Highlights from the Bowes Museum at the Meadows Museum
September 15, 2019 - January 12, 2020
While “El Greco, Goya and a Taste for Spain: Highlights from the Bowes Museum” is an important exhibition of 16th to 18th century Spanish art, it is really a love story at heart.
John Bowes (1811-1885) was the illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, John Bowes (1769-1820.) While his mother, Mary Millner, was an employee of the estate, she lived with John’s father and married him just 16 hours before his death, ensuring their nine-year-old son would inherit his wealth.
Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier (1825–1874) was only 22 and working as an actress at a Paris theater when she met the wealthy Englishman, who was 14 years older. The couple married in 1852, an unusual outcome during a time when few aristocrats married their mistresses.
But it was a fruitful union. Over the next 30 years, Josephine and John Bowes amassed a notable collection of European art. The Bowes built a large French chateau in the middle of the Northern English countryside of County Durham, far from the influence of British aristocracy, to house their burgeoning collection.
The foundation stone was placed by Joséphine in 1869, but the roof was not completed until 1876, two years after her death. The museum did not formally open until June 10, 1892, seven years after John’s death. But what a legacy they left.
This intriguing exhibition features eleven of The Bowes Museum’s Spanish paintings, ranging from royal portraits to historic masterpieces by renowned artists such as El Greco and Goya. Hung low on dark green walls, the exhibit is displayed across three rooms. It is the first time these works have been exhibited in the U.S. The Meadows Museum is the only venue where they will be seen before returning to the U.K. in 2020.
Upon entering the the exhibit, two tempera and gold paintings of Saints by Juan de Borgoña flank a royal portrait of Catherine of Austria, Queen of Portugal by Alonso Sanchez Coello on the far wall. It is a compelling presentation.
Spread across another wall is a large photograph of the chateau that houses The Bowes Museum.
The next room features several artifacts, including John Bowes’ art ledger and letters between John and his French art dealer, Benjamin Gogué.
On an adjacent wall is a photographic mural that shows part of the interior of The Bowes Museum. While the photo was taken in 1930, The Bowes Museum director Adrian Jenkins said it is representative of how the works are displayed today. In fact, if you look at the photo, over the arched doorway in the center of the photo is Antonio de Pereda y Salgado’s Tobias Restoring His Father’s Sight. You can also see the portrait of Catherine of Austria, Queen of Portugal by Alonso Sanchez Coello, just to the left of the doorway in the photo. Both of the aforementioned works are in the current exhibition at the Meadows.
On the opposite wall is Interior of a Prison, a small oil painting on tinplate by Goya. While small in scale, the misery of the shackled prisoners is palpable.
For me, the treasures are in the third room. I was immediately drawn to El Greco’s Tears of St. Peter. Depicting the Apostle Peter’s anguish after he had thrice denied Jesus, his hands are folded in prayerful repose, tears fill his eyes and are poised to spill down his cheeks.
Another masterpiece was Antonio de Pereda y Salgado’s Tobias Restoring His Father’s Sight. I was not familiar with the story from the book of Tobit, a Catholic Canonical book, about Tobias treating his father’s blindness with the gall of a fish as the angel Raphael miraculously intervened. But you don’t need to know the story to appreciate the majestic scene. The detail in the fish’s luminescent scales is enchanting enough to convey that something supernatural is happening.
Belshazzar’s Feastby Juan Carreno de Miranda illustrates a Biblical story from the Book of Daniel(chapter 5.) Babylonian King Belshazzarholds a royal feast and invites guests to eat and drink from vessels that had been stolen from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. A hand appears in mid-air and writes a message on the wall. Belshazzar’s magicians and diviners were unable to interpret the writing. Daniel deciphered the message: "MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed ... and found wanting;" and "PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” That very night Belshazzar was killed and his kingdom overthrown. This marks the first time this painting has ever left The Bowes Museum.
There are several beautiful portraits and paintings of religious figures and Saints in the exhibition. Each of the artists were hand-picked from the Bowes’ collection as they are each also represented in the Meadows Museum’s permanent collection.
I hope to revisit this exhibit, and seek out the artists’ other works in the Meadows’ collection.
The Meadows Museum is the leading U.S. institution focused on the study and presentation of the art of Spain. In 1962, Dallas businessman and philanthropist Algur H. Meadows donated his private collection of Spanish paintings, as well as funds to start a museum, to Southern Methodist University. The museum opened to the public in 1965, marking the first step in fulfilling Meadows’ vision to create a “Prado on the Prairie.”
Today, the Meadows is home to one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain. The collection spans from the 10th to the 21st century, and includes medieval objects, Renaissance and Baroque sculptures, and major paintings by Golden Age and modern masters.
More info, including current and upcoming exhibitions, is online at meadowsmuseumdallas.org