in person, also depicted the architecture of the Alhambra in great detail (see The Guard, circa 1889, private collection).
9 One of Villegas’ Siesta paintings broke the auction record for the artist, selling for $770,000 in 1989 (sale: Sotheby's, New York, May 23, 1989, lot 127).
10 William Makepeace Thackeray, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, London, 1846, p. 291.
11 The reason for this change of format may be strictly practical: it allowed Villegas to depict the fountain of pampas grass in its entirety.
12 For more on the symbolism of slippers in the harem and in Orientalist art more broadly, see Emily M. Weeks, Cultures Crossed: John Frederick Lewis (1804-1876) and the Art of Orientalism, New Haven, Connecticut and London, 2014, Chapter 4, passim.
13 Given the current political upheavals in Spain at this time, as the country grappled with the shift from a short-lived First Republic to the Restoration, escape to the Orient may have been particularly appealing to viewers in 1874.
14 For an informative account of the relationship between Gérôme and Goupil, and of Goupil’s importance to the widespread dissemination of artist’s works more broadly, see Gérôme and Goupil: Art and Enterprise, exh. cat., Musée Goupil, Bordeaux; Dahesh Museum of Art, New York; The Frick Art & Historical Center, Pittsburgh, 2000.
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