The Smoker by Jose Benlliure y Gil:
Hidden Gems At the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, BournemouBenlliureth
I have always wanted to explore the ‘Hidden Gems’ of the Russell-Cotes. Its wonderful collection of Victorian paintings includes many by names once famous but now unfamiliar. Moreover, the collection includes works by continental artists who are poorly represented in British public art collections. This blog accompanies a YouTube video, which focuses on a painting entitled The Smoker by Spanish/Catalan artist Jose Benlliure y Gil (1858-1937). I suspect you might have heard of Benlliure’s famous contemporary, Sorolla. Both are famous sons of Valencia.
I had never heard of Benlliure until I visited Valencia, where I discovered his beautiful studio-house. It immediately recalled to my mind Lord Frederic Leighton’s famous studio house in Kensington. Though there is nothing comparable to Leighton’s breathtaking Arab Hall, there are plenty of tiles in the stunning courtyard garden. This is an oasis of tranquility in the busy city of Valencia. I was there in February when the trees where laden with ripe oranges. I discovered that Benlliure headed a dynasty of artists, which includes his brother and son, who died tragically young. Marino (1862-1947) is best known as a sculptor, his bust of Sorolla gracing the Hispanic Society of New York. His son Josep Benlliure y Ortiz, affectionally known as Peppino, was born in Rome in 1884 and died in 1916. In the studio-house you will see works by all three artists.
Benlliure made his name with the grandiose historic subjects favoured by the academic establishment. You will undoubtedly prefer his genre subjects, paintings of everyday life. Like Sorolla he attempted to capture the spirit of Spanish life and culture. His talent was recognized early, wining a scholarship to the Spanish Academy in Rome. He spent much of his career in Rome, becoming director of the Spanish Academy in 1903, a post which he held until 1913. However, he returned regularly to Valencia, on one occasion to marry Maria Ortiz. When he returned permanently to Valencia he was appointed director of the Museu de Belles Arts de Valencia.
When I first spotted The Smoker, going by his costume, I thought he was a cavalier but the name of the artist was clearly not French! Then I imagined he might be a character from a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. In truth he is just a fanciful, rather raffish, figure, in 17th century dress smoking a pipe. He might be at an inn; a comrade appears to be sitting at a table behind him. This type of painting was known in Spain as a casacones, meaning a small painting intended to decorate a drawing room. So now knowing a little more about the artist, have a look at my YouTube to enjoy the ambience of Benlliure’s house and studio in Valencia.
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