The first time I visited the Hispanic Society Museum and Library was in the late 1970s. I was an art student interested in the paintings of Joaquín Sorolla, and the museum was the only place to see his pictures in the New York area. I encountered a Beaux-Arts building with marvelous works, a couple of guards, and no other visitors. The place felt completely disconnected from its neighborhood in Washington Heights, where it sat prominently at the intersection of 155th Street and Broadway.
This was not my experience during a recent visit earlier this spring. This time, I was there to see Nuestra Casa, an exhibition of selected works from the permanent collection organized by guest curator Madeleine Haddon. The newly renovated East Gallery was bustling with visitors. Founded in 1904 by Hispanophile Archer Milton Huntington (1870–1955), the Hispanic Society boasts a collection of over 750,000 objects representing the art, literature, and history of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking cultures throughout the world.
The institution was the first, during the early decades of the twentieth century, to introduce the work of important Spanish painters (such as Sorolla and Ignacio Zuloaga) to American audiences. By the 1960s, however, the Hispanic Society had lost touch with its surrounding Latino/a community (mostly from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico). That changed in the 1990s, when the museum began to expand its Latin American collections. Since then, it has been making a serious effort to connect with and serve its local communities, in part by integrating a revised, more critical art history into its exhibitions—one that questions hierarchies and presents the complex heritage of the cultures without ignoring the brutality of colonization and the slave trade. Nuestra Casa does just that, thoughtfully bringing together the museum’s best-known works with less familiar (but no less extraordinary) canvases and artifacts.
The new East Gallery is a gray, open space featuring nineteen paintings and ten display cases holding books, fabrics, and other artifacts. There’s plenty of room to examine each object closely, and on its own terms. Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of a Little Girl (1640) hangs next to José Agustín Arrieta’s The Young Man from the Coast (ca. 1843–1850), a juxtaposition that sets the tone for the entire exhibition. Without a doubt Spain’s greatest Baroque painter, Velázquez depicts a dark-haired little girl in this small, unfinished canvas. Her solemn and beautiful face is rendered with freshness, simplicity, and economy. (Scholars suggest she may have been the artist’s granddaughter, but her identity remains a mystery.) The corresponding portrait by Arrieta represents a young man of African descent from the coastal region of Veracruz in Arrieta’s native Mexico. Dressed in a white shirt and overalls, he holds a basket of tropical fruits from the region—a perfect excuse for the artist to introduce bright colors and variegated forms. The young man looks straight at the viewer with a slight smile on his lips, as he offers us mango, mamey, pineapple, and other produce. He’s a dignified person, worthy of our respect.