Archive for John Singer Sargent

A Bow to Gesture Drawing

Posted in Drawing, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager with tags , , , , on February 5, 2011 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

John Singer Sargent, Sketch of a Spanish Dancer, 1879
Pencil on paper, 11 1/2 x 9 ”
(Gardner Museum, Boston)

If you must, blame this afternoon’s post-ette (pitifully short by normal VR standards) on Diane Olivier, who is keeping me busy figure drawing in my sketchbook during the hours I’m not in her class. Diane is a teacher of the best kind—enthusiastic, relentless, inspirational, entertaining, and just plain over the top about drawing. (No painting for Diane; drawing is what she does.) I have no doubt that she will push me to miraculous places, if I let her.

In a few short weeks, Diane has taught me much about seeing beyond a pose to the essence of a gesture. And, as Sargent so skillfully demonstrates in his Sketch of a Spanish Dancer, the effect of a gestural drawing can go beyond the visual to penetrate our other senses. In the great whoosh of his pencil around the page, I feel the flamenco dance. In those few frenzied lines, I hear the quirky rhythm of the palo, the staccatto of the dancer’s feet, the clip-clip of the castanets.

In that bow, Sargent has captured the whole experience of her performance. Bravo!

Venetian Red Salutes the Decade

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Drawing, Female Artists, Fiber Arts, Film & Video, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography, Public Art, Quilts, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by Liz Hager

We thought a Venetian Red salute to a decade of art would be a fitting subject for a final post in 2009.  Admittedly, we weren’t interested in throwing up an amalgamation of critically-lauded highlights of the decade. Rather, we wanted to share with you our own very personal short list—a selection of artists, whose work when we were able to see it during the past decade inspired us emotionally and artistically. We hope that our list will motivate you to collect and share your own list of “art in the aughts.”

William de Morgan, Vase, 1888-98,
earthenware painted with luster glaze. (V&A Museum.)

2000
This little vase opened up two big worlds to me—William Morris and the Ottoman Empire.  In the winter of the Millennium, I didn’t know much about Morris, his workshops, or devotees. My education began unexpectedly on a visit to the V&A one morning. As the textile galleries were closed, I ambled through the V&A’s cavernous rooms, eventually ending up in the ceramics galleries. After hurrying by the cases filled with fussy 18th-century pieces, I came to this gem, a small vase by William de Morgan. Such a gorgeous design and luxurious glow! I later learned a great deal about de Morgan, including his passion for things Middle and Far Eastern. Lusterware was one of his  enduring interests.

As the Ottomans before him, De Morgan made luster glazes by mixing metallic oxides with white clay and gum arabic. He would have packed the painted pieces closely in a kiln and fired at a low heat. At the critical moment, he would have added dry material, such as sawdust, and after a brief, but intense firing period, the kiln would have been shut down, closing off the source of oxygen. The resulting smoke-filled environment produced the irresistible iridescence. —Liz Hager

Henri Michaud, Untitled, 1968.
Collection of Catherine Putman, Paris.

2000
My pick for 2000 is Untitled Passages, a show of work on paper by Henri Michaud at the Drawing Center in New York. Henri Michaud (1899-1984) was born in Belgium and was mostly known as a poet. In his youth he was attracted to the Surrealists, and he admired the work of Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico—but his independent nature kept him apart from all movements and isms.  Michaud felt there were things beyond words that he could not capture in his poetry, and his drawings were experiments with creating work that hovered between writing and drawing.  He drew, scratched and threw ink on to paper to make illegible marks, letters that were part of no alphabet, simple calligraphic marks that had no conscious meaning—Michaud was drawing from l’espace du dedans (the space within). In the 50s and 60s, Michaud also experimented with the drug mescaline and his “mescaline drawings,” done under its influence, using ink, acrylic, watercolor and gouache and collage, represented this state of intense, heightened awareness, the fluidity of time and space, the bridge between control and abandon. Michaud’s drawings and paintings are about the journey, the passage of time and life. From his unconscious, under the influence of drugs or not, his work  reveals itself as part lexicon, part landscape, with evocations of cellular structures, maps, water, membranes, clouds, planets, beasts and insects—a hidden, interior universe made visible. —Christine Cariati

Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1500,
oil on limewood, 26.38 x 19.25 in.
(Alte Pinakothek, Munich)

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Seated Woman, 1907
oil on canvas.
(Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich)

2001
The two paintings above hang in buildings across a plaza from one another in Munich. Although it didn’t strike me at the time, juxtaposing them in this setting amply demonstrates the evolutionary paths that painting traveled during the four centuries that separate the two portraits.

When I was learning to paint as a teenager, the Dürer self-portrait was one of my favorites. That gaze casts a powerful spell. The incredible precision with which Dürer elaborates every strand of fur, every lock of hair, garnered my respect (still does). When I was finally able to see the portrait in the flesh, although I hadn’t thought about it for years, it still packed a mighty punch.  And yet, for all the pyrotechnics of the Dürer, my older self favors the Kirchner for its electrifying color palette. —Liz Hager

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Pauline Astor, 1898/9
oil on canvas, 96 x 50 in.
( The Huntington Library.)

2002
Sargent has always been one of my favorite painters for the sheer virtuosity with which he applies paint, particularly in the depiction of fabrics. The strong connections between Gainsborough and Sargent had somehow eluded me until a 2002 trip to the Huntington.  Gainsborough’s Blue Boy also hangs there and the luxury of viewing the two in such proximity demonstrated how much Sargent ‘s portrait owes in form and style to Gainsborough’s. And how much they both owe stylistically to Van Dyck.

The connections among the three are freaky. To wit: Pauline Astor was 18 years of age, the same age as Jonathan Buttall when Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy. Sargent was 43 years old at the time he painted Pauline, the same age as Gainsborough when he painted The Blue Boy. It was 129 years after the death of Van Dyck that Gainsborough painted The Blue Boy; and it was 129 years after the creation of The Blue Boy that Sargent began painting Pauline.  —Liz Hager


Mark Lombardi, World Finance Corporation and Associates, 7th version,
1999, 69 x 84 in.

2003
An exhibition of Mark Lombardi’s drawings, Global Networks, was at The Drawing Center in New York in late 2003. In his drawings, Lombardi kept track of political and financial misdeeds on a global scale, linking people and events related to various scandals from the 1960s-1990s. Politics aside, Lombardi’s drawings are things of beauty in themselves. His work was art, not political reporting. Lombardi’s drawings, often very large and delicately drawn in pencil, call to mind the charts of the ancients that delineated arcane knowledge. These works portray webs, networks, labyrinths. The lines arc and loop and intersect, creating order out of chaos. His work seems to be about elusive connections, the flattening of time and space and the fleeting nature of truth. Lombardi’s reputation as an important artist was beginning to take hold when he committed suicide in 2000, at the age of forty-eight. —Christine Cariati

Diane Arbus, Boy with a Toy Hand Grenade, 1962.

2004
Because it included all her published works, many photographs never before exhibited, diaries and other paraphernalia, SF MoMA’s 2004 show “Diane Arbus” was the most complete survey of her work—no, her life—ever assembled. Arbus’ work kindled my early photographic fires; in fact, she was the first artist to inhabit my consciousness. (A copy of the catalog of her small posthumous 1970 show at MoMA is still a prized possession.) The SF MoMA did not disappoint. Arbus’ iconic pictures looked every bit as unconventional as they did in the 1960s. But the truly exciting elements for me in this show were her diaries and the pictures of her studio; they added a dimension of insight I couldn’t have possessed earlier.

Larry Sultan, Boxer Dogs Mission Hills, from the “Valley” series, 1998-2002.

Additionally that year, MoMA mounted an exhibit of Larry Sultan’s Valley series—shots taken inside SoCal tract-homes turned pornographic studios. Though Sultan sought a different message through his work, these photos of a hidden world owe a lot to the territory uncovered by Arbus.  Sultan died earlier this month. He was only 63. —Liz Hager

Maggie Orth, Leaping Lines, 2005
woven circuitry in Jacquard weave, 16 x 72 in.

2005
As a design museum there is none better than the Cooper Hewitt. The “Extreme Textiles” exhibit in 2005 presented a large and fascinating array of cutting-edge textiles. Loosely grouped into categories—stronger, faster, lighter, smarter and safer—the exhibit demonstrated resolutely that fabric isn’t just for making clothing. Maggie Orth’s electronic fabric, designed with an ever-changing surface pattern controlled by software, struck me as one of the most interesting combinations of art and technology I’d ever seen.—Liz Hager


Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (‘Sibyl’), 1480
Panel, 46.5 x 35.2 cm.
(Stedelijke Musea, Memlingmuseum – Sint Janhospitaal, Bruges.)

2005
Memling’s Portraits, an exhibition of 20 of the 30 existing portraits by Netherlandish painter Hans Memling (c.1435-1494), was at The Frick Collection in the late fall of 2005. Memling was an apprentice to Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels, where he learned the still-new technique of oil painting from van der Weyden, the first Netherlandish painter to master the medium. Memling is more famous for his religious paintings than his secular work—his superb Nativity and Virgin and Child paintings are masterpieces of tenderness and true religious feeling. In 1465 Memling moved to Brussels, where he did very well painting portraits of wealthy Flemish and Italian emigré families. As in all his work, the exquisite detail and use of glazing showcase Memling’s mastery of technique. In the middle ages, when life was fleeting, and death often came early, portraiture was a means of providing a record, proof of existence. By the 15th century things had changed a bit and portraiture also became a way of  documenting one’s wealth and status. Memling’s portraits are criticized for being cool, because the subjects rarely look at the viewer, and are lost in introspection. While it is true that the portraits are not easy-to-read psychological studies, I felt strongly that Memling’s attention to detail, his faithful recording of what he saw in these faces, made them quite revealing. The subjects are undeniably serene and enigmatic, but I felt that I came to know something very significant about these people. In many of the portraits, Memling placed his sitters by a window, through which we see landscapes and glimpses of buildings and activity that add another very interesting dimension to his work, an innovative device that later Italian painters admired and emulated. —Christine Cariati

Loretta Pettway, Quilt, ca. 1960,
corduroy tied with yarn, 84 x 84 in.

2006
I can vividly recall the moment when I turned the corner into the first exhibit room at the de Young’s exhibit of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. A group of stunningly-bold pieces nearly took my breath away.  I was dumbstruck: how could so traditional a folk form created by a group so isolated from the modern world appear so strikingly modern? In their abstracted and geometric patterns, the quilts displayed an uncanny kinship to the paintings of Frank Stella or maybe even Barnett Newman from the 60s and 70s.

I felt deep emotion basted into the panels of these quilts. As I moved through the exhibition, the pieces offered me something the work of the Minimalists never has—quiet but intense joy. The reverence and love was palpable. They emanated a kind of spirituality. —Liz Hager

Fra Angelico, The Coronation of the Virgin,
tempera on panel, 10 5/8 x 14 5/8 in.
(Cleveland Museum of Art.)

2006
The work of the Italian Renaissance master, Fra Angelico (c.1395-1455) was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from October 2005 through January 2006. This exhibition of 75 paintings, drawings and illuminated manuscripts was the first comprehensive show of Fra Angelico’s work since 1955.  Much of his later work, the altarpieces and frescoes, are not movable, so the work in this show was on a small scale—such as portraits of the Virgin and Child and intimate narrative scenes. Many of these were fragments from larger works, which gave the viewer an opportunity to study them closely which would not have been possible in their original locations. Fra Angelico, a Dominican friar, was long mythologized, by Vasari and others, as merely saintly, humble and devout. Recent scholarship gives us a fuller picture of the man, and what is now known about this tremendously intelligent painter—who learned much from Masaccio’s masterpiece, the Brancacci Chapel frescoes—only enhances our appreciation of these luminous, color-saturated, intensely gilded, works of art. Fra Angelico is often considered a transitional painter, but he is more than that—his work anticipates the late Renaissance while in a sense perfecting the Gothic. He continues to use the sumptuous pinks, blues and reds of the earlier period, and perfected the Gothic love of gold leaf—using it masterfully not just for halos, but stamped and engraved as draperies and clothing. It was a transporting show, Fra Angelico’s masterful technique enhances the deeply felt spiritual quality of his work. —Christine Cariati

Francis Bacon’s studio.

2007
While in Dublin in 2007 I did make a pilgrimage to see the famous “lost” Caravaggio (spurred on by a reading of the The Lost Painting
which is a most readable book about a work of art). In the process, I stumbled upon an exquisite Vermeer.

But it was at the Hugh Lane Gallery where the faithful and permanent re-creation of Francis Bacon’s studio (i.e. 7 Reece Mews in London)  cast its indelible spell on me.

What a mess! At first scan, I was tempted to conclude that Bacon was a deeply-troubled hoarder. How in the world could he have painted here? And there, amidst the horrifically gargantuan piles of debris—newspapers, photographs, magazines, paint cans, rags, old socks, trousers, a shirt or two—I saw an answer. A carefully-cleared path makes its way through the piles from the door to his easel. It seems as if Bacon knew after all exactly what was most important. . . focus. —Liz Hager

Mauerweg ©2008 Liz Hager

2008
Berlin is a city chock full of museums and galleries, so there was a lot of art to see there in the Fall of 2008.  Curiously, however, it was the Berlin Wall that made the deepest impression on me.

Even in its remnant state, the Wall inspires awe, not just for the wealth of its symbolic meaning, but for the sheer enormity of its once considerable physical presence. Since the Wall came down in 1989, points along its former path are marked by ceremonious memorials—public facilitators of a collective remembrance.

Other segments, however, have been marked by an unobtrusive path—two parallel lines of cobblestones—embedded by turns in asphalt or earth. It struck me that the path was a powerful work of art, although it wasn’t billed overtly as such. Though physically subtle, the message it conveyed was in some ways more compelling than the public memorials. The path too reminds us of the demarcation of a country and the collective pain of a people separated from itself. Given its horizontal nature, however, the path invites one on a personal journey.  I walked the line, traced the past, and in doing so, I couldn’t help but meditate on what that past meant to me.

Finally, like all great works of art, the path embodies a potent axiom of the cosmos.  These cobblestones, already wearing a mantle of moss, gently reminded me that all things irrevocably return to dust. —Liz Hager

Giorgio Morandi, Natura Morta (Still Life), 1954,
oil on canvas, 40 x 46 cm.
(Private collection.)

2008
My top pick for 2008 was Giorgio Morandi, 1890-1964, a retrospective of his work  at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2008. I went back to see this show over and over. These small paintings, so similar in subject matter and painted in an extremely limited palette, open up as you look at them—the seemingly simple color scheme expands and deepens, and they become monumental in scale. They are very personal paintings, full of mystery—meditations on loneliness, stillness, perseverance. The cumulative effect of seeing so many paintings of Morandi’s at once was astounding. I started to see them as sections of one continuous painting and I’d find myself watching the progress of certain favorite vessels as they changed bearing and grew in presence, dignity and meaning from painting to painting. In fact, for days afterward, every time I looked from my window out at the New York skyline, the rooftops and water towers, in the winter light with a dusting of snow, took on a Morandi-like existence. The quiet, the self-sufficiency, the balance, the stillness of these works put me in a meditative state that lasted for days. —Christine Cariati

2009
William Kentridge is quite possibly the most gifted artist and original thinker working today. From the mail we received in response to our Kentridge post this spring, it’s safe to say that we were not alone in being blown away by the “Five Themes” exhibit at SF MoMA.  In a way, this exhibit does define the decade, for much of the artist’s prodigious output on view was completed in this decade.

A magnificent draftsman, Kentridge might have been content with just producing his drawings. But thankfully, theater is in his DNA, and his drawings are but vehicles for his inventive and intriguing animated films—What Will Come, Artist in the Studio—as well as his tour-de-force staged pieces—The Magic Flute, The Black Box, and the upcoming Shostakovich opera of Gogol’s The Nose.Liz Hager

William Kentridge in his studio

2009
I have to second Liz’s appreciation of William Kentridge. From the first time I saw his work a decade ago, I have wanted to see more, and Five Themes provided that opportunity. In fact, I’d put Five Themes on my best of 2009 list five times, one for each time I went to see it. The work is so rich and deep, every time you view it, it gets more interesting. Kentridge’s work is inspiring and completely original—thoughtful, personal, political, humorous, satiric and filled with meaning—and with an almost unimaginable level of skill. His sense of stagecraft and the integration of music into his work is masterful. I love the way he crafts his animated pieces, fearless about erasing one image as it morphs in to the next—he’s not worried about holding on to anything, there is always more in the well. I also love the way he involves you in his process, you see and feel his creative process unfolding, literally in the case of Artist in the Studio. I can’t wait to see Five Themes again at MoMA this spring in New York—I am sure the work will reveal itself in new ways in a different location and installation. — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections
Francis Bacon’s Studio
Narrative & Ontology—More on The Boy with Toy Hand Grenade
Inner Sympathy of Meaning—The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
William Kentridge—William Kentridge: Five Themes (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) catalog
Antony Beever—The Fall of Berlin 1945

The (Other) 20th-Century Spanish Virtuoso

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , on April 29, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

. . . Nothing but a painter! If you had been able to follow my life, step by step, at my side all the way, you would be convinced that I have never wanted to be, nor do I want to be, nor will I ever want to be anything but a painter. . .

—Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, 1913 interview

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Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Segovian Figures, 1912, oil on canvas, approximately 78 x 80″ (Museo Sorolla).

Though widely popular in Europe and America at the time of his death in 1923, Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla (y Bastida) has been largely ignored since then by art critics and historians outside his native country.  A follower of Manet, Sorolla’s reputation hasn’t sustained a similar level of acclaim, which is curious, for to this artist’s eye he was in every way as accomplished a painter as Manet. Many other painters of note, including Sargent and Thiebaud, have been influenced by Sorolla’s lyrical brushwork, broad but harmonious color palette, and virtuosic depictions of light. Indeed, the Sorolla techniques visible in many a contemporary realist painter.

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Edouard Manet, The Fifer, 1866, oil on canvas, 63 x 38 5/8 ” (Musée d’Orsay).

Sorolla’s only crime may have been that, unlike his equally-prolific compatriot, Pablo Picasso, he resolutely chose not to live in Paris. France’s stranglehold on Western connoisseurship lasted more or less from the Baroque period until the mid-20th century, when the Abstract Expressionists managed to make New York the working center of the world. During this period a fistful of non-French artists have found their way to the eternal spotlight. Perhaps this was due to talent or sheer persistence, but often too the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time (and purchased by the right collector). What else would explain Sorolla’s present absence from the group of recognized world Masters?

Despite a recognized Spanish artistic tradition, which included the significant accomplishments of Velázquez, El Greco (an immigrant from Crete), and Goya, as well as his own considerable talent, Sorolla likely abdicated some measure of posthumous fame, by choosing to remain in Spain while the turn-of-the-century spotlight shined on Paris.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Horse’s Bath, 1909, oil on canvas, approximately (Museo del Prado).

Still, reputations can be remade. (One is reminded of Caravaggio.) And Sorolla’s lesser status in the annals of art history doesn’t diminish the grandeur of his achievement. Like the Impressionists, Sorolla was a dedicated plein-air painter. His signature style—thick and aggressive application of paint contrasted with areas of exposed canvas and virtuosic rendering of light and atmospheric effects—was closely linked to the Impressionists.

Diego Velázquez, Pope Innocent X,  1650,  oil on canvas. (Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome).

Like his contemporaries, the Post-Impressionists, Sorolla aimed for a modern type of painting, although he found his way to that through the naturalist tradition, rather than increasingly-abstract means. It was this proclivity for naturalism that led first led Sorolla to Velázquez. But one suspects that it was also Valázquez’s exquisite treatment of light that captured the young artist’s attention.

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Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Sewing the Sail, 1904, oil on canvas, approximately 36.5 x 51 ” (Colección Masaveu).

Though linked to these movements, Sorolla remained staunchly aloof from them.  Still one cannot deny that the artist pushed the depiction of light and color to vertiginous heights.

Born in Valencia in 1863, Sorolla showed early artistic talent. In a prophetic tale, he is reputed to have doodled endlessly during school, rather than learn his lessons. Formally trained from the age of 14, at 18 Sorolla left Valencia for Madrid, where he relentlessly copied Old Masters in the Prado. He is recorded as having made 16 copies alone of Velázquez paintings. He went on to study in Rome. Despite the early formal training, Sorolla didn’t hit his artistic stride until the 1890s. One sees the artist’s progression plainly in the chronology of the paintings in the Museo Sorolla collection.

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Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, View of Avila, 1912, oil on canvas, 58 x 84 cm (Museo Sorolla).

Although best known for his luscious, luminous seaside scenes, Sorolla was a versatile painter, who rendered portraits of the high-bred and low-brow, everyday street scenes, and loads of landscapes. His works from 1904 onward display a prodigious command of a wide color palette.  His portraits of Spanish folk are at once a solemn and joyful chronicle of a uniquely Spanish tradition that look almost anthropological today. To make his folk depictions authentic, Sorolla often delved deeply into local customs and insisted upon personal accessories.

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, La Siesta, 1911, oil on canvas, (Museo Sorolla).

John Singer Sargent too admired the work of Velázquez.  Sargent and Sorolla most likely met in 1900 at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where both were awarded medals for their work. Sorolla inscribed a small sketch for his painting Triste Herencia (Sad Inheritance), one of the most popular at the Exposition, to Sargent. Sargent returned the favor by sending a small watercolor. In the work of both, one sees the similar insistence on hearty brushwork and close attention to capturing effects of light on their subjects.

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John Singer Sargent, Nonchaloir, 1911, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 30″ (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

In the first decades of the 20th century,  Sorolla exhibits attracted huge crowds, both on the continent and in the United States. A special exhibition of  his paintings at the Gallerie Georges Petit in Paris in 1906 led to his appointment as Officer of the Legion of Honour. Wide introduction to the American public came in 1909 with a massively successful exhibit staged at the Hispanic Society in New York. The show, featuring more than 350 (!) of his works, reputedly drew 160,000 visitors over the course of its opening month.

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Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, The Cathedral of Burgos in the Snow, 1910, oil on canvas, approximately 41 x 32.5″ (Museo Sorolla).

In fact, many consider Sorolla’s crowning work to be panoramic series of paintings in the Hispanic Society of America (New York), completed in 1920 just before a paralytic stroke ended his ability to paint. The work depicts the 49 Provinces of Spain, through their specific scenery, costumes and customs.

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Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Rainbow, El Pardo, 1907, oil on canvas, approximately 24.5 x 36″ (Museo Sorolla).

This summer, Madrid’s Prado will present the first comprehensive solo exhibit of Sorolla’s work since 1963. Perhaps the reputation of the other 20th-century Spanish virtuoso will at last be secured.

Wider Connections

Sorolla in American collections: San Diego Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Sargent/Sorolla Exhibition (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2006)

Miles Mathis on Sargent/Sorolla

Edmund Peel—The Painter Sorolla

Mary Elizabeth Boone—Vistas de España

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