Martín Rico was one of Spain's most famous 19th-century landscape painters, in the 19th century. Now he is a footnote.
There is a reason for that: Rico was good during a time of greats.
He was from Spain, chose to live in France and found that his muse was the city of Venice. He was a Barbizon School painter in the time of impressionism, and this helped relegate him to the history of also-rans. During a time of the artistic avant-garde, Rico played it safe.
There is nothing wrong with his sunny landscapes; they are perfectly pleasing, but ultimately forgettable. Forty-four of them are on view at the Meadows Museum, along with 51 drawings and nine watercolors in an exhibit organized by the Museo del Prado in Madrid and on loan to the Meadows. "Impressions of Europe: 19th-Century Vistas by Martín Rico" will be on view through July 7.
Rico was a success story. His talent was recognized at an early age, and he won a government-sponsored scholarship that allowed him to travel and study in Paris, where he was exposed to many of the artists chafing against classicism. Rico, though, seemed blissfully ignorant of the changes that were in the wind. One of his landscapes (now lost) was accepted into the 1865 Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. When he visited the exhibition, his voice joined the chorus of those who loudly derided the inclusion of Edouard Manet's Olympia, now considered one of the touchstones of 19th-century French painting.
Rico worked alongside Camille Pissarro, painting in the French countryside. They were the same age, and Pissarro spoke Spanish, but their objectives and ideas were at odds and they soon parted ways. Pissarro became a mentor of both Pauls, Cezanne and Gauguin, and a force within the impressionist movement, while Rico nurtured friendships with powerful art dealers who found his nonchallenging paintings an easy sell.
Michael and Roland Knoedler, gallerists in New York City, were especially fond of Rico and sold his paintings to many of their clients, including William Vanderbilt and Henry Clay Frick, so the artist's work found its way into numerous American collections that eventually landed in U.S. museums as part of large bequests. Some pieces are still privately owned. So many of his works crossed the Atlantic that there are few museums in Spain (the Prado is an exception) that own any Ricos.
In 1873, the artist visited Venice, and he was to return there every year but one for the next 30. He loved Venice. It afforded him landscape and water reflections, exotic architecture, and an opportunity to paint genre scenes, all on one canvas. These paintings are his best work. They are not as grand as Canaletto's visions of Venice or as atmospheric as J.M.W. Turner's, but they are artfully pretty, and that is a kind of damnation.
Rico would widen canals and reposition architectural elements when it suited him. He'd add Asian flavor to spice the exotic feel of the city with bright red fans or flowering vines. These liberties were acceptable to his patrons -- so much so that he never starved for his art.
In fact, he was quite well-rewarded during his lifetime. He was considered affable and was well-liked by other artists. He had a happy family life, marrying twice, the second time quite late in life to a much younger woman. There were children from each union.
It seemed an idyllic life. He painted en plein air when the weather was nice, and when it wasn't he stayed inside playing his guitar. He wasn't tormented by mental illness, physical ailments or a life of penury.
Rico lived well and painted the city he loved in its most attractive light, and for this he is accorded a legacy of adequacy.
Gaile Robinson is the
Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113