The Dictator’s Favorite Painter

Portrait of the Countess Mathieu de Noailles, 1913.

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao
Portrait of the Countess Mathieu de Noailles, 1913.
How Ignacio Zuloaga went from exiled reject to Francisco Franco’s preferred portraitist

How Ignacio Zuloaga went from exiled reject to Francisco Franco’s preferred portraitist

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Self Portrait,​ 1908.

Franco and his regime saw Zuloaga’s paintings as a return to order and traditional national values.

A month into the Spanish Civil War, on August 20, 1936, Francoist forces reported that the world-famous painter Igancio Zuloaga had been assassinated by the Republican army in Madrid. The news made headlines in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and all over Europe. Zuloaga was actually in France at the time, but the false reports succeded in distracting from the real murder of the renowned poet Federico García Lorca by the Fascists two days earlier in Granada. On March 7, 1937, Francoists falsely reported that Zuloaga had been killed by the ‘Reds,’ this time in Bilbao. Again, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times lamented the senseless murder of Spain’s most admired and representative painter.

From the beginning of the conflict, Zuloaga was invaluable to the Fascist propaganda machine. But before the Civil War, the painter had spent the majority of his life rejected and ridiculed by audiences, critics, and institutions in his homeland. Zuloaga: 1870-1945 at Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes explored how the painter went from innovative exile to national emblem in the course of his career.

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Woman from Alcalá de Guardaíra​, 1896.

Ignacio Zuloaga was born on July 26, 1870, in the Basque town of Eibar, Spain. Descended from a long line of renowned artisans, he began to paint at age eight. Curiously, much of what we know about the artist’s youth comes from his correspondence with the English writer and pedophile Oscar Browning, who passed through Eibar when Zuloaga was eleven. Their letters trace the painter’s evolution from his boarding school days in Paris to his discovery of the Spanish masters in Madrid. “Now I’m a painter,” Zuloaga proclaims in an 1887 letter. Thanks to Browning, he began selling his paintings in London the following year.

After eight months in Rome, Zuloaga moved to Paris, where he shifted between styles. At first, we see Jean-François Raffaëlli’s influence in Zuloaga’s beggars, prostitutes, street sweepers, and other solitary figures painted in somber greys and blues. Then, Zuloaga’s future brother-in-law Maxime Dethomas introduced him to Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas. By 1892, the painter was part of the Paris vanguard, exhibiting his work alongside artists like Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Émile Bernard. But back in Spain, Zuloaga’s new style provoked outrage. After a disastrous 1894 exhibition in Barcelona, the painter tried to defend himself, insisting to a Spanish newspaper that “Velázquez was the first impressionist.” Spanish audiences and critics panned Zuloaga and his “Frenchified” work.

Though he never stopped living and working between Paris and Spain, that fall Zuloaga went to Seville to learn how to bullfight, paint, and connect more directly with Spanish tradition. In May 1896, he wrote to Dethomas: “I’m forgetting Paris and its refined theories, and I’m becoming Spanish … I aim to paint in Spanish and to paint Spain.”

Zuloaga’s quest for identity and authenticity intensified in Segovia, where he painted somber peasants and seductive gypsies in dusty villages and arid Castilian landscapes. The life-size canvases are dominated by deep browns with hints of acid yellows and terracotta reds, and pay tribute to the earthy naturalism of his hero Diego Velázquez, with a modern twist. Finally, Zuloaga had defined his vision: he would paint from the melancholy and sensuality of rural, central Spain.

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

The Victim of the F​iesta, 1910.

1898 was a turning point for Zuloaga, whose new work garnered international awards, sales, and increasing fame. But 1898 also marked the loss of the Spanish-American War and the imperial colonies, throwing Spain into an economic and identity crisis. While Zuloaga was seen by critics in Berlin, London, and Vienna as representing the ‘real’ Spain, it was a vision that his countrymen refused to accept. Spanish critics complained that Zuloaga’s paintings “came closer to the Spain dreamed up by foreigners than to the Spain we actually see in daily life,” and accused Zuloaga of falsifying his homeland for profit abroad. The animosity was mutual: at the 1903 Venice Biennale, Zuloaga requested that his work be hung separately from other Spanish participants, and again, the international press, visitors, and collectors were enthralled. Even if Spaniards didn’t see themselves in Zulaoga’s tragic bullfighters and flirtatious flamenco dancers, he “offered to the European public precisely what they expected and wanted to see,” exhibition curators Mikel Lertxundi Galiana and Javier Novo González said.

By the next Venice Biennale in 1905, Zuloaga had attained such prominent international standing that he was asked to select his country’s participants for the show. The majority were Basque and Catalan friends who had also worked in Paris, but the final artist on Zuloaga’s list was a “very interesting” young painter named Pablo Picasso. Zuloaga convinced Picasso to send his submissions with the older painter’s works. But when the package arrived to Venice, the exhibition directors roundly rejected Picasso’s paintings. In a letter, Zuoloaga angrily apologizes to the young artist, writing, “I truly admire your art. That’s why I wrote them [the Biennale organizers] a letter telling them to go to hell.” The Venice episode sparked a close friendship between the two painters, who had both been ignored by the Spanish art establishment for most of their careers. But it also foreshadows the artists’ very different eventual relationships to authority: Picasso’s Guernica stands in stark contrast to Zuloaga’s collaboration with Franco and his regime.

Prague, Dresden, Antwerp, Stockholm, Moscow, and Buenos Aires all hosted Zuloaga exhibitions in the early 1900s. But the more the artist was seen, the more he was criticized. In Barcelona in 1907, his Goya-esque paintings of flagellants, witches, and monks were called anti-Spanish and immoral. Zuloaga didn’t just cause uproar in Spain: arguments and even fistfights broke out in front of his paintings in Rome and Paris. The painter was so tired of the constant controversy that he opened his own gallery in a boutique below his Paris apartment. “You can’t imagine the danger, the bitterness, the spiritual deformity that it is for a painter to send work to an exhibition,” he wrote to a Catalan newspaper that year.

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Francisco and his Wife,​ 1909.

Zuloaga’s biggest boon came in 1916, with a large solo exhibition that traveled to major museums across the US. For two years, audiences in New York City, Pittsburg, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington DC, San Francisco, and many other cities clamored to see Zuloaga’s paintings, breaking attendance records and forcing museums to expand their opening hours. The Brooklyn Museum saw more than 40,000 visitors in less than a month, and crowds swarming Zuloaga’s Duveen Galleries opening completely stopped traffic on 5th Avenue. In Boston, critics hailed it as “one of the greatest exhibitions ever seen,” and Zuloaga’s friend John Singer Sargent oversaw the sale of one of the Spaniard’s works to the city’s Museum of Fine Arts for $20,000, the most it had ever paid for a living artist’s work. Zuloaga had arrived.

In the following years, the painter focused on portraits and commissions from his elite, mostly American, clientele. He returned to the US–this time in person–for an exhibition tour in 1925. Zuloaga made $100,000 in sales at the opening of his show in New York City, which saw more than 76,000 visitors in less than a month. But the painter mostly focused on attracting and appeasing clients on the trip, attending countless dinner parties and receptions at some of America’s wealthiest homes, including meeting President Calvin Coolidge at the White House. Some American artists and critics knocked Zuloaga’s mannered style and pandering to the upper classes. Zuloaga had never loved portraiture, but with a new, record-breaking $20,000 portrait commission from Steinway & Sons, he could hardly take notice of the naysayers.

Still flying high from his American success, Zuloaga mounted a comprehensive solo exhibition the following year in Madrid. Over 5,000 people attended the opening, including the Spanish King Alfonso XIII. After twenty years without exhibiting in the Spanish capital, Zuloaga expected a hero’s welcome. What he got was different. While some critics continued to call his paintings anti-patriotic, most simply said that Zuloaga and his work were outdated. New and experimental artistic vanguards had taken hold of Spain while Zuloaga was away painting American heiresses gussied up in Spanish lace. Although he had once been seen as too edgy in his homeland, now Zuloaga’s paintings looked fusty, academic, and irrelevant.

After twenty years without exhibiting in the Spanish capital, Zuloaga expected a hero’s welcome. What he got was different.

Things went from bad to worse in 1929 when the New York Stock Market crashed. Not only did Zuloaga lose most of his American clients, but he also lost three-quarters of his own wealth, which had been invested in the US under his patrons’ advice. A final insult came in early 1936, when a Paris museum paired his work with Picasso’s, provoking critics to dismiss Zuloaga’s paintings as decorative, decadent, and lifeless. But by July of that year, Zuloaga’s fortunes, and the future of his country, would change forever.

Zuloaga was never officially part of Franco’s regime, but he was tied to the Fascists early on. His son joined Franco’s forces in fall 1936, and in April 1937, Zuloaga believed false reports that the bombings in nearby Guernica and Durango had been ordered by the Republicans (they had actually been Francoists and their Nazi and Italian Fascist allies). Zuloaga was so worried about the location and condition of the Prado Museum’s masterpieces–which had actually been subject to Fascist bombardments in Madrid–that in September 1937 he penned a newspaper editorial claiming that only Franco could protect the national cultural patrimony. At the time, the painter was being investigated as a possible “Red,” but Franco himself canceled the inquiry after Zuloaga’s article was published.

But the 1938 Venice Biennale, filled with portraits of Franco, his generals, and Fascist foot soldiers, was Zuloaga’s most public union with Fascist Spain. Franco and his regime saw Zuloaga’s paintings as a return to order and traditional national values. And with nearly three times more works on display than any other Spanish artist, Zuloaga was clearly the star of the show. He was awarded the Grand Prize (then known as the Mussolini Prize), which the painter called the greatest honor of his artistic life. Afterwards, Zuloaga–under pressure from Generalísimo Franco himself–donated two of his paintings to Mussolini and his brother-in-law.

Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Woman with a Fan​, 1906.

At age 68, the honors finally started to roll in for Zuloaga in Spain. He was given the title of Gentleman and granted the Great Cross, the highest award in Fascist Spain. In July 1939, Franco gave three of Zuloaga’s paintings to Adolf Hitler, who liked them so much that he hung them at his Berghof home. Suddenly, Zuloaga’s portraits were in demand again. This time he worked for Spain’s wealthiest and most powerful families, including Franco’s. Zuloaga even made a life-size, full-body painting of the dictator himself. Draped in a flag atop of a mountain with a bright red beret perched on his head, the eerily awkward portrait was the centerpiece of Zuloaga’s triumphant, patriotic solo show at Madrid’s Museo de Arte Moderno in July 1941.

The last years of Zuloaga’s life were some of his busiest and most prosperous. The painter worked eight to ten hours a day on his patrons’ portraits and official Francoist commissions. His final 1942 exhibition in Barcelona saw over 128,000 visitors in twelve days, and Zuloaga sold his paintings for the highest prices he’d ever fetched. The painter died in his studio on October 31, 1945. Thousands attended his funeral corteges in Madrid and San Sebastián, and his face and works were emblazoned on postage stamps and peseta bills for the remainder of Franco’s regime. After decades of rejection and ridicule from Spanish audiences and institutions, Zuloaga and his work finally stood for the nation itself.

About the Author

Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is an artist and writer based in Madrid.

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