Fortuny y Madazo’s legacy at Queen Sofia Spanish Institute

Housed in a handsome neo-Federal townhouse, the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute provides a perfect setting for the elegant and wide-ranging exhibition of the work of famed Spanish artist and designer Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo (1871–1949). Because he opened his couture house in Venice in 1906 and continued to work there for decades, his artistic output might be considered to be Italian, but in fact he was descended from a long line of important Spanish painters and art benefactors. A huge admirer of Fortuny’s, Oscar de la Renta, chairman of the institute’s board of directors, initiated the show to correct misunderstandings about his heritage and to highlight his many maternal and paternal influences.

Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park, curators at the institute, took charge of finding the objects in museums and private collections in Europe and the United States. They looked for paintings, lithographs and textile and clothing designs created by Fortuny and his family that would best illustrate the exhibit’s theme. Mining the collections of the Museo del Traje in Madrid, the Museo Fortuny in Venice, the Hispanic Society of America and the Museum of the City of New York as well as the private holdings of Regina Drucker and Keith McCoy, among many others, they came up with over 50 beautifully displayed ensembles, numerous luxurious fabrics and over 20 etchings, paintings and photographs. Among the highlights are a green velvet jacket with a metallic print, an opulent robe of olive-green satin and a Delphos dress in gold satin that shows the influence of Greece on his styling. His gowns were made famous by celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt and the adventurous dancer Isadora Duncan, who loved his designs.

A silk velvet jacket, left, and silk satin smock are among the inventive designs on display. (Collection of Keith H. McCoy) Photograph by Kenny  Komer, Courtesy of Queen Sofía Spanish Institute

A silk velvet jacket, left, and silk satin smock are among the inventive designs on display. (Collection of Keith H. McCoy) Photograph by Kenny Komer, Courtesy of Queen Sofía Spanish Institute

Though his father, Marià Fortuny i Marsal, died suddenly of malaria when he was a small child, Park explains, “Mariano grew up in an environment surrounded by his father’s memory—a vast collection of his artwork, as well as his personal collection of decorative arts and artifacts.” Interestingly, he always considered himself first and foremost a painter and revisited themes and iconography explored by his father. In 1933, he even edited and published a book about of his father’s work, “Fortuny 1838-1874,” in the hope that it would set the record straight on his father’s legacy.

After his father’s death, Mariano, his mother and sister moved to Paris, where he came under the tutelage of his uncle Raimundo de Madrazo (his mother’s brother), who was a celebrated society painter. Other relatives were also well-known Spanish artists and administrators at the Prado, expanding its collections to establish it as Spain’s most important museum of art. “Raimundo de Madrazo and Fortuny’s father,” adds Park, “were close friends and often traveled and painted together. Fortuny y Marsal’s work—especially his depiction of light and loose brushwork—had a huge impact on Raimundo.”

In the institute’s spacious exhibition space, viewers should gain a greater appreciation of Fortuny’s formidable creativity and the significant contribution of his Spanish heritage to his artistry. “It is the connections that we set out demonstrate and document,” Sorkin says.

“Fortuny y Madrazo: An Artistic Legacy” runs through March 30 at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, 684 Park Ave. To learn more, visit spanishinstitute.org